Monday, January 30, 2006

Electoral reform should be Tory priority

My attention is drawn to the latest set of predictions by the excellent Electoral Calculus website which calculates election results on the basis of current opinion polls, while allowing for the vagaries of our electoral system.

It shows that if an election was held tomorrow, Labour could expect a majority of 64 - a net loss of just two seats.

This very healthy majority would come in spite of the fact that Labour currently averages 38pc in the opinion polls to the Tories' 37pc.

The site also shows that the Liberal Democrats would lose no fewer than 51 seats if an election were held now, plummeting from their current representation of 62 to the pre-SDP level of 11.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from all this. Firstly, that those of us who argued that the Lib Dems might in time come to regret getting rid of Charles Kennedy might well have had a point.

Secondly, that David Cameron will find it extremely hard to win an election under the current, constituency-based system, which rewards Labour for the fact that its support is more concentrated and penalises his party for the fact that its support is more thinly-spread.

The Electoral Calculus figures show yet again that the Tories will have to be approximately 7-8pc ahead of Labour in the popular vote to win an overall majority.

In his own interests, as well as in the interests of democracy, Cameron should be arguing for the replacement of this rotten system with one that more adequately reflects the parties' overall share of the vote.

Parliament Squared

As an ex-lobby man, this story from the Axe Grinder column in this week's Press Gazette brought a smile to my face...

"Fleet Street veteran Rob Gibson, has learnt the hard way about the dangers of email.

The former Daily Express political editor and dedicated fund-raiser for journalists' charity the NPF now runs the highly regarded Gallery News at the House of Commons. Gibson sends out stories daily to a host of outlets, including MPs at Westminster.

Unfortunately, Gibson sent out one email in error last week that was a little too "exclusive".

To the great man's consternation, it contained the minutes of the latest meeting of his Masonic lodge. Now there's open government for you."

The extent of masonry within the lobby - and the Palace of Westminster as a whole - was a constant source of mischievous speculation during my time there.

Correspondents were frequently baffled to find the chairs in the Lobby Room rearranged with one facing the wrong way - a seating arrangement consistent with the masonic initiation ritual in which the candidate sits blindfolded with his back to the room.

On one memorable occasion, a notorious wind-up merchant in the regional lobby put out a spoof tannoy for the Secretary of the Press Gallery Freemasons' Lodge - such a body does exist.

It was answered by a very well-known Sunday newspaper political editor, who maintained he was simply curious as to who was on the other end of the line.....

Friday, January 27, 2006

'At least no-one's shot a dog yet'

This is the thought with which Liberal Democrats are apparently consoling themselves after surely the most shattering week in their 17-year history, according to today's Guardian.

Full marks to pol corr Julian Glover for finding someone prepared to say this - I'm assuming he didn't make the quote up himself although some less scrupulous hacks doutbless would have done ;-)

The Guardian also scores with the best piece I have read so far on the Hughes affair, from Philip Hensher and Andy Beckett in G2.

I think I would take the view that, although it shouldn't have been necessary to ask the question, because he systematically misled the public over a number of years it sadly became necessary.

As to the leadership election....I do think Hughes' campaign is probably now holed below the waterline, which at least has the benefit of clarifying the choice facing Lib Dem members.

What I hope will now happen is that those Hughes supporters who want to see energetic leadership coupled with radical policies will realise that Chris Huhne stands a far better chance of defeating Ming Campbell.

Jan 30 update. Not surprisingly, Huhne has latched on to this idea and is now seeking to convince people that it's a two-horse race.

As ever with the Lib Dems, it could all come down to tactical voting.....

If the Gang of Four had stayed with Labour, would David Owen have become PM?

The 25th anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration this week has recalled to mind a conversation I had with Dr David Owen at a lunch in Westminster a few years back.

Asked whether he thought that he would have become Prime Minister had he stayed in the Labour Party, he replied: "Oh, there isn't a shadow of doubt about that."

You have to admire the man's self-belief, but I think in this instance it was misplaced. Owen may have been a Blairite before Blair - but Blairism's time had not yet come.

I look at the history and legacy of the SDP in greater detail in this column.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cheers Iain!

Practically everyone rates Iain Dale's Diary as one of the top political blogs around - so it's gratifying to find he's named this blog among his Top 25!

Apparently I'm "the political journalist who tells it like it is." Well, that's what I've always tried to do.

