Scared rabbits in charge of Government

OVER the years, I've listened to many desperate politicians but this week of u-turns and re-launches was the Westminster equivalent of frightened rabbits caught in the glare of headlights.

Graham Dines

OVER the years, I've listened to many desperate politicians but this week of u-turns and re-launches was the Westminster equivalent of frightened rabbits caught in the glare of headlights.

First there was the 10p tax change, which has resulted in the Treasury having to borrow £2.7billion to clear up the mess created by Gordon Brown when he didn't realise - and if his advisers did they either didn't tell him or he ignored them - that millions of low paid workers would be clobbered.

The Prime Minister was barely audible on Tuesday when he conceded his mistake and it was left to Alastair Darling - rapidly turning into a Cabinet minister who is not running his department but has been turned into a cipher by his fellow Scot - to announce the panic rebate to 24million Brits.

It's an absolute admission of failure when you have to proclaim a re-launch of your policies and image. In 1962, Harold Macmillan purged six members of his cabinet in an almost unprecedented cull which became known as the night of the long knives as he tried to regain the initiative after the Profumo scandal.

But when you've been Prime Minister for less than a year, it's a simple recognition of failure.

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As relaunches go, Wednesday's Commons statement was pretty low key. Delivered in his hallmark gabble, Mr Brown set out a package of new Bills intended to get more people into work, Tougher tests for immigrants to receive British citizenship, yet another NHS reform measure, measures to help the low paid to save, a Marine Bill to protect the UK's seas and shores, and a White Paper on House of Lords reform, party funding and a Bill of Rights were also foreshadowed,

This advance insight into the Queen's speech - which is due sometime in November - took second place to the Prime Minister having to reassure the country for the second time in 24 hours he could steer us through the current global economic problems despite the debacle over the 10p tax rate.

The past week has seen the worst set of economic figures since Labour came to power in 1997. “Our immediate priority - at a time when food and fuel bills are rising and mortgages more difficult to obtain - is to help family finances,” he told MPs. If that's the case, why does he intend to soak the poorest in the community by inflicting huge increases next year in vehicle excise duty for older cars?

He promised a £200m fund to buy unsold new homes and rent them to social tenants or make them available on a shared ownership basis. An additional £100m would be also made available to shared equity schemes to help more first-time buyers to purchase newly-built homes on the open market.

Few could argue with that. Nevertheless, food, petrol, and heating costs are soaring; house prices are plunging; unemployment rising. It may not yet be classified as a recession, but that can't be far off.

So what is the Prime Minister's stock message to the public? It's to revive memories of hard economic times when the Conservatives were last in power.

But voters' concerns are with the present, not the past. They don't a history lesson cataloguing the ills of times gone by. They want action this day, to quote Winston Churchill, to help families feed and clothe their children.

At the same time as the preview of the Queen's speech, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, was warning of a “bumpy road” ahead for the economy, and official government figures showed the rate of consumer inflation reached its highest level. The fates were against the UK; there would be a noticeable impact on the economy.

David Cameron was withering. The Government's proposals were “just another attempt to save the Prime Minister's skin. People can see a government, not just a prime minister, that has run out of road, run out of money, run out of ideas.”

The damage done to the reputation of the Government over the 10p debacle is recoverable. Its policies have taken 600,000 children and £1million pensioners out of poverty but this has been overlooked in the maelstrom caused by the 10p abolition.

With its thoughts turned towards the 70,000-plus electors in Crewe & Nantwich, who go to the polls next week in a by-election which will be as big as test for David Cameron as it will for Gordon Brown, the Government is finding it hard to give the impression that it is on top of things.

The meltdown in Labour's vote in May 1's council and London elections is still reverberating through Westminster and Whitehall. In the few towns where Labour had successes, all is not what it seems.

In Reading, Labour won control from the Tories. But following a row over leadership of the Labour group, enough of its councillors have defected to put the Conservatives back in joint control with one local group of independents.

In the Ipswich parliamentary constituency, where the Tories lost two council seats to Labour, the party still won more votes than Labour. If a General Election had been held on the same day, the Tories' Ben Gummer would have defeated Labour MP Chris Mole.

The Prime Minister hopes the draft Queen's Speech will enable him to draw a line under the 10p tax row and give an impression that the Government still has momentum. But it is the economy - particularly the state of the increasingly fragile housing market - on which Mr Brown will be judged by the voters, not ambitious plans for yet more legislation.

MALE SUCCESSION LAW `OFFENSIVE' - MCKINLAY

AN Essex MP has branded as “offensive” the law which requires the daughters of the monarch to give way to their younger brothers in the line of succession.

Labour's Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) demanded a change in the law over the issue of male primogeniture and called for the head of state to be able to be of “any religion or no religion.”

Mr Mackinlay told MPs: “We don't want to tinker with this just to suit some members of the Royal Family. The male primogeniture rule is offensive, but so is the rules relating to the religious faith or non religious faith of the head of state.”

Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve said: “The major issue here is that the Act of Succession not only applies to this country but all other Commonwealth countries that have the Queen as head of state.

“For us to move without moving at the same pace and in the same fashion as those other countries would cause problems which are probably best avoided.”

Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire) raised the marriage of the Queen's eldest grandson, Peter Phillips. “Next weekend Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly who has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne.” She called for an Equality Bill to abolish “this institutional discrimination against Catholics?” - a measure which is supported by Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer, who has converted to the Catholic faith.

Junior equalities minister Barbara Follett replied: “This kind of change in our country which has a long tradition is always a difficult one.” The Government would try and build a cross-party consensus and a cross Commonwealth consensus before bringing forward any change.

“Primogeniture is a problem. It is offensive. But we have to approach this cautiously,” said Mrs Follett.

WISE `DOES NOT ATTEND UKIP MEETINGS' - FARAGE

NIGEL Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, says that East of England Euro MP Tom Wise has not attended any UKIP meetings in Brussels for the past 12 months due to his suspension from the parliamentary group pending inquiries into allegations against him of fraud.

He did continue to attend meetings of the European Parliament's Independence and Democracy group to which UKIP belongs, but resigned from it at the weekend and now sits as an independent.

Mr Wise, who was elected to the parliament in June 2004 as a UKIP MEP, says he does not intend to seek re-election. “The UKIP group does not have the power to suspend me from the party and I remain a paid up member of UKIP.”

SPEAKER CLEARED OVER WIFE'S TAXI BILLS

THE wife of Commons Speaker Michael Martin is allowed to spend thousands of pounds a year on taxis to go shopping for the couple's groceries and for provisions used for official functions, Under Commons rules brought in six years ago. Mary Martin, who cannot drive, is allowed £2,500 because of the pressures on her husband's time.

John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, cleared Mr Martin following a complaint about his wife's taxi trips. Commons authorities say taxis are cheaper than the alternative than providing a car and chauffeur for the Speak and his wife.

EAST FUEL BILLS HIGHER THAN NATIONAL AVERAGE

THE average annual fuel bills of households in the six counties of the East of England - Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire - was £847.90 or 3.1% as a percentage of disposable income. Only Scotland and Wales were while the England average was £805 and 2.9% of a household's after tax income.

CHILDREN IN CARE STATISTICS

THE number of children in care in Suffolk rose from 675 in 2003 to 700 last year. This is an increase of two to 47 per 10,000 children aged under 18 years in the county, according to figures given to MPs.

During the same period, the figure in Essex went down by 15 to 1,235, although the number of children per 10,000 aged fewer than 18 remains constant at 42.