Thursday, March 30, 2006

"Methusaleh" Blair to go on and on and on

Among all the speculation about when Blair will quit, this piece by David McKie on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog, is one of the best.


Campbell and Cable: About as balanced as Geoff Boycott's wonky grin

We keep hearing that the Liberal Democrats contain the "brighest and best" young talents in British politics, as well as the most promising batch of new women MPs.

So why is that, hard on the heels of the election of 64-year-old Ming Campbell as party leader, the party has now elected the 62-year-old Vince Cable as his deputy?

I am no ageist, but parties have to try to maximise their appeal to all age groups, especially when they are confronted by a phenomenon like David Cameron.

The deputy should either have been a woman - preferably Susan Kramer - or one of these bright young things we are endlessly being told about.

So will Hilary sack Ashok?

Following on from yesterday's post, International Development Secretary Hilary Benn has now disowned his parliamentary aide, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Ashok Kumar, over this article in which he called on Tony Blair to quit.

Meanwhile Downing Street has attemped to stay out of the row, saying it is a matter for Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip.

That, of course, is nonsense. Hilary Armstrong can't chew gum without Tony Blair's permission, so she's unlikely to do anything as radical as sacking a PPS for saying something many in the Labour Party will agree with.

I think that what happens to Kumar could be a very interesting litmus test of the mood within Number 10 vis-a-vis the handover. If they are prepared to make a martyr of him over this, it would suggest to me that Blair is digging in for the long haul.

4pm update: He's kept his job. In other words, the most junior members of Mr Blair's administration can now openly call for the Prime Minister's resignation and not be sacked for it - an interesting reflection on the strength of his current political position.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Milburn makes his move

You can tell something's amiss in the byzantine world of New Labour politics when arch-Blairites Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn launch what is obviously a co-ordinated attack on Chancellor Gordon Brown.

You would also have to be very naive not to believe it was in any way linked to the Prime Minister's comments at the weekend about maybe having made a mistake in pre-announcing his resignation.

I think it is steadily becoming clearer that the Blairites are holding Brown responsible for the Jack Dromey ambush in the loans-for-peerages row and are, at the very least, firing a warning shot across his bows that they are prepared to challenge him for the leadership.

I have posted a comment on Nick Robinson's blog which goes into this a bit further and I will be interested to see if Nick himself returns to the issue.

Meanwhile loyalist North-East MP Ashok Kumar has become the latest Labour politician to call on Mr Blair to stand down this year.

I think this is a particularly noteworthy contribution to the debate as Kumar has shown absolutely no Brownite sympathies until now.

Regional government not dead then?

In a Guardian article guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of the Campaign for an English Parliament and others, UCL Constitution Unit head Robert Hazell has today argued that there is a future for regional government in England after all.

"Regional government in England is the only solution that offers an answer to both versions of the English question. It could help give England a louder voice within the union, and help decentralise the government of England. But defeat in the North East referendum in 2004 has raised the bar," he writes.

"Any future proposals for elected regional assemblies will need to offer a stronger set of powers and functions. The GLA provides a possible model, with London's Olympics bid showing that a strategic authority can make a difference in promoting a region, both within the UK and to the wider world."

I think I shall just light the blue touchpaper, and retire....

Monday, March 27, 2006

Blair-must-go watch: So is he staying after all?

What are we to make of the situation regarding Tony Blair's leadership following his admission that he may have "made a mistake" in pre-announcing his decision to resign at the end of a third term?

Downing Street is predictably trying to play down the comment, but as far as the Brownite Guardian commentator Jackie Ashley is concerned, it's a declaration of war.

Ashley's argument is that there is agreement on an handover date to Gordon Brown and that the Prime Minister means to stay on as long as he possibly can - all the better if that means an alternative succession candidate has a chance to come forward.

In this context, I would draw attention to an extraordinary piece is currently running in the Press Gazette's Axe Grinder column. Although it has not been followed up by the MSM, that of course does not necessarily mean it is not true.

I can't link to it as the Press Gazette is a subscription only site (growl) but the gist is that the loans-for-peerages revelations have caused a near-irreperable breakdown in relations on both sides - on Brown's side, because he believes Blair is tarnishing the Labour Party, and on Blair's, because he believes Brown's people blew the whistle on it.

"One senior ex-minister told Axegrinder the disclosures were the last straw for Brown, who believes the loans have dealt a hammer blow to his and the Government's reputation for financial probity. Extraordinarily, the veteran politician said: "Gordon has told Tony ‘I didn't get you on education, but I will get you on sleaze'."

Incidentally, the UKPG piece goes onto say that the Guardian's decision to call for Blair's head has caused consternation in its "Blairite" political team which might explain why Mike White was so keen to disassociate himself from it on Sky News last week (see previous posts.)

But I digress. What is becoming clear is that Blair intends to try and go on to that 10th anniversary of his coming to power next May - whether Gordon likes it or not.

Whether he manages it will depend largely on events, in particular whether there are any further damaging sleaze revelations, whether there are further major backbench rebellions on key legislation, and whether Labour's position in the polls starts to deteriorate.

But I have to say that if any of the above rumours are true, then things are not looking good for that fabled "orderly transition."

If the Blairites sincerely do believe Gordon was behind the loans-for-peerages disclosures, or that he is trying to use them to bring about the Prime Minister's political assassination, they will not forgive him.

