Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Brown is his own Chancellor

Who runs the Treasury? asks Ben Brogan a propos of Downing Street's leaking of today's partial U-turn on capital gains tax.

"No one seriously expected the new Prime Minister to surrender all interest in his old department, but recent weeks suggest Mr Brown still has an office there," he says.

I'm not sure Ben or anyone else should be terribly surprised by this. History shows there are two sorts of Chancellors - those who have their own independent powerbase, like Denis Healey, Ken Clarke and Brown himself, and those who owe their power entirely to the Prime Minister, such as Anthony Barber, Norman Lamont, and Mr Darling.

From this list it will be seen that the more successful Chancellors tend to be the former variety, which bodes ill for Mr Darling's tenure. I continue to take the view that Jack Straw would have been a more sensible appointment.

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Is there more to Clegg than meets the eye?

I have to say that Nick Clegg went up in my estimation today after reading this story in which he pledges to lead a public campaign of law-breaking against the Government's ID card scheme.

"If the legislation is passed I will lead a grassroots campaign of civil disobedience to thwart the identity cards programme ... I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will simply refuse ever to register," he said.

Clegg has spent most of this leadership campaign giving progressives like me reasons not to vote for him - all the talk about the Lib Dems needing to stop "looking inward" is really just code for saying the party needs to travel lighter in ideological terms.

But if he really is prepared to become the first party leader in living memory to go to jail for his principles, then perhaps he is not quite the identikit member of the "political class" that on the surface he seems to be.

As I pointed out in my Saturday column last week, Gordon Brown's pretensions to be a champion of "liberty" will be pretty hollow unless he is prepares to reconsider the ID card scheme.

Loath as I am to urge him to nick any more ideas off the Tories, David Cameron's mob have put themselves on the right side of both popular opinion and liberal opinion on this one - two things that rarely seem to coincide.

Of all the crazy ideas put forward during the Blair era, this is the very first that Brown should have dispensed with in his determination to put some distance between him and his predecessor.

By comparison, supercasinos and the law on cannabis are pretty small beer.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Blair's last reshuffle

More fascinating stuff today from Anthony Seldon's new "Blair Unbound" biography currently being serialised in The Times. Today's excerpt reveals he planned to make Charles Clarke Foreign Secretary in his last big reshuffle in May 2006, but was persuaded against it following Clarke's mishandling of the row over the deportation of foreign prisoners.

Seldon goes on to claim that Blair then formulated a plan to give the job to David Miliband, but got cold feet at the last minute before settling on the third choice, Margaret Beckett.

The fascinating question here is why he decided not to promote Miliband, a move which, according to Seldon, Blair himself believed would have "renewed" the government.

Perhaps it would. But what it would also have done, of course, was hugely destabilised the government, in that the appointment to a major office of state of such an obvious potential rival to Gordon Brown for the succession would have been viewed as a declaration of war by the Brownites.

The Brownites would then have pushed harder to get the Prime Minister out, and would quite possibly have succeeded in removing him earlier than June 2007.

Seldon says that Blair decided against Miliband in the end because he had only been in the Cabinet a year, but this doesn't really ring true. I think he decided that the appointment would simply be too divisive, and opted for Beckett as the safe option.

The other interesting counterfactual question is whether, had the debacle over the deportation of foreign prisoners not happened and Clarke gone to the Foreign Office as originally planned, would he have been able to mount a successful challenge for the top job?

What it all goes to show is that, even though the Brown coronation ultimately assumed an air of historical inevitability, it never really was. Any number of circumstances could have led to a different outcome - these are just two of them.

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What should Gordon do?

I had my say HERE and HERE. Now it's the turn of Jon Cruddas, Jon Trickett and Compass.

"One strong aspect of the New Labour project that must be jettisoned is a rather dry economic puritanism which sees work as the solution to every moral and social problem. Clearly, the effective management of the economy is critical and Brown has been brilliant at it.

But a tendency to prioritise the market inverts the principal point of social democracy - to ensure society is the master and that social justice and cohesion are our objectives. Left uncontrolled, the market leads to the growth of inequality and social recession across all classes."

I really couldn't agree more. But the paraphrase contained in the Guardian's headline - "Brown's fightback must be built on a real shift to the left" - doesn't really help matters in my view.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

English Votes by English Laws by just another name

I'm with Gareth Young rather than Iain Dale over the Tories' plans for an "English Grand Committee" as set out in yesterday's Observer.. With all due to respect to the superior intellect of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, this is simply the old policy of English Votes for English Laws dressed up in new clothes.

As Gareth points out on the Campaign for an English Parliament Newsblog, not the least problematical aspect of the proposal is the idea that the Speaker would have to rule on which bills, or parts of bills, were English-only, or English-and-Welsh-only on those areas which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament but not to the Welsh Assembly.

"If, as suggested, it is up to the Speaker to decide what is and what is not English legislation then the impartiality of the Speaker will be compromised. A brief look at Gorbals Mick’s record on impartiality should alert people to the dangers of this. Even if it were up to some higher, or more impartial, authority than the Speaker to designate bills as English-only then it would inevitably cause arguments before the bill is even drafted."

To be fair to Iain Dale, he is a supporter of the CEP and he argues that an English Grand Committee would be a stepping stone towards that eventual aim. Possibly in the longer-term, but I would argue that in the shorter-term, the introduction of further assymetric devolution into the constitution will actually make things worse rather than better, and make it more likely that the end of all this will not be a union of four equal autonomous nations but four wholly independent states.

That said, the distinction between an English Grand Committee and an English Parliament will probably be lost on most voters. The Tories will doubtless get some public support for this, simply for being seen to do something about the problem while Labour continues to bury its head in the sand.

The upside for Labour is that, with the next election not due until 2009, Gordon Brown has 18 months to expose the policy as unworkable, and maybe even to come up with an alternative proposal that is, although if I knew how he could dothat without handing his Scottish heartland over to the SNP lock stock and barrel, I'd probably be sitting in his chair.

Scrapping the Barnett Formula would take much of the current heat out of the issue, but Brown cannot now do that without handing a huge propaganda victory to Alex Salmond. The sensible time to have done it, as he was warned at the time, would have been in 1998/99, when Labour was still reaping the benefit of the devolution dividend.

I have taken a fair amount of mockery down the years for taking an interest in this subject - when my son was born the joke in the Lobby was that he would be fed on Barnett Formula Milk - but I always knew it would become a big political issue one day, and now it has.

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A wider choice, please

Nominations in the Lib Dem leadership contest close on Wednesday, and it seems 99.9pc certain that the party will have a straight choice between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. The distinctions between the two candidates have sharpened over the weekend with Huhne coming out against Trident and Clegg making clear his support for the independent nuclear deterrent. Twenty years on from the infamous Steel-Owen wrangle over defence which wrecked the Liberal-SDP's chances in the 1987 election, it seems the differences within the party over this issue are as strong as ever.

Meanwhile, readers of this blog have been making clear their own view that they would have appreciated a wider choice in this leadership election, as indeed I would. My two polls show Huhne narrowly ahead of Clegg in a head-to-head contest, but well behind Charles Kennedy and Julia Goldsworthy in a notional poll involving all the candidates who previously ruled themselves out.

