Friday, April 27, 2007

Why I hope Iain Dale is wrong

Before anyone accuses me of taking sides in the increasingly tedious "blog wars," let me make clear that what follows is not a personal attack on Iain Dale. But I read his piece about the importance of women voters in today's Daily Telegraph with an increasing sense of despair.

Dale may very well be right in his central thesis that women will decide the result of the next general election because David Cameron is more fanciable than Gordon Brown. I just hope to God he's 100pc wrong.

He writes: "Few non-political women judge a male politician purely by what he says. They judge him on the way he looks, sounds and appears on television. Put crudely, they ask themselves consciously, or unconsciously, if he has got the "fanciability" factor. In an unguarded moment, my sister Sheena told me that she and her friends sometimes play a game called "If you had to, would you?" Simon Cowell or Dale Winton was one unfortunate choice they recently gave themselves.

"This week, I asked her to put another option to her friends - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron. Out of an admittedly small sample of 40 Essex girls, 33 opted to lie back and think of England with David Cameron, three with Tony Blair and a resounding zero for Gordon Brown."

Well, all I can say about this is if, as Dale seems to suggest, we now live in a political culture where women cast their votes on the basis of whether they would like to sleep with the party leader, then I'm tempted to think that maybe it's about time I emigrated.

But on reflection, I think I will hang around at least until the next general election to see whether Dale is right, or whether in fact Gordon Brown can yet confound those cynics who assume that modern politics is about the triumph of style over substance.

free web site hit counter

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Who should get Gordon's job?

Now that the Premiership seems in the bag for Manchester United Gordon, expect the great guessing game over the shape of his Cabinet to start up again. I'll be posting my thoughts here soon, but meanwhile, here's a new Poll to enable you to cast your votes for the next Chancellor.

I reckon there are no more than six possible candidates in the running and I would be amazed if Brown picks anyone from outside that half-dozen. They are long-time Treasury aide Ed Balls, Defence Secretary Des Browne, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling, Environment Secretary David Miliband, Commons leader Jack Straw and the current Treasury No 2, Stephen Timms.

free web site hit counter

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

All this must end, Gordon

There is a commonly held view in politics that, for all Tony Blair's frantic search for a legacy, he will, in the end, only be remembered for the Iraq War. The results of my current poll suggest that is indeed how around 29pc of people will remember him.

But that figure was narrowly trumped by the 30pc who believe that Mr Blair's biggest legacy will not be the war, but the loss of trust in government engendered by his addiction to spin.

Of course, there is a fairly strong interrelationship between the two. I have always believed that what the public objected to most was not the war itself, but the way we were spun into it by Alastair Campbell and Co on the basis of dodgy dossiers and false prospecti.

But that only goes to demonstrate my main point - that the big, big problem with the Blair government - the one that has above all been responsible for its descent into public obloquy - has been spin.

There is no point rehashing it all again here. Blair will be gone in a few weeks, thank God, and to coin a phrase, now is the time to look forward, not back.

There now seems little doubt that Gordon Brown has the Prime Minsistership in the bag - but is he above the use of mendacious and misleading spin? For all that I admire the man, I'm afraid the answer to that is no.

Seven years ago, I covered a story for the Newcastle Journal in which Mr Brown attempted to spin away the existence of the North-South jobs divide.

Pointing to the fact that there were 75,000 people in the region claiming Jobseeker's Allowance and 61,000 Jobcentre vacancies, he argued that there were almost enough jobs to go round.

What the Chancellor was conveniently ignoring was the fact that his own Government had stopped using the JSA claimant count as the official measure of unemployment in 1998, and that the new ILO measure showed there were 103,000 people without jobs in the region.

Only The Journal and one other newspaper spotted this statistical sleight-of-hand, allowing Mr Brown's claim to go unchallenged in most of the national media.

Okay, so it's seven years ago now - fairly ancient history in political terms. So old in fact that no online version of the story now exists.

But if Mr Brown has become a changed character since then, it was not greatly in evidence during last month's Budget, when he foolishly attempted to present the 2p income tax reduction as a tax cut, which it wasn't, as opposed to a simplification of the tax system, which it undoubtedly is.

My view, and I suspect that of the millions of ordinary voters who have become disillusioned with New Labour over the past decade, is that all this must now end.

Whatever fresh policy directions Mr Brown intends to lead Labour in when he finally takes over, the biggest task facing the new premier is to restore public trust in government.

I don't believe that Gordon Brown will credibly be able to do that unless, like a recovering alcoholic, he can first acknowledge his own past dependence on spin and move on.

Can he do it? It may seem an extravagant claim, but I believe that on the answer to that question may well depend the result of the next general election.

This post was featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

free web site hit counter

Monday, April 23, 2007

Make today a public holiday

The relatively low number of public holidays we have in the UK compared to some of our European counterparts (though not to our workaholic US ones) has long been a bugbear of mine. Given the inevitable opposition of the "business lobby," it's not something you could ever have seen the current government doing much about, but maybe the next one will show a more enlightened approach.