They will run an alternative candidate against him - Milburn or Miliband are the most likely contenders - and, although Brown will still win, he will inherit a fatally divided party that will go on to lose - and lose bad - in 2009/10.

Brown v Cameron: Let battle commence

"Wednesday showed us a foretaste of how Mr Brown would tackle David Cameron if and when he moves next door to Number 10. I suspect that the public, as well as a growing number of Labour MPs, is now becoming increasingly impatient for that real battle to commence."

That was my overall verdict on the significance of last week's Budget as set out in my newspaper columns and podcast this weekend.

I have also had a bit to say about the proposed police mergers which, in the East Midlands at any rate, seem to me to be an extension of the unwanted regionalisation agenda by another means.

You can hear the whole thing in its podcast form here or alternatively read the (shorter) written version here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Now Rhodri plunges the knife in

Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan has today become the latest senior figure to call on Tony Blair to stand down.

Some will doubtless interpret this as disloyalty but it is surely no less than Blair deserves in the light of his extensive but ultimately fruitless attempts to keep Morgan out of the Welsh Assembly leadership in 1999-2000, as chronicled by Paul Flynn MP in his book Paper Dragons and also by Andrew Rawnsley in Servants of the People.

As Rawnsley says in his book, the lengths to which the party machine went to stop Morgan were out of all proportion to the threat which this engaging maverick represented to New Labour.

Meanwhile old lobby mucker Nick Assinder has produced a thoughtful piece on the BBC website about the shifting balance of power in 10 Downing Street.

"Many believe that Mr Brown has just delivered his last Budget. They claim it would be difficult, if not downright embarrassing, for him to have to deliver a repeat premier-in-waiting performance in a year's time," he writes.

Quite right Nick. The public is fed-up of the phoney war betwen Blair and Cameron and now wants to see the main event. Bring it on.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Blair-must-go watch: the story so far

The general consensus on the political impact of the Budget is that it has rendered Tony Blair even more of an irrelevance as British politics gears up for the Brown v Cameron era. This piece by Jonathan Freedland is typical of many that have appeared in today's papers. I'd include another by the great Peter Oborne if the Mail had bothered to put it online.

Interestingly Mike White took a different tack in a post-Budget discussion with Sky's Jon Craig on College Green yesterday. Together with the Telegraph's Rachel Sylvester and Andrew Pierce of the Times, White said he still expected Blair to go next summer, openly questioning his own paper's editorial stance. "I'm not sure they've got that quite right," he said of Monday's leader calling on the PM to go this year. I suppose when you are Mike White you can get away with that sort of thing....

Anyway, a week after I launched Blair-must-go watch, here's a reminder of what the key opinion formers (!) in both the MSM and the blogosphere have been saying so far:

  • The Economist kicks things off by arguing that it would be in Blair's own interests to go now rather than get mired in a damaging war with his party.

  • Guido Fawkes reveals that his money - a lot of it apparently - is on a Labour Conference handover.

  • Polly Toynbee urges Mr Blair to retire with good grace in the wake of the schools rebellion and the loans-for-peerages affair.

  • Yours truly finally succumbs to the temptation to fire Cromwell's golden bullet in Blair's direction, telling him: "In the name of God, go!"

  • Matthew Parris exceeds even my level of vitriol by branding Mr Blair an "out and out rascal" and "pathological confidence trickster."

  • Iain Dale agrees with Guido that an autumn handover looks increasingly on the cards.

  • The Guardian publishes its by-now famous editorial saying that nine years is quite long enough.

  • BBC Newsnight publishes the results of a poll showing more than 50pc of the public now want Blair to go.

  • Charlie Clarke bravely attempts to hold the line by telling the womens' lobby lunch the PM will go in 2008.

  • Jonathan Freedland tells Blair his luck has run out, citing Iraq as the major cause of his inevitable downfall.

    That's about all for now. By my reckoning the Sun, the Mirror, the Times and the FT are the only national newspapers who haven't yet called on Blair to go in some form or another, so it will be very interesting to see who's next.

    And if anyone is wondering why I'm rehashing all this, then let's just say that that New Labour's "repeat messaging" techniques taught me a thing or two...
  • Wednesday, March 22, 2006

    Budget 2006

    Another exhausting Budget Day comes to an end - albeit rather earlier than it used to when I was writing it all up for the Newcastle Journal!

    If you're interested, my coverage of today's events can be found here. As well as the main story, there is also a list of key points, a live commentary of the speech as it unfolded, and of course, a political analysis which is also available in podcast form.

    There is also a Budget preview so you can see how much I got right - or wrong as the case may be!

    I've not touched on the issue of whether the Budget will speed up Mr Blair's departure as some MPs have apparently said this afternoon, but doubtless I will be returning to this issue shortly.

    Tuesday, March 21, 2006

    Ken Linford 21.12.27 - 21.3.81

    Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of my father, Ken Linford.

    He was in the motor trade for most of his life and at the time he died was general manager of a car showroom in Hitchin, Herts where I grew up.

    We didn't always have the easiest of relationships but I like to think we'd have got on a lot better once I was older, although he would probably have been horrified that his son ended up in a grubby profession like journalism instead of something fine and upstanding like architecture or the law!

    I do know however that he would have been very proud of his little grandson George. Right from the moment he was born in 2004 I have caught glimpses of my dad in him, and I find it very comforting that even though he has been dead such a long time some small part of him has managed to survive.

