Monday, April 28, 2008

Reflections on Arizona...and on what I've been missing

Okay, so leaving aside being mistaken for Phil Collins and nearly getting septicaemia, what else did I do on my holidays - and what do I make of what's been happening politically in my absense? Well, I'll come to that in a bit.

Each of my three trips to Arizona have been laden with emotion. My first, in 2003, was for my sister's wedding when I stood in my late father's place - one of the proudest days of my life. Unfortunately she got married right in the middle of the party conference season, and I was only able to stay a couple of days before dashing back to England in time to hear Duncan Smith turning up the frigging volume.

My second trip, for my brother-in-law Mitch's memorial service, has already been previously documented on this blog. The ten-and-a-half-hour flight to Phoenix that weekend was the saddest journey I have ever had to make, and I spent most of it listening to Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head. That line "God gave you style and gave you grace, and put a smile upon your face," will always remind me of Mitch.

So this, my third visit, was the first which my wife Gill and I have undertaken which didn't involve taking part in a rite of passage, and also the first we have undertaken with our two small children. It was certainly more relaxing than the first two, yet the place has such meaning for me now that it was impossible again not to be touched with emotion at being there.

Part of this is down to the sheer grandeur of the scenery. My sister lives in what are called the "desert foothills" and her garden, framed by panoramic mountain views all round, is a special place, populated only by cacti, mesquites, paloverdes, lizards and the odd tarantula.

It is at its very best in the early morning, before the heat of the day, and I loved to settle down there with a good book and put all the cares of the world behind me. As previously mentioned, my main choice of reading on this trip was Piers Morgan's Don't You Know Who I Am but I found this a rather odd mixture to be honest.

Although it has its funny bits - such as Morgan telling Charles Clarke to "stick it up your big fat arse" during a Labour conference reception - I found Morgan's obsession with becoming a celebrity slightly disconcerting and I think on the whole I preferred him in his tabloid editor incarnation, when he had a healthy contempt for the whole business.

Aside from chilling out, we found time for a trip to the Grand Canyon - my first time and Gill's second. It's certainly awesome but I suspect you would only get a true idea of its sheer scale by walking down into it and back up the other side. That's definitely one for another year.


I purposefully didn't blog while on holiday because I wanted to take some time for reflection on the current state of British politics. I have to confess to being somewhat depressed by this, and to be honest I have been for some time.

Like a lot of people of a naturally progressive bent, I did have very high hopes for the Gordon Brown administration, above all that he could impart some fresh moral purpose to Labour after more than a decade in power. Not only has he not done this, he has done the cause of the left terrible damage by appearing to surrender Labour's hard-won reputation for competence.

I still believe Gordon to be a good and decent man. I will continue to vigorously oppose those in the blogosphere who seek to attack him on the grounds of his so-called "psychological flaws," as if they themselves somehow have none.

But what I can no longer defend is the failure to set out some higher purpose for his administration other than simply remaining in power - a failure which risks handing the next election to David Cameron on a plate.

During my time away there has been mounting speculation about "civil war" breaking out inside the Labour Party if this Thursday's local election results are as bad as currently expected.

In my view, the suggestion that Brown should make way for a new leader remains fanciful without a very much clearer idea of what alternative his critics intend to put in his place. Simply substituting him with Jack Straw or even David Miliband will have zero impact unless other things change too.

Nevertheless, it is already clear that a leadership challenge this summer would have a very much better chance of success than one last summer would have done.

Maybe, just maybe, that was the Blairites' game plan all along....

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Aren't you that guy out of Genesis?

I promised some reflections on the Arizona holiday, and this was probably the funniest thing that happened to me during the course of it - although it actually happened on the plane from Phoenix to Chicago at the start of our return trip.

As I am fetching something from the overhead compartment, a middle-aged American guy in the seat behind (who actually looked a little like Danny De Vito though I didn't tell him so) taps me on the shoulder and goes: "Aren't you that guy out of Genesis, Phil wotsisname, Phil Collins?"