As an English patriot, one of the days I would like to see made into a public holiday is today, April 23 - St George's Day. There's already a campaign group lobbying for this which has had a link on this blog for some time, along with a Downing Street petition on the issue which can be signed HERE.

Other additional public holidays I would like to see include January 2. This has long been a public holiday in Scotland, which begs the question why the Scots need a day longer to recover from the New Year's Eve hangover than the rest of us do.

We should also have an additional holiday around the date of the Queen's Official Birthday (usually the third Saturday in June) which, as well as encouraging proper respect for the Monarch, would also be far more likely to yield decent weather than the current holidays in April, May and late-August.

free web site hit counter

There is no longer an alternative

This speaks for itself. For those not in the know, it was the David Miliband campaign blog.

free web site hit counter

Why Miliband has made the right decision

We have become accustomed in this country to politicians who make mealy-mouthed statements which don't actually mean what they say and which allow them just enough leeway to wriggle out of.

I suppose the most famous example was Michael Heseltine's declaration that he "could not foresee the circumstances" in which he would challenge Margaret Thatcher, allowing him to launch just such a challenge when the previously unforseeable circumstances actually came about.

So I applaud David Miliband's decision this weekend to deliver an unequivocal statement that he will not challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership.

It's no less than confirmation of what he has always said, but it represents a victory for political plain speaking that Brown himself would do well to take note of. More on this theme later....

That apart, I have no doubt that Miliband has made the right decision, and I explained why in my weekend column and acompanying podcast.

If you can't be bothered to read or listen to it all the way through, a potted summary might read:

  • He's too young, too inexperienced, and too lacking in gravitas.
  • He doesn't need the leadership at this stage of his career, and will get a big job under Gordon anyway.
  • A Miliband-Brown contest would have split the party and perpetuated the Blair-Brown feud into the next generation.
  • Brown is the best leader to take on the shallow PR man Cameron.

    Today's Guardian speculates that either one of Reid or Clarke will still stand, and I share that judgement. Reid v Brown in particular would be a good contest between two men of genuine Prime Ministerial calibre. But neither he nor Clarke can win.

    All of which suggests that it's all over bar the shouting.

    free web site hit counter
  • Friday, April 20, 2007

    Who would be First Minister of an English Parliament?

    With the Scottish and Welsh elections coming up, indefatigable Anglo blogger Gareth Young is currently carrying out this survey on how people would vote in an election for an English Parliament. It's a great idea so I heartily recommend you to take part.

    Among the questions asked is who should be First Minister of such a body. There are no prompts, and you have to write in your answer, so doubtless there will be some wiseacres who respond "Gordon Brown" as a wind-up.

    Actually it's quite a good question, and not one I can remember being posed before in the MSM. I suppose the answers, particularly in the case of the Tory candidate, would depend on whether the EP was an entirely separate body along the lines of the Scottish Parliament, or whether it was merely English MPs sitting without the Welsh and Scots.

    Assuming the former (because it makes more sense apart from anything else) my favourites to become candidates for English First Minister in their respective parties would be William Hague for the Tories, Alan Johnson for Labour, and Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats.

    free web site hit counter

    Those Top 10 speeches again....

    Tomorrow's Guardian is beginning a series on the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Polly Toynbee was on the Today Programme this morning justifying the paper's choice which apparently doesn't include Neil Kinnock's "grotesque chaos" speech to the 1985 Labour Conference.

    Kinnock's militant-bashing epic was of course No 1 on my own list published on this blog last year. You can find it HERE.

    free web site hit counter

    Thursday, April 19, 2007

    The Portillo Myth

    A propos of whether David Miliband should challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, there has been much discussion of late over whether there are tides in a politician's life which if taken at the flood lead on to fortune, etc, and whether, in apparently passing-up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Miliband is kissing goodbye to his chance of the premiership forever.

    This point of view was exemplified by a supremely egotistical article in last weekend's Sunday Times by Michael Portillo, whose position in the 1995 Tory leadership crisis is seen by some (including himself) as analagous to Miliband's now.

    Portillo wrote: "The premiership of the United Kingdom is almost within Miliband’s grasp, as it was for me in 1995. Unlike Cameron, Miliband could be prime minister without winning a general election, without even having to wait. He could be in No 10 by the end of June.

    "If he does not grab it now, the opportunity may never recur. Brown will become leader, might lose the general election and condemn Labour to a decade in opposition. By which time Miliband will be a has-been, his best years spent fruitlessly harassing the Cameron government, for ever marked by his failure to seize the day, consigned to history as a vacillator. I can tell Miliband that this does not feel good."

    Leaving aside the question of whether Portillo is over-estimating Miliband's current prospects, is he also over-estimating the strength of his own position back in that balmy summer of '95, forever etched on my memory as it was my first year in the Lobby?

    I think he is. Over the years, a myth has grown up that if only Portillo had had the balls to challenge Major himself instead of letting John Redwood run as a stalking horse, he would have succeeded in dislodging the Prime Minister in the first ballot and gone on to defeat all-comers in the second.