To say how you would cast your vote between Clegg and Huhne, click HERE. To choose between Vincent Cable, Clegg, Ed Davey, Goldsworthy, Simon Hughes, Huhne, Kennedy, Susan Kramer, David Laws and Steve Webb, click HERE. And if you think I'm paying far too much attention to the Lib Dem contest, please say so in the comments!

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Brown must be bolder

Reviving the constitutional reform agenda was always going to be a central aspect of Gordon Brown's premiership as he seeks to restore public trust in politics following its near-collapse under Tony Blair. But with Labour now lagging behind in the opinion polls after the non-election debacle, he needs to do more than just rehash a set of proposals - albeit worthy ones - that were first unveiled last July.

In particular, he needs to take a fresh look at proportional representation for Westminster. The first-past-the-post system, by encouraging the parties to target their messages at voters in a hundred or so marginal constituencies, has resulted in the effective disenfranchisement of most of the population and thereby increased the public's alienation from the political process.

In addition, if Mr Brown is going to starting banging the drum for "liberty" as he did in his Westminster University speech this week, he must look again at the ID card scheme. As well as being potentially the biggest infringement of individual liberties in this country since rationing, it will also cost an estimated £15bn to implement which most people think could be better spent elsewhere.

More in this vein in my weekly Saturday round-up of the week's political events, which can be read in the Newcastle Journal and HERE.

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A sick society

A society is judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Which is why this story sickened me to the core.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

The top 10 acts of political altruism?

Following on from my Top 10 Political Misjudgements, which looked at political bad calls which adversely affected the careers of those who made them, a number of people have asked whether I could compile a list of acts which, while bad for their perpetrators, actually turned out to be good for the country.

My initital, perhaps rather cynical reply was to doubt that there were actually ten politicians who had been prepared to sacrifice their careers in such a way, but I am open to being proved wrong!

Politaholic, writing on Westminster Wisdom, nominated John Hume, saying:

"I can think of one act of political altruism (or at any rate putting public interest ahead of party interest): John Hume's participation in the Hume-Adams talks. Bringing Sinn Fein into the political mainstream was something from which the SDLP could only lose. I don't think this was a misjudgement: Hume knew what he was doing."

I can think of one other example - Roy Jenkins' decision to rebel against the Labour leadership in 1972 and vote with the Tories in favour of joining the EEC. Readers will have different views as to whether this course of action was good or bad for the country, but ultimately it cost him the Deputy Leadership and the inside track in the race to succeed Wilson.

Are there more examples? If readers can find at least ten, I will duly compile the list based on your nominations.

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Less than bostin Austin

Ian Austin was not someone who endeared himself to the Lobby during my time there. He took over from the great Charlie Whelan but entirely lacked his illustrious predecessor's wit, roguish charm or indeed ability to tell you anything useful, so I naturally enjoyed this piece from the inimitable Simon Hoggart Bill Blanko.

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Oborne on 18DS

If you can't be bothered to read Peter Oborne's masterwork The Triumph of the Political Class, you should at least watch him being interviewed about it by Iain Dale on 18 Doughty Street.

Oborne's analysis of the ills of current-day politics and journalism is spot-on and, in the light of recent events, his bewailing of the tendency of career politicians to come into the House without any previous experience of life is particularly topical.

This point is usually made in relation to people with no experience of running a business. Indeed Dale himself makes that very point in his interview. Oborne however reminds us that it is not just a lack of business experience we are talking about here but a lack of any sort of experience outside of machine politics.

Military experience is a good example. During the latter stages of World War 2, the Allies staged an amphibious landing in the area of Anzio, Italy, intended to outflank the Axis forces and enable an attack on Rome. The Military Landing Officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio was Major Denis Healey, who went on to become possibly our most distinguished postwar Defence Secretary from 1964-70.

My fellow Newcastle Journal columnist, Denise Robertson, recently expressed her frustration at the downgrading of experience as a political virtue with her own characteristic bluntness.

"I thought Cameron had a nerve standing for leader of his party after four years in the Commons. Now Clegg and Huhne are doing it after two, while some Labour ministers look as if they are still shaving their bum-fluff."

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

I've still not made up my mind

In my Saturday column last weekend, which can be read HERE, I set out the dilemma currently facing the Liberal Democrats thus:

"Can they bring themselves to vote for someone whose views they know to be well to the right of their own, in the knowledge that he is the candidate most likely to win them more seats?"

I am still unsure in my own mind what the answer is. So, for that matter, are at least three of the Lib Dem bloggers I have the most respect for - Jonathan Calder, James Graham and Paul Walter.

What I am sure of, as I argued HERE, is that the choice is a very real one which will have repercussions not just for the the Lib Dems but for the whole balance of British political debate.

There was no such dilemma last time round. Up against Sir Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes, Chris Huhne was easily the most right-wing of the candidates, and thus the one most likely to win seats off the Tories. But his views were still identifiably social democratic in a way that Nick Clegg's are not.

My heart still says Huhne. He is much the more centrist of the two candidates, has made clear he is prepared to use the tax system in the cause both of greater equality and a greener environment, and has insisted that proportional representation should remain a precondition of any post-election deal with the other parties.

By contrast, Clegg appears to be the establishment candidate, favoured by the very same numpty MPs who thought replacing Chatshow Charlie with Mogadon Ming would restore the party's fortunes.

Part of me admires his courage in that he is clearly running against his party in this election, but like Matthew Huntbach I have no illusions about what that will mean - that most of the principles the left of the party has most held dear will end up being sold down the river.

So if what was at stake was simply the future of the Liberal Democrats as a progressive, social democratic party, it would be a no brainer: vote Huhne.

But what is at stake goes much wider than that - specifically, the fact that the choice could have very clear implications for how many people end up voting Conservative at the next general election.

If the greater cause of British social democracy requires that David Cameron has to be stopped in order that the governance of this country should continue to reflect the views of its natural centre-left majority, then Clegg is clearly the more sensible choice.

It's a tricky one, isn't it? Maybe you, dear readers, can help me make up my mind by casting your preferences HERE.

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Political misjudgements - the debate continues

It's been great to see so many comments on my Top 10 Political Misjudgements post, and to see the debate about this continuing on other blogs. I have tried to reply to all the points listed below on the blogs concerned.

  • Jonathan Calder of Liberal England questions the assumption that Jim Callaghan would indeed have won a 1978 election had he risked it.

  • Thunder Dragon argues ingeniously that, far from ending his frontline career, it was Powell's Rivers of Blood speech that could have made him a contender for the Tory leadership.

  • Mick Fealty on the Telegraph's new Brassneck blog sees the whole thing as proof of Powell's dictum that all political careers end in failure.

  • Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice asks for nominations for the biggest misjudgement by a Lib Dem politician (since there weren't any in my list.)

  • Gracchi on Westminster Wisdom makes the case for political chaos theory.

    Thanks also to Comment is Free, Tim, Rupa, Some Random Thoughts, Vino S, Guido and of course Iain for linking - I'll leave you to guess which one was responsible for the most traffic!

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  • A siren Lib Dem voice?

