Friday, April 28, 2006

New Enquirer column goes live

The newly-launched North-West Enquirer has kindly granted me another platform to air my views on national politics, regionalism and other matters in the shape of a weekly column.

My first effort focuses on a question that has surfaced several times on this blog - whether there can be a future for elected regional government in the wake of the North-East referendum defeat in November 2004.

My general take on this is that while it is currently extremely unlikely, the creeping regionalisation of public services such as the police and fire brigades means the issue is eventually likely to recur in some form.

You can read it in full by clicking here.

Mitchell Earl Hodge 1962-2006

I am very grateful for the kind comments on the previous post, but the reason this blog has been shut down for nearly a fortnight is because of the very untimely death of my American brother-in-law, Mitch Hodge, in a road accident near his home in Arizona on Good Friday.

Mitch was a super guy who was always great fun to be with and who I was proud to have as a member of my family. There were several local news reports on the accident that caused his death, but I won't link out to them because none of them came close to doing him justice.

My wife Gill and I flew out to Arizona last weekend to be with the family and attend his memorial service, held in a breathtaking open-air setting in the Verde Valley which he loved, surrounded by panoramic mountain views.

It was a suitable send-off for a man who loved life, loved the outdoors, and had a great gift for friendship. His employers, Creative Technology, have placed this tribute on the homepage of their website.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Time out

Apologies to anyone who's been here in recent days expecting to find the latest up-to-the-minute political analysis....but owing to a family bereavement I'm taking some time out and I will not be updating this blog again for a while. Normal service will be resumed in about 10-14 days I expect.

Till then,


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Is this the smoking gun?

I think I might have spoken too soon in signing off for Easter. Today's story about the arrest of former Government adviser Des Smith could turn out to be one of the political stories of the decade.

It's also another triumph for Guido Fawkes who set out as long ago as 24 March why Mr Smith might be a fit subject for investigation, as they say at the Yard.

Why is it such a big deal? Because Mr Smith was involved in helping to recruit potential business sponsors for the establishment of specialist schools and city academies - one of Mr Tony's flagship policies.

If it is found that peerages were offered in return for such sponsorship, then this is a fuse that is going to lead straight back to Number 10.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Polly and Marina sock it to Milburn

Alan Milburn knew he wouldn't get much backing from the solidly Brownite Guardian in considering his potential leadership bid, but the former health secretary probably wasn't expecting this double whammy from columnists Polly Toynbee and Marina Hyde.

And there was me thinking that Milburn's appeal to women voters (and journalists) was one of his political strong points....

Lord Who?

Much of the interest in the new list of working peers will doubtless centre on which of them have donated money to the two main parties - but I have long had a different bee in my bonnet about lists of this kind.

Basically it concerns the issue of the Liberal Democrats nominating former MPs for peerages who have achieved little of distinction in the Lower House.

Iain Dale has touched on this before in a post about Jenny Tonge, a Lib Dem MP chiefly remembered for making an injudicious comment about suicide bombers before later joining the conspiracy to bring down Charles Kennedy.

Now the party has nominated another two of its lesser lights for elevation to the ermine - former MPs John Burnett and Brian Cotter.

New Labour may have perpetrated some shameful abuses of the honours system, but at least it has the decency to nominate candidates who have actually achieved something, like long-serving former Labour MP, MEP and Europe Minister Joyce Quin.

I know the Lib Dems are short of people to nominate as working peers, but it seems wrong to me that you can become a peer simply by virtue of having been elected, for however short a time, as an MP.

The other point is that surely good Liberal Democrats ought to have more self-respect than to prop up what is basically a rotten system.

The sooner we move to electing the Lords the better for all concerned.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Gordon's Cabinet

Some interesting speculation today from Tim Hames about who Gordon Brown will appoint to his Cabinet, assuming of course he emerges victorious over uber-Blairite challenger Alan Milburn.

Hames's ingenious suggestion is that Brown should appoint people he doesn't really get on with to the main offices of state in order to demonstrate that he is not the control freak everyone thinks he is.

