While I don’t claim to have any particular insight into the minds of Conservative MPs, I did, at the start of the Tory leadership election, predict the outcome of the final MP ballot to within a handful of votes.
But I failed to place a bet on Truss (then 11/2) as the ultimate winner, even though against Sunak she looks nailed on, barring some extreme disruptor event. Still, if wishes were horses. I think the actual cost to the country of PM Truss may be greater than my lost opportunity with Betfair.
I am delighted and relieved that Boris Johnson will no longer be Prime Minister as of 6 September. No one in my lifetime has held that post with less dignity or honesty. It is worrying that he clings on in Downing Street now and openly talks of betrayal and comeback. But I hope the Conservatives are released from his spell and reject his increasingly Trumpian discourse. He covered up for sexual predators, broke the rules he set for us, betrayed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and consorted with a former agent of a hostile foreign power. He should never be allowed back into government.
It is understandable that Tory MPs picked two candidates with experience of senior Cabinet positions to go to their membership. But then why not Jeremy Hunt? The answer is that the radical right (Mogg, Dorries, Baker), if not in total control of the Party, makes all the weather, as they have since 2010, with Brexit their finest hour. Hunt, and now Sunak, are ‘socialists’ in their minds.
Truss, ex-Lib Dem, ex-Remainer, is not from that stable but, like Johnson, she will adopt the rightist agenda as her Faustian pact. Rishi is labelled a ‘continuity’ candidate because he has implemented Johnson’s economic policies for the past three years – and indeed he will lose in part because he is albatrossed by that legacy of failure. But in truth it is Truss who is the continuity candidate. She has done the deal with the devil to become PM. She must implement policies that are not only dangerous but which she has no coherent belief in putting forward.
She will repeat Johnson’s errors – the political ones at least – and lacking his ‘greased piglet’ talents may find herself boxed in both domestically and internationally. There are troubled times ahead.
Truss’s vacuous mantra is to reject ‘business as usual’. This leads her to point to the crisis in the NHS and the fact that millions or working families can’t afford to shop or shower and, rather than wonder who has been running the country for the past 12 years, call for public spending cuts to reduce the size of the state and hand out tax cuts that benefit the better off most.
It’s very easy to talk political nonsense about smashing up the orthodoxies of economic policy when you don’t worry about how your fellow citizens can afford their energy bills, to buy petrol or school uniforms.
I’m quite a supporter of the doing things the traditional way – when governments did their best to ensure the security and prosperity of the country and worried about how crises (like Covid, Brexit and the cost of living) were hitting those least protected.
We should have a General Election. I know we have had three in the past seven years but that’s also the Tories’ fault. I think the country is ready to elect a Labour government again and I know Keir Starmer has both the policies and the team to get the country back on track.
Running out of gas
Most governments – Callaghan in 1979, Major in 1997 – reach the point when the tank is empty. This one has. Unfortunately, they have emptied our bank accounts at the same time. With average energy bills as high as £3,600 next year, fuel at around £2 a litre and prices rising every week thanks to inflation in double figures, this is a serious economic crisis. It will be a question of can’t pay rather than won’t pay for many families this winter, and I see no policies from Truss or Sunak that will address the scale of the problem.
All parts of civil society are gearing up to deal with the crisis. The council here is trying to help with essentials like school breakfasts and lunches. Businesses are supporting charities to supply food and household goods. Local charities are running advice services and help with basic needs. (Local Councillor, Rowan Ree, is running a half marathon to raise funds for the Upper Room, which I’m patron of. If you can, why not sponsor him here.)
But, as with Covid, only central government has the powers and the resources equal to the task. And they appear distracted if not unconcerned.
It is possible to forget the suffering of Ukrainians when we have immediate crises at home, but we can’t afford to. Our current economic woes are in part a result of Russia’s invasion and the Ukrainian people and armed forces are also fighting our battle.
I hope this is an issue which can unite all politicians in the UK and across the free world. Ukraine has shown incredible resilience. The least we can do is provide adequate defensive weapons, economic support and refuge for those forced to flee.
I recently attended the new Quaker Meting House in Hammersmith which is given over one day a week for services for Ukrainian refugees. My office is dealing with many cases where the system isn’t working, especially where the Home Office fails to issue visas to family members, something I’ve raised repeatedly in Parliament and with ministers.
But as I was reminded attending the Refugee Week celebration organised by West London Welcome there are many thousands of refugees in the UK from war-torn countries around the world who are being let down. Not least Afghan families still in cramped hotel rooms a year after fleeing the Taliban. Today the Government tried to pass the buck to councils to house them, as if they had any spare stock.
