My dear Q
Since my last letter to you, I have had several interchanges with many people in Freetown via email asking questions about the fate of the British Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown and how damaging is the MPs allowances issue to democracy? Others have reminded me of my promises to write about China, Children in Britain today and of course about the challenges facing the church in today’s Britain. And there were couple of emails just simply telling me that they have been enjoying my correspondence to you.
Frankly, I was humbly surprised that so many people now look forward to my correspondence with you, so perhaps they will equally forgive me if I have to yet again, delay in attending to their queries and questions, especially about the growing influence of the Chinese in World politics and economics.
This week, I wanted to talk to you about the dangers posed by the outbreak of swine flu that spread around the world without warning recently, but as you know, events, my dear fellow, events, has overtaken us yet again. The slow motion train wreck of British parliamentary expenses and allowances has just passed my door, with the train cabin doors and windows wide open, and I saw MPs jumping off with their cash and documents, flying out onto the streets.
I have called the emergency services, but they are very angry because of low pay and poor conditions of service, so Members of Parliament from all parties are on the street looking up to the Almighty for salvation, as the men and women of the emergency services take their time to reach them. Not too long ago, MPs refused to support the calls for better pay and conditions of service for members of the emergency services.
You see, this train wreck is just one of many interesting, creative and unbelievable things happening in British politics today; there is the case of the Ghurkhas which I mentioned to you last week. Since then, the government has been “lumleyed.”(A new word, old boy). Then there is the matter of Ministers flouting court ruling over the retention of the DNA of innocent people in Britain; the smears row is still hanging over 10 Downing Street, then there is the issue of the Prime Minister’s poor performances in Parliament and Labour’s rating, which are the lowest since modern opinion pool techniques were introduced in 1943. And of course, this has given birth to another worrisome matter, now snaking its way around the country about the fate of Labour parliamentarians in the next general elections.
Politics is a drama and it’s the drama of politics that fascinate me. Listening and watching events in Westminster these past few days, I am fascinated by the drama of politics, especially when the political situation has a certain Shakespearian quality to it.
Let’s start with the Ghurkhas affairs: first the government was defeated in a parliamentarian vote last week, reversing government’s policy to deny the Ghurkhas right to stay in the United Kingdom. On the heels of this defeat three significant events took place couple of days ago; first in parliament, at the Home Affairs Select Committee Room, then at 10 Downing Street and final at the BBC Westminster’s studio, close to parliament.
Let’s leave the Downing Street meeting, because this was hastily convened and more importantly, it was a reaction to events, due to the Prime Minister’s lack of ability to empathise with the British public. The other two events bring to light why the British parliamentarian system is still marvelled around the world despite its present problems.
First Ms. Joanna Lumley, whom I told you about last week, met with MPs of the Home Affairs Select Committee, a very powerful body in Westminster. She was invited to discuss a way forward for the Ghurkhas campaign to have a right to stay in Britain.
I think I forgot to tell you that Ms Lumley is a well-known film actress here in Britain. She is well loved and admired for her role in a TV comedy series known as Absolutely Fabulous.
The first thing I noticed, watching her on television when she was giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, was her determination to get her message through. She was effortless.
The star of Absolutely Fabulous appeared alongside a Ghurkha officer to express her shock that the defeat of the Government had not yet led to a change of policy.
“I do not know what we have to do. I don’t know where else we have to go. We have gone to the High Court; we have gone to the press. We have gone to the people and to Parliament. All those people have backed the Ghurkhas. Who do we go to next? The Royal Family are not allowed to get involved, although personally I have had a letter of support. I do not understand democracy, if this is what democracy is”, Ms Lumley said.
By this time, I had forgotten that I was supposed to be going to Paris for the day to attend a forum and a small party in celebration of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s second year in office as President of the Republic.
My dear Fellow, you should have seen the room packed full with Lobby correspondents, Sketch writers and MPs.
