Liz Truss caused a run on the pound, her former deputy Therese Coffey has just caused a run on the turnip. History is repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The problem for us is we are in this play, not watching it.
Not since the 1930s has a combination of domestic and international crises called more loudly for strong and competent political leadership. Leadership which we don’t and can’t have under the fifth incarnation of Conservative Government each shorter and more desperate than the last.
Austerity poisoned our economy at its roots, from the NHS to local democracy. Brexit wars destabilised Westminster politics and divided the country. Austerity and Brexit together have given us little chance of competing internationally.
The Johnson bacchanalia introduced corruption into the heart of government, only to be topped by Truss’ short but devastating rule of anarchy.
Optimists point to Sunak as a respite from the chaos but that ignores two unsolvable problems. Firstly, Sunak himself is weak and inexperienced. To get anywhere with the Northern Ireland Protocol he needs the permission of the DUP and the ERG. The country is being run by mavericks and right-wing outliers.
Secondly, the tools at his disposal are all broken. He is forced back on the same inadequate and unscrupulous people who brought down May, sustained Johnson and then trashed him for Truss.
People like Williamson and Raab who cannot behave decently. Like Zahawi and Sharp, the BBC chairman, who don’t follow the rules but expect others to. And a whole cast of ‘characters’, unfit for public office, but put there to divert press attention from the real crises. Dorries is gone but Anderson and Coffey are merrily waving their pig’s bladders on sticks.
This is a government in office but not in power, to quote a former Conservative chancellor of another collapsing Conservative government. Every major decision is being kicked forward for the next government to solve from new hospitals and the collapsing justice system to balancing the books.
All failing governments tend to hang on in the hope that something will turn up. It rarely does. But this show has been played out not in one but five acts. Even the most tragic opera has its finale. Nothing is gained by waiting another 18 months. It would be better to bring the curtain down now.
An alternative future
I make an effort to meet everyone I can locally. Each weekend I knock on doors to listen to residents’ concerns. I go to local schools to speak and answer questions. I hold surgeries to try and help with serious problems on housing, immigration or the cost of living. I speak to teachers and NHS staff about the collapse in both their living standards and their working conditions. I visit businesses from family firms to multinationals to hear how they have coped with Covid and the crash.
There is a common theme across disparate audiences. People want competent and effective government. They are not asking for miracles they just want an economic and social climate in which all have the opportunity to achieve their ambitions and live a decent life. This used to be the function of government. Instead, we have the prospect of energy bills rising next month from an average of £2,100 a year to £3,000 if support is withdrawn. This is not sustainable for many local families.
I am inspired by the quality of teaching and learning in our schools, by the dedication and skills of workers in our hospitals and by the entrepreneurship of business. This week I visited IKEA to celebrate a year of the Livat Mall that has revived central Hammersmith. Last month I met the new President of Imperial College, Professor Hugh Brady, to see how the White City campus is becoming a world leader in bioscience. There is so much opportunity for regeneration, employment and growth locally, which the Council’s industrial strategy is driving, that I am optimistic about the future, so long as we have the right people in government.
A Labour government is the only alternative to the current chaos at Westminster, and that is why so much responsibility rests on Keir Starmer and his team. Having known him for over 30 years I can say he does have the skills and stamina to put the country on track. When he talked about Missions last week that was his way of saying that he understood the core issues facing the country but also warning that there would not be quick fixes. Sobeit – it is about time politicians started telling the public the truth.
A dangerous world
The anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a time to reflect on the extreme suffering of the Ukrainian people and their great courage, on the way much of the world has resolved to stand up to Putin’s regime and on how dangerous that world looks even from the comparative safety of the UK.
It is a time to renew our commitment to international alliances, the EU and the UN as well as NATO, to speak up for democracy and the rule of law and to ensure the effectiveness of our armed forces.
Both Russia and China, alongside committing their own human rights atrocities, are busy spreading disinformation and undermining democracy around the world. The terrible tragedy of the earthquake in Turkey but particularly Syria was made worse because aid could not reach those trapped through territory held by Assad and his Russian backers. The Iranian regime is also propped up by Putin which has given them licence brutally to suppress protest.
Lest these conflicts seem far away, last month a local family was caught up in the politics of Iran with terrible consequences. Alireza Akbari was a British Citizen who was lured back to Iran from where he had fled, imprisoned, tortured and last month executed. His family both in Iran and here were even misled as to whether he was alive or dead and what had happened to his body. If anyone needs persuading about the obscenity of the regime in Tehran read about the Akbari family.