I politely assure him I am not although I do confess to being a bit of fan and to having seen the great men on their reunion tour in Manchester last summer.

I have actually been mistaken for Mr Collins once before, but that was over 25 years ago, when we both had hair. Perhaps the question I really should have asked my De Vito-lookalike was whether he really thought Phil Collins would be travelling economy class?

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

The aftermath of fever

Just a quick update for anyone who's wondering where I've been for the last fortnight - I got back from the US on Wednesday morning, and headed immediately for the doctor's surgery, having spent the flight back with a temperature of about 104 and feeling like death warmed up.

It turned out that a minor accident last Saturday involving a brush with a prickly pear cactus had led to some infection which had set off an adverse reaction. Apparently this is the sort of thing people died from before Mr Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, so on the whole I'm quite grateful to still be here!

Apart from that rather grisly ending, it was a great holiday, and some fuller reflections will follow soon.

Meanwhile, a prize for anyone (apart from Dave Gladwin) who can tell me which 22-minute album track the title of this post is taken from.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hors de combat - updated

I'm off to the States shortly to spend a bit of time with my sister out in sun-kissed Arizona, so blogging will be light in the time-honoured phrase. I may manage the odd book review - currently reading Piers Morgan's Don't you know who I am which is entertaining if not quite as instructive about the modern-day relationship between politics and journalism as his previous tome, The Insider. There will also be the odd update on Twitter, hopefully (see Sidebar.)

April 13 update: I see the Sunday papers back home today are full of speculation about a Labour leadership contest if the party does badly on May 1, with Jack Straw touted as the proverbial safe pair of hands to take over from Gordon. What no-one has bothered to explain is how this would actually improve Labour's election chances, but they've got to find something to write about I guess.

I had been hoping that by the time I get back, the blog wars might have toned down a notch....but with Tim having opened a new front I'm not holding my breath. Guys, guys.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A few lines on Politics Home

As most with a passing interest in political bloggery will know by now, Politics Home launched this week with the aim of creating a "Bloomberg" for politics. The leading personalities involved on the editorial side are Nick Assinder, Andrew Rawnsley and Martin Bright who are all fine journos and good chaps to boot, so I wish them well.

Meanwhile Freddie Sayers from the site has kindly emailed me with the results of their most recent Phi100 panel, an online focus group of cross-party MPs, senior political editors, commentators and campaign strategists.

The panel were asked: "How much do the following issues in the private lives of politicians influence the view voters have on them?" The results are listed below, with the percentage who thought it did have a negative influence on voters' perceptions of them in brackets.

1. Has a problem with alcohol (88.3% believe it has an influence)

2. Claims above average amounts from the taxpayer for meals and travel (77.4%)

3. Talks about green issues but is shown to use air travel much more than average (71.8%)

4. Has left his wife for another woman (55.8%)

5. Sends their children to private schools (51.1%)

6. Used cocaine when they were at university (48.8%)

7. Violates traffic laws (36.1%)

Politics Home is drawing the headline conclusion from this that "Cocaine is near the bottom of the seven deadly political sins." Fair enough - but I wonder if this is an issue on which the Westminster cognoscenti are ever so slightly divorced from the public at large?

For my part - and I'm speaking as a private individual here rather than attempting to second-guess the electorate - I would regard the use of cocaine at any stage of someone's life as leaving a very serious question mark over their fitness for public office.

For one thing, it indicates a lack of respect for the law of the land, which however much we might disagree with it, is something we are called on to follow. For another, it indicates to me a quite staggering degree of emotional immaturity.

Coke is bascially a drug used by social inadequates to maintain a self-confident facade and to make themselves "interesting." Of course most users end up talking complete bollocks but in a roomful of other cokeheads, that is unlikely to be noticed.