    It's a seductive theory, but it's not how I remember things. I recall a Tory Party that was split moreorless three ways - between those who wanted Michael Portillo to be Prime Minister, those who wanted Michael Heseltine to be, and those who couldn't care less who it was so long as it wasn't either of those two.

    It followed that the only way either Heseltine or Portillo could have forced Major out was by working together, and I seem to recall one or two kites being flown to that effect. But the wily Major knew such a "dream ticket" was highly unlikely, which is why his "put up or shut up" gamble was always likely to come off.

    The one time Portillo would undoubtedly have become Tory leader was in 1997 had he not lost his seat - but that is another political counterfactual.

  • This post was featured in The Times' daily blog round-up Web Grab.

    free web site hit counter
  • What a Dykehead

    Oh dear. It seems David Cameron is so keen to ape Tony Blair's "big tent" politics that he was prepared to offer the Tory candidature for the Mayoralty of London to a known Labour sympathiser, but in doing so he appears to have incurred the wrath of a formidable collection of Tory bloggers. More from Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, Dizzy Thinks and PragueTory.*

    * Back in business after apparently shagging his way round the Czech Republic.

    free web site hit counter

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    Where's Bob Woolmer when you need him?

    In the wake of another English cricketing humiliation, it's inevitable now that Duncan Fletcher will have to go. Even a relatively establishment figure like BBC cricket correspondent Jon Agnew is saying so.

    I have to confess that England's loss against South Africa has left me rather red-faced in the office this morning. I was convinced that the Proteas' notorious flakiness in tense situations would work to our advantage and that everything would come good, but this was clearly something of a triumph of hope over experience.

    The real sadness in my view about England's failure is that we, and cricket generally, have been deprived of the one man whose coaching genius could have restored our fortunes. Bob Woolmer should have been made England coach long ago, in my view. Now he will never get the chance.

    I suppose the job will now go to Tom Moody, although I find it odd that we would consider appointing an Aussie to run our cricket team when the common consensus around the time of Sven Goran Eriksson's departure was that appointing a German to run our football team was out of the question.

    free web site hit counter

    The last monthly presser?

    I am too modest to think that the great Nick Assinder might have read this piece before compiling his current column on the BBC website, but needless to say I agree with him.

    free web site hit counter

    Tuesday, April 17, 2007

    Will this end the speculation?

    Well, it ought to. See Nick Robinson's report HERE.

    To be fair to Mr Miliband, it is no different to what he has always said. And he is right that the way Clarke and Co have approached the whole issue has made it very hard for him to enter the race without prolonging the Blair-Brown feud into the next generation and thereby splitting the party.

    Cynics will say there's a deal, and that Miliband must have been offered the Foreign Office, or something. Sceptics will say he hasn't uttered the magic words "If nominated I will not accept, if elected I will not serve."

    For what it's worth, I think that if he isn't standing, it's probably for the simple reason that he recognises that, at the present time, Gordon will be a better Prime Minister than he would be.

    free web site hit counter

    Johnson moves against Miliband

    Last week I observed that one person who would be none too pleased if David Miliband threw his hat into the ring for the Labour leadership is Alan Johnson, who, I am sure, sees himself as Gordon Brown's potential heir apparent if the next general election goes belly-up.

    Johnson's comments on the prospect of a Miliband candidature yesterday seem to bear this out, and demonstrate that, contrary to what many suppose, the Environment Secretary would NOT get the automatic support of the "Blairite" wing of the Cabinet if he stood - far from it.

    Meanwhile the pro-Miliband blog There Is An Alternative seems to have had a redesign, including removing the photograph of the man himself from the site along with the explanatorty paragraph of why the blog has been set up.

    Whatever can this mean? Is it possible that the author is having second thoughts about a campaign which is sure to split the Labour Party and hand the 2010 election to David Cameron? I think we should be told.

    free web site hit counter

    Monday, April 16, 2007

    The Miliblog

    Muxh excitement both in the blogosphere and the MSM today about the new pro-David Miliband blog, somewhat bizarrely entitled There is an Alternative.

    I think it would benefit their cause if whoever is behind this were to reveal their identity. There is already speculation that it could be the work of a Tory blogger such as Conservative Home supremo Tim Montgomerie, and although I wouldn't have thought it was his style, such is the nature of politics that people will tend to assume the worst in such situations.

    Either way, it is certainly looking more and more likely, as I predicted on Budget Day, that there will now be a serious challenge to Gordon Brown.

    Brown is pretending to welcome this. He would indeed welcome a challenge from a useful idiot such as Charles Clarke. But Miliband is the one potential contender the Chancellor really fears, perhaps because he knows it could then be transformed into a generational contest he might struggle to win.

    Clarke's own role in this is becoming increasingly transparent. His article in yesterday's Mail on Sunday seemed designed to create the ground for a challenge, arguing that once Tony Blair steps down events will assume their own momentum.

    His argument that leadership elections always throw up unexpected surprises in these early stages might have been convincing if his article were not so completely historically illiterate - particularly in relation to Labour history.

    Clarke claimed that Neil Kinnock emerged as a "surprise" contender following the resignation of Michael Foot in 1983. In fact Kinnock was overwhelming frontrunner from the moment the union leader and fixer Clive Jenkins announced he would be supporting him - before Foot had even formally announced his own resignation.

