Thursday, June 28, 2007

So was there a deal?

The first thing to say about Gordon Brown's Cabinet Reshuffle is that at least it went smoothly. If this were a Tony Blair production, he would by now have either accidentally abolished the Scottish Office or allowed some middle-ranking Cabinet member to throw a strop that threatened to derail every other appointment.

It also, by and large, has the merit of placing round pegs in round holes. Some of Mr Blair's appointments - Margaret Beckett to the Foreign Office, John Reid to health - often seemed more counter-intuitive than logical.

On the plus side, it is good to see John Denham at the top table, and I am personally pleased that both Ruth Kelly and Peter Hain have survived. A lot of the opposition to Ruth seems based around the fact that she is a Christian, while a lot of the animus against Peter seems to be about the fact that he has a suntan. They are both good people.

Against that, I am disappointed and somewhat baffled to see Stephen Timms go - only a few months after he was talked about as a possible Chancellor - while it beggars belief that the bright, articulate and photogenic Yvette Cooper has missed out yet again on full Cabinet promotion.

But if I had to give an overall impression, it would be that while this is potentially a very strong team, I think Brown may have sacrificed slightly too much experience in his determination to present this as a "new government."

The key word there is "potentially." There are some newly-promoted men and women here who could turn out to be significant political figures, but it has to be said that some of them are currently only household names in their own households.

For starters, I am not at all convinced by Alistair Darling as Chancellor. For me, the best Chancellors were the ones who were strong political personalities in their own right - Roy Jenkins, Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke, Brown himself.

By contrast the weakest Chancellors have historically been those who, like Darling, lacked an independent power base from that of the Prime Minister - Anthony Barber and Norman Lamont spring to mind.

Likewise, I am not convinced by Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary. She appears to owe her promotion partly to the fact that she is a woman and partly to having successfully poured oil on Labour's troubled waters at the height of last September's "coup."

But she has no experience either of the Home Office or of running a department and with Denham, Hazel Blears and Hilary Benn all having previously served as Ministers of State in the Home Office, she scarcely seemed the most logical choice for that demanding role.

The senior appointment that makes the most sense to me is that of David Miliband as Foreign Secretary. For all his supposed nerdiness, the South Shields MP is a very charming man and has exactly the sort of personal skills that will serve him well at the FCO.

Much is being made of the fact that he is the youngest Foreign Secretary since David Owen but that comparison ends there. Miliband will be nothing like the abrasive young doctor who, in the words of Denis Healey, poisoned everything around him.

Miliband's appointment is also the most fascinating in terms of Labour's internal politics, and will inevitably give rise to speculation of a "deal" under which he agreed to allow Brown a free run at the leadership in return for a major office of state.

Well, if there was such a deal, I think it was probably between Brown and Tony Blair, that Brown received the outgoing leader's endorsement in return for a pledge not to cull his supporters.

The collateral damage in all this was Margaret Beckett, who never really got on with Blair and was always very close to Brown. Yet in the end it was Blair who made her Foreign Secretary, and Brown who sacked her.

Politics? It's a funny old game.

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At last, a Minister for the North

I thought Nick Brown would get his old job of Chief Whip back in today's reshuffle. It would have been no less than he deserved for his years of loyalty to Gordon Brown and also for his less-than-gracious treatment at the hands of Tony Blair when he was made the scapegoat for the foot-and-mouth debacle in 2001 and then sacked from the government by phone the following year.

As it turns out, he has been appointed Deputy Chief Whip with a separate brief as Minister for the North, one of a series of ministers for the English regions appointed today. No doubt this will be like red rag to a bull to the conspiracy theorists who think regions are a sinister EU plot to break up the UK, but there has long been a Minister for London and the appointment of dedicated champions for other less favoured parts of the country is long overdue.

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Not a bad guess

It seems I've not done badly with my predictions of the shape of Gordon Brown's Cabinet made last Sunday. Of the four major jobs (Chancellor, Foreign, Home, Justice) I managed to get three right, with only Jacqui Smith's appointment as Home Secrertary taking me (and everyone else) by surprise.

I'll give my assessment of the new line-up later, but here is the full list. What I predicted is in black. Where wrong, I have struck out my own predictions and inserted Gordon's actual choices in red.

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown
Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice: Jack Straw
Foreign Secretary: David Miliband
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Alistair Darling
Home Secretary: Alan Johnson Jacqui Smith
Leader of the House of Commons: Margaret Beckett Harriet Harman
Children, Schools and Families Secretary: Ed Balls
Innovations, Universities and Skills Secretary: John Denham
Health Secretary: Yvette Cooper Alan Johnson
Environment Secretary: Hilary Benn
Business and Enterprise Secretary: Stephen Timms John Hutton
Transport Secretary (and Election co-ordinator): Douglas Alexander Ruth Kelly
Defence and Scottish Secretary: John Hutton Des Browne
Work, Pensions and Welsh Secretary: John Denham Peter Hain
Local Government and Communities Secretary: Hazel Blears
Culture Secretary: James Purnell
Northern Ireland Secretary: Shaun Woodward
Leader of the House of Lords: Baroness Scotland Baroness Ashton
Minister for the Cabinet Office: Ed Miliband
International Development Secretary: Andy Burnham Douglas Alexander
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Ed Balls Andy Burnham
Chief Whip: Nick Brown Geoff Hoon

The following are leaving the Cabinet: Tony Blair, John Prescott, John Reid, Margaret Beckett, Patricia Hewitt, Lord Falconer, Tessa Jowell, Baroness Amos, Hilary Armstrong, and Stephen Timms.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dull, uninspiring - or just plain honest?

Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi and promised "where there is discord, may we bring harmony," before going on to run a government that left the country bitterly divided between those who caught the 1980s zeitgeist and got rich on privatisation and financial deregulation, and those, like the Durham miners and the Sheffield steelworkers, whose jobs were deemed surplus to requirements in the modern service economy.

John Major promised a "classless society" and "a nation at ease with itself," noble aspirations maybe but well beyond his power to deliver, eventually leaving six and a half years later with the country in a state of deep ennui and as class-ridden as ever.

Tony Blair said "we were elected as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour," before proceding to govern for ten years like an Old Tory, defining his premiership in opposition to the views of his own party to the extent that, though it might have been new, it ceased to be Labour in any meaningful sense.

Today, Gordon Brown simply said he would "try his utmost," and get on with the work of bringing about change. No, it's not the kind of political leadership we're used to in this country. But after the disingenuity, false hopes and vacuousness that has gone before, it's the kind we desperately need.

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Labour comes home at last

"I have just accepted the invitation of Her Majesty the Queen to form a government. This will be a new government with new priorities."

For the first time since 1979, we have a real Labour Prime Minister. And for the first time in my adult life - I was 16 when Sunny Jim lost power - we have a Prime Minister who I could actually conceive of voting for.

Rejoice, Rejoice!

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Don't judge a Big Red Book by its cover

The latest edition of the Big Red Book of New Labour Sleaze is published tomorrow. I was pleased to have played a part in the original version and to have been asked to contribute a further piece to this new edition.

I am, however, somewhat disappointed by the decision of the publishers to feature a picture of Gordon Brown with his trousers down on the cover, especially in view of the timing of the publication to coincide with the start of his premiership.

New Labour Sleaze was the result of the amoral approach to politics adopted by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and a few others. To attempt to tar Gordon with the same brush is not just grotesquely unfair, but disingenuous.

I think that over the next few weeks and months the public will begin to realise that far from being part of the sleazy old gang, the incoming Prime Minister is a very different kettle of fish from his discredited predecessor.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Extracts of the letter sent by Quentin Davies to David Cameron today. This will hurt, for the simple reason that it is demonstrably true.


"Under your leadership the Conservative Party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything. It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda."

"The last year has been a series of shocks and disappointments. You have displayed to the full both the vacuity and the cynicism of your favourite slogan 'change to win.'"

"It is fair to say that you have so far made a shambles of your foreign policy, and that would be a great handicap to you - and, more seriously, to the country - if you ever came to power."

"PR pressures had overridden any considerations of economic rationality or national interest, or even what would have been to others normal businesslike prudence...You thus sometimes treat important subjects with the utmost frivolity."

"Although you have many positive qualities you have three, superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions, which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership to which you aspire."

"I am looking forward to joining another party...which has just acquired a leader I have always greatly admired, who I believe is entirely straightforward, and who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country."

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Frustrated politicians?

Iain Dale posed the following very interesting question on his blog yesterday: Political journalists are merely frustrated politicians? Discuss.

There are several journalists-turned-politicians in the current House of Commons - Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls and Martin Linton to name but three. But so far as I am aware the only lobby hack during my time who successfully made the switch was Julie Kirkbride, formerly of the Daily Telegraph.

It took her a fair while to establish herself as a Tory MP, and I think this was in part down to a reluctance on the part of the Lobby to take seriously one of their former number.

By contrast, one who tried and failed to make the switch was Hugh Pym, who attempted to become a Liberal Democrat MP at the 2001 election and has now returned to journalism. On this evidence, the answer to Dale's question would appear at best inconclusive.

There were of course a number of lobby journalists who went off to become researchers or spin doctors, most famously Alastair Campbell but also the likes of Charles Lewington, Nick Wood and John Deans, who all became Tory press officers, Mark Davies (ex-BBC and Liverpool Echo) who became a government special adviser, and the late David Bamber of the Sunday Telegraph, who went to work for Labour MP Fraser Kemp.

Spin doctoring, though, is not the same as real politics. I don't doubt that Alastair Campbell was a powerful political figure, but would his colourful past have withstood the scrutiny of his former colleagues had he attempted to forge a political career in his own right? I doubt it.

Another reason why relatively few senior lobby journalists make the move from the Press Gallery to the green benches below is quite simply that they would be taking not only a huge drop in salary but also a huge drop in influence.

Senior Lobby hacks like Trevor Kavanagh who effectively become players in the political process have significantly more power than the average backbench MP, without all the attendant hassles.

For my part, though, I think the reason there is relatively little movement between the worlds of politics and political journalism is more fundamental - that the two disciplines demand a totally different mindset.

Throughout my own career, people have repeatedly asked me if I was interested in a political role. As I said in my interview with Paul Burgin last year, one reason I haven't is that there isn't a political party that comes close to reflecting my economically progressive yet socially conservative political views - and there isn’t ever likely to be.

