Friday, November 30, 2007

Gordon should have called the police in himself

Ever since the start of the David Abrahams affair it has been as clear as day that the police would have to become involved eventually. So the question I am asking myself this morning is why Prime Minister Gordon Brown waited for the Electoral Commission and Chris Huhne to take the initiative on that, rather than calling in the Met right at the start of the week.

Brown knows he has nothing to fear personally from such an investigation, any more than John Major had any personal involvement in the Tory sleaze scandals of the mid-1990s. But instead of referring the matter to Scotland Yard himself as he should have done, he chose to set up a meaningless inquiry by Labour trusties Lord Whitty and Richard Harries.

If he had showed a bit more decisiveness on this, I think he would still be in a position to claim that he is the man to restore trust in British politics. By not doing so, I think he has finally forfeited that right.

As for Harriet Harman and those who have been apparently briefing the press on her behalf...she should realise that this is not about the survival of her pesky political career. What is at stake here is the survival of the only Labour government we've got.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greens set to join the real world

With New Labour increasingly seen by many as a lost cause, there has been much discussion on Liberal Conspiracy of late as to whether the Green Party might be a more effective political vehicle for the British left.

This weekend, in what will be seen as an indication of their desire to be taken more seriously as a party, they are set to ditch their dual leadership structure in favour of having a single leader.

The history of the Liberal-SDP Alliance between 1981-87 ought to be enough to persuade party members that this is a good idea.Before the 1983 election, the Alliance appointed SDP leader Roy Jenkins as "Prime Minister Designate" only to realise half way through the campaign that the Liberal leader David Steel was actually more popular with the public.

There then followed a botched attempt to replace Jenkins with Steel as Alliance leader which had the effect only of weakening Jenkins to such an extent he was forced to resign as soon as the election was over.

It got worse. David Owen took over the SDP leadership and refused to give any quarter to Steel whatsoever despite the fact that the Liberals had three times as many MPs. The dual leadership of the "two Davids" ended in total fiasco in the 1987 election campaign with them publicly disagreeing both over whether to replace Polaris and over which of the two main parties to do a deal with in the event of a hung Parliament.

The moral of the story is that, the closer you come to real power, the more important it is that a party speaks with a single, united voice. If the Greens really can get their act together, I for one could see myself voting for them.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blair's poisoned legacy of sleaze

They say all is fair in love, war and politics - but am I the only person in the country who feels some sympathy for Gordon Brown over the fact that he is now reaping the whirlwind of a Labour Party funding scandal which was absolutely not of his own making?

Brown has been party leader and Prime Minister for five months. Yet everyone acknowledges that the origins of the David Abrahams affair go back four years.

There is one very important difference between this and both Northern Rock and Discgate. While both of those happened on Mr Brown's watch - and hence are things for which he has to take ultimate responsibility - the vast majority of the dodgy donations were made on his predecessor's.

So for David Cameron to suggest on the back of the affair today that the Prime Minister is not up to the job - without a shred of evidence directly linking him to it - is in my view deeply opportunistic.

It is true that Harriet Harman has been a fool not to check more closely where her deputy leadership campaign funds were coming from, but she was never the sharpest tool in the box.

Someone on another blog compared her to John Prescott the other day. Wrong. Prescott was a highly intelligent guy who was regarded as a bit thick because of his syntactical difficulties. When it comes to the density of porcine ordure, Harman is actually the genuine article.

People are saying there is much more of this story to come out, and I agree with Guido that the key to it probably lies in the government's sudden decision to lift its objections to Mr Abrahams' plans for a business park near Durham in October 2006.

Would it be uncharitable to point out that this decision was also taken under the stewardship of Mr Blair, at whose leaving party in Sedgefield Mr Abrahams was subsequently given a place of such honour?

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Could we have another deputy leadership election?

I suspect that "God forbid!" would be the answer of most Labour Party members to that question, but the current pressure on Harriet Harman over the dodgy donations affair means the possibility cannot be ruled out.

So of the half-dozen candidates who stood last time round, who would risk throwing their hats into the ring again? Possibly only one or two, in my view.

Harman, of course, would automatically be ruled out. So too would Hazel Blears, Hilary Benn and Peter Hain on the grounds of their disappointing performances in June.

The only candidates from this summer's race I can see fancying another run round that particular block are Alan Johnson, pipped at the post by Harman after being widely tipped as the victor, and Jon Cruddas, who came a good third on the back of a strong grassroots campaign.

Cruddas turned down the offer of a job by Gordon Brown - there is some dispute as to whether it was a party vice-chairmanship or a junior ministerial post - and so is untainted by association with any of the disasters to strike the government over recent weeks. He could well win.

Johnson would also find it hard not to stand, having come so close before. But there would, I think, be other candidates.

The demographics of the Labour Party make it almost certain there would be a woman, with Caroline Flint, Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith among the possible contenders in the enforced absense of Harman and Blears.

I think Jack Straw would also fancy it. He expected to be made Deputy Prime Minister, or at the very least First Secretary of State, in Brown's first reshuffle, but the Prime Minister foolishly denied him both titles. He could not deny them were Straw to become deputy leader.

The big question, though, is whether one of the disgruntled Blairites would throw their hats into the ring - Charles Clarke, perhaps, or Alan Milburn, or even Foreign Secretary David Miliband?

If so, the media would very quickly try to turn it into a leadership election at one remove, and the attractions of Straw as a "unity candidate" would become even more apparent,

Could this be Jack's big moment? Although Brown will do all he can to save Harman, I fancy the Government would actually look stronger without her, with Straw officially installed as DPM and someone else entirely - Cruddas? - in the role of Party Chair.

