Autumn has come to Rutland. As I look out across the lawns from my Library
windows, the skeletons of distant trees stand stark against the low skies.
Nearer at hand stand piles of leaves – and from one of those comes muffled
cursing and swearing. I fear that, in a surfeit of enthusiasm, one of the
undergardeners has dumped them on top of Meadowcroft. But my thoughts are far
away in the Welsh Marches...
Last week, in my capacity as under-secretary at the Department for Outer Space,
I travelled to a top secret location on the border between Shropshire and
Montgomeryshire. There, amongst the spoil heaps of the Victorian lead-mining, a
strange erection hoved into view.
Like all ministers in the Coalition government, I have had to wield my surgeon’s
scalpel in order to comply with the dictates of the Comprehensive Spending
Review. Many of these cuts have been achieved by doing away with the sort of
Labour nonsense we all familiar with: missions to suppress vice on Alpha
Centauri, public education campaigns against sexism on Venus and so forth. I was
also minded to do away with the warning signs about horse chestnut trees in the
Crab Nebula until I discovered that they are so named because they can gallop at
speed across rough country and are capable of giving a nasty bite if you let
them sneak up behind you.
Other cuts I have made with a heavy heart. The British space programme, for
instance, is no more and I am painfully aware this will lead to redundancies at
Woomera. However, I am proud that I have been able to uphold the pledge made by
so many Liberal Democrat candidates at the last election by continuing to train
a full complement of British space cadets (a course of action enthusiastically
urged upon me by our own Liberal Youth – when they are hiking through forests
singing “I Love to Go A-Wandering” or sitting around camp fires). I realise they
may be disappointed that there will be no spacecraft for them to crew, but feel
that if they take up my suggested alternative – trampolining lessons – with
sufficient vim and vigour then this need not prove an insuperable barrier to
their career ambitions.
There was one spending item that I was determined not to cut and it was this
that I travelled to the Welsh border to inspect. It is a model spacecraft. By
this I do not mean the sort of model that the best sort of schoolboy spends his
evening gluing together. No, I mean a rocket, crewed by fashion models and
piloted by our own Lembit Öpik, which will be dispatched at the first hint of an
asteroid that has the intention of colliding with Earth. (I am not exactly clear
what Lembit will do when he reaches it, but I have every confidence in his
ability to Use His Initiative).
There are those in the London chapter of the Liberal Democrats who are urging me
to send him off on the thing this very afternoon. As a responsible minister,
however, I am determined not to launch it until it is needed.
So what are our Conservative friends like? It has been what the young people
call “a steep learning curve” for me as, until recently, I generally saw Tories
from the saddle as we hunted them across the fields of Leicestershire and
Rutland. I recall a good run a county councillor gave us until he went to earth
near Billesdon Coplow...
Anyway, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I here offer pen of a few of
my new colleagues.
My older readers will recall that popular programme from the early days of the
moving television, “Have a Go with Eric Pickles”. With his catchphrases “Are yer
courting?” and “Give him the money, Barney”, Pickles soon became a household
name. He disappeared from our screens amid persistent rumours that he had eaten
one of the Dagenham Girl Pipers, but later resurfaced as MP for Brentwood and is
now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
George Osborne, a scion of the biscuit dynasty, made his first worker redundant
at the age of 10. His parents must have been so proud.
A little bird told me that, had the Conservatives won an overall majority, then
Nadine Dorries would have been prevailed upon to accept my Outer Space
portfolio. I take it as a tribute to Nick Clegg’s skill as a negotiator that he
was able to win the post for a Liberal Democrat.
Iain Duncan Smith is known as “the quiet man”. I am told that he intends to
revolutionise the Social Security system in Britain, but am unable to hear a
word he says.
In 1977, at the age of 8, William Hague brought the Conservative Conference to
its feet with his peroration: “I hate Socialism and, besides, you lot will soon
be dead anyway”. Thirty-three years later, now aged 87, he is Foreign Secretary.
Isn’t it strange how things turn out?
“Do you know Theresa May?” a civil servant asked during one of my first visits
to my new department. “No,” I replied, “but I am grateful for the tip.”
In London yesterday I was astounded to bump into our own Dr Evan Harris. I had
assumed that he perished when the locals, armed with pitchforks and flaming
torches, finally succeeded in breaking into his laboratory in the surprisingly
mountainous country between Oxford and Abingdon and flung his experiments into a
passing mountain stream.
While in rude health, he turns out to be at something of a loose end and I am
pleased to be able to offer him work on the British mission to Mars – albeit as
a trampoline coach.
Dusk has now fallen in Rutland, Meadowcroft has been retrieved and brushed down,
and I am in my observatory on top of the West Tower scanning the heavens with my
telescope. A bright speck near Andromeda draws my attention: I study it intently
for a few moments, then wind my field telephone, lift the receiver and ask for a
number in Shropshire...
Lord Bonkers, who was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West
1906-10, opened his diaries to Jonathan Calder
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