Monday, 11 February 2013
A falling out in Broken Barnet: Offord and Freer, on the road to nowhere in 2015
Feeling vulnerable? Local Tory MPs Mike Freer and Matthew Offord
Yes: there is trouble in Paradise. Let Mrs Angry explain.
Once upon a time in Broken Barnet there were two Conservative councillors who were Cabinet colleagues, and influential members of the Tory adminstration. Both of them had ambitions beyond the confines of Broken Barnet, and both stood successfully as parliamentary candidates for local constituencies.
Before entering parliament as MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer had become Leader of Barnet Council, after a coup organised in part by the former Tory councillor Brian Coleman, now languishing in well deserved obscurity after his loss of power, and awaiting trial on a charges relating to an alleged assault of a local woman.(Hearing now listed for May 3rd, Uxbridge Magistrates Court, if you wish to make a note in your diary, or organise a coach party).
Both Freer and Offord were perhaps more easily elected than might have been the case: Freer's Labour predecessor in Finchley and Golders Green had been terminally ill during the latter part of his tenure as MP, tragic circumstances with predictable impact on the Labour vote: Matthew Offord only managed to scrape through with a margin of 106 votes and an acrimonious campaign, bitterly resented by the hard working Labour representative Andrew Dismore.
Offord's lacklustre career as Hendon MP has been marked by controversy, puntuated by curious incidents, outbursts, and gaffes: the use of parliamentary privilege to make personal accusations about former colleagues, the trip to Belize during the London riots to fight hurricanes and 'narco terrorism', the threat to use human rights legislation to defend his habit of bringing his political adviser, his long suffering Jack Russell Max, to work in the House of Commons, the heckling of a speaker in front of army chiefs at a dinner, the peculiar incidents involving broken wrists on honeymoon, and mugs flying out of cupboards ...
Mike Freer has been more circumspect in his time at Westminster, but has hardly set the political world on fire. Any attempts to gain advancement have come to nothing, possibly because, as it is rumoured, Eric Pickles is not an enormous fan of his: why is that, you may wonder?
Apart from asking questions relating to Whitehall's use of mobile phones - and to be fair, he must be an expert on this subject, being a veteran BT Vital Visionary - his proudest moment before this week would be the promotion of an anti-squatting bill, which has criminalised the occupation of any residential property.
Mike Freer: securing the anti-squatting rights of householders like Mr and Mrs Gaddafi, of Hampstead Garden Suburb
This legislation was pushed for by Freer after concerns were raised by the millionaire residents of Tory stronghold Hampstead Garden Suburb, in particular after the occupation of a vacant mansion in Winnington Road. Both Freer and Suburb Tory councillor Andrew Harper stated themselves to be very angry about this issue.
In March 2011, Freer even referred to this 'high profile' example of squatting in his consitutuency in parliament. This must have come as a great comfort to Mr and Mrs Gaddafi, of Tripoli, Libya, whose house it was, occupied by dissident Libyans. Still, it is a real credit to Mr Freer and Cllr Harper that they were such enthusiastic supporters of the property rights of their absentee constituent, rather than the right to protest against an evil, murderous dictatorship, is it not?
Mr Freer's views on the squatters' occupation of Friern Barnet Library, and the consequent reclamation of the building by the community are not known.
Freer's legacy, back here in Broken Barnet, a parting gift to his colleagues at Barnet Council was 'Futureshape', the bastard child of his soundbite 'easycouncil' nonsense and an evil conception which mutated, in his absence, into a monstrous programme of mass privatisation, now known as One Barnet.
The antics of the Barnet Tories have not exactly endeared themselves to the central Conservative party, and the close links maintained by both MPs to their former colleagues back home has done nothing to enhance their own ambitions for promotion.
Freer made one bid for approval from the big boys by being one of the few backbench MPs prepared to back NHS reforms, and defend the withholding of the NHS risk register, insisiting that any complaints from critics were merely resistence to necessary reforms and stating:
"The Opposition see the release of the risk register as simply an opportunity to cherry-pick the doomsday scenarios that it may contain. It is no more than a charter for shroud-waving ..."
This may have escaped the notice of those he was trying to impress: it did not escape the eye of Mrs Angry, who will make sure that Freer's support for the government's destruction of the NHS will be laid before the electorate as we approach the next election.
