Monthly Archives: June 2009

Speaker Bercow!

Well well, the publicity over the near-whipping of MPs to support Margaret Beckett backfired. And we now have Speaker Bercow, who – say those in the know – has more support in the Labour party than from his now-former colleagues in the Conservative party.

He’s a better choice than Sir George Young in any case, the “bicycling baronet”, who once infamously described the homeless as people you step over when leaving the opera. (Not that Bercow is unstained – his relatively left-wing views today stand in contrast to the swivel-eyed right-wingery of his past.)

Bercow promises reform. What will be his first reforming act, I wonder? I still remember the shock and awe when Betty Boothroyd dispensed with the wig, though it’s fair to say she had the hair for it. Perhaps Bercow will do without the long gown traditionally worn (and carried by some peasant) while processing from Speaker’s House to the chamber. Perhaps he’ll abandon the entire fancy dress; I suspect the skies might fall were he to do so. It would certainly be a signal; but only a signal.

As I write, some ancient ritual is about to take place by which the Queen, via the Lords, confirms him in his illustrious position. Naturally, this involves processions, Black Rod and flamboyant haberdashery. I look forward to watching it on a news channel with some idiot blathering over the top. Me, probably.


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The legitimacy of Speaker Beckett

Today, MPs vote (in a secret ballot for the first time, under new procedures) to elect a new Speaker for the House of Commons.

Of course, since the expenses scandal that brought down Michael Martin and effectively ended the political careers of several of them, MPs are taking excruciating care over this new election. There is complete transparency, there are no hidden agendas, and everything is happening in a new-broom, bipartisan spirit.

Not a bit of it.

Avaragado’s first rule of politics:

Wherever three or more people are gathered together, there shall be politics

This is natural, since we’re social animals. Gossip, bitching and backstabbing have been going on since we had the ability to communicate.

Avaragado’s second rule of politics:

Wherever three or more politicians are gathered together, there shall be corruption

The early favourite was Conservative John Bercow, seen as a reformist – ie, what the public seems to want, and what the Commons needs. But he also has some wacky ideas like taking Parliament round the country, which reminds me of that recurring sketch from The Day Today of the Bureau de Change on the back of a lorry.

But now the smart money’s on Margaret Beckett. Why? Because it seems the government whips are “encouraging” Labour MPs to back her. She’s the “Stop Bercow” candidate. So much for the new broom, for transparency, for reform.

Would she be a good Speaker? Possibly. But that won’t be why she’ll be elected, if she gets the job.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that someone who until only last month was Housing Minister (and who occasionally sat in Cabinet) – and, let’s not forget, who was Tony Blair’s last Foreign Secretary, and who stood in as Labour leader after John Smith’s death – is not going to be seen as entirely independent.

One of the reasons many MPs didn’t like Michael Martin was the perception that he favoured Labour. How is that going to be fixed by the Labour whips installing a recently ex-minister as his replacement? There is always going to be a whiff of distrust.

The Westminster bubble indeed. Entirely clueless, the lot of them.

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On Brown and constitutional reform

I still think he’s doomed. But I watched Gordon Brown’s statement today on constitutional reform with interest. It’s well known that he’s put the kibosh on many previous attempts at constitutional reform over the last twelve years, so why the sudden conversion?

It’s not a conversion. It’s politics as usual.

We now have, at most, less than twelve months until a general election. There isn’t time to enact huge constitutional changes. They can get some things done – reform of the expenses system, for example – but changing the electoral system? And a fully elected House of Lords? They won’t happen this side of the election.

Brown is talking about these things now to place a wedge between the Labour party and the Conservatives. The perception at Westminster is that the people want reform of the expenses system (which is not strictly true: people want trustworthy politicians), so Brown’s strategy is to link that in people’s minds with more fundamental reforms that he knows Cameron and the Conservatives disagree with. Brown talks about expenses reform, House of Lords reform and electoral system reform as one item, knowing that Cameron only wants the first of those and would actively campaign against the others.

Cameron’s message is “change”, by which he means a general election now. Brown is trying to paint this as “no change”: Cameron doesn’t want reform, he wants to keep the same old gentlemen’s agreements, the same old 19th Century practices, same old Tories, etc. Any attempt by Cameron to disagree with any of the proposed reforms will be presented as opposing all reform.