But the biggest reason I've never seriously considered it - and I think this is probably true of many journalists - is that I could not dissemble in the way that politicians are required to.

Politicians need to be able, as CP Snow put it, "to send the old familiar phrases reverberating round." Like Roy Calvert in The Masters, I cannot do that without falling over with laughter.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Early election fever

Amid all the excited talk in both the MSM and the blogosphere about Gordon Brown calling an early general election, I offer this by way of a counter-argument.

As reported here at the height of the speculation over whether David Miliband would challenge him, Gordon has already made it clear that he intends to serve only one full-term as Prime Minister, and that he expects to hand over to a younger successor (Miliband?) within seven years.

So to get an idea of how far away the next election is, you just have to do the sums and work backwards. A full Parliament equals five years, and seven minus five equals two. Ergo, Gordon plans to hold the election in 2009, and serve as premier until the end of that Parliament in 2014.

I think it will take more to deflect him from this course than the kind of short-term polling advantage over the Tories that we saw this weekend.

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Not a good start for Harriet

I was genuinely pleased for Harriet Harman when she won the Deputy Leadership yesterday - she was by no means the worst of the six candidates - and some of the coverage of her victory today has been less than gallant.

The Lobby, as is its wont, seems to have collectively decided that Gordon's decision not to make her DPM was a calculated snub. Which it wasn't - he only ever intended to make the winner of this contest DPM if he had to, ie in the event of a runaway victory. The truth is that Alan Johnson wouldn't have become DPM on 50.4pc of the vote either.

All of that said, Harman's interview on the Today Programme this morning, in which she denied ever having called on the government to apologise for the war in Iraq, made her look both disingenuous and stupid - all the more so coming the day after she called for an "end to spin."

As can clearly be seen from this transcript of her earlier comments, she is quite clearly playing with words in a way that has previously brought New Labour into such disrepute. Poor show.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Okay, it's egg-on-face time...

Now that the deputy leadership election is over, and we know a bit more about Gordon Brown's plans for government, the time has finally come to put my neck on the line and make my final prediction of what I think will be his Cabinet line-up.

This afternoon's events in Manchester contained a good few clues...

* There will be no Deputy Prime Minister. There might have been had someone run away with the deputy leadership, but now there is no need and it wasn't the role that Harriet Harman sought anyway. Ergo, the de facto DPM will be Jack Straw. He will get the job of chairing all Prescott's Cabinet Committees and acting as Gordon's general troubleshooter, as well as overseeing the constitutional reform agenda. Clearly he would be unable to comine those roles with any of the major offices of state, so I tip him instead to become Minister of Justice and First Secretary of State (a title both Prescott and Michael Heseltine enjoyed at various times).

* Hilary Benn will not be promoted to a major office of state. He performed extremely disappointingly in the deputy leadership contest and the Brownites were known to have been unimpressed with his apparent lack of vigour. A middle-ranking post now seems the best he can hope for. Similarly, Hazel Blears is hardly screaming out for promotion after coming last in the contest, although the lack of talented women in the government (see below) will almost certainly save her from the sack.

* Harriet Harman and Douglas Alexander will perform the two key party roles in government. I think it unlikely however that Harman will not also be given some kind of cross-cutting ministerial portfolio, such as Minister for the Family. Similarly I now expect Alexander to retain his current Cabinet role of Transport Secretary for the time being. I had tipped him to go to Defence, but that is not a job that is easily combined with a party role and to take on two new jobs at this stage would be asking a lot.

* As I noted in the previous post, Mr Brown's declaration that the NHS will be his "immediate" priority strongly suggests that Patricia Hewitt is now on her way out of government. If Mr Brown thought the NHS was being well-managed he would scarcely see the need to make it his top priority on entering No 10. I strongly expect Yvette Cooper to return to the Department of Health as Secretary of State.

My other key predictions are:

* John Denham will be in the Cabinet. Gordon is known to want to make some kind of statement about the Iraq War and this is one way of doing it. And apart from that, he was a good minister. I tip him to return the department where he was a junior minister, Work and Pensions.

* The shortage of suitably qualified women to replace Hewitt, Tessa Jowell and Hilary Armstrong will come to the rescue of Labour's great survivor, Margaret Beckett, who is in any case a close Brown ally. It will however not be enough to save Ruth Kelly who is regarded the Brownites as a political liability.

* Gordon will bite the bullet and make Alistair Darling Chancellor. Having another Scot in such a senior role will represent a considerable political risk, but he will offset this with big promotions not only for Straw but for two other leading English MPs, David Miliband and Alan Johnson.

So here goes....