UK diplomacy used to be one of the country’s strengths, but our government fails us abroad as well as at home. I raised Alireza’s case at Prime Minister’s Questions and tried repeatedly to get the Foreign Office to intervene, to save his life or to return is body to the family. For over a year there was little if any response.
As Shadow Solicitor General I have repeatedly raised the issue of war crimes in Ukraine. I am pleased the government has done a u-turn on this and now appears to support a special tribunal which could try Putin and his circle for the crime of aggression. But there is little movement either on the seizure of Russian assets or preventing Oligarchs and Putin supporters using UK courts and lawyers to silence their opponents.
It was a privilege to stand in Westminster Hall earlier this month to listen to president Zelensky speak to MPs and Peers but, as he eloquently said, it is actions not words that will determine the outcome of the war.
There should be common ground across politics on standing up to tyrants and to regimes that transgress human rights and oppress their people, but to have moral authority we have to practice what we preach.
The attempts by UK politicians like Raab and Braverman to repeal the Human Rights Act, leave the European Convention, vilify refugees and cosy up to regimes as unpleasant as Iran – like Saudi and other Gulf states – weakens that authority. So does our turning a blind eye to the violent oppression and occupation in Palestine by the far-right Israeli government, while condemning occupation of Crimea and the Donbass.
We used to lead in the world on rule of law issues, on overseas aid and on building alliances to defend minorities and welcome refugees. That reputation is trashed. It will take a new internationalist government to rebuild it.
In early January our local NHS hospitals were full. We have far fewer beds for our population compared with other developed countries so it doesn’t take much of a surge to reach capacity – and with 10% filled with Covid or flu patients that was quickly the case. Once again we survived the crisis but I shudder to think what would have happened if Conservative plans to demolish Charing Cross and its 360 beds had gone ahead.
Our local NHS is performing comparatively well – though only by current reduced standards. CXH has the best ambulance handover times in London, almost reaching its target of 95% within 30 minutes last week. Imperial is hoping to beat the national target of eliminating 18 month waits for surgery by July and, thanks in part to H&F being the only local authority to offer free home care, discharges from hospital are speedier here than in most places. We have a new orthopaedic surgery centre opening at Central Middlesex Hospital later this year, though we are losing mental health beds at a time when demand is growing.
We owe a great debt to the resilience of NHS staff, but for how long can the NHS run ‘hot’? Pay, recruitment and workforce shortages are major problems, but so are the conditions for staff. That is why the failure to deliver the ‘new’ hospitals programme is so damaging. Charing Cross and Hammersmith are both in the programme, but no work is expected to start for at least two years. New and refurbished buildings would not only help recruitment and retention of staff but make the whole system more efficient and effective. Running a 21st century health service from 19th century buildings is no longer an option.
Justice & Policing
There is a crisis in policing, especially in the Met, and many people have lost confidence not just in law enforcement but the whole justice system. I hope the new commissioner, Mark Rowley, will be able to restore confidence and I will continue to work closely with the local police under the newly- appointed commander for West Central, Louise Puddefoot.
I am getting increasing reports of anti-social behaviour and open drug dealing locally. The Law Enforcement Team – 72 council-funded officers – are making a very positive contribution to public safety but we do need more beat officers which is why I support Labour’s proposal for 13,000 more neighbourhood police.
I have worked in or with the justice system for 30 years and as with other public services it is in a very poor condition. From policing and the courts to prison and probation we need not just punishment and protection but rehabilitation and prevention to keep communities safe. This is an issue I return to time and again in Parliament but the Conservatives, once called the party of law and order, has completely lost its way. We live in a far more dangerous society – for women and children and vulnerable people in particular – than has been or needs to be the case.
The fetish for very tall buildings is continuing in west London so it was a limited but welcome win to get the government to acknowledge the need for a second staircase in residential blocks over ten storeys. The 55-storey block in North Acton we can most of us see daily on the skyline shockingly has a single staircase, three others proposed to go alongside it will have to comply to new regs, but even so.
It is a David and Goliath battle between councils and developers (with the government often weighing in on the developer side) to try and to preserve the scale and amenity of H&F while also creating buildings that are useful – affordable homes, places to work, learn and relax.