    Similarly, he claimed that Jim Callaghan was an unexpected choice to succeed Harold Wilson, when everyone knows that the centrist Wilson purposely teed up the succession for Jim to scupper the Gaitskellite trio of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Tony Crosland.

    Update: Apparently the person behind it is called "Glass House." Not sure if this takes us any further forward, but apologies to Tim Montgomerie anyway.

    Whoever "Glass House" is, what he needs to do is make clear not simply why he thinks Gordon Brown shouldn't be leader - it's fairly easy, though misguided in my view, to make an argument for that position based purely on current opinion polls - but to articulate why on earth he thinks David Miliband should be.

    It would be an unprecedented step to elect, not just as party leader, but as Prime Minister someone who has not served in a major office of state. Environment is not even an executive department like health or education, and Miliband's is by and large a policy role, a bit like being head of the IPPR.

    Given that Jack Straw is Brown's campaign manager, the only credible challenger to Gordon Brown in terms of experience and gravitas is John Reid. If he wants to prove that there is indeed an "alternative," that's where "Glass House" should be putting his efforts.

    This post was featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

    free web site hit counter

    Saturday, April 14, 2007

    The new Attlee?

    Fellow leftie blogger Skipper and myself had an interesting debate over on his blog this week about whether Gordon Brown could actually make a virtue out of presenting himself as a sort of Clem Attlee type figure along the lines of "I know I'm a fairly dull sort of bloke compared to the last one, but judge me by what I do."

    Skip's argument was that this option isn't really open to him in the modern media age, but I think today's Guardian interview in which Brown eschews the celebrity culture is a sure sign that he is going to try.

    free web site hit counter

    Where does the buck stop?

    Is there a wider lesson to be learned from the debacle over whether the sailors captured by Iran should have been allowed to sell their stories? Who is really to blame for creating the kind of political culture in which this was initially seen as a good idea? This was the subject of my weekend column in the Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph today, and here it is in full.


    The practice once quaintly known as "chequebook journalism" has nowadays become so commonplace that an entire cottage industry has grown up around it - one that goes by the name of Max Clifford Associates.

    But twenty or so years ago, when the phrase was first coined, it was clearly understood to be a perjorative term for what was considered the dubious practice of buying newspaper stories for cash.

    Back then, few imagined that a group of serving members of the Royal Navy who had just been engaged in a major international incident would one day be given official approval to sell their stories for six-figure sums.

    But that was precisely what happened last weekend before the Government, realising it had a public relations disaster on its hands, executed a swift u-turn.

    The Navy's initial response to the outcry appeared to be to try to maintain that the decision had been made internally, without wider MoD or ministerial involvement.

    But it was obvious from the start that such a decision would have to have been taken, or at the very least approved, at a political level - or that if it wasn't, it should have been.

    Belatedly, Defence Secretary Des Browne admitted he had indeed known of the decision, and insisted that the buck stopped with him.

    At the same time, however, he maintained that although he had known of it and not put a stop to it, he had not approved the decision as such - a rather hair-splitting distinction even by New Labour standards.

    Mr Browne has been hitherto one of the Government's lesser-known figures, a somewhat faceless apparatchik whose rise through the ministerial ranks has been as stealthy as it has been steady.

    His elevation to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the 2005 election was the subject of a minor Whitehall controversy.

    The post had apparently been earmarked by Tony Blair for the former Home Office minister John Denham, who resigned over the Iraq War with Robin Cook in 2003.

    But Gordon Brown, who has always insisted on the right to appoint his own deputies, had already promised the job to his pal Des, and not for the first time, Mr Blair fought shy of a confrontation with his Chancellor.

    In the event, he proved just the sort of middle-ranking minister Mr Blair likes - competent, low-key, and seemingly adept in keeping himself out of trouble.

    He was duly rewarded with what seemed to some to be a startling promotion to Defence Secretary last May when Charles Clarke was sacked and the much-travelled John Reid moved to take up his current berth at the Home Office.

    Again, Mr Browne proved the doubters wrong, and his quiet effectiveness in a difficult role had him spoken of a few weeks back as a possible Chancellor in a Gordon Brown government.

    But as if to prove the old truism that everyone eventually rises to the level of their own incompetence, Mr Browne came back down to earth last week with a bump - and now his very survival as a minister is in question.

    Much will now depend on his statement to the House of Commons on Monday, but the damage has already been done by Mr Browne's confused accounts of the affair.

    His initial defence was that he was "not content" with the decision, but that he believed he had no choice under the rules but to acquiesce in it.

    But given that any remotely competent lobby hack would know that all interviews with service personnel have to be cleared by the MoD press office, this is scarcely convincing.

    And Mr Browne's case has not been helped by yesterday's revelation that the Press Complaints Commission had offered to help the MoD deal with the problem, but been rebuffed.

    Aside from the Defence Secretary's plight, the whole episode of the 15 sailors' detention and subsequent release has not been a happy one for the Government.

