Monday, February 08, 2010

Paul Sheehan, and the clowns writing about the clowns in the circus ...

(Above: just for fun. the online front page of that quality rag, the Mirror, which, if you look very carefully, will lead you to a story about a top Tory, who lived on benefits in a council for a TV and CHEATED by secretly stuffing fifty pounds down her bra. Tory Nadine Dorries is a TV benefits cheat. Now that's a circus).

Muh lords and gentlepersons, can I rise to a point of order?

The ineffable Paul Sheehan, in his infinite capacity for tedious points of order and the grumbling tetchiness of a commentariat columnist, has lurched off to another surreal part of the landscape, and come to sundry bizarre conclusions.

Can The clowns are running this circus be stricken from the records, or at least can an alternative view of the world be recorded?

Because you see for deeply mysterious reasons, known only to Paul Sheehan, he has sought out the British House of Commons as an exemplary way of conducting parliamentary business, especially by way of contrast with the Australian parliament, and its admittedly sordid House of Representatives.

First item of business:

Last Wednesday, the House of Commons was shot full of adrenalin when the weekly prime minister's questions began. All around the chamber, members jumped to their feet, anxious to catch the eye of the Speaker.

Questions and answers came thick and fast. All were directed to the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. If he didn't know the answer, he didn't pose and waffle. The first question came from a Conservative MP, David Evennett. It was a zinger.

Evennett: ''Now it is clear that there was a £50,000 fund solely for the Prime Minister's use at his headquarters, will he explain why he did not declare this in the register of members' financial interests?''

Brown: ''I know nothing about what the honourable gentleman is talking about.''

He knows nothing about it?

Well surely that's a disgraceful answer, full of persiflage and dissembling. The use of the word honourable in the answer is so clearly laden with irony as to constitute an abuse of proceedings.

Not in the wondrous Alice in Wonderland world of Sheehan, where a Monckton is a prophet:

That was it. Next question. In 38 minutes, 29 questions were asked and answered, with not a minute lost to procedural posturing. It was robust, it was succinct. The session was filled with the tension of the unscripted, the unexpected and sharp exchanges that got to the point.

It was what? He didn't answer the bloody question, he feigned innocence or ignorance, while all the time posturing like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a fast moving spot light shooter.

Yep, the fifty thousand pound fund the honourable gentleman knew diddly squat about was a fund made available so that Brown could do down Tony Blair, the only record of it kept in an exercise book, and amongst other reprehensible uses, it paid for private polling - not shared with the rest of the Labour Party - because Brown didn't trust the polls carried out by Blair.

‘It drove me insane,’ Mr Watt said yesterday. ‘We had to pay for two sets of polls because Gordon and Tony didn’t trust each other.
'Gordon was a law unto himself. No matter how little money we had he would demand his money. Some of it was for polls on the Budget but he never shared it with us.We suspected the polls asked questions about him and Tony.’
Mr Watt said Mr Brown had not broken any rules on personal donations because technically the money was being used for the Labour Party.
When he became Labour’s financial director, Mr Watt insisted on getting rid of the exercise book and made a formal record of Mr Brown’s fund. (here, and there's plenty more to read).

In many fine moments, in terms of exemplary political debate, we find this the most satisfying:

Today’s extracts also reveal:
The horrified reactions of Mr Brown and Mr Blair when Harriet Harman became deputy leader.
How Mr Brown reportedly shouted: ‘I’ll bring you down with sleaze,’ at Mr Blair.
Why Mr Blair refused to stay on the stage at a ceremony to hand over power to Mr Brown.
How Mr Brown tried to rig the rules of the Labour leadership contest to ‘torpedo’ his rivals.

Bring you down with sleaze?

What fine, nuanced rhetoric, and right at the moment the stench emanating from British politics is getting even more absurd. Why not try Home Secretary's fury as expenses MPs claim privilege?

Yep, it seems that three Labour party MPs facing criminal charges over their expenses might try to gain immunity from prosecution through parliamentary privilege, while receiving tens of thousands of pounds in 'golden goodbyes' on leaving the House of Commons:

Today Mr Johnson led the chorus of condemnation, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that there should be no “special get out of jail card” of parliamentary privilege for MPs accused of crimes, and that instead they should stand trial in a criminal court like any other citizen.

