Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gordon's dilemma

As promised, here's my Labour conference round-up as published in this morning's Newcastle Journal, together with some further reasons why Gordon shouldn't risk it.


Early in his speech to the Labour Party conference on Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropped what, in normal times, I would have interpreted as a clear hint that he was not going to call an autumn election.

He said: “When people ask me: ‘Would you recommend this job to anyone else?’ I reply: “Not yet’.”

Those two little words “not yet” would ordinarily have been a dead giveaway. But these are not normal times, and that was not the spin that was being applied in Bournemouth.

Instead, Brown’s closest allies – notably Schools Secretary Ed Balls – have spent the week pointedly refusing to dampen the election fever, and on occasions, actually stoking it.

Soon, the waiting will all be over. In the next ten days or so, possibly sooner, Mr Brown will have to decide whether to go for it, or kill the speculation by ruling out an election for the foreseeable future.

Having made clear my view some weeks ago that he would not call one, it could be egg-on-face time for yours truly - but that comes with the territory for a political pundit.

My underlying reasoning hasn’t changed – that the public doesn’t really want an election now, and that Mr Brown will struggle to increase Labour’s majority beyond 66.

I still hold to that view. But it is beyond dispute that, in the course of the past week or so, the thinking at the top of the Labour Party has shifted in the direction of an early poll.

Monday’s speech, on the face of it, didn’t sound like an electioneering one. There was no political knockabout, and the other party leaders were not even mentioned by name.

With its strong religious overtones and frequent references to his early life in Kirkcaldy, it came over more as a personal credo, a statement of what makes Mr Brown the man he is.

But at another level, the speech was deeply political. Although David Cameron was not mentioned by name, there can be no mistaking the fact that he was its prime target.

Not only did the speech see Mr Brown continuing to crawl all over the Tories’ traditional territory, it also presented an antidote to Mr Cameron’s “broken society” rhetoric.

Over the past year, the Tory leader has based his whole strategy on the premise that social issues, rather than economics, will be uppermost in the voters' minds come the next election.

But on Monday, Mr Brown made clear that he is quite happy to fight on that ground, setting out his own distinct vision of the kind of society he wishes to create over the coming years.

Of course, it would not have been New Labour if it had not been stuffed full of re-heated policy announcements.

To take one example, my wife, who recently gave birth to our second child, is already in the middle of the nine months' paid maternity leave that Mr Brown “announced” on Monday.

But what was both new and potentially devastating for the Conservatives was the way in which Mr Brown weaved such initiatives together in a convincing overall narrative of his government's moral purpose.

It was this moral dimension which provided the common thread between policies which might otherwise appear to have come from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

So for instance, the Prime Minister spoke of his desire to ensure that young people from low income families will no longer have to pay to go to university – an ideal that might be said to be rather leftish in nature.

At the same time, he espoused supposedly “right wing” ideas such as ensuring that immigrants who sell drugs or carry guns will be thrown out and shops that sell alcohol to under-18s closed down.

So if the speech was, by common consent, judged a success, why do I still think Mr Brown shouldn’t call an election?

Well, one factor that has received little discussion in the national press thus far concerns regional disparities in voting patterns, and the fact that there is no longer any such thing as a uniform national swing.

I would confidently predict, for instance, that in the North-East, Labour will do better in terms of its overall share of the vote under Mr Brown than it did under Mr Blair in 2005.

But with 28 out of 30 seats in the region already in the bag, that will not be a lot of good to him if Labour’s vote falls slightly in London and the Midlands, where there are many more Tory-Labour marginals.

The real hot chestnut for Mr Brown here is his own backyard of Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is still riding high following its success in May’s devolved elections.

Scotland, even more so than the North-East, is Labour’s real powerbase, and the loss of 10-20 seats there would make it nigh-on impossible for Mr Brown to increase his overall parliamentary majority.

In other words, polls showing Labour leads of up to 11pc do not by any means tell the full picture, and may even present a highly misleading one.