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown
First Secretary of State and Minister of Justice: Jack Straw
Foreign Secretary: David Miliband
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Alistair Darling
Home Secretary: Alan Johnson
Leader of the House of Commons: Margaret Beckett
Education Secretary: Jacqui Smith
Health Secretary: Yvette Cooper
Environment Secretary: Hilary Benn
Trade and Industry Secretary: Stephen Timms
Transport Secretary (and Election co-ordinator): Douglas Alexander
Defence Secretary: John Hutton
Work and Pensions Secretary: John Denham
Local Government and Communities Secretary: Hazel Blears
Culture Secretary: James Purnell
Secretary of State for Devolved Nations and Regions: Peter Hain
Leader of the House of Lords: Baroness Scotland
Minister for the Family (and Party Chair): Harriet Harman
Minister for the Cabinet Office: Ed Miliband
International Development Secretary: Andy Burnham
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Ed Balls
Chief Whip: Nick Brown
Housing Minister (attending Cabinet): Jon Cruddas

The following will be leaving the Government. Tony Blair, John Prescott, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt, Lord Falconer, Baroness Amos, Hilary Armstrong, Ruth Kelly, Tessa Jowell and Des Browne.

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Brown hits the right note

This afternoon's acceptance speech by Gordon Brown was no mere formality, but a significant pointer to the way he intends to govern Britain. "Wherever we find injustice...there must we be" was not a bad opening mission statement for a left-of-centre premier.

For me, three things stood out in the speech. First, the acknowledgement that the need for more affordable housing has risen to near the top of the political agenda and the announcement that the Housing Minister will in future attend Cabinet. I am going to take a punt and predict that this post will go to the man who helped put the issue on the agenda, Jon Cruddas.

Second, the new Prime Minister's pledge that the NHS will be his "immediate" priority. This is a recognition of the state of crisis affecting some parts of the service and the fact that Labour has not necessarily reaped the political dividends here for all its huge investment in health. It does not bode well for the current Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt.

Thirdly, Mr Brown's call for a "new constitutional settlement." I always believed that reviving the stalled constitutional reform agenda would be a key element of any Brown premiership and I expect this to address, among other things, reform of Parliament, local government, and the voting system, with Jack Straw in overall charge.

A last word about Tony Blair, whose short contribution was also significant. He said that in successfuly staging a stable and orderly transition, Labour had once again proved itself a mature party of government.

How very true that is. Labour has avoided the bloodletting and recrimination that accompanied the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and against the backdrop of the complexity of the Blair-Brown relationship, and all the inevitable tensions that accompany the exercise of great power, that is a very considerable achievement indeed.

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It wasn't just the womens' vote

Okay, so we got it wrong. Most of the pundits who have followed Labour's deputy leadership election contest over the past few weeks were split between predicting a victory for Hilary Benn, who came a bad fourth, and Alan Johnson, pipped at the post in second. Few anticipated a win for Harriet Harman, although in retrospect, perhaps we should have realised that what Gordon wants, Gordon usually gets in the end.

Some will no doubt be crowing over the fact that Guido was one of those who tipped Johnson, but at least he's had the good grace to acknowledge it. And having myself predicted a final ballot between Benn and Cruddas, with Benn emering victorious by 55-45, I am hardly in a position to talk.

Initial reaction to Harriet's victory tended to focus on the fact that party members clearly wanted a woman deputy, which is not surprising given that she made that her main campaign pitch. But I don't think that was the only reason she won.

What I think it demonstrates is that there was a natural majority in the party for the viewpoint most clearly represented in this contest by Harman and Jon Cruddas - that not everything the government has done has been perfect, and that the War in Iraq, in particular, was very far from being so.

In retrospect, the key moment of the campaign was the televised debate on Question Time, when Harman called for a government apology for the war and urged her supporters to make Jon Cruddas their second preference. From that moment on, there was never any doubt in my mind that one of them would make the last two.

I thought it would be Cruddas who would be ahead, and that Harman's votes would transfer to him. In the event, it turned out to be the other way round. Either way, it shows the desire for, at the very least, a change of tone on Iraq, and at the appropriate time, a change in policy too.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

The final reckoning

My Saturday column in today's Newcastle Journal represents my final word (for now!) on Tony Blair, his place in history, and why Andy Marr was right to say "We're all Thatcher's children now." The concluding paragraphs also pay homage to Tim Ireland, for a great idea.


And so the turbulent premiership of Tony Blair draws to an almost eerily peaceful conclusion, the first since Harold Wilson's to end neither in electoral defeat nor in an internal party coup.

By this time next week, we will doubtless be poring over the entrails of Labour's deputy leadership election result, to be announced tomorrow, and Gordon Brown's first reshuffle, due on Wednesday.

The new Cabinet line-up may well feature up to 10 new names, but they will apparently include neither that of Lord Ashdown nor any other Liberal Democrat politician.

Mr Brown's attempt to get the Lib Dems to leap aboard his new political bandwagon is one of the more extraordinary episodes in modern politics and will keep commentators and future historians busy for many a year.

But that's for another day and another column. For this week, it would be almost indecent not to focus on the outgoing Prime Minister.

It was appropriate that the broadcaster Andrew Marr's televised magnum opus, A History of Modern Britain, should conclude in this, Mr Blair's penultimate week as premier.

As political editor of the BBC, Marr was famously close to New Labour, informing the great British public on the day of David Kelly's death that Alastair Campbell was a great guy who would be devastated by the tragedy.

But Marr the historian seems to have acquired a new objectivity, and the last two programmes in particular would not necessarily have made comfortable viewing for Mr Blair.

In the first, broadcast a week ago last Tuesday, he charted the immense changes of the Thatcher years, concluding that, for good or ill, it was she who shaped the Britain we now live in.