So I think the PHI panel are wrong on this one - but that is not to say I don't think Politics Home is potentially a great site.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

The nauseating hypocrisy of Peter Kilfoyle

I used to have a lot of time for Peter Kilfoyle. He should in my view have been made Chief Whip after Nick Brown was moved from the post in 1998 and after his resignation from the government the following year he played a valuable role in speaking up for the interests of Labour's forgotten heartlands, although such was Tony Blair's obsession with Middle England it didn't ultimately achieve much in terms in of the overall direction of government policy.

So I was even more amazed to read his early day motion tabled last Wednesday which has so far obtained nine signatures from MPs of all three parties, at least one of whom should have known better.

It reads:

That this House notes recent media commentary on the rolling programme of maintenance involving the Speaker's rooms; notes that £8.2 million has been spent on the renovation of the Press Gallery; also notes that the media pays nothing for the use of the premises, nor for London telephone calls; is bemused that 10 male members of the lobby have a car parking pass for the Palace of Westminster; is conscious of the annual subsidy to the Press Bar of £210,000; and therefore calls upon members of the Press Gallery to apply to themselves the same standards that they would demand of others.

This edm is so mendacious and misleading, so full of half-truths and innuendo that it deserves a damned good fisking, so here goes.

Half-truth: "This House....notes that £8.2 million has been spent on the renovation of the Press Gallery"

Fact: The Press Gallery essentially had the refurbishments forced on them. Back in 2003, when I was a member of the Gallery Committee, it was told that its offices no longer complied with Health and Safety Legislation, and would therefore have to be upgraded. This being the case, the Committee reluctantly went along with the refurbishment plan and tried to shape it as best it could, although it was abundantly clear from the start that the House authorities were working to a particular agenda, namely removing as many of the Gallery's communal facilities as possible and maximising the amount of office space.

This, in the end, is precisely what happened. The Press Gallery dining room was lost, the gallery library was moved to a much smaller area, and the gallery bar was infamously combined with the cafeteria. In the words of the syncretistic lobby hack Bill Blanko it now has all the atmosphere of an airport terminal.

Half-truth: "This House...notes that the media pays nothing for the use of the premises, nor for London telephone calls."

Fact: Kilfoyle knows perfectly well that if the media were to be charged market rates for the use of office accommodation in Westminster, the regional press, including Kilfoyle's own Liverpool Echo, would cease to have a presence in the Commons altogether. It is frankly unbelievable to see a man who has previously posed as an advocate for the interests of the English regions making this argument.

Half-truth: "This bemused that 10 male members of the lobby have a car parking pass for the Palace of Westminster

Fact: What Kilfoyle doesn't mention is that many MPs now have two car park passes. This enables them to park their second cars in the Palace underground car park permanently. The Commons authorities actually stopped handing out new car park passes to journalists several years ago. The ten that remain are held by extremely long-serving lobby men. Each time a journalist passholder leaves or retires, their pass is now reallocated as an additional pass for an MP.

Half-truth: "This conscious of the annual subsidy to the Press Bar of £210,000."

Fact: Peter Kilfoyle has regularly benefited from the availability of subsidised ale in the Press Bar. By my reckoning only John Spellar and Phil Woolas (whose job it was to patrol the Bar and find out what hacks were writing about the next day) were more regular attenders than Kilfoyle in the years 1997-2004. Maybe he's sobered up a bit since then.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Local elections are make-or-break for Brown

My weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal will be the last for a couple of weeks, so with the local elections coming up it seemed a good opportunity for a general overview of the current political situation.

Just before Christmas, Skipper said that Gordon Brown had at best six months "to prevent burnt out incompetence and drift becoming the default perception of his government." I have seen no better description of the Prime Minister's current predicament and I acknowledge my debt to him in helping me formulate this week's piece.

Of course, those six months are now nearly up, and the local election campaign really provides Gordon with his last opportunity to launch a fightback before that "default perception" becomes fixed in the public's mind.

Here's the column in full.


There was a time, shortly after Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister last July, when Thursday May 1 2008 could have seemed a plausible date for the next General Election.

