Monday, July 30, 2007

The Top 20

Last year, I made it into the Top 10 of Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging in the UK. I don't really expect to do the same again - there's a lot more competition out there now and my work commitments have prevented me growing the blog as much as I would have liked in the past year - but Mr Dale is now working on a follow-up edition and wants your views as to which blogs should be included.

Naturally I hope that as a reader of this blog you'll vote for me, but either way please email your nominations to iain AT iaindale DOT com, typing Top 20 in the subject line and ordering them from 1 to 20. Your top blog gets 20 points and your twentieth gets 1 point.

The deadline for submitting your Top 20 to Iain is 15 August. Once all the entries are in, a lucky dip prize draw will take place in which the winner will win £100 worth of books and cds.

My Top 20, for what it's worth, is listed below. There will, I suspect, be few surprises here, although the last two blogs named are relative newcomers to the 'sphere which have really impressed me of late.

1 Political Betting
2 Iain Dale's Diary
3 Liberal England
4 Bloggerheads
5 Benedict Brogan
6 Chicken Yoghurt
7 Guido Fawkes
8 Dizzy Thinks
9 UK Daily Pundit
10 Skipper
11 Rachel from North London
12 Tom Watson
13 Nick Robinson
14 Mars Hill
15 Little Man in a Toque
16 The Nether World
17 Obsolete
18 Conservative Home
19 Kate's Home Blog
20 Newer Labour

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The buzz around David Davis

Some interesting speculation on the Tory blogosphere over the last couple of days over whether David Davis is now becoming David Cameron's de facto deputy, and as such whether he rather than George Osborne or William Hague is now best placed to take over should Cambo fall under the bus or, alternatively, be ditched by his increasingly restive party.

I have to say the same thing occurred to me last week and was touched on in my weekend column, entitled Could the Tories ditch Dave? Very asutely, Davis managed to be both 100pc loyal to Cameron while dramatically improving his own standing in the eyes of party members.

"He was certainly making all the right noises this week, going out of his way to be loyal to Mr Cameron and demanding that MPs show “a bit of discipline” – exactly what the grassroots like to hear."

The column can be read in full HERE and is also available as a podcast HERE.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

In remembrance of sporting times past

Today has been something of an ultimate Sunday. The sun has shone for what seems like the first time in weeks, enabling our little family to enjoy some much-needed quality time together in the garden, while today's Observer Sport Monthly has been an absolute delight to read. It was editor Jason Cowley's last issue and a strong vein of nostalgia for golden summers of sport long gone ran through the whole edition.

The first thing to catch my eye was a magisterial piece of writing by Tim Pears on Lasse Viren, one of my childhood sporting heroes on account of his heroic performances in the Munich and Montreal Olympics. Pears correctly identified the 1976 5000m final in Montreal as the greatest distance race of all-time, and his vivid account of it - and the way Viren held off possibly the most talented field ever assembled to defend his title - had me purring with joy.

There was also a rather obvious but nevertheless enjoyable comparison of this year's rain-drenched sporting summer with its rather more memorable counterpart of thirty years ago - the year Liverpool won the European Cup for the first time, Virginia Wade improbably triumphed at Wimbledon, Tom Watson overcame Jack Nicklaus in the Duel in the Sun at Turnberry, and best of all, Geoffrey Boycott returned to Test cricket to score his 100th hundred against the Australians at Headingley.

In between the two, rather pointedly, was a savage appraisal of the current state of English football and why the relentless takeover by foreign tycoons could only happen here. I don't often blog in praise of the mainstream media, but then again, I rarely find so much in a Sunday paper to keep me happy for several relaxing hours as I did today.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Happy Memories....

The start of the Parliamentary recess today spells the end of an era for a great and venerable journalistic institution - the Press Bar at the Palace of Westminster. Apparently it's going to move next door as part of a "rationalisation" of press facilities that the Commons authorities have long planned.

The Guardian's resident lobby gossip Bill Blanko - who is almost certainly not Simon Hoggart or Michael White as is commonly supposed - has written a moving lament in his latest column. Reading this I was not surprised to hear that Rob Gibson, former Gallery chairman and songsmith, had composed a musical tribute to mark the occasion.