It saddens me that both Tory leadership candidates approve of or would go further than the disgusting Rwanda deportation scheme, not only a breach of our international obligations but looking increasingly unsafe as Rwanda’s own human rights record is called into question.
Fire, flood and blackouts
On 14 June I walked in silence with thousands of people through North Kensington to mark the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell fire. We still do not have the conclusions of the Inquiry, let alone any prosecutions. On the contrary we are finding new scandals and problems to tackle and ministers are failing to remedy those we already know about. I spoke at length on these issues in the anniversary debate.
Unsafe cladding remains a problem, as do the faults in construction and maintenance that allow fire to spread. New fire hazards are being found, like the lithium batteries used to power electric bikes that caused two serious fires in Shepherds Bush this summer.
New tall and very tall building are being put through planning with a single staircase despite the concerns of the London Fire Brigade. I was pleased to learn this week that the new towers planned for the Westfield site in White City have come down in height and will have a second staircase – they will still be up to 35 storeys, but in neighbouring Acton there are plans for 55-storey towers with a single escape stair.
London Fire wants retrofitting of sprinklers in buildings over 11 metres and in schools and care homes, but there is no sign of this happening. The government has ruled out Personal escape plans for vulnerable residents because they cost too much. So, it is good to see LBHF taking the lead on implementing these locally.
Meanwhile, the independent inquiry set up by Thames Water into last summer’s floods published its final report last week. To no one’s surprise it found that this was nobody’s fault except the weather’s, which holds out the prospect that it could all happen again. This really won’t do. I recently inspected the soon to open Super Sewer. It’s an impressive project and will largely relieve the Thames from the disgusting sometimes daily occurrence of raw sewage being pumped out under Hammersmith Bridge and from numerous other outflows. But it will do little to stop sewer or surface water flooding houses and flats in Hammersmith.
The scheme that was supposed to stop this – Counter’s Creek – was cancelled as superfluous. Last summer proved how wrong that was. Now we have to negotiate not only with Thames but DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Ofwat just to get sufficient remediation to prevent it happening again.
Perhaps realising their position is unsustainable, Thames have started installing pumps to the most vulnerable homes, but this is at best a partial solution.
Unlike the Fire Brigade, Thames Water is a statutory consultee for major planning applications, but TW have no power to prevent permissions being granted and, given the volume of development locally, there are concerns that the water and sewage system are becoming overloaded. A large new development on Old Oak Common Lane has suffered flooding and loss of supply, perhaps because it is so close to the HS2 works. Narrow Victorian sewers are being asked to accommodate modern levels of effluent.
The latest overload is not water but electricity. The growth of high power-consuming data centres in the M4 corridor is being blamed for a shortage of electrical supply in west London, mainly affecting Hounslow and Ealing at present but creeping into the north-west of H&F. This, the Greater London Authority has warned, could shut down significant development activity until extra supply is sourced.
No one wants to see a freeze on much-needed housing, but it would be ironic if high-rise developers having skated over warnings on fire safety and water use are stymied by a lack of electricity for building their towers.
Imperial’s White City Innovation District goes from strength to strength and is a mainstay of the borough’s Industrial Strategy. The council is building hundreds of affordable homes every year and, though not sufficient to address the housing crisis without the return of social housing grant which the Tories abolished in 2010, it is a turnaround from the years they were in power locally. Then the ask for affordable homes was dropped to 5% and in some cases nil. Actually, less than nil as vacant council properties were sold off rather than relet. Now between a third and a half of new developments are affordable.
Hammersmith town centre is looking increasingly on the up – with a plan to redevelop the 90 year-old M&S site the latest venture. Shepherds Bush is also reviving, but I hope in addition to the new cycle lane along the north side of the Green we can try and make this a bus/pedestrian area, locking the Green into the local area.
The other Opportunity Areas – Old Oak and West Ken/Earl’s Court – remain works in progress a decade on. There are concerns that HS2 may not deliver the connectivity needed for Old Oak and that Earl’s Court is angling for very tall buildings to make its scheme pay.
Aside from political agendas, the big problem we have with planning is bodged fixes for short-term profits. H&F is largely a construct of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, plus post-war estates, and this townscape works. I don’t see the same sense of human scale or community in the current developments even though their prices are way beyond the average renter or buyer.