    "In particular, I find merely for raising concern about the way Britain is becoming more economically divided, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, I’m getting dismissed as some old style lefty who shouldn’t really be in the party by Clegg supporters. Well if that’s what you lot are really like, it’s bye-bye Liberal Democrats from me if Clegg wins. I wish I hadn’t bothered with all the work I put in helping to turn Lewisham from a LibDem black hole into an area where we’re now seriously considering winning at Parliamentary level."

    - Matthew Huntbach, commenting on Lib Dem Voice.

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    Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    Obviously sound judgement

    MPs who supported Ming Campbell in the 2006 Lib Dem leadership election:

    Danny Alexander
    Norman Baker
    John Barrett
    Tom Brake
    Colin Breed
    Jeremy Browne
    Malcolm Bruce
    Paul Burstow
    Vince Cable
    Alistair Carmichael
    Nick Clegg
    Edward Davey
    Don Foster

    Andrew George
    Julia Goldsworthy
    Nick Harvey

    John Hemming
    Paul Keetch
    Norman Lamb
    David Laws
    Michael Moore
    John Pugh

    Alan Reid
    Dan Rogerson
    Adrian Sanders
    Robert Smith
    Jo Swinson
    Matthew Taylor
    Sarah Teather
    John Thurso
    Jenny Willott

    MPs who are supporting Nick Clegg in the current Lib Dem leadership election:

    Danny Alexander
    Colin Breed
    Jeremy Browne
    Malcolm Bruce
    Alistair Carmichael
    Ed Davey

    Tim Farron
    Don Foster
    Julia Goldsworthy
    Nick Harvey

    Mike Hancock
    Mark Hunter
    Paul Keetch
    Norman Lamb
    David Laws
    Michael Moore

    Greg Mulholland
    Mark Oaten
    John Pugh
    Willie Rennie
    Paul Rowen
    Sir Robert Smith
    Sarah Teather

    Steve Webb
    Stephen Williams
    Phil Willis

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    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    The Top 10 Political Misjudgements

    Ever since Gordon Brown decided not to hold an autumn General Election this year, there has been speculation that it could prove as fatal a misjudgement for him as it did for Jim Callaghan in 1978.

    I myself speculated in a recent column: "The danger for Mr Brown is that his government, like Major’s, is now entering a period of what the Germans would call Gotterdammerung – the twilight of the gods. Far from renewing Labour in office, it could be that his destiny is to spend the next two years fighting back the inexorable Tory tide, while Mr Cameron prepares for his inevitable victory."

    I have already listed my Top 10 political gaffes - so what's the difference between a gaffe and a misjudgement, you may ask?

    Well, it's a qualitative one, really. A gaffe is primarily a one-off mistake, often humorous and with few lasting consequences. The misjudgements listed here, by contrast, are ones that arguably changed the course of history, and certainly adversely affected the careers of those who made them.

    Five of them were mistakes made by Prime Ministers in office which either ultimately brought them down or, as in the case of Harold Wilson, set their governments off on the wrong course. Three were mistakes made by people who went on to become Prime Minister before the said mistakes in question came back to haunt them. Two were mistakes made by people who could easily have become Prime Minister had they not made them.

    And yes, Callaghan is not only at the top of the list, but is the only politician to appear twice....

    1. Jim Callaghan not calling an autumn election, 1978

    What happened: Prime Minister Callaghan ducks out of an autumn 1978 election after private polls show it might result in a hung Parliament. The ensuing Winter of Discontent puts paid to Labour's credibility as a governing party and leads to 18 years of Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state.

    What might have happened: Narrowly re-elected, Callaghan serves for a further three years as Prime Minister before handing over to Denis Healey, who, buoyed by North Sea oil revenues, goes on to establish Britain as a stable, continental-style social democracy. The defeated Margaret Thatcher is replaced by Francis Pym and relegated to a historical footnote as only the second Tory leader of the 20th century not to become Prime Minister.

    2. Enoch Powell playing the race card, 1968

    What happened: Enoch Powell, spiritual leader of the Tory Right, makes a speech about immigration prophesying that the streets of Britain will soon be "foaming with much blood." He is immediately sacked from the frontbench by Ted Heath and becomes a peripheral figure on the margins of British politics, eventually joining the Ulster Unionists.

    What might have happened: After distinguished service as Defence Secretary in the 1970-74 Heath government, Powell successfully challenges Heath for the leadership in 1975 after his two election defeats. Using his supreme oratorical skills to destroy Jim Callaghan at the Despatch Box in the late 70s, he becomes Prime Minister in 1979 at the age of 66, serving for one term before handing over to his faithful protege, Margaret Thatcher.

    3. Tony Blair joining the US-led invasion of Iraq, 2003

    What happened: Tony Blair, the most electorally successful Labour leader in history, gambles his career on joining a US neo-con inspired military adventure to get rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Although militarily successful, it later becomes clear that the public has been duped into supporting the conflict by a tissue of lies, destroying their trust in the Prime Minister.

    What might have happened: Using his world-class diplomatic skills successfully to keep Britain out of a disastrous conflict, Tony Blair is re-elected by a third successive landslide in 2005 and immediately announces his intention to fight a fourth election in 2009. In spring 2007, Gordon Brown accepts the presidency of the International Monetary Fund, and Mr Blair appoints David Miliband as his Chancellor and heir-apparent.

    4. Margaret Thatcher implementing the poll tax, 1987

    What happened: Believing herself to be politically immortal after a third successive election triumph in 1987, Margaret Thatcher decides to implement a 13-year-old pledge to reform the rates. Her decision to introduce a flat-rate tax unrelated to ability to pay sparks off a popular revolt which ultimately sweeps her away.

    What might have happened: Continuing to see-off all pretenders to her crown, sometimes by deliberately over-promoting them as in the case of John Major, Margaret Thatcher secures a fourth term in 1991, albeit by a narrow margin over Labour whose leader Neil Kinnock antagonises some floating voters with his triumphalism. Despite having vowed to go "on and on and on," she serves for only three more years before handing over to her young acolyte, Michael Portillo.

    5. Ted Heath's "Who governs Britain?" election, 1974

    What happened: Prime Minister Heath, his authority under constant threat from union unrest, ups the stakes by calling a general election on the theme of "Who Governs Britain?" The voters respond: "Obviously not you," and deliver a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party. Heath loses a further election the same year before being toppled by Margaret Thatcher.

    What might have happened: Heath delays the election until the following year and trumps Labour's calls for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EEC by calling one himself, and leading the "Yes" campaign. With the two votes held simultaneously, the public votes overwhelmingly in favour of staying in and returns a triumphant Heath to No 10 for a further five years. He is still succeeded eventually by Mrs Thatcher, though.

    6. Harold Wilson not devaluing the pound, 1964.

    What happened: Newly-elected Prime Minister Harold Wilson ignores the good advice of his best economist, Tony Crosland, and decides not to devalue the pound, believing it will merely strengthen the widespread belief among voters and the financial markets that Labour governments always devalue. In 1967, Wilson is forced to devalue, thereby strengthening the widespread belief....

