PETER GODFREY DUNN
30.3.1934 – 31.5.2014
THE TIME has come , once again dear readers, to compose my most important column of the year – my annual report to constituents, enumerating my many achievements on your behalf in these difficult and challenging times. Where to begin in rural communities like mine, where Time’s fair Hand Maidens cogitate in graceful concert with the Seasons? Some of my colleagues in the “Tweedshires” run off their local newspaper column with crowning achievements placed in alphabetic order and have done with it. “Nobody reads the bloody rag anyway, Ollie,” one of them told me. “It’s run by 12-year-olds who want to work for the Sun.” A few younger Members actually settled for “tweeting” their good news on their mobile telephones – a practice of which I thoroughly disapprove. For a while some attended brain-storming sessions of my new bucolic policy coordination directorate, the so-called Local Intelligence Across Rural Societies group. Mr Cable, whose ambitions to stuff Mr Clegg’s leadership grow bolder by the hour, briefed the scribblers that this was an acronym for LIARS I had to endure a lot of orchestrated sniggering at the next meeting of Cabinet.
Mr Cable will keep.
Now, of course, I also have to contend with Ukip’s brass-voiced candidate Mrs Christine Hamilton, aka Mrs Brown Envelopes. My spies tell me she’s setting up a black propaganda printing shop in a barn out Mangerton way with a crew of “media-savvy” teenaged Smart Alecs out to make trouble for me. I had lunch with my three local editors Tweedle, Dumb and Dee, just before Christmas and they all swore they won’t touch her stuff with a barge pole. I showed them a collection of flyers the Ukip rabble’s working on and you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they’re cooking up. For instance, that I’m in cahoots with the Min of Ag and 1,300 Romanian pig farmers to set up shop across 137 sites of special scientific interest across West Dorset – everything (including high-performance buckshee gas masks for tourists) handsomely-funded by local tax payers, of course. And only if you speak fluent Romanian.
To add insult to injury, UKIP’s fiendish Goebblesean machine is claiming to have e-mails “sourced to” Mr Cable’s office decreeing that the operation of turning my constituency into a slag heap of pig manure will be handled exclusively through my Job Clubs! Dear readers! If only you could feel my pain. As I have so frequently (and correctly) indicated in previous columns, 2013 has been tough for many businesses and people seeking work. I had therefore spent a considerable amount of energy promoting the spread of my Job Clubs in West Dorset towns. It has been self-evidently understood by all concerned that this is no guarantee of available jobs, now or in the future. My Job Clubs (and those good folk who sacrifice their time to run them) are symbolic, reflecting the Madding Crowd’s yearning for well-paid employment, even as they queue outside Waitrose for their food parcels. I am creating Mr Cameron’s Big Society in its purest form – the pursuit of the unobtainable by those who cannot deliver. Unemployment as High Art!
In Cabinet after Cabinet I have revealed this vision of exquisite hopelessness, extrapolating it to the non-arrival of superfast rural broadband (though I am careful to stress its imminent arrival in Toller Porcorum any day soon), the diminution of village bus services, the burgeoning of pot-holed lanes, the crunch of pensioners’ motorcars in the thick fogs of Lunatics’ Alley, the A35. I see my colleagues deeply moved by these performances. In the orchestra of British politics I sense the hand of Herbert von Karajan on my careworn shoulder, my favourite conductor, inspiring the Easter Festival of opera at Salzburg.
As the economy, both locally and nationally recovers I look forward to what I hope will be a brighter 2014. It may amuse Mrs Hamilton and her cranking crazies at Mangerton to describe me as Oliver Smug MP but I know my patch here in West Dorset. As in every previous year I have received an enormous amount of correspondence and seen a large number of constituents about individual problems at my surgeries. “Too many to mention in detail, eh Mr Letswin sir,” I hear you murmur. “Indeed, indeed, sir,” has to be my candid riposte. Mrs Briskett, my newly-appointed Archivist of Record in London has compiled a list and its variety would amaze you should you care to dispatch her a stamped addressed envelope for Highlights of Mr Letswin’s Response Record. I took great offence when Mrs Foghorn’s lot issued a flyer alleging I seemed to be in eternal Cabinet meetings when the local Press telephoned to implore me for a reaction to Mr Osborne’s perfectly sensible cuts to local health services. Indeed I am assured by those who avail themselves (for example) of the excellent A&E facilities at our world-famous hospital in Dorchester that the waiting time for attention to wasp stings has now been halved to four hours.
I rest my case.
On a national level I had the honour during the recent floods to accompany Mr Cameron on one of his deeply-caring tours of somebody’s inundated bungalow in northern Gloucestershire. The locals were pretty vociferous, including the editor of the Guardian spluttering neck-deep in raw sewage outside his holiday cottage. The PM was wearing a pair of remaindered MoD waders (which leaked) and wanted my counsel on how to deal with mischievous stories in the garbage Press about Mr Osborne’s decision to sack 11,000 flood defense workers. I offered him the stock Canute response – reminding him of the ephemeral nature of floods – how they tended to disappear of their own accord without further cost to the tax-payer. He passed this gem to a sneezing Press officer for immediate release and gave me the usual “Good old Ollie” thump on my soggy back.
Encouraged, I decided to appraise him of Ukip’s devilish lies about my turning God’s Dorset acres into a porcine mud bath. I have to say he seemed to take the Romanian nonsense rather quietly. I soon discovered why. A couple of nights later I took a call at my gorgeous constituency home in Somerset from George “Redneck”Eustace, the Redruth backbencher MP whose elevation from NI Secretary to running agriculture under Owen Paterson passed through the farming community like a splat of Gaviscon-driven cow-clap. When I remind you that Eustace launched his glittering political career as Andy Coulson’s predecessor you’ll get my drift. Clearly, from his triumphant tone, he’d just emerged from a briefing at Number Ten. “The thing about Romanians, Ollie, is you’ve entirely missed the point of them as valued European partners” he said. “For starters Dave thinks they’d be bad news for London if they dossed in Hyde Park, clogged the dole queues and upset the Chinese mopping up £5m properties in Chelsea. Second, Dave’s just heard Bucharest’s signed a massive deal to supply Beijing with 3 million pigs. Dave says the Chinkies can’t get enough of them and what are we doing about it? Quite frankly, Dave is a tad disappointed you didn’t know this and thinks you should pay closer attention to the Farming Press, you being a rural MP and all that.”
Dave this, Dave that. I ground my teeth as he laboured to the point.
“Upshot is, Ollie, Dave’s decided – and I endorse him to the hilt – the Min of Ag isn’t doing enough for British farming. Thinks it could do with a bit of a bump up, us heading out of Europe and all that. A few Romanian pig farms in Dorset might be just the kick up the backside your old hayseeds need down your way. I’ll send you the recipe for Romanian pig pie. It’ll go a bomb with your local butchers (if you’ve got any) and that chinless Clegg crowd that flocks to Notting -Hill-on-Sea!”
Dear God. What have I done?
THE FOLKS who run the Halifax pride themselves on being “the people who give you extra.” Tolpuddle’s friend and neighbour, farmer Rowlie Moores, believes them. He’s just been paid £250 compensation by the company following an eleven-month Hardyesque melodrama which included – where do we start?– a thinly-veiled threat to foreclose on his home and livelihood. Plus, attacks of temporary blindness diagnosed by doctors as being caused by extreme stress.
The trigger for Rowlie’s annus horribilis was the death last November, after a long illness, of his father Graham. In his will Moores senior appointed his 47-year-old son as sole heir of their jointly-run Lilac Farm and its twin hay field slopes on the eastern fringe of Bridport. Readers of this blog and its Saga of Rowlie’s Barn will know that Mr Moores is a battle-scarred veteran of stress. Alas, he hadn’t seen the half of it, thanks to all those little Halifax “extras” poised to dump over his life. The reason? His father’s estate included a modest mortgage Graham Moores had taken out with the Halifax office in Dorchester. All the building society had to do was to sign off on the debt to Moore junior to enable him to complete Probate. Easily accomplished? Not so. Earlier this year, just weeks after burying his father at a fine service in Loders village church, Rowlie took a phone call from a Halifax employee in Dorchester.