Hence in Tim's fantasy line-up, Jack Straw gets to be Chancellor and John Reid Foreign Secretary, while Charles Clarke hangs onto the Home Office.

It might be good politics on Brown's part - but surely somewhat implausible in view of the Brownite - Blairite tensions and what will be Brown's understandable desire to put his own stamp on Government.

I do however agree with Hames that Brown will not make the mistake of making his closest ally, Alistair Darling, Chancellor in that it is important for the markets to know that the Chancellor is his own man. Or woman...

Here, for the record - and also because it's a bit of fun - is what I reckon Prime Minister Gordy might do:

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Secretary: Hilary Benn
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Patricia Hewitt
Foreign Secretary: Alistair Darling
Leader of the House of Commons: Charles Clarke
Constitutional Affairs Secretary: Peter Hain
Lord Chancellor: Baroness (Harriet) Harman
Party Chairman: Alan Johnson
Education Secretary: David Miliband
Health Secretary: Yvette Cooper
Defence Secretary: John Reid
Work and Pensions Secretary: Ruth Kelly
Environment Secretary: Stephen Timms
Transport Secretary: Des Browne
Trade and Industry Secretary: Douglas Alexander
Culture Secretary: Dawn Primarolo
Leader of the Lords: Lord Kinnock
Communities and Local Government Secretary: Hazel Blears
International Development Secretary: John Denham
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: John Healey
Chief Whip: Nick Brown

I'm not going to go through each choice one-by-one explaining my rationale but I for one reckon this line-up is considerably more dynamic than the existing one, which I suspect will be Brown's main intention in seeking to maintain continuity while at the same time giving the appearance of a new government.

Of the 11 casualties, seven would be voluntary retirements (Blair, Prescott, Straw, Beckett, Armstrong, McCartney, Amos) while four would be sackings (Falconer, Hoon, Jowell, Hutton.)

Reid would keep his job, both as a unifying gesture to the ultra-Blairites (likewise Miliband, Blears) and because he's simply the best Labour defence secretary available. The return of Denham would be designed to draw a clear line under the Iraq War.

In terms of machinery changes, the Wales and Northern Ireland offices would become part of the DCA (as originally planned by Blair,) while the ODPM would be renamed Local Government and Communities.

The Local Elections: Blair's next big challenge

Will a bad result for Labour in the local elections on May 4 finally do for Tony Blair - or will it merely harden his desire to remain in office so he can go out on a "high?"

I discuss both points of view in this week's Column and accompanying Podcast.

Meanwhile Alan Milburn has admitted he is considering standing against Gordy for the Labour leadership, confirming Paddy Hennessy's original October 2005 story in the Sunday Telegraph.

My view however, like that of Michael White is that he lacks sufficient support in the PLP to mount a genuine challenge and is merely putting his toes in the water to see what sort of response he gets.

Blair-must-go watch update:

  • Calling for Blair to go now/this year

    Ashok Kumar
    The Guardian
    The Daily Telegraph
    The Economist
    The New Statesman
    Polly Toynbee
    Matthew Parris
    Jonathan Freedland
    David Clark
    Stephen Pollard
    Paul Linford
    BBC Newsnight poll
    Times Populus poll

  • Predicting Blair will go this year

    Nick Assinder
    Guido Fawkes
    Iain Dale

  • Privately hoping Blair will go this year


  • Calling for Blair to go next year

    The Times
    Rhodri Morgan

  • Predicting Blair will go in 2008

    Charles Clarke
  • Friday, April 07, 2006

    Prescott holds the key

    "Stoical and loyal, he more than anyone embodies the Labour interest. His own legacy now demands that he live up to that reputation by galvanising party opinion behind an orderly leadership transition by the autumn."

    So writes David Clark in today's Guardian in a typically well-argued piece about how Blair's refusal to stand down is damaging the Labour Party.