    Even prior to their release, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had faced criticism for her apparently rather weak response, branding Iran's actions as merely "unacceptable" as opposed to the more trenchant language some might have favoured.

    The release itself was a public relations triumph for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whose mixture of demagogic charm and political extremism makes him quite possibly the most dangerous man on the planet.

    In the wider context of the diplomatic effort to prevent the Iranian president acquiring nuclear weapons, the affair seems to have had no impact at all.

    In the final analysis, is this what Harold Macmillan might have called a little local difficulty, or is there a wider political lesson in it all?

    Well, the obvious conclusion is that when things start to go wrong for a government, as they did for Mr Blair's long ago, you eventually reach the point where absolutely nothing goes right.

    The idea, floated in the immediate aftermath that the release, that it would provide Mr Blair and Labour with a boost in the run-up to the local election campaign has proved risible.

    Scotland and the SNP threat seems to have become the focus of the Government's worries on that score, and it is ironic that Mr Blair, who once dismissed the Scottish media as a bunch of unreconstructed self-abusers, is having to spend the dying days of his premiership there.

    If there is a deeper lesson, though, it is surely to do with the media culture that New Labour has by turns encouraged and fed-off during its decade in power.

    Only an administration which hijacked the death of a Princess to make itself look good and which thought 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news would think that allowing Navy personnel to sell their stories was a good idea.

    It is all very well Mr Blair saying with the benefit of hindsight that it wasn't such a great idea after all, but in a political culture which views the media as an extension of Whitehall, it is scarcely surprising that such things happen.

    It was Mr Blair and his sidekicks who created that culture. And if the buck stops anywhere, it is there.

    free web site hit counter

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    What will be Blair's legacy?

    What will Tony Blair most be remembered for? Leading Labour to three election victories or Iraq? The minimum wage or cash for honours? Have your say in my current poll which can be accessed HERE or via the sidebar.

    free web site hit counter

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    Will a Miliband bid bring Johnson in?

    The man himself continues to deny it, but speculation about a David Miliband challenge to Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership continues unabated. Political betting guru Mike Smithson has today become the latest pundit to predict a Miliband candidacy, following last weekend's Sunday Telegraph tale that John Reid would be giving the Environment Secretary his backing.

    But here's a question no-one seems to have asked as yet: what impact will a Miliband challenge have on other wannabe leaders who have thus far ruled themselves out of challenging Brown - ostensibly on the basis that he is the best candidate, but secretly because they don't think they can beat him?

    Look at it this way. So long as Brown remains the only serious candidate, and overwhelmingly the most likely winner, there really is no great incentive for someone like Alan Johnson or Hilary Benn to challenge him. Far better to settle for the deputy leadership and (hopefully) a big job in the Brown Government.

    But the moment that situation changes, and Brown faces a serious challenge which could theoretically result in him being defeated, then by my reckoning, all bets are off, and all earlier denials of interest so much hot air.

    Such a scenario would present a particularly acute dilemma for the fifty-somethings Johnson, Benn and Peter Hain were the 40-year-old Miliband to be that challenger. The current consensus is that if Miliband does stand, he will at the very least establish himself as the heir-apparent, and could even win.

    But that, of course, is the last thing Alan Johnson wants. He doesn't want the Labour leadership to "skip a generation" - at least not just yet. He wants to be deputy so that he can slip effortlessly into Gordon's shoes if the next election goes belly-up. The same may apply, to a slightly lesser extent, to Benn and Hain.

    Hence my hunch is that if Miliband does stand against Gordon - and I'm still by no means convinced he will - he won't be the only one.

    The "ultras" - Reid, Charles Clarke, even Blair himself - may all line up behind him, but he won't get a clear run. And at 40, with other, vastly more experienced people for the Labour Party to choose from, why on earth should he?

    * Historical footnote. Similar calculations about whether a challenge to an established frontrunner could create a domino effect causing others to throw their hats into the ring also operated last time round, in the 1994 leadership contest.

    One of the principal though lesser-known reasons Brown didn't stand on that occasion was that had he done so, it would have brought his old rival Robin Cook into the race.

    With the support of the left and the likely second preference votes of Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, Cook would in all likelihood have come second, ahead of Brown, establishing himself as the de facto No 2 in the Labour pecking order.

    People who knew Brown and Cook of old in their Edinburgh days have told me this was something Brown would have wanted even less than to see Blair leading the party.

    free web site hit counter

    Another one bites the dust...

    The left-of-centre blogosphere will be a poorer place for the loss of The Daily. At its height, it was in my view one of the top two or three left-leaning blogs in the UK, and a regular source of interesting material on the Labour Deputy Leadership contest in particular.

    Now it is no more, it would be nice to know who was actually behind it, as they were clearly Westminster insiders.

    free web site hit counter

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Blair's place in history

    Hats off to the Observer for its magnificent retrospective on the Blair Years on Sunday, the centrepiece of which was a magisterial essay from the essential chronicler of those years, Andrew Rawnsley.

    Predictably for one who has always been seen as something of a New Labour boulevardier, Rawnsley's ultimate conclusion on the Blair premiership is a positive one.