    Of my many memories of dad, the one which I perhaps treasure the most is of an evening about three months before he died when we went out for our first curry together. It was perhaps the first and only time that I felt we were able to relate to eachother as adults, and I suspect there would have many more such times had he lived.

    I also pay tribute to his honesty in business, which was legendary in his field of work, and his gift for friendship.

    As a mark of respect, there will be no other posts on this blog today even if Blair resigns.

    Rest in peace dad.

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Blair-must-go watch: Linford beats Guardian to it!

    "You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

    That was my blunt message to Prime Minister Tony Blair in my columns and accompanying podcast this weekend. After months of toying with the idea of firing Cromwell's Golden Bullet in his direction, I have to confess it gave me immense satisfaction to let him have it at last!

    Of course, if it was just me (and Bob Piper!) he'd ignore it - but it isn't just me and a consensus now appears to be developing across the political blogosphere that Blair will be gone by the time of the Labour Conference this autumn.

    Most devastatingly of all, the Guardian has now come out and said, in a leader entitled Nine years is enough published this morning, that Blair should go this summer rather than attempt to see out a decade in Number 10.

    I don't think the Grauniad has quite the monopoly on progressive/left-of-centre political thought that it thinks it has - it's a fact that this Government is far less concerned about what it thinks than it is about the Sun, for instance - but this editorial will undoubtedly be seen as a further nail in the Prime Minister's political coffin.

    I'm just glad I managed to beat them to it...!

    March 21 update: A Newsnight poll published last night reveals that
    half the population now want Blair to go. This is, surely, the tipping point...

    Farewell, Humphrey - you were a reminder of a gentler age

    I was very sad to learn from the BBC this morning of the death of Humphrey the Downing Street cat.

    Humphrey was a stray who was taken in to Number 10 during the last days of Margaret Thatcher and became almost synomymous with the place during John Major's time as Prime Minister.

    He was unceremoniously evicted in 1997 at the behest of Cherie Blair amid all sorts of ghastly rumours she had actually had him done in.

    Thankfully those rumours were untrue - but it's a shame poor old Humphrey didn't live to see the Blairs equally unceremoniously evicted from Number 10 as they doubtless will be before too long.

    March 21 update: The great Michael White has now penned a full tribute to Humphrey which can be read here.

    Friday, March 17, 2006

    No to Ming's Dynasty

    I see that Iain Dale is mischievously touting me as a contender for the job of Press Secretary to Sir Menzies Campbell as advertised in this week's Press Gazette.

    I'm sorry to have disappoint him. Even if I had the slightest inclination to return to London from glorious Derbyshire, going back to the Parliamentary Press Gallery as a spin doctor would be a bit poacher-turned-gamekeeperish for my liking.

    But even if I was interested, I think this column published a week or so ago would probably rule me out!

    I will however be sure to recommend Iain Dale for the post of Number 10 Press Secretary if and when David Cameron becomes Prime Minister.

    March 20 update: Forget No 10 Press Sec - I hereby nominate Iain for the forthcoming vacancy at Folkestone which was announced on Friday night. And unlike me becoming Ming's press spokesman, I reckon he'd be in with a serious chance!

    Blair-must-go watch

    With Tony Blair's premiership now holed below the waterline, I'm going to be keeping a fairly regular watch on this blog on what the MainStream Media and also other blogs are saying about his survival prospects.

    First up is the Economist which says in an editorial that the Prime Minister would be better-off leaving office soon rather than getting into an increasingly destructive scrap with his party over public service reforms.

    In today's Guardian, Polly Toynbee argues that the loans-for-peerages affair and Wednesday's schools rebellion should be seen as a warning to Mr Blair to make peace with his party and retire with good grace, although interestingly the paper itself doesn't yet go that far.

    Meanwhile king of the tipsters Guido Fawkes is putting his money on an autumn departure, around the time of the Labour Conference, and after his brilliant call on the Lib Dem leadership election, who are we to disagree?

    For my part, I first called on Mr Blair to go in the wake of the David Kelly affair in 2003 and he rather disappointingly failed to heed my advice, but I'm going to have another go in my columns and podcast this weekend which as ever will be available here on Monday.

    As to what I actually think will happen...while I've always maintained that he will go on or around the 10th anniversary of his coming to power, in May 2007, I am seriously beginning to wonder whether he can hang around till then without doing very serious damage to the Labour Party.

    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    Clarke flies a kite for coalition

    The next General Election is still at least three years away...but already Ken Clarke is talking up the prospect of a Tory-Lib Dem coalition in an interview in today's Spectator - helpfully reproduced online at e-politix as the Speccie insists on charging us for visiting its web pages.

    The idea is not so fanciful as many will instinctively suppose. As the excellent Electoral Calculus website shows, the Tories will have to be a long way in front of Labour to get an overall majority at the next election, and the best estimate at the moment is that they are likely to fall short of that.

    But the issue Clarke is specifically addressing in this interview is the political dynamics which such a result will create in terms of who teams up with who in a hung Parliament. While I have absolutely no doubt that Sir Menzies Campbell would prefer to join a coalition led by Gordon Brown, that may not be an option if the Tories both win the popular vote and comprise the largest single party.