“My colleagues in parliament should get a fair trial,” said the Home Secretary.

“That fair trial should be on the same basis as any member of the public who goes through the courts system.

“The whole point about this, this dreadful, dreadful, damaging year that we have had here, is that people want to see MPs treated in the same way as they would be treated had they broken the law.”

This dreadful, damaging year? Where the question times are so exemplary and business-like?

Right on. Even the most disinterested observer might note that it's been an exceptionally bad year for politicians in Britain.

And perhaps you'll be pleased to know that the honourable member can at last remember the Granita Pact, and is about to speak about it, as recorded in Gordon Brown admits the Granita Pact existed:

Gordon Brown is for the first time to admit that he did strike a deal with Tony Blair to carve up the Labour leadership at Granita restaurant in Islington, it was reported today.

In an interview to be broadcast next weekend, the Prime Minister will tell Piers Morgan that Mr Blair did secretly promise to hand over power to him later, but that the two men later fought bitterly after Mr Blair failed to keep his end of the bargain.

"It is really explosive stuff — neither Brown nor Blair has even gone on the record before about their famous deal which dogged them for years," a source involved in the show told the News of the World.

"But Brown is absolutely clear to Piers that a deal WAS done. Brown was expecting Blair to hand over to him far earlier than he did."

Neither Mr Brown nor Mr Blair has ever confirmed the existence of the so-called Granita pact before, and Cherie Blair has claimed that the notion is "ridiculous".

On the very same page, you will find a handy link to an astonishing story headed I beat Brown with a breadstick, in which Roland White offers a sneak preview of the revelations we might expect in Tony's tome.

Oh sorry, I see that this is what is termed in the trade a "satirical" column, full of saucy wit and mockery of Tony Blair.

Nonetheless, I think it might be allowed to stand as further evidence of the circus which is currently UK politics. A three ring circus, and we've only begun to explore the entertaining delights of the outer ring.

It's with relief that we turn to The Guardian to hear news of the other side, as Gordon Brown attacks 'scandal' of Lord Ashcroft donations:

Gordon Brown has thrust the issue of Tory party donations to the centre of the election campaign by declaring that the secrecy surrounding its biggest financial backer – Lord Ashcroft – is "a scandal".

In an exclusive interview with the Observer, in which he spoke at length of the need to restore faith in politics following the controversy over MPs' expenses, the prime minister attacked the lack of transparency over the peer's financial links to the Tories, saying it was profoundly wrong.

Delivering his strongest comments yet on the "Ashcroft question", Brown said it was now the duty of journalists and opposition politicians to "press these people for answers". "It's a scandal that we haven't had proper answers about where the [Ashcroft] money has come from and what the status of this person is."

Yep, less than a month after two former cabinet ministers tried to organise a coup against him, and with only sixty days to an election, the polls are shifting and Gordon Brown is sounding bullish. The opening par for that piece?

Gordon Brown can be prickly, defensive and sometimes downright bad-tempered in interviews. He often tends to lecture, ride roughshod over questions and bristle when trickier topics arise.

Oh dear, can this be the same man who lead off Paul Sheehan's column about the exemplary conduct of parliamentary business in Britain, its finest example being to stand up in the chamber and say you know nothing about a slush fund, designed to help elevate you to power as a secret pact in a restaurant failed to deliver the goods?

Indeed it is, but fortunately Brown's pledged to improve:

Brown admits he has had failings, particularly in explaining his policies and thinking. Asked if he is looking forward to the live televised leaders' debates with Cameron and Nick Clegg during the election campaign, he hesitates. "Look, I'm not a PR executive," he says. "I'm not someone who automatically thinks that communications are my strongest card. I think I could have been far better at presenting my case."

But his presentational problems seem to worry him less these days. He believes the public is beginning to realise, without being persuaded by the slick PR of the Blair years, that he has made the right calls, whether on the economy or MPs' expenses. The polls suggest he has still has a long way to go. But he is convinced Labour is back in the game. "I'm not complacent, but Labour can still win it. I'm absolutely sure of that."

And so on and on, as the circus fills out the three rings, and election fever grows like a carbuncle (or perhaps swells like a thermometer).

What can I say, except that I started reading about British politics as a form of light entertainment during the MPs' expenses scandal, and now find it offers up ongoing exotic pleasures of a turkish delight kind.

