PM leaves daughter
in the pub

The Prime Minister and his wife Samantha recently left their eight-year-old daughter Nancy behind in the pub.

They realised their mistake when they got back to Chequers.

On the surface, this seems to be a shocking example of parental neglect. How could you possibly leave your child behind as you stagger home after lunchtime drinks?

But according to the Daily Mail, the problem was one of logistics. The Prime Minister went home with his bodyguards, while Sam whizzed back to Chequers in a second car. Each assumed that little Nancy was with the other. Easily done. (I expect there were all sorts of people missing on the Thames after the Jubilee flotilla. Camilla clearly got into the wrong coach at one point because she ended up sitting next to the Queen.)

So I don’t think we should rush to judgement.

On the other hand, I feel it is entirely fair to point out that I have never left Robin in the Red Lion in Fitton. It’s not just the E.coli. The dark and threatening interior of our local pub would, I feel sure, scar a small child for life.

Why Jeremy Hunt is missing the point

As I see it, it makes no difference whether or not Jeremy Hunt is squeaky clean. (Read the latest from the BBC here.)

The point is, he has to take responsibility for what his staff was doing. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because everything falls apart without strong leadership. Imagine if the manager of our local Tesco claimed he wasn’t responsible for mistakes at the checkout (many and various, in my opinion). Or if Rachel Jensen tried to put the blame for year 1’s revolting pornographic graffiti on the lovely Miss Black. Or if Mary our vicar said she wasn’t responsible for the dramatic decline in church attendance. (I do wonder, in fact, if this is something we should discuss as a community.)

The point is that if you put yourself up for high office, you have to accept that you carry the can. It’s all very well wafting about the country courting headlines (or hiding behind trees), but you also have to be prepared to take the blame when things go wrong.

The good thing about taking responsibility is that you can also claim all the credit when you score a resounding success. As I do, frequently, whenever anyone mentions St Jude’s PTA.

Do, please, refresh your memories by reading chapter 1 of How I Seized Power: A Handbook for Leaders Everywhere.

My selfless service to the community

So much voluntary work goes unrewarded. It’s hidden work by unseen hands. I certainly felt, as the inspirational leader of St Jude’s PTA, that I never quite got the recognition I deserved.

Mothers generally, of course, are rarely rewarded. Sometimes, picking Lego from the ever-sucking Dyson, I wonder where I get the strength to continue.

Only the other day the lovely Urmila in Fitton Chemist, clearly anxious that I was pushing myself too hard, said, ‘Have you ever considered letting others have a turn?’ But I can’t see how Fitton would operate without me. A quiet word here, a handwritten notice there  –  my behind-the-scenes interventions keep community life running smoothly.

I was reminded of this as I listened to Today on Radio 4. When Southampton plays Portsmouth, apparently, the police move heaven and earth to ensure that the warring football fans never meet. The only sign of their success is the absence of violent clashes.

That must be quite soul-destroying  – measuring your success by things not happening.

Although an absence of leaks might be a very good way to test the success of a water company.

How to create a
media storm

The British public loves an argument. We’ve had Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone scrapping in red-faced fury. We’ve had Francis Maude vs The Fire Brigade, George Osborne vs Grannies and, today, Lib Dems vs Tories over access to online data.

(You can’t help watching when people are shouting. Once, in Fitton high street, an elderly lady took very vocal exception to a young man dropping an empty crisp packet, and we all stood open-mouthed, like children watching Punch and Judy.)

But if you want to create a real media storm, you follow the example of the Daily Mail. You set women against women. You engineer a cat fight. You ask a 40-year-old woman called Samantha Brick to write an article called ‘Why Do Women Hate Me For Being So Beautiful?’ and then sit back and wait for the comments to flood in. You even plot a graph of the tweets before printing a follow-up article.

I am amazed that political spin doctors don’t use this tactic more often.

