Cameron’s fuel bill problem fades in a Hayes of hot air

The energy minister saved the PM, Dunkirk-style, from an untenable position as regimental battle raged in the Commons

Another day, another government minishambles, this time over the prime minister’s half-baked promise at PMQs to cut everyone’s winter fuel bill. But for once David Cameron got lucky. His fate was entrusted to genial John Hayes, an expendable ministerial minnow of Dickensian demeanour and rightwing opinions, who could bullshit for Britain. This time this former Liam Fox supporter bullshitted for Dave. There’s loyalty.

Even before Hayes rose to swamp Labour’s emergency question with a string of elegant obfuscations (“the eloquence of Demosthenes” avowed Speaker Bercow) it was clear that loyalty – and flashes of disloyalty – were to be the theme of the day’s session.

Take Norman Baker. Once he was a tearaway Lib Dem conspiracy theorist, beloved of newspapers that want to believe that Tony Blair murdered Princess Di and that aliens are manipulating The Great British Bake Off. Now Norman is a humble transport under-secretary, loyally fielding questions about repairs to Beccles railway station and the new bus station at Wolverhampton (which he proudly confessed to opening).

At least Baker is in good company. Matey ex-miner Patrick McLoughlin is now his boss and joining the transport team at the reshuffle was Simon “Third Degree” Burns (he has a third class BA), a convivial survivor from the Long March of Chairman Maggie. Between them they fended off attacks over the West Coast “franchise fiasco” and the dodgy high-speed London-to-Brum train (HS2), and did so without being disloyal to anyone. It made a contrast to ex-cabinet HS2 martyr, Cheryl Gillan, who icily intervened to accuse former colleagues of “concealing information” about the project.

While all this was going on, the public gallery was slowly filling up with chaps of a certain age, most wearing regimental ties, some a chest full of medals too. Were they here to hear John Hayes’s latter-day Dunkirk, evacuating the PM from an untenable position on energy prices under heavy enemy fire? No, but they heard him all the same.

Asked to explain Cameron’s policy glitch (he promised that everyone would get the cheapest tariff), Hayes blathered about options, blithered about discussions and waffled about voluntary agreements. Asked by Labour’s Caroline Flint if he knew of (let alone understood) Cameron’s statement in advance – or whether the PM was “making it up as he went along” – he blathered at even greater lengths, cheerfully blaming 13 years of Labour dither for Britain’s energy problems. It is a fair point.

“Yes, we will use the energy bill to get people lower tariffs” thundered the Demosthenes of East Anglia who has only been in the job six weeks and knows less about the subject than the department’s cat. Pause. “There are, of course, different options to be considered.” The portly populist flattered, he fawned. He resorted to partisan abuse (“it is not my habit to be excessively partisan, but … “), he did everything except admit: “Sorry, the boss cocked it up.”

Grizzled veterans in the public gallery can hardly fail to have been impressed by this solo rearguard action. But they had bigger loyalties to defend. The coalition’s half-cock defence review is disbanding the 2nd battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, taking 300 years of battle honours and cap badges with it, 600 jobs too. It is being done, not on military grounds, but to protect ancient Scottish regiments and forestall the wrath of Alex Salmond.

Battalions are like maternity wards or A&E, a beacon for cross-party nimbyism: “No cuts here!” The counter-attack was led by Basildon’s John Baron, a former captain in 2RRF, but it was supported by MPs on all sides, some of them civilians who have done nothing riskier than sign their expenses, but whose dads were captured in 1940 in 2RF.

“Don’t cut the defence budget,” roared the Tories. “Cut the EU budget or development aid to India.” Labour was a little more nuanced, but equally romantic about those cap badges. Whenever an MP made a good point there was a stirring behind the bulletproof glass wall that now shelters members from their constituents. Faintly audible and strangely moving, it was the ghostly sound of applause.

Michael White © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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