    What might have happened: Knowing that it pays politically to get the bad news out of the way at the start of a government's lifetime, Wilson overrides the objections of George Brown and Jim Callaghan and devalues in 1964. Recovering from this initial hit, Wilson establishes for Labour such a reputation for economic competence that he is twice re-elected, in 1966 and 1970, finally passing the baton in 1972 to his long-serving Chancellor, Crosland.

    7. Michael Heseltine resigning over Westland, 1986

    What happened: Tiring of Margaret Thatcher and her autocratic ways, Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine ignites a row over the fate of a small West Country helicopter company which gives him the excuse to stage a dramatic resignation. But his bid to set himself up as the Tories' king-over-the-water backfires when he is defeated by John Major for the leadership in 1990.

    What might have happened: Remaining studiously loyal to Mrs Thatcher throughout the late 1980s, Heseltine's steadfast support in the face of a bitter attack from Sir Geoffrey Howe is widely-held to have headed-off a potential leadership challenge in 1990. After Thatcher is gently persuaded by the men in white coats grey suits to stand down the following spring, Heseltine's loyalty in allowing the old girl a final lap of honour is rewarded by grateful MPs who elect him leader by acclamation.

    8. Jim Callaghan opposing In Place of Strife, 1969

    What happened: Big Jim takes on Barbara Castle over her plans to curb union power and wins. His gamble in appointing himself as Labour's Keeper of the Cloth Cap appears to pay off when seven years later he wins the leadership, but nemesis awaits in the shape of the still-unreformed unions who sweep away Callaghan's premiership in the Winter of Discontent.

    What might have happened: Capitalising on the public acclaim engendered by his tough stance against the unions, Harold Wilson wins a comfortable victory in the 1970 General Election. Overtaking Asquith's 20th century record of continuous service as PM in 1972, Wilson hands over the leadership to his long-time heir apparent, Roy Jenkins. But tiring of the endless battles with the Labour left, Jenkins quits in 1977 to become President of the European Commission, leaving Callaghan in charge.

    9. John Major entering the ERM, 1990

    What happened: After years of saying "no, no, no" to British membership of the European Monetary System, Margaret Thatcher is finally prevailed upon to enter by her new Chancellor, John Major, at a rate of 2.95DM to the pound. The level proves unsustainable, and on Black Wednesday in 1992, Prime Minister Major is forced to withdraw from the EMS and effectively devalue sterling.

    What might have happened: Siding with Mrs Thatcher against her pro-European Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, Major decides the time is not right (or ripe) for ERM entry. Hurd and Geoffrey Howe resign, precipitating a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine. Thatcher is brought down, but Major emerges as Prime Minister and reaffirms his decision to stay out despite sustained Labour criticism. Two years later, his stance is vindicated and the Tories' reputation for economic competence reinforced.

    10. Gordon Brown not challenging John Smith, 1992

    What happened: Gordon Brown, seen as the natural leader of Labour's modernising faction, declines to challenge John Smith for the party leadership in 1992. Over the ensuing two years, he is eclipsed by his younger rival Tony Blair, and is forced to stand aside in his favour when Smith unexpectedly dies in 1994. Blair goes on to serve for 13 years as leader, ten of them as Premier.

    What might have happened: Brown loses to Smith, but establishes himself as the clear heir apparent. He is elected unopposed in 1994 on Smith's death and become Prime Minister in May 1997, winning again in May 2001 before handing over to Tony Blair after ten years as leader in 2004 as previously agreed between them. Blair goes on to win another landslide for Labour in 2005, but faced by the prospect of a Tory resurgence, embarks on a radical plan to renew the party in office under the banner "New" Labour.

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

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    Monday, October 22, 2007

    Barnett strikes again

    They've abolished tuition fees, introduced free eye care and dental check ups, dualled "their" bit of the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh, handed out extra central heating grants, brought in free personal care for the elderly....and now the Scots are getting rid of prescription charges as well.



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    There is a real choice

    Martin Kettle wrote an excellent piece on Saturday arguing that we should not fall into the trap of believing that there is no real choice to be made between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg for the job of Lib Dem leader because their politics are exactly the same, although it is fair to say his real target here was probably not the Lib Dems but those of us who argued that there was no real choice between his old buddy Tony Blair and the Tories.

    Unfortunately, however, Messrs Clegg and Huhne themselves seem to be doing their best to encourage what Kettle terms this "cynical and disdainful" view of political debate.

    If the two candidates have indeed signed up to a non-aggression pact over policy, it is a particularly daft move on Chris Huhne's part. Huhne is older, greyer, duller and more cerebral. He cannot possibly beat Nick Clegg in a style v style contest, only by presenting it as a battle of style v substance.

    For my part, I continue to believe there are real policy issues at stake in this contest, even if the arguments between the candidates are slightly nuanced. Electoral reform is one such issue.

    This morning, Huhne makes clear that PR for Westminster should remain a pre-condition for any post-election deal with either of the two main parties. By contrast Clegg is on record as having said the Lib Dems should stop banging on about PR, because it "makes people think we are only interested in getting our bums on seats."

    I am not suggesting for a moment that Clegg does not believe in PR for Westminster, just that it clearly isn't as high a priority for him. Given that politics is the language of priorities, it is nonsense to suggest that such differences of emphasis do not matter.

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    Friday, October 19, 2007

    Alan Coren RIP

    Like most News Quiz aficionados I was sorry to hear of the death of Alan Coren, but I can guarantee there is one clip you won't be hearing amid the on-air tributes to him over the next few days.

    On an edition of the Quiz that went out on the morning of Saturday, 30 August 1997, Coren uttered the words: "I don't know a lot about landmines or Princess Diana, but I do know you would be mad to poke either of them."

    Legend has it that, after the Princess's death the following day, a BBC flunkey was despatched on a search-and-destroy mission to ensure that every last copy of the offending tape was safely disposed of.

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    Clegg decoded

    Nick Clegg's campaign launch this morning only served to strengthen my view that he intends to define himself in opposition to his party's traditional supporters, Here are some highlights, with some slightly tongue-in-cheek interpretations from yours truly.

    What he said: "Ming is a man of integrity, honour and decency. Over the years he has also shown himself to be a man of impeccable judgment and extraordinary political courage."

    What he meant: He made the right decision to resign.

    What he said: "Over the last two years or so, the Liberal Democrats have been looking inwards too much."

    What he meant: Don't vote for the candidate whose political views are closer to your own, vote for the one who the press tells you is the biggest vote-winner.

    What he said: "If the Liberal Democrats are to change the tired old pattern of British politics, we are going to have to be bold, we will have to move outside our comfort zone and take greater risks than we ever have before."

    What he meant: I'm going to sell our principles completely down the river.

    What he said: "I want us to extend our reach and broaden our appeal to voters beyond the "Westminster village."

    What he meant: I'm better looking than Chris Huhne.

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    Thursday, October 18, 2007

    Clegg in the driving seat

    There is no disguising the fact that Steve Webb's decision to back out of the Lib Dem leadership contest and back Nick Clegg is a serious blow to Chris Huhne's hopes.

    Webb was to have been the candidate of the social liberal, pro-redistribution wing of the party and had he stood the Huhne camp will have been reckoning on the majority of his votes transferring to their candidate on the second ballot.