Then again, Michael Heseltine's appointment to the same role in 1995 was supposed to strengthen John Major. And look how that ended.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Should Tony Blair have talked about his faith?

Alastair Campbell famously said he didn't do God. The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, thinks he should have done. The former Prime Minister himself, in Part Three of The Blair Years to be screened next Sunday, explains that while there is no point pretending he doesn't have a personal faith, he didn't want to come over as a "nutter."

This raises a difficult question for me. As a Christian, I not only approve of politicians who are influenced by Jesus's teaching, I would have difficulty voting for one who wasn't. The main reason I could never bring myself to vote for Neil Kinnock even though he made possibly the greatest speech of the last 30 years was that he was a self-confessed atheist.

But at the same time, I also dislike politicians who claim, or appear to claim, that they have some sort of "hotline" to God that influences not just their general political thinking, but individual political decisions. Mr Blair has clearly implied this in the past in relation to Iraq, for instance.

Whether or not this made him look like a "nutter," it certainly brought Christianity into disrepute by making it appear as if the Christian "viewpoint" on Iraq was pro-war, when in fact the question of whether the Biblical commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill extends to military conflict has always been a hotly-disputed theologically issue.

So I am not entirely sure I agree with Dr Nazir-Ali on this, although it doesn't entirely surprise me to see him criticising Mr Blair. He was, after all, George Carey's chosen successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, but the former Prime Minister went for Dr Rowan Williams instead.

The problem with Tony Blair was not that he was a Christian, nor even that he occasionally made references to the fact, but that he too often allowed himself to sound as if he, alone, had the mind of Christ. The truth is none of us can claim that - at least, not this side of Heaven.

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Gordon Brown and Steve McClaren

Matthew Parris was not the only pundit who made this comparison on Saturday. I drew the same analogy in my weekly Newcastle Journal column which can be read HERE

Parris's piece seems to have kicked off a round of frantic speculation about the Prime Minister's future. Mike Smithson thinks "Brown to go before the next election" is worth a flutter, while Jackie Ashley claims to have spoken to Labour MPs who say he actually will go. Are they serious?

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World's worst rhymes

As readers with fairly long memories will know, I have previously nominated New Order's Thieves Like Us as one of my Desert Island Discs, while conceding that the lyrics aren't up to much. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the line "Love is the cure for every evil, Love is the air that supports the eagle" is the Worst Pop Lyric of all time.

So I was surprised it didn't feature in this list chosen by BBC radio listeners, who plumped for Des'ree's "I don't want to see a ghost, It's the sight that I fear most, I'd rather have a piece of toast," at No 1.

On second thoughts, maybe they've got a point...

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Who's next at No 11 and Soho Square?

To round off the week, two polls - one on the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, the other on the next England football manager. Steve McClaren has already gone, and another week like this one and Alistair Darling won't be far behind him. Not that either of them should have had the job in the first place.....

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wanted: A proven international track record

Having watched last night's Wembley debacle amid the inevitable chaos of removal day +1, I can't say I'm too surprised at today's decision regarding Steve McClaren. All I think that can possibly be said in his defence is that he was very unlucky with injuries, losing his entire first-choice back four and regular striking partnership prior to last night's game.

Against that, bringing back Frank Lampard when it has been proved time and time again that he and Steven Gerrard cannot play alongside eachother, and using Gareth Barry in an unfamiliar holding role in preference to Owen Hargreaves, were the kind of suicidal selectorial blunders which suggest the manager had a death wish.

What now? Inevitably given his media profile and success with Chelsea, the talk will turn to Jose "the special one" Mourinho, and I think that if he were to indicate that he wants the job, a deal could probably be tied up very quickly. For my part, though, I think the FA would be better off at this juncture going for someone with a proven track record of success in management at international level, and that means either Phil Scolari or Guus Hiddink.

The latter in particular has demonstrated with South Korea, Australia and Russia what can be achieved with a fairly average bunch of players. In my view, as the laughably-termed "Golden Generation" prepares to head into the sunset, that is precisely what England need now.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Moving on

Yesterday was the end of an era in the Linford household. We finally moved on from the little terraced house in Belper I have owned since 1989 which was my home both before and after my move down to London and the Lobby in the mid-90s.

When I first bought the place as an impoverished local news reporter, it was a disused shop that was one of only two properties in the town inside my price range. But over the course of about ten arduous but enjoyable years I slowly converted it, first into a bachelor pad, later into the comfortable family home it now is.

The needs of our growing family meant it was time to move on, but although it was inevitably hard to say goodbye, I left this place for the last time shortly before 4pm yesterday afternoon with only happy memories.

For those who appreciate this sort of personal stuff - and I know it's a relatively small minority of you - there's a full pictorial memoir of the house on my companion blog, Behind the Lines.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Is this what Blair v Brown would have been like?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I both like and admire Chris Huhne while having always been rather sceptical about his rival Nick Clegg, but I can't help but feel that it is the 53-year-old environment spokesman who will end up being the most damaged by yesterday's unedifying spat on the BBC Politics Show.

The nuclear option of attacking Clegg personally and portraying him as Cameron-lite was always open to Huhne, but I only expected him to deploy that option had it reached the point where he had nothing to lose. What I cannot understand is why he opted to deploy it at this stage, after a strong Question Time performance last week which would have persuaded many undecided party members to vote for him.

For what it's worth, my view is that they will now be less likely to do so. However its MPs might behave, the Liberal Democrat grassroots are emphatically not the nasty party, and its membership will take a dim view of anyone who so openly attacks a colleague.

