I know Welshman is organising a more serious look at the issues and policies raised during the general election in the UK. Hopefully these occasional entires will give you an insight into some of the less serious or quirky aspects of the process.
Week one of started with a bit of a phoney war. After an election is called there is a “washing up” period in Parliament to get non-contentious or urgent bills enacted before Parliament is finally dissolved. This time the main party leaders decanted to Rome for the Pope’s funeral on Friday and the service in Windsor for Charles and Camilla’s wedding.
The last business of the Parliament is for the Commons to be summoned to the Lords by Black Rod to hear these bills getting Royal Asset. The formula for this is for the name of the new Act to be called out and the Clerk of the Lords confirming Assent using the Norman French “La Reyne le veult” or “the queen wills it”. As with all Acts, a copy is made on a vellum roll and kept in the Victoria Tower at Westminster. Various Roayl Commissions are then read out. These order the calling of a new Parliament under the nominal oversight of a group of Peers from all the main parties who have been sitting through the process in full regalia. A further Commission effectively orders the Law Lords to carry on their work.
At the end of the ceremony there are no longer any Members of Parliament. Existing MPs continue to get their salary for a further month but are banned from their offices. They cannot refer to themselves as MPs and lose all rights of access to non-public areas of the Palace of Westminster.
So what of the main parties? Well they have all launched their manifestoes this week with varying degrees of success and their plans have been subject to late PM Harold Macmillan’s “Events, dear boy, events”.
Having barely recovered from the funeral and wedding, Charles Kennedy was rushed off the campaign to attend the birth of his son. This meant that there were some great photo opportunities when the baby was taken home as his wife gave birth in St Thomas’s Hospital which is directly across the Thames from Parliament. The manifesto launch had to be delayed a couple of days as Kennedy took paternity leave. A couple of sleepless nights also led to some of the financial details of the property tax proposals coming out slowly at the early morning launch..
The Conservatives let it be known they do not want to be known as “Tories” as these were Irish brigands. This announcement may have been under the influence of their Australian campaign guru who helped their PM John Howard get re-elected. He is also responsible for their rather creepy slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Much amusement was caused when it was discovered that this is also the catchphrase of a couple of cartoon bananas in the Australian ABC children’s program “Bananas in Pyjamas”.
The Toeies’ leader Michael Howard was famously described as “having something of the night about him” by a fellow tory MP Anne Widdecombe when he was Home Secretary (justice minister) in the last Conservative government Howard is the son of Jewish refugees from Transylvania so the combination of the two has led to his portrayal in cartoons as a Dracula figure. Widdlecombe herself is a rather striking figure as is nicknamed “Doris Karloff”. She figured in one of the big Tory gaffs this week. . She had been pictured with the MP for Dorset South, Ed Matts at a rally in support of some asylum seekers from Malawi He had been holding a picture of the family and she had a poster saying “let them stay”. For his election material, Matts had doctored the photo so instead of the family’s picture, he was holding a placard saying “Controlled immigration” and Widdicmbe’s slogan was now “not chaos and inhumanity”.
On Monday the Labour Party showed its first 5 minute election broadcast. Directed by Anthony Minghela of “The English Patient” fame, this was a soft focus love-in between Blair and his Chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown. Brown is widely seen as Blair’s successor in waiting and there has been a long rivalry between them. Prior to his election as Labour leader, it is believed there was an agreement at the Granita Resturant that Blair would stand down in Brown’s favour during a second term. When he announced he woul d fight for a third term there was a distinct chill between them. Brown had been the election supreme for the party at the earlier elections but was replaced this time and there was wide-spread shumours that he would move to the Foreign Office after the election. The dispute showed in the body language in the broadcast. In the few shots they were shown together they seemed to be trying to turn their backs on each other. Later at a press conference Blair virtually guaranteed Brown continuing in the Chancellor post which raised speculation of a “Granita 2”.
The launch of their manifesto was one of their usual stage managed efforts with a series of podia for keynote speakers set in front of the rest of the Cabinet. Unfortunately the effect was a downmarket version of the set of “The Weakest Link”. One person being kept under wraps is the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott (I can hear the cries of “WHO??” now). Prescott is an “old Labour” relic who started off in the trades union movement as a bar steward on a ship. He is touring the country rallying the Labour troops in private meetings. As well as being able to teach Bush a thing or two about garbling English, he is a bit of a bruiser. At the last election an egg-throwing protestor felt his fists. Prescott’s nickname “Two Jags” refers to his liking for Jaguar cars that did not go down too well when he was given responsibility for public transport.
Cars also provided the final “event” of the week for Labour. On Friday it was finally admitted that the MG Rover plant in Birmingham would have to close with many thousands of lay-offs there and in supply companies. The last British owned mass car manufacturer, the group had been purchased in a buy-out from BMW who retained the Mini car and name. The final straw was the failure of a link up with a Chinese company.. Much of the blame is being pointed at the owner/managers who had the support of the Blair government at the takeover. An alternative offer would have meant more redundancies a few years back but the terms would have been many times more cash than the workers will be getting now. Ramifications of this are likely to continue well into the campaign. The plant is in an area where there are many Labour held marginal seats.