Andy McSmith's Diary: Paying lip service to endangered species as the poachers run amok


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International conferences like the one the Government hosted last month on the slaughter of African and Asian wildlife by poachers produce fine speeches and commendable resolutions, but do they make any difference?

The question was aired in a brief debate in the Commons. Simon Burns, a former government minister, reeled off the grim figures: in 2011 alone, an estimated 23 tons of ivory was seized, a haul that will have cost the lives of 2,500 elephants; in 2010, an estimated 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone; two-thirds of Africa’s elephant population may now have disappeared; possibly as much as 95 per cent of the world’s tiger population has been slaughtered in the past century. 

Mr Burns was impressed with the decisions that emerged from the London conference on 13 February, but asked what the Government will do to make sure that the “badly needed initiatives” actually have an effect.

The answer from the Environment minister George Eustice reads as if it was written for him by his civil servants – he promised that the problem will receive a “high level of political attention”. There will be another conference in Botswana next year.

Longevity of chancellors

The Labour History Group dug up the interesting snippet that every Chancellor of the Exchequer for the past 40 years is still alive – that is every one since Anthony Barber, who was Tory Chancellor in 1970-74. His Labour successor, Denis Healey, is 96 and still mentally alert.

Several were in the Chamber listening to George Osborne, including Ken Clarke, 73, who did not claim the place on the front bench to which he is entitled, but settled in the spectators’ gallery. It is assumed that his reason was that he was worried that he would suffer the fate that befell the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt – being caught on camera grappling with heavy eyelids.

Then when it was all over, the shadow Chancellor alleged that Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, had fallen asleep. Balls was spotted on TV making a gesture as if he were nudging the person next to him with his elbow. He was in fact suggesting to Vince Cable that he should budge the allegedly somnolent Pickles. Later, he appeared to think this more significant than anything said in the speech. On Twitter, Pickles denied the allegation, saying: “wide awake although sleep would have been a blessed release from Lab lacklustre response”.

Farage’s mental mystery

This week, I wrote that Ukip appeared to be revising its opposition to gay marriage. This was based on what Ukip’s press office told the website PinkNews that Nigel Farage had said. A more up-to-date statement from Ukip’s press office says that Nigel Farage says that he did not say what the press office said he said: it was said by a member of staff.

It is a bit like the manifesto on which Ukip fought the last election, none of which had anything to do with Nigel Farage, apparently. So, to anyone who thinks they know what Nigel Farage thinks, he probably does not think what you think he thinks.

Bercow now a Bennite?

The news that Tony Benn’s body is to lie overnight in Parliament’s crypt chapel, as Margaret Thatcher’s did, set off a few rumours around Westminster. One was that the Benn family had demanded it. In fact, it was the Speaker, John Bercow, who pushed for it.

The other is that Bercow, who was a Thatcherite in his youth, has gone Bennite in middle age. Sally Bercow took to Twitter: “Mr B not biased 2 Labour. Tony Benn exceptional Parliamentarian, God bless him.”