Westminster Diary

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For a few short minutes each week Prime Minister’s Questions keeps reminding the most powerful politician in the land that they are mortal after all. That said, after weeks of trying my name came up on a day when the Prime Minister was pretending to be immortal in Brussels. This meant his place was taken by his deputy, Harriet Harman. In an exchange with William Hague she had claimed that the billions invested in the banking rescue would trickle down to the real economy as banks would start to lend again. The trouble is that we don’t know it will. We must just hope that it does. I pressed Ms Harman by pointing out the portents are not good when a wholly Government owned bank, Northern Rock, has passed on just 1/10th of last weeks interest rate cut to it’s mortgage holders. I am sure that banks will start to try to lend again but will it be at a rate that small businesses can afford? Rather than go bust many companies will pay much higher lending rates but this adds to the structural weakness in our economy.

Harriet Harman lacks a certain lightness of touch at the dispatch box. Gordon Brown is getting better at PMQs but still seems stuck in heavy plough at times. Neither of them are a patch on Tony Blair in his prime. He deftly avoided traps, moved onto ground of his own choosing and could call on any emotion a RADA student needs to learn. Anger, pity, scorn, self deprecation, humour, the lot. With Brown you can sense the venal malevolence he feels towards David Cameron. You almost sense his asking, how dare this person better me? Doesn’t he know who I am? Wednesday of this week was and easy points victory for Hague. In a footballing analogy, it was not unlike England vs Belarus.

On Friday night I hosted a gathering of around 190 Zimbabweans at Newbury Rugby Club. West Berkshire has become the favoured destination of hundreds of people who have escaped the hideous tyranny of Robert Mugabe’s regime. It was an opportunity for me to thank them for their great contribution to life in this community and to announce the formation of a network for them to support each other as they try to come to terms with a new life here, be it temporary or permanent. It was terrible to hear the stories of the misery being experienced by friends and relatives still in Zimbabwe. There has to be an end to this horror soon.

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Westminster Diary

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The financial situation was a “correction” in the summer, became a crisis in September and morphed into a catastrophe this week. Whether it has reverted to being a crisis depends on the success of the bale-out package announced last week and supported by all sides. What really matters is how this is affecting our constituents and the small and medium sized businesses that most of them work for. Time will tell. For now, the reaction of Labour MPs is interesting. The unreconstructed left of the Party are going around delighted that the 1983 Labour manifesto, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” at the time, has come to pass. While they delight in the effective nationalisation of swathes of the banking sector many Labour MPs feel the crisis has given them a political lifeline. They have been crowing that this is “Brown’s Falklands”. In 1982 the new Conservative Government looked set for defeat until the Falklands were invaded by Argentina and the tables turned. Unfortunately for Brown, he is not so much Margaret Thatcher in this analogy, but more General Galtieri. His other problem is that David Cameron is most certainly not in the mould of the then Leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot. Cameron is rightly striking a conciliatory tone at a time of national crisis. He and George Osborne are determined to avoid the petty party wrangling that soured the debate in the US Congress. As Nick Clegg put it, now is not the time to ask who was steering the ship when it hit the rocks.

It might sound corny but my job brings me into contact with some really remarkable people. In Thatcham on Saturday I saw a lad playing his heart out in a game of wheelchair basketball. Chatting to his Mum I heard that he is shortly to undergo his 18th operation to correct the effects of cerebral palsy. The story of his life was irredeemably grim but for the fact that he was surrounded by a truly amazing family. The strain on him and his family is unimaginable but his mother and grandmother were just so impressive in their modesty, quiet determination and love for this child. After the fevered talk and speculation of the last week it was good to be brought down to earth by such an encounter. If I had to stop being an MP tomorrow I would always be grateful for the chance it gave me to meet such people.

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Welcome to my blog - part 2

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After a false start the Benyon blog is up and running. The original location of this page on my website fell foul of the Byzantine complexity of the House of Commons rules. I had a choice of either leaving it there and making it totally non-political, fence sitting and boring or moving it to another location where it can be robust and hopefully thought provoking, even interesting!

I am off to Birmingham this weekend to see if we can liven things up since Labour’s sepulchral gathering in Manchester. I hope the most noticeable difference will be that we will be talking to an audience across the country while Labour were talking to themselves. In the USA the Presidential candidates have suspended campaigning while they try to sort out a rescue package for their ailing economy. In Birmingham we will be likewise focussed on the massive implications of the global and domestic economic climate. All issues we are concerned about will be subjugated by this vast elephant in the room. You can’t build more schools and hospitals unless the economy can afford it. You can’t provide more resources to our hard pressed Armed Forces or towards measures to mend our broken society without the tax receipts which come from a buoyant economy.