    In those circumstances, as I discussed in a recent column entitled Which Way Will Ming Swing?, it would be politically impossible for the Lib Dems to sustain a defeated Labour Government in power, and Sir Ming would have little option but to get into bed with Mr Cameron.

    In return, Mr Cameron would of course have to promise electoral reform, but by then he will hopefully have realised how unfair the current system is to the Tories and how they might actually benefit by the introduction of proportional representation.

    Mr Cameron will no doubt deny it till he's blue in the face - but I reckon Old Ken might just be flying this kite with his leader's tacit approval.

    Minister "pissed at Despatch Box"

    Labour Watch has an excellent story that a senior Government minister was having difficulties remaining upright at the Despatch Box during a late-night adjournment debate earlier this week.

    The minister in question is an unctuous little toad who regularly used to frequent the Press Gallery Bar of an evening in an attempt to pick up titbits about what people might be writing about the next day, so maybe he got into bad habits.

    I don't know why more national newspaper diarists have not picked up on this story, but in my view it's well worth a read!

    Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    Two reasons why Blair is finished

    1. A Prime Minister with a majority of 66 is forced to rely on Conservative votes to get through a reform which he claimed would form a vital part of his legacy.

    2. Labour's Treasurer is forced to launch an investigation into his own party's finances over accusations that loans were exchanged for peerages.

    The Government has now lost all political and moral authority. Tony Blair came to power in 1997 on a tide of so-called Tory "sleaze" but it is now clear that his administration is the sleaziest since the original cash-for-honours scandal involving Lloyd George.

    When Labour donors become so brazened that they stand up and demand to know "where's my peerage?" as Chai Patel did, it is clear we are living in a corrupt and decadent political culture.

    Since 1997 Blair has made reform of the public services his number one priority - but in his increasing obsession with "marketisation" he has completely failed to carry his party with him.

    New Labour's spin machine and its fawning acolytes in the national media will doubtless tell us otherwise tomorrow - but this Prime Minister is now holed below the waterline.

    Andy Robinson = Harold Macmillan

    Analogies between politics and rugby are relatively rare, but England coach Andy Robinson's decision to axe six players for Saturday's match against Ireland calls to mind Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives in 1962 when he sacked a third of his Cabinet – “the wrong third” according to Tory wits of the time.

    Josh Lewsey appears to be taking the rap for the collision with Jamie Noon which led to the first French try. Yet Lewsey is a proven world class performer while Noon is merely a good premiership player who has been the persistent beneficiary of Robinson’s absurd favouritism.

    Bringing in Stuart Abbott at inside centre is a start, but it would have been much better to have seen the hugely talented Ollie Smith alongside him.

    Harry Ellis has been tried and failed at scrum-half – why isn’t Shaun Perry being given a chance? And why is that lolloping great tub of lard Ben Cohen still even in the squad?

    Upfront, the return of Andrew Sheridan is a belated admission that it was wrong to drop him against France, but the back row still looks totally unbalanced. Moody should move to 6 with Sanderson or Lund at 7, while Chris Jones would be a much more useful back-row bench option than Dallaglio.

    Macmillan’s purge failed to save his job in the longer-run, and this won’t save Robinson’s either. As someone said on Planet Rugby: "I've seen better selections left at the bottom of a Cadbury's Roses tin on Boxing Day."

    English Parliament: Riddell joins the fray

    Following on from Lord Hattersley's endorsement, Times columnist Peter Riddell has joined the debate over an English Parliament with this article in today's paper.

    Although he is hostile to the idea, I think this is only going to prove my point that the English Question has now crossed over into the mainstream of political debate.

    As well as being an excellent writer, Riddell is one of the real high-priests of the Whitehall political establishment and if this isssue is on his radar, then we can be sure that it is firmly on the establishment's radar.

    As someone said on another blog: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

    Monday, March 13, 2006

    Robinson must go!

    I have previously warned all you politicos out there that this blog might occasionally turn its attentions to other matters - notably the oval-ball game - and in the wake of England's 31-6 humiliation at the hands of France yesterday, this is such an occasion.

    Frankly, today I couldn't care less whether Tessa Jowell, Tony Blair or even Ian Blair go - as long as England rugby coach Andy Robinson does!

    I've long had it in for Robinson as a result of his disgraceful treatment of the Lions and Leicester Tigers centre Ollie Smith, potentially the finest young talent in the English game yet repeatedly ignored for international selection.

    Yet Robinson refuses to learn from his mistakes and persists in bone-headed decisions like playing the blindside flanker Lewis Moody out of position on the openside, and the tactically limited Mike Tindall as an inside centre.

    Now it is all finally unravelling, and the shortcomings of a coach whose limitations have long been obvious to me are becoming clear for all to see.

    There are plenty of discussion threads on this subject on the Planet Rugby site - this one entitled Where to start? is probably one of the best.

    Tessa to stay, Blair to go?

    I have by and large refrained from commenting on the Tessa Jowell thus far, mainly because no-one has managed to explain to me what exactly it is that she is supposed to have done wrong.

    I expand on this point in this week's Column and accompanying Podcast but I conclude with a look forward to what might happen to Tony Blair following this week's education vote.

    "Thankfully for Ms Jowell, it is Mr Blair’s own future to which the attentions of the media will surely now turn. Tory leader David Cameron’s carefully-laid “bear hug” strategy of trying to kill the Prime Minister with kindness by detaching him from his own MPs is now very close to success.