“He asked to speak to Mr Graham Moores,” Rowlie says today. “I told him my father was dead and he should talk to me; but the caller insisted “I can only speak to Mr Graham Moores.”
Rowlie says it’s very difficult to get through to the Halifax in Dorchester on the ph0ne, even if you try to route calls through the company’s own call centre. He decided to try pot luck, put all the paperwork together and just turned up without an appointment.
“A very pleasant woman told me the documents would have to go to head office in Leeds for a decision.” he says. “She said she’d photocopy them and pop them in the post for me.” I gave it a week, heard nothing, and rang Leeds. Someone on the staff there told me the documents had ‘probably’ arrived but she couldn’t locate them because they’d ‘probably’ not cleared the office post room. I let another week go by and called again. They told me they’d lost the documents and advised me to go back to square one and start again.” Rowlie rang the Dorchester office to make an appointment but no-one picked up the phone.
The following day, driving his rusty pickup along the A35, Rowlie started going blind. He managed to struggle to Dorchester Hospital ten miles away and checked in at A&E. Specialists, ignoring his vehement protests about the excellence of his health, kept him in overnight for brain scans. “Next day a doctor told me the eye problem was caused by shoulder nerves being pinched and cutting the blood stream to the head,” he says. “He said it was a common symptom of excessive stress. I kept telling them ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. I’m as fit as they come.'”
On October 4, Tolpuddle wrote a letter to David Nicholson, managing director of the Halifax Community Bank in Leeds expressing deep concerns about about his company’s incompetence. “Rowlie returned to the Halifax in Dorchester armed once more with documents and ID, as Leeds had instructed,”the letter said. “He was told by a mortgage adviser that he (Rowlie) had no authority to deal with the problem. It had to be handled by the will’s executor, Rowlie’s uncle. Rowlie said the uncle had now become too ill to deal with Probate and had handed the duties to the uncle’s wife, a Filippina woman who understood little about the complexities of rural mortgaging.
“Nevertheless,” Tolpuddle told Mr Nicholson, “the mortgage adviser insisted she must appear before him, with ID. and take responsibility for the farm’s mortgage. The adviser said ‘And she’ll need to instruct a solicitor because the process is incredibly complicated. It could take months but she shouldn’t ask for me here. I’m off on holiday for two weeks.’
“Your mortgage adviser also took time out to tell Rowlie that if he couldn’t meet his father’s mortgage commitment he’d have to sell Lilac Farm, his home, so that the bank could get its money.”
MR NICHOLSON did not reply personally. Four days later, however, Rowlie received a letter from Pav Khan, of the Halifax Customer Services in Leeds. It was addressed to “Mr Rowland Graham Jones” and enclosed a cheque (made out correctly) for “£200 for any distress and inconvenience caused, plus £50 for any expenses you have incurred.”
In a detailed apology Mr Khan expressed regret “for our lack of sensitivity and care shown. I appreciate this has caused you substantial distress and inconvenience.” His list of acknowledged errors was impressive.
♦ You have been contacted by our colleagues who requested to speak to your later (sic) father and this has caused you substantial distress
♦ Despite the numerous telephone calls you have made and visits to our Branches we have not been able to support you.
♦ You provided documentation and other relevant information to our Dorchester Branch and this information was then lost.
♦ You were advised upon visiting our Dorchester Branch that you did not have the required authority to deal with your late fathers (sic) account.
A happy conclusion then? Not entirely. Tolpuddle’s letter to Mr Nicholson was dated October 7. Mr Khan claimed to have cleared it off his desk the following day – October 8 – an extraordinary feat of high-speed sleuthing. How was this possible, given that the complaints sprawled across months of bureaucratic aggravation and involved dozens of employees working in separate offices 220 miles apart? In truth all that Mr Khan seemed to be saying was that he was sorry that Rowlie Moores was upset. Critically, the official grovel made no mention of any action plan to put the grievances right. There was no reference at all to the potentially expensive issue of Rowlie’s stress-induced blindness.
On October 28 and November 14 Tolpuddle winged off two further letters to Mr Nicholson in Leeds asking why, six weeks after pleading guilty, the Halifax appeared to exhibit no concerns at all about their completing Lilac Farm’s vital paper work.
The letter said “My friend Rowlie Moores had another attack of stress-related blindness while watching TV at his house a couple of nights ago. It is no coincidence, in my view, that this was driven by the continued failure of your office in Leeds to clear up this dog’s breakfast of a failure to deliver the required closure.
“What are we to think? That Mr Khan, having addressed his compensation letter to “Mr Jones” has now lost complete touch with reality along with the documents vital for the barn planning consent which Mr Moores requires to continue in the business of hay farming? I am becoming increasingly attracted to the notion that if the Halifax has failed for months to locate the Lilac Farm paperwork then it follows that the mortgage no longer exists?
“Can we do a deal on that basis and return to our lives counting pot-holes and cow clap in the aromatic lanes of Dorset? We’ve certainly had enough of the latter.”
Meanwhile Farmer Moores consoles himself with his two prized collections – rescued cats snoozing on shelves in his back porch , and a fleet of rusty historic vehicles, rescued and restored to running order, which draws the crowds at West Country steam fairs.
“All the Halifax has done is send me a letter saying sorry and bunged me £250 in the hope I’ld go away,” he said this week. “I don’t want their money. I just want them to sign up to to say I can deal with dad’s estate.”
A PERT lady called Christine Bell – as a gentleman I hesitate to consider such perjoratives as “impudent” – has penned a grumpy letter to my local newspaper saying I’ve “had the gall” to claim local events – the Hat Festival and Carnival being but two them – as evidence of my Big Society. For your enlightenment, madam, I have laid no such claim. I am perfectly aware – and will shortly demonstrate – that the Christian belief of blessed folk donating their time and resources to people less fortunate than themselves has no equal outside West Dorset. Have I not written movingly, if I say so myself, of the inspiration which drives my Job Clubs, tended day and night by volunteers throughout the caring communities nestling in Mr Hardy’s magnificent landscapes?
History teaches us that the noblest in the land have answered the call in times of social stress. Few members of High Society, unbowed in their sparkling finery, could bear to dine at the Savoy in those dreadful prewar years of Deepest Recession until they had done a stint with the ladles at the soup kitchens of Bow. Read Chips Channon’s magnificent Diaries of that time if you don’t believe me.
I was reminded of this not so long ago when I received a letter from a distinguished academic, Dr Sebastian Unterhund, professor of Applied Grinding Poverty at Yeovil University. Usually I get an earful from this kind of fellow, necessitating a quick visit to my Green Park filing system. There had just been a lot of unpleasantness in the papers about some young woman geology graduate who’d been ordered by Mr Duncan Smith to work for nothing in a Poundshop or lose her dole. Lawyers have since got involved, with a load of chitchat about “slave labour.” To my surprise Dr Unterhund seemed inclined to congratulate the Coalition’s determined efforts – the geology girl being a case in point – to get a grip on long term unemployment among the idling classes. And this is why his letter gripped my attention.
He told me that as a young sociological student at one of the better redbricks – Stoke-on-Trent, if memory serves me – he’d taken a Phd gap year to study life in Ethiopia. To his surprise, Dr Unterhund wrote, he found a society not unlike the one created by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne today. A strong reforming monarchy in the person of Emperor Haile Selassie – the so-called “Lion of Judah, King of Kings” – busily building schools and hospitals, a contented Christian middle class, avidly reading accounts in the Ethiopian Press of the Emperor’s frequent visits as guest of honour of Her Majesty the Queen. What really excited him as a sociologist, the doctor continued, were the firm yet inclusive policies the Ethiopians used to regulate and rehabilitate the needy of Addis Ababa’s slums – a unique system of state education driven by a policy of caring incentives (my italics) that ensured most children were adequately fed.
