Saturday, June 28, 2008

Will they stick their heads above the parapet this time?

Column published in today's Newcastle Journal looking at Gordon's staggeringly great result in Henley. Not.


One of the most enjoyable events in the party conference season is the quaintly-named Glee Club, a sort of semi-drunken community sing-song that occurs on the last night of the Liberal Democrats’ annual shindig.

There is a certain amount of black humour involved for the Lib Dems – the song lyrics mainly consist of self-mocking references to past political failures.

One of my favourites is the one which goes “Losing deposits, losing deposits, who’ll come-a-losing deposits with me?” to the tune of Waltzing Matilida.

They don’t sing that one at the Labour conference. But then again, the Labour Party doesn’t normally do lost deposits.

Well, the party didn’t just lose its deposit in Thursday’s Henley by-election, it contrived to finish fifth behind the British National Party and the Greens.

As an anniversary present to mark Gordon Brown’s first year in 10 Downing Street yesterday, it was probably about as welcome as a bucket of cold sick.

It was, by any objective criteria, the most embarrassing by-election result for a major party since David Owen’s “continuing SDP” finished seventh behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party at Bootle in 1990.

The SDP was duly wound-up soon afterwards. The question is: will Gordon Brown’s premiership suffer the same fate?

To some extent, we’ve been here before. Five weeks ago, people were asking precisely the same question in the wake of the Crewe and Nantwich by election, which saw Labour defeated on a 17.6pc swing.

Many anticipated that over the course of the ensuing week, a senior party figure would break ranks and move against Mr Brown.

Some predicted that Charles Clarke or Alan Milburn would spearhead the revolt, others that Justice Secretary Jack Straw would hand Mr Brown the pearl-handed revolver.

In the event, none of it happened. But this time round, it could just be different.

I sensed then that the prevailing mood in the party in the immediate aftermath of Crewe and Nantwich was that they needed another leadership contest like a hole in the head.

Instead, they wanted to give Mr Brown the chance to turn things around, although there was acknowledgement that he would have to be able to point to some tangible improvements by the autumn at the latest.

A month or so on, though, the mood among Labour MPs appears to have hardened.

There now seems to be a much more widespread view in the PLP that Mr Brown is now so badly damaged that the party cannot win so long as he remains in charge.

For what it’s worth, I am one of a declining number of people who actually think the Prime Minister could yet pull it out of the bag – though I admit it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances.

It would probably require him to be dramatically vindicated on an issue of such importance that the public was forced to reassess its view of him.

One such instance could be the kind of improvement in the economy that would restore Mr Brown’s now badly-tarnished reputation as a brilliant economic manager.

Another might be a terrorist attack so serious that the other two main parties were made to look foolish in their opposition to Mr Brown’s plans to lock up terror suspects for 42 days.

But both of these are unlikely scenarios. A much more probable outcome is that the Brown administration will either limp on and on to inevitable defeat – or that the party will finally bite the bullet and replace him.

For that to happen, it will first require someone to do what Tom Watson, Kevan Jones et al did in the autumn of 2006, and place their heads above the parapet.

Durham North MP Mr Jones was one of the signatories of a round-robin letter calling on the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to set out a timetable for his departure.

Mr Watson aside, the so-called “coup” failed to spark the anticipated wave of ministerial resignations, but it did ultimately succeed in forcing Mr Blair to cut his premiership short.

Were a minister to resign now on the grounds that he or she could not support Mr Brown’s continued leadership, it would surely do for the Prime Minister.

By bringing the whole issue of the leadership to a head, it would almost certainly spark off a domino-effect which would reach all the way up to the senior levels if the Cabinet.

Increasingly, attention is being focused on Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband as the man who, potentially, can save the party from a general election rout.

I personally remain to be convinced that he wants the job. But if he does want it, I think it’s probably now his to lose.

What is certainly the case is if there is to be a change of leadership, it would be better for Labour were that to happen sooner rather than later.

Some fatalists in the party advance the view that it would be better to let Mr Brown take the rap for the next election defeat so a new leader can start afresh with a clean slate.

But it’s bunkum. If there is the slightest chance that Labour can yet renew itself in office by turning to someone who can meet the electorate’s desire for change, they would be mad not to take it.

After all, they certainly don’t want to go a-losing deposits again if they can help it.

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Happiness is...

..a pint on the terrace of the Queen's Head, Belper, early on a Friday evening in June.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Sweeney rides again

You really couldn't make it up. Just days after my Where Are They Now? profile of former Tory MP Walter Sweeney appears in the launch issue of Total Politics, the bugger decides to make a political comeback. He's one of 25 candidates standing against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election on July 10 - but as an independent, not as a Conservative.

