The Bercow Arithmetic

OK,  I didn’t read the Laura Cox report on “Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff” when it was published last week, and to be honest I still haven’t read it now, just seen some of the commentary. But one thing that came out of it was the divide between Labour and Conservative MPs as to whether the Speaker of the House of Commons should stay or go.

The Conservative MPs, and websites like Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes, seem to be unanimous that Bercow should step down.

In contrast, Labour MPs seem to be uniform in wanting Bercow to stay, at least until after Brexit. LabourList is at best neutral, merely reporting the views of Labour MPs. The New Statesman, in two articles, accuse Labour MPs of making a “grim calculation” but doesn’t express an opinion of its own.

While the media are framing the calculation in terms of Brexit, has no-one but me noticed there is a separate Parliamentary calculation to be made?

I used to live in the Buckingham constituency: the Speaker, John Bercow, used to be my MP, and I’ve met him a few times. So I can confirm he has neither a halo or a pitchfork: only a mace.

When Bercow stands down as Speaker, he will go off to the House of Lords, and a new Speaker will be elected in the Commons.

Tradition suggests that the replacement is an Opposition MP.  And that there will be a by-election in Buckingham to select a new MP.

So an existing Labour MP will turn Independent: and an Independent member will be replaced by a Conservative.  Whilst the Conservatives will still not have a majority in Parliament after that, even one extra MP will make the Government Whips job marginally easier, and the Opposition’s likelihood of overturning a specific vote slightly harder.

Except… HS2

It blasts through the constituency, at a huge environmental cost.  It’s made numerous people furious: it got me back into politics.

I had the interesting experience of going to a  local constituency Labour party meeting when the Shadow Transport Secretary was there:  there were perhaps six members, outnumbered by local Conservative types, with cut-glass accents.  I’ve also been to various Conservative and UKIP meetings, as well as getting to know some of the local LibDems.   So unless there has been a massive change over the last five years, I’ve got an idea about the local views of the parties: and it is not a place that will like Corbyn.

Without HS2, a new Buckingham MP would certainly be Conservative.  With HS2: who knows?

A by-election to replace Bercow in Buckingham would no doubt be bitterly fought, with both LibDems and UKIP having had some constituency machinery in the area, so no certainty for the Conservatives.

So my advice to the Government is that if they want a new Conservative Buckingham, ditch HS2.  You know you want to!

The Alex Salmond Show

A week is a long time in politics, so they say. And in three weeks a lot can happen as well.

Assuming there are no more changes to the schedule, by the time this comes out, I will have been broadcast on the Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today. If you missed it this morning, the show is repeated at 6.30pm and 11.30pm.

My part started on around Monday 20th August, when I was forwarded a request from Russia Today about a programme on HS2 which they were producing. They wanted someone from Stop HS2 to give an interview on Wednesday 22nd August. These are usually done by Joe Rukin, but he was on holiday. As it is important to use any media opportunity to tell people what is wrong with HS2, on Tuesday I agreed to go up to London for an interview on Wednesday afternoon.

I’ve done a lot of radio interviews, live and recorded, national and local. I’d done some outside broadcast recordings for TV, usually recorded. But I had no experience of studio interviews on TV, certainly not in this format, so if nothing else, it would be good practise for me.

Wednesday morning, I was literally getting on the train when I had a phone call from the producer. She was very apologetic, but Alex had had a personal matter come up and couldn’t do the interview that day. We rearranged it for Tuesday 28th August – after the bank holiday. My feeling at the time was that probably Alex was doing something with someone more influential, and my moment of TV fame had passed by.

And then the news that Salmond was seeing the Scottish government broke on Friday, and I concluded that actually it probably had been a personal matter that led to the interview’s cancelation. But as a feminist should I refuse to do the interview?

I asked some friends, all women, and the agreement was unanimous: I should do it, and whatever Salmond was accused of, it was still merely accusations. There were no changes to the interview schedule either, so on Tuesday I went up to London.

As a pre-recorded interview, you get a chance to repeat answers, but also the editors of the programme can skip over bits they don’t like. It was ever thus. Many decades ago, I was on a magazine’s readers’ panel discussing an issue: when the magazine came out, my thoughts were unrecognisable. This is the risk you take, agreeing to anything that will be edited.

After the interview, Tasmin, Alex and I sat in an office, having a discussion about non-political stuff. This was unusual – most senior politicians don’t hang around talking about trivialities. I didn’t know at the time that Alex was about to (or possibly already had) resign from the SNP. The news came out later that evening.

Even more recently, there has been discussion of Russia Today as a news outlet, and praise for people who refuse to do it.