Dr Unterhund told me that even an enlightened, compassionate government such as that run by myself and Mr Cameron could find lessons to be learned in the back-story revealed to him in the Horn of Africa. He gave me, as just one inspiring example, the story of 15-year-old Jamel H’nduah, a pupil at Aswew Hawariat School. – a young man officially licensed to collect and eat food from the dustbins of the capital’s splendid Hilton Hotel. He enclosed a Photostat copy of Jamel’s billet de manger. And here it is:
“Remarkable,” I breathed. I stared at that anxious little face above the neat tie and suit and wondered, nearly half a century on, how Jamel had fared in later life. Clearly there were lessons to be learned from Professor Unterhund’s valuable research. I am aware that allegations of child poverty in small areas of the United Kingdom are occasionally ventilated in some sections of the tabloid Press. An earnest body called the Trussell Trust keeps telling anyone who will listen that it provides 350,000 food parcels a year to “needy families,” usually adding that the figure “doubles every year.” Oxfam, not to be outdone, bangs on about how half a million people depend on them and that one in six parents go without food to feed their families. In Cabinet the guidelines to Ministers about this are firm enough; steer well clear of public brawls about child poverty. We’ve got enough problems dealing with the tabloids shrieking the odds every time an Honourable Member puts a cup of tea on his expenses. Officially, our line about poverty is two-fold: it’s all Master Tony Blair’s fault, plus (in Mr Osborne’s view) there’s no gain without pain. Still, it pays to be on red alert about these matters, as I know to my cost. Only last week found me in the fair town of Bridport where I was “ambushed” outside Waitrose by a lusty fellow selling The Big Issue – a magazine, as I understand it, devoted to the problems of obese children. Some volunteer group called Cupboard Love was seated on the pavement collecting tinned foodstuffs from shoppers as they emerged from the store. Without warning the noisy vendor swooped down, picked up a tin a Finger Lickin’ Corned Beef and thrust it under my nose. “For your next banquet in Threadneedle Street, Mr Letswin, sir,” he bellowed. Amid much sniggering from the cupboard lovers someone appeared to be photographing the incident on their mobile telephone. Although Dromgoole, my personal security man, confiscated the “mobe” on grounds of national security, I haven’t slept a wink since.
And then, bless my soul if the Girl Friday who monitors the tabloids on my behalf didn’t make an astonishing discovery. Scrap Eating, nicking waste food from industrial dustbins, has become the fastest growing trend among the aspiring young middle classes of Mr Cameron’s Britannia! If you don’t believe me you should read the story in last week’s Independent, headlined “Living on food from bins is better than being part of the culture of waste.” It’s been going on for years, apparently, with students carrying out 2am raids on those supermarket bins using for dumping food that’s only an hour or so over its shelf life. It goes to the very heart of the essence of my Big Society – a robustly self-reliant Life Style. Concern for the environment. All the dots of recycling joined with perfect symmetry.
Here is their spokeswoman, Jo Barrow, inviting the student community to join the fun, living like kings on discarded pâtés, grapes, bacon, chocolate bars, curries.
“My friends and I have been living off bin food for more than two years. We’re students so the quick and easy access to seemingly limitless and varied free food is too good an opportunity to pass up. And it’s changed our lives. Somehow with no time, barely any cooking ability and little money, we’ve been feeding ourselves better than we’d ever have been able to if we’d stuck to the usual student staples of eggs with bread-and-stuff.
“The best thing about it (apart from the free food) is the communal aspect it brings with living with other people. When you forage together you eat together. Living on food from bins is much more preferable to participating in the culture of waste that prevails in the rest of our society. It’s rare that being ethical ever tastes quite so delicious.”
Has my Big Society ever been better defined? I think not, dear readers. And not a single whining word from the noble Miss Barrow about the “burden” of student fees and post graduate debt. I’ve not been so moved since Mr Cameron – filled with pre-election fervour -visited the poor and hugged a hoodie!
Of course, the bin bandits are not (as Miss Barrow candidly admits) behaving legally. Stealing is stealing but I see no formidable barrier to what is little more than a technical hitch that might be overcome by knocking a few supermarket heads together. After all, has not Professor Unterhund shown us the way with his researches in Ethiopia? The foraging for unwanted foods by responsible members of the student community could be quickly authorised by young people showing their official Student Union cards to supermarket managers. It’s as easy as that.
I place an urgent call to the home number Dr Unterhund so presciently included in his letter to me. The phone is answered by a young woman and I explain who I am, why I’m ringing and why I wish to speak at once to the professor. There is a lot of background noise, loud music, more young voices. The young woman goes away to consult. Someone switches off the music. I hear her voice and then a great deal of merry laughter. She returns, smothered in giggles. “You do know, do you not, Dr Letswin, that Dr Unterhund is a punk rock band, always pulling publicity stunts. Bon appétit” And she hangs up the telephone.
More from Oliver Letswin soon.
“MEA CULPA”, as “Squiffy” Sprackling, our Classics master at Eton, said after being caught in flagrante with Prendergast Minor. We all smiled, of course. Mea culpa sent quite a different signal in those dear dead days at Pop. We prided ourselves as being “men of the world.” It was all “wink, forget and put the fags’ kettle on.” The modern equivalent in British politics – perfected to an art form by the knuckle-scrapers of New Labour – was to greet each fresh blunder with the phrase “I take full responsibility.” It’s always good for a laugh in the Members’ Bar.
Even so, I’m still officially in the dog house over my scheme to smuggle Mr Blair into the Cabinet Room to stiffen the bellicosity of the PM as he dithered on the brink of war with “Basham” Assad in Syria. Someone at Number Ten leaked the story to the Guardian and they wrote it up as a pantomime with me as the Widow Twankey. My spies tell me that Mr Osborne – ever-anxious to change the subject from his disastrous bedroom tax – talks about nothing else in Cabinet but my perceived blundering. It’s all “Should we not be rather concerned about Ollie? Has he Lost his Touch? Is he any longer Sound?” That sort of rubbish.
Entre nous, he will regret this. I have a long memory. Many confidential documents cross my desk for approval and the magic touch of my sagacious advice. Some of these I photocopy and transfer to a secret file hidden in the thatch of my gracious constituency home in Somerset. Sometimes, late at night when Mrs Letswin is detained in London on Treasury business, I take the file down and make annotations. It contains policy proposals from various ministers, most of which should have been laid out on a hillside at birth. If you think Mr Farage is bonkers you should read some of these wheezes for raising cash to pay off New Labour’s reckless deficit. Mr Brown’s poisonous toad, Damian McBride, would give his Daily Mail fee and his book royalties for a peek.
For cover purposes – and in furtherance of my dream for a True Blue Father-Nation orchestrated by myself – I describe my file as “Mr Letswin’s Revenge.” Knowledge is power. Cross me and your little scheme goes straight into my official litter bin in St James’s park. Be nice and you’ll be up the reshuffle ladder like a monkey on the Drug Squad’s black market amphetamines.
And so it came to pass that documents reached me outlining a top secret scorcher dreamed up by Mr Osborne and his oleaginous sidekick – the Deputy Prime Minster Mr Nicholas “Smarty Pants” Clegg. I’m told they cooked it up together over the lunch at Whites. Mr Clegg was in a fine old mood, by all accounts, having just blagged his conference donkeys with a scheme for free dinners in primary schools. Never mind that the policy had been torn from the protesting hands of Mr Gove at Education. Mr Clegg was sick of listening to his dwindling band of hirsute followers whining about the betrayal of student fees and needed a favour. Mr Cameron obliged and clapped a tea cosy over Mr Gove’s blustering head. Now, as the pair of them slurped their boarding school gruel at Whites, Mr Osborne told him how the favour was to be repaid.
Come the hour, come the day, when the referendum cuts us free from the petit bourgeois trade barriers of Europe, when the Scots have voted to boil their heads to Eternity in their own constitutional porridge, the Osborne-Clegg master plan will slap a 25 percent levy on imported Chinese toys. It’s an idea of suicidal genius. Billions for the Treasury, and a long walk on a short pier for its creators.