Thursday night’s by-election result in Sunderland, which saw the Tories winning a seat from Labour on a 3.7pc swing, may be no more reliable as a national indicator – but at least those were real votes.

At the start of the week, it was still possible to believe that the election talk was merely a tactic, designed both to wind up the Tories and keep the left on their best behaviour.

It seems to have gone beyond that now. Plans are being laid, staff recruited, loyalist ministers like Barbara Follett given the green light to speculate openly.

If Gordon does go for it, I would rate it the biggest political gamble since Margaret Thatcher despatched the Falklands task force in 1982 – one which could either lead on to glory, or career-ending humiliation.

Get it wrong, and Mr Brown’s long-awaited first annual conference speech on Monday will also prove to have been his last.

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And here's who I voted for....

Now that the Great List has finally been published, here's a reminder of who I voted for, with their positions in Iain Dale's poll in brackets.

1 Political Betting (5)
2 Iain Dale's Diary (1)
3 Liberal England (53)
4 Bloggerheads (57)
5 Benedict Brogan (14)
6 Chicken Yoghurt (29)
7 Guido Fawkes (2)
8 Dizzy Thinks (3)
9 UK Daily Pundit (79)
10 Skipper (105)
11 Rachel From North London (49)
12 Tom Watson (22)
13 Nick Robinson (8)
14 Mars Hill (87)
15 Little Man in a Toque (88)
16 Nether-World (277)
17 Obsolete (195)
18 ConservativeHome (4)
19 Kate's Home Blog (Not listed in Top 500 - shame!)
20 Newer Labour (73)

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Friday, September 28, 2007

18th place

My copy of the Guide to Political Blogging 2007 arrived on my doormat today and I am very pleased to see that this blog is still rated among the UK's Top 20 political blogs, as chosen by 500 readers of Iain Dale's Diary.

Although my 18th place represents a drop of eight places from last year, when I was placed 10th, I am actually pretty chuffed just to stay in the Top 20 as the past 12 months have not been easy ones in terms of maintaining the work-life-blog balance.

I was also placed fourth in the "media blogs" category behind Nick Robinson, Spectator Coffee House and Ben Brogan, and while it is gratifying to be named in such illustrious company, I do have a slight issue with this categorisation.

No doubt it was an innocent mistake, but unlike Nick, Ben, and the Spectator boys and girls, whose blogs are essentially adjuncts to their print or broadcast journalism, I am no longer a full-time journalist and the political columns I write for two regional newspapers are not my main source of income.

Update: The full list of the top 300 blogs can now be viewed over at Iain's place.

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The perils of political punditry

Having said on more than one occasion that Gordon Brown would not call an election this autumn, it's looking increasingly like it could be egg-on-face time for me if Gordon decides to go for it over the course of this weekend.

That said, it looks like I am in good company. As BBC political editor Nick Robinson admits on his blog today, he himself initially described talk of an early election as tosh.

I took the view I did because I do not believe that the public wants an election at this stage, and that against that backdrop Brown will struggle to increase Labour's majority beyond 66. I still hold to that, and agree wholeheartedly with Guido that 3.5 - 1 against the Tories being the largest single party represents good value at the moment.

I'll be saying a bit more about why in my weekend column which will will be posted here tomorrow after it has appeared in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The election: what Gordon should do.

I don't know whether Gordon Brown is going to call an autumn general election, and if the amount of bet-hedging and fence-sitting going on in Bournemouth amongst my former colleagues is anything to go by, neither does anyone else. In this post, however, I set out my admittedly rather idealistic view of what I think he should do.

We already know enough about Gordon's plans for his premiership to know that constitutional reform - what he termed democratic renewal in his speech on Monday - is going to figure highly. In his speech he gave us one specific commitment, namely to an elected House of Lords, but I am sure there will be more to come.

Mr Brown has also made it clear, in his inaugural Commons statement back in July, that he sees divesting himself of power as a part of that agenda, for instance, the right to declare war or appoint bishops.