These are massive issues which will mean that knockabout politics will not be to the fore in Birmingham. We are serious about being in Government and being in Government at such a time is a serious business. I hope our conference will show a Party ready to govern with a calm determination to turn things around and make this country great again.  

I will give you more thoughts from sunny Birmingham next week.

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Welcome to my blog

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This is the latest innovation on my award winning website. I hope it will be an added means of keeping in touch. I can’t guarantee I will spend time responding to every blogger but I do promise to read your views regularly - and possibly even act on them!

My opposite number in the Government Whips office has been sacked Siobhan McDonagh is not a name that many will have heard. We both covered the same Department and liaised regularly. She kept firmly below the parapet and always supported her Party.  What made her upset Gordon Brown’s carefully laid plans for his next re-launch we may never know. Andy Warhol said we are all entitled to 15 minutes of fame and perhaps she thought it was her turn. Perhaps this accounts for the rather distracted nature of her erstwhile boss, Geoff Hoon on Thursday. Labour’s Chief Whip and I were in a horrendous queue at the Calais ferry ticket office to where we had been bussed after our Eurostar train had been halted by the fire you will have heard about. What was interesting was the mutterings of those around me. One said, “Isn’t that Geoff Hoon? Why doesn’t he get a grip of this shambles instead of just getting his own ticket?” This was greeted with murmurs of support with a few “typical politician” jibes thrown in. It’s a cruel world when Government Ministers even get blamed for the failure of another country’s transport system to inform stranded passengers. Why am I defending him?! Of course he should have taken charge. Churchill would have commandeered a ferry and led the adoring crowd back to blighty.

Parliament is in recess at the moment but the political temperature is hotting up as we enter the conference season. The Liberal Democrats meet in this week, followed by Labour and then us. Imagine the awful life of a political journalist. First you must attend glee fests such as UKIP’s gathering, then the TUC conference followed by the three main Party conferences. By the time they get to ours their minds are numbed by dull speeches and their livers are in no condition to face the arrival of the Christmas party season a few weeks later.

Last year’s conference season was electrifying for those interested in who is to run this country. Brown looked in fine fettle at the beginning of September. However, he underwhelmed in his conference speech which left it to David Cameron to see if the “clunking fist” could be bettered. The Conservatives pulled some headline grabbing policies out of the hat and Cameron made the speech of his life. Really quite exceptional both in his delivery (without any real notes) and in its content. The tables turned and have stayed that way with Tory wins in London, the local elections and some amazing by-elections.

So what for this year? Labour is hoping, with increased desperation, that the Prime Minister is able to pull something remarkable out of his hat. Cameron will want to continue to look like a Prime Minister-in-waiting but without being or seeming over confident. We Conservatives must take nothing for granted. You will see neither complacency nor an attitude that we can ride into Government on the back of Labour’s failure. We have to show we are a strong, principled alternative with a vision for Government. Interesting times.

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Ministerial jargon…

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In West Berkshire there is an organisation called a Local Strategic Partnership. What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? Where have you been? Actually it is a good idea, if a little New Labour. It gets the Council to sit down with local businesses and the voluntary sector to solve local problems. That was plain English, I think. The Minister responsible described it differently. She said LSPs are “cross-sector, cross-agency umbrella partnerships that offer real opportunities to streamline existing partnership arrangements and to make them more effective, by making better connections between individual initiatives.” She really said that. The trouble is that Ministers and Civil Servants speak like this all the time. Gordon Brown once described his economic policy as “neo-classical endogenous growth theory”. Apparently that line was written by his then sidekick Ed Balls. This prompted a senior Tory, I think it was Michael Heseltine, to say “it wasn’t Brown’s it was balls”.

I am delighted to hear of an initiative among Conservative Councillors to dump phrases that many of us find irritating. “Stakeholder engagement, cross-cutting inter-departmental working party, web-based customer focused consultative process, key lines of enquiry …” are just some I could mention. When I hear some Ministers speak I want to stand up and shout, “what does that mean?” I bet half the time they don’t know themselves. While I can mangle my syntax as well as anyone I pledge from now on, to attempt to speak a language that people in the real world understand.

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Richard Benyon was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Newbury on 7 May 2015, with an increased majority of 26,368. Richard won 61 per cent of the vote share.

 

 

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