“But Mr Letswin, sir,” I hear you wail, “What’s so important about taxing a few cheap toxic toys? Who needs 30 kilos of rubbish?”
“Patience, my dear sir,” I can but expostulate. “Allow me to present you with the figures. China actually make three-quarters of the world’s toys. British retailers will import 370,000 tonnes from there this year. That’s 30.6 kilos (67lbs) for each child, heavier than an average nine-year-old boy. About 85 percent of these are cobbled together by Chinese sweat-shop labour. There’s a city called Gaomi in East China’s Shandong province which does nothing but make stuffed toys for Europe, America, the Middle East. In a global context Chinese toys are very political. Most politicians would rather mess about with the North Korean nuclear missile industry than the Chinese toy trade. India banned Chinese toy imports for six months this year to protect the Delhi toy industry. Now the Chinese are heading for the World Trade Organisation wringing their hands about protectionism. Watch this space. The Chinese know even more about cyber warfare than they do about making cheap toys. Switching off your power stations, shutting down your TV and newspapers would be a doddle for these people.
None of this seems to have occurred to Messrs Osborne and Clegg chuckling so cleverly over their stodge and custard pudding at Whites. Slapping 25 percent import duty on Chinese toys (where none exists at present) will, of course, travel down the line to every toy shop in the land. We are in deep recession, even if I do keep telling people (as a favour to Mr Osborne) that it’s over. No problem with rich parents, of course. It’s the poor ones – and those who simply don’t work hard enough who’ll perforce be unable to afford to shower their dear ones with the usual pillowcase of gifts this Christmas. For them, you might as well chuck Santa Claus into a tumbril and get it over with.
Softly, softly, catchee monkey. I arrange for one of my many Fleet Street friends to tip off the leading trade sheet, the British Toys Journal and arrange for copies (suitably book-marked) to be delivered to the Sun, Mail and Telegraph news desks. Fuse lit, I sit back to await events outstripping reason. Sure enough, within a week all hell breaks lose. Forget Syria, Kenya shopping malls and whether Kate is pregnant again. Overwhelmed by a tsunami of tabloid derision, Mr Cameron calls an emergency Cabinet meeting as toy shop owners mass in Parliament Square burning effigies of Osborne and Clegg, both dressed up as Rupert Bear. My mail bag (usually copious with letters of congratulation) bulges with the scribbled abuse of silver-haired toy merchants. One letter – five pages long -is from the lady-owner of Toys ‘B’ Oi , a wondrous cavern of baubles, gewgaws, dolls, trinkets and whirlygigs tucked away in Bridport’s famed East Street shopping parade. “Dear Mister Letswin Sir,” it begins. “After 37 years in the Business of Quality Toys for all Classes words fail Oi to describe the Perfidy of . . .”
I show this letter to Mr Cameron, shaking my head sadly, and he winces. Mr Osborne and Mr Clegg are instructed to undertake a smarming tour of primary schools. For both Cabinet members it is their first (and last) experience of life inside inner city state academies. The photographers have a field day snapping them grinning desperately into little sobbing faces.
The Chinese, as usual, say nothing – except that GCHQ reports a massive and inexplicable increase in hacking traffic, the Times appears, foisted by some invisible hand with the entire works of Chairman Mao – in Chinese – and Tube trains in London run backwards at startling speeds.
Mr Cameron spends an entire night on the phone to Beijing, persuading inscrutable people he’s never heard of that Master George and his import levies are history. Mr Osborne is dispatched to the the Imperial City with instructions to bribe Chinese billionaires to live off the hog on the London property market – plus he’s carrying a contract for the Celestial Ones to build, operate and own 27 nuclear power stations in the Home Counties. To create a diversion with the scribblers of the Travelling Press he sends Mr Johnson along as the Chancellor’s minder. The tabs have a field day with Boris – legs wide apart, tie dangling provocatively over his Essentials – being photographed leering on park benches with hosts of flinching Chinese beauties.
Like I said, cross me and your little scheme goes right in the park-keeper’s bin.
Definitely “mea non culpa.”
A hefty questionnaire from Ipsos MORI hits Tolpuddle’s mat. I have received it, courtesy of NHS England – “an arm’s length body of the Department of Health” run by a Mr Tim Kelsey – and it wants me to tell him, only in the strictest of confidence, of course, what I think of my local GP service. Among many concerns about me and my health care Ipsos MORI also wants to know if I’m homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or squeamish about pushy pollsters not minding their own business. I ignore it. This is the seventh year of these surveys. I am but a pipsqueak among 1.36m adults, “chosen at random” to tick their 62 nosy boxes. And where, pray, has it got any of us?
Ipso MORI have read my sour mind. Two weeks later – unbidden -they send me an identical sheaf of boxes to tick, begging a moment of my valuable time. What do these exercises cost the taxpayer? £5m a throw? At twice yearly that’s £70m since 2006. Minimum. Don’t get Tolpuddle started on value for money in the cash-strapped NHS.
I decide, once more, to ignore Tim’s thirst for my opinions about accessibility to the weirdly inaccessible world of general practitioners. Analyse the artful questions Tim lobs at you and you’ll see why. None of them invites you to say the system is pants and should be restructured – for example whether you think GPs should get out more (as they used to do) and visit you at home. He wants you, by implication, to accept the system as a fine done thing – a super-charged engine that merely needs a spot of fine-tuning. He’s done the same with yet another eye-popping questionnaire, which Tolpuddle heard about on the wireless. It was invented (of course) by an American business consultant who thinks doctors should be judged like soap powders. This beauty urges youto say whether – following treatment in hospitals or general practices – you would recommend the service received to friends or other members of your family. A Which! guide to medicine? Tolpuddle prefers to think of it as more of of a pen-pusher’s witch hunt imposed on a system which has already been over-managed to death
And so that brings us once again to the Bridport Medical Centre – or Medical Factory, as described on this blog earlier this year. Questionnnaires have become very modish at the BMF and Tolpuddle is a bit fed up with their nosy chatter. For one thing I’m not at all well, and here’s why. Let’s call it the Saga of the Repeat Prescription, as outlined by Tolpuddle’s dearly-beloved when she paid a routine call to the Factory’s branch of Lloyds Pharmacy.
“Pitched up, late morning, at the pharmacy to collect husband’s regular prescription for Omeprazole. He’s been taking it for a year now, and it’s supposed to be ready and waiting in the pharmacy’s store cupboard.
There is a queue with complicated drug needs and it takes some ten minutes, possibly more, to reach the motherly lady behind the counter. During the wait, she tells the assembled sick people that there’s a 45 minute wait to pick up dispensed medication. She can find no trace of husband’s medicine, either in the cupboard or on her computer. “It’s probably over the Other Side,” she said, sweet and apologetic.
The Other Side, the Dark Side, is the reception desk of the medical centre proper. No queue here but a single receptionist already occupied with a patient with complex needs. Quite qickly, really, a second receptionist emerges from the back office. There is no prescription on the rack on the wall. She rakes the computer, finds a reference to husband and his Omeprazole but no repeat has been authorised. The last dose (a month’s supply) went out nearly six weeks earlier. (Husband is a little haphazard about taking his pills) Then by some alchemistic chance, she finds that the prescription has been updated. This very day. Obviously she can’t find the paperwork because she’s already looked for it but she’ll print up a new form and get a doctor to sign it. This she does. And she disappears.
Finding a doctor in a medical centre takes a minimum of ten minutes and by the time I have the paperwork, I have some 25 minutes of queuing under my belt.
Back in the pharmacy, the queue has not shortened. Another lively ten minutes to reach the motherly counter lady by which time, waiting for the dispensary has shrunk to half an hour. During which time, I caught and carried home an evil virus.”
Special pleading by a grumpy blogger? We don’t think so. A friend reports that she was in the pharmacy at 10-30 am this week and heard a queuing woman’s despairing wail: “I’ve been in this building since ten past nine this morning. I’m fed up.”