It's two years or more since I had my last drink in there, but I still miss the place. Yes, the Lobby was a brutal, backstabbing environment at times, but it also had great camaraderie, and none more so than on those magical Press Bar evenings when a leaving do or some other celebration was in full swing.

I hope they manage to replicate some of that atmosphere in the new "cafe bar" opening next door in the old canteen area, but something tells me it won't ever be quite the same again.

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Only Human

Guido has a consuming hatred of Gordon Brown and his blogging about the Prime Minister has to be viewed in that light. But this post today on the "dough-nutting" of El Gordo at PMQs made me laugh out loud, especially where he says: "Jacqui Smith looked like the moody one out of the Human League."

I assume by this he means Susanne Sulley rather than fellow Sheffield Crazy-Dazy-Disco-Club* dancer Joanne Catherall on account of her blonde hair and ample cleavage, although it seems unlikely that Susanne quite shared Jacqui's distaste for the funny fags. Could they by any chance be related? I'll leave you to judge.

* Later The Limit Club, now a shopping centre.

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So much for the new localism

Local government reform is a notoriously difficult area and one in which you are inevitably going to end up upsetting one group or another. But I for one am surprised by the thrust of the latest proposals for unitary councils announced this week.

This government - both before and after the Blair-Brown handover - has made great play of its commitment to "new localism," and to devolving decision-making down to the lowest possible level. So it is disappointing that the big losers in this week's plans seem to be the district councils rather than the counties.

Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire county councils will all become giant all-purpose authorities, with the districts in those areas disappearing. Two other county councils - Cheshire and Bedfordshire - will cease to exist in their current form, but other large single-purpose authorities will be created in those areas.

Why is the government doing this? Well, larger authorities tend to cost the taxpayer less, both in terms of administrative overheads and through economies of scale. I think what this goes to show is that when push comes to shove, governments will always put saving money before the importance of local democracy.

There may be another, less obvious explanation, and that is that the government is seeking to compensate for the loss of the regional assemblies whose abolition was announced the week before last. This will require the creation of "joint boards" of local authorities to oversee region-wide functions such as transport planning, and this will be far simpler with two or three counties than with 15-20 districts.

If I am right about this, it is surely another example of the operation of the law of unintended consequences - how abolishing an admittedly unpopular regional tier of governance actually ends up not bringing decision-making closer to the people, but taking it further away.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

About time too

By choosing today to announce a pledge to reform the honours system to reward unsung heroes in the week following the conclusion of the loans-for-lordships investigation, Gordon Brown couldn't really be making it any clearer that he intends to conduct his government in a very different way from Tony Blair.

There will, in any case, be no more coronets for cash, at least under Labour. Reform of the House of Lords to bring in a 100pc elected second chamber will, I am confident, be a Labour manifesto pledge at the next election, and if Gordon wins, the backwoodsmen who have fought for 100 years to retain this vestige of the feudal system will finally be forced to admit defeat under the Salisbury Convention.

But while Gordon is at it, he really should go much further in dismantling an honours system which is rooted in the days of Empire and which, in its absurd hierarchy of categories, still helps to perpetuate the class divide in British society.

It's all very well to hand out honours to Britain's "Everyday Heroes," in the words of Mr Brown's latest book. But not if that means that lollipop ladies and local charity fundraisers are still awarded MBEs while senior civil servants continue to collect their KCMGs (otherwise known as Kindly Call Me God).

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The Brown Bounce

My weekly podcast is now on its 75th episode. The current one, which looks at the state of the parties in the wake of last week's by-elections, can be heard HERE.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Another whitewash

Did I believe there was no connection between Alastair Campbell's desire to "fuck Gilligan", the leaking by government officials of Dr David Kelly's name to that end, and the weapons inspector's subsequent suicide? No, I didn't, despite what Lord Hutton told us.

And like Guido, neither do I believe there has never been a connection between donations to the Labour Party and the award of peerages, even if nothing was ever written down on paper about it in a way that would have enabled the Crown Prosecution Service to prove that a specific crime had been committed.

I have one simple question on all this: If no-one at No 10 had anything to hide, why did they seek to obstruct the inquiry at every turn, turning what could have been a routine investigation into one that eventually lasted 16 months and cost £800,000 of taxpayers' money?

