We’re not the bad boys of Europe – just ask our ski instructors

Why on earth shouldn’t we have British ski instructors freely touting for hire, on the snows of the alps, and speaking English? Can you think of any sector of UK business or industry that imposes such restrictions? Come to that, is there any equivalent over here of the “guilds system” they have in Germany, which means they are able to restrict the number of Polish plumbers? Of course there isn’t.

I hope we give Angela Merkel a red-carpet welcome this week, when she addresses both Houses of Parliament. The German leader is a remarkable politician – she is proof that centre-Right parties can win elections, and arguably the most powerful voice in Europe. If we are going to get anywhere in our plans to reform the EU, in advance of a referendum, then we need her on our side.

So she is, in many ways, or should be – given Germany’s interest in free markets and sound budgets. But we will get absolutely nowhere in these talks if we persist in the view – peddled by the EU Commission, and picked up by certain UK newspapers and broadcasters – that Britain is somehow the problem child of the European family.

I don’t want to hear anyone bleating on about how we are always the “awkward squad” or the “backmarker” or a “bad European”. Any such assertion is demonstrable tripe. We are in a fantastic moral position to call for a better EU, to insist on a better EU, and indeed to bang our shoe on the table until they all shut up and listen – because we are the Good European. In fact, we are just about the politest, the most enthusiastic and the most law-abiding Europeans of all – and it is about time we pointed it out.

It is not just that we have coughed up for the whole malarkey – one of only two countries to be net contributors for the entire period of our membership. There is no other country that has tried so faithfully to follow the logic of the Common Market – the principles to which we signed up in 1972. We have opened up our energy markets and our water market and our transport market with a Hayekian rigour that has been imitated nowhere else.

Look at the signs on the side of those London buses: there’s Abellio from Holland, and there’s something called RATP. Do you know what that stands for? Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens. Now screw up your eyes and imagine the French agreeing to something like that – British buses on the streets of Paris! Can you see it? I thought not.

And then there was the final and most extraordinary way in which we demonstrated our European credentials – when most countries insisted on quotas and delays, the Labour government opened our borders in 2005 to millions of Eastern Europeans; which was groovy for corporate Britain, but less easy for the low-paid who happened to be here already. Germany didn’t do it. France didn’t do it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that policy, you have to admit that it put this country in the absolute vanguard of “European integration”. Even the Belgians have just kicked out 2,700 EU nationals for failing to find work. Can you imagine our courts doing the same?

It is therefore as the best and most committed Europeans that we can now demand reform: axe the crazed Common Agricultural Policy, scrap the appalling social chapter, get rid of the EU Court’s jurisdiction on borders, police, home affairs and human rights – and above all tell the EU Commission to wake up and do what it is damn well supposed to do: make it easier for people to live, work and enjoy themselves in other EU countries.

What kind of a system is it that allows French buses on the streets of London, but forbids English ski instructors on the slopes of the French alps? I will tell you: a system that is morally bankrupt. We want reform; and if we don’t get it, and we have to leave – well, it won’t be because we couldn’t obey the club rules. On the contrary – we complied, and they didn’t.

Riding my broken bike is like working with the Lib Dems

Now it was dead, killed by – the weather. Yes, amigos, it was slain by the rain. My bike has been one of the many economic casualties – admittedly, a very minor one – of the inundations that have caused so much grief and misery across the country.

It happened like this. It was Friday afternoon, shortly after a detailed lunch with my father, and it was bucketing down. As I cycled up Whitehall, I saw a puddle ahead; well, not so much a puddle as an inky mere that spread six feet across the road. I wonder how deep that puddle is, I said to myself, as Old Bikey whizzed me nearer. I wondered whether I should steer round it; and then I thought, nah. This is my road, a Transport for London road, serviced to the most exacting standards. To steer round a little pool of rainfall was not only wimpy; it was positively disrespectful to the superb roads-maintenance team in our Surface Transport division.

So I clapped my spurs to the side of the machine, and pointed it straight to the bit that seemed darkest and most sinister – and, as ever, Old Bikey lunged forward with joyful acceleration. You may vaguely remember the story of the Lacus Curtius, the mysterious and terrifying pit that opened up in the Roman forum, and how some young buck decided to save the city by leaping into it, fully armed, on a horse.