By comparison with that, the man who was hailed as having had the most impact on the way we live now during the Blair era was not the Prime Minister himself, but Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web.

Mr Blair has, according to is detractors, long been obsessed with his place in history, and to be fair to them, he has done little over the past three years to counter the suggestion.

So where, in the end, will he stand in that pantheon of past Prime Ministers whose portraits line the staircase at No 10, and where his own portrait will be placed next Wednesday?

Well, there are some Prime Ministers who were clearly in the category of abject failures, who will be remembered primarily for getting the key question of their premierships wrong

Neville Chamberlain, for Munich and the failure to re-arm, and Sir Anthony Eden for Suez, are the two 20th century premiers who fall most clearly into this group.

Then there are others who were quite competent administrators and who did some things right, but who were defeated by events or let down by the people they should have been able to count on.

Jim Callaghan, destroyed by the very unions whose cause he had always championed, and John Major, who endured five years of guerrilla warfare from the Maastricht rebels, spring to mind here.

Next there are the likes of Harold Wilson and Stanley Baldwin, men who didn't change a great deal but, through skilful political management, kept their parties together and won more elections than they lost.

And there are those such as Edward Heath whose otherwise troubled premierships were redeemed by a single great achievement - in his case, taking Britain into Europe.

The very top rank, though, is reserved for those who were either called upon to lead the nation in its darkest days of war, or who irreversibly shifted the political consensus in peacetime.

In the past 100 years, there have been just four of these: David Lloyd George, Sir Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

Where does Mr Blair rank in all this? Well, to my mind, the two past premiers he most closely resembles are the Liberal Herbert Henry Asquith, and the Tory Harold Macmillan.

Asquith led a reforming government which lost its way a bit, became embroiled in a rather difficult war, and was finally elbowed aside by his ambitious Chancellor, Lloyd George

Meanwhile Macmillan was the first true master of spin, who told the electorate they had "never had it so good" while generally doing little to change the country's overall direction.

Both Asquith and Macmillan will go down as premiers who were neither a disaster, nor who entered the top rank, and that, in the final analysis, is where I would place Tony Blair.

Mr Blair's admirers have always argued that he was a consensus-shifter like Mrs Thatcher - that by shifting the Labour Party to the right, he was able to shift the overall centre of political gravity to the left.

That may well have been the idea, but we have in fact ended up in a situation in this country in which, while a right-wing party may be able to "talk left," a left-wing one has to "act right" to prove its fitness to govern.

This is the conundrum Labour found itself in during the 1980s and 1990s, and it is still essentially the same conundrum that faces Mr Brown today as he prepares to take power.

As Andrew Marr pointed out, we in this country are not Blair's children, or Major's, or Callaghan's. Like it or not, we are all still Thatcher's children really.

Fans of the spoof gangster movie Bugsy Malone will remember the song that goes: "We could have been anything that we wanted to be, with all the talent we had. No doubt about it, let's shout about it, we're the very best at being bad."

Well, to make the last bit an epitaph for the Blair premiership would be a trifle unfair. Although his government has done some bad things, there have been badder ones.

But with all his talent - and public goodwill - Tony Blair really could have been anything that he wanted to be, really could have been up there with Clem, Sir Winnie and the Iron Lady.

He will have a very long retirement in which to ponder that lost opportunity.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

A real "government of all the talents?"

Sir Michael White suggests J-Lo for International Development and a comeback at Defence for Denis Healey in today's G2. Iain Dale reckons Sir Alan Sugar is joining the Government. I'm not sure which of these to treat more seriously.

Here, for what it's worth, is what I think a real "government of all the talents" might look like. It is mainly made up of current Westminster players, but there are one or two leftfield choices as well as the odd blast from the past. Enjoy!

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown. Unfortunately, Big Denis is now too old for the job at 89.
Foreign Secretary: Lord Ashdown. This is really the post he should have been offered this week.
Chancellor: David Miliband. Time to see what the Boy David is really made of.
Home Secretary: David Davis. Okay, he's a Tory, but he's against ID cards which puts him to the left of Reid in my view.
Minister of Justice: Harriet Harman. She has impressed me of late.
Leader of the House of Commons: Ken Clarke. Most popular boy in the House and a genuine parliamentary reformer.
Environment Secretary: David Cameron. Let him see if he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
Education Secretary: Alan Johnson. A round peg in a round hole - no change needed here.
Health Secretary: Yvette Cooper. Should have been in the Cabinet five years ago.
Nations and Regions Secretary: Peter Hain. It's high time we got rid of the territorial departmens.
Defence Secretary: John Reid. This, not Home Sec, was the job for him.
Transport Secretary: Ken Livingstone. The only conceivable choice.
Local Government and Communities Secretary: Nick Raynsford. No-one understands local government better.
Work and Pensions Secretary: David Willetts. It needs more than one brain to sort this one out.
Leader of the Lords: Baroness Shirley Williams. A great, great lady.
Culture Secretary: James Purnell. Surely all that sucking up to Gordon shouldn't be in vain?
International Development Secretary: Bob Geldof. Is there a more serious political figure in the land?
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Chris Huhne. Had to get him in somewhere.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Brown and the Libs: Some Questions

Politics is not rocket science, and the motives of those who engage in it are usually pretty transparent, but to me, there are an unusually large number of unanswered questions about the strange affair of Gordon Brown's attempt to bring senior Lib Dems into his Cabinet. Here's a few that haven't already been exhaustively covered on today's blogosphere.