I don't think the public will be any more convinced by this than I am. Maybe, as with the case of Lord Archer, we will just have to wait a decade or more for the truth to out.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Gordon scores

The Tories are predictably fuming about the fact that Gordon Brown has succeeded in re-focusing attention on the issue of politicians' drug-taking pasts, first by pledging to look again at the reclassification of cannabis and then by persuading Home Secretary Jackie Smith to fess up to having a toke at university.

Why do they protest so much? Isn't it a perfectly legitimate tactic for a party leader to seek to put his opposite number on ths spot over an issue - particularly when they have brought the problem on themselves by being less than open about it in the past?

But whatever the low politics of the situation, it's the right move by Gordon. Cannabis is evil shit and I have witnessed at first hand the kind of psychosis it can induce in regular users, in my case in a former landlord. An old newspaper colleague of mine, Huw Lewis, had an experience that was, sadly, even closer to home.

And in case anyone's wondering....yes, I did, once or twice, and all it ever gave me was a bloody headache.

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British Beatyourselfupaboutit Corporation

Okay, so it's a serious story, and having grown up in local newspapers where awarding competition prizes to your friends can be a sackable offence, I find it frankly beyond belief that such things have been going on at the BBC.

But however justified, there is something in me that hates to see the corporation beating itself up like this. It's still the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world, and British culture would be immeasurably poorer without it. Let's hear it for the Beeb!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

From Two Jags to Five Hats

One admittedly rather processological story that caught my eye from earlier in the week concerned Harriet Harman's new self-proclaimed role as the "MPs enforcer."

Harman is quite right to see this as part of the role of a Leader of the House of Commons, but it doesn't sit especially well with her party role, leaving a further question mark against the wisdom of this particular appointment by Gordon.

The Tories have already taken to calling Harman "Four Hats" on account of her superfluity of titles - Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Party Chair, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Women.

In fact, she has five hats. They are forgetting Lord Privy Seal, a purely ceremonial role but an additional title nonetheless.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Premature euphoria

Actually I did consider calling this post premature something else but that sort of thing can attract unfortunate search engine rankings. But either way it is clear that the decision by Boris Johnson to enter the race for the London Mayoralty has sent the Conservative blogosphere into paeans of ecstasy not seen since the days when Margaret Thatcher was in No 10.

As a fellow-journalist, I have to say I had a fair amount of respect for Bozza. But as a politician? Well, suffice to say his is a precocious talent that has remained unfulfilled.

As far back in the mid-90s, when he was still on the Daily Telegraph and toying with a Parliamentary career, he was being talked about as the most promising Tory of his generation. Yet he seemed unable to make a clear choice between politics and journalism and was eventually beaten to the Tory leadership by a younger man.

His frontbench career has progressed in fits and starts. Michael Howard took a gamble on him and brought him into a prominent role, but ended up having to sack him after he was less than forthcoming about his affair with Petronella Wyatt.

For what it's worth, I thought Iain Dale was right that Boris would have benefited from the rigour of a tough internal primary against someone of Steve Norris's calibre. But that now looks unlikely to happen, and who can blame Norris for not wanting to play the fall-guy?

The fact that this chaotic and wholly unproven figure has been alighted upon by the capital's Tories as a potential saviour is surely a measure of their desperation.

19 July update: And this great story from the Mirror's Bob Roberts proves the point. I particularly love this quote from a "Labour source" which Bob couldn't possibly have made up:

"It may be safe to go back into the water. It's certainly not safe to go back to the Tories."

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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Stab in the Back

If you think I have been a bit hard on Alastair Campbell, you should read this piece by the former Mirror Group political editor David Seymour in this week's Press Gazette. Apart from being the most comprehensive hatchet-job I have ever seen on the former spinmeister, it also contains the sensational allegation that Campbell described Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed" in conversation with another Mirror journalist, the week before Andrew Rawnsley's famous scoop.

The Stab in the Back, by the way, was the colloquial name for a famous Mirror watering hole frequented by Campbell in his drinking days.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The emerging battleground

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Unelected regional assemblies to be scrapped

My old paper The Journal has a bit of a scoop here with the news that the unelected North-East Assembly is set to be scrapped and its powers returned to local authorities. I am assuming that if true this will also sound the death-knell for other similar bodies across England.

