Wednesday, June 03, 2009

British politics in turmoil

A day before Britons go to the polls in local and European elections, the Labour party is in turmoil. Amid controversy over MP’s expenses several high ranking politicians have announced their intention to stand down from the cabinet. On Tuesday it was announced that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was to step down from her position in the next cabinet reshuffle expected next week.
Within hours of this news breaking four other Labour Members of Parliament announced their intention to step down. Children's minister Beverley Hughes and ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt said they would also resign their positions. Political turmoil continued after it was reported that Ian Gibson, Margaret Moran, Elliott Morley and David Chaytor would be barred from standing as MPs at the next general election scheduled for 2010. And on Wednesday Communities Secretary Hazel Blears announced she was quitting from her cabinet position.

Leadership contest

Gordon Brown has continually insisted he will not resign his position as prime minister nor hold an early general election. But as more and more ministers stepped down his position has been considered untenable by many political commentators.

One political pundit said there was little the prime minister could do except perhaps “saving a drowning kitten from the river Thames”. Speaking on Sky News the Times political correspondent said, “Short of the arch-angel Gabriel coming down I can’t see what he can do”.

On the street anger is building amongst the general public. One lorry driver angry at the current Labour administration told tvnewswatch that “political change was on its way”.

“Gordon Brown is washed up,” he said as he went on to criticise the prime minister’s latest initiatives. “His scrappage scheme is not going to work,” he said, “I drive hundreds of miles across the country and I see thousands of unsold cars parked up near Avon docks near Bristol.”

As a lorry driver he was also worried about his own job. “No-one’s secure in this economic climate,” he said.

Opposition parties were taking particular advantage of the situation with Shadow Commons Secretary Theresa May saying the government had “lost its authority” and was “in meltdown”. The Conservative MP said a general election was needed and that only “David Cameron can take this country forward”.

But many Labour MPs were pulling rank in support of Gordon Brown. “It would be madness to oust the Prime Minister at this stage,” Martin Salter, MP for Reading West, said. “He’s the best person to lead the country through the recession,” he insisted, but he conceded Gordon Brown had been "dealt with a pretty tough hand”.

Even Jacqui Smith, who is standing down as home secretary, insisted that Gordon Brown was the right man for the job and that there were “no wimps in the Labour party”.

A rowdy PMQs

The party in freefall, as it has been described by some, faced a grilling as the prime minister stood up in parliament during PMQs [Prime Ministers Questions]. Leader of the opposition, David Cameron, said the government was “collapsing before our eyes,” and called on the prime minister to “get down to the palace and call for a dissolution” of parliament.

But Gordon Brown defended his position insisting there was "still work to be done” and accused the Conservative party of having no policies. “They are all words, words and words,” the prime minister said.

But Cameron continued, saying that Brown was “in denial” following the resignations and departures of so many Labour MPs. Stuttering his way though his response the PM said there were pressures on all members of parliament in the house.

Cameron’s continued lambasting of the prime minister caused uproar in the house among the Labour benches and brought a threat from the speaker. “There is a danger of the house being suspended if the leader of the opposition is shouted down,” Michael Martin exclaimed.

Cameron went on to describe the government as dysfunctional and said the main issue was one of leadership. He was also critical of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, who was vehemently defended by Gordon Brown who said he was “doing a very good job.”

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also laid into the Labour party. He said the government was “paralysed” and that “Labour was finished”. There was only two choices for voters, he insisted, that of the Conservatives or his own party.

A scathing press

The government has suffered weeks of criticism from the British press with daily reports concerning expenses claimed by MPs. While no party has been spared from the uncomfortable revelations, it is the Labour party that has suffered in the polls and courted public anger. But the press coverage has also angered MPs with Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, calling it a “media frenzy”.

The latest resignations brought strong headlines in many of Wednesday's newspapers. The Daily Telegraph, which broke the details of MP’s expenses, ran with the headline “Cabinet meltdown” and accused the departing Members of Parliament of milking the system “to the end”.

The Daily Mail reported the story with the headline “Rats desert sinking ship”, while the Independent described the situation as “Disarray in Downing Street”.
The Sun called it Labour’s blackest day and ran with the headline “Blunderbird” with a spoof image of Jacqui Smith dressed as a Gerry Anderson Thunderbird puppet. The comparison to the 1960’s children’s television series was more than a little ironic. It will need more than International Rescue to pull the party from the quagmire of the political mud it has found itself.

Important elections

Despite the difficulties the Labour party faces, those within its ranks have urged people to vote on June 4th. “There's an important set of elections tomorrow. My message is simple: get out and vote Labour,” Hazel Blears said in her resignation statement.

Others within the party warned that racist parties such as the British National Party would be given a boost if people stayed away from the polls. Barry Gardiner, a backbench MP, said “I would absolutely urge everybody, whether they vote for my party or any other party, to get out there and vote, as long as they don’t vote for the racists.”

The political infighting seen amongst the Labour ranks is nothing new in British politics. In the 1990s the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was forced out, handing the reigns to John Major who himself had conflicts with some of his cabinet.
He too suffered from internal squabbling and once referred to some of his cabinet as those “bastards”.

John Major was caught on tape talking about possible reshuffles in his cabinet while preparing for an interview with ITN [Independent Television News]. During the conversation, which was not intended for broadcast, Major said, "I could bring in other people. But where do you think most of this poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. You can think of ex-ministers who are going around causing all sorts of trouble.”

Then came the punch line. “We don't want another three more of the bastards out there. What's Lyndon Johnson's maxim?..."

It was at this point that someone, presumably an ITN technician, realised what was happening and pulled the plug. "Johnson's maxim" was, incidentally, a reference to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whom he declined to sack on the basis that "it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in".

It appears there are quite a few Labour MPs pissing into Gordon Brown’s tent. And as British politics begins to smell a bit rank the electorate will make their voices known.
Though it is widely believed Labour will do badly, it is unclear whether there will be a major endorsement for the other parties.

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