* What will be the effect of this on morale within the Labour Party? Now that Gordon Brown has made clear he believes he needs to look outside the party to construct his Cabinet, will Labour MPs feel that their 300-odd nominations have been flung back in their faces?

* Will Peter Hain still be Northern Ireland Secretary after next Wednesday? If so, how will he feel about the fact that his job was offered to Paddy Ashdown?

* Does the fact that Brown made that job offer mean that he is going to retain the territorial Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish departments in government rather than create an umbrella department of nations and regions as had been rumoured?

* Would Paddy Ashdown still have said no if he had been offered the job of Foreign Secretary (as, surely, he should have been if the alternatives are more of Maggie Beckett or a comeback for Jack Straw?)

* What was Ashdown up to leaking the story to the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger, when he must have realised this would cause ten tons of shit to descend on the head of his leader Ming Campbell? Was he just being vain, or has he too decided that Ming is a liability?

* Will the Lib Dems in fact blame Ming, or will they just see this as a rather devious manoeuvre by Brown to get the plaudits for appearing open and inclusive without having to suffer the inconvenience of actually having the Lib Dums in his Cabinet?

* Similarly, will the public really see this as an attempt by Brown to create a "new politics," or simply as a prime example of the way the old politics works, ie completely shafting the leader of an opposition party, who also happens to be an "old friend?"

* If Ming falls and a more media-friendly figure like Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg becomes leader, could the ultimate loser in the whole affair be David Cameron, with the "liberal Conservative" vote returning to the Lib Dems?

I don't profess to know the answer to any of these questions - but it seems there is enough food for thought here not only to keep the blogosphere occupied for days but to keep historians occupied for years.

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There's always a price worth paying

"Unemployment is a good and fair price to pay for low inflation."

- Norman Lamont, 1992, House of Commons. *

"Are you saying that lost North jobs are an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South?" "Yes, I suppose in a sense I am."

- Sir Edward George, 1998, in reply to a question from yours truly.

"If you want to keep the union together, the Barnett Formula is a small price to pay,"

- Tony Blair, 2007, speaking at the Liaison Committee of senior MPs.

* Unclear as to whether this was his own phrase or one written for him by his researcher, D. Cameron.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Piara Khabra - a Lasting Tribute

Earlier today I left a link on Iain Dale's blog alerting readers to this tribute to the Ealing MP Piara Khabra, whose death was announced today.

This has since attracted some comment to the effect that I should have mentioned my involvement in the digital obits site Lasting Tribute, which I currently run for Associated Northcliffe Digital.

Well, as anyone who has visited this blog will know, I have in fact been quite open about my role as the launch project manager for LT, which went live six weeks ago.

Although I'm obviously biased, I'm very proud of the site. As well as Khabra, those of a political bent will find there obituaries to, among others, Bernard Weatherill, Sir Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, John Smith and Sir Winston Churchill.

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I have always had slightly mixed feelings about Andrew Marr. On a personal level, I have no hesitation in saying he is one of the most generous-sprited and courteous men I have met in political journalism. Unlike many of his senior Lobby colleagues, he never adopted a loftier-than-thou approach to those of us on the lower rungs of the profession and would always pass the time of day with anyone who happened to coincide with him in the Press Bar.

On a professional level, though, I always believed he was slightly too close to New Labour for comfort in the job of BBC political editor. Never was this more exemplified than when, on the day of Dr David Kelly's death, he informed us that Alastair Campbell was basically a decent bloke who would be as devastated as anyone by the tragedy, when a more detached and sceptical reporter might have posed some of the key questions that Campbell would now have to answer about how Dr Kelly's name had been leaked.

So I believe Marr made the right call in leaving that particular job to move on to more general presenting, and this was amply borne-out by his History of Modern Britain which concluded on BBC2 last night. It is sometimes said that journalism is merely a rough first draft of history, but this was as authoritative an account of contemporary British life as we are likely to get from any professional historian.

Sure, there were omissions, probably due to the need to condense fifty years into five hours. The Callaghan premiership, which delivered two years of stable and enlightened government from 1976-78 before the chaos of the Winter of Discontent, was virtually ignored. And the impact of New Labour on the countryside, including foot and mouth, the fox-hunting ban and the destruction of the green belt, merited not a mention. But on the whole, this was a tour-de-force which showed that Marr has finally found his niche.

The programme which, in my view, defined the series, was last week's one on Margaret Thatcher, concluding that, for good or ill, "we are all Thatcher's children now." I still can't really forgive Thatcher for the destruction of the deep-mining industry, for desecrating the once-thriving pit villages that formed the backdrop to my early career in journalism around Mansfield, Notts. But from an objective standpoint, I do recognise that, alongside Tim Berners-Lee, she is chiefly responsible for the way we live now.

And this, in turn, demonstrates that Tony Blair, the main subject of last night's final programmme, was not in the first rank of Prime Ministers in the sense that Thatcher was - a fact that Marr, for all his previous closeness to New Labour, seemed to acknowledge when he showed an ironical clip of himself telling the nation that Blair had become "a bigger man" as a result of the Iraq invasion and the toppling of Saddam. In fact he became a much diminshed one - but in his tacit acceptance that even the best reporters sometimes get it wrong, Marr became a "bigger man" himself.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What if Blair had sacked Brown?