    "As I have written before, if Mr Blair is forced to rely on Tory votes to get those reforms through next Wednesday, he will be finished as Labour leader. Very soon now, we could well be writing a far bigger political obituary than that of the Culture Secretary."

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    Falconer's no to English Parliament is the beginning, not the end

    Constitutional Affairs Secretary and former Tony Blair flatmate Lord Falconer has today delivered an uncompromising statement on the Government's attitude to an English Parliament.

    He said an English Parliament would control the greater part of the economic power of the UK, leaving a federal UK parliament "hanging on its coat-tails."

    "To the idea of an English parliament we say not today, not tomorrow, not in any kind of future we can see now. Devolution strengthens the union of the UK. English votes for English issues would wreck it."

    The full story can be read here.

    So where does this leave us? Does this mean that those of us who support an English Parliament and a federal UK should pack up and go home? Absolutely not.

    To start with, Falconer is toast when Brown takes over. He is only in the Cabinet because he's an old legal chum of Blair's, and the PM is so isolated in the Labour Party he needs to surround himself with cronies. Furthermore Brown has already said he will have a wide-ranging look at the constitution when he takes over.

    But the real significance of today's comments is that Falconer felt it necessary to make them at all. It means the idea of an English Parliament is, finally, on the mainstream political agenda.

    What this does is create a great opportunity for the Campaign for the English Parliament to get its message across and expose the contradictions in the Government's argument.

    For example, the BBC is running a Have Your Say on the issue which is now running to eight pages of coments, together with a poll which currently shows around 63pc in favour of an English Parliament and 37pc against.

    Here's an excerpt from what I wrote on that thread:

    "If Falconer's argument against an English Parliament is that it will ultimately lead to a "federal Britain," then I would have to ask him where he's been for the past nine years. The actions of his own Government in creating devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales and the attempts to create a similar structure in Northern Ireland have - quite rightly in my view - taken us three quarters of the way towards a federal UK already. An English Parliament is simply the missing piece in the jigsaw."

    Plenty more debate on this at Iain Dale and the CEP newsblog with an eloquent summing up from Little Man in a Toque.

    March 14 update: Roy Hattersley gives his backing to an English Parliament with this piece in the Guardian.

    Thursday, March 09, 2006

    Get on with it Blair - II

    A couple of weeks ago I urged Tony Blair to get on with his long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle, questioning his decision to announce the creation of a Minister for Social Exclusion while failing to announce who was to fill the post.

    It's nice to know that the Labour-supporting Times newspaper agrees with me.

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    Ming's top team: a preliminary verdict

    Ming Campbell has now completed the long-drawn out Lib Dem frontbench reshuffle and the full list can be viewed here.

    I don't think there are any great surprises. We knew he would reward Clegg for not standing by giving him a more important position than Huhne, who did stand, and this has duly happened.

    In my view Huhne should have got the Foreign Affairs spokesmanship but that would have irritated the Clegg camp and in any case Michael Moore appears to be joined at the hip to Ming.

    Sarah Teather has been getting the headlines today for her promotion to Education spokeswoman, but I am not alone in wondering whether she really cuts the mustard.

    In terms of the minor placings, interesting to see old Paddy Ashdown ally Nick Harvey back in the top team at Defence, and Lembit keeping his job as Wales and Northern Ireland spokesman despite making an arse of himself in the leadership campaign.

    Out go Andrew George, Sandra Gidley and Tom Brake who are no great losses but I'm puzzled as to what poor old John Thurso has done wrong apart from wear a silly Lord Lucan-style moustache.

    One potentially really significant appointment is that of Simon Hughes to the constitutional affairs brief.

    Some of my colleagues in the Campaign for an English Parliament believe that Hughes is a secret supporter of their cause, so it will be very interesting to see if this now forms of part of Lib Dem policy development in this area.

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    Lib Dem succession race gets under way

    This is a such a great idea I wish I'd thought of it first...but a great new blog has been launched dedicated to the battle to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell as Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

    Okay, so it's meant to be a bit of fun, but there's a serious point here in view of the dynamics behind Sir Ming's election.

    The plain facts are that Ming Campbell owes his election to the time-honoured principle of "young cardinals elect old popes."

    The young turks who backed Campbell's leadership bid - the Nick Cleggs, Ed Daveys, David Laws and Sarah Teathers of this world - were not doing so because he is their ideological soulmate, but because when he stands down after the next election it will give them an early crack at the leadership.

    The authors of "Ming's Dynasty..." whoever they are, are therefore correct to surmise that the race is already under way.

    Indeed, the ongoing Shadow Cabinet reshuffle is part and parcel of this process, with Clegg given the chance to put himself in the driving seat as Home Affairs spokesman with his most prominent rival, Chris Huhne, given a more junior role at Environment.

    Also in the running is new Treasury spokesman Julia Goldsworthy, who is likely to prove a more durable female contender in the longer-run than Ms Rabbit-caught-in-headlights Teather.

    Lets hope there's still a party left for them to lead once the Minger has finished with it.

    March 9 Update: Here's some further justification of why this might conceivably be a valid subject for discussion. William Hill, as ever, supply the odds.

    Hat tip: Guido Fawkes.

