A Political Life: Some of the new Tories are half in love with their own nasty reputation

Plus: Are there really so many jobs?; Ask not for whom the telephone rings and what a delight to see Michael Heseltine on Question Time

Chris Bryant
Friday 22 February 2013 19:45
Lord Heseltine listens during a reception at 10 Downing Street on March 27, 2012 in London, England:
Lord Heseltine listens during a reception at 10 Downing Street on March 27, 2012 in London, England:

You probably haven’t heard of Alec Shelbrooke as he’s been an MP only since 2010, but he’s the 37-year-old parliamentary private secretary to one of the Northern Ireland ministers. Quite why a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office needs a PPS I can’t imagine, unless this is the Coalition’s mythical job creation scheme in action, but, anyway, if you haven’t come across Alec I urge you to have a look. Not because he’s going to be the next Conservative leader – we’ve already been round that improbable merry-go-round once this year – but because his smile tells you all you need to know about what is going on in the overheating core of the nuclear power station that is the Tory party.

Let me explain. He was on the radio this week rowing with our very own Owen Jones, and although it was only radio, I could perfectly imagine his glinting smile as he proudly declared that the whole point of the bedroom tax (sorry, I know David Cameron has said that “the bedroom tax is not a tax” but you know what I mean) is to redistribute scarce resources to the poorest in the land, as if this were something every good socialist should be proud of. Bold. As. Brass. It’s the same face he pulled when he brought forward a 10-minute rule Bill that would have meant all benefits would be paid via a cash card that could be used only on essentials and not frittered away.

He smiles because he knows deep down that what he’s saying is impractical and that his argument depends on fanciful stereotypes, but he doesn’t care because he thinks he has the public (or at least the Daily Mail) on his side.

But in the vain hope that Alec is reading this, let me try again. Populism rarely remains popular. It is cruel, not clever, to slice £14 a week off the benefits of 670,000 families that receive housing benefit (many of them in work) just because they have what the Government terms a spare room. Leaving aside the fact that moving home is one of the most traumatic experiences, this will hit thousands of disabled couples who find it difficult to share a bedroom. They will either have to swallow the cut or move. It will hit parents who have part-time custody of their children. It will hit foster parents. And it will do absolutely nothing to sort the real problem, namely that for far too long we have built too few affordable homes. Thatcher may have been right to enable people to own their home, but profoundly wrong to bar councils from building more homes to replenish their stock.

Sadly, I fear this will fall on deaf ears, as Alec’s smile betrays the fact that new Tories are half in love with their own nastiness.

Are there really so many jobs around?

You will have read that unemployment has fallen across the UK and that we now have a record level of employment. I find it difficult to believe, as what I know locally from the Rhondda is that the statistics are going in the wrong direction. The number of long-term Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants has gone up from 450 to 890 since last January and youth unemployment virtually doubled. Which brings both the social problems of a generation without ambition and the equally serious financial problem of a country whose economy is all akilter, growing in the South-east, stagnating everywhere else. Two nations, in fact.

Addicted to political drama

Seeing Ed Miliband visit the Danish Statsminister this week, I realised that I’m suffering from Borgen withdrawal syndrome. I’m not alone, either in my family or in Parliament, as the series has caught the imagination of not just those that love Scandinavian noir but politics addicts who have been in mourning ever since The West Wing. Borgen has got better, too. In series one, the Statsminister never seemed to address more than three people at a time, but the producers clearly had a bit more money for the second series and could actually afford enough extras for her to address the whole Danish parliament.

What I don’t understand, though, is why people haven’t transferred their allegiance to the CBS show The Good Wife, which has not one but three strong female characters and brings in a gubernatorial election campaign, a weekly courtroom drama, a sharp spin doctor and one of the most compelling characters in modern TV, the private investigator Kalinda Sharma. And for those of you who love seeing Birgitte Nyborg tell men what to do in Borgen, just try Diane Lockhart (played by Christine Baranski, below) metaphorically bitch slap a judge.

Ask not for whom the phone rings...

It was a delight to see Michael Heseltine on Question Time on Thursday night, especially because the old mischief still twinkled in his vain eyes. Best of all was the prim ring of his mobile halfway through one of his answers. It was his wife, who clearly hadn’t bothered to tune in. (Well, I guess she’s heard it all before.) Everyone cracked jokes about George Osborne ringing to get him back on message, but what it reminded me of was Boris Johnson’s last days in the Commons. He had already been doing his bumbling posh boy fool act for so long that absent-mindedness had become ingrained, so whenever he was up on his feet in the chamber we would ring his number just to enjoy watching him search his pockets and stare around him in classic Captain Mainwaring-style bemusement.

Ralph Richardson used to tell a similar tale of appearing in Harold Pinter’s incomprehensible play No Man’s Land with his mischievous friend John Gielgud. During one particularly heavy scene, he got the stage manager to make the phone on the table in front of Gielgud ring as a practical joke. Gielgud had little choice but to pick it up and improvise. Sharp as a stiletto, he answered the phone and immediately handed it to Richardson with the words: “It’s for you.”

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