Well, writing in today's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland identifies another such reform that is now urgently required - the introduction of fixed-term parliaments and the end of the Prime Ministerial power to go to the country as a time of maximum advantage.

Freedland says in his piece: "British elections are running races in which one of the contestants get to fire the starting gun. So when Gordon Brown finally names the date, let him also vow to be the last Prime Minister to exercise that privilege."

My only criticism of Freedland here is that he doesn't quite go far enough. Were Brown to follow his advice to the letter, he would still be free to decide the election date at a time of maximum advantage to Labour while seeking to deny that power to his successors, which would be rightly viewed by the public as a monumental hypocrisy.

Brown should therefore announce that there is going to be no election this autumn, that he will legislate in the forthcoming session for the introduction of fixed term four-year parliaments, and that in the spirit of this, there will not be another general election until May 2009 - four years after the last one.

I personally think the public would thank him for sparing them an unnecessary trip to the polls, but even if he were to lose, and had to spend the rest of his life listening to people saying "you should have gone in autumn 2007," his place in history as one of the great reforming premiers would be absolutely assured.

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How I wish I'd been there....

My conferencing days are well and truly over and I rarely find myself feeling wistful about the annual booze-sodden seaside jaunts...but I would have paid good money to watch Blair-worshipping policy wonk Darren Murphy fall over unaided during a late-night bar-room contretemps with arch-Brownite Ian Austin, as reported by Hugh Muir in today's Guardian Diary.

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This is getting silly

As if political cross-dressing had not gone far enough in recent weeks, with Dave trying frantically to be like Tony but not Maggie, and Gordon trying frantically to be like Maggie but not Tony, we now have the spectacle of Norman Tebbit simultaneously lionising Gordon and rubbishing Dave.

Surely all we need now to complete the circle is for Tony Benn to hail Cameron as the new, authentic voice of democratic socialism.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The next leadership race starts here?

When I first spotted this post on Ben Brogan's blog earlier today I initially thought it was a bit frivolous of him to start speculating about leadership "beauty contests." But in fact Brogan has a very good point.

Despite Gordon Brown's current dominance of the political scene, it should not be forgotten that this could easily be both his first and last conference as Labour leader.

As Brogan points out: "If Brown listens to the hotheads, goes for November, and gets it wrong, we really will be looking for a change candidate."

So just for the sake of argument - and because no party conference would be complete without a bit of leadership speculation - who might that candidate be?

Well, as Iain Dale notes, frontrunner David Miliband has just bored the delegates into slumber for the second year running, although the content of his speech today was largely spot-on.

Brogan himself speculates that energetic Ed Balls could emerge as a runner, although I have long believed that his wife, Yvette Cooper, is really the more talented politician in the Balls household.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson would certainly stand, but at 56 may be considered too old for a gruelling four or five years of opposition before he would have a chance to unseat Prime Minister Cameron in 2011/12.

In my view, the dark horse could well be Jacqui Smith, who has made a great start as Home Secretary and has impeccably New Labour credentials. It will be interesting to see how her speech goes down later in the week.

On a related point, does anyone know why Brown moved the leader's speech to Monday? I guess he must have had his reasons but it's turned the whole of the rest of the conference into a largely meaningless anticlimax.

The conference always tailed off after Tuesday, but I reckon that the extra day's build-up to the old Tuesday afternoon slot was worth at least an extra day's front-page headlines for Labour.

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A bad omen?

Not sure if anyone else has spotted this yet.....but who was the last party leader to use the words "I won't let you down" during his inaugural conference speech?

Answer: It was Charles Kennedy, at the Lib Dem conference in Harrogate, in 1999.

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Huhne not so ghastly after all

A friend has drawn my attention to this Diary piece in the Times last week in which Matthew Parris withdrew his unsubstantiated slur against "the indefinably ghastly Chris Huhne" published during the Lib Dem leadership contest in February 2006.

