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WINTER’S TALE
- A wedding anniversary breaks the monotony of British politics

I failed to write “Westminster Gleanings” last month due to a mysterious fever that laid me very low for a week or two. I do not, as a rule, spend too much time thinking about health, but this month has been punctuated by an operation for a replacement ankle joint that seems to be healing a good deal quicker than last month’s bug. The national health service has long been the pride of this country and has been so perceived by the rest of the world, but it is now beset with problems. A rise in life expectancy and, therefore, in an ageing population, and the regulations that force doctors to keep people alive at all costs are eating into resources and the doctors’ time. Their ability to prescribe medicines are now so regulated that they seem to have lost their sense of duty or care.

It took a trip to a private doctor in London for me to get a blood test and the antibiotics I needed to recover from whatever fever I had. And this despite the fact that I had been travelling and could, in theory, have been carrying something infectious to others. The local doctor offered me nose drops. Well, alright for me, I was able to go elsewhere but not so good for a neighbour, a boy whose hand was badly cut in an accident and who was turned away from the local surgery, where a quick stitch or two and a dressing would have solved the problem. He was not allowed a plaster to staunch the blood in case he might be allergic to it, and he was forced to sit for an hour or more in the relatively distant big hospital to get the stitch and the dressing at a far higher cost.

Our nearby small-injuries unit was closed two weeks earlier in a cost-cutting exercise and commonsense seems to have gone out of the window, too. Waiting lists for operations have fallen somewhat but private care, out of reach for many, is still way ahead in terms of timing and care. Not surprising that those without the medical insurance (which I was lucky enough to have to enable my ankle operation) are flocking to India and other countries where there are first class doctors, reasonable fees and a continuing understanding of care at the sort of level I have received here in a private hospital for the last week. I expect, on current progress, to be dancing by Christmas, but I have just heard from a friend needing a similar operation that hers, on the NHS, has once again been put off for a further two months due to waiting-list numbers.

Gloom over the NHS is nothing new but winter gloom seems to have pervaded all areas of government and Gordon Brown has none of the lightness of touch or the charm that Tony Blair was able to turn on against all odds to lighten even his darkest moments. Brown’s apparent lack of support for his ministers continues as Chancellor Alistair Darling is once again thrown to parliamentary and press wolves as the Northern Rock debacle rumbles on. Each and every taxpayer in the country sees his or her money being used to support the failure of the bank and the guarantees to its investors given in September. The chancellor was in the firing line again yesterday in the House of Commons over the loss of 2 CDs containing details of 7.25 million families who claim child benefit. Given the prevalence and fear of identity theft, it does seem quite staggering that CDs containing such data should be sent through the increasingly unreliable postal service, with its ongoing strikes and losses. Further, almost unbelievable, losses have come to light, such as the recent theft of a laptop containing additional data on large numbers of individuals from the backseat of a car. You really do question the brain power of the people in charge of our lives, and now they want to hold personal data on us all in a national register for ID cards. I really hope not.

The prime minister is reported to have fallen out too with his youthful foreign secretary, the undoubtedly academically brilliant David Milliband, and there have been slip-ups as Downing Street has publicly interfered with speeches and statements by other ministers that could perhaps have been better and more quietly handled. It is easy to believe that Brown is a control freak who sees Milliband as relatively untried and perhaps there, too, is a clash between two intellectual heavyweights. But, presumably, the high office of the foreign secretary must carry a certain level of autonomy, responsibility and regular information to which the prime minister cannot always be party. It seems extraordinary that a person entrusted with such a job should not be allowed, to some extent, to plough his own furrow. There is a distinct feeling that Brown is insecure unless he holds all the reins in his hands and is fearful of any individual initiative by his ministers. A dictatorial 10 Downing Street is nothing new — during this Labour government and even before that — but Margaret Thatcher’s ministers and backbench MPs rebelled eventually. And Brown, even less than her, has none of the ability or the desire of his immediate predecessor to pour the oil of easy charm and a glib tongue on troubled waters. He is handicapped further by his appointment, rather than election, to the office of prime minister and his perceived wimping out of a general election this autumn. Combined with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Blair for the new leadership so far, this may all be coming precipitously back to haunt Brown as his personal ratings continue to fall.

What of the Opposition' The Conservatives, beyond Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, who has been scoring easy hits on his opposite number this week, have not been overly vociferous. Osborne is becoming a skilful parliamentary performer and whilst I am not necessarily a fan of his politics, there is a certain pleasure to be found in watching someone who appears to be modelling himself on politicians of a different era when parliamentary performance was one of the lynchpins of this country’s governance. In general though, the Opposition seems to be engaged more in cheap point-scoring than in providing viable alternative policy plans. It has certainly been easy of late. Even the acting leader of the rather sad-looking Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, has had his parliamentary moment in the sun over disastrous government mistakes and, O dear! the LibDems need all the sunshine they can get as they appear in danger of imploding completely.

Ming Campbell finally gave up the unequal struggle of proving that he was a young enough man for the task of leadership, and who can blame him' Carpet slippers and a little light gardening must have seemed increasingly desirable as he dodged the flak from his own party as well as the press. The effect of yet another change and the public disagreements between the two candidates in the leadership election — Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg — both equally grey and anonymous outside their immediate circles, has reduced the Liberal Democrat Party to a near irrelevance. Ballot papers should have gone to party members today and the results will be announced on December 17 to a resounding silence in the country, where neither Clegg nor Huhne would be recognized in a crowd. It is very depressing to look backwards, in all three parties, to leaders who actually have had the charisma to encourage really fervent support, whether ultimately for good or for ill. Charles Kennedy may have had a serious drink problem but we all knew who he was and he had a dose of character thrown in that has been singularly lacking in his successors. I must admit that I could not care less who wins this leadership and I very much doubt it will make any difference to anything or anyone. Even the closest supporters of one or other candidate are fairly secure of retaining any posts they might already have, given the extreme lack of available talent in the parliamentary party. Many of us have voted Liberal Democrat in the past as a protest vote while in despair over a current government and opposition but I doubt that will be the case in the next election, whenever it is. That is unless one of the potential leaders turns out to be a lot more than the sum of his parts.

It is really all rather dull and we have to hope a bit of Christmas sparkle somehow gets into the souls of a very dreary Westminster during the next month. Not surprising that the diamond wedding anniversary of the Queen and Prince Philip seems to have been greeted this week with so much fanfare and delight. Whatever the faults of the royal family, this monarch does continue to retain a remarkable loyalty in the country as she continues to fulfil her role with the dignity she has somehow maintained for nearly 60 years. She certainly seems worth a celebration.

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