This last week in parliament saw a vote to allow equal marriage, a groundbreaking moment, and a debate in which both our MPs spoke, and indeed clashed, with Freer speaking eloquently in favour of the proposals, and Offord speaking like a fool, defending the frankly offensive and utterly silly arguments in opposition to the plans which he has adopted, and promoted for some months now with his own constituents and now in the house itself.
Quite why Matthew Offord felt the need to take such an intransigent and outspoken approach to what is clearly an issue of great significance and sensitivity is really puzzling. Clearly it matters very much to him to speak out on this subject, and to be seen to articulate his commitment to heterosexual marriage. But he has chosen to do so in ways which are ill judged, and unnecessarily provocative, suggesting that the legalisation of gay marriage is comparable to a demand for marriage for polygamists, and, even more incredibly, between blood relatives.
Offord has tried to justify his reference to polygamy by claiming he has received letters from constituents demanding such arrangements be sanctioned by law. He has also claimed to have had, variously, 842, many hundreds, and nearly a thousand letters against the equal marriage proposals. If there are such numbers, one might ask if perhaps they are part of an orchestrated campaign by a local evangelical church. Whether or not we would receive an answer, is something else. Mrs Angry has seen some of his correspondance with constituents, and the tone of his responses really is quite astonishing.
The lack of judgement which Offord displays in his role is well evidenced: such lack of discretion has lost him much support and may well prove fatal to his career: he cannot afford to lose the support of constituents whose views he does not support but have every right to make known to him.
Perhaps most absurdly of all, in the past he has stated that marriage between partners of the same sex is wrong because the purpose of marriage is 'procreation'. Dr Offord has not procreated himself since his marriage, which took place when he was forty, just before the last general election, but still he feels authorised to lecture others on what marriage should be. No doubt he feels that his own situation is a private matter, but then this is just the point, is it not? People's relationships are entirely a matter for themselves, and for no one else.
Matthew Offord on the birds and the bees ... sexual activity amongst bees is for procreation, not fun. Or making honey. NB that's birds AND bees, not birds and birds, or bees and bees, or - oh, hang on ...
Whether you choose to marry, or not to marry: who cares?
With his mind seemingly stuck in the 1950s, Matthew Offord, on our behalf, worries about the threat to society from bigamy and polygamy: simply laughable.
Sustaining any meaningful relationship is almost impossible in our society, but those that do have a multiplicity of form: long term relationships, civil partnerships, open relationships, parallel relationships: even virtual relationships - men and women, men and men, women and women ... life is complex and always has been, under a thin veneer of bourgeois respectability. Only now. Mr Offord, we are being more honest about the way we want to live.
That anyone, straight or gay, should love someone enough to want to marry, and make a public commitment to a partner, should be welcomed by those who think that stability is a virtue; and one might expect that any Tory, keen on freedom, choice and personal liberties in every other sense, would understand that. Not Matthew Offord, however.
Mike Freer spoke well in the debate, despite what appeared at one point to be a rather intemperate interruption from his Barnet colleague. Rumour has it that a certain froideur now exists between the former friends, since this issue first became a matter of discussion some months ago.
Freer spoke frankly about his own sexuality, and was commendably honest about his own relationship with his partner of twenty one years, something which is not easy for a member of a party which is clearly still so reactionary in its views on marriage and same sex relationships. And it was a brave gesture for someone who was himself reluctant to be open about the same partner in some of the material distributed to households during the election campaign.
Offord's speech really defies belief: just look at the expressions on the faces of his Tory member colleagues behind him as he expands on his frankly bizarre theme, denying that he had ever compared equal marriage to polygamy, and then telling us that, well - allowing equal marriage will lead to the sanctioning of polygamy ...
In Finchley and Golders Green constituency, there are large religious communities with traditional and non negotiable views on marriage who may well not take kindly to Mike Freer's position on equal marriage, and, sadly, may not approve of his own personal circumstances. His act of courage in so outspokenly advocating a vote for equal marriage may therefore lose him vital local support in the next election. On the other hand, he will have perhaps won new votes from residents who were impressed by his support for the proposals.
In the meanwhile, let us see him speak equally eloquently in the house on issues that are not perhaps of such direct personal importance, but of pressing concern to all residents in his constituency - the threat to our council services, as a direct result of One Barnet, and the state of health services within this borough, whose future is jeopardised by the vandalism of Conservative policy, which so far he has defended.