Long-standing readers may recall I was fairly critical of Matthew for this at the time and to his credit, he acknowledges as much, saying in his piece: "A noted blogger, Paul Linford, took me to task for this - with justice."

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Brown's moral society

He didn't once mention him by name. But make no mistake, David Cameron was the real target of this afternoon's big speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

For weeks, Cameron has been banging on about the "broken society," rightly calculating that social issues, rather than economics, will be uppermost in the voters' minds come the next general election, and believing this will give him the crucial advantage over a Prime Minister still perceived by some as no more than a dour financial manager.

Well, in this afternoon's speech, Brown made clear that if that's where Cameron wishes to stage the election battle, he will be there waiting for him. For this was a speech that was, more than anything, about society - and about Brown's vision of the kind of society he wishes to create over the next few years.

In policy terms, much of it was not new. To take one example, my wife is already in the middle of the nine months' paid maternity leave Brown re-announced this afternoon. But the way he weaved such initiatives together in a convincing overall narrative of his government's moral purpose was both new and potentially devastating for the Conservative opposition.

Central to the speech was Brown's own "moral compass" - something his predecessor was often justifiably accused of lacking. Without being at all preachy about it - New Labour still doesn't officially "do God" - the Prime Minister left no doubt about the importance of his own Christian convictions in determining Labour's future policy direction.

The speech was peppered with Biblical references, from ensuring all children are given a chance to use their gifts (the Parable of the Talents) to his pledge to "honour those who raised us" (the Fifth Commandment.)

This moral dimension is the common thread between, for instance, ensuring that young people from low income families will not have to pay to go to university, and ensuring that immigrants who sell drugs or carry guns will be thrown out and shops that sell alcohol to under-18s closed down.

All in all, I thought it was one of the cleverest leader's speeches I have heard. By not even mentioning the other two parties or their leaders, Brown once again succeeded in presenting himself as a national leader above petty party politicking, the personification of a new style of politics.

Most pleasing to me personally was his announcement that an elected House of Lords would be a Labour manifesto commitment. This is absolutely the right way to proceed with this vexed issue, as it will mean that under the Salisbury Convention, the unelected peers will have no alternative but to vote for their own abolition.

As to the great unanswered question - will there be an autumn general election? - the subliminal message of the speech was, surely, is that Brown is getting on with the job of governing. But at the same time, there are clearly people in Bournemouth who are continuing to stoke up the election talk - which may be real, or may just be a tactic to wind up the Tories and keep the unions and the left on their best behaviour.

It did not, to me, come over as an electioneering speech. But as I am not in Bournemouth and don't know what's being said behind the scenes to those journalists and bloggers who are, I can't be entirely sure that my instincts are correct.

What I am sure of, though, is that Brown knows exactly the ground on which he wishes to fight Cameron, and that he is absolutely confident of success.

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Oborne tells it like it is

I was sadly unable to make last Monday's launch party at the Spectator offices for Peter Oborne's new book The Triumph of the Political Class, but he did send me a copy in the post, for which I was very grateful.

I have not yet had a chance to read it from cover to cover, and when I have done, I will post a full review here, but on opening the book, the following passage from the introduction immediately caught my eye.

"This book is based on my fifteen years' day-to-day experience as a reporter, and more recently political columnist, in the press gallery and lobby of the House of Commons. This is an incomparably privileged job, giving one front-row seats in the great political theatre of the day, as well as intimate access to politicians and their senior staff, many of whom I have come to know extremely well.

"After I had been doing this job for a number of years I started to gain a sense that something was wrong. I noticed that the reports of political events put out to the public through newspapers and the broadcasting media were in large part either meaningless or untrue. As I probed further, I gradually became aware that the conventional narrative structure which is used to give sense and meaning to British politics was extremely misleading.

"Though the public is always told that Tory and Labour are in opposition, that is not really the case. They are led to believe that the Liberal Democrats are an insurgent third party, but that is not the case either. It has come to seem to me that their strongest loyalties are to each other.