Whichever of the two candidates ends up as leader, they are both major assets to the party, and for one of them to attack the other in that way diminishes that asset as well as dividing the party. In the words of one opposition commentator today, "anyone who was thinking of voting LibDem will have been profundly put off by the whole episode."

One person who knows this all too well is Gordon Brown. In 1994, he could have deployed the nuclear option against Tony Blair, portraying him as SDP Mark II (if only...!) and highlighting his policy flip-flops in much the same way Huhne did to Clegg.

I still believe Brown could have beaten Blair by employing such a strategy, but he knew that the party would have ended up so divided that victory would not have been worth the candle. I fear that this is now the fate awaiting Huhne should he go on to defy the odds and win.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Eurostar launch highlights transport divide

For this weekend's column, I returned to an old hobby-horse - regional transport funding. The launch of the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras is a reminder that, when the Channel Tunnel was first built, the whole of the country was meant to benefit from the project, not just the South. Yet if the North is to gain anything from the new improved link to the continent, it will require the construction of a new high-speed route linking into the St Pancras terminal, a project which the Brown government has put off for at least a decade. More for those who are interested in this sort of thing on the companion blog HERE.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Top 10 Labour Twits

A week or so ago, Tara Hamilton-Miller in the New Statesman put together a list of the Top 10 Tory Twits. It was entertaining reading, though she unaccountably omitted both Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who was once cut off mid-flight by Mr Deputy Speaker when attempting a graphic description of the homosexual act during a Commons debate, and Alan Clark who famously got his penis out in the hallway of his mistress's flat after feeling neglected during a party.

Surprisingly, no-one has yet put together a list of the Top 10 Labour twits, so I thought I would ask for nominations.

As Monty Python noted, it is hard to define what makes a really first-class twit. Political twittishness is essentially about more than mere rank bad judgement. Its essential ingredient is frivolity, not just in the sense of lack of seriousness but in the sense of failure to think about the consequences of one's actions.

To help kick start the debate, I have put together the following shortlist of ten, although all other suggestions will be gratefully received.

  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he was then, for nearly wrecking the party for good during the 70s and 80s.

  • Clive Jenkins, for his continual meddling in leadership elections which invariably produced the wrong result.

  • Lord Longford, for his silly campaign in support of child killer Myra Hindley.

  • Chris Bryant, for practically every public utterance since he swapped vicarhood for politics.

  • Robert Kilroy-Silk, for declaring in the mid-80s that he would be Labour leader and PM within 10 years.

  • John Spellar, for saying "these cunts must be stopped" when he meant to say "cuts."

  • Tom Driberg, for numerous indiscreet sexual adventures from the 1930s to the 1970s.

  • David Winnick, for failing to acquire the slightest degree of gravitas despite nearly 40 years in the Commons.

  • George Brown, for throwing his toys out of his pram in 1968 and resigning while pissed.

  • Martin Salter, for thinking what a great idea it would be to get rid of his neighbouring Labour MP.

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  • Question Time: Huhne shades it

    Nick Clegg has based his campaign for the leadership of the Lib Dems on the fact that he is seen as a "great communicator," so he ought to be worried by the fact that his rival Chris Huhne is widely seen to have shaded last night's head-to-head debate on Question Time in Buxton. This thread on Lib Dem Voice gives a good flavour of the reactions from party members who watched the programme, while there's also a useful round-up of blogospheric reactions so far from Paul Walter.

    For my part, I agree that Huhne came over as the more impressive candidate. He seemed both more assured than Clegg and noticeably more passionate, particularly on the issue of Trident which will go down well with many party members.

    Clegg seemed in difficulty from the first question, which incidentally came from my friend Gill Reade, of Belper, on whether the party had been damaged by the way it had despatched its last two leaders. When David Dimbleby picked up the "nasty party" theme to challenge Clegg over an attack he made on Huhne last year, the frontrunner seemed flummoxed and unsure of how to respond.

    Huhne also dealt more intelligently with the second question, on who the Lib Dems should form a coalition with. He made the very valid point that, in the current climate of political cross-dressing, a coalition between Labour and the Conservatives would make rather more political sense than a coalition between either main party and the Lib Dems.

    It was only when they got to the third question, on Trident, that it threatened to get nasty. Clegg accused Huhne, by a rather roundabout argument, of being a unilateral re-armer, not a disarmer. Huhne said that anyone who imagined Trident would be any use against Afterdinnerjazz was "living in cloud cuckoo land."

    "Chris for now, Nick for the future" seemed to be the general verdict on Lib Dem Voice. It is one that I would endorse.

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    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Tunisia to join the EU?

    Foreign Secetary David Miliband is renowned for his original thinking, but his latest wheeze to expand the European Union to take in not only the rest of the old Soviet bloc but also parts of North Africa and the Middle East is surely a piece of blue-sky thinking too far.

    The argument over whether Turkey should be part of the EU has been hotly contested but there is at least some historical basis for regarding that country as part of Europe.

    But while there is always a good case for closer international co-operation, there surely comes a point beyond which the concept of Europeanism becomes meaningless. Kirghiztan, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are not part of Europe and never will be.

    To quote Margaret Thatcher in a not-altogether-different context: "No. No. No."

    Update: A nice line in outrage here from Letters from a Tory.

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    Thames Gateway "is potential catastrophe"

    I can't say I'm that surprised by this assessment of the Thames Gateway scheme, but if it does turn out to be the disaster MPs predict it won't necessarily be because of bad planning, or even the fact that it originated with John Prescott, but because it's a fucking awful place to live.