    Not only will that not now happen, but Webb is actually signalling that people who would have voted for him should support Clegg, enabling the Sheffield MP to claim that he is the candidate who can unite both wings of the party.

    It's a very shrewd move on Webb's part. He wouldn't have won the leadership, but by backing the candiate most likely to, he has almost certainly earned himself a top-ranking job in Clegg's new Shadow Cabinet line-up.

    My question is whether the social liberals who have decided to back Clegg rather than the more left-leaning Huhne - Julia Goldsworthy is another - will end up getting decidely more than they are bargaining for.

    I think he could well turn out to be a Tony Blair figure in more ways than one, defining himself in oppositon to his party's traditional supporters. Under Clegg, the social liberal agenda could end up as dead a duck as democratic socialism under Blair.

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    Wednesday, October 17, 2007

    Ming for Speaker?

    As the would-be leaders of the Lib Dems prepare to launch their campaigns, what next for Sir Menzies Campbell? BBC Online's Nick Assinder reckons he could be in the running for the job of Speaker of the House of Commons, reminding us that he stood once before, in the shambolic 12-cornered contest from which Gorbals Mick emerged in 2000.

    For my part, I can't see it happening. After two Labour Speakers on the trot, the Tories will rightly regard it as "their turn" and would view any attempt to shoehorn Campbell into the job as some sort of consolation prize from his old mate Gordon Brown.

    It is also extremely unlikely that Labour MPs could be persuaded to vote for Ming in large numbers, given that many of them hate the Lib Dems with even more of a vengeance than they hate the Tories.

    Personally, I would have loved the next Speaker to have been Ann Widdecombe, but she's stepping down from the Commons at the next election. I wonder if Ken Clarke would be interested?

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    Hobson's Choice

    "As a Labour activist, I can say that, should a future leadership election come down to a choice between either of the Miliband brothers or Ed Balls, I would feel like a man on a liferaft confronted with a choice between drinking seawater or his own urine."

    - Reader comment left on Ben Brogan's Blog earlier today.

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    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    Whither the Lib Dems?

    Back in February 2006, having unceremoniously knifed their most successful leader in 80 years amid lurid and unsubstantiated tales of heavy drinking sessions and soiled underpants, the Lib Dems had a chance to make a fresh start under a new leader from the younger generation of MPs.

    Chris Huhne stood in that election as the change candidate, putting forward a clear and compelling message which combined economic credibility with strong social justice and environmental credentials. Instead, the party opted for the "safe" option of Sir Menzies Campbell.

    It was a mistake, and some of us said so at the time. That said, having put its trust in Ming to lead them up to the next election - then, as now, expected in 2009 - the party ought to have had the decency to stand by him.

    A party which chops and changes its leaders cannot expect to be taken seriously by the electorate, and increasingly, this seems to be the Lib Dems' fate.

    Having backed Huhne last time, it would seem logical for me to do so again, but given that this is unlikely to be a generational contest in the way that one was, I think the arguments are slightly less clear-cut this time round.

    Over the ensuing 18 months, Huhne seems to have become unfairly categorised as a "left" candidate who reaches out more to Labour voters than to Tory ones. I am not at all sure that this is true, but he needs to overcome that perception if he is to put himself forward as a plausible leader at this particular juncture.

    It would not in my view send out the right strategic message were the party to appear more interested in outflanking Labour at this stage. In terms of defending their key marginals in the south, and maybe even building on that base next time round, the Lib Dems need to choose the person who is going to cause maximum difficulties for the Tories.

    There seems to be a common consensus that this would be Nick Clegg, although I personally am far from convinced by him. As someone said on this blog last week: "He was impressive as an MEP but since arriving at Westminster has given off an air of dessicated self-satisfaction" - another way of saying he just assumes the job is his by right.

    For my part, I'd like to see a slightly wider choice of candidates. Julia Goldsworthy is bright, telegenic, and female, and 28 years after Margaret Thatcher became Premier it's high time we had another woman at the top of British politics. And David Laws, not Clegg, is the real intellectual engine of the "Orange Bookers" and deserves a crack at the top job.

    But it is a sad fact about the Lib Dems that most of their most able figures have their best days behind them. By far the most impressive and substantial figures in their ranks are Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams, while Vince Cable is head and shoulders above the rest of the MPs, even though yesterday he looked like a mafia boss telling us that Ming was sleeping with the fishes.

    Either way, I hope for the Lib Dems' sake that whoever wins is granted the automatic loyalty that the party's leaders used to merit and allowed to fight at least two elections as both Ashdown and Charles Kennedy were. That is how they used to do things in the Lib Dems in the days when they were successful, instead of giving a poor impersonation of the nasty party.

    British politics needs a successful Liberal Democrat party. It is high time it got its act together.

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    Monday, October 15, 2007

    Is it all over for Ming?

    Well, if this story is anything to go by, yes. But what a truly witless bunch of people the Lib Dem parliamentary party is.

    In January 2006, they got rid of Charles Kennedy knowing that his successor would almost certainly be Ming Campbell. Indeed some of those who signed the no confidence letter that brought Kennedy down were already pledged to support Ming in the ensuing contest.

    Now, less than two years on, they apparently want to get rid of Ming as well, on the grounds that he will probably be 68 by the time of the next election. But shouldn't they have thought of that when they elected him?

    Before all this Gordon Brown snap election nonsense was even a twinkle in Dougie Alexander's eye, it was overwhelmingly likely that the next election would be in 2009 and that Ming would therefore be, er, 68 at the time of it. Whatever it is the Lib Dems now stand for, it's certainly not loyalty.

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    Sunday, October 14, 2007

    The sincerest form of flattery

    "To my mind, Sir Menzies Campbell delivered the most coherently argued speech of the conference season. He also had the wittiest line with his joke about Dave wanting to be Tony but not Maggie, Gordon wanting to be Maggie but not Tony and Menzies being happy being Menzies."

    - Andrew Rawnsley, in The Observer, Sunday 14 October.

    "His conference speech in Brighton was easily the best of the season, and even contained the best joke - the line about Dave wanting to be Tony but not Maggie, and Gordon wanting to be Maggie but not Tony, and Ming not wanting to be any of them."

    - Yours truly, on This Blog, Tuesday 9 October.

    Pleased to be of service, Andrew - as ever.

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    We're in the final now, you know

    Well played the lads. And apologies from all those who doubted you.

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    The twilight of the Gordon?

    The Germans have a word for it - Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. Is Gordon Brown now in that place? More on this theme in my weekly column HERE.

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    Friday, October 12, 2007

    What next for Gordon?

    What can Gordon Brown do to regain the political initiative following this week's catalogue of disasters? Here's a few suggestions from a candid friend.

    1. Hold a referendum on the EU Treaty. He will lose, but now it's effectively de-coupled from the election, that doesn't matter as much, and the voters will give him credit for implementing a manifesto pledge. It might also help combat some of those "bottler" taunts and - crucially - draw some of the sting from the Tories' current popularity.

    2. End political cross-dressing. If the last week has shown Mr Brown anything, it's surely that there's no real advantage to be gained from apeing the Tories when voters can just as easily choose the real thing. He needs to set out a "vision" which is distinctively and authentically his, not George Osborne's.