    Introducing the Links Dump

    Teh Interweb is truly full of wonders and there's not enough hours in the day to mention them all on this blog, but there is quite a bit of stuff out there that I think is worthy of recognition in some small way. So in a return to the original spirit of web-logging, I'm introducing a new weekly links dump featuring stories and links that caught my eye.

    Here then, in no particular order, is my first listing.

    * Old lobby mucker Nick Assinder laments the sad demise of Annie's Bar.

    * Recess Monkey investigates the (very fit) TV producer currently making a film about the sex lives of MP's staff.

    * Tom Ewing celebrates suburban pop, with namechecks for old faves Prefab Sprout, the Sundays and Frazier Chorus.

    * Ace rapper John Barnes announces his England comeback.

    * Guido Fawkes calls the Lib Dem leadership election, 48 hours before the result is officially announced.

    * Chris Mullin muses over whether A Very British Coup could ever happen these days.

    * The this is network launches its latest World Cup Quiz on the Boys from Brazil.

    * Renegade former diplomat Craig Murray fulminates on the Tessa Jowell affair, with a reply from yours truly.

    * Andrew Roth remembers Stefan Terlezki, author of one of the great political upsets.

    * Tee-mart launches a new line of Andrew Marr T-shirts - I kid you not!

    That's all for now folks. Enjoy!

    Monday, March 06, 2006

    By all means "do God" Tony - but leave Iraq out of it

    As a Christian, I have extremely mixed feelings about Tony Blair's latest assertion that God will be his judge over the Iraq war, with the implication that he believed he was acting on God's guidance in launching the invasion.

    In what is becoming an increasingly post-Christian society, it is good to see God's existence being openly acknowledged by our Head of Government, and ultimately I would rather have a believer as Prime Minister than an avowed atheist such as Neil Kinnock.

    But it is one thing to talk about your faith, and quite another to start discussing how it impacts on your decisions - especially those that involve sending other people to their deaths.

    And much as I detest everything that Alastair Campbell stands for, I think he was right in advising the Prime Minister that, where the war in Iraq is concerned, he shouldn't "do God."

    Perhaps Blair fails to realise that, on the question of pacifism, Christians divide fairly evenly between those, like John Stott, who do not believe war is ever justified in any circumstances, and those, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believe it is sometimes a necessary evil.

    And even within the latter camp, you would find no agreement that the Iraq conflict actually satisfied the conditions of a "just war," as for instance the war against the Nazis did in Bonhoeffer's case.

    In his Parkinson interview, Blair sought to claim that he had tried to act in accordance with his conscience in all the events surrounding the war, which will no doubt have been heart-warming news for the family of Dr David Kelly.

    Did Mr Blair's Government expose Dr Kelly because they were seeking to "obey God" - or was it because, in the words of the late Hugo Young, the Prime Minister's sainted integrity had become the core value his country had to defend?

    Blair would not be the first politician to claim divine authority for his actions - Margaret Thatcher notoriously did so over her economic policies - but as Martin Turner argues, no single political programme has a monopoly on Christian teaching.

    And in any case, Blair should have more sense than to employ what is essentially the same defence as the one used by Peter Sutcliffe.

    Then again, may be he doesn't care any more - there was a definite valedictory air to his Parky interview, and I lost count of the number of times he referred to himself in the past tense.

    Maybe the Prime Minister's willingness to talk about God in this way, in defiance of his old spin doctor's advice, is a sign that, at long last, he really has come to terms with his own political mortality.

    March 8 Update: Stephen Pollard has an alternative view of this in the course of which he describes this blog as "rather good." I was pleasantly surprised to receive this compliment as Pollard once turned me down for a job. I suppose I should now let bygones be bygones and give him a link on this site!

    Which way will Ming swing?

    I was not terribly complimentary about Sir Ming Campbell in my Column this weekend, also available in Podcast form.

    "I see no evidence at all that Ming Campbell will be capable of engaging potential new Lib Dem voters – in particular the young...I think he may very well turn out to be a Lib Dem William Hague - a politician’s politician who is good in the Commons but who leaves the wider public cold."

    But I go on to explain that, with the next election set to give the Lib Dems their best chance of holding the balance of power since 1992, none of that may matter a damn.

    Irrespective of who ends up in Sir Ming's Shadow Cabinet - some interesting speculation here from Iain Dale - the big strategic question now facing the Lib Dems is: which way will Ming swing?

    Thursday, March 02, 2006

    Hail Ming!

    So Ming Campbell it is, and here's the breaking news story I wrote earlier for the this is network of websites.

    As a Blogger for Chris I am obviously disappointed Chris Huhne didn't make it, but after a bright start he didn't really build on the early momentum of his campaign. His chance will come again, although he'll doutbless be up against Lib Dem golden boy Nick Clegg next time round.

    I do have grave doubts about Ming Campbell's ability to connect with the British public in the way Charles Kennedy managed, and I continue to believe he played a far bigger role in Kennedy's political assassination than has so far been publicly acknowledged. But for the sake of democracy I wish him well.

    I'll be going into the implications of the result in greater detail in my newspaper columns and podcast this weekend, which will as ever be available on this blog on Monday.

    The greatness of Denis Healey

    Regular readers of this blog might by now have cottoned-on to the fact that Denis Healey is one of my political heroes. This week he has been showing why.