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    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    No substitute for experience

    I am not, in principle, opposed to the idea of governments of all the talents, but the idea that you can take people who have been successful in one milieu and expect them to be able to repeat that success in the political arena has always seemed a dubious one to me.

    So it doesn't greatly surprise me that Alan West has become the latest of Gordon's fresh talents to find himself in political difficulties, following on from the controversies that have surrounded Mark Malloch Brown, Digby Jones and Ara Darzi in the months since their original appointments.

    A conspiracy theorist might see it all as evidence of a dark plot by Labour MPs to get rid of a bunch of outsiders they never wanted in the government in the first place, in the hope that next time round, the jobs might actually be handed out within the PLP.

    Tempting though that theory undoubtedly is, I think it just shows there really is no substitute for political experience.

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    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Scrapping ID cards tops your wish-list

    Last week I asked readers of this blog to vote on what they thought should have been in the Queen's Speech that wasn't, listing ten policy ideas which I personally favour. The fairly unambiguous result is that the single policy which would you would most like to see is the scrapping of ID cards.

    There now seems to be a growing consensus on this across the political spectrum. Gordon Brown still has the chance to ditch the scheme as an unwanted hangover of the Blair years, and given their own stance on it the Tories would be unable to criticise him for doing so, as they undoubtedly would if he attempted to reverse other aspects of the Blair legacy.

    The full results of the poll, listing the ideas in order of popularity, were as follows:

    • Scrapping ID card scheme 79pc
    • Four-year fixed-term Parliaments 53pc
    • Abolition of the Barnett Formula 52pc
    • Referendum on EU Reform Treaty 51pc
    • Fully-elected House of Lords 49pc
    • Proportional representation 48pc
    • Cap on party funding 35pc
    • More action to combat inequality 34pc
    • Full year's maternity pay 14pc
    • Immediate end to airport expansion 14pc

    The level of support for abolishing the Barnett Formula is scarcely surprising, given who the author of this blog is, but the degree of backing for other enthusiasms of mine such as fixed-term Parliaments and PR is encouraging.

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    Stephen Poliakoff: Genius, or overrated?

    Like Paul Burgin I am a huge fan of Stephen Poliakoff, and would rate his 2006 dramas Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon's Daughter among the best things I've seen on the telly since the 70s golden age of I Claudius, Bouquet of Barbed Wire and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

    But I couldn't help but feel a little let-down by the two more recent films, Joe's Palace, which was shown a week ago on Sunday, and Capturing Mary which had its first airing last night.

    While both were brilliantly well-acted, as you might expect from an ensemble cast including the likes of Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry Jones, Ruth Wilson and Kelly Reilly, the storylines were exceptionally thin and at times downright unconvincing - for instance when, in Joe's Palace, Sir Michael's character enlists the help of a girl from the local deli (played by Rebecca Hall) to uncover a secret from his father's papers that has eluded scores of professional historians.

    I personally think Joe's Palace and Capturing Mary would have worked better as a single film, with the latter shown as flashbacks as Mary unburdens herself to Joe in between the requisite bonking sessions involving Penry Jones and Reilly. It would probably have had to be about three hours long, but would, in my view, have had a much more substantial feel to it.

    Poliakoff is of course being commissioned by the BBC to come up with this stuff, but I do wonder whether they are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, and whether the corporation might be better advised to cast its net a little wider when it comes to showcasing new drama.

    Meanwhile, for anyone who loved Friends and Crocodiles and is also a fan of the seminal 1990s artpop duo Mono, here's a special treat.

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    Monday, November 12, 2007

    What does it take to get someone to resign?

    Politicians and other people in positions in authority used to resign on a point of principle if bad things happened on their watch, but as Peter Oborne pointed out in his recent book on the Political Class, times have changed somewhat and the name of the game these days is to hang on to your job for as long as possible, if necessary by blaming the media for trying to force you out.

    In view of the obvious topicality of this, I have devised a league table which lists, in ascending order of pigheaded obstinacy, ten political figures who have either resigned or come under pressure to resign in recent years.

    1. Estelle Morris. Decided she wasn't up to the job after a few mildly critical media reports about exam results. Pusillanimous rather than pig-headed.

    2. Michael Howard. Quit the day after a general election in which many observers thought his party, despite its defeat, had done well enough to enable him to stay on.

    3. Sir Menzies Campbell. Rather impulsively fell on his sword after seven days of consecutive press reports about his age, 48 hours after telling reporters he had no intention of going.

    4. Stephen Byers. Initially survived both the Jo Moore affair and claims that he lied over Railtrack, but eventually quit realising that his department was indeed "fucked" as long as he stayed.

    5. Peter Mandelson. Thought he could ride out the Geoffrey Robinson home loan affair and actually prepared a media "fightback" strategy. Tony Blair other ideas and told him to bite the bullet.

    6. Beverley Hughes. Tried to stay in her job despite visa scam involving work permits for one-legged Romanian roofers. Eventually had to go after it emerged she had been warned about the problem.

    7. David Blunkett. Forced to quit over a rushed visa for his mistress's nanny, days after a defiant rendition at the Labour MPs' Christmas bash of "pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again."

    8. Mark Oaten. Stood for the leadership of his party in full knowledge of the fact that his, er, personal difficulties were likely to prove something of a liability if they ever came to light. Eventually saw sense and quit.

    9. Tony Blair. Survived a disastrous military adventure and the suicide of the man who tried to blow the whistle on his government's lies before finally accepting that the public had fallen out of love with him.

    10. Sir Ian Blair. Remains in his job despite his force being found guilty of health and safety offences over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, a vote of no confidence by the London Assembly, and resignation calls from across the political spectrum. Clearly, and by some margin, the most pig-headed man in Britain.