Iain's unique selling point is slightly different from mine as he is a Tory insider and veritable fount of gossip about what's going on in right-wing circles. His current obsession is the possibility that up to three Lib Dem MPs might defect to the Tories.

I'm not convinced about it myself - but since I readily accept Iain knows more about this subject than me I'm open to being proved wrong!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Huhne campaign launches Bloggers4Chris

Bloggers4Chris logo

Chris Huhne may only be recognised by three percent of voters, but he appears to be the favoured Lib Dem leadership candidate of the blogosphere.

Now his campaign have launched a new website entitled and those of us who think Mr Huhne might make a half-decent leader are invited to display its logo. Happy to oblige.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

This moral cesspit

The detailed nature of the revelations concerning Mark Oaten are said to be so disgusting that not even the News of the Screws will print them.

That of course has not stopped a few jokes doing the rounds that moreorless give the game away.

This one is far too filthy to reproduce on a family-orientated blog (?) but if you're into Lib Dem toilet humour you can read it here.

When this story first broke I didn't think Oaten should quit as MP, but I would now take the view that Oaten's credibility is blown to such an extent that if the Lib Dems want to hold the seat, they should find a new candidate.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Kelly not out of woods yet

Ruth Kelly appears to have survived the calls for her to quit over the sex offenders in schools row - but now she faces an even bigger challenge.

And if she fails to win backbench support for Tony Blair's education reforms, it won't just be her job that's on the line....

You can read more on this in my latest column. Alternatvely, if you want to hear the podcast version, you can find it here.

Doubtless Ms Kelly will be grateful for this rather more supportive piece from Andrew Rawnsley in this week's Observer.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Blair-Brown handover deal back on?

BBC pol ed Nick Robinson speculates in his blog that Blair and Brown may have agreed a date for the long-awaited handover.

I agree, and I'm going to stick my neck out and say the date they've agreed is May 2, 2007 - the 10th anniversary of Mr Blair's coming to power.

I've said this before of course - most recently in this column published in the Newcastle Journal and Lincolnshire Echo last October.

But to my mind it's a fair compromise between TB's desire for a "full third term" and GB's need to get stuck into Cameron at the despatch box.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Oaten quits - now will he back Huhne?

Mark Oaten has quit the Lib Dem leadership race after an apparent botched attempt to win Charles Kennedy's endorsement.

This leaves Chris Huhne as the only candidate with any credentials either as a moderniser or an economic liberal.

Will Oaten back him though? If ideological closeness has anything to do with it, he surely will, but this contest has always had more to do with personal rivalry than ideology.

If the old adage about "young cardinals electing old Popes," holds true, expect to see him joining Ming Campbell's campaign in the near future.

Jan 23 update: Apparently I was right about him not backing Huhne but wrong about him backing Ming - he was in fact planning to back Simon Hughes. I doubt if Hughes will want his support now though....

Neil solves Asian babe mystery

This image of Andrew Neil canoodling an "Asian babe" has become one of the most famous in British journalism. Neil has now spoken out for the first time about the picture and revealed that the lady in question was in fact an American-born make-up artist. You can read the full interview in this week's Press Gazette.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

English Question back on the agenda

Gordon Brown's recent speech on Britishness demonstrates his determination to put the constitutional reform agenda firmly at the heart of a fourth term Labour Government.

It has generated predictable cynicism about his motives - for instance this leader in the Daily Telegraph.

Others can't forgive Brown for being a Scottish MP who continues to have a say over English affairs - as witness this lively discussion on the Campaign for an English Parliament newsblog.

For my part, I reckon Brown is sincere in regarding the current half-baked constitutional settlement as a mess and in wanting to do something about it.

Either way, what is certain is that the English devolution issue is now here to stay.

In the longer-term, the only question is who is going to be first to back an English Parliament - Brown, David Cameron - or the new Lib Dem leader?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Odds slashed on "Chris Who?"

In the 48 hours since Chris Huhne was tipped by this blog (and the Daily Telegraph) as the next Lib Dem leader, his odds have come in from 300-1 to 6-1, according to the Political Betting site.

I'm not a betting man myself, so I didn't take advantage - but it's good to see Chris emerge as a genuine contender.

Ming Campbell's interview in today's Grauniad was interesting in that he is clearly tacking to the left to counter the Simon Hughes threat, but Chris Huhne doesn't really need to play this self-defeating left-right game.