Writing about the Medical Factory last year Tolpuddle suggested that its multitude of operational problems – a switchboard frequently jammed with short-fused supplicants, their ordeal mocked by charmless hold-the-line-musak and a pre-recorded posse of irritatingly-smug zombie voices – could be defined by a single (probably insurmountable) obstacle. Reassembled from the comfortable scruff of two local practices four years ago the Factory has proved to be too small, a lad on a man’s errand as the old trades unionists used to say. Bridport’s population is 12,977. The Factory’s catchment area of town and villages presents its ten GPs with around 17,000 patients – that’s roughly 1,700 per doctor, a thimble menaced by a pint pot.
Architecturally, to Tolpuddle’s jaundiced eye, the Factory itself is little more than a brick in a car park – like some hopeless candidate for a Turner prize, or a second-hand relic from the suburban kitsch of Prince Charles’s Poundbury. Nor does its interior lift the souls of its out-of-sorts petitioners. Coughing on the paraded ranks of seats, listening for the instructive ping of the illuminated information boards summoning them to consultations down anonymous pastel corridors the apprehensive traveller could well imagine himself to be grounded in a fog-bound provincial airport in Uzbekistan.
How do GPs endure this life in sunless hutches? Few of them seem to pine for the days when country doctors and their locums were available, day or night, answering distress calls in isolated village cottages. The care remains, of course, but it comes now with a whiff of assembly lines in factories that roll out motor cars and pre-packed chickens. The notion of clinicians working the countryside, a kind of home-grown médicins sans frontières taking the rural pulse, was buried by New Labour during a botched pay deal. The new regime of industrialised processing has been institutionalised by successive politicians who prefer Bupa membership cards. Today’s GPs seem to have settled for a very different kind of partnership with the public – as though they were now the lay priests of a broad NHS church – listening to the confessions of the sick and granting absolutions. No relaxing chit chat. Thirty years ago, in Beaminster, patients vied to be last in the queue at the evening surgeries of the affable Dr Mike Hudson. Business concluded you would both light a fag, lean back and discuss world affairs. Today, access to GP services has certainly been diminished and countless A&E departments have been swamped in the process. Tolpuddle knows of one man who drove 15 miles to Dorchester hospital with a wasp sting. Three hours later they popped a histamine tablet in his mouth and sent him home.
Last year’s article raised many of these issues with the Bridport centre’s verbally-supercharged manager, Eilish Davoren. A woman of countless Action Plans she seemed wildly enthusiastic about using the blog as a vehicle for her own brand of patient surveys. When she read the article on line, however, she threw a serious wobbly, accusing Tolpuddle of stealing her identity and complaining to the Information Commissioner. She fired off a letter (copied to all ten GP partners) to Tolpuddle, dated February 6 on page one and January 23 on page two.
“I have been made aware,” she wrote, “that this piece has now been published and I have read it. Whilst I have no issue with your views being expressed in this format, I am very upset that my name appeared in the body of the article and feel that this is a breach of my privacy. You did not seek permission from me to have my name listed. It is interesting however that the anonymity opf “Tolpuddle” is protected. Surely I am entitled to the same right? The NHS operates strict rules when commenting about services in order to respect all those involved, the most relevant rule being ‘You should respect the anonymity of other patients and staff at the services you are commenting on by not using their names’ (NHS Choices). The comment should refer to ‘the Practice Manager’ and not directly to me by name. I have further concerns that this could escalate with colleagues and staff also likely to be named on this site without permission? I would like to suggest the site needs be moderated.
My name is now searchable via your site and through Google in a way which I have not intended or approved and which can cause me undue stress. I live locally and aside from being personally hurtful, it is also professionally damaging. Even more disturbing is the fact that I have been misrepresented and misquoted throughout the article in question.
I have decided not to enter into discourse through this site as I feel I have answered your concerns fully via a pre-arranged open telephone discussion. I have asked that any future communication between us be in writing to save any further misrepresentation. I have enclosed a copy of the practice complaints procedure, for your information.
I have today sought advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office and they have advised that requesting the removal of my name should be the first step taken. I look forward to receiving a response as soon as possible and to having my name removed with immediate affect.”
During her interview with Tolpuddle Mrs Davoran did not request anonymity, nor would such an arrangement have been agreed. She is a public figure running a publicly-funded business. Her name and that of her deputy Amanda Murphy, is published prominently on the centre’s website. As to her personal privacy, Mrs Davoran is now a member of Linkedin, the power-person’s web site. Viewers are invited to share her company as follows: “Eilish Davoren, Practice Manager at Bridport Medical Centre. Join Eilish and access her full profile. It’s free!”
THURSDAY, August 29, 10.15pm came a sharp rap on the Rose Garden window of the Cabinet Room and there he was – dead on cue – Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, grinning through the glass and wiggling the tips of his fingers in salute. Mr Cameron all but jumped out of his skin. “Calm yourself, my dear Prime Minster,” I expostulated and slid across the room to raise the sash. Mr Blair hauled himself over the sill. Behind him, in the dark, I could hear his closest associate, Alastair Campbell, swearing as he disentangled himself from the thorns of a Falklands memorial rose shrub. “Hi Ollie, old man,” Mr Blair said, landing on the Downing Street Wilton. “Are we late?” “On the button,Tony,” I said. The former PM was still in yachting flannels, evidence of his hasty departure from his voyage to a lucrative property deal in Sardinia.
Mr Campbell struggled in after him, wearing his trade mark jogging gear and sucking a torn finger. “F*** me Letswin,” he said, jabbing my paunch. “You’ve been bolting the “f***ing” carbohydrates again.” “Good evening, Mr Campbell,” I rejoined stiffly. “Welcome to the Syrian summit. And please wipe your gym shoes.”
It hadn’t taken me very long to persuade Mr Cameron that he needed to brush up his bellicosity skills if he was to carry the Commons with him on the march to war against “Basher” al-Assad’s repulsive regime. And gain a few brownie points with the White House between times. Mr Obama’s dithering leadership style, I mused, could certainly benefit from the bracing influence of a robust broadside from a fully-paid up Bullingdon Club thug, even if this one did seem at times to be away with the fairies, figuratively speaking. “Blair’s your man here,” I murmured to the PM. “He’ll remind you how to pull the ropes, knock heads together, lie through your teeth, put it about that you and the President of the United States use the same brand of toothpaste.”
Mr Cameron seemed, to be honest, to be well up for it. Like a lot of male politicians he’d always had a bit of a crush on the Member for Sedgefield. Nothing wrong with that of course; it happens all the time at Eton. Having crushes on your contemporaries at school saves an awful lot of time in later life when you’ve got to be sure you’re choosing sound fellows to help you run the country. The Parliamentary scribblers got him going over Master Tony when they started calling him “Heir to Blair.” He didn’t like it at first but then you could see him easing himself into the role. All those skin tight short-sleeved black T-shirts with matching chinos and polished loafers. No-one dared mention the bread oven stomach swelling with too many second helpings. Then that ginger-haired woman who used to run the Sun invited him out riding and sent him cute little e-mails signed “LOL”, which he thought meant “Lots of Love.” He started responding to fan mail from other horsey women around Chipping Norton by signing himself off as “LOL Dave, HTB.” He briefed a gullible hack that this meant, not “Heir to Blair” but “Hope to Bonk.” This worked a storm until some red-faced steeple-chase trainer with straw in his hair turned up at Downing Street with a horse-whip.
Eschewing the Lothario image he started swaggering around the Middle East with a bunch of UK arms dealers. Whole tribes of Arabs dumped the camels for cut-price WWll Chieftain tanks; Bedouin nations salaamed the flow of guns, bullets, bazookas and heavy-duty field artillery. Even the Syrians joined the shopping spree, ordering vast quantities of chemicals to be used – so the paper work claimed – for the provision of double-glazed plastic windows at Mr Assad’s Secret Police headquarters in Damascus. When a young man on Department of Trade work experience – a former O level chemistry student – pointed out that the chemicals could also be used for the production of sarin gas the order was rescinded and Mr Cable fitted up for blame.