    Prescott is the nearest thing the Labour Party has to the Tories' fabled "men in grey suits" and if it is down to anyone to tell Blair the game is up, it is down to him.

    Further proof of how Blair has damaged the party at grassroots level can be found in this article, also in the Guardian.

    In other developments....the excellent and ironically-titled Backing Blair website is back, this time urging Labour voters to desert the party on May 4 if they want to get rid of the PM (see logo below.)

    This is another of Tim Ireland's initiatives, so I'm glad we're now able to stand shoulder to shoulder agaisnt the common enemy (as Guido might put it) following yesterday's minor disagreement over Mazher Mahmood.

    Also planning for the post-Blair era is the social democratic pressure group Compass which is organising a conference on Labour's future.

    Just check out that pregnant slogan "The future is almost here...."

    Thursday, April 06, 2006

    Mazher Mahmood is not the real enemy

    I'm afraid I am going to have to take issue with some of my most prominent fellow bloggers on the issue that currently seems to be dominating the political blogosphere - whether or not "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood's identity should remain secret.

    For those not in the know, Mahmood is the News of the World's investigations editor, and is currently being subjected to an attempt to "out" him by publishing his picture on the internet.

    The attempt is being spearheaded by an unholy alliance of George Galloway, the most ridiculous man in British politics, and Roy Greenslade, the most ridiculous man in British journalism.

    The NoW originally obtained an injunction banning publication of his photograph, but this has now expired and three of what I consider to be the top political blogs in the country, Guido Fawkes, Recess Monkey, and Bloggerheads are all carrying various versions of his picture.

    I respect their reasons for doing so. Guido is a libertarian and any attempt to gag him is going to be met with this sort of response. Recess Monkey is first and foremost a satirist, and so anything is fair game. I'm not entirely sure where Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads is coming from on this issue, but I assume he has good reasons for branding Mahmood a "tosser."

    But I am frankly puzzled by a claim on Guido's site that he and Tim are standing "shoulder-to-shoulder against the common enemy."

    I assume they mean the "common enemy" are the lawyers who were seeking to enforce the terms of the NoW's original injunction and get Mahmood's picture taken off their sites, but I think that in this case they're shooting the messenger.

    Isn't the real enemy those who, like Greenslade and Galloway, want to neuter investigative journalism and remove the threat that it presents to those who abuse their positions of privilege and power?

    Let's remind ourselves of some of the services that Mazher Mahmood has performed in the interests of the Great British Public over the past few years.

    It was Mahmood, for instance, who revealed that Sven Goran Erikkson was a duplicitous little turd who was planning to abandon England after the World Cup to go and manage Aston Villa of all teams.

    It was Mahmood who revealed that Countess Sophie Wessex was a money-grabber prepared to abuse her Royal connections in pursuit of a few bucks.

    And it was Mahmood who revealed to Newcastle United supporters what their club's chairman Freddie Shepherd and then deputy chairman Douglas Hall really thought of them - and their women.

    More seriously, it was Mazher Mahmood who was responsible for the jailing of a husband and wife in Huddersfield who were sexually abusing children in a council-run home.

    He later received a letter from a 13-year-old girl who had been involved saying: "Thank you for saving me from this evil couple. Thank you for saving my life."

    Guido is himself an investigative journalist of some distinction as his coverage of the loans-for-peerages affair has demonstrated, so I am particularly puzzled as to why anyone with his track record would align himself with a prat like Greenslade.

    This is a man who calls himself a "media commentator," but his brand of commentary invariably consists of defending the Establishment against the depredations of a nefarious media, even to the point of becoming the mouthpiece of Alastair Campbell in his long campaign to persuade the public that it was really we who were guilty of "spin."

    I have never met Mazher Mahmood, even though he went to the same journalism college as me, and I certainly hold no brief for the NoW or the Murdoch Empire as those who know me well will certainly testify, but I do believe that the kind of subterfuge Mahmood employs is sometimes a necessary tool of good journalism.

    This attack on Mazher Mahmood is nothing less than an attack on journalism and an attack on freedom.