I just wonder if Sweeney read Total Politics and decided it was a bit early for people (ie, me) to be writing his political obituary?

A more likely explanation is that it's a revenge match against DD for having masterminded the notorious whipping operation on the Maastricht Bill in 1992 that ended with Sweeney being locked in a House of Commons toilet.

It is also surely significant that Haltemprice and Howden is Sweeney's local consituency. As I pointed out in my Total Politics piece, nowadays he is a local solicitor in the village of North Cave, near Hull.

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All the week's journalism news

This blog's main business may be politics, but journalism news and issues have always featured strongly as I obviously have more than a passing acquaintance with and interest in the newspaper industry.

I'm currently looking after the HoldtheFrontPage journalism website and I've launched a new feature today called Journalism News Digest which rounds up the main stories of the week. Anyone who is interested can read it HERE.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

And now for something completely different

An old friend of mine recently made me very envious by taking a three-month sabbatical from his job and using some of the time to drive across the United States. I was delighted to discover he has also started a blog in which he shares his experiences of the journey.

It's an anonymous blog so I won't use his name here, but he is in fact the Anglican vicar who married Gill and I nearly seven years ago, someone who has been one of the greatest and most positive influences on me in my Christian life over the past decade or so.

The blog, entitled Honk If You're Lonely, is part travelogue, part spiritual diary, and is as fascinating and inspirational as its author's perfectly-crafted sermons. If you're into that sort of thing, you can read it HERE.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Was Navratilova the greatest?

Well, according to a Top 100 list of all-time Wimbledon champions in today's Times, she was. But are the men's and women's games really comparable - and would Martina have been quite as successful had the women's game in her day been as competitive as it is now?

The Times has attempted to introduce an objective criteria for measuring greatness, but for me, things like this are a subjective judgement. The greatest players I have seen at Wimbledon in all my years of watching the tournament are as follows:


1. Rod Laver
2. John McEnroe
3. Roger Federer
4. Pete Sampras
5. Bjorn Borg
6. Ken Rosewall
7. Andre Agassi
8. Boris Becker
9. Jimmy Connors
10. Ilie Nastase


1. Serena Williams
2. Martina Navratilova
3. Steffi Graf
4. Justine Henin
5. Billie Jean King
6. Venus Williams
7. Martina Hingis
8. Margaret Court
9. Chris Evert
10. Evonne Goolagong

There are three names on my list who never actually won the Wimbledon title - Rosewall, Nastase and Henin - but all three graced the game with their artistry and richly deserved to lift the crown.

Laver and Serena top the list simply because, in my view, they were unbeatable at their respective peaks - complete tennis machines both.

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Great cricketing quotations of our time No 94

"Cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe. I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen."

Robert Mugabe

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Should Brown sacrifice his Darling?

Nick Robinson posed an interesting question on the Today Programme this morning - for those who missed it, he has helpfully reproduced the entire script on his blog. But basically the gist of it was: should Gordon Brown sack Alistair Darling as Chancellor as part of a planned "autumn relaunch" of the government?

There will be those who will regard such a question as simply irrelevant, in that the plight of the Brown premiership is no so dire as to be beyond such rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Others will argue that Mr Darling is scarcely to blame for the economic difficulties that have buffeted Labour moreorless ever since he took over the job. The Tories' line of attack would doubtless be that he is simply the "fall guy" for Mr Brown.

Both of these are fair points. But for me, the reason Mr Darling should be replaced is the same two reasons that he should never have got the job in the first place - one, because he is Scottish, two, because he is rather dull.

It was always going to be the case that, with Brown as premier, having another Scot in what is effectively the No 2 government role was going to be tricky. When that Scot has a reputation for being almost as dour as Brown himself, it was going to be doubly so.

It would have made a great deal more sense had Brown appointed David Miliband or Alan Johnson to the Treasury role as soon as he has taken over. A year on, they are probably now the two Labour ministers with the most popular appeal. If it is to give itself even a chance at the next election, the party must play to its strengths by promoting one of them - probably Miliband - to the Chancellorship.

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Total Politics goes live

The Total Politics website is now live and my "Where are they now?" contribution can be found HERE.

As previously mentioned, this is the first of a regular series focusing on shooting stars of the political firmament - those who enjoyed a brief fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety before returning to obscurity. In issue No 1, I focus on Walter Sweeney, a former Tory MP best known for a delightful story involving a crunch Commons vote, a 22-stone government whip, and a toilet.