The rationale appears to be that Gordon Brown is putting new forms of regional accountability in place through the new regional ministers, proposed regional "Question Times" and regional select committees.

The assemblies, which were set up by John Prescott and Dick Caborn as forerunners for what they hoped would be democratically elected regional bodies, will die a very unlamented death.

Although their members were drawn mainly from local authorities, they always lacked democratic legitimacy and have been living on borrowed political time since the overwhelming no vote in the 2004 North-East referendum put the coffin lid on the regional devolution project.

The fact that some of their powers are now set to be devolved to local authorities will no doubt be presented as an example of the government's new "localism" agenda, but this does not tell the full picture.

I have always rather doubted the ability of local authorities to think beyond their own boundaries and take into account the regional dimensions in policy making, for instance in areas such as strategic transport planning. This will ultimately create a political vacuum into which Whitehall will gratefully step.

That said, it's a reform which, as well as providing another symbolic break with one of the failures of the Blair era, will lose the new government very few votes in most parts of the country.

What it does not do, of course, is leave us any the wiser about what, if anything, El Gordo plans to do about the wider democratic deficit in England, although it does suggest he now accepts that regional assemblies - elected or otherwise - are not part of that solution.

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Happy Mondays buy drugs for Tony Wilson

Yes, you read that right.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Great Polluter

And so, at last, to Alastair Campbell's Diaries. Gordon Brown said he didn't know why they were being published, a pretence at incomprehension which is a well-known and very effective political technique. Campbell himself said in the course of a 30-minute interview on the Today Programme of the type ususally reserved for serving Prime Ministers that he hoped the diaries would provide "the first chapter of a record that I intend to put into the public domain about an amazing prime minister, a great leader in my view, who was responsible for taking Labour into power and taking Britain forward."

To which I have only two words to say. My Arse.

The reason Alastair Campbell is publishing his diaries now is not the desire to write the rough first draft of history of the Blair Years. It is filthy lucre, and the fact that he knows that had he waited a couple of years, we would all have forgotten about him and no-one would buy them. That is also why he has taken out the references to Gordon Brown - so he can make another fortune in a few years' time by publishing those bits once Brown has left office.

Then again, what more should we expect? As Michael Howard said on
Newsnight, Alastair Campbell has done more than anyone else to pollute the political process and destroy public trust in our democracy over the past few years, so why should we expect him now to be driven by any higher motive than selfish greed?

As to the book's contents, I have already said my piece in the latest edition of the Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze about his self-justificatory and disingenuous account of the David Kelly affair. I still cannot believe that Campbell can say, in the same breath, that he briefly considered topping himself over the episode, while continuing to maintain he did absolutely nothing wrong.

It goes without saying that I am not going to buy the book. I would recommend instead the excellent biography Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class by Peter Oborne, which will tell you all you need to know about Campbell's media management techniques and the reign of terror he exerted over Whitehall press departments and the Parliamentary Lobby between 1997 and 2003.

The publication of the Campbell Diaries, and the extraordinary way in which the BBC has allowed itself to become his publicity machine, has already produced some superb blogging and commentary elsewhere, notably from Martin Kettle who is puzzled by the absence of references to Campbell's media collaborators Tom Baldwin and Trevor Kavanagh, and Chicken Yoghurt, who likens the book to another featuring "fantastical plots requiring a massive suspension of disbelief from the reader" - Harry Potter.

Top biscuit however goes to Septic Isle for this post on Obsolete which deserves to be read in full, not least for the full impact of some ace swearblogging. "As any psychologist will tell you, a pathological liar not only lies to everyone around him, they lie the most to themselves....They say cheats never prosper, but liars it seems will inherit the earth."

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Blogroll changes

I've made a few changes to the Blogroll to try and simplify the number of categories and also to reflect my current assessment of who's hot and who's not in the blogosphere.

Up into the list of Linford's Top Blogs come the revamped Conservative Home, king of the Anglosphere Little Man in a Toque, and leftie kindred spirits Chicken Yoghurt and The Nether World.

Also up there is Ben Brogan which I guess will surprise a few people. Brogan and I did not see eye to eye during my time in the Lobby, for reasons which seem spectacularly trivial now, but I always rated him highly as a journalist and in my view he is now the leading MSM blogger.