"For the greatest part of my time as a political reporter, the most bitter rivalries at Westminster have involved factional conflicts within individual parties rather than collisions of ideology and belief."

This is so close to my own experience of British politics during my time in the lobby as to be uncanny, but then again I have long shared Oborne's general analysis of the state of politics - and political journalism - today.

Although I do not quite buy Oborne's contention that Gordon Brown is as much a member of the "political class" as Tony Blair and David Cameron, I suspect that this, far more so than Alastair Campbell's self-serving Diaries, is the must-read volume for anyone who really wants to know how Britain is governed today.

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Cheers Tim

Just time to say a belated farewell to Tim Henman following his final Davis Cup match on Saturday. Henman will of course be remembered primarily for not winning Wimbledon despite reaching the Semi-Finals on three occasions, but in my view he was a better player than many who did manage to win the prestigious title.

Many believe that Henman just didn't have what it took to win a major. One very senior BBC sports journalist once remarked to me that he thought the man "wasn't right in the head." I just think he was unlucky - for three reasons.

Firstly, he had the rank misfortune to arrive at the top of the game at the same time as the greatest grass-court player of all time, Pete Sampras, who beat Henman twice in the Quarter Finals at Wimbledon and once in the semis. Secondly, the decision by the Wimbledon organisers to reduce the pressure of the balls in an attempt to curb the domination by serve-and-vollery merchants mitigated against Henman's game. And thirdly, and most memorably, he was deprived of his best opportunity to reach a Wimbledon final by the rain in 2001, at a point where he had the beating of Goran Ivanisevic.

Many people seem to view Henman as another Great British Loser in the tradition of Eddie the Eagle Edwards. For my part, I think he was one of the foremost British sporting heroes of the past 15 years.

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Back on the blog

Blog regular MorrisOx noted in a comment on the previous post - and in another over at Iain Dale's Place - that things had gone a bit quiet over here lately and inquired as to whether it was an "enforced absence."

It was, in fact, entirely voluntary. We've been away visiting a few old friends down south and enjoying a much-needed family holiday - our first as a foursome since the arrival of little Clara Eloise back in August.

I am not one of those bloggers who take the view that in order to keep a blog going you have to post something new every day - in any case I wouldn't be able to sustain that in view of my other commitments - so I hope readers will forgive the occasional barren patch.

For the record, I'll be blogging on Brown's big speech later, along with various other sporting and political matters which have caught my interest during my time away.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Who'll win the Cup?

Iain Dale won't be watching the Rugby World Cup - his light-hearted explanation of why brightened up my Saturday morning and is well worth a read - but as a huge fan of the oval ball game I certainly will be tuning in and even writing the occasional blog post on the tournament as it unfolds over the next few weeks.

So what of England's chances? Well, to my mind we've wasted the last four years since winning the 2003 tournament and frankly don't deserve to retain the Webb Ellis trophy. Talented young players capable of making things happen on a rugby field like Ollie Smith, Shane Geraghty and Tom Palmer have ended up on the international scrapheap while limited players like Jamie Noon and Joe Worsley prosper. It's back to pragmatic old England, 1991-style, and not even the introduction of an old rugby romantic like Brian Ashton as coach has changed that.

Of the other home nations, Ireland have gone off the boil of late but with Brian O'Driscoll in the side are capable of anything on their day, the Welsh backs look great on paper but their forwards simply don't cut the mustard, while Scotland are said to be in great physical shape - which they will need to be if they are to get out of a tough qualifying pool which also includes New Zealand.

If they play to their ability, New Zealand ought to win this World Cup comfortably. Against the British and Irish Lions two years ago they were awesome, although it has to be said that Clive Woodward's Lions were very poor. As a huge admirer of New Zealand rugby, and of the Land of the Long White Cloud itself, I wouldn't be displeased with such an outcome.

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So do the Tories really believe in society?

Margaret Thatcher said society didn't exist. Now David Cameron's trying to mend it. No wonder he's so keen to shed the Iron Lady's legacy. This, by and large, is the theme of today's Newcastle Journal column looking back at the week's political developments.


