Monday, July 31, 2006

Ming's Dynasty: Where are you when we need you?

The late, lamented satirical blog Ming's Dynasty, formed in the aftermath of the Lib Dem leadership election earlier this year, would have had a field day with the current goings-on in the party.

Welsh Assembly Member Peter Black kicked it all off last week with a well-argued piece on his blog saying that Ming Campbell needed to shape up by the time of September's party conference - or ship out.

Then the News of the Screws claimed on Sunday that Charles Kennedy planned to challenge Ming in an audacious bid to regain the party leadership, leading to a spate of denial stories in this morning's papers.

Meanwhile, over at Conservative Home, they are once again talking up the leadership chances of their favourite Lib Dem Nick Clegg - the one they hope will split his party by leading the Orange Bookers into a coalition with the Chameleon.

To make matters worse, Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Calder has written a piece in today's Guardian which, while attempting to defend Ming, actually serves to highlight his real problem.

In his piece, Jonathan argues that Lib Dem image-makers should stop trying to turn Ming into something he isn't and just "let Ming be Ming."

Well, I have a fair amount of respect for Jonathan whose blog is by some way the best of the bunch as far as Lib Dem blogs are concerned, but this argument is so manifestly ludicrous that it needs to be countered.

The problem is in fact diametrically the opposite - not that Ming isn't being allowed to be Ming, but that Ming is Ming.

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Chris Huhne on the English Question

Thanks to Tom Griffin of the Green Ribbon blog for drawing to my attention some interesting stuff on the English Question in the current edition of Prospect magazine.

It features four differing viewpoints on the Tories' "English votes for English laws" initiative, the most interesting of which from my point of view is from the former - and future? - Lib Dem leadership contender, Chris Huhne.

"If the Tories do decide to campaign to end Scottish votes on English laws, they will be on fertile ground. Scotland receives far more public spending per head than England, and there is a sense of injustice in poorer English regions," he writes.

Quite so. But Huhne does not go on to advocate English votes for English laws, suggesting instead the issue can be dealt with simply by creating a new Parliamentary convention.

"There is another way the problem could be dealt with without creating two classes of MP: a new convention that prevented purely English legislation going forward unless it had not only a majority of the House of Commons voting for it but also a majority of MPs from English constituencies.

"Labour would not like this approach, as it might prevent the party getting legislation through. Too bad. Those who promote devolution must live with its consequences,"
adds Huhne.

For my part, I would still like to see one or both of the Opposition parties really putting Gordon Brown on the spot over the English Question by backing an English Parliament - or even better, for Brown to outflank his critics in the Anglosphere by coming out in favour of one himself.

But even though he stresses he is writing in a "personal capacity," Huhne's piece in my view shows the kind of innovative thinking we should be looking for in our future political leaders.

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Brown v McDonnell: Is there a third way?

I promised last week that I would be having a closer look at the question of whether there is a viable alternative to what, for some on the left, is the increasingly unappetising choice of Gordon Brown or John McDonnell for the Labour leadership when the Great Pretender finally stands down.

I duly made this the main topic of discussion in my weekly Saturday columns and accompanying Podcast this weekend, a copy of which has also been posted on my new Labour Home blog HERE.

In it, I discuss the prospects of Margaret Beckett, Peter Hain and John Denham as potential soft-left candidates, while also arguing that Gordon the Leader will prove to be much more progressive than Gordon the Candidate is allowing himself to be.

One thing of which I am certain is that Gordon could not have made yesterday's speech by Blair to the Murdoch Corporation on political cross-dressing, even if it costs him the support of the Dirty Digger at the next election.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Led Zep is MPs' music of choice

A suitably light-hearted subject on which to end another week's blogging - unlike the indefatigable Iain Dale I tend to avoid computer screens at weekends, at least in summer, so no need to bother coming here again until Monday.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. A poll has revealed that Led Zeppelin II is the most popular British No 1 album of all time with MPs.

Led Zep were a bit before my time, to be honest - I was still listening to Mungo Jerry in those days - but it was good to see nominations for Human League's Dare (Mark Oaten) and Swing Out Sister's It's Better to Travel (Tory MP Mark Field), both of which would be in my Top 30.