Out, for the time being, go Tom Watson, whose energies are currently being taken up by the Ealing Southall by-election, and Labour Watch, which has been taken offline while its author, Greg Stone, fights the corresponding contest in Sedgefield.

Some blogs which have been dormant for a couple of months or so disappear from the blogroll. Sadly, these include Forceful and Moderate which was once my favourite Lib Dem blog. It's main author Femme de Resistance is now pursuing other interests and I wish her luck.

Other changes include a new link to my Facebook profile and an invitation to join Tim Ireland's latest worthy crusade, Alastair Campbell Can Go And F**k Himself Fortnight. More about that one later.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Should the tax system encourage marriage?

Well, it certainly shouldn't discourage it, and if David Cameron thinks that's currently the case, then maybe he has a point. But I honestly don't think the tax system should encourage marriage either.

It's not that I don't believe that marriage provides the most stable environment for children to be brought up in. It quite clearly does. But is providing tax incentives to get married really likely to provide more stable, loving homes - or might it actually achieve just the opposite?

Okay, so I probably move in rather traditional social circles compared to some, but most people I know got married because they believed they had found their soulmate, not because they wanted to find a way of knocking £200 a year off the income tax bill.

If there really is anyone out there who got married for those sorts of reasons - and that I rather doubt - then they are probably three quarters of the way to the divorce court already.

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Comrade Digby

Excellent post here, as ever, from Skipper. While sympathetic to the concept of governments-of-all-the-talents, I think the protesting Labour MPs may well have a point here.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ripples do come back....

There is music, and then there is Genesis music. I've been into lots of other bands at various times in the last 44 years, but none that have engaged my emotions in quite the same way as Messrs Banks, Collins and Rutherford - and as Saturday night's comeback gig at Old Trafford showed, the old magic is still there.

Nothing is ever as good as the first time, and in terms of my Genesis experience, nothing will ever quite match the first time I saw them, but that was partly down to the company. Musically speaking, this was the best performance I have ever seen them give - and that is saying something.

It was an advantage that with no new material to perform, they could concentrate instead on crowd-pleasing. The whole show was an exercise in unashamed nostalgia, with images of their old album sleeves and old 70s long-haired photographs flashing across the giant pixilated screen at the back of the stage.

Phil Collins said in a notorious interview in 1981: "I can't expect people who liked us ten years ago to still like us today." In those days, they were trying too hard to ecsape their prog-rock roots. On Saturday, it felt for the first time as if Genesis have truly come to terms with their past

It was significant that the 24-track set featured nothing from the controversial 1981 LP Abacab, the one which alienated the old fanbase to such an extent that the band were booed at several concerts during the subsequent tour, most notoriously at Leiden, Holland.

Instead, they took us on a sentimental journey through their extensive back catalogue, with stuff dating back as far as "Firth of Fifth," from the 1973 album Selling England by the Pound, and Abacab aside, at least one track from every subsequent LP.

The set was more instrumental than usual to save Phil's voice a bit - but that was fine by me as many of the band's greatest efforts have been instrumentals. And in any case, during the "Duke's Travels" section of the "In the Cage" medley, the crowd did the singing for him.

If I have one slight criticism it is that while the merchandise featured images from the early 70s albums Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme, there was no material from these LPs performed. "Fountain of Salmacis" and "Watcher of the Skies" would have been nice additions, maybe at the expense of some the later stuff.

For me, though, the big highlight of the show was "Ripples," the haunting track from the 1976 album A Trick of the Tail. This one has not been a regular feature of their live set since the Seconds Out tour in 1977, and was the one genuinely unexpected surprise for the old fans.

"Sail away, away, ripples never come back" says the song. But as my mum once told me, new ones start.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Trust me, I'm not Tony

I passed up the opportunity to blog on the details of Gordon Brown's constitutional reform proposals this week because I wanted to save it for my weekend columns (for which I get paid!) Anyway here is my preliminary verdict, as published in this morning's Newcastle Journal. Some of it may be of particular interest to readers of Anglospheric tendencies.


During the course of the long debate over whether the North-East should have an elected assembly, one of the most oft-heard criticisms of the idea was that “it isn’t what they’re talking about down the Dog and Duck.”

If the truth be told, it wasn’t, as the November 2004 referendum result seemed to demonstrate.