    "Some Prime Ministers merely preside over their time. Better Prime Ministers change their time. When Tony Blair's portrait goes up on the staircase wall at Number 10, he will leave office with a good claim to belong to that select company of Prime Ministers who change the future," he says.

    To its credit, however, the Ob makes room for an alternative perspective from historian Dominic Sandbrook, who writes: "Truly great Prime Ministers challenge the status quo. They do not simply accept it. Blair seems destined to be remembered therefore as a consummately skilled political operator with brilliant tactical instincts but no radical or compelling long-term vision."

    It probably won't surprise many people to know that I'm with Sandbrook on this. Any leftward shift in the political centre of gravity under Blair has been marginal when compared with the huge rightward shift under Thatcher which, by and large, her successor-but-one has accepted.

    For me, he will go down in history as someone who had a historic opportunity to rebuild a social democratic political consensus in the UK, but who wasted his first term worrying about getting re-elected, his second on the disaster of Iraq, and his third on his preoccupation with his own legacy.

    As Sandbrook writes: "Blair could have used his massive majorities to ram through radical changes in the health service, reorganise the railways, reconstitute the House of Lords, overhaul the pensions system, reform the electoral system, push for greater integration in the EU, even write a new constitution.

    "If he had managed two or three - perfectly plausible in 10 years as Attlee could have told him, his domestic legacy would be uncontestable. But he never did."

    free web site hit counter

    Saturday, April 07, 2007

    May 3 and beyond

    Today's column in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph aims to catch-up on what happened while I was away and look ahead to the local election campaign and its likely aftermath. Here it is in full. It is also now available as a Podcast.


    The Tories say they have a "mountain to climb" in the North of England. Labour are bracing themselves for heavy losses more or less everywhere. The Lib Dems bravely claim there are no "no-go areas" for their party. Sound familiar, anyone?

    Excuse me if I experience a slight feeling of déjà vu when it comes to this year's local election battle.

    The two main parties appear to be playing down expectations, doubtless in the hope that things will turn out better than anticipated. The third is playing them up, in the hope that the voters will take them seriously.

    But as ever, the trick with this sort of pre-election positioning is to try to separate the spin from the reality.

    What seems beyond dispute is that the Government is in for a hammering as voters vent their frustration at the sense of drift that has characterised Labour for the past year.

    Last September, following the failed coup attempt against Tony Blair, I wrote that if the Prime Minister was still in place by time of these elections, the party would pay the price.

    As it has turned out, it appears to be a price the party is prepared to pay in order to allow its most successful leader ever a dignified exit at a time more or less of his own choosing.

    But whether that is how it will be seen by the hundreds of Labour councillors, Scottish MSPs or Welsh AMs set to lose their seats on May 3 is another question entirely.

    The local councils are one thing. Labour would doubtless like to win back cities like Newcastle, but it won't do any lasting damage to the party's national powerbase if it doesn't.

    Local government has, in any case, nothing like the power it had when I first started covering local elections two decades ago.

    The Scottish and Welsh bodies are a slightly different matter, though. They do have significant devolved powers, as Welsh Assembly leader Rhodri Morgan's recent decision to scrap prescription charges showed.

    Furthermore, because most seats in the devolved bodies are coterminous with Westminster constituencies, there is much more of an interplay between Labour's performance in Scotland and Wales and its electoral prospects UK-wide.

    I must confess to being surprised that Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs have been prepared to put up with a situation which is likely to see their party's powerbase in those areas significantly eroded.

    If, for instance, a Labour parliamentary constituency ends up with a Lib Dem MSP, it creates a situation in which Labour's hold on the Westminster seat can be steadily undermined.

    It was for this reason that I expected Scottish and Welsh MPs to be in the vanguard of a renewed attempt to force Blair out well before we got into the local election campaign.

    But they bottled it, and in my view, that is something they will fairly shortly come to regret.

    So, I believe, will Gordon Brown. The prevailing consensus throughout the past few months has been that the Chancellor was happy to let Mr Blair "take the hit" for the expected May 3 carnage.

    If that is the case, I think that he was taking an extremely defeatist view about his ability to restore Labour's fortunes if and when he finally takes over.

    If Mr Brown truly believes that he is the man to renew Labour in government, he should instead have taken the view that the sooner he took over, the better for the party's prospects.

    The more electoral damage that is done to Labour under Mr Blair, the more poisoned the chalice that Mr Brown will eventually inherit.

    Assuming, that is, that he does inherit. The fortnight since this column last appeared has seen a further ratcheting up of the pressure on South Shields MP and Environment Secretary David Miliband to throw his own hat into the ring.

    It no longer seems possible to take at face value Mr Miliband's denials of last autumn, when he declared that he was "neither a runner nor a rider for any of the posts that are being speculated about".

    His failure to kill the current wave of speculation has led to suspicions in the Brown camp that he is, at the very least, still pondering a bid.

    One Brown ally said last weekend: "Miliband knows exactly what he is doing. He could quite easily say specifically, `I won't stand against Gordon' or that he is far less experienced than Gordon - something he couldn't go back on. But he doesn't."