My own favourite? It depends which day you ask me, but it would be between Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout, Screamadelica by Primal Scream, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, by Genesis, and Programmed to Love, by Bent.

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McDonnell's challenge is not enough

There's a good piece currently running on Labour Home on why the left needs a different challenger from John McDonnell in the leadership election, when it happens.

I broadly agree with this premise, and have posted a comment accordingly, but I may well return to this subject in more detail shortly.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

More bad news for Ming

I don't want to become a prophet of doom for the Liberal Democrats, but today's ICM poll putting the Tories on 39pc, Labour on 35pc and the LDs on 17pc makes very grim reading.

As political betting guru Mike Smithson points out, there is now evidence that we are returning to an old-style two-party battle as the prospect of a tight election race in 2009/10 draws closer.

"For the first time in a decade and a half there is just the prospect of a Tory General Election win and it is this that might be keeping Labour stable and squeezing the Lib Dems," says Mike.

Furthermore, things could get worse before they get better. The Guardian's piece on the poll outlines a "nightmare scenario" in which Ming's conference speech bombs, new left-right splits emerge over "Orange Book II," and Charles Kennedy pops up to remind us all he ain't finished yet.

The sole silver lining to all is that Cameron is only four points ahead of Labour whereas he will need to be eight or nine points ahead to win a parliamentary majority under the current system.

Cameron is therefore likely to need to bring Campbell into a Tory-Lib Dem coalition - which would be fine if it wasn't for that the fact that Campbell would much rather go into a coalition with Gordon Brown.

I don't want to harp on - honest - but in the difficult electoral circumstances in which the Lib Dems now find themselves, it seems vital to me that the party has both a clear, distinctive message and a popular, charistmatic leader.

Currently, it has neither.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oaten makes a wise move

A curious reticence seems to have descended on the Lib Dem blogosphere over the long-overdue announcement by Mark Oaten that he is standing down as an MP at the next election.

Doubtless it stems from that very British desire not to kick a man when he is down, and in some senses I sympathise with that.

In others, though, I think this has been a deeply unsatisfactory episode in terms of the relationship between politicians and the public, and the role of the media in maintaining that relationship.

It was regularly alleged that "the media establishment," or "the Lobby" had kept Charles Kennedy's drinking a secret. Well, likewise, the News of the Screws decided the great British public didn't really need to know the details of what Oaten had been getting up to with rent boys, saying only that it was "too revolting to describe."

I understand their reasons, of course, but in a case such as this, what you then end up with is a situation where the public only gets half the story and is hence not able to make an informed judgement about whether they want someone to represent them.

In this instance, the nature of the "revolting" act is and always was the story, because it is this, rather than the fact that Oaten used rent boys, which would persuade most normal people not to vote for him.

As it is, thanks in part to the blogosphere and its ability to disemminate material such as this, Oaten probably concluded in the end that enough people knew the truth to make his position untenable.

Amidst all the self-delusion that has characterised his career in recent months, including thinking that he could be leader of the Liberal Democrats, he at least deserves to be congratulated for finally recognising the reality of this.

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Whither the Lobby?

Guido Fawkes and myself are debating the future of the Lobby System over at the Press Gazette's excellent Discuss Journalism site today.

Basically, Guido thinks it's undemocratic and elitist and should be abolished, while I think that abolishing it would lead to its replacement by something even more elitist and undemocratic. Further contributions, either on this site or the Press Gazette's, are of course very welcome.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Brown to axe Blair's "city regions" project?

A few weeks back, I wrote in the North West Enquirer, Newcastle Journal and elsewhere about Ruth Kelly's plans to roll-out the "London model" of devolution to cities like Manchester and Newcastle as the latest move in the Government's regional agenda.

According to old regional lobby mucker Jon Walker in yesterday's Birmingham Post, however, this will be one of the first things to go once Gordy gets his hands on the levers of power. Interesting.

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Fame at last for the world's greatest Lily Allen fan

An old mate of mine from my London days now edits a blog called the Daily Growl which was plugging Lily Allen well before she became a mainstream media babe.