Today, you can hear the same arguments being made about the wider constitutional reform agenda – that it isn’t a subject uppermost in people’s minds, that it “butters no parsnips” as Tony Blair rather unkindly put it.

Maybe so, but one issue they are certainly talking about down the mythical Dog and Duck is trust in politicians - or rather the lack of it.

So it is against that backdrop that Gordon Brown’s decision to make constitutional reform the subject of his first Commons’ statement as Prime Minister on Tuesday has to be seen.

It was always likely that Mr Brown's first big political initiative as premier would be designed to tackle the "trust" issue, for the simple reason that it was fundamentally this that forced his predecessor out before his time.

By handing over power to Parliament, and ultimately the people, Mr Brown thinks he can restore the public’s confidence in Labour after the spin and sleaze of the Blair years.

So the underlying message on Tuesday was not so much "I am a political anorak who sits up at night worrying about how to change our system of government," but simply "I am not like Tony Blair."

Mr Blair, of course, never had any time for constitutional matters. The Scottish and Welsh devolution agenda was the legacy of John Smith, and Mr Blair had little alternative but to implement it.

English regional government was an anathema to him and he actively sought to hobble the project by refusing to grant the proposed assembly anything like enough power.

Meanwhile House of Lords reform was left unfinished, and the House of Commons largely marginalised during his ten years in office.

And far from giving away powers as Mr Brown is now attempting to do, he positively revelled in the exercise of them, from waging war to appointing Church of England bishops.

The most predictable element of Mr Brown’s statement on Tuesday was that the power to declare war would be handed to Parliament – but in effect, this change has already taken place.

After the last time, if Mr Brown were now to try to wage war without a vote in the Commons, there would undoubtedly be rioting in the streets.

Potentially much more significant, in my view, is Mr Brown’s proposal to give up the right to recommend a dissolution of Parliament – namely, to decide when a general election should be held.

In a majority government situation, it is unlikely to mean much. But in a hung Parliament, it could dramatically limit a Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre.

Among the other main proposals, moving election days from Thursdays to the weekend and lowering the voting age to 16 may or may not boost the percentage turnout that has steadily declining since 1992.

A more interesting way forward here might have been to announce a further pilot project on electronic voting, or, God forbid, reform of the electoral system itself.

But on the plus side, holding US-style hearings on key public appointments like the Governorship of the Bank of England is surely an idea whose time has come.

And by giving up the power to appoint bishops, Mr Brown has moved to address one of those peculiar British anachronisms that somehow seem to survive all attempts at modernisation.

For me, though, the most disappointing aspect of the package was the rather dismissive air that the new Prime Minister adopted towards the plight of four fifths of the UK population – the English.

Mr Brown was right to say that the Tory proposal of “English votes for English laws” makes little sense, but neither does the current status quo of Scottish votes for English laws.

An English Constitutional Convention to examine ways of tackling the English democratic deficit is the obvious way forward, and it is disappointing that Mr Brown hasn’t established one.

He did announce the creation of Commons select committees for each of the English regions – but if he sees this as the way of rebalancing the constitution in the wake of Scottish and Welsh devolution, he is in for a rude shock.

Don’t get me wrong – the committees are a positive step, and together with the dedicated regional ministers, should ensure that issues of regional importance are taken more account of at Westminster.

But essentially, they are a means of helping to address regional economic inequalities, no more.

What they are emphatically not is an answer to the so-called West Lothian Question – namely why do Scottish and Welsh MPs still have a say over English-only issues when the reverse is no longer the case?

And I cannot help worrying that Mr Brown is getting into regionalism at just such a time as people are starting to think less about regional identity and more about Englishness.

What, briefly, of the rest of the week’s events? Well, Health Secretary Alan Johnson’s announcement of a moratorium on further NHS restructures will certainly help restore staff morale.

And giving local people in cities like Newcastle and Sunderland more say over council budgets is further proof of the new government’s determination to devolve power.

Attention over the past couple of days has focused on Mr Brown’s rather lacklustre performance at his first Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday - but that was never going to be his strength.

Launching a serious and policy-rich agenda was. And on that score, he is so far delivering.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Genesis 070707

As a Derby County fan with Arsenalesque tendencies, Old Trafford is not somewhere I would normally frequent, but I'm making an exception tomorrow for the return of Genesis to live performance after a break of 15 years. I've followed the band through thick and thin since the 1970s, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that for most of that time they've been the most deeply unfashionable band in the world.