The argument with Thames Water continues in the wake of the 2021 flood. Having refused to build bigger sewers they are now quibbling about remedial works to individual properties, something I raised last week in Parliament. Sarah Bentley, Thames’ CEO, was paid £2 million last year including bonuses. That would have paid for a lot of flood prevention devices for Brackenbury Village, Askew Road and Hammersmith Grove.
Neither the Post Office nor Royal Mail has thrived since they split from each other a decade ago. We still have no post office in either town centre and several branches are ‘temporarily’ closed. Royal Mail are looking at axing Saturday post, though for many people a daily delivery is a theoretical event already. Then just before Christmas a rumour began to circulate that the parcel offices, like those in Askew Road and Vencourt Place, were about to close.
Royal Mail was reviewing its whole network on the false basis that people prefer to rearrange delivery than pick up mail and parcels from the local office. I think we have won this argument at least for the time being but I suspect opening hours are about to be cut.
Work is progressing on strengthening the Bridge as are the plans for the major rebuild but this is all fruitless unless the government comes up with its share of the money. Endlessly frustrating. Eventually it will be resolved but by then we will have had years of unnecessary diversion and delay.
I went to the launch of a brilliant new season at Lyric Hammersmith last week. While I was relieved to see the Lyric and the Bush didn’t get their grants cut by the Arts Council many London venues did including ENO which lost all its continuing grant. This is pure Luddism under the guise of spreading funding beyond the Capital. But few arts orgs do more to improve access than ENO and I took part in several Commons debates objecting to another piece of cultural vandalism.
Know your boundaries
I suddenly got a raft of irritated emails from constituents in West Kensington and north Fulham this month asking if it were true I would no longer be their MP. It turned out the MP for south Fulham and Chelsea, Greg Hands, had written to them all saying it is almost certain that these areas ‘will be added to my current constituency’.
As I have mentioned before there is a boundary review going on which ‘could’ change the constituency boundaries for the next General Election. ‘Could’ because the Boundary Commission has to finalise its proposals, then the government has to legislate for them and finally there has to be a General Election, probably in spring or autumn 2024.
The proposal would see the current Hammersmith seat lose West Ken and Fulham Reach in the south and College Park & Old Oak and Wormholt in the north. It will gain the whole of Chiswick as far as Kew Bridge and indeed be renamed Hammersmith & Chiswick.
I am looking forward to standing for the new seat but sorry to lose areas some of which I have represented for more than 30 years. In the meantime, I will continue to represent everyone in the current Hammersmith constituency to the best of my ability, and I suggest Mr Hands does the same in his.
I guess he needs to begin his campaigning early. Labour is currently selecting their candidate for Chelsea & Fulham and are predicted to win the seat.
Just time for some recent local events and good causes.
The Refugee Walk came through Hammersmith on the way to Wetlands and I was delighted to join refugees and their supporters objecting to indefinite detention of refugees.
I visited lots of schools. Talks on politics to St Paul’s Girls, Sacred Heart and Godolphin & Latymer. Trying to help ARK Swift get a new zebra crossing. Miles Coverdale, BDA, Wendell Park and H&F College for Parliament Week. And a special mention for Jenny Griffiths, Librarian at Ravenscourt Park Prep School who is School Librarian of the Year.
Very sorry to hear of the passing of a true gentleman, George Cohen, Fulham and England, and one of the last of the 1966 world cup squad. In 2016 he was given the Freedom of the Borough. George would have loved this season at Craven Cottage.
A few events coming up:
The Addison Singers with their new MD, Matthew Thomas Morgan, are holding a concert, ‘Reflections on Life’, on Saturday 25th March with both the Chamber and Oratorio Choirs tackling a wide range of British repertoire. Tickets can be found here.
Mayor’s Question Time. Sadiq is just up the road in Ealing Broadway on Thursday if you wish to question him. His announcement of free school meals for every primary school child in London last week builds on H&F’s own ground-breaking record.
Consultation on the Earl’s Court development is now open with webinar and public meeting to follow later this month.
Please continue to support our local charities especially those which are helping people through very difficult times. I have also heard from a number of families with relatives trapped in Turkey and Syria by the terrible earthquake. The best way to donate to this is via the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
Finally, I have been asked by the Listening Place to put out an appeal for volunteers. This London-wide charity provides free, face-to-face, ongoing support, by appointment, for those who feel that life is no longer worth living. It opened its latest office in Hammersmith last year and is keen to recruit and train volunteers from the local community. I visited recently and met a professional and compassionate team of people. Contact them at https://www.listeningplace.org.uk/.