    3. Introduce a bill for four-year fixed term Parliaments, and announce that the next election will be held on the first weekend in May, 2009. Giving away his power to determine the election date would be seen by the voters as something of a mea culpa for having got things so badly wrong this time.

    4. Launch an all-out assault on inequality. The chickens of three decades of selfish capitalism are beginning to come home to roost for our society. Mr Brown needs to acknowledge that and start to formulate policies that will heal the growing divide between haves and have nots in terms of both income and assets.

    5. Tackle the problem of "fiscal drag." Rising average wages have trapped millions of middle-income earners in the marginal tax bracket between 20pc and 40pc. The 40pc threshold needs to be dramatically increased, with a new higher rate of tax imposed on, say, incomes over £250,000 a year.

    6. Take a fresh look again at proportional representation with a Speaker's Conference on the electoral system. If, as seems quite likely to me, the next election produces a hung Parliament, the next government may need to do this anyway, so why not make Labour's intentions clear in advance?

    7. Start to implement the "new localism." Restoring trust in politics will require a huge devolution of power to localities and communities, including giving people locally more power over their own taxes. New localism needs to move from being a trendy political catchphrase to a meaningful reality.

    8. Add some ballast to the Cabinet. Three months ago, the new Cabinet looked fresh and young. Now with Labour under the cosh they just look raw and inexperienced. He should consider bringing back Alan Milburn for his bright ideas (eg on social mobility) and Margaret Beckett for her cool authority.

    9. Move Damian McBride, who did most of the election spinning, to other duties and make it clear he can do without a personal spin doctor in No 10. Rely on his civil servants for advice rather than "Brown Central" and make good his original pledge to announce things to Parliament first.

    10. Make damned sure that whenever our boys in Iraq finally come home, it's before 1 May 2009.

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    Deep Fried Kelvin

    "I think Kelvin Mackenzie is a raving lunatic, I think he's a complete idiot and a racist idiot at that"

    Very well said, Duncan Bannatyne.

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    Harman's hollow pledge

    This is a complete non-story and I'm surprised BBC online is leading the politics page with it given the short shrift it got from David Dimbleby on Question Time last night.

    As I have previously said on Ben Brogan's blog, the idea of giving MPs the right to vote on a dissolution - first floated in GB's big constitutional statement in July and now being talked up by Harman - is meaningless.

    If a Prime Minister were to come to the House to request a dissolution, he would be virtually guaranteed the support of every MP. No MP from his own party would be likely to defy him, while no opposition party MP would be likely to vote against for fear of appearing "frit."

    I suspect Labour are trying to spin this as some sort of sop to the fixed-term Parliament debate. But it is not an alternative to fixed term Parliaments and should not be seen as such.

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    Has House of Cards had a few lines cut?

    Great to see House of Cards again on the box (BBC4) this week - but I had an odd feeling watching last night's concluding episode that the Roger O'Neill death scene in a service station toilet off the M27 had been cut.

    My memory may be playing tricks on me, but in the original I seem to recall O'Neill staggering about for a while with a rather surprised look on his face after the mixture of coke and rat poison disappeared up his nose. Has good old Auntie decided that such scenes are now unsuitable for adult viewing, even on a digital channel after the 9 o'clock watershed?

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    Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Not Gordon's finest hour

    Amidst the total and utter carnage of today's PMQs, Gordon Brown's decision to give oxygen treatment to a Downing Street petition demanding a General Election has to go down as the silliest move of all.

    The Prime Minister boasted this afternoon that the petition had "only" 26 signatures. At the time of posting, it had 2,437 and rising. Like Ben Brogan, I wonder if we have reached the tipping point.

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    Days of hope

    Iain Dale has been waxing lyrical about his time in student politics at the University of East Anglia and lists Caroline Flint, Mark Seddon, former NUS president Vicky Phillips and Tony Blair aide Jo Gibbons among his contemporaries.

    Luminaries from my own days in student politics at University College London include the well-known psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud, who was chair of Labour Club in 1982, Liz Davies, famously blackballed by Blair from becoming a Labour MP, David Quantick, now a respected comedy writer, Greg Wood, now the Guardian's racing correspondent, and the Tory blogger Croydonian, who doesn't remember me.

    I learned two important lessons during my time in student politics. The first was that I did not want to pursue a political career, and the second was that Tories are generally nicer people than socialists even though I disagree with them most of the time.

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    Hang all republicans says Beefy

    As a lifelong opponent of capital punishment I naturally disagree with the newly knighted Sir Ian Botham about this, but I have to say I find it refreshing to hear a major celebrity standing up for the monarchy without feeling embarrassed about it.

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    Tuesday, October 09, 2007

    What now for Ming?

    Okay, so I never thought he should have become leader in the first place, but I find myself feeling increasingly sorry for Ming Campbell. His conference speech in Brighton was easily the best of the season, and even contained the best joke - the line about Dave wanting to be Tony but not Maggie, and Gordon wanting to be Maggie but not Tony, and Ming not wanting to be any of them.

    But nothing has gone right for Ming since, and the media focus on a potential presidential contest between Gordon and Dave has left him and his party completely marginalised.

    Today the news took a fresh turn for the worse. The latest Populus Poll put his party on 12pc of the vote, while Martin Baxter's acclaimed Electoral Calculus site now predicts the Lib Dems will lose all their seats, although Martin's formula does of course not allow for the "incumbency factor."

    With Gordon now having seemingly put off the election till 2009, by which time Ming will be 68, it now seems a foregone conclusion that he will fall on his sword sometime between now and next spring, to give a new leader a year to bed himself in before the anticipated May 2009 poll.

    If I thought the outcome of all this would be a Chris Huhne leadership, I would be mildly optimistic about the Lib Dems' prospects. But I suspect and fear that the real outcome will be that they choose Nick Clegg.

    I've said it a few times before on other people's blogs, but I just can't see the attraction. Clegg is seen as the man who can take Lib Dem target seats off the Tories, but despite having had the sexiest brief on the Lib Dem frontbench for the past 18 months he has hardly set the Thames on fire.

    If they are going to choose someone on the right of the party to compete for Tory votes, they would be better off in my view with brainy David Laws, currently an amazing 66-1 with the bookies.

    As some wit on PB.com has pointed out, those odds are surely worth taking if only for the fact that it would enable you to sing "I backed Dave Laws, and Dave Laws won" to the tune of a certain Clash number.

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    Talking Balls

    Iain Dale predicts that whenever the next election is held, Ed Balls will play a big part in losing it for Labour. Well, in my view Balls has already played a major role in potentially losing the next election for Labour by talking up the election that wasn't.

    Although some are trying to blame Douglas Alexander, it was Balls who went on the Today Programme to suggest that the greater risk for Labour lay in not going to the country this year, and it was this, coming on the day the polls showed an 11pc Labour lead, that really sent all the speculation into the stratosphere.

    Why was Balls so keen to have an election, I wonder? Could it possibly be the case that Gordon had promised to make him Chancellor of the Exchequer in the post-election reshuffle, as well as making his missus Yvette Cooper a full member of the Cabinet at last?

