Saturday, July 14, 2007

The emerging battleground

Today's columns in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Telegraph focus on Brown's "Queen's Speech" last Wednesday and the emerging battleground for the next general election. Subjects ranged over include the monarchy, housing, counter-terrorism, regional assemblies, supercasinos, marriage and income tax.


We've had Gordon Brown’s dummy Queen’s Speech, setting out his new government’s programme for the next year and providing a symbolic break with the Blair era by scrapping the “supercasino” plan.

We’ve had David Cameron’s bid to win back Middle England by recasting the Tories as the party of the family.

And we’ve had Sir Menzies Campbell’s attempt to bring a new radical cutting edge to Lib Dem policies by proposing a 4p cut in income tax paid for by higher green taxes and ending tax breaks for the very rich.

If anyone had any doubts that the three main parties are now in election mode, the events of the past week will surely have dispelled them.

To take first Mr Brown’s Commons statement on Wednesday outlining his draft legislative agenda, the first thing to say about this is that it is a very welcome constitutional innovation.

As I have written in this column on at least two previous occasions, I have long believed that the Queen’s Speech itself has become a farce.

Requiring Her Majesty to read out phrases such as “My government will focus on the people’s priorities” and “My government will govern in the interests of the many, not the few” demeans the Monarchy and does nothing for the image of politics.

She should still formally open Parliament each November, but in a modern democracy it makes sense that the programme itself is read out by the Prime Minister.

What, though, of the actual content of Mr Brown’s package? Well, one comment that has been made is that while the style may have been very different from that of the Blair years, the substance remains much the same.

That to my mind is a trifle unfair, given the relative importance being attached by Mr Brown to the different parts of the package.

Had it been a Tony Blair statement, it would certainly not have majored on the issue of social housing, a subject which was of very little interest to the former Prime Minister.

No, it would moreorless all have been about crime and counter terrorism, as were most of the Queen’s Speech packages of the latter years of the Blair regime.

Okay, so those problems have not gone away – but despite, or perhaps even because of the recent attempted terror attacks on London and Glasgow, I think Mr Brown is right to try to lower the temperature on that score.

“Politicians used to sell us dreams of a better life. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares,” went the trailer for a BBC documentary a while back.

Mr Brown, to his credit, is one of the old-fashioned variety of politicians in this respect.

Without necessarily taking the terrorist threat any less seriously, maybe we might become a more optimistic and less fearful nation on account of it.

As it is, Mr Brown’s declared aim of building 3m more low-cost homes by 2020 may be no easier to achieve than defeating al-Qaeda.

Some of those additional homes will be no doubt be built on government-owned brownfield sites such as former hospitals and MoD land, and many of these have already been identified.

But it is simply fanciful to think such an ambitious target could be reached without encroaching on green belt land as well.

And just as the Blair government was in danger of destroying our civil liberties by over-reacting to the terrorist threat, so the Brown government risks destroying another essential part of our British way of life – the countryside.

The abolition of the unelected regional assemblies, welcome though that may be in many quarters, will not make things any easier in this respect

Local authorities are set to get back the strategic planning role they were forced to give up to the assemblies five or six years ago, but it is unlikely to make the actual task any easier.

The upshot will almost certainly be that they won’t be able to agree among themselves which bits of green belt get concreted over, meaning the decision will go to Whitehall.

Thus does the “new localism” risk ending up as the old centralism, as devolution goes into reverse.

As for the supercasino decision, which came as a bolt from the blue even to Mr Brown’s own Cabinet, that seemed in part a response to Mr Cameron’s attempt to take the moral high ground over marriage.

The Tory leader has backed a report by his predecessor-but-one Iain Duncan Smith arguing for tax breaks for married couples worth £20 a week.

It will be a popular move in some quarters, but I can’t help but see it as a bit of a retreat into the comfort zone for a party which had been seeking to show it has come to terms with modern Britain.

In any case, using the tax system to encourage a certain course of behaviour is what used to be called social engineering - something only Labour governments tended to be accused of.

What of the Lib Dems? Since the overthrow of Charles Kennedy they have been floundering as a party, having shed not just a well-liked leader but also most of their most distinctive policies.

I still believe Sir Menzies is the wrong leader. He is too much an establishment figure for a party that thrives on being seen as slightly edgy.

But his supporters will argue that if the party is going to go in for very radical policies, perhaps it helps to have a reassuring figure like Sir Menzies at the helm.

The policies unveiled this week are certainly radical, and if implemented would constitute the biggest taxation changes since the last time the Liberals were in power, under H.H. Asquith.

After Mr Brown’s lacklustre debut at Prime Minister’s Questions a week and a half ago, a Tory MP was seen rubbing his hands with glee outside the Chamber exclaiming “Game on!”

He may have been getting a bit carried away with himself. The election is still very much Mr Brown’s to lose, in my opinion, and he has all the Prime Minister’s powers at his disposal as he seeks to make the political weather.

But what is becoming clearer is the way in which the respective parties intend to tackle the contest when it finally does come round.

Maybe it’s not quite game on yet, but the key players are definitely starting to limber up.

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skipper said...

You are a little too hard perhaps on Ming; he did, after all, resist Gordon's siren song- not easy to do if you have been in opposition all your life and faced much more of the same. Even Paddy had a spell as a virtual viceroy in the Balkans. And he's at last beginning to shape up at PMQs. Age does bring better judgement I have found as I have become older...

jadedexhack said...

Paul, have you noticed anything fishy about the two political polls in the News of the World and the Sunday Telegraph? Broadcasting organisations are running them as TWO separate polls - albeit majoring on the ST poll. But they are, in fact, the SAME poll carried out by the SAME polling organisation (ICM) at the SAME time. Check out Iain Dale's blog which carries a sheepish excuse from the NoW political editor Ian Kirby. While I'm no fan of Cameron, surely it's disingenuous to be claiming there's two negative polls around - when, in reality there's only one! Not only that, it's a bit tight-fisted of Murdoch and the Barclay brothers to be sharing a poll. Is this the way forward? At the very least they should be shamed into admitting it's the same poll...

Ted Harvey said...

I'm heartened by the steady but low drumbeat of moves away from the worse excesses of Blairism.

The one thing that sends a shiver up the spine is the hint of a return to large scale local authority housing. There is no economic, policy efficacy or social grounds for such a return. Therefore, can this be the first of the much warned of 'return to Old Labour'? There must be many ancient Labour councillors and hugely salaried Council bosses who are rubbing their hands in anticipation of this.

There is an interesting fandango going on around the Bush elephant in the bedroom - Douglas Alexander (freed from his monumental cock-up of the Scottish elections) urges the USA to 'kill less and build more'. Then we had another Minister yesterday saying the USA and UK will no longer be joined at the hip... but we are hearing today counter-hints from Downing Street and Milliband that the 'special relationship' will remain (so more poodle-feed needed then). It will be interesting to see what actually unfolds when Brown soon meets Bush in the USA.

Lars H. F. said...

@ ted harvey:

I agree. The future of the British-American relationship is highly debated, not only due to Alexander's comments but also as Brown made his first visit to Merkel in Germany - instead of meeting Bush in Washington. The Atlantic Community has a review of some media judgements on how Brown's foreign policy will develop and is looking for comments:

Will Brown's Dinner With Merkel Leave Bush Hungry