Like most of the "old" fans, I'll be hoping for a fair bit of "old" stuff tomorrow, and with the re-releases of the 1976-82 material currently on the market, that's a distinct possibility!

Of course, this tour featuring the Banks - Collins - Rutherford line-up is being viewed by many as merely a curtain-raiser for the long-awaited reunion of the "classic" 1970-75 line-up incorporating Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett, rumours of which continue to persist among the Genesis online community.

Be that as it may, I'll be making the most of the chance to see musical heroes live once again tomorrow, rain or no rain!

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Brown and the Church

It was always clear that Gordon Brown's first big political initiative as Prime Minister was likely to be in the area of "trust," for the simple reason that it is the loss of trust in politics, and specifically in New Labour, that forced his predecessor out of office before his time and threatens to force him out of office at the next election unless he can tackle it.

So the constitutional reform proposals announced by Mr Brown yesterday have to be seen in that light. The underlying message was not "I am a political anorak who sits up at night worrying about how to change our system of government," but simply "I am not like Tony Blair."

To that extent, I think it succeeded in its aim and I look forward to what else comes forward - particularly on the "English/West Lothian Question" which was rather dismissively glossed over. But for now, I want to focus on one specific proposal, namely ending the Prime Minister's role in the appointment of Bishops.

The question of the relationship between Church and State has always been a vexed one, and Tony Blair's answer on this at his final PMQs when he told the Lib Dem MP Richard Younger-Ross that he was "really not bothered" about it was as spectacularly disingenuous as anything he said in office.

In fact Mr Blair was deeply bothered about the church-state relationship during his time as premier. On at least two occasions, he used his Prime Ministerial power to promote his own brand of muscular Christianity, appointing James Jones to the Bishopric of Liverpool within months of coming to office, and making Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury in the belief that he was the man to bring about a spiritual revival.

He wasn't the only recent Prime Minister to take a keen interest in church affairs. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher famously rejected the church's preferred candidate for Canterbury, John Habgood, and chose the second name on the list, George Carey. Ironically this turned out to be a smart move as Habgood was an exponent of the wishy-washy liberalism which is slowly driving the CoE into the ground.

Under Brown's proposals, the Prime Minister would be presented with only one name, selected by the church's own appointments commission, which he would then recommend to the Queen. I am not sure however that letting the church effectively elect its own leaders makes any more sense than letting politicians chose them. Some sort of independent scrutiny would still, in my view, be required.

On the whole I think Mr Brown is right to want to give up the power - but the question of who or what he gives it too is a matter that needs further careful thought.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

That Lib Dem reshuffle in full

Sarah Teather demoted, David Laws promoted. David Heath and Simon Hughes swap jobs. Er, that's it.

Seriously, it is high time Ming reshuffled himself. His credibility is shot to pieces over the Ashdown/Williams job offers, his support in the south is already under threat from Cameron's Liberal Toryism - and now Gordon Brown has stolen one of the key raisons d'etre of the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties over the past 30 years - the fact that they were the only ones committed to a thoroughgoing reform of our constitution and system of government.

At the last election, there were three other good reasons for voting Lib Dem - the fact that they had far and away the most decent of the three main party leaders in Charles Kennedy, their progressive taxation policies which would have benefited most hard-working families while making the absurdly rich pay a little bit more, and their opposition to the war in Iraq.

But Kennedy has gone, so have the progressive taxation policies, and Iraq won't be the defining issue in British politics forever. I am at a loss to know where on earth the Lib Dems go from here - and more importantly, so is Ming.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Will Cruddas rue the day he turned down Gordon Brown?

Thirty years ago, a talented young Labour backbencher by the name of Neil Kinnock was offered a job as a junior education minister in Jim Callaghan's government. He turned it down, and some thought he would see out his career as a member of the left-wing awkward squad alongside the likes of Denis Skinner and Willie Hamilton. Instead, six years later he was leader of the Labour Party.

Last week, the talented backbencher Jon Cruddas, who came a creditable third in Labour's deputy leadership election, rejected the offer of a government job from Gordon Brown. Explanations vary, but the consensus among Labour-watchers seems to be that Gordon offended his amour propre by not offering him a more senior role.