On the subject of Total Politics, I was interested to read this interview with the magazine's publisher, Iain Dale in yesterday's Observer, in particular this paragraph.

"I think blogs as a phenomenon are on a plateau at the moment," he says. "Readership is growing but I don't see any great innovation. I see the mainstream media organisations embracing blogging and doing it quite well, eclipsing them in some areas. I'm really disappointed there have not been five or six other people that have built a mass readership. There are only four blogs [Dale's own, plus PoliticalBetting, ConservativeHome and Guido Fawkes] that have done that, and there's a huge gap between the four of us and the next 10."

I don't for a minute doubt Iain's sincerity in saying this - he has often gone out of his way to promote other, smaller blogs that he thinks worthy of note, including this one - but it's a fact of economic life that once someone - or a group of people - establishes a market dominance, it becomes much harder for anyone else to break in.

In a way, what has happened with UK political blogging is a bit like what has happened with UK supermarkets. There, too, you have a "big four" in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, with the smaller players a long way behind.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Gordon's paper anniversary

In today's column in the Newcastle Journal, I concede that I got it wrong about Gordon Brown. Well, sort of. You'll have to read to the end to find out what I mean!


This Friday, June 27, Gordon Brown will mark what, in usual circumstances, would be a significant political milestone – the first anniversary of his succession to the premiership.

When 12 months ago the newly-elected Prime Minister addressed the nation outside No 10 Downing Street, little could he have imagined how quickly his fortunes would turn around.

He spoke then of his old school motto: “I will try my utmost.” Later, in his first Labour Party conference speech as premier, he promised: “I will not let you down.”

But sadly, that is exactly what he has done. Indeed for many people, to describe the Brown premiership as a let-down would be the understatement of the century.

Over the years leading up to Mr Brown’s accession to the top job, there was a widespread view among centre-left commentators that he would be an improvement on what had gone before.

Since I was one of those who shared that analysis, this column amounts to something of a mea culpa.

We thought that Mr Brown would cast off his customary dourness once he got to No 10. We thought he would put an end to spin. We thought he would lead the Labour Party in a fresh and radical new direction.

And on all of those scores, the truth of the matter is that we got him wrong.

Part of my optimism about Mr Brown as a putative Prime Minister was based on my knowledge of him as a private man, and the hope and expectation that his personal qualities would shine through once he assumed the top job.

In all my admittedly limited dealings with them, I found he and Tony Blair to be an almost exact reversal of their public personas.

On the three occasions I interviewed Mr Blair for this newspaper, I found him shy, ill-at-ease and totally unable to make even the most rudimentary small-talk.

Mr Brown, by contrast, I found charming, witty, eager to engage in conversation - in short, nothing like the grim Stalinist control-freak he is now widely perceived as.

There were other grounds for optimism. Mr Brown had always portrayed himself as the serious one in the Blair-Brown partnership, and after a decade of showmanship from Mr Blair, the public seemed ready for that.

Allied to this was a feeling that the new man would eschew then reliance on spin that tarnished the Blair era - “not Flash, just Gordon” as the slogan put it.

It could have been a winner, but as the commentator Jonathan Freedland pointed out this week, Brown himself put paid to it by his behaviour over the election-that-never-was last autumn.

“The effect was to show that Brown was as much a calculating schemer as anyone else in the trade – he just wasn’t very skilful or subtle at it. Not flash, just a politician,” he wrote.

But above all, our optimism about Gordon Brown was based on his long record of championing the social justice agenda within a government that often seemed careless of traditional Labour values.

He, after all, was the Chancellor who quietly redistributed billions of pounds to the worst-off in society via his system of tax credits.

He was the man whose successive comprehensive spending reviews pumped billions more into the vital public services on which the worst-off in society most depended.

And he was the man who, each September, would stand up and reassure the party faithful that real Labour “var-lews” as he called them had not been forgotten despite all appearances to the contrary.

Was he just playing to the left-wing gallery all that time? Well, it would seem so.

When Mr Brown took over, the expectation was that he would “hit the ground running” with a blitz of an announcements designed to signal a clean break with the Blair era.

In his statement outside No 10, he appeared to encourage that view, declaring that this would be a “new government with new priorities” and concluding with the words: “Now let the work of change begin.”

But to paraphrase an old political joke, while he may have been elected as New Brown, but he has governed very much as Old Blair.

So there has been no attempt, for instance, to tackle the widening inequalities in our society, or address the decline in social mobility that occurred throughout the Thatcher-Major-Blair years.

And far from drawing a line under Mr Blair’s foreign policy disasters, if anything last week’s press conference with President Bush showed him in full Blair mode.

