Sunday, September 19, 2004

Booker column

This Sunday, the Booker column covers the increasingly bizarre story of the North East regional assembly referendum campaign – a campaign that Electoral Commission chairman, Sam Younger, has acknowledged would also be a dry-run for a future referendum on the constitution.
“Because the media dismiss the forthcoming referendum… as just a ‘local story’”, Booker writes, “they miss out on its far-reaching national implications. They are also missing the chance to report on what is turning into a fascinating soap opera”.

One of two issues Booker feels deserves wider attention is the error by Prescott’s Office in putting out an inaccurate (and possibly illegal) in formation leaflet: an error it plans to rectify by issuing a further document which itself may be illegal.

But the central issue is the "curious" way the Electoral Commission chose the North East Says No (NESNO) campaign to receive government funding, in defiance of its own officials’s advice and in a way which plays directly into the hands of Mr Prescott’s ‘Yes’ campaign.

For two years, the running has been made by the ‘North East No’ campaign, run by Neil Herron. Although long recognised as leading the opposition, two months ago, another campaign, ‘North East Says No’, entered the arena, originally master-minded from London by the Conservative Party.

Run and staffed by Tories, the group has no track record, its grasp of the issues appears minimal and when applications were made to the Electoral Commission for official ‘designation’, those responsible for examining the applications concluded that Herron’s group better met the criteria.

But when the Commissioners met last Monday to decide, their advice was overruled. On Tuesday Mr Prescott thus had the best news he could have hoped for. The designation (and £100,000 of taxpayers’ money) went to a campaign soon identified by the local press as being run by a party now so weak in the North East that it has only one MP.

If the referendum could be presented as a party battle, with a ‘No’ campaign identified with the Tories (plus the UK Independence Party), this would be Mr Prescott’s best chance of snatching victory against all odds.

That indeed is what has happened. NESNO has been firmly identified with the Conservatives and, being the designated campaign, has also been positioned in the forefront of the fight, despite its lacklustre performance.

Very few people close to the campaign believe that the Electoral Commission has made the right decision and there are dark suspicions that it has been "got at". If this is the rehearsal for the constitutional referendum, then we cannot expect a clean fight when the big one comes. To keep up to date with events in the North East, see Neil Herron's blog.

Booker's other story with a vaguely EU dimension is a tilt at Michael Howard and his declarations in the “environment this week. That Howard so meekly trotted out the lame eco-garbage came as no surprise, givne his past performance.

Eleven years ago, when Mr Howard was environment minister, Booker reported the shocking story of how a new chemical plant on Tees-side, run by Chemoxy International was being prevented from operating by a body called Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution (now part of the Environment Agency). HMIP’s officials, at a cost to the firm of £60,000 a week, were trying in a cackhanded way to enforce new EC anti-pollution rules on a plant whose sole purpose was to recycle chemicals in the most environmentally benign way.

Mr Howard took the unorthodox step of inviting Booker to his office to sit in, with him, on a debate between two of Chemoxy’s directors and the senior officials of HMIP. It was a surreal non-meeting of minds. The two experts explained how their plant was so efficiently designed that it would only emit 8 kiliograms of volatile organic compounds a year, mostly acetic acid (vinegar). Their HMIP inspector, on his weekly visits to the plant, was doing far more damage to the environment from the exhaust of his car.

HMIP’s top brass came over as unreconstructed 1970s eco-freaks, babbling about how they needed to save Tees-side from "a new Bhopal" (the 1984 chemical disaster in India which has now killed an estimated 20,000 people). He went away deeply depressed at such technical illiteracy and arrogance, thinking that if only the debate could have been made into a television documentary, viewers would have been appalled. The next day, when Booker ran into Mr Howard in a restaurant, he beamed, "I thought my officials did very well".

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