    Mr Brown, meanwhile, is in an increasingly invidious position. Like the long-distance-runner who has spent too long anxiously looking over his shoulder, his position seems to weaken with each week that goes by.

    Notwithstanding its historic import, his decision to announce a 20p standard rate of tax in the Budget appears to have won him few friends and the row over the 1997 pension fund grab has been deeply damaging.

    Labour has a perfectly respectable story to tell on this, which is that an anomaly in the tax system needed to be removed in order to release funds to help the many, not the few.

    Instead Brown's strategy seemed to be firstly to try to conceal the evidence that he ignored civil service advice, and then when that failed, spin a cock-and-bull story about how the CBI encouraged him to do it.

    It is hard - very hard - to escape the conclusion that this is exactly what Mr Blair intended when he decided to "play it long" and drag out his departure until this summer.

    Messrs Brown and Blair were united on the campaign trail for one last time last week as Labour launched its local election push - but it is hard to see who they were trying to convince.

    The old double act has served Labour well over a decade or more, but it has long since run its course.

    And the real story now is not what happens in the days and weeks leading up to May 3, but what happens in the days and weeks immediately afterwards.

    free web site hit counter

    Thursday, April 05, 2007

    The desolation of Gethsemane

    Unfortunately I'm not at church tonight as baby-sitting duties call, but from my youth I've always thought the Maundy Thursday communion service was the most moving and dramatic in the Christian calendar.

    Back in my home town church of St Mary's, Hitchin, they used to - probably still do - conclude the service with the reading of Matthew 26, vv 47-55, a passage which ends with the baleful words: "Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away."

    At this precise moment, the lights in the church would be extinguished, symbolising the total darkness and desolation of our Saviour as he prepared to face his forthcoming ordeal, alone.

    It sent shivers down my spine as a 12-year-old choirboy, and it still does.

    free web site hit counter

    Why I haven't commented on the Iranian hostage story

    A good friend emails me to ask why there is nothing on the blog about the release of the 15 Britons taken captive in Iran. Like other bloggers, I get these sorts of inquiries fairly regularly, so I thought it might be helpful to publish the entire exchange just to clear up any confusion about what the purpose of this blog actually is.

    To protect his identity (well, a bit) I shall call my friend Nosey.



    Nothing about the just-finished Iranian affair on your thog - sorry, blog. Surely this is pure politics (albeit of a different nature)?




    I don't really feel I have anything particularly new or original to say about the hostages issue so I haven't covered it. My blog is not a current events news service - people can go to the bbc or any other news website for that sort of thing.

    This is something I regularly have to point out to blog users who ask me in the comments why I haven't done this or that story.





    I see what you mean, but there is a whole load of comment about what actually happened. The actual news would be pretty boring - "Hostages Captured" ... "Both sides get hot under the collar" ... "Hostages released" ... but the things that intrigue me are why did Ahmadinejad do what he did, what was said in the private telephone conversation between Downing Street and Tehran, how did Iran get such a PR coup out of it (which they did), and how come the British administration come over as - frankly - so wet?

    One of the observations on the BBC is that Ahmadinejad has seen our feeble response to this, and will be encouraged in his pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

    Political - surely? And therefore within the scope of a political blog such as yours?


    P.S. You have probably realised that my grasp of politics is slightly worse than my grasp of swahili, so I may be talking out of my arse hat here.



    Of course it's political, it's just that it bores the bollocks off me, that's all, and hence I've got nothing to say about it. My blog is not aiming to provide a systematic commentary service any more than it is aiming to provide a systematic news service. There are particular issues I'm interested in and they are reflected on the blog - eg the Labour leadership battle, English nationalism, the interplay between Christianity and politics, the constitutional reform agenda and so on.

    My readers are by and large people who are also interested in those sorts of things. For me to start covering international politics when I've no particular expertise in it and it's not the reason people visit my blog anyway would be a bit like a specialist fish restaurant sticking steak on the menu to try and compete with a new Beefeater that's opened down the road.



    PS I am now thinking of putting this entire email thread on the blog to make the point to all the others who keep asking me such questions.



    Fair point. (And it made me laugh!)


    free web site hit counter

    Wednesday, April 04, 2007

    Guido, Sir Michael and the so-called "car crash"

    Another thing that happened while I was away was the infamous Newsnight interview involving blogger Guido Fawkes. Guido has himself conceded that it was mistake to break his own rule and agree to be interviewed, while the reaction on blogosphere as a whole has been scathing, the consensus being that he was made mincemeat of by veteran Guardian hack "Sir" Michael White. But having now looked at the film, and the ensuing studio discussion, I am not convinced it was quite as one-sided as has been presented.

    White kicked off the studio discussion, chaired by Jeremy Paxman with Guido appearing in "shadow" from Westminster, with a well-made point about how it is not only political journalists who run the risk of getting too close to their sources. In fact it is far more of a problem in entertainment journalism. One-nil to White. But Michael then threw away this early advantage by revealing Guido's real name, which was somewhat cheap, and saying he looked a "prat" for wearing a rugby shirt at a lobby lunch, which came over as simply pompous. One-all.