Tantalised by wider ambition Mr Cameron also had a go at being a Warrior Leader, selecting Mali where the French put boots on the ground and the Americans tossed drones in the air to prove the whole wilderness scuffle was being engineered by Al Quaida. Unfortunately the three RAF Hercules transporters ordered into front-line support roles all broke down en route to the battle zone.
Then it was back to Biceps Man on some god-forsaken beach in Cornwall this summer and he got tangled up with his swimming shorts and a beach towel – all recorded by some paparazzi sniggering in the sand dunes, of course. I couldn’t believe the pictures in the gutter Press. It looked as though Her Britannic Majesty’s government was commanded by a stout lobster.
Which is why, prior to the Commons vote on Syria, I paid a clandestine visit to one of Mr Blair’s many rural properties and had a quiet word with him and his cadaverous sidekick Campbell. Over a cup of delicious Lobsang herbal served in the finest china by Mrs Blair herself they readily agreed to help, for they are first and foremost Patriots content accept that Duty to their country brings its own rewards. I am not at liberty to disclose to you what took place during that historic conference in the Cabinet Room, for I am famed for my discretion on affairs of state. Suffice to say that Mr Cameron was transformed by his two-hour briefing and had to be almost physically dissuaded from appearing before Honourable Members in Mr Campbell’s Sunday best karate uniform.
So what went wrong? Alas, I wish I could tell you but am unable to do so at present since I am well and truly in the Downing Street dog house and have been compelled to seek temporary refuge from the media pack in one of my safe houses in deepest Dorset. It has served me well, as it did Lord Lucan all those years ago when he lurked in hiding while a fisherman’s smack was prepared to whisk him off to durance vile. The White House has, of course, gone ballistic. Fortunately they seem to think that Mr Brown is still Prime Minster. I hear that some Washington minion has dispatched a sharp note to Number Ten demanding the return of the package of old films he received from Mr Obama during his brief (and only) visite d’homage to the Oval Office.
As for “Peacenik” Miliband; don’t get me started. He’s now sliming around the country telling fawning voters how he saved the economy from another war run by mad dog Tories. Mr Blair”s disastrous adventure in Iraq? Forget it. What Miliband conveniently overlooks is that the vote swung away from the government because 30 of our own back benchers stuck a torpedo up the PM’s trouser leg. And why did they do that? In a phrase: the PM’s incomprehensible support of same-sex marriage. For weeks now I’ve been witnessing some of our finest loyalists limping into the Commons covered in bruises inflicted by the hand bags of old constituency biddies casting aspersions on their manhood. One of the MPs told me he’d paid a routine visit to the village of Slurry-under-Wold in his constituency and had to leg it when he saw local red necks ducking him in effigy in the communal cesspit. As readers of this column may well recall I tried to warn Number Ten but would anyone pay heed? Alas, no.
Meanwhile Mr Blair is coining it once more on the American lecture circuit telling anyone who will listen how he tried (in vain) to persuade Mr Cameron to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Special Relationship. The Pro-Life, Nuke Islam Daughters of the American Revolution, Laredo Chapter, paid him a million bucks for fifty minutes of this rubbish.
Me? I shall lick my wounds and bide my time.
FOR MY sins, I now have columns in three local newspapers. I try to spread the load, of course – one week my philosophical musings appear in the flagship Town Bugle, the following week it will be the county paper, the Dorsetshire Contender and thereafter, time permitting, it’s the turn of the West Harbour Lights, a so-called free-sheet which is full of advertisements and smells of anxious money Sometimes, burdened by my many responsibilities at Westminster, I get a little muddled. I have a favourite theme – the importance of air and water. It goes something like this. “Without clear air to breathe and clean water to drink and use, life as we know it would be even less likely to persist than if we were deprived of any number of other ‘key infrastructures.'” Once, to my horror, a new girl in my office in London dispatched the same column through her computer to all three titles in the same week. They all used it.
Fortunately no-one noticed.
Some – though not my many loyal and devoted readers – may regard it as a little undemocratic that I appear to “hog” the local newspapers, to the detriment of my Liberal Democrat opponents and the county’s three Socialists. Speaking as a humble democrat myself I suppose I can see their point. And yet . . . And yet . . . I do somehow feel they are missing the point.
“What on earth can you mean, Mr Letswin?” I hear you expostulate. Let me explain. All the main parties now think alike, so what’s the point of three”rival” columns with identical agendas? We’re all in favour of cracking down on the idle, stuffing what’s left of the unions and going to war with anyone the White House doesn’t like this week. Raise your head above the parapet and you get nothing but grief – as Ed Miliband found out when he went flesh-pressing at the Elephant and Castle and got pelted with eggs by some lower-class brick-brain ranting about bankers.
Anyway, like most sensible constituency MPs, I got the local rags on side five minutes after winning the seat. I like to keep it that way and it’s all to do with what I call the Standing Editorial Conference (Sitting Down) at Brenda’s Greasy Spoon Caff tucked away in South Street in the gracious county capital of Dorchester.
Here, once a month, I am honoured to play discreet host to my most valued and trusted constituency can-do friends, code-named(for security purposes) Tweedle, Dumb and Dee. In real life, they are respectively Head Office Policy Consultants to our three great local newspapers, the Bugle, the Contender and Harbour Lights. Once we’ve been served with Brenda’s Full English (£1.75 a head, Pig Giblets Extra) we get down to the business of the day; viz, a reaffirmation of our amicable working relationship. This is the deal. They don’t publish gritty news stories about me or anyone else; and I never write about politics in my weekly columns. That done – pausing only for Tweedle’s usual visit the Caff’s toilets to throw up – we await Dromgoole’s all-clear sign at the door before sliding ourselves into the anonymous crush of South Street’s legendary throng of buskers, beggars and shop-lifters.
“For goodness sake, Mr Letswin, sir” I hear you say, “What about the cruel realities of life in our gracious county, the food parcel collectors at Waitrose, drug squads kicking doors, drunks kicking shop windows, employers exploiting workers with a Mickey Mouse version of the minimum wage?”
“Calm yourself, my dear sir (or madam),” I asseverate with a kindly smile, ” I can but refer you to one of my most widely-quoted columns which, though modesty forbids, I shall lay before you.” I cannot, of course, claim knowledge of all countries on Earth,” I wrote, “but on the basis of the quite large number of countries in which I have worked in and travelled to I would be willing to guess that Britain is amongst those most prone to focus on bad news about itself. When the economy picks up a bit, there is a considerable inclination to remind ourselves (albeit with some justice) that we still have a long way to go. And this is all part of a national disposition which is in marked contrast to the kind of optimism one finds in the United States.”
See what I mean?
In the circumstances I would urge you to take heart from the town’s robust Bugle, an excellent publication which is positively (and I use the word advisedly) glittering with legends about charitable heroes fun-running in flip-flops up the north face of the Eiger to raise money for some unspeakable disease, fibrillating for fibrosis on bouncy castles, pedalling for phossy-jaw, cartwheeling for chicken pox, humping for hoof and mouth – a veritable Pantheon of heroes, all “unsung”, of course, until tracked down by the paper’s investigative team. Who but the most flinty-hearted could not gaze upon these grinning do-gooding faces and fail to think “This is surely what put the Great in Britain.”