    I know not. But given that Balls has been not inaccurately described as the Deputy Chancellor for most of the past decade, it seems a reasonable enough supposition to me.

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    Inheritance Tax

    I hate to say I told you so, but....

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    Blogging v Journalism

    For the benefit of anyone who can't be bothered to shell out £9-74 at Politicos for a copy of Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging, the article I wrote for it about the journalism-blogging interface can be read on my companion blog, now called Behind the Lines.

    The article is also featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

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    Monday, October 08, 2007

    Election fiasco - Labour workers speak out

    In spite of Gordon's understandable desire to concede and move on, there have been some very interesting comments coming in on this blog this evening from workers at Labour Party HQ in Victoria Street which serve only underline just what a complete balls he's made of things.

    One poster suggests that Douglas Alexander is to blame for the debacle, and that it shows he has been over-promoted, although if that's the case I think the same is probably true of Ed Balls. Read more HERE.

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    Now Dale backs fixed terms

    I am pleased to see that the blogfather himself Iain Dale has now joined Ben Brogan and myself in arguing for a system of four-year fixed-term parliaments.

    Iain will certainly be a useful addition to the campaign - especially if, as is rumoured, he succeeds the retiring Ann Widdecombe as Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald.

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    Sunday, October 07, 2007

    Right decision - but what a bloody mess

    For those of us who have always thought of Gordon Brown as a man of principle, who longed for him to replace Tony Blair and usher in a new era of political straight-talking and an end to spin, these are difficult days indeed.

    Mr Brown said in his interview on today's Andrew Marr Show, that he wants "a chance to show the country that we have a vision for the future of this country....I want a mandate to show the vision of the country that I have is being implemented in practice."

    Having long advocated that he should do exactly that - to lay down some solid achievements and demonstrate that he can renew New Labour in office before seeking the electorate's endorsement - it was impossible to disagree with his reasoning.

    But it has taken the Prime Minister so long to reach the right decision, and he has gone about it in such a cack-handed and frankly duplicitous way, that any political dividend he once might have reaped from it has long since dissipated.

    Back at the beginning of August, I wrote the following words in my Saturday column in the Newcastle Journal.

    "To me, there is an even more compelling reason why Gordon Brown would not risk an election this year, namely that it could cause irreparable damage to the "Brown brand."

    The Prime Minister's whole appeal rests on being seen as a man of serious purpose and high principles - not someone who is prepared to cut and run at the earliest opportunity.

    Were he to do that in order to take advantage of what is almost certainly a temporary downturn in Tory fortunes, he would risk destroying that reputation at a stroke.

    A snap election would also demonstrate a complete lack of faith in his own ability to sustain the "Brown bounce" - or at least the confidence and trust of the electorate - beyond some vaguely defined honeymoon period."

    Well, the only thing I got wrong there was my assessment that it would take a snap election to damage the Brown brand. He's actually managed to damage it - possibly irreparably - without having one.

    Had he ruled it out back then, he would, I believe, have even further enhanced his then sky-high reputation, by being seen to do the statesmanlike thing rather than attempt to press home a short-term tactical advantage.

    But to have let the speculation ride through the conference season, and then only call a halt to it once it became clear Labour was actually behind in the opinion polls was not statesmanlike, merely shoddy.

    Which is why his words on the Andrew Marr Show this morning - though impossible to disagree with on the surface - ring so very, very hollow.

    The first thing Brown should do now is get himself some new advisers. Who thought it was a good idea to stage a love-in with Margaret Thatcher? Or to employ as an adviser a Tory MP who had been branded a racist? Or to fly to Basra to announce a troop withdrawal in the middle of the Tory Conference? And whose bloody silly idea was this spoof election in the first place?

    If I sound angry, it's because I am. Those of us who supported Gordon to become Labour leader, who longed to see him replace the lying phoney who preceded him, feel justifiably let down by all this.

    I still believe Gordon Brown can go on from this to be a great reforming Prime Minister. But he now has to to convince the uncommitted all over again that he is more than just another shallow opportunist and cynical purveyor of spin.

    It will be no easy task.

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    Saturday, October 06, 2007

    We need more time

    Now is not the time for a general election, not for Gordon Brown, not for David Cameron, certainly not for Ming Campbell. But more importantly not for the country. I explain why in my Saturday Column in today's Newcastle Journal which is reproduced in full below.

    ****

    In the long history of British political conferences, seldom has a party leader faced a more difficult task than the one faced by Tory leader David Cameron this week in Blackpool.

    With the polls showing Labour up to 11 points in the lead and speculation about a snap election reaching near-boiling point, Mr Cameron somehow needed to convince Gordon Brown to hold off from going to the country.

    For sheer brinkmanship, the Tory leader’s call for the Prime Minister to “bring it on” is not quite up there with “Go ahead, punk, make my day” – but it’s not far off.

    Will Gordon call his bluff? We will know soon enough – but if Mr Cameron has managed to persuade him to think twice, it will go down as one of the greatest acts of political escapology in modern times.

    For make no mistake, whatever Mr Cameron may say in public, he and his party do not want an election on November 1 or 8 – or indeed at any point until next spring at the earliest.

    There may still be very real doubt over whether an election held now would enable Mr Brown to increase Labour’s majority, which as I have argued all along, should be the determining factor for him in whether to hold one.

    But of one thing there is very little doubt – that if an election were held now, the Conservatives would not win it.

    Under our skewed electoral system, they need to be 8-10 points ahead of Labour – as they were before Mr Brown took over – before they can even think of securing an overall majority.

    So Mr Cameron’s principal aim throughout this conference week has been to buy time – time to enable him to get his party’s policies in order, time to allow the Brown Bounce to wear off.

    Yesterday morning’s polls, most showing Labour’s lead has fallen sharply to around 3-4pc, certainly suggest he might have done enough.

    Mr Brown and his closest aides are expected to make a final decision over the course of this weekend, but any sensible reading of the situation would suggest the polls are far too volatile for him to risk it.

    This is no more than is to be expected. The wiser heads among the political commentariat have long been arguing that you need three or four weeks after the end of the conference season for public opinion to settle down.

    So if Mr Cameron has indeed succeeded in postponing the election, how did he do it? Well, with a mixture of skilful party management, sheer oratorical bravura – and a single very clever policy initiative

    The Tories arrived in Blackpool in a state of some chaos, with policy commissions busily contradicting eachother and Old Right figures such as Lord Tebbit comparing Mr Cameron unfavourably to Mr Brown.

    To have managed to impose some discipline on that rabble, while also extracting some sort of coherent programme from the welter of new policy ideas, was no mean feat.

    It does not mean the Tories are necessarily ready for government, but they at least looked united and sensible, two of the key prerequisites for a party wishing to be taken seriously by the voters.

    As for Mr Cameron’s keynote speech on Wednesday, he showed again that in terms of personal charisma, he is streets ahead of anyone currently operating in British politics.

    But for the first time, I think he also demonstrated that there might be more to him than just a slick PR man.

    I particularly liked the way he tackled head-on the “Tory toff” jibes about his upbringing, saying that it was because he had such a “fantastic” education that he wanted the same for all children.

    The note of optimism – “you can get it if you really want it” – may have seemed clich├ęd to some, but is very necessary in a political culture that is becoming corroded by cynicism.