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    An even match

    Nikc Clegg continues to be the hot favourite in the Lib Dem leadership contest, but among readers of this blog, at least, the two candidates are fairly evenly matched. My recent poll on the contest showed a slight preference for Clegg, but only by a margin of 53-47 over his rival Chris Huhne. Of course it's totally unscientific, and I would say probably well under half of readers of my blog are Liberal Democrats, but this result echoes my own hunch that the outcome of the election will be closer than many are currently predicting.

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    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    A programme, not a vision

    This week's Saturday column draws together some of the threads of the past week, looking at the good and bad points of the Queen's Speech and posing the question whether Gordon Brown actually needs a "vision" as such at all. It can be read in full on the companion blog HERE.

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    Friday, November 09, 2007

    The arrogance of Sir Ian Blair

    I learned fairly early on my journalistic career that getting senior police officers to take responsibility for their actions is no easy task. In the early 1980s, the then Chief Constable of Derbyshire, Alf Parrish, was allowed to retire on a full police pension despite having spent £32,000 of ratepayers' money building an electronic partition in his office which slid back to reveal a space for private cocktail parties.

    In another episode, about which I would love to be able to say more, a deputy chief constable's administrative error resulted in police officers being paid so much overtime it practically bankrupted the force concerned. Once again, despite attempts by the local police authority to bring him to account, the man concerned was allowed to retire on a full pension, and his misdemeanours were never actually made public.

    So it doesn't greatly surprise me that Sir Ian Blair clearly views the de Menezes case less as a question about whether anyone should be seen to take responsibility for the tragic death of an innocent man and the systemic failures in the Metropolitan Police which led to it, and more about the much more important issue of principle of whether he should be allowed to keep his job.

    It's frankly beyond belief that he hasn't quit already, but he is clearly not on the same planet as most of the rest of us. It's almost as if he sees the case as just part of a much bigger battle between the forces of conservatism and the forces of liberalism, a battle in which he sees himself as being on the side of the angels.

    If so, it explains why all of the support for Sir Ian remaining in his job is coming from the political left. While the right and centre are at one in their calls for him to go, the Labour establishment, from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to London Mayor Ken Livingstone, is adamant he should not.

    I am as convinced as I can be that this is less down to the merits of the case and more down to tribal loyalties. Sir Ian is seen as "Labour's man," and more generally as a force for "modernisation" and "reform" in a force that, not so long ago, was found to be institutionally racist. Therefore he must not be allowed to be forced out by those nasty reactionary elements.

    To base one's view on the internal political ramifications for the Met, however, or even on the ramifications for policing in London, is to lose sight of a much more important issue of principle - the fact that restoring trust in public life requires that those at the top start taking responsiblity for their actions.

    Sir Ian Blair's removal - and in my view it's a matter of when, not if - may well result in him being replaced by a more conservative figure - a "copper's copper" as they are known in the shorthand. But if that helps restore a culture of accountability to our public life, it will ultimately be a larger victory for the liberal-left.

    An edited version of this post appears on Liberal Conspiracy.

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    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    The Top 10 Political Turning Points

    As a companion piece to my Top 10 Political Misjudgements, here are what I consider to be the Top 10 Political Turning Points of my lifetime. With the exception of Black Wednesday, which stemmed directly from the misjudgement over the rate at which we entered the ERM, most of these were either random acts of chance which politicians were helpless to deal with - "events, dear boy, events" as Harold Macmillan called them - or, as in the case of the Falklands War or Denis Healey's defeat of Tony Benn, acts of political courage which succeeded in changing the course of history. Will Gordon Brown's election-that-wasn't eventually join the list? Come back here in two years' time and I'll tell you!

    1 The Winter of Discontent, 1978

    Modern political history turns on the question of what would have happened had Margaret Thatcher never become Prime Minister. We would now be living in a quite different country, a less prosperous one maybe, but a more civilised one too. It was the industrial chaos of 1978-79 that paved the way not just for her election victory, but for the whole tenor of her premiership. Outgoing PM Jim Callaghan captured the shift in public mood in his famous comment "I believe that there is now such a [sea] change - and it is for Mrs Thatcher."

    2 England 2 Germany 3, 1970

    Or was it the balance of trade figures that were to blame? Either way, days later Harold Wilson lost an election he was universally expected to win, and this proved to be the pivot on which the subsequent history of the 1970s, and arguably also the future of the Labour Party turned. Had Wilson won in 1970, Roy Jenkins, not Jim Callaghan, would have succeeded him. Had Heath lost, he would have been replaced as leader, possibly by Enoch Powell, but certainly not by Mrs Thatcher. Peter "The Cat" Bonetti has a lot to answer for!

    3 The Death of Hugh Gaitskell, 1963

    This had profound consequences which weren't really appreciated at the time. It didn't affect the result of the following general election - Labour would have won that anyway - but it did affect the way the Labour Party developed thereafter. Had he lived, Gaitskell would have turned Labour into a modern social democratic party. He would have established a revisionist line of succession from Jenkins to Healey to Hattersley to Brown. There would have been no need for the SDP breakaway, and arguably, no New Labour either.

    4 Black Wednesday, 1992

    The counterpoint to the Winter of Discontent. Whereas that destroyed Labour's credibility as a governing party for a generation, this destroyed the Tories' - perhaps unfairly as the Labour frontbench of the time under John Smith had been committed to exactly the same monetary policy that caused the debacle. The only leading politician who opposed this unholy consensus was Bryan Gould, who ended up running a university in New Zealand. Which only goes to show that there is very little justice in politics.