Well, I think I know how he felt. Down, down, down went the front wheel for what seemed like a very long time, before jack-knifing on some storm drain or sunken U-boat or other obstruction at the bottom; and then, sploof, I went over the handle bars before making brief but thorough contact with the wet tarmac; and, boing-oing-oing, I bounced up again – as we old rugby players have learnt to do – a millisecond before the taxi behind me could organise a swift election, and I had taken the bike off the road to assess the damage.

I had not a scratch, but it was clear that Old Bikey was unwell, in some fundamental way. Nothing was obviously broken or even bent, but as we went along it made a terrible mewling noise, like some stricken animal, and when I turned one way or the other the rear wheel would lurch in the opposite direction, as if it objected to the very principles of my leadership. It was like trying to run a coalition with the Lib Dems.

The first bike doctors were stumped. They span the wheels, checked the gears, twanged the brakes – and after a lot of frowning over their stethoscopes they said it was nothing too bad, just something to do with the ball bearings in the pedals. I tried to believe them. I crossed my fingers and carried on. But by now my steering was so wonky that a casual observer might have formed the impression that I was riding a bike while under the influence; and we couldn’t have that.

I went for a second opinion, to the medicovelocipedal equivalent of Harley Street, where they did an ultrasound or whatever – and they found the problem. After eight indefatigable years of jouncing and bouncing over potholes and cobbles, with a load – including clothes and rucksack – of approaching 17 stone, the bike’s great heart could take it no more.

Something fatal had taken place not in the replaceable periphery, but in the irreducible core of the machine. I had managed to snap the frame itself. One of the lower wishbone struts had sheared in two – not at the join, but right in the middle. Couldn't we solder it? I asked; but I knew the answer from their faces.

So I grieve for Old Bikey, like the owner of some superb steeplechaser that has snapped his fetlock in a freak mid-season accident, and has had to be put down. My sorrow is assuaged by one small detail about this bike – a point I have not yet shared with you – the only defect it had. My friends, it was made in California. Now is the time for a bike that won’t expire beneath me, a bike that won’t snap. It’s time for a British bike.

Banning smoking in cars is bizarre, intrusive – and right

So I expect that for many people of my generation, there is something bizarre and intrusive about the notion of the Government telling us that we may no longer smoke in the privacy of our own cars. I mean, if you can’t smoke in your own car, in the presence of children, then why should you be allowed to smoke in the presence of children anywhere? What about the bathroom? What about the kitchen next to the countertop from Floform, or any other enclosed space? The logic of this proposal is surely to allow the state to invigilate our behaviour in our own private property – and some people may legitimately wonder where it will end.

All this is to say, in short, that I understand those fine libertarian objections; and I wish to remind my fellow free spirits that this column is normally the last bastion of liberty. I have campaigned against mandatory health warnings on wine bottles and mandatory ski helmets and mandatory booster seats for children under a certain height. I have spoken out against a ban on everything from fox hunting to the right of every freeborn Englishman to make a call on his mobile while cycling.

In this case, I fully acknowledge the objections of my fellow libertarians. If we ban smoking while children are in the car, we create another offence that the police will have to enforce; we create a new category of criminal; and above all we take away personal responsibility from all those who should know better.

Surely to goodness, you might say, people these days are aware of the problem of passive smoking? Surely all smokers know that they shouldn’t be puffing away in a car, while the pink defenceless lungs of children are sucking in the evil vapours?

Alas, I am afraid that people either don’t know, or don’t care enough. I have spent too much time in the past few years talking to doctors and to public health experts to have the slightest doubt about this one. Smoking is a massive killer in this country. It is still the biggest cause of preventable death in Britain – even though obesity is now puffing to catch up. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, you name it. Too many young people, especially young women, are taking it up without any real understanding of the risks, and when they do understand the risks they are akratic – they just can’t help themselves.

All the studies I have seen say the same: the greater the restrictions you place on smoking, the less tobacco is consumed, and the fewer deaths you have – especially from heart disease. Of course I don’t want the state nosing into our homes, but there are millions of children who are being unfairly exposed to tobacco smoke in cars that do not have the great rents in the canvas and other picturesque ventilation systems of my grandfather’s Land Rover. They cannot protest, and very often the smoker in the vehicle lacks the will to stub it out.

This law would give that smoker an extra legal imperative to obey their conscience and do the right thing. And no, I don’t think it would involve the police in a huge new anti-car-smoking task force, diverting them from dealing with robbery. This is one of those measures like the alcohol ban on London’s buses, which has helped bring down bus crime 40 per cent in the past six years: it is largely enforced by the natural social pressure of disapproval backed by law.