So it was great to see his efforts paying off with a plug in this Sunday's Observer Review section, which featured a full-page piece on the chart-topping singer, described by the NME as "the cool as fuck sound of summer 2006."

Incidentally the name Daily Growl is neither indicative of my friend's disposition nor of the contents of his blog. It comes from the name of the opening track of the 2002 Lambchop album Is a woman.

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Prescott tells it like it is

Wny does the media hate John Prescott so? While Alastair Campbell talks his customary load of mendacious bollocks over Tony Blair's departure date, Prezza just tells it like it is.

A few weeks back, in my North West Enquirer column, I predicted that the leadership and deputy leadership issues would need to be settled before the end of Labour's conference in Manchester. It seems Mr Prescott now agrees.

Writing on the BBC website, Nick Assinder goes further, speculating that the conference could be the stage not just for an announcement about the leadership, but for a leadership election.

My latest assessment of the situation as the Parliamentary term drew to a close last week can be found on my latest podcast available via the this is sites or by subscription to iTunes.

Note: This post was supposed to go up yesterday but Blogger appears to be somewhat temperamental at the moment. Given by the unusually small number of new posts on other political blogs yesterday it seems I'm not the only one who had problems.....

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Was Dr Kelly murdered?

Lib Dem MP Norman Baker - more use than the rest of the party's frontbench put together - thinks so.

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Air travel: why Richard Chartres is right

Unlike Iain Dale and the RAC I agree with the Bishop of London when he says that frequent air travel is not really a responsible option for a Christian.

Indeed, I would say that when mainstream politics is ignoring a particular issue of this nature, the Church has even more of a duty to speak out.

Bishop Chartres (who should have got Canterbury in my view) used the word "sin" which is a word always guaranteed to get the media's goat, but "sin" in this context means no more than mankind falling short of God's ideal.

Given that we are supposed to be responsible stewards of His creation, filling the atmosphere with kerasine fumes seems to me to be falling very far short of it.

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Wedding bells....

Unfortunately I wasn't able to get along to St James' Piccadilly on Saturday to join Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett et al in offering my congratulations to New Labour's latest celebrity couple as I was down in the lovely town of Rye (pictured) celebrating the fifth anniversary of my own marriage to Gill.

I am proud to say that when we were married at St Helen's, Bishopsgate in July, 2001, there wasn't a politician in sight.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Disinformation, or just plain wishful thinking?

Mike Smithson seems taken in by today's Spectator "revelation" that Alastair Campbell thinks Blair will stay on "for a year and a bit," namely until next year's Labour Party Conference.

This is a little surprising, given that it is only a matter of days since Mike's highly-esteemed Political site was saying he would go in 2006.

Leaving that aside though, I wonder what it is that makes him think that anything Alastair Campbell says can possibly be taken at face value, given that the man is a proven master of disinformation?

On this occasion, I don't think it even qualifies as that, more a hopeless case of wishful thinking from a man seemingly in denial about the extent of the crisis now facing the Prime Minister.

I am on record many times as saying Blair would step down on or around the 10th anniversary of his coming to power, namely on May 2, 2007, but I now take the view that that is the absolute limit of how long he can realistically hope to remain in power.

As one MP said recently: "The Labour Party will let him do 10 years. If he tries to go a day longer than that, they will kill him." Assuming, of course, that Inspector Knacker doesn't get him first.

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Kennedy "twice as popular as Ming" - poll

This story speaks for itself. It requires no more comment from me really, other than to say to those Lib Dem MPs whose sheer, unparalleled act of political genius it was to replace Charles with Ming last January: We told you so!

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Could Margaret Beckett become PM?

I must confessed I missed this on Comment is Free until Conservative Home helpfully highlighted it this morning, but this is an interesting question which deserves a slightly better answer than the one which Peter Franklin supplies.

Franklin says yes, if Gordon Brown were to be dragged down by Labour infighting and Blairite attempts to find an alternative from within their own ranks fail. I say: still extremely unlikely, even in the event of these other conditions being fulfilled.

I know Beckett reasonably well, as it happens, from my days as Political Correspondent of the Derby Evening Telegraph, her local paper. I have never found her to be anything less than extremely courteous, and for the most part, her career has exhibited that much-prized attribute, of being a "safe pair of hands."