A week ago last Friday, a sudden flurry of excitement went around the Westminster village. Labour MPs were said to be rushing back from holidays, a spate of meetings in Whitehall were allegedly cancelled, and ministers’ diaries were supposedly cleared.

For some, rather excitable pundits, it all added up to one thing: Gordon Brown was about to call Britain’s first autumn general election for 33 years.

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but it didn’t happen, and with the opinion polls now showing David Cameron’s Tories back within touching distance of Mr Brown and Labour, it was never likely to.

The election rumours – recycled on a series of right-wing blogs and even the odd national newspaper – had the definite whiff of an attempt to wind-up the Conservatives. Indeed, over the past week. Mr Brown has done little else.

So on Monday, for instance, we saw the appointments of renegade Tories John Bercow and Patrick Mercer to become government advisers, on services to children with communication difficulties and security issues respectively.

Mr Brown hailed this as an example of the “new politics” of bipartisanship and cross-party co-operation. It was, by contrast, a transparent example of the “old politics” of point-scoring and mischief-making.

Never mind that, a few short months ago, Labour ministers were rushing to condemn Mr Mercer as a racist after some rather injudicious off-the-record remarks about blacks in the armed forces ended up in the papers.

Now he is apparently to be welcomed as the latest occupant of Gordon’s Big Tent. When it comes to putting one over on Mr Cameron, it seems anything goes.

But that was not all. The following day came an even more astonishing piece of chutzpah from the Prime Minister as he answered questions at his monthly press conference – one of the few Blairite presentational innovations to survive the handover.

As former Tory deputy leader Michael Ancram fulminated over Mr Cameron’s betrayal of the party’s Thatcherite legacy, enter Mr Brown to claim that he is the true inheritor of the Iron Lady’s mantle.

Margaret Thatcher, he said, was a "conviction politician" who had "seen the need for change,” adding only the slight qualification that he would have dealt with mass unemployment a bit differently.

It was all a far cry from the 1980s Gordon Brown who lambasted Mrs Thatcher’s handling of the economy, but again, who cares about that when it’s all in the good cause of embarrassing the Tories?

Was there a serious point to these apparently farcical games? Well, I suppose if it demonstrated one thing it was that politics are now starting to return to normal after the phenomenon of the “Brown Bounce” over the course of the summer.

I wrote in last week’s column that the underlying political narrative of the autumn would be whether Mr Cameron could come back, and the early indications are that the answer is yes.

The two main party leaders are now as close in the opinion polls as they are appear close in ideology, dancing an increasingly complex pas-de-deux around the political centre ground in pursuit of that winning advantage.

I would expect that between now and the election there will be more and more forays onto eachother’s ground and stealing of eachother’s clothes as each tries to convince the electorate that he is simultaneously both tougher yet also more caring than the other.

Mischief-making aside, the major issue of substance on which Mr Brown and Mr Cameron locked horns this week concerned the twin themes of young people and citizenship.

The Tory leader said school leavers and those going to college should take part in a voluntary six-week summer programme ranging from charity work to mountain climbing.

Cleverly, he dubbed the initiative a 21st Century version of National Service and claimed it would boost participants' pride in themselves and in Britain.

This was something of a political masterstroke in that it is the kind of thing that will appeal to his right-wing critics while also reaching out to those of a more liberal tendency concerned about social breakdown.

Meanwhile Mr Brown and his energetic Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, were out and about on Thursday seeking the public’s views on how childrens’ lives can be improved.

Mr Balls, whose department now covers children's health, sport, and youth justice as well as schools, says he will use the answers to draw up a “10-year plan” for childrens’ services.

One of the main vehicles for this consultation will be Mr Brown’s so-called “citizen’s juries” in which groups of people will discuss questions such as "How can we keep young people out of trouble?"

The initiative follows a controversial report earlier this year from Unicef, which put the UK at the bottom of a league table of children's well-being among 21 industrialised nations.

