Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fairness agenda gets lost in the melee

The Queen's Speech is normally one of the highlights of the parliamentary calendar - but the fact that this year's found itself rather drowned-out shows just how much the political agenda has shifted. Here's today's Journal column.

In any normal year, the Queen’s Speech to the State Opening of Parliament – officially known as the Gracious Address - would be one of the key events in the political calendar.

Admittedly, Gordon Brown has somewhat diluted its impact over the past couple of years by introducing a Draft Queen’s Speech in July – much as the Pre-Budget Report has somewhat diluted the importance of the Budget.

But even so, the Speech was still seen as one of the big parliamentary set-piece occasions, the point in the political year when a government sets out its agenda and tries to convey a sense of what it is all about.

Until this week, that is. For of course, this year is no normal political year – and this year’s rather truncated legislative programme was certainly no normal Queen’s Speech.

Even within the context of the week’s political news, the Speech seems to have been overshadowed by other, more immediate issues.

On Monday, for instance, we had the statement to the Commons by Childrens’ Secretary Ed Balls setting out the findings of the preliminary inquiry into the Baby P tragedy.

The report was as damning as they come and led to the immediate suspension of Haringey Council’s director of childrens’ services, Sharon Shoesmith – though she remains unaccountably on full pay.

Mr Balls may not be the most empathetic of politicians, but he does at least do firm and decisive well – and this Commons statement showed him in his best light.

Then we had the ongoing and increasingly bitter controversy over the arrest of the Tory frontbencher Damian Green and the raid on his Commons office just over a week ago.

No-one seems to have come out of this episode particularly well so far. For House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, in particular, it seems to have turned into the story from hell.

Already under fire from MPs for having allowed the police to raid parliamentary premises in the first place, his troubles intensified this week when he was forced to admit that they had done so without a warrant.

It would, in my view, set an incredibly unfortunate precedent if MPs felt obliged to defenestrate him – but perhaps instead Mr Martin should now make clear he will be standing down ahead of the next election.

The position of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith seems less under threat, but she seems scarcely less culpable than Mr Martin in her handling of the affair.

To cut a long story short, it seemed she knew that the police were investigating the leaking of confidential Home Office documents, and knew that the said documents were being passed to the Tory Party.

What she claims she didn’t know was that Mr Green was the Tory frontbencher specifically under investigation by detectives, or that he was about to be arrested.

Whether she should have known is the key point at issue here. At least two of her predecessors – the Tories’ Michael Howard and Labour’s John Reid – clearly think she should.

All of that said, I have my doubts as to whether the Conservative Party will itself come out of this sorry affair with its reputation enhanced.

Much will depend on the motives of the “mole” and whether, as Business Secretary Peter Mandelson alleged on the BBC’s Today Programme, he was leaking material to Mr Green in order to further his political ambitions.

Occasionally in political journalism, you come across a story that starts out by looking highly embarrassing to one side and ends up with the other side having egg on its face.

I have a slight hunch that this could turn out to be one such case.

But if the Baby P inquiry and the Damian Green affair were not enough to squeeze the poor old Queen’s Speech off the front pages, we then had the reduction in interest rates to their lowest level for 57 years.

Since this will actually put money back in peoples’ pockets in the form of lower mortgage payments, it is far more likely in my view to kick-start economic activity than last week’s 2.5pc cut in VAT.

But the swift change of direction by the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee – it is only last year that rates were still going up – is almost worthy of a Private Eye-style apology.

“For years, we along with the rest of the UK political establishment may have given the impression that inflation is the worst thing can happen to the economy. In fact, we now realise that deflation is much worse, and apologise for any misunderstanding.”

So at the end of the day, was there actually anything in the Queen’s Speech worth writing about? Well, yes, although it was probably just as notable for what it left out as for what it included

What it did include was the remnants of what Mr Brown in his party conference speech in September termed the “fairness” agenda.

This included a Bill aimed at getting people on lower incomes to save more with the government promising to contribute 50p for every £1 saved up to £600.

And back on the agenda, to some surprise, was the measure to give employees the right to request flexible working hours, which many suspected Mr Mandelson had killed.

Perhaps significantly, though, the Speech did not include Mr Brown’s much-vaunted Constitutional Renewal Bill, which would among other things have given MPs the final say on going to war.

This was once a key plank in Mr Brown’s reform programme and was actually the subject of his first statement to the Commons as Prime Minister.

That it now no longer even merits a place in his government’s legislative programme is just one small illustration of how events have altered Mr Brown’s priorities and how the political agenda has shifted.

And the fact that it went almost unnoticed by the national media surely only serves to underline the point.

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Ted Foan said...

"Since this will actually put money back in peoples’ pockets in the form of lower mortgage payments, it is far more likely in my view to kick-start economic activity than last week’s 2.5pc cut in VAT."

Er, wrong on both counts, Paul. First because a lot of mortgage lenders have an inbuilt cap on the lowest level they will charge mortgagees and some will only pass on a proportion of the cut anyway to help re-capitalise their balance sheets - unless, like me they have an arrangement which links the rate they pay to specific % rate above the Bank Rate (eg 0.95%).

Second, the VAT rate cut is irrelevant to most potential buyers and all the retailers I have spoken to in my annual family expedition to Bakewell today. Most were reducing prices by at least 20% but the worst thing was the lack of footfall.

But we had to admire the sheer chutzpah of one gift shop owner who offered my wife a metal hook for an extra 25p to help her affix a £4.75 ornament to our Christmas tree! Fortunately, even she (who is totally oblivious to the fact that we will all probably be living in caves by this time next year) realised that a spare paper clip would do the same job.

I'm hoarding paper clips at the moment.

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