Nevertheless, she has made two crucial errors in the course of her time in frontline politics which I think still, to an extent, define her in terms of her political positioning and which the Tories - and their friends in the media - would relentlessly exploit if she ever assumed the top job.

The second of these I have referred to in my post on John Prescott below. Beckett could easily have become Labour leader in 1994, but threw away her chance by failing to give sufficient backing to the modernising cause.

Much earlier than that, in 1981, she launched a bitter attack on soft-left MPs who had abstained in that year's deputy leadership contest, thereby allowing Denis Healey narrowly to hold off the challenge of Tony Benn.

It was this action that originally earned her the nickname "Stalin's Grandma," an epithet which was also applied to Jo Richardson and has since been appropriated and adapted by a well-known journalist blogger.

They say a week is a long time in politics, but even now, a quarter of a century on, the idea of a 63-year-old former Bennite up against someone with the wide electoral appeal of David Cameron is surely not one that the Labour Party would be wise to contemplate.

My position remains that Brown will comfortably win the Labour leadership, unless the economy suddenly goes belly-up or forthcoming attempts to link him with the cash for honours affair succeed.

Failing that, the job will go to Alan Johnson, or possibly to John Reid, who if nothing else in his brief tenure of the Home Office has demonstrated his extreme political toughness.

But if by then the party is too divided to accept either a Brownite or a Blairite as leader, it won't be Beckett who comes through the middle as the compromise candidate associated with neither side, but the man whose old dad she once so enthusiastically championed.

Step forward, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A good question

To my knowledge, this post on the Not Proud of Britain blog is the first time the question has been raised as to whether Gordon Brown might have had anything at all to do with Labour Party funding matters.

Somehow, I suspect it won't be the last though. Gordon is, after all, the real enemy as far as the Blairites and a large section of the Tory media are concerned, and if there is any way they can bring him down along with the Prime Minister, they will.

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John Prescott v the Snobbocracy

Yesterday, Iain Dale published a light-hearted post asking some of his 114,000 readers to nominate John Prescott's greatest achivement.

I should have known better than to get involved of course...but I rose to the bait and suggested that perhaps his greatest achievement was managing to reach high office at all given his deprived background and the degree of social prejudice that he has had to encounter as a result.

It duly provoked a tidal wave of abuse with one poster suggesting I should be locked up in a padded cell next to Ian Huntley and another branding me "sad" and suggesting I need psychiatric help.

You can read the whole thread in all its glory HERE.

Update: Many of the comments on both Iain's blog and this one carry the assumption that Prescott owed his election as Deputy Leader to his links with the unions and to the "Old Labour" block vote. This is not quite historically accurate.

In fact, Prescott got the gig largely as a result of his steadfast loyalty to John Smith the previous year during the 1993 conference row over one-member-one-vote (OMOV) in contrast to the incumbent deputy, Margaret Beckett, who made the mistake of appearing to give only lukewarm backing for the idea.

Hence when Smith died and the two leadership jobs came up for grabs, it was Prescott rather than Beckett who was the modernisers' choice for deputy, bizarre though this may seem in view of their subsequent careers.

Doubtless some of the unions supported Prescott, but most of the left-wing ones, including the one of which I was then a member, voted Beckett-Beckett for leader and deputy leader.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The great Tory transport U-turn

This story has not had a tremendous amount of coverage, but I think it's potentially another very significant step on the road back to electability for the Tories.

In my view, rail privatisation was the single most damaging act of the John Major premiership and thus the single biggest reason why they deserved to be kicked out of office in 1997. It was clearly a scorched-earth policy designed to make things as difficult as possible for their successors, and in that, it more than succeeded as John Prescott and Stephen Byers both found to their cost.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Working-class MPs: A good or bad thing?

Commenting on the death of former miner and Labour MP Kevin Hughes, the former Europe minister Denis MacShane has lamented the decline of working-class representation in Parliament - historically speaking the original raison d'etre for the Labour Party's existence.