What this all demonstrates is that, for the first time in living memory, the next election is likely to be fought around issues other than that of the economy, with the theme of the “the broken society” increasingly to the fore.

Mr Cameron thinks he can make this the Tories’ new big idea. His problem is that, historically, “society,” as opposed to the individual, has been something that Labour people care most about.

Indeed, it was the Tories’ most successful leader of modern times – Mrs Thatcher herself – who famously declared that there was “no such thing as society.”

In the present-day context, that alone would explain why Mr Cameron is so keen for his party to shed its Thatcherite clothes – whatever Mr Ancram and other “blasts from the past” may think.

So can he do it? Can Mr Cameron turn what has historically been one of the Tories’ biggest weaknesses into an electoral strength?

It is audacious, certainly, and it will require a great deal more flesh on the bones before it can be considered a coherent policy - but with rising public concern about social breakdown, the opportunity is there.

Mr Brown, though, has one crucial advantage over his Tory rival as they do battle for the public’s support - that whereas Mr Cameron can merely say, he as Prime Minister can actually do.

He may have passed up what some saw as a good chance to secure his own mandate this autumn. But it is far, far too early to say that such a chance will not come round again.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The true sound of Italia '90

Yes, it's sad about Luciano Pavorotti, and his rendition of Puccini's Nessun Dorma will always send a shiver down the spine, but don't let anyone kid you it was the tune on the lips of England fans in that wondrous footballing summer. That was New Order's World in Motion, the greatest football record of all time from, well, the second greatest Manchester band of all time. It's just a shame the BBC wouldn't let them call it by its original title, E for England!

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Surely, no autumn election now?

Gordon Brown had already been doing his best in his Today Programme inteview today to play down the excitable talk about an October 4 election that appeared on various Conservative blogs last Friday, but surely the announcement that disaffected Tories John Bercow and Patrick Mercer are to become government advisers puts paid to the idea.

Why, you may ask? Hasn't no less a figure than Nick Robinson concluded that that the invitations to join El Gordo's big tent are no more than pre-election mischief-making on the Prime Minister's part?

Well, precisely. Brown claims, contrary to Robinson's analysis, that this really is "the new politics" of bipartisanship and co-operation - but a decision to call a general election would expose the tactic as no more than a transparent attempt to embarass David Cameron.

I have, in any case, made plain my view on more than one occasion that Gordon will not call an election until spring 2008 at the earliest, and readers of this blog seem to agree, with sping 2008 or spring 2009 favoured by 77pc of those who took part in my recent poll.

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End of the podcast show

It made it to 77 episodes - longer than many of the MSM podcasts that were launched in a blaze of publicity a year or two ago - but sadly the Week in Politics podcast is no more. Life has been becoming frantically busy of late and something had to give - but thanks to all those who listened.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Can Cameron bounce back?

My weekly column today looks ahead to the new political season and in particular at the task facing David Cameron as he attempts to claw back the ground lost prior to the summer break.


The political year 2007 thus far has been a year of changing seasons. The underlying narrative of the spring was: Who could stop Gordon – and would David Miliband or anyone else even dare to try?

No-one did, of course, and hence the underlying narrative of the summer became: How high could Brown bounce – and could it persuade him to call an early General Election?

Well, I gave my verdict on that four weeks ago, and though there’s still time for me to be proved wrong, the prevailing wind now seems to be moving firmly in the direction of a poll in spring 2008 or later.

So assuming I am right and we are not moving into immediate pre-election mode, what, then, will be the underlying narrative of the autumn? I think it will be: Can Cameron burst Brown’s bubble?

Whenever that election is held, the Tory leader has much to do between now and then if he is to claw back the ground lost in the weeks and months since the leadership handover transformed Labour’s prospects.

If the events of the past couple of weeks are anything to go by, Mr Cameron is certainly going to give it a try. But the question is, how?

Does he continue to try to reposition his party on the political centre ground, in the face of continued sniping from his grassroots and the risk that his party will appear more and more divided?