Today's Guardian front page - apart from being a rather obvious plug by Patrick Wintour for his mate Andrew Rawnsley's new TV documentary - begs the question of what would have happened had Tony Blair actually sacked Gordon Brown as Cherie Blair and others were apparently urging him to do?

I think I know the answer: Instead of still being a week or so away from entering No 10, Gordon Brown would already have been Prime Minister for several years.

Blair's big opportunity to sack Brown - probably his only opportunity when you think about it - came in 2001 on the back of his second election landslide. Right up until election day, there were strong rumours that he would attempt to move Brown to the Foreign Office, and that Brown might well choose to go to the backbenches rather than accept.

In the event, it didn't happen, and Blair was never again in a position of sufficient strength to contemplate moving the Chancellor. Indeed, by the time the following election came round in 2005, he practically needed to beg Gordon to ride to the rescue of Labour's flagging campaign.

So what would have happened had Blair gone ahead? Well, I suspect all would have been fine and dandy for a couple of years until the Government ran up against the issue of what to do about Iraq. Let's just assume for the sake of argument that Blair would have acted no differently, and that the consequences of the invasion - the dodgy dossier, the Kelly affair, the Hutton whitewash, the Butler report - would have played out exactly as they did.

To my mind, had there been someone of the stature of Gordon Brown on the backbenches at the time, an obvious alternative Prime Minister who was untained by any of what had gone on during the war and the whole grisly aftermath, there would have been a huge clamour both inside and outside the Labour Party for him to take over.

In short, I think that Blair would have fallen in the aftermath of the Kelly/Hutton affair, Brown would have gone on to win a much bigger election victory than Blair actually achieved in 2005, and the Tories would still be looking at a two-election strategy to get back into contention for power.

Of course, Blair was too smart an operator not to have realised all this, which is one of the reasons why he stuck with Brown through thick and thin. Much as he may have felt like strangling him at times, he always knew that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Is Middle Britain finally starting to wake up to Barnett?

The Barnett Formula is usually presented as an item of political arcania of interest only to those of extreme anorak tendencies, but today's Daily Mail front page about the consequences of Scotland's great public spending power demonstrates that it is not.

As I have been arguing for most of the past decade, both on this blog and in numerous columns in the Newcastle Journal, the fact that public spending north of the border is some £1,200 per head higher than in England has real implications for real public services that affect real people. It was only a matter of time before someone came up with a really emotive example that brings the story to life, and the row over blindness drugs has seemingly done that.

What is set to make the situation even more combustible is that the new Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is also highly critical of the Barnett Formula - not for the same reasons as many English MPs, but because he thinks it doesn't go far enough.

I've been saying for a long time that, one day, the need for reform of this unfair and outdated formula will become a political issue of the first order. I suspect I won't have that much longer to wait.

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Sir Alan's brainstorm

I really can't improve on Lucy Mangan's description of the outcome last night's Apprentice final. "If Kristina doesn't get the job," I scream, "This city's gonna burn!" Sir Alan suffers some kind of massive synaptic misfire and hires Simon. Pass. Me. My. Matches."

I can only assume this was a counter-intuitive response by Sir Alan to last year's debacle, when he went for the "safe" candidate in Michelle Dewberry over the more "risky" alternative of Ruth Badger, only to see Dewberry walk out on him after a few months after getting pregnant by a fellow-contestant, while Badger went on to host her own corporate troubleshooting show on Sky.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Where will the second preferences go?

Tom Watson has a good thread running today in which he asks his readers to list Labour's deputy leadership candidates in order of preference. This will of course be crucial to the outcome of an election in which support still seems pretty well spread between the six candidates.

I did think of responding to Tom's post on his own blog but I've decided to do it here. My preferences will go as follows:

1 Cruddas
2 Hain
3 Harman
4 Johnson
5 Benn
6 Blears

I have already explained here and here why I will be voting for Jon Cruddas as first preference, and why I won't be voting for some of the others. But since he is currently the favourite, I will add a word about Hilary Benn whose support seems to be largely based on (a) his family name, and (b) the fact that he seems a nice chap.

To my mind, Benn stands for very little in this election, besides the fact that he is neither a card-carrying Blairite nor someone who wants to disown much of the Government's legacy. This is not enough for me, and I agree with Tom Watson that a would-be deputy leader has to say more about the direction they would like the party to go in.

So much for what I want to happen. What I expect to happen is that Benn will indeed win, in a final run-off against Cruddas who will benefit from the early elimination of Hain and Harman. It follows from this that I do not expect my second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth preferences to have the slightest bearing on the election at all.

This is how I see the ballots panning out:

1st Ballot: 1 Benn 2 Johnson 3 Harman 4 Cruddas 5 Hain 6 Blears. Blears' votes transfer mainly to Johnson.

2nd Ballot: 1 Johnson 2 Benn 3 Harman 4 Cruddas 5 Hain. Hain's votes transfer mainly to Cruddas but some to Benn.