Macshane blames it on Margaret Thatcher and her destruction of the coalfield communities, but for my part, I put it more down to the progressive convergence between left and right and the resulting homogenisation of MPs' social backgrounds, as well as the narrowing of the window of social opportunity that existed in the 1960s and 70s for the likes of ambitious working-class boys like John Prescott and Alan Milburn.

Either way, Macshane's comments have provoked what, to say the least, is an interesting reaction on the otherwise excellent Labour Watch site, whose author writes: "It is difficult to argue convincingly in support of the idea of more MPs like Dave Anderson, John Cummings, and Ronnie Campbell in parliament."

Shame on him! Quite apart from the fact that the trio he singles out are all from the North-East - a bit region-ist for a Lib Dem, don't you think? - the constituencies they represent are all themselves heavily working-class.

Is Labour Watch seriously arguing that consittuencies such as Easington and Blyth Valley with large numbers of former mineworkers would be better represented by policy wonks like David Miliband or law lecturers like Stephen Byers as opposed to, er, former mineworkers like Cummings and Campbell?

As MacShane quite rightly says: "We have fewer and fewer working-class Labour MPs like Kevin Hughes now, and parliament is the poorer as a result."

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Fattersley joins the list

Former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley has become the second most senior Labour figure (after Denis Healey) to join the growing list of MPs, peers, newspapers, political commentators, bloggers and pollsters who have publicly called on Tony Blair to stand down this year.

The list currently stands as follows:

Lord Healey
Lord Hattersley
Andrew Smith
Frank Dobson
Michael Meacher
Ashok Kumar
Glenda Jackson
The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph
The Economist
The New Statesman
Polly Toynbee
Matthew Parris
Jonathan Freedland
Stephen Pollard
Paul Linford
BBC Newsnight poll
Times Populus poll
YouGov poll of Labour members

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Back in business

Apologies to all who have visited this site over the past week hoping to find something new...I've been up in the Lakes with Gill and George trying out our new Vango Diablo 900, nicknamed the Millennium Dome by some camping enthusiasts.

Apparently a few things have been happening in my absence....oh well, can't win 'em all! I'm sure I'll have a chance to catch up with the trials and tribulations of Lord Levy and the ongoing debate over the role of political bloggers over the next few days or so....

Meanwhile, here's a picture of the wonderful NT campsite at Great Langdale where we were staying.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Remembering 7/7

Largely thanks to Iain Dale linking to my Prescott post (below) I had a record number of hits on this blog yesterday, as well as getting interviewed by the Guardian for a piece coming out on Monday on the whole Lobby - Blogosphere interface that the Prezza story has highlighted.

All of which is very exciting and encouraging for me at this time. But today is the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, and I don't want you to read my blog today.

I want you to go to Rachel from North London and read the moving words and prayers which the Kings Cross victims will today join together in saying, or to Comment is Free where survivor Holly Finch describes her quest to find goodness admist the suffering.

Above all, I want you to sign the petition for a full public inquiry into these bombings, including the issue of why a bookshop assistant who attempted to tip-off West Yorkshire police about the activities of Mohammad Sidique Khan appears to have been written off as a nutter.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

It's not just Tory bloggers who think Prescott should go

The last time I wrote anything about John Prescott was four weeks ago in my Saturday column which appears in the Newcastle Journal, Derby Evening Telegraph and Lincolnshire Echo.

On that occasion I wrote:

"Mr Prescott’s sole case for continuance in office rests on the argument that it would be better for the Labour Party to resolve the leadership and deputy leadership issues at the same time.

"True - but that is not an argument for Mr Prescott to cling on till Mr Blair goes. It is, rather, an argument that they should both go now."

So why the reticence since then? Well, it's not that I've been avoiding the subject. It's just that nothing that has happened in the whole Prescott saga in the meantime has caused me to revise this opinion in any way.

The fact that Mr Prescott received hospitality from a millionaire who wants to open a casino in the Millennium Dome, or that Guido Fawkes has named the third Prescott mistress merely confirms me in my view that Labour needs a clean sweep at the top.

Today the story has taken a different turn with claims that "Tory bloggers" are behind a "dirty tricks campaign" designed to force Mr Prescott out of office.