Our expectations of Mr Brown weren’t purely based on wishful thinking. Radical plans for his premiership were indeed drawn up before he took over, some of which were briefed in advance to journalists.

But when it came to the crunch, Mr Brown bottled it, just as he bottled out of the election and just as he has now bottled out of taking on David Davis over 42-day detention – a decision he may well come to regret.

The real tragedy, though, is that we didn’t really get Mr Brown wrong at all. He is indeed all those things we always thought he was.

He is a decent, serious man with a passion for social justice and an overriding concern for the underdog. What he lacked was simply the political courage to be himself once he got to No 10.

That fatal loss of nerve is the single biggest reason why Gordon won’t be hanging out the bunting as he marks his first anniversary this Friday, and why his primary emotion will be one of relief at having lasted even a year.

I for one would currently lay reasonably long odds against him making it to two

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Talking Total Politics

The new monthly political magazine Total Politics is launching next week and I am pleased to say that I will be contributing to it in a freelance capacity.

I will be writing a regular column for the mag called "Where are they now?" which will focus on people who enjoyed a brief fifteen minutes of political fame before disappearing into the obscurity from whence they came.

Typical examples will include Lib Dem by-election victors who lost their seats at the subsequent GE, long forgotten loony-left council leaders from the 1980s, and Tory MPs whose Westminster careers were flushed into oblivion by the Blair landslide in 1997.

I'm very pleased to have been given this opportunity by the carefully politically-balanced Total Politics team headed by publisher Iain Dale (Con) and editor Sarah Mackinlay (Lab), and wish them well with the launch.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The last days of the Raj?

As a fellow University College London alumnus I naturally wish Raj Persaud well in his efforts to save his career amid accusations of plagiarising other peoples' work. Whatever else you say about him, he has certainly put psychiatry on the media map.

That said, I can't say I am hugely surprised that Persaud has found himself in a situation where his skill for self-publicism appears to have backfired on him.

In my first year, he was chair of the UCL Labour Club, in which capacity he demonstrated an easy charm and ability to bullshit which was almost pre-Blairite in its magnitude. I thought then that he could have gone a long way in national politics had he chosen to.

Later, he signed my nomination papers for an elected student union post only to tell me afterwards that he had voted for someone else. This too, I later came to learn, was a fairly commonplace practice among political types.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

So farewell then, Shoot! magazine

In an announcement which will surely cut deep into the hearts of fortysomething British males everywhere....IPC has announced that Shoot! magazine is to close after forty years.

I first started getting the mag at the age of eight in 1971 and until I discovered girls about seven or eight years later, the arrival of the latest fortnightly edition was the most eagerly anticipated event in my calendar.

The line-up of star writers in those days comprised the cream of British footballing talent - Bobby Moore, George Best, Billy Bremner, Alan Ball and Kevin Keegan.

The fact that they were not necessarily always positive role models for us young readers - Bremner and Keegan were sent off for fighting in the '74 Charity Shield, while Ball was sent off while playing for England earlier the same year - only added to its appeal.

My most treasured issue was perhaps the 1978 World Cup special which contained a number of confident predictions about Scotland's likely progress in the tournament, but I must have stopped getting the mag soon after that.

It's a shame that, like Camberwick Green and Trumpton, it won't be around for my own son to enjoy.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Calling all rats up drainpipes

As long-standing readers of this blog will know, Tony Bevins was one of my journalistic heroes. So it was good to hear that a group of friends and former colleagues have established the Bevins Prize both as a way of remembering him and as a means of encouraging and promoting investigative journalism.

The prize is a bronze statue of a rat up a drainpipe, which the organisers believe captured the essence of his approach to journalism.

Always a great believer in the merits of original research, Bevins would have been appalled by the prevalence of "churnalism" in the national media that exists today.

The organisers say the judges will be looking for work that required assiduous digging, and that successfully challenged those in power. I can think of a few bloggers whose work might well qualify.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

A waste of a good man

Column published in today's Newcastle Journal on the Davis resignation.


Over the course of 20 years or so following and writing about British politics, I can safely say there is nothing that political journalists enjoy more than a good resignation.

For sheer drama, probably none could rival Michael Heseltine’s departure from the Thatcher Cabinet over the Westland affair in 1986.

Emerging from the front door of No 10, he strode across to waiting camera crews and told the world: “I have resigned from the government, and will be making a full statement later today.”

With that he was gone, his beanpole frame receding into the distance along Downing Street as stunned reporters paused for breath.

Mr Heseltine’s exit – though not the matter of it – was half-expected, but for sheer shock value, the sudden resignation of Ron Davies from Tony Blair’s Cabinet in 1998 would be hard to beat.