- Bus cuts. You have until 7 August to make your views felt on the proposals to lose a number of historic bus services from the borough and see the timetables for others cut. We are blessed with a good bus network locally compared with many parts of the country. But we need it and use it and the last thing we want is more people using cars or not able to travel. The 72 will be the main loss for Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush if this goes through, so if nothing else respond to the consultation and sign the petition to save the 72 and N72.
- I’m afraid buses have become another political pawn of our Johnsonite Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. TfL still needs government funds post-Covid but he withholds these in an attempt to make the Mayor of London look bad. Meanwhile, people just need to get the bus.
- Another of Mr Shapps’ party pieces is Hammersmith Bridge. The west London MPs held our latest Commons debate on the lack of progress recently. Actually, there is some progress. LBHF has gone ahead with the stabilisation work that means there should be no more emergency closures to foot/ cycle traffic and is trying to source both a cheaper option for the rebuilding and a scheme for paying for it (namely, a toll) but has little or no help from Department for Transport. We are still years away from a full reopening.
- ‘New’ hospitals. My last-ever question to Boris Johnson at PMQs asked him what has happened to the money for the one or two centuries-old ‘new’ hospitals at Hammersmith and Charing Cross. Who knows whether the new PM will be committed to the flaky 40 new hospitals programme at all? It is exactly 10 years since the closure of Charing Cross was announced, so we had an anniversary party for H&F Save our NHS to celebrate that it is still there.
- Charing Cross is one of the best performers for getting patients out of ambulances into beds, but A&E waits are long, Covid is still filling beds and we are not immune from the delays and staff shortages afflicting the NHS. There are still thousands of patients waiting a year or more for operations and concerns were raised by a recent Panorama programme about the level of care offered by US-owned Operose which operates GP surgeries across London including here.
- Shadow of prison walls. The Ministry of Justice wants to build a probation hostel for the most serious offenders outside the main gate to HMP Wormwood Scrubs. This has never been done before – for good reason. Probation is supposed to be about rehabilitation, unlikely to be helped by the looming gates of the Scrubs. A security report identified opportunities to harass staff and visitors, see over the walls and even fly drones into the prison. I believe in prison reform, but this is not that.
- Anti-social behaviour. Operational police numbers are still right down and community teams depleted. I am concerned that especially at this time of year that leads to noisy park, street and house parties that go on all night. Difficult to close down without escalation but hugely unfair on neighbours. The answer is to patrol hotspots and intervene (dispersing partygoers and confiscating sound systems) before it gets out of hand.
- It has been good to be back in schools post-Covid. Whether it is being grilled by the West London Free School sixth form or the Phoenix School Council, at the Hammersmith Academy and IntoUniversity 10th anniversary celebrations, or at Miles Coverdale’s amazing farewell show for Director of Education Jan Parnell. Nothing is a better antidote to the problems we face than the optimism of local children, many of whom are growing up in great need and stress, and the dedication of their teachers.
For anyone interested in what concerns me when I speak in Parliament it is all here. In addition to constituency issues, a lot is connected to my work on the front bench as Shadow Solicitor General, for example on the Bill of Rights (aka ‘Rights Restriction Bill’), questioning the Attorney General, or on fraud and economic crime.
Hellos and Goodbyes
Big changes at the town hall in May with new wards, and a lot of new councillors. It was Labour’s best result for a generation. We have a great combination of experienced and new councillors. Steve Cowan and Ben Coleman are a formidable leadership team. Special mention to Emma Apthorp thrown in at the deep end as Mayor aged 22 after two weeks and already widely praised.
We have said goodbye to a few good friends this summer. Linda Shampan, a leading light of so many progressive organisations, sadly died. Her funeral was attended by the many people she had helped as a nurse and psychotherapist and worked with in refugee and peace groups. Daphine Aikens stepped down from H&F Foodbank, which she founded, after 12 years as CEO. Jan Parnell retired as LBHF’s inspirational director of education. The much-loved Rev Lesley Bilinda retired as vicar of St Andrew’s Fulham Fields and Bishop Graham left the Kensington Diocese for a post at Lambeth Palace. His ministry, in particular his work with Grenfell survivors, has been outstanding. Simone McGlynn stepped down as the so-much-more-than receptionist at H&F Law Centre after 14 years. I am proud to say I attended the leaving dos, parties and shows for all the above.
On which subject, the biggest party of the year was the Jubilee. At great personal cost I managed to attend 16 street parties on one day. And they say MPs don’t know the meaning of work.
Wishing you a good summer, which now means not too hot as well as not too cold.