The series of claims was made via Mr Prescott's biographer and unofficial media spokesman Colin Brown in today's Independent.

"Friends of the Deputy Prime Minister claim he has been the target of a "dirty tricks" campaign by "bloggers" with Tory right-wing links. They are furious at the use of two Westminster internet sites to name a third woman with whom the bloggers allege John Prescott has had an affair, and a woman civil servant in Beijing who is said to have rebuffed his advances.

Mr Prescott's allies have privately urged him to take action to remove the smears or close the sites down. His advisers said he was unlikely to do so, to avoid giving them more prominence.

"It is the black arts," said a Prescott ally. "They are running a dirty tricks campaign and they are being used as a conduit by journalists."

The Labour MP was named by a "gunpowder plot" website called Guido Fawkes. Friends of the blogger said it was run by a libertarian conservative, Paul Staines, a former Tory activist. The website yesterday challenged Mr Prescott to sue. The Prescott camp also accused Iain Dale, a past Tory parliamentary candidate, of using his own personal blogsite to recycle the smears."

The BBC's Nick Robinson has also waded in, attempting to play down the Prescott story and accusing bloggers of "attempting to make the political weather."

Naturally Iain and Guido have given their various responses to these claims and these can be read HERE and HERE.

So what to make of it, in particular Prescott's claim that journalists are using blogger as a conduit? Well, knowing how journalism works, I don't doubt that the odd bit of gossip probably does flow back and forth between the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

In the old days, when newspaper hacks had a story they couldn't quite get past the legals, they would pass it on to Private Eye, or to a diary column where less rigorous legal restrictions applied. Nowadays, they just end up on Guido and Iain Dale.

As an aside, it's a pity they can't be shared around a bit as Iain and Guido don't really need the traffic....but does it really amount to "dirty tricks?" by "politically motivated" bloggers?

Okay, so Iain Dale is a former (and future?) Tory candidate, but then again Nick Robinson is a former chairman of Macclesfield Young Conservatives, and he is taking a much softer line on the story.

But just as it is not just Tory MPs who have expressed concern about Prescott's behaviour, neither is it just "Tory" bloggers who have done so.

In fact, there are plenty of us on the centre-left who can see the damage he and Blair are doing to the progressive cause by remaining in office so long past their sell-by-date.

The latest speculation is that the end result of all this will be that Prescott will resign as Deputy Prime Minister but hold on to his (meaningless) role of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

If so, it can only serve as a temporary device for getting them through to the party conference in Manchester, when the issue will have to be settled.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Italy and Germany show us the way

Last night I watched the best match of the 2006 World Cup. It seems I'm not the only one who thought so.

The quality of the football between Italy and Germany was so demonstrably superior to anything we saw from England in this tournament that afterwards I felt a little less sore about our elimination.

The point is that up until last Saturday, we were told - by Sven Goran Eriksson and by a mainly compliant media desperate to talk up our chances - that we were somehow in the same league as these guys. In truth though we never were.

Do we know how to thread passes together, maintain posesession, or even how to defend like the Germans and the Italians do? No, we don't, although briefly, under Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle in the 90s, we did aspire to play like that.

It was the right result too. Italy were marginally the better side all night and it was great to see Grosso diplaying a touch of the Tardellis at the end in his goal celebration.

As I said at the start of the World Cup, I will always support the Italians against all other teams apart from England, so I'm with Marcello Lippi's men all the way now.

That said, I won't be too sad if Zidane and Co walk off with the prize for France. It would be one of the great sporting comebacks of all time, and it would be the kind of story that gives hope to old gits everywhere.

Just so long as it isn't Portugal....

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Are city regions a runner for Labour?

In my newspaper columns at the weekend I focused on the Government's plans for "city regions" as outlined by Ruth Kelly in a speech last week.

The idea is to use the "London model" of an elected mayor with powers cutting across local authority areas to streamline accountability and galvanise economic development across eight major conurbations.

It's a good idea in theory, but to my mind, it raises different issues for different cities.

Manchester and Birmingham are already city regions and the plan makes a good deal of sense there. I am less sure whether it makes sense for Newcastle, and I am absolutely damned sure it makes no sense for Nottingham. Derby and Leicester, which was ludicrously labelled a potential "city region" by one of Ms Kelly's spokespeople, even though no-one in either city has actually suggested it.