In particular Alex’s show came up in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Theresa May herself said “Decisions about appearing on Russia Today are a matter of judgment for each individual”.

I’ll go with her. It’s up to everyone to decide where they draw the line. If you are thinking ‘career in broadcasting’ then you might make one set of decisions, just as someone pondering left-wing politics might decide not to write for the Telegraph or the IEA. The criteria must surely be based on one’s long term aims.

For me, the Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today came into the same set of choices as doing Radio 4’s Moral Maze. Could I use it to talk about HS2? Am I good choice for the broadcast? Will I find it interesting? The answer to all of those was yes. So I did the Moral Maze. And I did the Alex Salmond Show.

HS2 Price Hike Brewing

Even without the latest news  that some HS2 contracts are coming in up to 40% over their target price, a hike in the HS2 budget has been on the cards for a while – in fact this is an article I’ve been meaning to write for weeks.

The first clue was an article in Construction News, in which it was reported that HS2 chief executive, Mark Thurston, told a conference that HS2 will look at using private funding models for Phase 2.  Whats more, Construction News reports that he said “Mr Thurston said: “The thing we can do through phase one is get a much better understanding of what it actually costs and what the demand will be, so we can start building that into the model for phase two; it’s very much a question mark for us, it’s a good challenge.”

Reported separately by This is Money, Thurston also told the Transport Times conference “We are confident that we will build it within budget, we wouldn’t say anything else in a public forum.”

These statements rather beg the question of how the government can be so certain that HS2 will come under budget if they don’t know what the costs are, and what is being said behind closed doors about the HS2 costs.

And then there was another oddity, in that staff salaries were being accounted for with a negative cost. City AM reported in May that the data published by the DfT shows “The total monthly cost of contingent labour, classified as agency (clerical and admin) staff, interim managers and specialist contractors for HS2 in February comes in at -£740,766.97.” Both the DfT and HS2 Ltd refused to give the actual figures or explain why it was negative.

And a few days ago, the Canary spotted that the Chris Grayling announced that the government would be underwriting at least £12m of risk over the HS2 rail project. They are also unhappy that not only did he give a multi-million-pound guarantee to a private rail company, but also he sneaked the announcement out without consulting parliament first.

Another factor was the publication of a report by high speed rail lobby group, Greenguage 21. This talks about a whole load of possible new railways (not all high speed) to add cross country connectivity and links to Heathrow and move away from the “hub and spoke system”. Whatever one thinks of their proposals, the publication of the report seems timed to say good things about HS2 before negative publicity. (I had rather wandered if a budget increase for HS2 would be sneaked out when the Heathrow third runway was announced.)

All of those were already public before the New Civil Engineer article on the 12th June, in which they report that the interim contracts submitted are coming in significantly over the budget for this phase of work of £6.6 billion. The NCE says ‘one source said that the collective price was coming in at “around £1.2bn” over budget, another said that some bids were “as much as 30% to 40%higher” than their individual target price.

The NSE adds that some contractors are being told to “go away and sharpen their pencils”.

Of course, we’ve been here before, when David Cameron appointed David Higgins as chair and ask him to reduce the price.  The resulting HS2 Plus document dropped some elements of the project and said the existing budget was right: no price reductions possible there.

So it seems increasingly likely that there’ll be a HS2 price rise at some point over the next few months. An ever more costly white elephant when there would be so many better ways of spending the HS2 budget.

Options for Austin, Tx

I’ve just come back from several weeks in Austin, Texas.

This wasn’t a holiday as such, but I was mostly free to please myself and do whatever I fancied.  I had various guidebooks, and there is an array of websites with suggestions.  The big tourist things – Lady Bird Park, the State Capitol building, the Bob Bullock museum – are in all these books.

But there were some other things, such as quilt shops and the Treaty Oak, which would be interesting to me, even if they aren’t in the standard guidebooks. Without a list I might be almost next door to a good place to go and miss it, because I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, or hadn’t checked the website for the address.

So I wrote myself a little travel guide of these other things and took a couple of copies with me, one permanently in the rental car, another in my handbag.  I didn’t go everywhere in my guide (none of the star parties, for example), and it is not the definitive list of top sites.  But having gone to the bother of creating it in a nice format for printing, I’m putting it out there for anyone else who is interested.

Penny’s Austin Adventure Guide v1.1

I’m happy for anyone to print out copies for themselves, but it should be noted that some of the chunks of text are basically cut’n’pasted from websites (but probably edited for brevity), so don’t use it commercially.  Also it will get out of date as soon as the first shop changes their hours.

Please let me know if you find it useful!