3rd Ballot: 1 Benn 2 Johnson 3 Cruddas 4 Harman. Harman's votes transfer mainly to Cruddas.

4th Ballot: 1 Benn 2 Cruddas 3 Johnson. Johnson's votes transfer mainly to Benn.

5th Ballot: 1 Benn 2 Cruddas, by a margin of about 55-45.

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Hilary A smells the coffee

So Hilary Armstrong has announced she is stepping down from the Cabinet at the same time as Tony Blair, John Prescott and John Reid on 27 June to give Gordon Brown maximum room for manoeuvre as he reshapes his team.

I think this is what is known as taking the dignified way out, as opposed to the fate awaiting John Hutton, Tessa Jowell and probably Charlie Falconer when Gordo's first Cabinet is finally unveiled.

Armstrong is what I have always described as an absurd loyalist, namely someone who takes loyalty to the leader to the point of absurdity. Never was this more clear than in her conversation with the defecting Labour MP Paul Marsden when she actually uttered the phrase "We don't have spin doctors in Number 10 - or anywhere else."

The chances of her getting a Cabinet job under Gordon Brown were nil. The only thing to be said in her favour is that, unlike some of the others awaiting the axe, she had the good sense to realise this.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

A farcical denouement

My wife Gill and I are both complete addicts of The Apprentice but I can't help but feel a bit cheated by last night's "semi final" in which arch-backstabber Katie Hopkins decided to fall on her own sword despite being told she was through to next week's final.

To be honest I've been longing for her to get fired ever since she dissed Northerners and Pinot Grigio-drinkers in the course of her character-assassination of Adam in Week 7. But she was undoubtedly the star of this series, and a final bitch fight showdown between her and gritty single mum Kristina was what most fans were keenly anticipating.

Kristina is still there, of course, but instead she's up against posh Cambridge graduate and failed City Boy Simon, who has somehow managed to survive this far despite making a total arse of himself during the TV sales channel task and on numerous other occasions throughout the series.

I hope Kristina wins, but I fear she will not, as Sir Alan Sugar clearly has a liking for Simon having passed up obvious oportunities to fire him before now. More in-depth Apprentice analysis from Paul Burgin and Kerron Cross.

Update: More on Katie Nice Person HERE. Read it if you can bear.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

No spin is the new spin?

Plenty of lively debate over at Iain Dale's place over whether Gordon Brown attempted to strongarm the Sunday lobby into carrying the line about his terror crackdown without balancing comment from Nick Clegg and David Davis. Three experienced Sunday pol eds, Paddy Hennessy, Ian Kirby and Nick Watt, have vehemently denied the claims but the thread is well worth a read.

Whether it's true or not, I was equally concerned to read this story in the UK Press Gazette about a local reporter who was allegedly subjected to bully-boy tactics from one of Brown's minders.

I do hope that this isn't going to be the shape of things to come under Gordon. He has made very clear that it is his intention to lead a new style of government and, as I made clear in this post, if this is to mean anything it must entail an end to the spin culture.

The row over David Maclean's bid to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act, which was enthusiastically backed by Nick "Newcastle" Brown and other high-profile Brown cronies, was not a good start on this score. Neither, if true, are the examples highlighted by Dale and the UKPG.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Benn turns the tables on Cruddas

The last time I carried out a Poll on Labour's deputy leadership earlier this year it produced the following result.

Jon Cruddas 35%
Hilary Benn 28%
Alan Johnson 7%
Peter Hain 5%
Harriet Harman 4%
Hazel Blears 3%
Jack Straw 3%
None of the above 15%

A few weeks' back I decided to run the poll again as the contest is now "live," minus Straw who decided against running. After the same length of time, the updated poll produced the following outcome (percentage movement in brackets):

Hilary Benn 48% (+20)
Jon Cruddas 24% (-10)
Alan Johnson 10% (+3)
Hazel Blears 8% (+5)
Harriet Harman 5% (+1)
Peter Hain 4% (-1)

Now of course all this is totally unscientific, but assuming that (a) some of my readers are Labour Party or union members, and (b) that some of the same people voted, it does seem to me to indicate two things:

1. Hilary Benn now has a big lead in grassroots support - which is what most other polls on the matter are saying anyway.

2. By carving himself out a distinct niche in this contest as the "change" candidate, Jon Cruddas continues to steal a march on the more established ministerial heopfuls.

It is still way to early to try to call this contest, but I do now expect Hazel Blears and Peter Hain to be the first two candidates eliminated, although I am not sure in what order. I expect much of Blears' support to go to Alan Johnson, while a lot of Hain's will go to Cruddas.

Since Harriet Harman and Cruddas have endorsed eachother, their second prefernces may well transfer to eachother in later ballots. The question is whether there will be enough of them to overtake Mr Benn, and at the moment, you have to say it is looking unlikely.

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Vote early, vote often

I see that James Higham is inviting nominations for the Blog Power awards, the winners of which will be presumably chosen by other bloggers as opposed to members of the Tory Party or senior editorial staff of the Guardian as with certain other blogging awards.

I am most grateful to whoever it was who nominated this blog for Best British Blog and also for Best Political Blog, but it seems I still need a seconder if anyone feels inclined!

To nominate, e-mail jameshighamatmaildotcom.

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