A Fluffi-shambles

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From the National

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Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland. 

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Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit.  He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale.  Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood.  Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys.  By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed.  The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”

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Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005.  Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.  He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland.  (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves.  Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”)

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Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode.  The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromise and against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process.  But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles. 

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He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects.  Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.  The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out.  Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters. 

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In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister.  However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning.  Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures). 

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A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime Minister in her course, er, of action.  Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er, Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er, the decision of the House today…  There are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er, without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”

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I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage, grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights everywhere.  Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart (1995).

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Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing.  Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party.  He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause.  Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening…  What?

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From twitter.com / @scottishlabour

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When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form.  In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.”  Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years.  A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.  At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.

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In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all.  After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999.  But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever. 

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And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain. 

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Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either.  That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government.  These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’.  Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms.  Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges.  From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.

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Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.

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From the Evening Times

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