As someone with strong social justice and environmental credentials as well as economic credibility I genuinely feel he could be the man to pull this divided party together. Here's a link to his campaign website.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Daisy, Daisy....

Readers of this blog will know I was not best impressed by the behaviour of ITN's Daisy McAndrew in revealing the drink problems of her former employer, Charles Kennedy.

Now some wags are suggesting she owes the BBC's Jeremy Paxman an apology too.

Back in 2002, Paxman came under fire for asking Mr Kennedy some pointed questions about his drinking habits, including whether he had ever drunk a bottle of whisky on his own late at night.

Among his sternest critics was the then Daisy Sampson, who at that time had only recently given up being Mr Kennedy's Press Secretary. She said:

"I do think he went too far. I think his questions were insulting. You couldn't do that job for two years. Sixteen thousand miles in an election campaign if you were drunk all the time. It just couldn't be done."

Keen students of hypocrisy can find much more on Daisy from the peerless Iain Dale's Diary and arch conspiracy theorist Guido Fawkes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Will Chris Huhne run?

Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Chris Huhne has confirmed he is considering a bid for the party leadership, a story first revealed by my old mate Brendan Carlin in today's Telegraph .

I hope he goes for it. Amid all this talk of "economic liberals" on the right and "social liberals" on the left, Chris is someone who could unite both wings. Watch this space!

Monday, January 09, 2006

A personal and political tragedy

Regular readers of my column will know I am one of the few political journalists to have stuck up for poor old Charles Kennedy during his recent troubles, together with my old lobby colleague Paul Routledge.

Well, despite our best efforts, the plotters have done their worst and Charles - the democratically-elected choice of the Lib Dem membership - has now been forced to resign.

His much-publicisied alcohol problems were purely an excuse. After all, Sir Winston Churchill won the Second World War fuelled on a daily diet of champagne, brandy and claret, and even Margaret Thatcher regularly used to hit the whisky bottle in late-night talks with her advisers.

No, this was a plot orchestrated by the people around Sir Menzies Campbell who saw this crisis as a last chance to lever their man into the top job at 64.

I'll be returning to this issue of course, but for now I will confine my comments to the treachery of two individuals in particular whose behaviour has had me reaching for the sick bag in recent days.

ITN political correspondent Daisy McAndrew broke the story about Mr Kennedy's drink problem, using the inside information and extensive contacts gained from her spell as his press secretary from 1999-2001.

Equally disloyal was Sarah Teather MP, who would not have won the Brent East by-election if it hadn't been for Mr Kennedy's principled opposition to the Iraq War.

The irony is that Sir Menzies, who she is now supporting, wanted Mr Kennedy to back the war. Had he done so, Ms Teather would never have won the votes of her thousands of moslem constituents!

Meanwhile, fair play to another old lobby mucker, David Perry, for this exclusive interview with Mr Kennedy in his local paper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal.

IMHO, Mr Kennedy's obvious anger at the way he has been treated is completely justifiable.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Your votes for Bleak House, please!

The BBC website (the most visited in the western world) doesn't need me to increase its traffic levels but it is currently well worth a visit on account of its best drama of 2005 poll.

Like nearly all such polls, this would be an entirely worthless exercise were it not for the fact that it gives us all an opportunity to show our appreciation of the brilliant recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House

With totally amazing performances from Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn and Johnny Vegas as spontaneous combustion victim Krook, this was in my view the best thing that's been on TV since Our Friends in the North.

The poll has now closed but the results will shortly be available here.

Hands off Charles Kennedy!

The Guardian, that supposed bastion of liberal Britain, has become the latest press organ to plunge the knife into Charles Kennedy with this editorial published on January 4.

Leaving aside the issue of what Mr Kennedy has or hasn’t done to merit such treachery, the Grauniad's criticism of him for giving “no indication of where he wants liberal democracy to go next” is disingenuous in view of its own failure to do so.

As a normally astute observer of the political scene, it knows as well as I do that removing Mr Kennedy would see him replaced either by someone such as Simon Hughes who would take the party to the left, or someone like Sir Menzies Campbell or Mark Oaten who would take it to the right.

What I would like to know is why those who seek a change in the leadership think that either strategy would serve the party’s electoral interests better than Mr Kennedy’s approach of seeking to appeal to both Tory and Labour floating voters alike. I enlarged on this point in this column orginally published in December.