Black clouds gather over Westminster

Shall we just admit it? Westminster life without Nigel Farage is just not as much fun, is it? Having stormed the European elections six weeks ago, he’s now having to spend at least some of his time back in Brussels, offering few juicy stories for the papers to drool over – for now at least. Much to the relief of the other party leaders, no doubt. So who can we count on to make political waves in the (inevitably) brief period of Farage-free air time?

Safety of grey

First into the ring this week was Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, indulging in her favourite pursuit – forcing a black or white answer out of those who would rather stick to the safety of grey. As part of the committee’s inquiry into the Centre of Government, Hodge was able to get stuck into four Permanent Secretaries simultaneously – a record number, apparently – including Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and Head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake.

It was a fascinating session, including at least one significant revelation – that in spite of Ministerial suggestions to the contrary, the Treasury has not yet signed off the full budget for DWP’s Universal Credit programme.
Everyone played their part well. In a scene straight out of the Yes Minister writers’ room, Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson agreed to provide a written definition of what “the centre” of government actually does, causing Conservative Richard Bacon MP to jab back: “There is nothing civil servants like more than writing things down, is there?” Macpherson’s retort – ironically we assume – was: “I know; it is a very good substitute for real activity.”

Gender and sexism

Harriet Harman was next into the spotlight, accusing Gordon Brown of sexism for not appointing her as DeputyPrime Minister when she was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Some commentators have defended Harman, commending her early and ongoing commitment to many of the issues that now dominate the political agenda – more equal representation, the need for affordable childcare, the prevention of sexual abuse.

While this cannot be disputed, it is a shame that Harman often risks undermining her own effectiveness by making assumptions that cannot be backed up by hard evidence. Without proof that Alan Johnson would have been made Deputy Leader by Gordon Brown, it is a bit too easy for Harman’s detractors to accuse her of sour grapes.

Unfortunately, another black cloud has started to gather over Westminster. Home Secretary Theresa May has launched a Hillsborough-style inquiry into historic claims of child abuse and Establishment cover-ups. While politicians are very good at setting up inquiries, they tend to quickly lose control of the process as the full truth starts to be exposed – as we have seen with MPs expenses, phone-hacking, and the fallout from the Jimmy Savile revelations. Not being in control, particularly on issues as troubling as the whispers and nudges so far suggest, is not a good place to be.

From under the gathering cloud, the European election campaign feels a long way away. If the thunder really starts to rumble, maybe the main party bigwigs will quietly begin to hope that Nigel Farage comes home to throw the media some distracting UKIP red meat sooner rather than later.

The blog was first published on the PubAffairs website

 


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