The Welsh Secretary was obliged to quit after being mugged by a stranger he had met on Clapham Common and agreed to go out for a meal with in what he later called “a moment of madness.”

The resignation of Shadow Home Secretary David Davis on Thursday was both dramatic and unexpected.

But in the longer-run, will it turn out to be a resignation that was soon forgotten, like Ron Davies’s, or one that altered the course of modern political history, like Heseltine’s?

Well, at this juncture, it is hard to tell. Mr Davis’s initial aim appears to have been to use the platform of a by-election to turn the row over 42-day detention into a huge public debate.

With Labour now appearing unlikely to take up the challenge of defending its own policies, it is not at all clear whether this will be achieved.

The contest in Haltemprice and Howden – once the fictional seat of Rik Mayall’s Alan B’Stard – looks set to turn into a one-man crusade by Davis against UKIP, the Monster Raving Loony Party and Sun columnist Kelvin Mackenzie.

It will be an entertaining enough media sideshow, but by this time next month, the wider political agenda may well have moved on to other issues.

Against that, the apparent refusal by Labour to field a candidate will doubtless be fully exploited by Mr Davis as an admission that 42-day detention does not, after all, command public support.

Indeed, he has already said that Gordon Brown would be guilty of “an extraordinary act of cowardice” in not opposing him.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Mr Davis on this point as well as on his wider arguments about the steady erosion of British civil liberties and the growth of the surveillance state.

If Mr Brown really was confident of his ground on 42 days, his attitude should have been: “If he wants an argument about terrorism, he can have one.”

Sure, if Mr Davis were to go on to win big, it would explode the Prime Minister's claim that there is public support for the measure and make it harder for Labour to use the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords.

But equally, if Labour did better than expected, it would puncture the Tory revival and perhaps demonstrate that Mr Brown’s recent difficulties had bottomed-out.

But the politician with the most to fear from a successful and highly-publicised Davis campaign in the East Yorkshire seat is not the Prime Minister, but Tory leader David Cameron.

He now faces the prospect of his old rival returning to the Commons with a thumping personal mandate and the potential to become a focus for discontent on the backbenches.

For there is no doubt that the kind of issues being championed by Mr Davis resonate widely not just within the Tory Party but also among the wider public.

In his dramatic statement outside the Commons on Thursday, Mr Davis railed not just 42-day detention but also ID cards, CCTV cameras, the DNA database and restrictions to jury trial.

Another of his bugbears is the march of political correctness, and the implications which this has for freedom of expression and other historic liberties.

If Mr Davis can make himself the focus for popular discontent about these “libertarian” type issues, his leader will face an awkward dilemma over what to do with him.

The smart move for Mr Cameron in those circumstances might be to swallow his pride and welcome Mr Davis back inside the tent.

But it already seems clear from his comments about the "permanent" appointment of Dominic Grieve as Shadow Home Secretary that he does not intend to do that.

If so, it will be more good news for the government, given Mr Davis’s awesome effectiveness in the role of Shadow Home Secretary since 2003.

During that time he has personally seen-off three Labour ministers - Beverley Hughes over work permits for one-legged Romanian roofers, David Blunkett over the Kimberley Quinn affair, and Charles Clarke over the release of foreign offenders.

If Mr Davis is not to be Home Secretary in the next Conservative government, it would, in my view, be a loss not only to the party but to the country.

He is one of the few big personalities left in an increasingly monochrome House of Commons and had he been a more effective platform orator, I am certain he would now be the country’s putative next Prime Minister.

He was the overwhelming favourite to win the Tory leadership in 2005, but lost it in the space of half an hour with a conference speech that was as dreadful as Mr Cameron’s was inspired.

That he now appears set to end his career as a Powell-like figure crying in the wilderness seems, to me, a waste of a rare talent.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Labour should stand and fight

The talk is that Labour is set to piss on David Davis's bonfire and emulate the Lib Dems by refusing to run a candidate in the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election. This would be a serious missed opportunity for two reasons.

Firstly, it presents a chance for Gordon and the party to take a stand on a serious issue of principle with very little political risk attached. The attitude should be: "If David Davis wants a debate about terrorism, let him have one."

The worst than can happen is the part will lose the by-election - which everyone expects it to anyway - but if it's true that Labour is closer to public opinion on this issue than the Tories, they might actually do much better than anticipated.

But there is a deeper, more devious reason why Labour should play along with Davis's game for now - because it is not in fact in Gordon Brown's political interests for the former Shadow Home Secretary's bonfire to be pissed on.