The next time the Coalition is in hot water, it should divert attention by mocking up an all-female battle. Set Theresa May against Harriet Harman. Wonder whether Labour MP Caroline Flint and Tory MP Louise Mensch have scratched each other’s eyes out in L. K. Bennett. Suggest that Meryl Streep really wanted to play Shirley Williams rather than Margaret Thatcher. And illustrate the whole thing with a picture of women mud-wrestling.

Petrol crisis

Annie Laurence has cancelled Easter. She was going camping with her sister in Wales, but they’re worried about the petrol strike.

‘But they’re not striking over Easter,’ I said.

‘That’s what they say,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going to risk being stuck up a mountain with six kids.’

Everyone I speak to in Fitton is conserving fuel. Visits to far-flung family are being postponed. The garden centre beyond the bypass was practically deserted when I visited on Sunday.

But I can’t see how this will last. We have Tesco Metro, of course. But you have to get into your car to go to Waitrose.

‘I suppose we’ve always got the train,’ I said to Berta.

‘What you train for?’ she said.

‘I’m not training for anything,’ I said.

‘Well, you should,’ she said. ‘You get fat.’

The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ come to mind.

Fabrice Muamba flattened by
Peter Cruddas

‘What a lovely morning!’ I said to Berta. She didn’t smile. And I can understand why.

Britain at the moment is poised between joy and disaster. There is good news in the Sunday papers. How lucky that Dr Andrew Deaner, consultant cardiologist at the London Chest Hospital, was in the crowd when Fabrice Muamba collapsed! How amazing that a young 17-year-old, Jonathan Antoine, opened his mouth at Britain’s Got Talent and sang like Pavarotti! How inspiring that George Clooney has become a political activist!

But these heart-singing news items are almost entirely crushed, like a clump of purple crocuses flattened underfoot, by the heavy weight of general misery.

My son Robin, I read in the Observer newspaper today, will have to work until he’s 71 before he gets a pension. GPs will be asked to question patients on their drinking habits (even if, perhaps, you have only made an appointment to discuss a verruca). The Duchess of Cambridge’s parents are getting grief over their plans for an extension at their house in Berkshire, and there might, after all, be a third runway at Heathrow. To top it all, the Conservative party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas has done a Fergie and promised access to David Cameron in return for hefty donations. He’s had to resign, of course. But why is there this level of ineptitude in high office?

It is tempting sometimes to give in to a feeling of hopelessness when the country is being run so badly.

But I am determined to remain optimistic. The sun is shining. There are taps to be buffed, cushions to be plumped, and a rose bush to be sprayed.

The antidote to gloom, I always find, is to keep yourself busy.


The NHS reforms

It’s 8.30am. I ring up the surgery to make an appointment with my GP. The line’s engaged. I try again. And again. Eventually, at 8.40am, I get through.

‘No, I’m afraid she hasn’t got any appointments left today,’ says the receptionist.

‘How about tomorrow?’

‘It’s same-day appointments, I’m afraid. You have to ring at 8.30am tomorrow if you want to see her tomorrow.’

I think about this. ‘Are you telling me,’ I say, ‘that all her appointments for any given day disappear in the ten minutes between half past eight and twenty to nine?’

‘She’s very popular,’ says the receptionist.

I’m not entirely sure what the new NHS reforms are all about. But I do hope the GPs at my surgery are better at grappling with enormous health budgets than organising a simple appointments system.

Pickles with everything

Eric Pickles seems to be everywhere at the moment. (He’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  – Yorkshire accent, sharp tongue. It’s like coming across one of your fillings in a mouthful of golden syrup.) There he is on the radio having a sly dig at Vince Cable. There he is on Question Time saying he’s changed his mind about gay marriage. According to the Mail on Sunday, he was ‘dead-panning’ at the annual parliamentary ‘Palace of Varieties’ charity show last week. You do wonder, really, how he copes with such a punishing schedule. Does the poor man ever have time to eat? For some reason, he reminds me of the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Slow, ponderous, destined for better things. Although I don’t believe he’ll ever turn into a butterfly.

 (llustration by John Tenniel)

Why close ticket offices?