I don’t think Brown believes in the level of constitutional reform he talked about today. There will be talk, but little action: talking shops, proposals, committees, discussions. Some laws will pass – the expenses stuff, internal Westminster changes – but the big stuff will be punted to the next Labour manifesto, where it can be safely ignored since it looks like Cameron will win anyway.

As a Lib Dem of course I believe that we need electoral reform. I think we need some form of proportional representation, as long as we retain the 1:1 link between an MP and a constituency.

If this means the BNP is represented at Westminster, so be it. The bright lights will reveal their warts. Thatcher was wrong in the 1980s when she tried to deny Sinn Fein the “oxygen of publicity” (leading to the surreality of TV interviews in which actors dubbed the voices of Gerry Adams and others). And the anti-fascist egg-throwers were wrong yesterday when they gave the BNP free airtime in which they did not have to account for their obnoxious views.


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Brown’s tipping point

In between dozes on Friday afternoon I watched Gordon Brown’s press conference about the reshuffle. Early in the Q&A ITV News’ Tom Bradby got to ask a question. Here’s my transcript (from rewatching on iPlayer, so believed to be accurate):

Tom Bradby: Prime Minister, you say you want to be candid so can I ask you a very simple, straightforward question? Do you acknowledge today that you wanted to sack your Chancellor and were simply unable to do so?

PM: No. No. Alistair Darling, as I said in the House of Commons only two days ago, is a Chancellor who [a few minutes of blather]…

Tom Bradby: You said you were going to be candid and you’re just not being candid are you because everyone in this room knows that that is what you wanted to do. Every .. all your closest aides have been going round Westminster this week saying that you wanted to sack the Chancellor and at the last minute you just haven’t been able to do it.

PM: No. Alistair Darling is not only, as i said in the House of Commons, a very good personal friend of mine, and I’ve known him for many years, and you can talk to him as well, but he’s also been a great Chancellor, look [blather]…

Tom Bradby and other journalists have been told repeatedly over the last week that Alistair Darling was on his way out. This wasn’t uninformed speculation, it was off-the-record briefing. Not by disgruntled civil servants, but by Downing Street. This was, in effect, official leaking.

Brown did not then sack Darling in the reshuffle; Darling refused any alternative job in cabinet (all being demotions), and Brown caved to stop Darling “doing a Howe” in his resignation speech.

Brown’s doomed now, I think. He cannot indirectly brief journos all week about sacking his Chancellor, then fail to do so, and stand brazenly in front of those same journos and claim he never had any intention of doing so. The journalists know what they were told; they know what the plans were (and they reported them). They know that Brown stood there, claiming to be candid, and lied to them, plain and simple. One of those journalists at least must now be working on a story about this. There is, at least, a story about the continuing existence of the lobby system.

The amusing thing is that Alistair Darling knows – as do Brown and Mandelson, and the rest of the cabinet, and all those journos – that he can bring Brown down whenever he wants: Darling’s own resignation would seal Brown’s fate. Though it has to be said that at this point the resignation of any other cabinet minister would probably have the same effect. And if the Euro election results are as bad as they might be, Brown might be out anyway.

It’s going to be an interesting week at Westminster.


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The continuing saga of Avaragado’s exciting illnesses

You may remember a particularly nasty virus I experienced in December. The bad news is that it never really went away. The good news is that it makes for an interesting blog. Look at me, glass half full!

My belief is that the December virus became dormant without being fully defeated. Every month or so I’d seem to pick up a cold from somewhere, but I bet it was that virus stirring briefly into life. There was always an underlying cough that never cleared up; I never felt 100%.

I hoped that a week in the sunshine of Spain would sort it out. But it didn’t; I was still coughing.

Ten days ago I went back to my parents’ for the day, to celebrate my Dad’s birthday. It was a hot and sunny Sunday. But I was tired, and people noticed. I hadn’t slept much the night before – even worse than usual. After the meal I sat in the garden soaking up the rays, then hid in the shade. You know how you sometimes feel unaccountably chilly when you do that? I felt it, thought nothing of it.