Mr Brown will by then have been in power for nearly a year – a milestone which at one time might have looked like a logical point at which to try for a fresh mandate.

Of course, the Prime Minister famously decided against an early election last autumn and in so doing effectively ruled out this spring as an option too.

If he harboured any lingering doubts as to whether he should perhaps have left the door slightly ajar, what has happened to the economy since will surely have dispelled them.

But we are, nevertheless, still going to have a significant electoral contest next month, namely the local elections in England and Wales.

In the North-East, it will mean contests in all the big metropolitan councils as well as in the counties of Durham and Northumberland which become unitary authorities next May.

The London Mayoralty is also up for grabs, with Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone facing a determined challenge from Tory Boris Johnson.

Taken together, it will constitute the first big national test of public opinion since Mr Brown took over – and the omens for the government currently look pretty depressing.

After last year’s Awful Autumn in which Mr Brown’s administration staggered from disaster to disaster, the political situation appeared to have stabilised in the early months of this year.

The Prime Minister recruited a new team of advisers at No 10, and it began to look as though they had started to turn things around.

But all that seemed to change with last month’s Budget which, while it may well come to be viewed in a better light, is clearly failing to impress the public at the present time.

The result is that opinion polls over recent weeks have shown David Cameron’s Conservatives with leads of up to 13 points, putting him for the first time in potential landslide territory.

Inevitably given the characters involved, the most national media attention in the run up to next month’s polls will be focused on the Livingstone-Johnson prizefight in the capital.

The Tory challenger currently appears poised for a sensational victory and, not for the first time, Mr Brown finds himself faced with a difficulty of his predecessor’s making.

Tony Blair was desperate to get Ken back in the Labour tent in 2004 to give the party a morale-boosting success in the run-up to the 2005 General Election.

Mr Brown was opposed to it then, and with Mr Livingstone now seemingly facing what would be a morale-shattering defeat for Labour, he must be wishing he had got his way

But while there is no doubt that the loss of London would constitute a major blow to the government, that would not be the worst of it if Labour also suffers a rout across the rest of the country.

Until recently, Labour has been able to point to the fact that while its own ratings were in the doldrums, there had been no corresponding outpouring of enthusiasm for the Tories. I have made the same point myself in this column

But once the Tories start winning actual votes, actual seats and actual councils, it will become much harder to make this claim.

The big danger for Mr Brown from these elections is that he ends up looking like a certain loser while Mr Cameron starts to take on the aura of a surefire winner – just as Mr Blair did in the mid-1990s.

Already, the Labour troops are growing restless. This week saw the remarkable spectacle of the sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, criticising a key aspect of the Budget – the rise in alcohol duties.

Another minister, Ivan Lewis, laid into Mr Brown last weekend, arguing that the government is out of touch with ordinary Labour voters.

Meanwhile several former ministers and one-time loyalists have signed a Commons motion opposing the forthcoming abolition of the 10p starting rate of tax, announced by Mr Brown himself in last year’s Budget.

And if that were not enough, former Home Secretary Charles Clarke has helpfully produced a “doomsday list” of Labour-held southern seats he says are at risk unless the Prime Minister can stop the rot.

The respected commentator Peter Riddell said this week: “The malaise is real and it is widespread. The Brown Government is in deep trouble.

“The sense that something is seriously wrong has spread, ominously, to Labour MPs, not just disgruntled ex-ministers but normal loyalists.”

The worry for Mr Brown is that a heavy series of Labour defeats on May 1 could cause these rumblings of discontent to escalate into a full-scale civil war.

A spate of Tory victories in the South and Midlands will inevitably cause some Labour MPs in marginal seats to question whether it’s their necks on the block – or the Prime Minister’s.

After the serial catastrophes of last autumn, it was always the case that the first six months of this year would be make-or-break for Mr Brown’s premiership.

We waited for Mr Brown to set out his “vision,” but it never happened. We waited for him to demonstrate that his government had some higher purpose than simply staying in power, but that never really happened either.