    White then reacted to Guido's oft-made allegation that the Lobby had effectively concealed the truth about John Prescott's private life with the counter-claim that Prescott was being "stitched-up" by bloggers. To which I can only respectfully say: Bollocks, Michael. Prescott fairly adeptly stitched himself up by (i) shagging his secretary, and (ii) infuriating Labour MPs by allowing himself, as the keeper of the cloth cap, to be pictured playing the decadent upper-class sport of croquet at his country retreat. Two-one to Guido.

    Sir Michael then compounded even this error by maintaining he did not know John Prescott's age, despite an earlier report that he had attended his 68th birthday party. Well, sorry, but whether he attended the party or not, I find it preposterous that someone who was a national newspaper political editor for 16 years would not actually know the Deputy Prime Minister's age, particularly as it was a point at issue in his decision to retire along with Tony Blair. Three-one Guido.

    At this point in the discussion, Guido was well ahead in my view, but threw away his advantage with two silly errors in the closing stages. First, he made a reference to Lord Levy's forthcoming "trial" which presented an absolute gift-horse for White and Paxman to accuse bloggers of being cavalier with the facts. Three-two. Then, in injury time, Guido made the grievous mistake - which a real lobby hack would never make - or naming a source (BBC political editor Nick Robinson) for one his stories. Three-all.

    In conclusion, even though Guido managed to break the first rule of journalism - not exactly surprising given he isn't a journalist - he still got away with a score draw. He may not have covered himself with glory, but I don't think White did either and he came over as both pompous and petulant, which oddly is the very opposite of how I remember him from my lobby days.

    As it is, the degree of gloating on other blogs about this interview is to me symptomatic of the marked lack of charity that currently characterises the blogosphere. It seems a long time ago that Guido, Iain Dale, Tim Ireland, Justin McKeating and myself were among a large group of bloggers who joined forces to put together the Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze. It was a great collaborative effort, masterminded by Dale, but at least two of us were not invited to contribute to the second edition, and you probably couldn't get all five of us together in a room these days without fisticuffs.

    I don't agree with Guido's politics, or all of his methods, and I do agree with some of Tim's points about the need for some commonly agreed standards of blog etiquette. But even if the blogosphere might be a little more well-mannered without Guido, it would almost certainly not have as a high a profile - and we have all benefited from that.

    free web site hit counter

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    Time for Miliband to stop the teasing

    While I was away sunning myself, it was evident that a head of steam was continuing to build up behind a challenge from David Miliband to Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership. One newspaper, the Observer, even reported that Blair himself was at the heart of the effort to persuade him to stand, and had privately predicted that if he did so, he would win.

    Be that as it may, my Poll shows that Miliband is indeed the favoured contender of those who would like to see a Cabinet-level challenge to Gordon Brown - although his support is only marginally higher than those who would like to see Brown challenged by his own campaign manager, Jack Straw.

    Miliband has several times appeared to rule himself out of the running, but has yet to do so in unequivocal terms. Writing in this week's Sunday Times, Crackers Cracknell and Isabel Oakeshott reveal that the Brown camp are not impressed by his failure to kill the speculation.

    As one ally of the Chancellor put it: "Miliband can’t say it’s not his fault. He knows exactly what he is doing. He could quite easily say specifically, ‘I won’t stand against Gordon’ or that he is far less experienced than Gordon – something he couldn’t go back on. But he doesn’t."

    I concur. I happen to believe David Miliband is a cut above most politicians in the honesty stakes and I have no reason to disbelieve his earlier declaration that he was "neither a runner nor a rider for any of the posts that are being speculated about."

    If that remains the case, he should say so. But if he has changed his mind, he should make that equally clear. The current wave of speculation - egged on by the Martin Kettles and Mary Ann Siegharts of this world - is doing the Labour Party no favours at all.

    free web site hit counter

    Monday, April 02, 2007

    Holiday reading

    Holidays and Christmas are the only real chance I get these days to settle down with a good book, so I was determined to make the most of this rare opportunity during our recent trip to the peaceful resort of Los Gigantes, on Tenerife.

    The first of the two books I took away with me was Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy which I last read as a student more than 25 years ago.

    It's hard to say what it is I love about this book, which is probably the literary equivalent of listening to The Smiths. It is set against the grim backdrop of 1970s Britain in all its drabness, mundanity and loss of influence in the world, and deals with the painful themes of personal and political betrayal.

    The re-read was partly inspired by the fact that's being repeated on BBC 4 at the moment - the last episode is tonight but if you've missed the preceding six, don't watch it as it will give way the ending. Read the book instead, and then buy the DVD.

    Also on my reading list was God's Politics by Jim Wallis, the American Christian leader. It's a brilliant analysis of how the so-called "religious right" in America has hijacked Christianity for its own political ends and how a truly Biblical understanding of Jesus's teaching would lead one to very different ideological conclusions.

    Wallis correctly identifies the current political consensus as socially liberal and economically conservative, whereas a Christian approach would tend to produce something socially conservative and economically liberal. This moreorless summarises my own disillusionment with modern politics, so it was good to find someone else taking a similar view.

    free web site hit counter