Only this morning a shocking press release from the Labour group in Barnet has revealed that we are now facing a truly devastating £100 million shortfall in local GPs funding from government. As Mrs Angry knows from personal experience, local GPs are already struggling to cope with the new restrictions, financial and otherwise forced on them by new government policy - this will put the health and well being of every constituent at risk. Will Freer change his tune now, on his defence of NHS policy, or even talk to local GPs - and listen? Let's see.
Ironically, and for quite the opposite reason, Matthew Offord's infantile speech, as grating in content as in the oddly old fashioned, begrudging way in which he speaks, may have sealed the end of his own political career. He no doubt believes that some faith groups and communities in the Hendon consituency will support his views by flocking to the polling station on election day. Mrs Angry suspects that this is a grave miscalculation, and that the real vote that will count in Hendon in 2015 will be the huge number of gay residents who will be banging on the doors determined to make their vote count and sling him out. And good riddance, says Mrs Angry.
In the end, when 2015 arrives, the shifting loyalties of voters in both Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green constituencies will of course decide the fate of both MPs, and both constituencies will depend more heavily than they might have expected on their core vote to see them through to election.
Oh dear. Because now we must move from the consideration of the impact of one issue to the tidal wave of the Barnet insurgency. While both MPs have tried to distance themselves from the One Barnet issue, most ridiculously in the case of Mike Freer, their silence has done nothing to prevent a very interesting development: the evident dissatisfaction of the heartland of Tory voters with the local council, and their increasingly outspoken criticism of the One Barnet outsourcing plans.
Despite Freer and Harper's war on squatters, and the overweening enthusiasm of the Tory council to support and subsidise the local residents' association bid to run the local library in a shop, staffed by retired barristers and headteachers, (compare and contrast with the struggle for the community library in Friern Barnet), everything in the Garden Suburb is not rosy, anymore.
The parking issue has greatly antagonised, and continues to outrage, the Suburbanistas, the Tories erstwhile hard core supporters. Mrs Angry has attended more than one local meeting recently where Suburb residents have expressed their sense of fury that Other People are daring to park outside their houses (such impertinence) because they cannot and will not use the impossible new method of pay for by card parking spaces elsewhere.
And then last week something happened which should act as a dreadful warning to our Tory chums. There was a mini rebellion at that most complaisant of venues, a meeting of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents Association, where deputy council leader Daniel Thomas had been invited to explain the One Barnet programme.
A view of Hampstead Garden Suburb, by William Ratcliffe, 1914 - pic courtesy Tate
Barnet Alliance campaigner Barbara Jacobson attended this meeting and wrote a fascinating report, an extract of which follows, and which you can read in full over at Citizen Barnet's blog here
"The newly informed residents questioned the validity of the monitoring system, the risks of and lack of competition inherent in a 10-year contract, the probability of failure, the way the ‘customer services’ would work, whether procurement was being outsourced (the councilor had neglected to itemize the services, just referring to them as ‘back office’), whether councilors should have lower allowances or were needed at all.
These residents told the councillors that monitoring and KPIs allowed companies to ‘game the system’ – that is, assess their own performance as compliant even when it was not – and that no private supplier of public services had delivered the savings it promised.
They countered Cllr Thomas’s claim that NSL was delivering on budget, and told him about the 60% parking-ticket-appeal success rate, which he and Cllr Harper said they would have to look into.
The residents were not impressed by Cllr Thomas’s explanation that private companies made savings over what he had said were the very efficient Barnet services by paying their staff less and giving them fewer benefits but offering them better career opportunities.
They exposed the inconsistency in his saying Capita had up-to-date software and systems for running Barnet affairs but somehow need to invest £13 million of Barnet money in IT, which Capita would then own.
They did not accept that financial penalties for failures and the possibilities of renegotiating aspects of the contract after four years were sufficient safeguards, pointing out that the council would be tied up in legal arguments by Capita to counter any penalties ..."
If this doesn't put the wind up our Tory councillors, and our Tory MPs, then nothing will.
If they have lost the hearts and minds of voters in Hampstead Garden Suburb - well, friends, the war is over.
In Hendon, similar mutinies have occured at meetings of influential residents associations of the Tory heartland, at the Mill Hill Preservation Society, and even within the ranks of - dear Lord - the Finchley Society.
Mrs Angry, who is of course always right in these matters, will make a prediction.
Barnet Council will fall in 2014, and Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green constituencies in 2015.
It's all over, bar the shouting. Goodbye Matthew, goodbye Mike: even the sainted Theresa Villiers is going to have her work cut out hanging on to Chipping Barnet.
Not a bad way to start the week, with such stirring news, is it, readers?