Much as I shrink from the burden of odious comparison I have to say that the Bugle has
always been my favoured local newspaper – the Queen of my ” Three Graces” as I am wont to describe my local organs of the Fourth Estate. It’s edited from its regional head office in Weymouth these days by a very agreeable fellow who always stands by his desk and bows slightly when I make one of my unannounced visits to discuss the upbeat side of my constituency duties. Such a change from that ghastly fellow Tony Bonnici who very briefly occupied the edior’s chair in Bridport three or four years ago. Mr Bonnici had been on the Daily Mirror where he accumulated brief glory by calling John Prescott “Two Shags” – a tribute to Mr Prescott’s virile agility in his government office. I kept my head well down during this Fleet Street Bonaparte’s tenure. His campaigning zeal upset quite a few important people around town, I can tell you. In the end even the journalists started complaining about him because he was altering their copy and – worse – making them go out of the office on stories. Funnily enough, it was another Mirror journalist, one of its London scribblers, who damned near proved to be my Nemesis. He and some creepy photographer lurking in bushes took pictures of me chucking constituents’ letters into a rubbish bin in St James’s Park. A lot of drivel came to be written about that unpleasant little episode. Even the old Bugle didn’t dare ignore the story. They’d ring my office in London for a comment but the girls always told them “Mr Letswin’s in Cabinet” and that would be the end of that. Least said, soonest mended, is my motto for the local Press.
Of course, we must not forget (for I am its occasional star columnist) the freesheet rag Harbour Lights. Like the Bugle, Harbour Lights demonstrates an entirely (and long overdue) respect for the political class, local and national, and its inexhaustible determination to work for the public good, as clearly demonstrated by this photograph.
AS with car crash victims and mad crusties who keep slamming into cliffs aboard their microlight delta-wings, the local titles never mention the names of politicians who might be thought (erroneously) to be up to something not quite in the public interest. In fact they hardly ever mention councillors, or what they’re up to. The official reason – propagated, on my suggestion, by the oleaginous Tweedle in Weymouth – is a fear of libelling an elected representative. True or false, the fact remains that Press seats in council committee rooms haven’t seen a reporter’s bottom for decades. Excellent! We can all get on better with our jobs without the clutter and chatter of nosy hacks.
On the other hand the local press is ever-alert to record events of a positive nature. Take, for instance, the recent television series Broadchurch, some of which was filmed in the vicinity of our famed Jurassic Coast. By my own reckoning, the Bugle has written about it on 1,073 occasions in the last four or five months. My friends who watch television (I have little time for such luxuries!) tell me it was so dreadful they turned it off half-way through the first episode. Unabashed, the Bugle has heralded its slithering down the ratings as the dawn of a tourist boom, with coaches backing up nose-to-tail from here to the New Forest. Their most recent front page headline says it all “Global Boom: tourism boost as world tunes in to Broadchurch.”
Ah, well. Perhaps foreigners are less discerning than your average English holiday maker, who tends, socially and intellectually, to come from a broader church than most. The Bugle interviewed a Japanese tourist recently and she said: “Tokyo and Bridport are very different places, and although the people are different in some ways there are many ways that we are the same.” I feel another column coming on.
MR CAMERON came into Cabinet last week wearing a cloth cap. He also had one of those collarless flannel shirts, with a red kerchief, knotted stevedore-style, round his throat. “Eyup,” the Prime Minster said, slumping into his chair. Master Gove peeped under the table, sniggered, banged his head as he re-emerged, apologised to the table, and passed round a note. It said: “Dave’s got hob-nail boots and string round his trouser knees!!!” Funny how childish Education Secretaries become after a few months in the job.
Some of you will already be ahead of me on this. We had all read the days’ Independent. “Tories launch campaign to shed ‘party of the rich’ image.” One of Downing Street’s slithery pole-greasers (Press Officers to you and me) had planted it there because it’s always printing letters blubbing about the poor. They think that makes it a liberal paper. They give each other high fives and call this kind of initiative “Connecting” and “Joined Up Thinking. ” Truth to tell, they couldn’t connect the dots on a Damien Hirst painting. Nobody listens to me when I tell them the rag’s actually owned by a Russian oligarch who hits people on television. A fine body of can-do men, by and large, I hasten to add. It’s amazing how quickly the smarter Russkies adapted to sensible Western conventions after they’d looted the Motherland – roasted rat for the proles, vaults and vaults of buried roubles in Cyprus for the wise guys. I’ve a lot of time for the Putin Solution for lippy comrades; bang ’em up in an Arctic gulag for fifty years, preferably in down-town Chernobyl. That’ll freeze the lead in their nasty little scribbling pencils.
Naturally, I’d been forewarned about Mr Cameron’s little dress-me-down caper. The Cabinet Secretary let the ferret out of the sack when we met (quite coincidentally, of course) in the gentlemen’s washroom at Number Ten. “PM’s going native again,” he’d murmured, staring at the famously-glowering portrait of Mrs Thatcher that hangs over the vertical urinals. “Leave it to me,” I’d riposted. Within an hour my antennae had worked their usual wonder in the whispering corridors of Westminster. The whole scheme had emanated from Mr Clegg during one of his little tête-a-têtes with Mr Cameron in the Downing Street Rose Garden. Even as he refreshed his friend’s cup of Duchy Darjeeling Mr Clegg had marveled at Mr Cameron’s extraordinary facility for reaching out to people who, through no fault of their own, had gone to council schools. He reminded him of his victorious election campaign, led and inspired by the rapturous reception he had received across the blighted wreckage of Mr Miliband’s heartland housing estates in Glasgow, Tyneside and many other places that spoke a strangled version of English.
By now Mr Cameron had turned quite pink with pleasure and readily agreed with Mr Clegg that an exclusive interview and photo shoot the Deputy PM had arranged with the Mail on Sunday newspaper – with “Dave”appropriately attired as the Common Man, of course – would consolidate the Leader’s reputation as a One Nation Tory. Clap trap of course, as Clegg was only too well aware, even as his wooden spoon stirred the thin gruel of the PM’s credulity. A common touch (like mine) is the gold dust of modern politics but there are limits even with this socially-slaphappy generation of Tweet-addled voters. For heaven’s sake! Does nobody remember Quentin Hogg, Lord Hailsham as was? Tyneside, 1963. Hogg grinning demonically in a swirling, jeering mob of angle-grinders, spigot-twisters and other muscular luminaries of Geordieland’s organised labour force.
The following day found me at Scotts Restaurant in Mayfair facing an urgently-summoned luncheon guest, Brenda Slaughter, a senior features editor at the Mail on Sunday. Simon Walters, the paper’s political editor, once confided to me that Slaughter is known to male colleagues at Northcliffe House as Danger Area. She is what is known in the trade as a SolipSister, one of those lady columnists who write obsessively about themselves, their children, their domestic skivvies and their nannies. Over and above all that, she writes about the uselessness of men. Reading through one such article, an inventive dissertation on the benefits of bionic castration, I’m told that one sub-editor fainted.
My usual reaction to spirited women – as I’m sure Mrs Letswin would confirm – is to lower my profile, tuck down my shoulders and agree with everything they say. This didn’t fool Danger Area, of course. After the wine waiter’s fifth visit she decided to put all my cards on the table. “Come off it, Ollie,” she said, squinting at me over her brimming glass. “This is all about the Prole Cameron piece we’re running. Right? My god, you should see the pictures on the steps of Number Ten, him in his cloth cap and his arm round a road sweeper. Kill it? Not a prayer. Paul Dacre’s rubbing his hands. Says it’s pay back time for Leveson.”
“My dear lady,” I protested. “I can assure you from the very very bottom of my heart that Mr Cameron has no problem with your story. It will confirm his affinity with the very people betrayed and brought low by Mr Blair. Publish and be damned, we say.” I paused long and judiciously. “However, since we’re talking about Leveson . . . .” I then slid into my prepared script. Dromgoole, my personal security man, had personally delivered me his report, marked “Your Eyes Only”, just three hours earlier. It contained some disgusting news about a very senior newspaper executive, attested to in affidavits from Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ and half a dozen working girls of various nationalities. The photographs were particularly deranged. I smiled humbly at Brenda Slaughter. “Nobody likes silly pictures of themselves in the public prints.” I suggested. “Perhaps we could do a swap, before this muck ends up at the Sun. Dave and the Dustman for Mr Newspaper Executive and his exotic friends from Uzbekistan.” Miss Slaughter decided to leave. I do believe she also paid the bill!