    Tuesday, April 04, 2006

    Has Cameron got a bit of temper on him?

    Nearly four months into his leadership, the first chinks seem to have started appearing in David Cameron's armour.

    I listened to his response to the Budget debate a couple of weeks ago and, while I thought it was totally over the top, I dismissed it as routine politicking until I heard some gossip to the effect that, for all his apparent affability, Cameron has a notoriously short fuse.

    Today's ill-considered outburst, branding the UK Independence Party "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" shows at best lack of judgement, at worst an inability to control his tongue.

    Gavin Ayling cites another example from the leadership campaign when he apparently lost it with David Davis.

    I'm all for politicians using colourful language when appropriate, but given that Cameron is basing part of his political strategy on being a sunnier, more uplifting character than Gordon Brown, I think this sort of thing could turn out to be significant.

    I suspect Labour will now be monitoring Mr Cameron very closely to see just what presses his buttons.

    Draper and White go head to head

    Following on from yesterday's posts, the two principal points of view on the Blair v Brown story are well represented in an excellent online debate currently taking place on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog.

    As I noted yesterday, Michael White takes the view that much of the current round of speculation has been got up by the media, that Blair still wants Brown to succeed him, and that Alan Milburn is not a serious candidate for the succession.

    Since then, former Mandelson spin doctor Derek Draper has hit back with a piece provocatively entitled Michael's Whitewash which argues that the relationship has descended to visceral loathing and that Blair has hatched a dastardly plot to prevent Gordon entering No 10.

    I'm with Michael up to a point, but top marks to CiF for allowing two of their contributors to tear strips off eachother in this way.

    I think Rachel Sylvester puts her finger on it in this article in today's Telegraph, arguing that Blair remains committed to the "orderly handover" so long as it's on his terms.

    "The louder Mr Brown, or his allies, shout 'off with his head,' the more intent Mr Blair becomes on staying. Advisers who assumed he would stand down next summer now say they think he will try to stay until 2008. 'He's very angry and it's hardened his position,' one said."

    I do in fact still think he will go in May next year - but only if the Brownites stop trying to hurry him along.

    Update: The Draper-White exchange on Comment is Free eventually ran to six posts. Here it is in full:

    Draper "reveals" Blair's masterplan to block Brown
    White says the rivalry is not as bad as all that
    Draper accuses the former Guardian pol ed of "Whitewash" (geddit?)
    White accuses Draper of "naivety"
    Draper says it's going to get worse before it gets better
    White urges Draper to calm down

    Monday, April 03, 2006

    Will Blair and Brown step back from the brink?

    "Nobody seriously believes that, in an ideal world, Mr Brown would be his first choice of successor - but Mr Blair is nothing if not a political realist. He knows that a war of succession between Blairites and the Brownites would tear the Labour Party apart and condemn it to certain defeat at the next General Election."

    So I argued in my column and accompanying podcast this weekend.

    Not an especially original point, I know, but for me, it's still the clincher when assessing the likely denouement of the Blair premiership.

    There are a lot of people claiming that Blair is now determined to block Brown, and some of those people are much closer to the action than I am, but for my part I just can't believe Blair would want to inflict on the party the kind of electoral damage a war of succession would cause.

    In his Observer column yesterday, Andrew Rawnsley came up with what he thought was an ingenious way for Mr Blair to reclaim his authority and effectively throw down the gauntlet to Brown, by naming a late date for his departure. But that would certainly blow the chances of an orderly handover sky-high in my view.

    Meanwhile Labour Watch is speculating that the Alan Milburn leadership bid reported in the Sunday Mirror is really designed to damage Brown and allow David Miliband to come through the middle.

    However Mike White, writing on the Comment is Free blog, takes a similar view to me, although I wouldn't quite go as far as he does in attributing most of the current flurry of speculation to mischievous hacks.

    White is also dismissive of the prospect of a Milburn challenge, saying: "He has little or no following in the Parliamentary Labour party and he's not daft either."