Later that evening I drove home as the sun started to drift toward the horizon. I still felt that chill. Hmm. Back home I parked and opened the driver’s door. The temperature difference hit me: warm car vs now much cooler outside. I shivered, feeling that ominous indescribable bodily reaction that screams: incoming!

I went inside. Something was definitely up. I tweeted:

HILARIOUSLY, I think I’m coming down with something. Probably another manifestation of the lurgi lurking for weeks within. Quack time. Oink?

The usual scenario was a week of coughing and spluttering. But it was time to deal with the true cause, that December virus or whatever it was. Naturally the next day was a Bank Holiday and I’d be unable to see my GP. But Tuesday would be OK; I’d go in late to work or something, depending on the appointment.

Sunday night did not portend well. Sayeth the tweet:

had a feverish and sweaty night, not pleasant, little sleep, much dozing. Just got up and had lunch. Will drift into town in a bit for air.

I didn’t feel well at all. It got worse:

is shivering like that dog in that advert. Makes it very hard to drink tea, let me tell you.

I had another bad night. At precisely 8.30am (you have to know the trick) I rang my surgery and got an appointment for 9.40. Feeling pretty awful and very tired indeed, I wandered down in what was now cold and windy weather.

The doc heard my story and quickly diagnosed acute sinusitis, spawned from underlying chronic sinusitis. This made sense. The chronic was making me feel generally not-up-to-par, with a constant cough; it would regularly bloom into the acute form and give me grief for a week. My temperature was up. Prescription: Amoxicillin (one week) for the acute, Beconase aqueous nasal spray (three months!) for the chronic.

I was too tired to work and called in sick.

The next few days were similar. Feverish, sweaty nights with no quality sleep – sweaty enough to need a couple of full-body towellings down (I lay on a towel to at least give the sheets a fighting chance). The brain mercilessly processing, processing, processing, churning out gibberish and making you believe it to be real (“no, brain, nothing in my sinuses is related either to JavaScript or to any third-party product”). Too unwell to work (though I did do some work from home on a couple of afternoons). Drugs doing their best. Long hot showers helping to clear the sinuses temporarily.

By the end of the week something new was happening. My glands were up, my throat was sore, my ears were bunged up. What fresh hell was this? I was supposed to be getting better by now, not worse! The sore throat was making it hard to eat anything other than soup, and was keeping me awake at night since every time I swallowed, my whole body tensed in pain. And when your sinuses are playing up, you swallow often.

Looking through the leaflets I noticed that a possible side-effect of the Beconase spray was a “dry or painful throat”. Aha. That seemed likely. It immediately invoked CYA by telling me to see my doctor (does anyone do that?) but I could go and see a pharmacist.

After yet another poor night on Friday night I met up with Andrew on Saturday mid-morning. He told me I looked pale and unwell. Absolutely. I chatted to a pharmacist who said it was unlikely the Beconase was causing what I was experiencing, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stop using it just until I’d finished the Amoxicillin course. I had lunch with Andrew and managed to eat a salad.

The feverish, sweaty nights were not quite so feverish or sweaty by now. But on Saturday night a new ritual began: I call this the “not sleeping at all” ritual. My throat was so bad I just couldn’t sleep at all. I guess I might have got half an hour just from plain exhaustion at about 7am. No more than that.

On Sunday, laughably, I went through the usual ritual of buying food in town. Food that I probably wouldn’t be able to eat as my throat wouldn’t let me. And my appetite had gone in any case, so one bowl of soup – perhaps with a couple of slices of bread, suitably dunked into mushiness – was my daily intake of calories.

Sunday night was marginally better than Saturday night, in that I slept an hour and for the first time there was no sweaty part. But still, only an hour.

At 8.30am on Monday morning I rang the surgery and got the same 9.40 appointment from the previous Tuesday, with the same doctor.

Suspiciously, her opening line was “What can I do for you this week?” With a voice muffled by clogged sinuses part-mangled by steroids (the spray) and the desert that was my throat I described the situation. She quickly decided I had an additional, random virus. This made sense. But there were to be no antibiotics, unless the swab she performed identified something worthy of them. Fair enough, but it meant the only treatment was time, the only assistance my glamorous friends Senor Paracetamol and Senora Ibuprofen, doses maxed out. She signed me off work for the week, but said I was free to return earlier if I felt up to it.

