Richard Graham looks back at last week’s States debate – and its relevance to events in Westminster
FROM time to time I amuse myself by juxtaposing the conduct of politics here with that of Westminster.
I know what you’re thinking. ‘He really should get a life.’ All I can say is that such comparisons can be fascinating, as much in their contrasts as in their similarities. I’m prompted to mention this by the recent need to fill the vacancy on the Policy & Resources Committee following Deputy Soulsby’s resignation. Whom to appoint in her place?
When Prime Minister Sunak came to appoint his cabinet, he had three options. He could appoint the best persons for the job, irrespective of their allegiance to this or that wing of the Tory party. The remaining two options involved totally ignoring quality. He could follow the example set by Johnson and Truss who appointed only their close supporters despite most of them being complete plonkers. That ended well, eh! Sunak chose the third option, constructing a cabinet whose members —no matter how thick — represented all factions within the Tory party in order to keep everybody happy and obedient. This led to some weird political specimens achieving promotion through ineptitude.
Take Gavin Williamson for example. No, I insist, please take him. Nobody else will. Unbelievably, Boris the Buffoon gave the gormless bloke a knighthood despite his disastrous exam algorithm when he was education secretary. Before that, Prime Minister May had sacked him as defence secretary under suspicion of being a serial leaker of state secrets, but not before he had revealed that his cunning plan for meeting the military threat from Russia was to tell President Putin to go away and shut up, or else he’d tell his mum. Sunak was so keen to have this walking calamity inside his tent rather than tripping over the guy ropes outside (please note my sanitised version of a familiar, more indelicate metaphor) that he appointed him minister without portfolio. Minister without a clue would have been more appropriate.
And then there was Dominic Raab, once of my old alma mater, who appears to have learned even less than I did when there but who has twice catchfarted his way to the position of deputy prime minister and lord chancellor. Remember the hapless Raab?
As Brexit secretary, he was surprised to discover that Dover was a busy port close to the EU. ‘You’re kidding me,’ he exclaimed. ‘I thought it was all about Vera Lynn and bluebirds flying over white cliffs.’ I made that quote up. Then as foreign secretary, when hundreds were dying in the panic to escape Kabul, he couldn’t be bothered to get off his sun lounger in Greece to give a hand.
As if promoting such paragons of uselessness was not insulting enough, Sunak rubbed it in by claiming – with a straight face: ‘There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of my government.’
The president of Policy & Resources doesn’t enjoy the same political authority as a British prime minister but replacing Deputy Soulsby on P&R posed much the same choice. Should his priority be to nominate the most able person for the job, irrespective of their allegiance within the Assembly, or should it be to reconstruct the committee to provide on the one hand diversity and challenge or, on the other, uniformity and compliance? In the event, he opted for the latter.
Deputy Murray’s victory over Deputy St Pier by a margin of only three votes prompts some interesting thoughts. First, outside of the P&R committee itself, the wider Assembly was split right down the middle. Second, in producing a closer-than-expected result, the secret ballot left us deliciously intrigued as to who voted for whom and why. For example, did any members of Education, Sport & Culture hold their nose and vote for Deputy St Pier to avoid losing their vice president and arguably their most effective and articulate advocate? And did any member of the Development & Planning Authority vote for Deputy St Pier in order to retain its perceived anti-green majority? Even more intriguingly, did any member vote for him on the basis that collective responsibility as a member of P&R would render him less effective as the public’s scrutineer-in-chief, a role he has been free to fill until now? After all, once a member of P&R, his talents and challenges could be safely ignored, just as Deputy Soulsby’s have been for the past two years. We shall never know.
The closeness of the vote indicated what a difficult choice it was. On the one hand, Deputy St Pier’s appointment wouldn’t have disrupted any committee since he has no place on any of them. By contrast, while Deputy Murray can be replaced relatively easily on the DPA, he was – as we already knew and as Deputy Cameron has confirmed – the driving force behind the tertiary college model for post-secondary education. The ESC president claims that his departure will have no effect on the transformation. Deputy Cameron, a member of ESC, thinks it will. If the ESC president is right and Deputy Murray’s absence won’t be felt, I would have to ask what the heck he’s been doing for the past two years. There is one consolation for those who, like me, think the ESC model for secondary and post-16 education is deeply flawed but who, for the sake of our students, don’t want to see it fail. The model risks failure if its insatiable hunger for more and more funding is not met, and with Deputy Murray having replaced Deputy Soulsby on the committee which holds the public purse strings, there is a better chance that the ESC president will only have to keep holding out her hand for more and it will be filled with the necessary spondulicks.
The outcome of the election is plain to see. A largely compliant Assembly will in future bow the knee to a grey, male P&R committee that is now at high risk of self-congratulatory cluster-think. The contrast with Jersey is enlightening. There, the chief minister is female, as are six of the 12-strong Council of Ministers. Furthermore, Jersey’s government is now headed by a chief minister and her deputy who as youngish deputies earned their positions by convincingly topping the polls in their general election. Meanwhile, our two poll toppers have been banished to the back benches, denied even humble membership of any committee. What price any democratic link between election success and office achieved?
Precisely what Deputy Murray will bring to P&R is hard to tell from the case he made for himself. This seemed to rest largely on his much-repeated claim to have courage, a claim that seemed to be made on the mistaken and somewhat arrogant presumption that he was the only candidate who had it. To be fair to him, Deputy Murray did, during the previous States meeting, give a clue to his likely contribution to P&R. He argued that the solution to Guernsey’s fiscal problems lay in the States doing things differently. He didn’t get around to giving any examples, but he assured us he knew himself what he had in mind. In taking over Deputy Soulsby’s responsibilities on P&R, he will be in the precise role where he can put his ideas into practice. So we’ll be able to judge him on his results, won’t we?
What do you get if you construct your speech around text lifted from Wikipedia which you don’t seem to understand and demonstrably can’t pronounce? Deputy Le Tissier unwittingly provided the answer – an oratorical car crash. His speech, delivered during a debate on water quality, reminded me that some deputies come to a debate with their minds in a box so securely padlocked and chained against the ingress of factual evidence that even Harry Houdini in his prime couldn’t wriggle his way out of it.
In the same debate – which incidentally verged at times on the Kafkaesque – Deputy De Lisle once again auditioned convincingly for the role of the Assembly’s very own prophet of doom. Not to be upstaged, Deputy Queripel proclaimed that he was baffled and flabbergasted by a particular ruling from the deputy bailiff, a ruling which even I, a dim old soldier, found easy to understand. Deputy Queripel was so taken by the sound of ‘flabbergasted’ that he kept repeating it. Never in his 10 years as a deputy had his flabber been so utterly gasted. It left me thinking that those whose flabber is so delicate should think twice before standing for election to the States.
I leave you with this thought. Forget the sterile argument about ‘the worst States ever’ that arises every four years or so. What about the ‘most verbose States ever’? It was 10 o’clock on the third day before the Assembly reached the business of the meeting, the previous two days having been spent in stupor-inducing debate of the unfinished business from the previous meeting. Has there ever been a States more prone to words than action? Just asking.