    5 The Falklands War, 1982

    People now talk about the Thatcherite hegemony of the 1980s as if it were a historical inevitability. But up until this point, her government's long-term survival was seriously in doubt. The recently-formed Liberal-SDP Alliance was riding high in the polls and even Michael Foot's Labour Party was more popular than Thatcher's Conservatives. The Falklands campaign, which could easily have turned into the biggest military debacle since Suez, changed all that. It gave us back our self-belief, and Thatcher her aura of invincibility.

    6 The Miners' Strike, 1984

    The defeat of the miners destroyed not just a union, but also an industry, a movement, and eventually an entire Northern British and Welsh subculture to which the film Brassed Off now stands as a memorial. Politically, the strike reinforced the Thatcher legend that had been born in the Falklands conflict but socially, its effects went much deeper, and I don't think many of them were positive. When I started out in journalism in North Nottinghamshire, the pit villages in the area were vibrant places. Now most of them are riddled by drugs.

    7 The Profumo Affair, 1963

    Of course I was too young to remember this, but it did occur in my lifetime - just! It's a turning point not just because it contributed to the downfall of Harold Macmillan and the loss of the 1964 General Election for the Conservatives, but also because it captured a decadent ruling elite in its death-throes. Up until this point, the British ruling class thought it could behave moreorless as it liked. Afterwards, as Nigel Birch put it poetically, it was "never glad confident morning again" for Macmillan and his ilk.

    8 Healey v Benn, 1981

    Much of the credit for transforming the Labour Party in the 80s and 90s has gone to Neil Kinnock for his "grotesque chaos" speech and Tony Blair for his New Labour reforms. But Big Denis was the man who really saved the party. By fighting off Tony Benn's challenge for the deputy leadership, he turned the tide of the left's advance and prevented a haemorrhage of support to the SDP. Together with the Falklands War, it was this that dished Roy Jenkins and Co. Had neither happened, Labour would now be the third party.

    9 The Bombing of Canary Wharf, 1993

    This one will probably get me hate mail, but the cold hard facts are that it was only when the IRA started targeting big financial institutions on the mainland that they finally succeeded in bombing their way to the negotiating table. After this the Major government realised that it could not defeat the provisionals militarily and set about achieving a political solution. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, then the Good Friday Agreement, and finally the restoration of devolved government earlier this year, was the end result.

    10 The Death of Dr David Kelly, 2003

    It was not, I think, the Iraq War itself that turned the nation against Tony Blair, but the realisation that we had been systematically lied to about it. Dr Kelly's death was not just a personal tragedy, but the moment we knew that the core value our country had to defend was not democracy, nor even national security, but the sainted reputation of its leader. It was a moment of profound disillusionment that affected the way many people now view politics, and from which the reputation of our political system has not recovered.

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    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    Which famous leader are you like?

    While admittedly fun, most online tests are inherently stupid, and this one seems stupider than most. It reckons the leader I am most like is JFK, informing me that I "like power because it increases my sexual options." As anyone who knows me well will testify, I'm a happily married man who has never been much of a one for sexual options, but I would be interested to know whether other users get similarly random results!

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    Minister quits to take up motor racing

    Well, it makes a change from resigning to spend more time with the family, I suppose.

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    More on Gordon and the Vision Thing

    Here's what I wrote earlier today over at Liberal Conspiracy.

    I've already given my initial reaction to yesterday's Queen's Speech on my own blog, pointing out that while there are some very good things in the package from a progressive or liberal-left point of view, politically the whole thing suffers from the lack of a single "Big Idea" or connecting narrative which would enable Gordon Brown to regain the initiative he lost by not calling an election.

    I'm not about to depart from that view. While ideas like giving all parents the right to request flexible working hours are extremely welcome, it is not the kind of thing that is going to stuff the Tories, particularly when they are claiming they thought of it first. By contrast scrapping ID cards, or announcing a Speaker's Conference on proportional representation, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of this autumn's non-election debacle, would have done.

    Jonathan Freedland in today's Guardian has a slightly different take on it. While acknowledging that Brown effectively stitched himself up by promising to set out his "vision" when he made his election announcement, he argues that in fact it was the wrong word, and that what Brown can really offer the nation is a programme -"something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list."

    Is he right? Does Brown need a new over-arching vision or narrative to renew Labour in office, or is the country sick of all that kind of stuff after ten years of Blair? I'm not going to attempt to answer this question, but I think it will provide a good talking point!

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    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Tell Gordon what his vision is

    One of the most wounding jibes against Gordon Brown that has been made in recent weeks was David Cameron's comment at PMQs that "he talks about his vision - but has to wait for us to tell us what it is!" Unfortunately today's Queen's Speech with its emphasis on new anti-terror measures that could just as easily have come from the Conservatives will do little to dispel that claim.

    So if it's true that the Prime Minister has to be told what his vision is, we may as well try to do that ourselves than wait for the Tories to supply the answers.

    I've drawn up a list of ten policy suggestions which I personally would like to have seen in today's programme, ranging from progressive ideas such as extending maternity pay over a full year and doing more to tackle inequality to democratic reforms such as an elected Second Chamber and giving the people their rightful say on the EU Treaty.

    To see the full list, and to vote on your own preferences, click HERE.

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    Good luck Bob

    Sincere congratulations to my old Lobby colleague Bob Roberts on his promotion to Mirror political editor. Although one of the nicest guys in the Press Gallery, Bob is well-used to coming first, having once won an Alan Shearer lookalike competition at his local boozer in Sarf London.

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    Julia G 4 Us!