If you want the parliamentary version, you can even head off to the United Kingdom Parliament, which has a quite spiffing website and presents itself as a kind of ersatz news service, as well as faithfully providing Hansard.

The fuss will probably die down as the Iraq inquiry finishes its business and the election is decided, but right now, for Sheehan to hold it up as some kind of nirvana of exemplary political debate and parliamentary business is surely the last gesture of an unhinged mind.

But what's the ultimate point of Sheehan's delusional paen of praise for a man who can't remember a slush fund as a sign of robust, succinct question time? Well it's really just to slag off the locals, in the timeless way of conservatives determined to get upset about currency lads and lasses:

Earlier that day, on the other side of the world, in another parliament modelled on the House of Commons, it was more like a political porn show, or amateur hour. In the House of Representatives in Canberra, question time is the closest debating session Australia has to prime minister's questions in the Commons. Under the Rudd government, this tradition has crossed some tipping point and become a corrupt parody of what it was intended to be.

A porn show? I say old chum, right now the British yearn for the good old days of Profumo and Keeler and crew, when the only scandal in British politics was a decent sex scandal. So much nicer than corruption and malfeasance.

Sheehan has one minor point: question time in Australia is a circus, and as it was under Howard, so despite all the protestation and hopes of piety so it has become under brickwall Chairman Rudd and baying opposition.

But when a columnist can write this kind of line, you have to begin wondering about medication:

The departure of Peter Costello has also exposed this Parliament's rhetorical mediocrity.

Does he refer to this?

... Costello's greatest triumph in the bear pit of parliament was when he verbally king hit Senator Nick Sherry over the travel rorts affair before the approving eyes of the liberal big brass in the visitors gallery. The killer line, Oh possum, you're home' ... poked fun at Sherry's Tasmanian abode and the infrequency of his attendance there ... (here)

Oh possum, that's rhetorical brilliance, and it did have such a tremendous impact on Sherry. Such fun ...

And then Sheehan reveals the man on whom his sights are trained - the speaker of the house, one Harry Jenkins:

He operates as a rubber stamp, a biased umpire, a party hack, a veteran junketeer who treats the Parliament as a gravy train, all perk and no pain. This former public servant is thus more culpable than anyone in what is going on. In his own way, he is as much a gargoyle on the battlements of democracy as the government's garrulous goon-squad.

The Speaker has a choice. He can either show less fear and less favour, or his career in government will be remembered for his role as the Prime Minister's house hand puppet.

Or perhaps he can be remembered in the same way we now remember that excellent speaker of the UK House of Commons, one Michael Martin.

You can read it here in Angry MPs turn on Commons Speaker:

Veteran Conservative MP Sir Patrick Cormack likened the mood in the Commons to the mood in the nation for the Norway debate - said to be the moment Conservative MPs realised that Neville Chamberlain had to be replaced as prime minister.
And another Conservative MP, Richard Shepherd, said the public would not believe MPs were serious about reform as long as Mr Martin remained as Speaker.

Oh dear, a dollar in the Godwin's Law swear jar for Cormack, but the expenses fuss did represent a kind of low water mark:

For MPs to openly criticise the Speaker breaks a long-standing Commons convention, while the last time a Speaker was forced from office was in 1695 - when Sir John Trevor was found guilty by the House of "a high crime and misdemeanour".

Oh and the follow up to that story? Speaker quits 'for sake of unity':

Michael Martin has told MPs he intends to stand down, so becoming the first Commons Speaker to be effectively forced out of office for 300 years.
In a brief statement, he said he would step down on 21 June, with a successor set to be elected by MPs the next day.

In the circus there are many clowns, but the scribblers who can't even remember the clowns' best gags and comedy routines are surely the most tragic and inept clowns of all.

Put it another way. The antipodean clowns are writing about the clowns running the circus ... but are the clowns in the circus as clownish as the clowns scribbling down their tetchy grumpiness?

(Below: and just for more fun, a screen grab of The Sun's online presence, which at the time of this cap would lead you to Campbell upset over interview, Three MPs and Peer facing jail The accused, Brown's tears for tots aka Brown's weeps for daughter (sic), and just below that link, a link to the remarkable news that Hitler took 'Viagra' and 81 other drugs. Now that's a circus, and to hell with Godwin's Law).

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