In fact, if anything the Prime Minister should be busily pouring petrol on the flames. The more publicity that Davis's by-election stunt attracts, the more awkward it will make it for David Cameron

I'd even go so far as to say it's a win-win situation for Brown. Either Davis does worse than expected, which will puncture the Tory revival, or he returns to the Commons with a thumping majority to make more mischief for Dave.

It is clear to me from DC's coments about the "permanent" appointment of Dominic Grieve that he does not intend to bring Davis back into the Shadow Cabinet, which is even better news for Labour.

Not only has the Tory frontbench now lost its star performer, but he is set to return as a Michael Heseltine-type figure on the backbenches. Gordon will be a happier man tonight.

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This will weaken Cameron

David Davis's shock decision to resign from the Commons and fight a by-election over 42-day detention is, ostensibly at least, designed to mount a challenge to the moral authority of the Brown government.

In the longer-term, it could achieve just that. If Mr Davis is successful, it will explode the Prime Minister's claim that there is public support for the measure and make it much harder for Labour to use the Parliament Act to force the measure through the Lords.

But without doubt, this decision also has to be seen as a severe blow to David Cameron. It is clear there has been some almighty bust-up between the Tories' two main men, and as a result Mr Cameron's authority will now be seriously called into question.

Davis was also the best-performing member of the Shadow Cabinet by a mile and has consistently made all his opposite numbers at the Home Office appear "unfit for purpose" in John Reid's immortal words. If this is the end of his frontbench career, it will be a sad loss to the party - and potentially to the country to.

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The right man wins

No, I don't mean Gordon Brown and 42 days, I'm talking about Lee McQueen and The Apprentice. And here, for anyone who missed it, is that famous Reverse Pterodactyl impersonation.

Incidentally Charlie Brooker had an interesting take on this exchange between McQueen and Paul Kemsley in his Screenburn column last Saturday. I record this in full below as I agree with every word of it.

"While we're on the subject of Lee, there was a glaring example of the show unfairly setting him up to look like a prick the moment his interview kicked off, when Johnny Vegas asked him to impersonate a pterodactyl, then sneered at him for not taking the interview seriously as soon as he did so. What is this, Guantánamo Bay? Why not really dick with his mind by asking him to take a seat, then kicking it out from under him and calling him a subservient seat-taking imbecile?"

So anyway, that's The Apprentice over with for another year. Lee may have deserved his victory last night, but my favourite candidate over the whole of this year's series was Jennifer Maguire, the self-styled "best saleswoman in Europe" who was fired after ballsing up the Marrakesh bazaar task.

Irish Jennifer came over as a bit of an ice-maiden during the programme, but, judging by this report, that wasn't her true personality at all.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Colin M. Howard 1944-2008

I realise this post will probably be of little interest to those who visit here primarily for the quality of the political analysis (!) but this is my online diary as well as my political blog and I could not let today go by without noting the passing of my former choirmaster and music teacher Colin Howard, who has died in Cape Town aged 63.

As this obituary from the Cape Town Opera website reveals, Colin died on 26 May after a battle with cancer. His death was only brought to my notice earlier today.

Colin was organist and choirmaster of St Mary's Church, Hitchin and Director of Music at Hitchin Boys' School in the 1970s, and one of the greatest men I have ever met. He taught me moreorless all I know about classical and choral music and being a part of the choir in his time was one of the most important and formative experiences in my life.

Alhough he did bring to the role a huge sense of fun, he never forgot that the work of a church choir was primarily about glorifying God. I cannot improve on this description of him that appears in his Cape Town Opera obituary.

"He believed there was a place in church for a wide spectrum of music, performed to the highest standards, to the glory of God. He also felt strongly that church musicians should be people concerned with spiritual growth, willing to be team players in helping to realise the multifaceted demands of being involved in the church."

Colin was one of two or three teachers to whom I owe a very great debt. I regret I never got the chance to tell him so to his face.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Cameron fudges English Parliament issue again

Today's Daily Telegraph contains an apparently authoritative leak from Ken Clarke's "Democracy Task Force" which is looking into, among other things, possible answers to the West Lothian Question for the Tories.

Its key revelation is that Clarke has retreated from the Tories' previous position of seeking to establish an "English Grand Committee" - effectively an English Parliament within a UK Parliament - to a bizarre fudge under which, while only English MPs will be able to discuss English-only laws at the committee stage, all MPs will get a vote on third reading.

Both Iain Dale and Little Man in a Toque have already been predictably scathing about this, and they are right, although I don't blame Clarke so much as David Cameron, whose timidity on this subject is becoming legendary.