Autumn Shirt Reshuffle

This is my experience of my autumn seasonal swop of my clothes: specifically how this year’s swop is spurring me to get rid of things.

It helped that we took our annual summer holiday in September, missing much of the summer to autumn transition in the UK.

I had a week at home, before a trip to a party conference.

As I lugged my heavy suitcase into the hotel and hung the clothes up, I really felt I’d overpacked for the conference. Partly that was planned, with multiple changes of clothes: I’d always intended to swop my travelling top into something smarter (although the top I’d been wearing was smart enough). But partly it was because I had blouses I rarely had the opportunity to wear, and was desperate to actually use them.

One blouse I’d worn once before. It was soft and silky, dark in colour with a subtle flounce. I’d stalked it on the website, checking it up, watching as it went into clearance, swooping in to buy when the price fell to an amount to I felt I could justify. And at last it was its turn to be worn again.

I put it on.

It gaped. The flesh of my bosom was clearly visible, and not in saucy, cleavage-bearing, alluring style, but in a frumpy, badly fitting, unflattering style.

I put on the camisole top I had with me, and tried the blouse again.

The blouse still gaped, still as unflattering as before.

I put on my jacket – the overall look was still frumpy.

I took off jacket, blouse, camisole and then put on a shirt I had already worn for an evening. The lovely, silky, frumpy blouse went back in my suitcase, to be discarded when I got home.

So, home again.

Time to put my summery clothes away until next year, and pull out my more autumnal ones. Looking in my drawers, I realised the small selection in circulation included several I didn’t much like, but there were a lot more I did like going unworn. Time for radical action.

I took everything to my daughter’s room. (She’s at university, so the bed is free at the moment.) I made piles. Warm clothes for the depth of winter, cool clothes for hot summer, tops for for the end of summer, tops for the start of autumn, any of which I might not wear in an ordinary October.
Piles of shirts and blouses on http://penspot.co.uk
There were more piles of shirts and long-sleeved t-shirts. Enough, dare I say it, to wear a different clean top every day for the rest of October and into November. So that was the first rule of the declutter: a different top every day for the rest of the month (as I work from home this is easy for me to put into place).

Then I made the main rules about what to keep and what should go:
1) Was it worn?
2) Was it comfortable?
3) Did it suit me?
4) Meh or joy?

The first three rules are self-explanatory, and would probably be enough to make a decision. The final rule over-rides the rest: if I really liked it, I could keep it, and if I felt ‘meh’ for whatever reason I could get rid of it.

By the second day, five tops were in the ‘go’ pile, even without putting them on. Three were just ‘meh’, one was worn and the other uncomfortable. Interestingly, one top I’d expected to get rid of stayed: I’d bought two at the same time, and one was worn out, so I never wore either. Getting rid of the worn out one meant I knew the other was fine, and could start wearing it again.
The experiment continues. Shirts are being kept: shirts are being discarded, along with a pile of unfashionable jeans. Space is being made in my wardrobe.

Voting Remain in spite of the campaign

I was in the middle of writing this when the news about Jo Cox’s shooting broke.The official campaigns haven’t re-started yet. One can hope for a kinder politics, but will the leopards change their spots? 

Way back in February, Question Time was due to be filmed locally to me in Poole.  It was just after the referendum date had been set which was clearly going to dominate the decision, so as part of the application process, you had to say whether you would vote in or out.
Do you want to leave this site

My answer was finely balanced.  There were good reasons to vote in, but then again there were good reasons to vote out.  However my sister in law is from Spain. This would always outweigh every other factor, so when I spoke to the researcher who was dealing with audience participation, I told her I would almost certainly be voting Remain.  (Last year, I even discussed writing for the pro-EU side in the campaign.)

Now, I will be voting Remain in spite of the campaign.

I don’t want to be associated with them, because their campaign exemplifies the worst type of politics, a factor I’m sure has contributed to Remain’s poor showing in the polls.

The thing is, many of the tactics used are surprisingly similar to the tactics used by politicians to push HS2 through – the personal attacks, the dodgy statistics and the ‘independent’ reports published by organisations with a vested interest.

These tactics were almost certainly not invented for HS2. But like most people most of the time, I wasn’t taking a detailed look at campaigns for or against specific issues, so I didn’t notice them.  However with so many people with a vote on the EU referendum, and no clear party line to adhere to, ordinary people are taking a lot of notice of the Remain campaign’s tactics, and they don’t like them.

I’m not saying of course, that the Leave campaign is a model of perfect civility and pleasantness, but then my alternative to voting Remain was always going to be abstain.  I wasn’t going to be out campaigning for them anyway: I wasn’t going to try and persuade people to vote Leave.