    Interviewed by the BBC's Andrew Marr on Sunday, he said Tony Blair should quit now in favour of Gordon Brown, a course of action which I have been urging on the Prime Minister for some considerable time.

    Now, in his Daily Telegraph column, Marr has revealed the delightful story of what Healey said in the studio afterwards to Ruth Kelly, the youthful Education Secretary who was also being interviewed.

    You can read it here.

    Power Inquiry: English Question "is not significant cause of disengagement"

    Yesterday's post on the failure of the Power Inquiry to address the democratic deficit in England has provoked a good response, including a helpful reply from one of the report's authors, Adam Lent.

    In my view this significantly moves the story on, so for the benefit of those who haven't read his comment I am reproducing it here.

    Adam writes:

    "The report of the Power Inquiry does not purport to be a "complete constitutional reform blueprint" by any means. What the Commission tried to create was a strategic response to the problem of disengagement from formal democracy - that was its remit. There were any number of constitutional issues that could have been addressed which were not because they did not relate directly to this issue.

    We certainly did receive some submissions about an English Parliament but the Commission was not convinced by any means that the West Lothian question etc. was a significant cause of disengagement. This was in large part based upon the fact that in all the many hundreds of submissions we received and in all the objective research we carried out - through surveys, focus groups and our citizens panel - the issue of an English Parliament or the West Lothian question was very rarely mentioned. Alongside the issues of the main political parties, executive power and the electoral system, for example, it was a very minor concern.

    This is not to say that those campaigning for an English Parliament do not have a legitimate concern but it seemed to the Commission an issue relating to areas other than disengagement."

    As I said, it is helpful of Adam to send a reply but if this was the reason for ignoring the English Question I think it is a fairly intellectually shallow one. At the end of the day, how can voters "engage" with the democratic process if the process itself is flawed and, in some respects, undemocratic?

    Furthermore, it is also remarkably short-sighted in that the English Question is absolutely bound to rise up the political agenda in years to come.

    What, for instance, is going to happen when a majority of English voters wants to elect a Conservative Government, but Scottish and Welsh voters ensure that the UK as a whole elects a Labour Government? It is not impossible that the next election could produce such an outcome.

    Will the authors of the Power Inquiry then say to outraged English voters that such a situation is "not a significant cause of voter disengagement?"

    Update: More reaction to Mr Lent's comments on the CEP newsblog.

    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Lib Dems: It looks like Ming

    The result of the Lib Dem leadership contest is declared at 3pm tomorrow, with opinions among the political betting fraternity divided over who is likely to take the spoils.

    King of the tipsters Mike Smithson is still calling it narrowly for Huhne, but most visitors to his site disagree, with a good two thirds predicting a Campbell victory.

    Rival pundits SpecialBets are also going for Campbell, as is Guido Fawkes who has followed the twists and turns of the contest more obsessively than most.

    My own gut feeling is that they are right, and that Ming has it. I hope I'm wrong, but my gut instinct tells me that Huhne just hasn't done quite enough to overhaul a man who was a fairly big frontrunner to begin with and who, unlike Hughes, has got through the campaign without any major gaffes.

    As to where it will leave the poor old Lib Dems though....well, that's another story.

    4pm update: Guido now has a poll of polls showing Ming on 53pc and Huhne on 47pc following redistribution of second preferences. I reckon that's about right.

    My Top 10 Political Gaffes

    We've done books, we've done speeches, so here are my Top 10 Political Gaffes, with not a George W. Bushism in sight.

    1. John Redwood's attempt to sing Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. Redwood's goldfish impersonation didn't have enormous political repercussions, but I've placed it at No 1 simply on account of its sheer ridiculousness, betraying as it did a complete ignorance of how politics operates in a TV age. Unlike most of the other famous gaffes, it couldn't be explained away as a trip of the tongue or a rush of blood to the head. It was pure, premedidated stupidity. According to his former adviser Hywel Williams, Redwood "regarded the Tory leadership as his by moral and indefeasible right." Well, if he ever was in with a genuine chance of it, this finished it.

    It had interesting consequences in which I was a bit-part player. At his first press conference, I asked Redwood's successor as Welsh Secretary, William Hague, whether he would be learning the words of the Welsh National Anthem. He replied: "I think that will be a priority." Shortly afterwards, he recruited a Welsh Office civil servant, Ffion Jenkins, to teach it him. The rest, as they say, is history.

    2. Jo Moore's 9/11 email. Within two hours of the hijacked planes smashing into the Twin Towers, Jo Moore sent an email to a colleague at the Department of Local Government, Transport and the Regions saying: "Today is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury." It laid bare not only her own crass insensitivity but the cold stony heart of the New Labour spin machine. It ought to have brought about her immediate resignation and that of the Secretary of State, Stephen Byers, who had the appalling judgement to employ her. In fact both continued in their jobs until a similar furore blew up the following year over an attempt to bury more bad news under the cover of Princess Margaret's funeral, at which point the press decided it was now time to bury Jo Moore.

    3. The Sheffield Rally. "We're all right," bellowed Neil Kinnock, sounding a bit like Jim Broadbent attempting to warm-up the audience in Little Voice. They weren't, and the public reaction to this display of triumphalism helped send Labour to a fourth shattering defeat against John Major's Tories. Those who seek to downplay the rally's impact on the result forget how tight a contest it was. Major's majority of 17 actually rested on just 3,600 votes in the most marginal constituencies. So if just 1,800 people in those seats had voted Labour rather than Tory, we would have had a hung Parliament and, in all probability, a Kinnock-Ashdown government.