The answer to the West Lothian Question is painfully obvious and has been well-rehearesed on this blog: to give England the same degree of devolution as Scotland and equivalent democratic representation to other parts of the UK. This will require the creation of an English Parliament. Who will be the first main party leader to recognise this straightforward political reality?

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Our fallen heroes

The death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan is not of course intrinsically any more or less tragic than those of the other 99, but it is obviously a sad milestone as Gordon Brown has acknowledged this morning.

The online obituaries site Lasting Tribute, which I helped launch a year ago, has put together a special section called Heroes of Afghanistan which contains full tributes to each of the hundred soldiers where people can leave their own individual tributes.

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42 is not the answer

A little later than usual, but here's my weekend column from the Journal focusing on the 42-day detention issue and what it could mean for Gordon Brown.


There are times in politics when staging a confrontation with one’s backbenchers can be a beneficial exercise for a Prime Minister seeking to demonstrate the smack of firm leadership.

One example that springs to mind from the Tony Blair years was the row over cuts in disability benefits in 1998.

The sums involved amounted to about £60m – peanuts in public expenditure terms - but it was not the money that was important but the principle.

For Mr Blair, it was all about sending a wider message to the public that this was a “conviction government” that would not be messed around by its backbenchers as John Major’s was.

But there are other times in the lifetime of a government when backbench rebellions are needed like a hole in the head, and for Gordon Brown, such a time is now.

Hard on the heels of the 10p tax fiasco, the local election debacle, and the Crewe and Nantwich cataclysm, comes another giant-sized banana skin in the shape of the row over 42-day detention.

The plan to lock-up terror suspects without charge for six weeks is not, we are assured, being treated as an issue of confidence, and as such Mr Brown will not automatically resign if defeated.

But be that as it may, if he does indeed lose next week’s vote, it will be seen as further proof that he has lost control not just of the political agenda but of his own party.

The arguments for and against the extension of the time limit from the current 28 days to 42 days to counter the terrorist threat have been well-rehearsed.

In summary, the police, led by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, say it is needed, while the legal profession, personified by the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, disagrees.

In an effort to placate backbenchers, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has made clear that the proposed new powers would only be used in “grave and exceptional circumstances.”

But although some Labour MPs have been won over, others remain unconvinced, and up to 40 could still rebel when the vote takes place on Wednesday.

There are doubtless good “strong government” arguments for Mr Brown not to give way to the rebels’ demands at this late stage, particularly in the context of other recent U-turns.

The government may have no real alternative but to back down on the abolition of the 10p tax rate and the proposed fuel tax increases on gas-guzzling cars – but it has not exactly enhanced the Prime Minister’s crumbling authority.

That said, there are several reasons why I think Mr Brown may have made a strategic mistake in pinning his colours so firmly to the mast on 42-day detention.

In my view, it is quite simply the wrong issue on which to make what, for him, could turn out to be the political equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand.

Why do I say this? Well, firstly, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that Mr Blair would have done.

The most telling criticism of Mr Brown that I have read in the wake of Crewe and Nantwich was from a voter who said: “We thought he was going to be different from Blair, but he’s just the same.”

That voter was speaking for millions who wanted change after the Blair years, and looked to Mr Brown to provide it.

On peripheral issues such as cannabis and casinos, he did – but on all the big questions such as tax, public service reform and counter-terrorism, there has been scarcely any deviation from the Blair agenda.

Secondly, the government’s stance on 42-day detention reeks of more of the kind of short-term tactical positioning that has been so damaging to Mr Brown over the past year.

For all I know, the Prime Minister may passionately believe in the idea deep in his heart – but the suspicion among the public is that he is just doing it to make the Tories look “soft on terror.”

There was a time when this sort of thing was regarded as clever politics, but an increasingly sophisticated electorate now sees straight through it.

No doubt Mr Brown also thought that he was being clever abolishing the 10p tax rate so he could shoot the Tory fox by cutting the standard rate from 22p to 20p. The public begged to differ.

Another reason why 42 days is the wrong issue on which to take a stand on is that the Labour Party by and large hates the idea – and this is the wrong time for Mr Brown to have a row with them.

Any immediate threat to his position will come not from the electorate as a whole but from his own MPs, and this is the constituency he currently needs to shore up.

Finally, the 42-day plan will mean guaranteed Parliamentary trench warfare throughout the remainder of the current session.

Even if it scrapes through on Wednesday, the House of Lords will certainly reject the plan and send it back to the Commons, meaning the row is set to rumble on all summer.

Over the past seven or eight months, the papers have been full of advice for Mr Brown on how he can relaunch or rescue his troubled premiership. I myself have written one or two columns along that theme.