I love Fitton. When we moved out of London three years ago, we could have gone absolutely anywhere  –  Guildford, Tunbridge Wells, Beaconsfield, Amersham. But we chose Fitton, and I have very few complaints. The Red Lion, perhaps, could benefit from judicial refurbishment, and I am not convinced by the wisdom of having four charity shops selling Alistair MacLean and blue glass fruit bowls.

But it’s Fitton station that worries me the most. It’s not only the peeling paint and the wire hanging baskets full of nothing but brown plants and empty Costa cups. It’s the complete absence of any kind of staff.

Fitton station is ‘unmanned’ (a word that always makes me think of the hero of a romantic novel temporarily deprived of his masculine swagger). You buy tickets at a machine. You wait on the platform under the flickering electronic arrivals display. And if trains don’t arrive, or the gutter is spilling rainwater on to the one metal bench, or there’s a dead pigeon rotting on Platform 1, or (as I have experienced on at least one occasion) a young man whittling chunks out of the wooden frame round the timetable, there’s no one you can appeal to.

I am completely at a loss to understand why anyone should think this is an ideal situation.  Rising fares are, of course, a cause for concern. Sir Roy McNulty in his recent review points out that UK passengers pay 30% more than their European counterparts. But his recommendations for reducing running costs, currently being considered by the Transport Minister, include closing ticket offices. Why does he think this is a good idea?

I am all for efficiency. When I worked in marketing (strategy and brand development) for a major UK pharmaceutical company, I set up innumerable office systems that cut waste and improved flow.

But you must do nothing that harms the core product. Closing ticket offices to reduce running costs is, to me, like M&S deciding to offer cheaper cardigans by snipping off the buttons. It’s a solution, but not one that any sane consumer would welcome.

(photo Michael W. Giddens, Stockvault)

Confusion over
Child Benefit

I find myself in two minds. This very rarely happens. I bumped into Louise Broughton (wife of Rick, the TV detective) outside the library today and I asked her if she was concerned about the Budget.

She said she didn’t have one really, just muddled along as all actors do, and I said, ‘No, George Osborne. What he’s going to announce on 21st March’, and explained that I’d been thinking about Child Benefit.

She opened her grey eyes very wide and said, ‘Should I be thinking about it, too?’, which of course I couldn’t answer, because that’s completely up to her. My role is simply to stimulate discussion.

I said, ‘On the one hand, I can see why the Coalition wants to take Child Benefit away from high earners, but on the other hand I support the idea of a universal benefit.’

Louise looked anxious.

I said, ‘And of course I can’t bear the idea that a household with one person earning £80,000 would lose the benefit, while a household with two people earning £40,000 each wouldn’t.’

She frowned. She said, ‘That makes three.’

I said, ‘Three what?’

She said, ‘Three hands.’

You can see why the row over Child Benefit is being called the Coalition cliff edge. It’s so confusing that even the ordinary woman in the street can’t follow it.

Free schools

With the deadline for the next round of applications for free schools fast approaching, I can’t help wondering. Free from what? From government interference? Pushy parents? Anxiety about dry rot? You imagine Animal Farm all over again  –  overthrowing one system only to be faced by something entirely similar.

Having said that, I am seriously beginning to wonder whether a new campaign in Fitton might be in order. As you know, we managed to completely revolutionise St Jude’s PTA (please see ‘The Handbook’ above). What’s to stop us setting up a whole new school?

Free schools often seem to have a theme, like religion or army drill or Latin-for-all. How about the Fitton Rose School?

A love of gardening should be instilled at an early age.

Post apocalypse

The cost of a stamp might be going up by over 50% next April according to the Telegraph. This would take second-class from 36p to 55p. I am appalled. I sometimes feel that Royal Mail is consciously trying to drive us into the arms of new technology. They tell us how much money they’re making at the same time as losing our letters, raising their prices, and charging us extra if the envelope’s too big. Is it surprising that we’re turning our backs on this inefficient and money-grabbing institution? As you know, I was a little reluctant to embrace the world of email, texting and Twitter. But now I can see the advantages. By taking the ‘social media’ route, I won’t have to take out a bank loan to buy a book of stamps.