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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A rareity - A nice man in Politics


The death on October 9th at the age of 78 of Sir Sydney Chapman, whilst not unexpected by those of us who saw him at the funeral of his former Association Chairman and President Don Goodman a month earlier, has nevertheless caused an immense amount of sadness to many in Chipping Barnet .

Sydney came to Barnet in 1979 having been Chairman of the National Committee of the Young Conservatives ( when they were a power in Land) and four years as Member of Parliament for Birmingham Handsworth  . Having lost his seat in the "who governs Britain " election of February 1974, Sydney spent 5 years fruitlessly touring the Country looking for another seat until being selected ( unexpectedly beating the local favourite Bob Brum ) in Chipping Barnet following the death of the alcoholic former Home Secretary Reggie Maudling .

Maudling despite holding two of the Great Offices of State , Chancellor under Sir Alec Douglas Home and Home Secretary, until disgraced, under Edward Heath had an appalling reputation as a Constituency MP . Maudling lived just outside Potters Bar but was seen rarely in his constituency, rumour has it only twice a year for his Association Christmas Bazaar and AGM. Every five years he turned up at his re-adoption meeting .

This was not a mistake Sydney Chapman was going to make . He was an assiduous Constituency MP moving into Ravenscroft Park and later Salisbury Road, sending his children to local schools and at weekends carrying out endless engagements at school fetes , Church services , community activities and even turning up on Christmas Day to greet the elderly guests at the Barnet and East Barnet Rotary Club Lunch. He was an Honorary  Member and assiduous supporter of the Rotary Club and so many other local organisations . However Monday to Thursday and sometimes Friday he was at Westminster as being a traditional MP he believed his constituents had elected him to turn up at Westminster and speak up for them there. Not for him the "glorified Social worker " approach which some modern MPs have adopted.

This approach paid off not least in 1997 where at the count at Hendon Sports Centre , Sydney saw colleagues from neighbouring constituencies fall on huge swings to Labour . As Portillo , John Marshall and the bone idle Sir John Gorst disappeared under the red tide Sir Sydney became more and more agitated "I'm out, I'm out, I'm finished " he told despondent constituency workers . Having been instructed to pull himself together by his now former wife Claire he survived by 1035 votes after a fraught recount at 5.30am in the morning . The swing in Chipping Barnet was one of the lowest in North London . I lost count of the number of doorsteps in that campaign where voters said we are fed up with the Tory party but will vote for Sydney . That election was a new experience for Sydney as rather than tour the Country supporting friends in marginal seats he found himself defending one , indeed I remember his shock at having doors slammed in his face ( Mayfield Avenue )  although Arsenal were playing a European match that night which probably had more to do with it . His usual relaxed election day routine of touring Committee rooms and have a leisurely dinner was dumped at the urgent entreaties of his more realistic agent , in favour of sitting on the telephone knocking up

Diligent in dealing with Constituency correspondence his wife Claire was an advert for why MPs should employ their relations , he never interfered or commented on matters which were the remit of his local Councillors . He was always totally loyal to his Conservative Councillor colleagues not least he realised they were his eyes and ears on the ground in the Constituency. Indeed when spending cuts forced the closure of the underused Totteridge Library, constituents who wrote to him received a polite reply in which he pointed out Barnet Council had lost a substantial amount of it's central Government grant and as ever it was the fault of the wicked Labour Government .

Sydney immensely enjoyed his years as a whip especially  in his dealings with Her Majesty the Queen whilst serving as Vice Chamberlain of the Household . His clever, amusing and easy to read memoirs "Back to the drawing Board" clearly show his rapport with HM . When John Major sacked him in 1995 he apparently said to Sydney whilst sitting at the Cabinet table "Sydney , there is good news and bad news , the bad news is I need to make room for younger men but the news is the Queen has approved an immediate Knighthood for you " . The reaction from the newly knighted Sydney Chapman was " I really wanted to be a Privy Councillor" .

It was rare to hear Sydney say a cross word about anyone . However he was no pushover and had firmly held views. In 2001 I heard him firmly put down Roger Gale MP who was canvassing support for a possible David Davis leadership bid with "Where was David in the 97 Parliament when I had to return to the front bench to be shadow Minister for London ? Off indulging himself as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee ! " A supporter of William Hague's Leadership campaign in 97 Sydney was firmly in the Ken Clarke camp by 2001.