Three days later – with no nasties in the MoS – I’ve decided that Mr Clegg and his jape will be allowed to mature in my thickening pay-back file. I am told that he intends to cut and run before the general election and head, as they all do, for the European trough. Those precious one-way tickets require friends in high places. I have a long memory for these things. Meanwhile we’re back to business as usual. The Forty Group, nail-biting Tory holders of the 40 most marginal seats in Parliament, have suggested cracking down on teenage sluts who get themselves pregnant to wangle free housing. They want to cut benefits to parents of truanting children and dilute the rights of workers in small firms. Sound vote-bagging stuff in my view and Mr Cameron is listening, applauding their “valuable contribution” to the Tory policy agenda. Mr Miliband can keep his disinherited rabble. We haven’t seen the cloth cap at Cabinet for a week. What a relief to hear once more the smack of firm government in the Mother of Parliaments.
Oliver Letswin will be back
“With wives, if you please,” the PM said, drawing Cabinet’s latest crisis session firmly to a close. “The great unwashed seem to think Tory MPs don’t have spouses of the opposite sex any more.”
I warned him at the time, of course. “Same-sex marriage doesn’t resonate with my lot in West Dorset, Prime Minister,” I said. “If you read your Bridport News – a brilliant newspaper, finger unerringly on the pulse of rural life – you’d see incontrovertible evidence – week in, week out – that your average Skilling testosterone-packed, drug-stoned male can’t sleep after heaving-up time on Fridays without giving the wife a good hiding.”
“Calm yourself, Ollie,” he had riposted, patting my head,” Lie through your teeth and think of England.” Mr Osborne’s snigger at this cutting reproach still makes my cheeks burn. Sometimes it’s really hard to think we are all the products of Eton.
Mrs Letswin does not “do” public appearances, as you all know. Her lawyer’s diary on this, my first midweek flesh-pressing exercise for years, involved a 5am start at the Treasury, fine-tuning Mr Osborne’s ingenious new initiative – the so-called Burke and Hare Amendment – to rob the graves of the freshly-deceased – followed by a 24-hour charity wine-tasting in the recovery suite of the King Edward’s Hospital for Officers and Gentlemen.
Actually, it was Mrs Letswin, working her way through a bottle of Executive Muscadet at our gracious constituency home in Somerset, who suggested Mrs Hamilton as a suitable consort for the market caper. That would be Christine Hamilton, electro-plated United Kingdom Independent Party candidate for my constituency and partner-to-be (over my dead body) in Mr Cameron’s new Parliamentary coalition, Con-Ukip. Her last little foray into consensus politics – the hi-jacking of my private meeting with farming persons in the Three Horse Shoes, Powerstock (see Column 17) –landed my Election Fighting Fund with a hospitality bill for £576.53, service excluded. Her local ratings went through the roof after her little Shoes orgy; mine couldn’t be found if you scraped out some Dorset sod-buster’s slurry pit.
To top it all her party’s braying head honcho, Nigel Farage, decides to invade Scotland and label half the population as porridge-stuffing “fascists.” Add to that the Village Scribblers – those so-called “political journalists” who slither around Westminster making things up – have decided that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are up for a session between the coalition sheets. Talk about shades of our election triumph three years back! Remember the photo shoots in the Rose Garden at Number Ten? Nick and Dave gazing into each others eyes, trying to ignore that sensitive photographer from the Church Times being sick in a flower pot. Now Mr Has Been and Mr Never Will Be think it’s their turn to play Brokeback Mountain. You think I exaggerate? My dear innocent readers, it’s all there in the public prints. “Ed and Nick – the love that dare not speak its name,” according to some smirking scrawler in the Independent. Small wonder Lord Feldman’s swivel-eyed loons are on the warpath again, locking up their daughters, dragging Euro-loving recidivist perverts off to that castration unit they’ve set up in the porters’ loo in the Commons basement.
BUT I digress, dear reader. Come the day and I reach the East Street market early. To my dismay Mrs Hamilton is already ahead of the game, handing out Ukip stickers, kissing bristly-chinned stall holders, wise-cracking with their wives – quite crudely to judge from their hyena-pitched reaction. Dromgoole, my personal security man, is with me as usual. I explain to Mrs Hamilton (when I can get a word in ) that his role is to monitor the crowd and take care of my modest purchases, paying the stall holders out of his own pocket and entering the amount into his police notebook for settlement with me at a later date. “What fun!” Mrs Hamilton trills, winking at Dromgoole, and I feel an icy hand grip my heart.
Then I am distracted – Old Charlie Cooper, purveyor of pre-cast garden gnomes tells me he is having trouble from neighbours about the blast furnace in his back garden. He wants my help. “If you could see your way, Mr Letswin, sir,” he says, clutching his cloth cap to his chest. I give him the textbook emotional response, face crumpling with concern, and the stock reply. “Leave this to me Charlie.” I reply, hand on his bowed shoulder. “Heaven and earth shall be moved.” He smiles tremulously. “God bless you Mr Letswin, sir, ” he says. We part as friends, each comforted by the rhythm of a simple social ritual defying the cynicism of a cruel and complicated world.
I am developing this little encounter into an incisive aperçu for one of my weekly newspaper columns (I now have three, for my pains) when I become aware of a commotion further along East Street, a swirling of pavement crowds, of shouting, first angry then more fearful. A white cloud burst above the mêlée. A market stall went over with a crash and a woman shrieked. Then I see Dromgoole, pushing Mrs Hamilton ahead of him, trying to reach inside his coat without dropping about twenty bags of shopping. He turns and a vehicle bullets out of the crowd, its wild-eyed white-haired driver flinging smoking missiles hither and thither. Dromgoole’s training took over. Even as he roared “CAR BOMB! INCOMING!” he threw Mrs Hamilton clear into the road and flung himself on top of her to protect her from the blast.
I remember thinking “Dromgoole you brickhead. It’s me you’re supposed to protect” and then the terror vehicle drew silently to a halt against my shins. It was one of those electric invalid buggies and it was driven by a very angry old lady. She’d saved the last flour bomb for me. “Mr Letswin, sir,” she said. delivering it over my unisex Jayroma leisure wear. “I am Mrs Edwina Wiggin, widow of this parish, and you are a scoundrel!”
First things first. Shut this nonsense down. Dromgoole summoned my three local editors (whom I know only as Tweedle, Dumb and Dee)to an emergency Press conference in the Bull Hotel, bought them a drink and then hit them with the Official Secrets Act.
Then we adjourned – three flour-spattered ghosts of the Spirit of Bridport – for the inquest at my gracious bolt-hole in Somerset. Mrs Letswin was in the chair, arm in a sling (unexplained) after her wine-tasting frolics in London. I was made to stand in a corner, on a dust sheet to protect the Wilton. “I’ve talked to George, who talked to David, who’s had a word with Theresa,” she announced. “They’ve all agreed; nothing happened. The PM will see you, 6 am on the dot, at Number Ten on Monday, Letswin.” Creak went her chair as she turned her back on me. Finger pointed at the dusty policeman.
“You’re on, Dromgoole.”
Dromgoole coughed, cleared the Homepride off his notebook and addressed the assembly. “Mrs Wiggin, as we now know, is a widowed lady of reduced circumstances and now under notice to quit her council property due to her inability to meet the additional burden emanating from Mr Osborne’s so-called Spare Bedroom Deficit-Retrieving Penalty,” he intoned. “She read in this morning’s newspapers that Honourable Members of Parliament are planning to award themselves a £20,000 a year pay raise, as a result of which she had what she feels obliged to call ‘a bit of a turn.'”
Dromgoole consulted his notebook again. “I am informed that the Town Council, under pressure from various elements in the community, met in emergency session this morning and agreed to bestow upon the lady the Freedom of Bridport. Plus, a private charity is to be arranged the aim of which is to enable Mrs Wiggin to spend the rest of her days, rent free, in accommodation of her own choice within the borough area. I understand that the Rt Hon Mr Oliver Letswin, MP, has agreed to be honorary president of said charity.”
Creak! Mrs Letswin swivelled towards me. “Let’s see the colour of your cheque book, Letswin,” she said.