    I have noticed over recent weeks that there seems to be much less interest in the current Lib Dem leadership contest among readers of this blog than there was last time round in February 2006. Perhaps this is because people are simply not inspired by the two candidates.

    If the results of my recent poll are anything to go by, what most of you really wanted to see was a generational/gender contest between Julia Goldsworthy and Charles Kennedy. I certainly agree that those two would have made it a much more interesting battle.

    Question: Who would you have voted for in the Lib Dem leadership contest had all these candidates been standing?

    Julia Goldsworthy 28%
    Charles Kennedy 24%
    Nick Clegg 8%
    David Laws 8%
    Vincent Cable 7%
    Steve Webb 7%
    Simon Hughes 6%
    Chris Huhne 6%
    Susan Kramer 4%
    Ed Davey 1%

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    Still waiting for that Big Vision

    When Gordon Brown decided not to hold a General Election this autumn, he said it was because he wanted to set out his "vision" to the country first. That phrase has haunted him ever since as candid friends such as Compass, the Fabians and myself urged him to set out that vision, while opponents such as Michael Gove concluded that he had none, that his sole remaining political objective was to remain in power as long as possible.

    Sad to say, I think today's Queen's Speech lends some further credence to the Gove analysis. If this is the full extent of Gordon's Big Vision, then heaven help us.

    In my Saturday Column a few weeks' back, I wrote: "If [Mr Brown] is regain the political initiative, he will need to set out an agenda which people will see as authentically and distinctively his own - one based on fairness and social justice."

    While there is some stuff in today's package that might merit that description - for instance the initiatives on housing, hospital cleanliness, flexible working and the school leaving-age - in terms of the overall message they will be completely drowned-out by the renewed focus on anti-terrorism measures, and the pledge, from a self-proclaimed champion of "liberty," to extend the detention-without-charge period to 56 days.

    Furthermore some of the more "progressive" aspects of the package are themselves problematical, for instance the pledge to build 3m new homes, which will involve some difficult trade-offs with the environmental lobby, and the requirement to keep all under-18s in some form of education, which some will see as another infringement of individual liberties.

    I will probably have a bit more to say about this on Liberal Conspiracy tomorrow and in my next Saturday column at the weekend. But take out the stuff about housing - a notorious blind spot of the last Prime Minister's - and what we have here is a Queen's Speech which Tony Blair could have delivered.

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    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Why I am joining the Liberal Conspiracy

    A few months ago I got an email from Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics asking me if I would be interested in contributing to a new liberal-left group blog designed to bring some balance to what has become an increasingly right-wing political blogosphere. To which the gist of my response was: too damned right I would.

    After much planning and hard work, most of it by Sunny, the new site, Liberal Conspiracy, is now live. Here is a piece I have written to explain why I will be getting involved, which also appears HERE.

    A Labour government in its tenth year of office is reduced to nicking ideas off the Tories. The leading contender for the Liberal Democrat leadership is a pro-market “Orange Booker.” And the political blogosphere has degenerated into an increasingly shrill right-wing mutual admiration society.

    “What’s Left?” you may well ask yourself. It’s as good a summary as any of the state of British politics – and British blogging – today.

    Different people will have different interpretations as to how we got here. From where I’m standing, the responsibility lies very clearly with the last Prime Minister who, though armed with two majorities of 160 plus at a time when the opposition couldn’t run a whelk stall, failed to build that progressive consensus of which he so often spoke.

    Damaged irreparably by the Iraq War and its grisly aftermath, he also failed to stand down soon enough to give his successor a similar opportunity to capitalise on the Tories’ weakness, waiting instead until they had revived under a new and charismatic young leader before finally departing the scene earlier this year.

    As a result, Gordon Brown now finds himself trapped in a lethal political conundrum by which he dare not set out an agenda that is too distinctively his own for fear ceding the fabled “political centre ground” to David Cameron, even though that centre ground has already shifted several degrees to the right.

    The Tory intellectual Michael Gove last week described Brown, woundingly, as a tragic figure, a thwarted idealist now unable to give effect to any of his old ideals, and for whom staying in power as long as possible has become the only remaining political objective.

    I am not sure things are quite as bad for him as all that, but the problem was well illustrated by a single headline in the Comment section of The Guardian last week: “Brown's fightback must be built on a real shift to the left.”

    Jon Cruddas and Jon Trickett, the joint authors of the article so headlined, did not use those words. Like “Crisis? What Crisis?” they were convenient journalistic shorthand. But they demonstrate how hard it is for those who articulate a liberal-left or “progressive” vision of society to explain that without recourse to labels the public finds unhelpful or alienating.

    In a sense, that’s also the challenge facing liberal-left bloggers: how do we make left politics engaging, exciting even? It’s easy to take refuge in the old saw that blogging is essentially oppositional, that it’s better to be a right-wing blogger when Labour is in power - harder to do anything about it.

    The truth is the right has had things its own way for far too long. The liberal-left blogosphere, still divided over Iraq and more generally over the whole New Labour project, has been too disparate to mount an effective challenge to the right-wing uber blogs, which by virtue of their size are now effectively part and parcel of the mainstream media

    The opportunity has long been there for a group of like-minded bloggers to come together to offer an alternative perspective on current political developments, and to set out an alternative vision for where politics might go in the post-Blair era.

    Liberal Conspiracy which is being launched today, is a possibly somewhat belated attempt to fill that vacuum. I am very pleased to have been asked to be a part of it.