He enjoyed his work on the Council of Europe and was as supporter of Cyprus not least because it allowed him to travel around Europe with his mates from the House of Commons of all Parties. Indeed his friendship with the late Rudi Vis MP for Finchley and Golders Green was strong and Rudi came  to the renaming of the Hadley Green Slip Road as "Sydney Chapman Way" when Barnet Council marked Sydney's 25 years as MP for Chipping Barnet . They both also shared a mutual antipathy to the Borough's then third MP .

It was no secret that Sydney enjoyed a drink and a convivial dinner. Indeed at  Sydney's retirement Dinner at Hatfield House in 2005 the guest speaker William Hague remarked in his speech " that Sydney was so well regarded in Chipping Barnet that the Council had named a road after him , Sydney Chapman Way , presumably the way to the Pub !" That brought the house down with Sydney leading the laughter . However Sydney's after dinner speeches were legendary and it seemed to me the more red wine he had consumed the funnier the speech . At the 2000 Party Conference it fell to Sydney to deliver the speech at the Agents dinner, the then customary black tie curtain raiser to the week and despite it being past 11pm and the end of a long evening Sydney's speech was one of the cleverest and funniest I have ever heard.

Never stuck in his ways and always available to listen , I am not sure he quite forgave me for getting him out canvassing on a Sunday afternoon in my 2000 GLA election . "Is this really necessary ?" he asked but when I won by a narrow margin of just 551 he conceded it had been !

However Sydney Chapman was that extreme rarity , a genuinely nice man in Politics , loyal to his Party , loyal to his friends , and loyal to his constituents.



Sunday, January 19, 2014

Seal Hunting Anyone ?

It is the weekend before a Tuesday meeting of Barnet Council and any Councillor worth their salt will be spending time reading the Agenda papers for the meeting . Buried in the small print on page 74 of the Council Agenda in the list of vacancies for Local Authority appointed School Governors is Garden Suburb Infant and Juniors where their is a vacancy due to the "self disqualification" of Conservative Councillor Daniel Seal . Self Disqualification means that the individual has failed to attend any meetings of the School Governing Body or it's Committees in the previous six months :it is not a resignation ,it is a disqualification from office under the Education Act . Now most schools only have a termly meeting of their full Governing Body and Governors with busy lives can get themselves caught out if they miss two Governing Body meetings  on the trot but as Governors are usually expected to serve on a  Committee as well , perhaps Finance or Pupil welfare that sort of thing, it always possible to ensure that you have attended one meeting at the school in six months .

Indeed if you cannot attend any official meetings in six moths what on earth is the point of serving on a School Governing Body in these days when so many legal and other responsibilities rest with Governors ?

I have known some Councillors who to avoid the embarrassment of being disqualified from a  School Governing Body or indeed other public bodies to which Councillors are appointed and the six month rule applies, have resigned ahead of the inevitable disqualification .

However Councillor Daniel Seal as they say "has form" .

His attendance at meetings of the Council is erratic to put it mildly  . In 2013 he appeared at the Annual Meeting of the Council in May and then missed two meeting in a row and only appeared at full Council again in November . In the same month  he was absent at the meeting of the Pensions Committee of the Council , which he had lobbied hard to get appointed to .

Councillor Seal , Danny to his friends, of whom I am not one , first got elected to Barnet Council for Garden Suburb Ward in 2010 replacing the adorably beautiful but politically pointless Councillor Jazmin Naghar , who appeared in the pages of "Tatler" more often then she did the "Ham and High" . Councillor Naghar although active at election time was apparently virtually invisible in the Ward the rest of the time, relying on that old war horse Councillor John Marshall to do the Ward work particularly planning, which John enjoys. The selection of Danny Seal, backed by John Marshall was seen as opting for a young ,enthusiastic, ambitious  and clever new Councillor over others who applied for the safe Conservative seat but were seen as "the usual faces, hard working but not dynamic" .