In all that time, the best advice I have seen has come from those commentators who have advised him to stop worrying about being popular and do something radical that he really believes in.

As I have pointed out, in so doing, he might even discover that elusive “big idea” that gives some reason for his government’s continued existence - or at worst, something good to remember it by.

Does he really want to go down in history as the man who abolished part of Magna Carta? I think not.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Boardroom farce

As someone who has followed every series of The Apprentice, it has been clear for some time that the quality of candidates in this year's competition leaves a little to be desired. They probably won't thank me for saying it, but I could look around my office and spot three or four people who would have made a better fist of it than the current lot.

So the fact that four of these no-hopers have been deemed worthy of a place in the final seems somewhat farcical to say the least.

A gruelling day-long series of interviews designed to eliminate three of the remaining five candidates succeeded only in revealing that £100,000-a-year business analyst Lucinda was "too zany" to work for Sir Alan, which, privately, most of us could have told him all along.

Then again, Sir Alan's decision-making in this series has been pretty idiosyncratic all around.

He fired pert Irishwoman Jennifer Maguire well before she had a chance to mess-up big time, got rid of nice-guy Rafe even though he won nearly every task, and kept the completely clueless Michael Sophocles in the contest until the third-from-last episode.

Of the remaining four, I hope Lee McQueen manages to win. Despite bullying Sara and lying on his CV, he deserves it. And apart from anything else, if he wins he might do his reverse pterodactyl impression again.

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Blair says Brown not to blame

Oh well, that's big of him. Will he now admit that, actually, he is to blame for Labour's current plight by staying at least four years beyond his sell-by date and denying Gordon the chance to win his own mandate in 2005? Don't hold your breath....

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Will Labour be out of power for a decade?

Will Labour be out of power for as long as last time if it loses the next election, asks Mike Smithson on today. I say no, for the following reasons:

1. The prevailing intellectual climate is still broadly New Labour. There has been no great shift in public opinion to the right, instead the main party of the right has shifted towards the centre ground. New Labour’s current problems are to do with personality issues and having been in power too long, rather than to do with losing any great intellectual argument as Labour in the 70s and 80s did.

2. There is nothing in David Cameron’s career to date to suggest that he will be anything more than adequate as Prime Minister. Comparisons with Blair were always wide of the mark, while comparisons with Thatcher are simply absurd.

3. The current ideological proximity of the two main parties would suggest a period of pendulum swings (similar to the 60s and 70s) rather than long periods of one-party hegemony.

4. For all Labour’s current problems, it is still more ideologically united than the Tories. The Tories underlying divisions, notably over Europe, would come to the surface again once they were back in power.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why, Sparky?

Mark Hughes will shortly be giving his first press conference as the new boss of Manchester City. If I was going to be there, I'd simply ask him: Why?

Until this week, I would have said "Sparky" was a shoo-in to be the next boss of Man United when Fergie retires in two years' time. I doubt whether the Old Trafford fans will be too keen on that idea now.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Ever Decreasing Circles

Circle Line Parties were a regular feature of rag weeks and other student japes at UCL when I went there in the 1980s. In fact I once personally organised one as the end-of-year bash for the "Pi Collective," a weirdly assorted group of people who ran the college's student magazine at the time, at least three of whom went on to become professional journalists.

Somehow I never thought that putting a stop to this fine old London tradition would be BoJo's first act as Mayor, but as Brockley Kate has pointed out, Saturday night's revellers ("I'm going round and round until I vomit" said one) rather proved his point for him.

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Haymaking while the tills ring

Hay-on-Wye is a gorgeously romantic little spot which can occasionally cause people to lose their heads somewhat...but even so, the behaviour of John Prescott and Michael Levy at the Hay Festival this weekend takes some beating when it comes to political mischief-making.

During a book-signing session for his autobiography, Prezza let it slip that he thought David Miliband would be a good leader of the Labour Party.

Although he made clear he was talking about the future rather than the present,his comments were predictably over-egged by the media into a story about possible alternatives to Gordon Brown.

Prescott has been in politics long enough to know that this was exactly what would happen, so just what exactly was he playing at here? Surely nothing as cheap and nasty as deliberately undermining the Prime Minister in order to garner a bit more publicity for his wretched book?

Meanwhile Lord Levy burnished his growing reputation for serial and gratuitous acts of disloyalty by opining that Gordon Brown "lacks Blair's way with people."

I have used this before, I know...but if ever there was anyone who needed to hear Clem Attlee's famous words of advice to Harold Laski, it is surely Levy. "I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome."

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