This is how one journalist described the hearing; “It was not so much a hearing as an organised drool”, before adding: “With all the drooling, the questions were rather wet.”
Another journalist wrote that: “First we marvelled at the quiet forcefulness of her personality and the impassioned eloquence of her oratory, as she and her fellow campaigners battled their way through the legal system and won victory at the High Court. Then, when the politicians tried to impose an unfair settlement, we delighted in the embarrassment her media appearances caused the Government in general and Gordon Brown in particular. Now we must rise to our feet in thunderous applause after her outrage-as communicated to the Home Affairs Select Committee, then to the Prime Minister- (she) seems finally to have delivered the goods”.
Indeed, one senior Westminster journalist accused lobby correspondents and MPs of rolling on their backs like puppy dogs to have their tummy tickled by the actor-turned campaigner.
Her voice was bewitching, her mannerism beguiling. And as she answered to questions from MPs in the committee, she learnt forward, looking directly into the eyes of Keith Vaz, Chairman of the committee, as he asked her if she had tried to meet the Prime Minister over the Ghurkha issue.
In a voice that was husky with pain you could hear the bruises, Ms Lumley said: I wrote to the Prime Minister three times-and my letters haven’t been acknowledged”.
Keith Vaz (the aptly nicknamed “Vazeline”) who worships celebrity looked shocked, for he can imagine no circumstances where he would have ignored even a sentence from such a wonderful (and wonderfully famous) creature. Then the TV camera penetrates on his face as he asked the wounding question.
“Do you think such a meeting would have been helpful”?
Now it was Ms Lumley‘s turn to look shocked. “Yes”! She said with a whoosh of intense breathiness that seemed, like an oriented perfume, replete with meanings: yearning, yes, but also regret and a glancing remembrance of what might have been.
After the hearing, one journalist wrote that: “When Gordon Brown’s career is dead and he is opened up, we shall find the words Joanna Lumley has written on his heart”. This prognosis is wrong. Ms Lumley’s performance in front of the MPs was brilliant but it will not be the fatal blow that kills Gordon Brown. Even her confrontation outside the BBC studio with the Immigration Minister was just another wound inflicted on an already battered Government.
What has damaged the Labour Government irreparably is two-fold: first it is the scandal of parliamentary expenses but more importantly, are the total collapse of public trust and the Prime Minister’s loss of moral authority to govern.
There are press reports that when the Prime Minister is angry, he displays some unfortunate habits that make life very uncomfortable for many at 10 Downing Street: Indeed, we are told that office equipments including mobile phones tend to develop wings, and these gadgets can be seen flying inside 10 Downing Street and this, you can imagine has been happening more frequently of late.
So during Prime Minister’s question time recently, the Conservatives showed Mr Brown no mercy. They taunted the Prime Minister with the enthusiasm of young hooligans who think it funny to goad their new teacher to an apoplectic fit.
And it was no surprise to see a Conservative Member of Parliament, Mr Stephen Crabb, on his feet inquiring mock-innocently; “What does the Prime Minister intend to do about the important issue of bullying in the workplace, given the reliable reports of a senior Whitehall boss throwing around mobile phones and printers and swearing at switchboard operators?”
This cruel insult drove the Prime Minister to a ferocious growl: “Mr Speaker, any complaints are dealt with in the usual manner”. Boy, how the Labour benches miss Tony Blair.
You see, watching this on television gives you a different dimension; one is able to watch very closely the facial features of the person speaking, his body language and that of those around him or her. And without any doubts, this Prime Minister is very uncomfortable, he hates being questioned by those across the House and gets very furious when challenged by the opposition party.
Part of the trouble in Parliament is Mr Gordon Brown’s preferred style: humourless lectures about his infallible grasp of economics, having been chancellor for over ten years.
He was not prepared to debate the Conservative opposition leader, David Cameron’s observation that “there have been a series of U-turns, defeat in Parliament … signs of a government in terminal decline”.