The voters of Garden Suburb ward duly did their duty and sent the handsome Councillor Seal (If you like the sort of puppy dog eyes look ) to the Town Hall. Alarm bells however soon began to ring with many colleagues seeing Danny, whilst sharp, as "cocky" or as some less charitable old hands put it "arrogant, with nothing to be arrogant about". His enthusiastic support for his buddy Councillor Mark Shooter in the various Leadership battles of 2010/11 left many Chipping Barnet Conservative Councillors feeling distinctly cold towards him .

He is a young man keen to make his fortune in business , and there is of course nothing wrong with that, but the first lesson in Politics , whether local or national is that half the job is turning up. Cllr Seal's has treated his twitter  followers over the last few weeks to tweets from his Italian skiing holiday over Christmas and the New Year , his business trip to South Korea , the Executive Lounge at Gatwick, the BA Galleries lounge at Heathrow (the potatoes were cold apparently), Jersey Airport, and this weekend, when most Barnet Councillors were attending Holocaust Commemoration his followers, with impeccable timing , were treated to tweets from Munich , the spiritual home of Nazism !

Sadly lacking are many tweets from Hampstead Garden Suburb .

Councillor Richard Cornelius , the Leader of Barnet Council is telling anyone who will listen that Cllr Seal's attendance record is "a disgrace" and is apparently, so rumour has it, is lobbying Finchley and Golders Green Conservatives to deselect him. Richard is worried that should the May elections go badly for the Tories and they end up with a majority of one or two, Cllr Seal's absence will be a luxury the Conservative Group cannot afford . Cllr Richard Cornelius is of course as usual supported by his wife , Councillor Alison Cornelius who is distrustful of many of the Jewish Councillors whom she sees as a threat to her husband's leadership.

Meanwhile Councillor Andrew Harper , the third Garden Suburb Member is retiring from the Council having realised he will never be able to bore the Conservative Group into recognising his talents and electing him Leader . He is to be replaced by  another bright , young ambitious Jewish guy Gabriel Rozenberg , the son of the "voice of sensible middle England", Melanie Phillips and the distinguished legal journalist Joshua Rozenberg . Gabriel is considered a safer bet than Seal as he is married with a family and not likely to spend most of his time tweeting from Business class airport lounges .

Finally  Councillor Seal's tells us on twitter that in April he will be in New York . So who is going to knock on doors in Garden Suburb Ward ? Ah step forward Councillor John Marshall who as so often in Barnet Politics will be riding to the rescue !

Monday, September 23, 2013

Could it happen here ?


The dreadful events at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi where gunmen from the al-Shabab group have murdered innocent shoppers including women and children in a random act of terrorism have inevitably caused questions to be asked if it could happen here in the UK ?

In the late Autumn of 2010 COBRA , which stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where it happens to meet , was called after specific intelligence had been received that there was a threat to attack British shopping centres  in the run up to Christmas . The intelligence apparently related to Shopping complexes such as Brent Cross, Lakeside , Meadowhall in Sheffield and  Trafford in Greater Manchester and those attending COBRA had the events in Mumbai a couple of years earlier at the forefront of their minds .

In a rare occurrence the Prime Minister lost his temper when he learnt that in any terrorist incident or indeed any incident involving an armed suspect, firefighters and para medics would stay outside the security cordon until the Police stated that the armed suspect had been dealt with . Even if a building was on fire or there were wounded members of the public needing treatment firefighters and para medics would stay outside the cordon not least due to the danger of being shot themselves by a gunman. The Prime Minister had visions of Sky News filming the scene and of firefighters and para medics sitting around and perceived by the viewing public to be taking no action .

Those who had not seen the Prime Minister lose his temper before realised that he meant business and  that the situation had to change and he had  successfully put a rocket up the Fire Service (and indeed the Ambulance Service).  Indeed one very senior official told me he did not want to be at the end of a "Cameron roasting" again !

Meetings were held with Fire Chiefs in several large cities (London , Birmingham, Manchester and others ) , the then Fire Minister ( Bob Neil ) called in the Fire Brigades Union , who for once put the National interest first and a small number of firefighters in our major cities (the majority in London )  were trained in how to operate wearing bullet proof protection and how to behave in the event of an armed incident . This issue has remained of deep interest to the Prime Minister, I recall him discussing it with firefighters when he visited Tottenham Fire Station in the aftermath of the 2011 Summer riots and I have no doubt that David Cameron's personal efforts on this have made the UK better prepared in the event of a Nairobi style attack.