I supported Cruddas for the deputy leadership, and was glad to have done so. In my opinion he lost the election but won the campaign - much as Kinnock was said to have done in the general election of 1987.

That said, I think he has made a serious mistake by refusing Gordon's offer to join the government, one which, unlike Kinnock, he will come to regret.

I have no doubt that what scuppered Cruddas was Gordon Brown's decision to award the job of party chair, as opposed to Deputy Prime Minister, to the victorious candidate, Harriet Harman. Cruddas was patently running for the job of party chair throughout the election and, had Harman been given the DPM role, the job could still have been his.

Alternatively, he could - and should in my view - have been made Housing Minister having done so much to put the issue of affordable social housing on the agenda during the course of the campaign. But the inexplicable non-promotion of Yvette Cooper meant there was no vacancy in that role.

In the light of these unpalatable truths, Cruddas really should have swallowed hard and accepted whatever he was offered - apparently a Labour vice-chairmanship reporting to Harman coupled with a regional ministerial brief.

But he walked away from the opportunity to serve a Prime Minister who is currently carrying all before him, and having turned down Gordon once, I personally think it is unlikely he will be asked again.

So what now for Cruddas? Well, the Kinnock parallel is again instructive. Had Labour won the 1979 general election, it is inconceivable that the Welshman would have become party leader in 1983. Denis Healey would have inherited, and eventually the leadership would have passed to a right-winger like Roy Hattersley or John Smith.

In other words, it was Labour's defeat that allowed Kinnock to come to prominence in the early 1980s, as a fresh face untainted by association with what, at that time, was a much-reviled administration.

In the same way, if Jon Cruddas is to remain a major figure in the Labour movement, and if his critique of New Labour is to retain any potency, it will almost certainly require Gordon Brown to fail in his mission to renew Labour in office and secure that unprecedented fourth term.

Is Cruddas really playing for such high stakes? Or has he simply allowed his pride to get the better of him?

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The Junior Reshuffle

Understandably, perhaps, in view of the events of the weekend, there has been very little MSM comment on the junior ministerial reshuffle besides this piece in Saturday's Indy. Which is a shame because for the political anoraks among us, the Full List of HM Government always provides plenty to chew on.

One appointment that has predictably already led to some lively debate on the blogosphere is that of Tom Watson to the whips' office. Watson left a comment on Guido Fawkes' blog last year stating that he would never return to government. In retrospect it is now clear he was taking the piss, but Guido, who took his original comments at face value, has now described Watson as "the most mendacious shit in the House of Commons."

All good fun...but the serious political point here though is that Watson has been brought back to his former role, as opposed to being promoted as undoubtedly would have happened had he not involved himself in the September 2006 "coup." This suggests to me that Gordon Brown is determined neither to punish nor reward those who forced Tony Blair to name the date for his departure, and is instead taking the very wise course of letting bygones be bygones.

Incidentally I did expect to see another of Watson's co-conspirators, Kevan Jones, joining the whips' office too - but with fellow North-East MPs Nick Brown and Alan Campbell already there, perhaps Gordon was worried about prompting accusations of a Geordie Mafia.

Inevitably, there are a few retreads - Jane Kennedy who previously resigned as a health minister on a point of principle, Joan Ruddock and Michael Wills to name three - but nowhere near as many as might once have been predicted. There are no comebacks as yet for such Brownite loyalists as Nigel Griffiths and Doug Henderson, for instance.

The most surprising retention to my mind is that of Margaret Hodge, who was thought to be living on borrowed political time after a series of highly damaging accusations about her time as leader of Islington Council. David Lammy, once ludicrously talked-up by The Sun as "The Black Blair," also lives to fight another day.

In terms of those now poised one rung below Cabinet rank, Blairite quartet Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy, Jim Knight and Pat McFadden all look well-placed. But Caroline Flint, tipped by many for Cabinet this time round, moves sideways and with Yvette Cooper and Beverley Hughes above her in the Cabinet wannabes pecking order, her career may now have peaked.

The list is also notable for one figure who is not on it - Jon Cruddas who apparently rejected a job offer. That is a subject deserving of a separate post which hopefully I will get around to later today or tomorrow.

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