  • Other left-of-centre bloggers and writers taking part in the project include: Aaron Heath, Alan T, Chris Dillow, Daniel Davies, Dave Hill, Dave Osler, Davide Simonetti, David T, Donald Strachan, Garry Smith, Henry Midgley, Jamie K, Jess McCabe, Justin McKeating, Kate Belgrave, Kerron Cross, Natalie Bennett, Padraig Reidy, Robert Sharp, Unity and Sunny Hundal.

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  • Saturday, November 03, 2007

    Gordon Brown and the sound of chickens coming home to roost

    Today's weekly column picks up on David Cameron's latest attempt to address the English Question, but focusing less on his pledge to create an "English Grand Committee" and more on the background to how Labour got itself such a mess on the issue.

    Of all the politicians in the UK, Gordon Brown bears more responsibility than any for the ongoing "English backlash," given his repeated refusal to reform the grossly iniquitous Barnett Formula despite a critical Treasury Select Committee report on the issue as long ago as 1999.

    In my column, I argue that Labour had a great opportunity to tackle Scotland's disproportionate share of public spending under the formula in 1999/2000 when the party was riding high politically and public expenditure as a whole was rising so sharply that the adjustment could effectively have been concealed.

    That opportunity has now been lost. The politics of the situation have changed utterly, with the SNP now very much in the ascendant, while public spending is no longer rising anything like as fast.

    "New Labour’s refusal to reform the Barnett Formula when it was in a position to do so is a metaphor for its entire performance in government. It had two majorities of 160 plus. It was faced by an opposition which wasn’t capable of running a whelk stall. It had a chance to do difficult but necessary things for the long-term benefit of the country. And it didn’t do them."

    The piece can be read in full on my companion blog HERE.

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    Friday, November 02, 2007

    What England means to me

    A few weeks ago, Toque invited me to join a new Facebook group called What England Means to Me, and to contribute to a new website of the same name. It's being billed as a "Domesday Book of the mind for England at the beginning of the 21st century" aimed at defining the oft-debated yet elusive notion of Englishness. My contribution will appear on the site shortly, but I thought I would also reproduce it here. It's not the usual kind of stuff you will find on this blog, but it does sum up, as best I can, how I feel about my beloved country.


    England is the land of my birth, and the land where I hope to end my days. The land of my fathers and mothers, and the land where I too will raise my children. The land from which I have sometimes travelled far, yet always longed to return to whenever I have left its shores. The land where I have enjoyed all my happiest moments, from the childhood summers in Sussex by the sea, to the Lakeland mountain walking holidays of the middle years. The land of music as varied yet as quintessentially English as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Genesis and The Smiths. A land of beer drinkers and pub culture, of bar-room camaraderie and foaming pints beside roaring log fires. A land of temperate sunshine and richly varying seasons whose weather is reflected in its politics, free from harsh extremes. A land rich in history, symbolised by the continuity of a royal line stretching back fifteen centuries, and by the more ordinary human stories which bear out the truth of TS Eliot’s beautiful verse: “A people without history is not redeemed from time...History is now and England.” A land which people have fought and died to save, and a land which, in my grandparents’ generation, stood alone against the most atrocious tyranny the world has ever seen. A land where the words of its greatest leader Winston Churchill forever bear witness to its indomitable spirit: “We will defend our island, whatever the cost may be...we will never surrender.”

    I hope to dwell in this land all my days and enjoy its safe pasture, and to bring up my children to love it as I have done.

    November 2007

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    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    More good advice for Brown

    Yesterday I suggested that if Gordon Brown wanted to be taken seriously as a champion of liberty he would have to reconsider the ID card scheme. I was pleased to see today that the Fabian Society takes a similar view.

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    Blair must go

    Peter Oborne explained in his recent book that one of the defining characteristics of the "political class" was the belief that their continuance in office is more important than any quaint notions of accountability for organisational failure. We saw it with Tony Blair when he refused to resign in the wake of the Butler Inquiry despite its devastating finding that intelligence on Iraqi WMD was distorted, and now we're seeing it with his namesake Sir Ian Blair over the equally damning de Menezes verdict.

    David Davis, Nick Clegg and Iain Dale are right. He should go. Am I the only person who finds it both surprising and depressing that it is a Labour Government that should be seeking to defend him?

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    Not the election day

    As other bloggers have already pointed out, today would have been General Election day had Gordon Brown announced a poll immediately after the end of the Conservative conference as was speculated at the time.

    Interestingly one of the key calculations in Gordon's dilemmma over whether to hold the first November election in living memory would have been the state of the weather, with conventional wisdom suggesting that the month's customarily gloomy days and dark evenings would have hit Labour's turnout disproportionately more than the Tories'.

    Well, I can't speak for the rest of the country, but up here in Derbyshire today it's been positively summery, so if the weather really was a factor in the Prime Minister's decision, he probably needn't have worried.

    But autumn sunshine or autumn rains, would Brown have won? No, I don't think so. I think the main movements in terms of seats would have been from Labour to SNP in Scotland and from Lib Dem to Tory in the South, with a small number of marginals changing hands directly from Labour to Tory.

    The upshot of all that would have made Labour the biggest single party in a hung Parliament, which would really have been the worst of all outcomes for all three party leaders.

    Gordon Brown, having thrown away a majority of 66 in a reckless gamble, would probably have had to resign. Sir Menzies Campbell would have tried to put together some sort of Lib-Lab coalition, but Nick Clegg and David Laws would have stopped him, and he would probably have had to go too.

    As for David Cameron, he might have struggled to persuade his party to give him a second chance in a situation where many Tory MPs would have expected him to win outright.

    The end result would almost certainly have been some sort of caretaker administration, and a second election next spring, quite possibly with three different party leaders. In a word: chaos.

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