Accordingly, the issue was given different treatment in each of the different columns I wrote about it.

The Newcastle Journal column can be read HEREwhile the North West Enquirer version can be viewed HERE. Unfortunately the other two are not online yet.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

England: The inquest

What to say about England's elimination from the World Cup by Portugal in a penalty shoot-out after having their star player sent off? Well, in one sense, you really couldn't make it up, in that if you had done, everyone would have gone: "Nah, that couldn't possibly happen again now, could it?"

But lightning does, it seems, strike twice in the same place, in that what happened on Saturday was precisely what happened against Argentina in 1998 when Beckham was sent-off and then David Batty missed in the shoot-out to condemn England to defeat.

All the national newspaper pundits have had their say, and there's no point me linking out to them all. But for me the best summing-up of the selectorial and tactical mistakes by which Sven-Goran Eriksson blighted England's challenge came from the Observer's Paul Wilson.

"By the time Eriksson had taken a blind leap of faith over Walcott and decided four strikers would be plenty even if two of them were injured, he appeared to be behaving as if distracted...his entire philosophy now seemed to be based on the premise that you might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb, and so the cautious, studied approach disappeared in favour of bizarre selections and a new formation every week. And still England played terribly."

Quite. But I think that, collectively, the national media - and I'm not singling out Paul Wilson or any other individual here - can sometimes be guilty of 20/20 hindsight in relation to such issues.

To me, it was obvious from the start that this squad had been poorly selected, and that as a result of that, the team was performing poorly and Eriksson failing to make the best use of the available talents at his disposal.

Yet the papers, for quite understandable reasons, seem to see it as their patriotic duty to get behind our boys and not question too closely either the validity of the team selections of the effectiveness of the performances, even if these things are staring them in the face.

Take Theo Walcott, for instance. There should have been a press campaign against this crazy selection, ahead of Jermaine Defoe. Instead they simply took it on trust that Eriksson knew what he was doing, and that the untested 17-year-old really could become England's latest World Cup hero. In fact, Eriksson himself didn't even believe in him.

Similarly, the media have been muted in their criticisms of Frank Lampard who was, to put it bluntly, not worth his place in the team in this tournament. He was obviously trying too hard to score and his presence in central midfield inhibited Steven Gerrard, the one player apart from Rooney who could have won the thing for us.

Eriksson's reluctance to drop one of his stars distorted the team formation throughout the campaign, forcing him into playing a negative 4-5-1 when we would have been far better off with Rooney and Crouch up front and Gerrard at the head of a midfield diamond.

World Cups are often about discovering your best formation. That's what happened in Italia '90. If England had not switched to 3-5-2 in that tournament when Bryan Robson went home injured, we'd never have got near the semi finals. And of course we only discovered Geoff Hurst in '66 as a result of an injury to Jimmy Greaves.

For my part, I never believed England could win this World Cup. Yes, we had the players to do it, but not the management capable of getting them to play together as a team. I am far more shocked by the elimination of Argentina, whom I am happy to admit I tipped for glory at the outset and who possessed, in Juan Roman Riquelme, the player of this tournament

At the start of this World Cup, I listed my Top 10 World Cup memories, and reminiscences of Italia '90 inevitably loomed large in that. Sadly, there is nothing from the 2006 tournament that I will be adding to that list.

What was so memorable about the challenge by Bobby Robson's men was that it was so unexpected, in contrast to this over-hyped side and their over-hyped manager who somehow managed to convince a nation that we had a genuine chance of the world's greatest prize.

It's not all doom and gloom. In 2010, Rooney will be in his prime. Robinson, Terry, Gerrard, Hargreaves (a star yesterday), Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon could still be around to form the nucleus of a new team. It's not a bad basis on which to build.

But as for Sven, it really is goodbye...and good riddance.

Update: Throughout the World Cup, I have helped produce a series of podcasts with colleagues on the this of websites. Now England have packed their bags, we're hanging up our mikes, but our final verdict on England's campaign can be heard HERE.

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