Or does he retreat into a “core vote strategy” and face the inevitable accusation from Mr Brown and Labour that, for all his talk of caring Conservatism, the party hasn’t really changed?

On first examination, Mr Cameron’s behaviour over the past month has given succour to those who have called on him to pursue a more traditional Tory agenda focusing on the core issues of Europe, tax, immigration, and law and order.

So on Europe, he has been ratcheting up the pressure for a referendum on the new EU constitutional treaty - with a bit of help from David Blunkett, who seems to have put himself at the head of the first serious backbench rebellion of the Brown premiership.

Knowing quite how big a deal to make of this is a puzzling conundrum for Mr Cameron, given that the opinion polls say quite contradictory things about the European issue.

On the one hand, they say that most people agree there should be a referendum on the wretched treaty, on the other, that people are generally turned off when the Tories start “banging on” about Europe.

Immigration is a similarly double-edged sword. Mr Cameron’s contention this week that immigration had been too high over the past decade appears to be widely shared by the public as a whole.

But at the same time, the floating voters the Tories desperately need to reach appear to be alienated by such talk, suggesting it actually does them more harm than good.

By contrast, as I noted in last week’s column, law and order provides potentially much more fruitful ground for the Tories, with violent crime on the increase and rising concern about the “broken society.”

After ten years in power, Labour is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the charge of failing to be either tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime.

Potentially the biggest potential Tory vote-winner of all, in my view, is Inheritance Tax, which Mr Cameron is keen to abolish in line with the recommendations of the recent party commission on taxation and regulation.

The problem here for the Tory leader was not so much the message as the messenger. Entrusting the job of chairing the commission to the right-wing bogeyman John Redwood was a clear error of judgement.

Nonetheless, scrapping inheritance tax makes such obvious political sense that I would be amazed if Mr Brown does not in some way attempt to purloin this idea sometime between now and polling day.

Once upon a time, it was a tax which affected only the super-rich, but rising house prices coupled with the phenomenon of fiscal drag have pulled more and more of Middle England into its ambit and this is now reaching a critical mass.

So is Mr Cameron pursuing a “core vote strategy?” Many of the people who have been urging such a course on the Tory leader now think so.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential traditionalist website Conservative Home, said this week: “For a lot of us grassroots who have wanted to see this shift, it is beginning to happen.”

A more balanced verdict came from BBC Online’s Nick Assinder, who said the fact that Mr Cameron is now happy to debate such issues is a sign he is trying to reassure worried traditionalists that he really is a Conservative.

“After the best part of 18 months refusing to promise tax cuts, avoiding Europe and immigration and offering a middle-ground, often liberal agenda, that is not about to go unnoticed,” he added.

But to argue that Mr Cameron is seeking to reassure some of his party’s traditional supporters is not, of course, the same as arguing that he is pursuing a “core vote strategy.”

For my part, I think he is simply trying to have it both ways – exactly as Tony Blair did prior to 1997 when he attempted to put together a coalition of “New Labour” and the “heartlands.”

That coalition swiftly broke down after 1997, once Mr Blair’s determination to define himself in opposition to his party’s natural supporters became crystal clear.

But by that time, it didn’t matter. Labour was in power, and those MPs who thought Mr Blair should show more respect for the party’s traditions could effectively be marginalised.

Whether Mr Cameron can pull off the same trick now depends largely on whether he can instil the same sort of internal discipline on his party that Mr Blair managed between 1994-97.

By that point, Labour had become so desperate for power that they were prepared to subjugate all their most cherished values to the pursuit of that quest – and entrust it to someone they knew wasn’t really one of them.

I am far from convinced that the Tories have yet reached this point. Many still seem to believe that if Mr Cameron plays the old tunes loud enough, the voters will be forced to listen.

Keeping such people on board while steering his party towards the political centre ground is a hugely difficult tightrope for Mr Cameron to walk. But walk it he must.

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