Mr Brown: “Once again, he reduces everything to personality … Once again; the right honourable gentleman has nothing to say about the big issues”.
But in modern day politics, “big issues” are left out of political dramas, and unfortunately for Mr Gordon Brown, he does not have the skills to perform in parliament, and this is so essential in any modern day political drama. The Prime Minister is a poor debater and the opposition parties know he hasn’t got a light touch, that he’s not quick on his feet, that he’s dour and heavy.
For some weeks now, public opinion has shifted from holding the political class in contempt into ridicule which is even worse – ridicule is terrible, the Prime Minister is being ridiculed and he is looking ridiculous: the opposition and a section of the Media have decided that their policy is to ridicule him, because he is at the top of the Government.
So to the opposition, the “big issue” is the Prime Minister’s loss of authority. Take the case of the Liberal Democrats Leader, Mr Nick Clegg in parliament recently. He asked the Prime Minister questions but again, Mr Brown wanted to lecture him on leadership. So Mr Clegg responded to the Prime Minister harshly saying “There comes a point when stubbornness is not leadership – it is stupidity”, Mr Clegg shouted, pointing at the Prime Minister.
The Labour benches reacted angrily trying to shout the Liberal Democrats leader down, but the Lib Dem leader turned on them and added: “At least I say it to his face not behind his back”, as most Labour MPs and supporters have been doing for some time.
It was a brutal onslaught on the Labour benches; but the Labour Chief Commodore was powerless to respond. British parliamentary politics is a rough and tumble sport, and Prime Minister’s Question can be a bruising ordeal even for the stable and popular governments. But the naked contempt of the questions in recent days, and the boldness of the personal attacks, are a reflection of how badly the Labour Party is viewed after 12 years in power, and how Mr Brown’s stock has fallen.
“When someone’s down, he’s an easy person to kick”, said George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics. The emeritus professor said he had been astonished the other day at the rudeness and personal abuse against the Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown.
But it is not just the Prime Minister who is suffering from the loss of public trust and confidence, the Conservatives Leader, David Cameron, despite his witty performances in parliament, and the growing acceptance that his party might just win the next general elections, has his own problems.
Many voters think he is a light weight, compared to Mr Gordon Brown’s intellectual prowess. And after all, many voters will also tell you that Conservative MPs too have abused the parliamentarian expenses system, to build swimming pools and improve their second homes. The British public is united in revulsion at the disclosures about MPs expenses and many voters have turned against both main parties.
Under John Major, it was cash for questions to be asked in Parliament on behalf of Corporate Institutions. Under Tony Blair, it was cash for a seat in the House of Lords. Now, under Gordon Brown, British politicians have gone one step below: it is cash for pornographic movies, cash for dog food, cash for Horse manure, and cash for tampon – after all we must keep the ladies happy.
And the former deputy Prime Minister, Mr John Prescott, whom many of you will remember, wanted cash for his toilet seat that comes with a matching floor mat.
The disclosures have been outrageous and ridiculous, sometimes both at once. For the past two days, I have been glued to my television, and for the first time in many months, I have read all of the tabloids. My adventure into the world of British tabloids has been entertaining and revealing but sadly, diabolical. Diabolical, because of what some family members of MPs and their associates are still going through in the hands of Journalists. Mind you old boy, I am not condemning the journalists they are simply doing their job-informing and entertaining the general public.
It has been so unpleasant that MPs are now fighting amongst themselves. However on Monday, the Prime Minister, the Conservatives leader and the Liberal Democrats leader were all apologising to the British public. “I would like to apologise on behalf of politicians – on behalf of all parties – for what has happened,” the Prime Minister said. But this apology might be too late, as there are now calls for a change of leadership again, within the Labour Party; and as each day brings another terrible set of headlines for MPs and Parliament, the call for general elections is growing louder.
But we will talk about this next week. Plus the debate about the rights and wrongs of the remarkable investigative journalism that has disclosed the abuse of tax payers’ money by our “Honourable Members of Parliament”.
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr