With the embarrassingly small revolt by Tory backbenchers against the Windsor Framework, it seems the Brexit cause has all but fizzled out. Only 22 voted against, and they included the usual suspects from this region: Priti Patel, Liz Truss, James Duddridge and Mark Francois (who as chair of the ERG is rather left holding the baby). Meanwhile Steve Baker, who ducked out while the going was good, now wears the born-again look of a man who has just completed a particularly satisfying bowel movement.
Brexit’s champions are no more. Pronouncements from the Labour and LibDem leadership have increasingly seemed more fervent than any Tory headbanger. But Ed Davey addressed the LibDem spring conference this week and, with the nervousness of a man attending his first AA meeting, announced that perhaps Brexit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. To his apparent alarm he was cheered to the rafters. They had been waiting months for this.
Imagine if you will the Labour response. Were they really whooping and high-fiving at now having a monopoly of opposition Brexit support? Unlikely. Imagine their mood as they watched on TV. Isn’t it more likely to have been one of embarrassment? They have made one of the most catastrophic groupthink decisions in the party’s history. Rachel Reeves still sets about the subject with missionary fervour, but nobody is fooled. Who is going to tell her? Labour will no doubt come to power and Reeves will probably be chancellor: will she still parrot this nonsense?
A Daily Telegraph poll last month concluded that on present showing Labour would win 505 seats in a general election, with the Tories reduced to 40 and losing their official opposition status to the SNP. But this week, the Constitution Society published their own reputable poll. This one looked at how public opinion might change were Labour to shift their position by turning against Brexit, with particular examination of the Red Wall seats. It claims the already staggering figure of 527 Labour seats would be increased to 550, with the party winning every Red Wall seat.
Meanwhile a Guardian focus group in Swindon reported that the recent budget had done nothing to improve the government’s standing. “This week’s budget and the recent flurry of government deal-making might have impressed Westminster insiders, but it simply wasn’t cutting it for the voters,” explained one of the focus group organisers.
This illustrates a criticism Pecksniff has frequently made about political journalism. A Westminster hack rarely leaves Westminster, and wouldn’t know a voter if one bit him in the bum. Pecksniff once found himself an object of curious attention whilst drinking in a Commons bar, because everyone else was a hack. They all wanted the views of A Real Person – mythical beings said to inhabit the misty and far-flung regions marked ‘Here be dragons’ on the map. For about as long as it takes to drink a pint of bitter, your diarist represented the entire voting population of the country.
Politics is what happens on the ground, not what someone in Westminster claims is happening on the ground. Almost every political hack was wrong about the result of last year’s local elections: they were wrong in their forecasts, then they were wrong in their reporting – preferring their prognostications to what had actually happened.
EAB listens to the voters and to the canvassers. Pecksniff’s spies will be everywhere this May, and every whisper will appear in our live blog which will run throughout the election period.
Nowhere is politics more poisonous than in Peterborough. Events there usually involve the Tory leader of the city council, Councillor Wayne Fitzgerald, and this week’s were no exception. It is unclear quite what brought about exchanges between him and independent Councillor Julie Stevenson, except she accuses him and a “henchman” of accosting her before the council meeting. According to Cllr Stevenson, Cllr Fitzgerald accused her of what sounds like an obsession. “Apparently every tweet I write is critical of him,” she writes.
But whatever he said, Cllr Stevenson told CambsNews that: “There were a number of witnesses to the exchange, which resulted in my leaving the chamber as I felt it wasn’t safe for me to remain.”
Having effectively accused Cllr Stevenson of an obsession, Cllr Fitzgerald himself wrote on Twitter: “Regrettably I concluded I found a person who has a narcissistic personality disorder which is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them.”
Who can he have meant? It does seem a curiously inappropriate peccadillo for a politician to be upset about what’s written about him on Twitter. It is even more surprising that Cllr Fitzgerald, of all people, should be given to clutching his pearls at featuring in 240 characters of less than complimentary prose.
While we are on the subject of that fair city, just why did Peterborough United football club donate £5,000 to the Tories last May? The Peterborough Telegraph reports that: “There remains a dispute as to who was responsible and how much the individual members of the Posh ownership knew about it. There was a suggestion the donation was made to smooth the process of building a new stadium.”
But that explanation was denied categorically by club chairman Darragh MacAnthony: “There was nothing dodgy or underhand about the donation,” he says. “It was nothing to do with the planning of a new stadium.” Which is just as well because otherwise that would seem to suggest all kinds of unpleasantness.
So we have cleared up what it wasn’t for, but there remains a mystery as to its real purpose. No doubt the club is as well managed as any other, but it does seem strange that five thousand quid of their money was trousered by the Tories, and nobody can explain who signed the cheque.
Readers may well have read in EAB earlier this week about the machinations, some of them perhaps barely legal, undertaken by the Tories to confuse the voters leading up to May’s local elections. One of the common scams at the moment is to hide the fact that they are indeed Tories. From all over the region we hear of the party choosing red or green or orange literature – anything but blue – and forgetting to mention on their leaflet that they are in fact the Conservative Party.
Here we have Anthony Browne, the MP for South Cambs explaining – with no mention of the party of which he and his colleagues endlessly tell us they are so proud – what he is going to do both for his constituents (and which he has overlooked to do thus far) and the constituency he is on course to lose.
There have been good reasons for EAB to call local councils this week. Sometimes that has been in pursuit of stories like the Tory postal votes row. But of course, councils no longer employ people to answer their phones. It’s much more convenient to have the public write emails so they can be answered or avoided all in good time.
The same can apply to journalists. So an urgent enquiry to Norwich City Council this week on the pressing issue of postal votes elicited the following response, exactly what a hack on a deadline wants to hear: “As part of our communications planning we also produce all kinds of helpful information/FAQs for journalists on request. Again, this is now being worked up. I’ve nothing to share with you at this precise moment but please do drop us another line in about a week or so as I’m sure we’ll have more for you then…”
And speaking of the lengths it seems the Tories will go to in order to hide their underhand activities, Pecksniff has reported frequently on how Tory-run councils across our region have increasingly changed council procedures to limit transparency. An example occurred this week.
Some months ago, the Tories on Breckland Council in Norfolk amended the constitution to limit questions without notice to 30 minutes. In practice, as this week, that means the leaders of the opposition groups are allowed one question each, and the rest of the time is filled with questions from Tory placemen, so cabinet members can reply from a prepared statement. A proposal to extend question time was voted down.
Now what possible reasons can our Tory masters have for hiding what they are up to? There seem only two obvious answers: corruption or incompetence. There is no evidence of corruption, but how are we to tell if they are at such pains to hide their activities? So, a word of advice, dear reader, if you live in Breckland. Next time you see your Tory councillor, ask him or her (politely, of course): “Are you a crook?”
Paul Geater in the East Anglian Daily Times let fly this week at those local MPs who become ministers, and how they then ignore their constituencies. In particular he takes aim at Thérèse Coffey, and declares that he has not seen her since the 2019 general election. Since he is after all the hack whose job it is to talk to MPs, one would have thought it in their interests to make themselves pleasant.
It is hardly telling tales out of school to reveal that Mr Geater and Dr Coffey Do Not Get On, but then the seasoned hack goes on to tell a tale of Steve Barclay (NE Cambs) and his failure to support his own local Queen Elizabeth Hospital; and, in particular, James Cartlidge (South Suffolk), who is a Treasury minister. It seems the Treasury refused to allow Mr Geater to speak to the MP, because “he is now a minister and this cannot be dealt with by the Treasury”.
In other words, he is now far too important to give attention to matters far away in rural Suffolk. Now, a wise James Cartlidge would kick in the door of his communications team and threaten them with violence if they didn’t immediately call the East Anglian to apologise and make clear the MP is always available to discuss constituency matters.
Is it overtly cynical of us, dear reader, to believe that Mr Cartlidge, with his foot on the ministerial ladder at last, will have done no such thing?
As foretold by Pecksniff some weeks ago, Liz Truss has concluded that she and her deluded views would be much better appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic, which would also have the advantage of getting her into the lucrative public speaking racket. So lo and behold, this week we learn that she has joined the same agency as Boris Johnson, Chartwell Speakers, where she is billed as a “leading global conservative”.
Those pranksters who are presently fighting to clear up the River Deben in Woodbridge once more run rings around Ms Truss’s friend Thérèse Coffey, their MP and of course environment secretary. It’s fun, but one wonders how much it will affect Dr Coffey, who long ago switched off any contact with the outside world. Still, somebody is doing something, which is nice. There is still no obvious sign of life from any of the three opposition parties there.
We should enjoy these halcyon days of Nadine Dorries (Mid Beds). We shall miss her when she is gone. Ms Dorries rails against the unfairness heaped upon the broad (not to say fat) frame of her hero, Boris Johnson, and given the freedom of her own TV show promptly trashes any hope she may have had of getting a peerage. It really isn’t wise to accuse the Palace of Westminster and its denizens of disgraceful behaviour, corruption, running a kangaroo court and possible law breaking. Not when you’re hoping to persuade them against their better judgment to award you a peerage.
There is also the small matter of turning a tv chat show into a political promotion. Pecksniff has no intention of reading the rules of Ofcom, but it would be surprising if that were allowed, and therein were not included the words ‘not on your nelly’ or others to that effect. So it’s not impossible that the brief TV career of Ms Dorries is already over.
In her admiration for Mr Johnson, however, it seems Ms Dorries is flogging a dead horse. During this week’s Question Time, the audience were asked for a show of hands on who thought Mr Johnson had been telling the truth. They looked furtive, like class 4 who have just been asked to own up to something disgusting discovered behind the bike shed.
When the world is trying, as it usually manages to be these days, it’s always amusing to look back on Yes Minister and those days when it was still possible to laugh at politicians, their dishonesty and their narcissism.