As a result, the default perception of his administration has become one of burnt-out incompetence and drift leading inevitably towards terminal decline and defeat.

If that perception is not to become permanently fixed in the public’s mind, the fightback really must start here.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The politics of blog envy

I am not going to take sides in the current willy waving contest serious and important debate about blog stats over at Devil's Kitchen - basically because I am not enough of an expert in these things to know whose definition of unique visitors is actually correct.

But one thing I would like to say on the matter - and I have already said it on his blog - is that I am glad Tim Ireland has taken this opportunity to refute the oft-made accusation that his campaigns against Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are driven by envy of their "success." They are not.

I have had some dealings with Tim down the years and I am as convinced as I can be that, whether or not you agree with him, his motivation is the greater good of the British blogosphere rather than the greater glory of Tim Ireland.

Mat Bowles, who himself ran one of the best medium-sized blogs before opting out of the stats race, has put it rather well on the DK thread and I can't improve on his summary.

I have said before that the blogosphere owes Iain and Guido a great deal for "popularising" the medium and forcing not just the MSM but also the government to sit up and take notice of us. But it also owes Tim a great deal for demonstrating its potential power as a campaigning tool - witness this example from only last week.

Oh, and for the record, my own willy is currently about a fifth of the size of Iain's (by Tim's conservative assessment) and around half the size of Tim's - but I'm not bothered about that any more than he is.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Openness, but only up to a point

Yesterday I ran a rather light-hearted post on the "Nick Clegg Superstud" revelations and other true stories that should have been April Fools. Judging by the lack of comments this attempt at sardonic humour obviously completely bombed, so it's back to serious today.

As the sage of Shropshire Jonathan Calder has already pointed out, releasing Clegg's GQ interview yesterday was a fiendishly clever piece of news management by the Lib Dems. The fact that it came out on April 1 would have led many people who read the story to assume it was a spoof, thereby lessening its impact.

But spoof it isn't and those Lib Dems of a sensitive disposition now have to get used to the fact that they now have a reformed serial shagger and teenage arsonist for a leader.

In what looks like something of a damage-limitation exercise, some of Clegg's colleagues have today praised his openness in being prepared to talk about such things, but they are missing one very vital point.

For me, the really interesting thing about Clegg is that while he is happy for us to know he was rather promiscuous in his younger days, happy for us to know he was an arsonist, happy for us to know he was a binge-drinker, even happy for us to know that he doesn't believe in God, he is still not prepared to say whether or not he has ever taken illegal drugs.

Once again, it begs the question just what is it about the drugs question that puts the willies up our political leaders, that causes the likes of Clegg to switch instantly from heart-on-the-sleeve mode to we're-entitled-to-a-private-life mode?

David Cameron famously refused to answer the same question after he became his party's leader, but even he owned up in the end, although the revelation that he had enjoyed a few spliffs at uni was a bit of a let-down to those who assumed his initial reticence must have meant the entire family fortune had disappeared up his nose.

If Clegg really does believe in "openness," he should bury this last taboo.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Top 10 April Fools That Weren't

We learn courtesy of this morning's Guardian that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has not only shagged up to 30 women but that he once set fire to a greenhouse full of cacti while pissed out of his brain. Unfortunately for Lib Dem supporters, it wasn't an April Fool, and neither was John "greed is good" Hutton being named the best-performing Labour minister in March, albeit on a Tory-supporting blog.

Here's ten other true stories from the past year or so that really should have been April Fools...Feel free to add your own nominations in the comments.

Northern Rock boss gets £760,000 pay-off

Health inequality widens under Labour

Gordon Brown invites Thatcher to tea

Anglican archbishop calls for Sharia Law

Catherine Tate becomes Dr Who's assistant

Balshaw returns as England full-back

Harriet Harman elected deputy Labour leader

Andrew Porter appointed Telegraph Political Editor

China awarded the 2008 Olympics

Mugabe wins the Zimbabwean election

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