    4. "These cunts must be stopped". This is a personal favourite of mine on account of the fact that I was one of only about ten journalists who actually heard it. It occurred during a Commons debate on the Government's defence white paper, and the immortal words were uttered by the then Armed Forces Minister, John Spellar, who of course meant to say "These cuts must be stopped." Predictably, Hansard cleaned it up and, because of the media taboos still surrounding the c-word, the whole thing went almost wholly unreported. But believe me - it really did happen!

    5. The Quiet Man turns up the volume. I stopped attending Tory conferences during the leadership of IDS because they had become frankly irrelevant, but I wish I'd been there in Blackpool to hear this classic. I was actually in my office in the Press Gallery when a colleague phoned through with the advance briefing of the speech they'd had from the Tory spin doctors. When she read out the quote "The quiet man is here to stay - and he's turning up the volume!" I practically fell off my chair. His leadership was probably already doomed, but this piece of idiocy sealed his grisly fate.

    6. "Crisis, what crisis?". This was part-gaffe, part example of the trend away from straight political reporting and towards interpretation which eventually was to change the nature of political journalism. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was returning from a summit in Guadeloupe when a reporter asked him about the "mounting chaos" back home as a result of the "Winter of Discontent." Jim gave the reply: "I don't think other people would necessarily share the view that there is mounting chaos," but when the story appeared on the front page of the Sun under the headline "Crisis? What Crisis" it was widely assumed that those words were his. In fact Callaghan was stitched-up by the Tory-supporting Murdoch rag, though you could argue that such a wily and experienced operator should have chosen his words more carefully.

    7. Curried Eggs. Doorstepped by a local radio reporter in the midst of the salmonella-in-eggs scare in 1989, health minister Edwina Currie proffered the view that "most of the country's egg production is now infected." A classic political gaffe in that it was simply a too-honest answer to a straight question. But contrary to popular belief it wasn't this that wrecked her career - it was her affair with John Major. Currie's talent made her a candidate for Cabinet promotion, but Major was terrified that such an obvious act of preferment would lead reporters to the smoking gun, and so offered her the dismal post of Prisons Minister. She turned it down in one of her trademark huffs, and eventually sailed off into the Tory sunset.

    8. Prescott's Green Pledge. From the habitually mangled syntax, to mispronouncing the name of Slobodan Milosevic, to driving his jag 300 yards from the Labour conference hotel to the conference hall, I could give numerous examples of the Deputy Prime Minister putting his size 10s in it. But my favourite has to be: "The green belt is a Labour achievement and we intend to build on it." It rather unfairly fixed Prescott in the public mind as a blundering idiot, which he decidely isn't. But it did inadvertently and fairly accurately sum-up New Labour's policy of concreting over the British countryside.

    9. 7x8=54. Stephen Byers getting his times-tables wrong was primarily interesting in my view for the fact that it was first time he had put a foot wrong in what until then had been a remarkably trouble-free rise up the greasy pole. It seemed to mark a turning point in his career, however, because after this he could scarcely put a foot right. Byers was once spoken about as a future Prime Minister. He is in fact a walking incarnation of the Peter Principle, namely that everyone tends to rise to the level of his own incompetence.

    10. Bovine stupidity. John Selwyn Gummer was Agriculture Minister at the time that BSE or "mad cow disease" first entered the public consciousness in the early 90s, so just to "prove" that British beef was safe, he fed his young daughter a hamburger in front of the TV cameras. Far from restoring consumer confidence in beef, it merely exacerbated the collapse in confidence in the Tories, leading to their eventual replacement by New Labour who would of course never stoop to using their children as political props.

    And that's about it. In case you're wondering, Dubya was omitted because he'd fill a Top 10 to himself. Also failing to make the cut was Hague's Baseball Cap as I've never understood why a bald man wearing a cap should be considered anything out of the ordinary. Policy gaffes are also excluded as they could cover anything from Brown's 75p pension rise to Hitler's decision to invade Russia. But alternative views are, of course, always welcome!

    The Power Inquiry: a preliminary verdict

    Like most liberal reformers I was greatly encouraged by the findings of the Power Inquiry into the sorry state of British democracy.

    There is undoubtedly much that is good in this report, most notably the call for an electoral system in which "all votes count by having some influence on the final outcome of an election."

    The report's analysis of the weaknesses of the current party system, based as it is on the outmoded capital-versus-labour divisions of the 19th century, is also faultless.

    In this context it correctly identifies the power of the whips - yes, that's you Hilary A. - as a significant factor in the sense of public alienation towards mainstream politics.

    Yet there is one glaring omission from the report which, understandably, has already been well-covered in the English blogosphere, namely, devolved government.

    As Gareth Young has pointed out on the CEP blog, the Campaign for an English Parliament actually gave evidence to this inquiry, as did the late Robin Cook who apparently said that if the English wanted a Parliament they should have one.

    Don't get me wrong - although I support the CEP I do think it is important not to get the English devolution issue out of proportion and there are, in my view, other equally important issues that the report does address.

    But if the Power Inquiry purports to be a fully complete constitutional reform blueprint, the absense of any mention of the "English Question" surely constitutes a fairly serious omission.