David Cameron is taking a bit of trouble to unite his parliamentary party. Having built a coalition outside it last time, he knows he must now build one within. The best way to do this lies to hand. It is to return to the pre-Blair custom of having Prime Minister’s Questions twice a week. Advisers always tell prime ministers not to do this, on the grounds that it is a waste of time and can only expose them to added risk. But in fact it has two good effects. It makes MPs feel much happier, and so discourages plotting. It also makes the Prime Minister the master of every area of policy and every nuance of parliamentary opinion. It literally doubles his power to govern successfully through the House of Commons. To introduce such a thing in his second term would be a wonderfully confident and friendly gesture which Mr Cameron, who is anyway a master of the genre, would not rue.
As the news of John Whittingdale’s appointment as Culture Secretary came through, I happened to be sorting my pile of threatening letters from TV Licensing. It was taking me a bit of time, as there are 34 of them, accumulated over the past two years or so. Faithful readers of this column may remember that in my flat in London I do not have a television. TV Licensing, which collects on behalf of the BBC, works on the insulting assumption that everyone has a television and therefore accuses me of licence evasion, telling me that it will take me to court. I never reply to these letters, both because I do not see why I should and because I have established that, contrary to their implication, TV Licensing has no right whatever to demand this information or to enter one’s premises. Its threats are like the sentence ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’: legal fiction. As long ago as the Peacock Report in 1986, it was officially recognised that technology would quite soon remove whatever sense might once have lain behind the licence fee, yet such is the intimidatory might of the Corporation that we are still paying this cultural poll tax 30 years later. Politically, it is important to legislate its death sentence early in this Parliament, or the Tories will be too frightened by the approach of the next election to do so.
In her recent official history of the BBC, Jean Seaton makes the striking claim that BBC executives ‘had to ration’ Mrs Thatcher’s appearances on Jimmy Savile shows, because she wanted to be on with him so much. If this is true, they were successful. She appeared on Jim’ll Fix It three times in her 15-year career as leader and was separately interviewed by him once. MT loved being on the Jimmy Young Show on Radio 2, however, and appeared on it 18 times. Is Professor Seaton confusing her Jimmys? I notice that poor Jimmy Young, who despite being an ex-disc jockey aged over 90 has not yet been charged with any sexual offences, does not appear in her index. There is a tendency among people who do not like Mrs Thatcher to try to link her name with Savile as often as possible. They should be careful. The fact is that he got close to almost everyone famous. During the 1987 general election, for example, he was president of Hands Across Britain. The name suggests a mass movement of gropers, but in fact it was an implicitly anti-Tory campaign for the unemployed. Savile shared it with Cardinal Basil Hume (who also put him up for the Athenaeum), Bishop David Sheppard of Liverpool, Glenda Jackson, Sting and the general-secretary of the TUC, Norman Willis.
It is funny how the media repeat what they are told. I heard Norman Smith of the BBC say that the new Cabinet was ‘refreshing its image’, becoming ‘blue-collar’, and moving away from the ‘playing fields of Eton’. Actually the number of Etonians with full Cabinet rank and salary has just doubled. Before the election, there was one (David Cameron). Now Oliver Letwin has joined. A third Etonian, Boris Johnson, has been invited to attend political Cabinet meetings.
As Matt Ridley has recently pointed out, the House of Parliament which the Tories now do not anywhere near control is the Lords. This has never happened before under a Tory government. I look forward to a constitutional crisis, preferably about the Human Rights Act, in which left-wing peers defy the elected government. Indeed, my guess is that the appointment of Lord Falconer as the shadow lord chancellor is a prelude to this. The right Tory response, like that of Asquith and Lloyd George over the People’s Budget, would be to threaten to create hundreds of new peers so that the will of the people may prevail.
This week is the funeral of Frances Banks, who was my secretary when I was editor of the Daily Telegraph. Frances was only 63, but her sad death makes me realise how her breed has almost disappeared. She was part of the last generation in which large numbers of highly intelligent women became secretaries. Today, almost all such women have good degrees and go on to higher-flying positions. Technology has supplanted their more routine tasks. This is generally to their good. But it involves the loss of something special — a whole class of people within organisations who were extremely able, but were not competing for the top executive positions. This meant that every office had a stock of wisdom, experience, humour and humanity which is now dangerously depleted. Those of us lucky enough to have worked with such people can only wonder how lonely it must be in the higher reaches of office life without them.