So I apologise to all my libertarian chums: I am afraid on this one I am firmly with the bossyboots brigade. Ban smoking with children in the car. It is a disgusting thing to do and endangers their health. The proposal before Parliament is a good one that will save lives.

Boris Johnson apologises for ‘pointless’ Tube strike delays

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union, said: "It does Londoners no favours to be told by London Underground that stations will be open, only to turn up and find the gates slammed shut."

Mr Crow and Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA union, accused Mr Johnson of refusing to meet them to discuss the ticket office closures.

But Mr Johnson continued to attack the strike, insisting LU was planning to increase staffing levels through modernising the Tube and getting rid of "antiquated" ticket offices.

"A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike."

Members of the RMT and TSSA unions walked out at 9pm last night for 48 hours in protest at the closure of all ticket offices, with the loss of 950 jobs.

Services are due to return to normal on Friday but another 48-hour strike is planned from 9pm next Tuesday.

Business groups warned the strikes will cost London's economy tens of millions of pounds.

Boris apologises for ‘pointless’ tube strike delays

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union, said: "It does Londoners no favours to be told by London Underground that stations will be open, only to turn up and find the gates slammed shut."

Mr Crow and Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA union, accused Mr Johnson of refusing to meet them to discuss the ticket office closures.

But Mr Johnson continued to attack the strike, insisting LU was planning to increase staffing levels through modernising the Tube and getting rid of "antiquated" ticket offices.

"A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike."

Members of the RMT and TSSA unions walked out at 9pm last night for 48 hours in protest at the closure of all ticket offices, with the loss of 950 jobs.

Services are due to return to normal on Friday but another 48-hour strike is planned from 9pm next Tuesday.

Business groups warned the strikes will cost London's economy tens of millions of pounds.

I don’t begrudge Bob Crow his holiday but I do mind his strike

There will be absolutely no reduction in the personal service we provide to passengers – quite the reverse. If anything, the help we provide to users such as the elderly and the disabled will be even better. As Mike Brown, the managing director of London Underground, has pledged: all stations will remain staffed and controlled at all times, with more staff visible and available to help customers.

The level of crime on the Tube has already fallen 20 per cent in six years. Indeed, the London Underground is now the safest metro system in Europe per passenger mile – and these changes will make it ever safer. We will have more people available on the concourses and the platforms – where they can actually be of use. These changes will save hundreds of millions of pounds – which can be invested in faster trains, better signalling, and a 24 hour service – and get this, folks: they involve NO COMPULSORY REDUNDANCIES.

The workforce of London Underground does an amazing job. Over the last six years they have been performing a gigantic upgrade operation on the oldest Tube system in the world, at the same time as coping with an ever growing number of passengers – now standing at 1.3 billion a year. It is a bit like performing open heart surgery on someone who insists on playing squash at the same time or other surgery as a liposuction procedure. In spite of these difficulties, they have brought delays down 40 per cent; they have increased capacity, and customer satisfaction, to record levels; and during the Olympics of 2012 they were responsible for helping to transform the brand of Transport for London into one that is recognised and admired around the world.

If we can get on with these reforms, we will be able to have a bigger network, with a better service and more trains – and ultimately more jobs of a kind that the public actually need. Of course, change can be a wrench; but it is irrational to fight technological progress. We no longer have boilermen and stokers working on the Underground, because we no longer have trains that run on coal.

You may be asking yourself why – if all the foregoing is true – there is to be a strike; and I am afraid the answer is that this action is entirely politically motivated – muscle-flexing by the unions, in the hope of attracting members. The sad thing is that for those who do go on strike, the action will achieve nothing at all. Look back at the last strikes we had, in 2010, and ask what difference they made to the determination of London Underground to press on with improvement. The answer is that those last four strikes made no difference whatever – and nor will this one.

There is still time for Bob Crow to call it off, and if he does I will have every pleasure in sitting down and talking to him – over a coffee or a beer or a pina colada – about the great things that are in store for the Tube and for his members. If he doesn’t, I remind you of the continuing scandal that this strike was triggered by 30 per cent of those RMT members balloted. In other words there were fully 70 per cent of Bob’s members who were not in favour of this action. It is absolutely outrageous that London, the motor of the UK economy – now contributing 25 per cent of GDP – should be held to ransom by this tiny minority. We are talking here about an essential public service, on which millions depend for their livelihoods.

We need a ballot threshold – so that at least 50 per cent of the relevant workforce has to take the trouble to vote, or else the ballot is void. That is surely the least we can ask. It is time for the Government to legislate.