The whole of David Cameron’s strategy seemed to be backfiring, with trust in David Cameron himself plummeting in a matter of months as the Remain campaign he is leading gets nastier.

You have the so called independent reports which when you dig a little deeper are from people who are funded, directly or indirectly, from the EU.

You have the personal attacks on the politicians. And anyone who might vote for Brexit is also vilified, by association with the worst villain of the day.

Oh and the threats of war, pestilence and the fall of Western civilisation (thank you Donald Tusk) if we vote for Brexit – nothing unbelievable there.

(On the unbelievable end, the BBC didn’t immediately start covering a recent HS2 story, because their correspondent couldn’t believe the figures for HS2 were so bad. They were.)

There has been no vision from the Remain campaign.

Or at least, there is no vision of what staying in the EU could be like if they win.  There is a vision from Leave who are perhaps overboard on promising a land of milk and honey – you may not believe they can deliver, but the vision is there.  The only vision from Remain is the fire and brimstone they claim would result from a Brexit vote, with Osborne’s vindictive emergency budget a prime example.

When politicians campaign like this on individual policies which they are determined to get through regardless of the merits, it often passes unnoticed by all but a few.  But this is just the same on a bigger scale – and with a lot more people looking at it simultaneously.

It’s possible Remain would have won, even without the shooting on Thursday.  It’s possible that dreadful event has made enough difference to enough undecided voters.  However much of the Remain campaign has been so unpleasant no wonder it has been losing ground.

There might have been a case to make for the EU: perhaps the idea of British skepticsm being needed in the heart of Europe, or perhaps that the sweep of history is towards closer ties.  Nobody has made the case.

I’m voting Remain in spite of the campaign, not because of it.

HS2 Vacancy Ahead? – Chair of the Board

This is the article I wrote for Stop HS2, but it was never published, because it turned out this was only a bit of the story – and Higgins wasn’t planning to be off at all, it was other people who may have decided it was time for him to go. For more, see Is Higgins off, or is it another HS2 cock-up? and Government mount desperate bid to cut HS2 costs.


As pointed out by John in a comment on Wednesday, the Public Appointments committee will soon be looking out for a replacement chair for HS2 Ltd.

Higgins’ contract has always had an end-date – he told the Transport Select Committee in November 2014 that it ran until January 2016, and it was “is not in my gift” to extend it.

But what is interesting is to see what else Higgins had to say:

Jason McCartney: How long is your personal contract for in this role and how long do you see yourself being able to keep up this pace for… Would you be seeking a contract extension for another three or four years?

Sir David Higgins: Well, I would never be so presumptuous as to think—

Jason McCartney: But would you personally at this stage be looking for—

Sir David Higgins: I think I want to see what progress we have made next calendar year and what support we have from any Government, whichever Government it is, to take the project forward. What I am doing now is spending a lot of time with the Executive and the board, building up the capabilities of the organisation. I am really pleased that the approvals we have had through in terms of recruitment and flexibility allow us to hire the right people in-house rather than as consultants on the project, and that is now proceeding. We are going to get a really strong team.

While he has managed to extend the £242,000 post for another few months (not bad for a three-day week), it looks like he is planning to be off before the other delays in the project become clear.

On waffling….

Lord Tebbit (Con): I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. Will he just come to the point and meet the point that has been ably expressed by a number of noble and learned Lords? He is just waffling. Is he trying to talk it out until 11 pm?

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova: The suggestion that I am waffling is one that I do not find wholly offensive.

Originally found on Lords of the Blog, then traced back to Hansard via a search on TheyWorkForYou.  I always like to check with the original source.

My thoughts on Ada Lovelace Day and HS2

As a former computer programmer, I’m fully behind the idea of Ada Lovelace Day.  I think it is great to remind people that women have been involved in STEM careers for centuries.

I find it amusing that the first long distance drive was by Mrs Benz to her mother after an argument with her husband, who had been developing the automobile – but in reality her husband had relied on Bertha’s money, but wouldn’t market it to enable them to recoup some of the investment.

I think it really sucks that Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) is eclipsed by her brother, in spite of discovering numerous comets herself, and being a major help to her more famous brother. (George III paid William £200 per year and Caroline £50 a year.)

What is particularly annoying me today, is the use of Ada Lovelace Day by fans of HS2 – when HS2 Ltd pay their male CEO 6 times the salary of the woman he replaced.

HS2 is a bad project and a bad company to work for. And HS2 Ltd’s actions are just as likely to put women off seeing engineering as an equal pay opportunity.