I bought a few more bits of food, food that I might actually use: bananas, soup.

Monday night was slightly better; perhaps a couple of hours’ sleep. Now the fever had gone I just had to watch for my overall temperature, since the weather was hot and my flat a furnace. Didn’t seem too bad. A corner turned?

On Tuesday morning I showered and then admired my gradually thinning frame in the mirror. Oh. Is that some kind of rash?

There was definitely some red blotchiness on my forehead. Hmm. Perhaps it was a heat rash, I thought; the shower was hot, the flat was hot. I’d keep an eye on it.

By Tuesday evening it was obviously not a heat rash. My head was red all over, with swathes of blotchy redness over the top half of my body. Another poor night followed.

On Wednesday morning I thought. Shingles? Measles? Surely not. I rang home to find out whether I’d had the measles or the vaccine when I was a kid. My Dad thought I’d had the vaccine (Mum was shopping, she’d know). It was unlikely to be measles, surely? But the symptoms on the NHS web site were scarily accurate. And the photos I’d seen were representative.

I rang the surgery. They were supposed to tell me the results of Monday’s swab anyway: you never know, that might magically reveal whatever it is. Naturally they didn’t have the results. But I asked the receptionist to get a doctor to ring me ASAP as there was a chance that I had measles and I’d been in the surgery just a few days before. (Measles is one of those notifiable diseases.)

I dozed waiting for the call back, which arrived after nearly two hours. After hearing the now lengthening medical history this new doctor thought it best that I come in to the surgery that afternoon. Amazingly there was a slot free at 4.30.

I dozed some more. At 4 I walked down, my Big Fat Red Head covered in a hat and sunglasses to avoid being gunned down in the street as some kind of ET. On arrival at the surgery I was asked to wait in a side room – isolation – just in case.

The doctor I saw this time – Dr Linehan – took one look at me and said “Oh, you poor man”. Not precisely what you want to hear from your GP, but it was fair comment I thought. “I look that bad, do I? I’ve not even shown you my chest.” (Here’s a portion of skin by my left shoulder.)

She’d looked at my notes and had a good idea what had happened. It seems you’re not supposed to take Amoxicillin if you have a sore throat, as it brings you out in a bad rash. Of course when I started taking it, I didn’t have one. But I certainly had one later in the week, and on Monday when I’d seen a different doctor at the surgery. So there was a feeling on her part, I thought, that they’d messed up a bit.

She was also pretty convinced that the virus sitting on top of the chronic and acute sinusitis was glandular fever. I’m not sure why, thinking about it now – perhaps it was related to the rash. The good news was that I seemed to be over the worst of it – no fever. But I’d just have to manage what remained using the lovely Senor and Senora. With a bumper bonus of some antihistamine for the rash. (Oh, and the spray for the chronic sinusitis, when I decide to restart using it.) Most importantly I need to rest, she said, while signing me off work for another week.

The proof of the glandular fever diagnosis will be via a blood test. Normally you can find my veins easily enough. But now they were camouflaged by hideous red spots. The doctor tried and failed to take blood. She palmed me off onto the nurse, a nice Old School lady who quickly ripped off her standard-issue plastic gloves saying “I can’t do anything with these on” and then spent 30 minutes hunting for a vein, asking me to look left as “I don’t want to catch what you’ve got”. She finally extracted some blood, but after removing the needle realised she needed more. So we had another ten minutes of hunting before she gave up and wrote a little note on the NHS packet asking them nicely to spread the blood around a bit as she couldn’t extract enough of it.

She then made me a lovely sugary tea.

And you are now up-to-date. I have glandular fever with a side-order of severe rash, having hopefully vanquished acute sinusitis but with chronic sinusitis still to tackle. I haven’t been to work for a week and a half, and probably won’t be going for the next week and a half. I’ve slept no more than a dozen hours in the last week and need to wear sunglasses in public to avoid drivers mistaking the dark circles round my eyes for mini-roundabouts.

It’s nearly 1.30am now. I shall turn off the light and try to surprise myself to sleep.


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