Refusing to Take the Initiative

I’VE ALWAYS thought there are far worse people to have as Prime Minister
than Gordon Brown. A politician who has spent his career thinking about how
to remove the blight of mass unemployment is worth treasuring.
But the scandal about the redevelopment of Barts and the Royal London
hospitals reveals the dark side of an admirable man: his pigheaded inability
to admit he has made a mistake.
“When the facts change I change my mind,” said J M Keynes. The trouble
with Brown is he doesn’t.
You could write a book on the failure to modernise London wards that
would shock Florence Nightingale. When the Tories were in power, Virginia
Bottomley proposed to close Barts and concentrate resources on the Royal
London in the East End. You do not shut the most renowned hospital in Europe
just like that, and New Labour rightly ditched Bottomley’s plans when it
came to power. Unfortunately, Brown’s Treasury insisted that the money to redevelop
both hospitals must come from the Private Finance Initiative.
Journalists usually avoid writing about accountancy for fear that readers
will find the raindrops running down the windowpanes fascinating in
comparison. But what’s wrong with the PFI isn’t so hard to explain. A
private consortium borrows at rates far higher than the Government can
obtain to fund rebuilding. Then they take a profit. Then they lock the
hospital into paying hefty service charges for decades.
Brown’s coterie dismissed all of us who protested about this imprudent
waste of public money as swivel-eyed Lefty loons and refused to change tack.
Their jeering voices are silent now. Like many other hospitals, Barts and
the Royal London have found that you can’t meet PFI bills and afford the top
grade specialisms a hospital needs to attract patients in the new NHS
market.
The Department of Health has finally woken up to the contradiction and put
the redevelopment on hold. It blusters that London is over supplied with
hospital beds. London may be, but the East End is not. If you impose a map
of mortality rates on top of a tube map, you will see that life expectancy
falls stop by stop as you move from west to east along the Central Line.
The poorest and sickest part of London is still without the modern
hospitals first promised in the Eighties. Their estimated cost is now £1.2
billion and rising, while Whitehall has wasted £100 million on lawyers and
accountants.
The Standard has criticised the East End’s Member of Parliament for
cavorting in a tuppenny peep show while the crisis rages. My colleagues were
too kind to George Galloway. Friends at the hospital tell me is equally
useless whether he is in the Big Brother house, saluting a fascist dictator
or – perish the thought – in his constituency, and that it doesn’t matter where he is.
They want serious politicians from serious parties to convince Brown
that events have proved him wrong and he must sort out the mess.

TAKING CELEBS SERIOUSLY

IN INTERVIEWS to promote his new film Good Night, and Good Luck, a stern George
Clooney has instructed journalists that we have “a duty to speak truth to
power”.
He’s right. If I had been sensible, I’d have given-up this political
guff and become a showbiz reporter years ago. The editor would then have
paid me to fly to the Golden Globes in Los Angeles. And yesterday when
Clooney picked-up his award for best supporting actor, I could have taken
him at his word and bellowed, “Oi, George! You’ve got a pretty face but no
talent.”
As it is, I am stuck in London writing about the bloody Private Finance
Initiative.

ALL THE LIBERALS GO BERSERK
TO IMPERIAL College to speak to the Fabian Society in the new Sir Alexander
Fleming building. Architects have heaped prizes on it, but it is a
depressing place – like so much modern architects praise.
For Blairites, the audience would have been more depressing still. The
Fabians once formed Labour’s reasonable brigade, but I found the PM had
driven them mad.
When I tentatively said that he had helped tens of millions of Muslims in
Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq escape tyranny and genocide, they cried
“what about Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan?”
“Do you want a war or sanctions against them?” I asked.
No, of course not. They just wanted a pretext to rage.
One declared that British foreign policy had done no good since the
abolition of the slave trade in 1806. So there goes World War II, then.
I left wondering how on earth Blair ever became leader of the Labour
Party and how much longer he could last.

F.U.N.Y.C

THE NEW Lonely Planet guide to London wisely warns tourists to expect
rudeness. “In London there are many people whose speech is so dependent on
the word ‘f***’ that they are virtually dumb with out it.”
The last time I was in New York I was delighted and surprised by the
politeness of strangers. I told New Yorkers that the clichés were all wrong.
London was a hard-bitten and vulgar city, while New York was gentle and
courteous.
They couldn’t have been more offended if I had insulted their mothers.
“It’s only because of 9/11,” they spat. “We’ll be back.”

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