    But it was not Mr Cameron who unveiled the most significant policy initiative in Blackpool. That came in the week’s other big speech, from the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne on Monday.

    However much Labour may quibble about how it is to be paid for, his announcement that a Conservative government would raise the threshold of Inheritance Tax to £1m is a surefire vote winner- and Mr Brown knows it.

    As I have noted previously, the rise in house prices and consequent increase in the value of estates have turned this into a grossly unfair tax that now affects a large number of ordinary families.

    If the Tories really have turned the polls around this week, I believe it was this, more than Mr Cameron’s speech, which will have really forced the voters to sit up and take notice.

    So where to from here? Well, it’s been an inconclusive conference season in my view, with no clear winners and, with the possible exception of Sir Menzies Campbell, no clear losers.

    That seems to suggest to me that the time is not right for the country to make an informed choice about who governs it for the next five years.

    Sure, Gordon Brown has made a good start as Prime Minister, dealing capably with a series of crises and commanding the centre ground, but it is still too early to make a real assessment of his performance in the job.

    In particular, we need to see if the man who announced an Iraq troop withdrawal in a bid to disrupt the Tory conference really can live up to his promises of “new politics” and an end to spin.

    As for David Cameron, the noted commentator Simon Jenkins wrote on Thursday that he looks like a man who will be Prime Minister one day – but not yet. I would go along with that.

    His modernisation programme is still only half-complete and we need to see if he can follow-up the initiative on Inheritance Tax with other concrete and coherent policy pledges.

    Speaking both as a commentator and as a voter, I hope we will be given the time we need to see how these two men continue to perform in their respective roles before being forced to choose between them.

    But will we get it? Only one of them knows the answer to that.

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    Friday, October 05, 2007

    ....and could Brown survive the loss of his majority?

    If the general election is finally called next week - and a growing number of pundits now think it won't be - there seem to me to be three plausible scenarios as to the possible outcome, as follows:

    (i) Labour manages to hang on to its existing majority, there or thereabouts. I am as convinced as I can be that they will not increase it significantly, for the simple reason that David Cameron is not Michael Howard.

    (ii) Labour loses between 15-25 seats and the Brown premiership descends into a John Major-type situation, constantly at the mercy of a few rebels while the momentum is with the opposition.

    (iii) Labour loses its overall majority altogether while remaining the largest single party in a hung Parliament. Though this is the least likely outcome of the three, it remains a distinct possibility.

    So following on from the previous post, which looked at Dave Cameron's chances of surviving a Tory defeat, what would happen to Gordon if scenario (iii) were actually to come to pass?

    Well, he'd have to go, wouldn't he. Apart from anything else, he would look a complete and utter plonker for having squandered a majority of 66 with two and a half years of the Parliament left to go. His judgement and reputation as a supreme political strategist would be shot to pieces - for ever.

    A hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party would almost certainly mean a coalition with the Lib Dems - but even if Sir Menzies Campbell was content to serve under his old pal Gordon, his MPs would not let him.

    No, the price of such a coalition would be that Gordon would have to fall on his sword, with a new government formed under a caretaker Prime Minister while the Labour Party chose its new leader - who might of course turn out to be the careteaker leader himself.

    So who would it be? Well, this is where the speculation about a Year of three Prime Ministers gets really interesting.

    People have lazily assumed that if we are to have a third premier this year, it will be David Cameron, but given our skewed electoral system this is highly unlikely - which is why whatever he may say in public, Dave is still desperate for Gordon to back out.

    No, if there is to be a third Prime Minister of 2007, it will be someone else entirely - probably a senior Cabinet minister who will be tasked with leading Labour and the coalition through the choppy waters that would follow Brown's inevitable demise.

    Step forward, Mr Jack Straw.

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    Thursday, October 04, 2007

    Could Cameron really survive an election defeat?

    Amid the ongoing welter of election speculation, one piece that caught my eye today was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, in which he argues that while David Cameron's Blackpool speech showed him to be a Prime Minister in the making, he is not yet one that is ready to take over the job in less than a month's time.

    It's an interesting thesis in that it rests on the idea that Cameron could lose a general election which the Tories were once expected to win comfortably yet still survive as party leader.

    But is he right? Well, history - particularly that of the Tory Party - would strongly suggest otherwise.

    The last party leader to be given a second chance after losing one election was Neil Kinnock (1987 and 1992), but he was leader of the Labour Party which traditionally has a more tolerant attitude to defeat. The only post-war Tory leader to be given two bites at the cherry was Edward Heath (1966 and 1970), and this may have been influenced by the fact that he had only been in the job a year when the first of those contests took place.

    There is a common consensus that had she lost the 1979 election, even Margaret Thatcher would have been swiftly despatched in favour of a more traditonal, reassuring figure like Jim Prior or Francis Pym.

    So could Cameron really buck this trend? Well, I suppose it depends partly on the alternatives.

    Some on the right still hanker after a David Davis leadership, but he will be in his 60s by the time the election after next comes round. Liam Fox is the likeliest right-wing challenger, but he has always seemed to me to lack ruthlessness.

    Meanwhile William Hague has said repeatedly he does not want the job, certainly not while the party is still in opposition. Chris Grayling is the dark horse, but he scarcely rivals Cameron in the charisma stakes.

    It will also, of course, depend on the closeness of the result. If Cameron can succeed in turning Gordon Brown into a John Major figure, dependent on a wafer-thin majority and ever-fighting to beat back the tide of the inevitable Tory advance, then I guess he may well continue in the job.

    But even then, I don't expect it will be without a fight.

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    Brave call

    Right or wrong, Benedict Brogan deserves a medal for bravery for this.

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    Wednesday, October 03, 2007

    Farewell Blackpool

    David Cameron's closing speech in Blackpool today - a storming success by all accounts - marked the end of an era in British political conferences, with none of the major parties due to return to the old Lancashire seaside down.

    Most politicians and journalists will no doubt be relieved about that. Few ever had a good word to say about the place. But I have always begged to differ.

    Of the other main conference venues, Bournemouth was ruined by the dismal press facilities - they used to put us in a windowless underground car park, in seats so uncomfortable that one year I did my back in and spent the next fortnight practically unable to move. And Brighton was wrecked by the security arrangements - the configuration of the Brighton Centre meant the entire seafront had to be sealed off and after-hours access was inevitably limited to a roundabout route to the rear.

    I always had a better time in Blackpool. I found a good little hotel, the Tregenna, within walking distance of the conference centre which I used to stay in year after year, and for mealtimes instead of being forced to eat pretentious, overpriced food I would tend to frequent a marvellous chippie on the outskirts of the town centre.

    The best thing about Blackpool, though, was the Number Ten Bar at the Imperial Hotel, the atmosphere of which was like nothing else - maybe because it lent itself more to the noble art of beer-drinking rather than the copious wine-quaffing you were likely to see in Brighton's Grand or Bournemouth's Highcliffe.

    Even though the hotel itself is unlikely to play host to a conference again, I hope someone preserves that bar for posterity.

    Update: For a more mainstream view of Blackpool, read Iain Dale's Spectator Diary

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