Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is this one reason to vote Tory?

Setting tribalism aside for a moment, I have to applaud the Tories for thinking outside the box and refusing to go along with the conventional wisdom on airport expansion. Instead of a third runway at Heathrow, they plan to build a new high speed rail link to the Midlands and the North.

To hear the Conservatives actually advocating major investment in (a) rail infrastructure, and (b) the North of England was a real breath of fresh air and shows how much politics has been turned on its head since the 1980s and 1990s when both would have been anathema. Much more of this sort of thing and I might even vote for them.

My only criticism of the plan was that the Tories' proposed new high-speed rail route appears to run only from London to Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds. What about Newcastle, Dave?

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Conference cartoon

Last week's story about the Tory conference delegates being offered discount vouchers for a lap-dancing club in Birmingham inspired this Slob cartoon to mark their annual conference in the second city.

Hopefully I'll get around to some serious analysis of the Tory gathering at some point this week...

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

A lot done, a lot still to do

Gordon Brown's fightback may have begun in Manchester on Tuesday - but there is still a very long way to go. Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.


There are some Labour conference speeches that literally changed history. Tony Blair’s ditching of Clause IV in 1994. Neil Kinnock’s murderous assault on Militant in 1985. Nye Bevan’s stand against unilateralism in 1957.

Gordon Brown has never been in the Blair, Kinnock or Bevan class as an orator. His talents as a platform speaker have never been more than slightly on the better side of workmanlike.

Yet this week, our beleaguered Prime Minister gave himself a fighting chance of making what would truly be a history-making return from the ranks of the political walking dead.

Sure, he is not yet even close to being out of the woods. But in Manchester on Tuesday, he finally delivered the speech that his admirers have wanted to hear him make ever since he took over as Labour leader 15 months ago.

During the Blair years, we became accustomed to regarding the Labour Party as a devastatingly successful electoral machine, but one that seemed devoid of any real values.

The party appeared to have moved a long, long way from Harold Wilson’s famous description of it as “a moral crusade or nothing.”

Mr Brown has not restored that lost moral compass at a stroke. Mere words alone cannot accomplish that.

But on Tuesday, in setting out his vision of the “fair society,” he finally reminded his party why it exists.

In a way, events have moved in his favour. The global financial meltdown has finally demonstrated the limits of free-market capitalism and made the idea of state intervention fashionable again.

As one commentator put it: “Labour folk have seized on the collapse and bailout of the big banks as evidence that the neo-liberal era is over.”

Hence it is made easier for Mr Brown to say on Tuesday that his “new settlement for new times” must be “a settlement where both markets and governments are seen to be the servants of the people, not their masters.”

To the biggest cheers of the day he added: “Just as those who supported the dogma of big government were proved wrong, so too those who argue for the dogma of unbridled market forces have been proved wrong.”

But though this was duly lapped up by the faithful, Mr Brown didn’t really get into his stride until he started to talk about his “fairness agenda” – the real emotional core of Tuesday’s address.

“Why do we always strive for fairness? Not because it makes good soundbites. Not because it gives good photo opportunities. Not because it makes for good PR. No. We do it because fairness is in our DNA,” he said.

“It's who we are - and what we're for. It's why Labour exists. It's our first instinct, the soul of our party. It's why when things get tough, we get tougher."

Here, at last, was some recognition that the Labour Party does indeed have a higher purpose than simply staying in power.

And yet., and yet……the towering question that, for me, hangs over this week’s events in Manchester is why Mr Brown could not have made that speech 12 months ago.

Had he chosen to set out his vision then, rather than winding-up the Tories about an early election, it is at least arguable that the collapse in public support for him over the past year would not have happened.

As it is, Mr Brown has done no more than buy himself a bit more time this week in which to try to turn a desperate political situation around.

The early signs are good – one poll showed a 7pc bounce for Labour in the wake of the speech – but the rhetoric must now be backed up with more action if the momentum is to be maintained.

Mr Brown can at least reassure himself that his main rival, Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband, had an uncommonly bad week.

He found himself on the wrong end of the Prime Minister’s clever two-in-one put-down "this is no time for a novice” – a line which had the brutal touch of Alastair Campbell written all over it.

Mr Miliband also got into hot water by being overheard comparing himself to the erstwhile Tory leadership pretender, Michael Heseltine.

Wrong, David. Michael Heseltine was a man of courage who resigned from a government on a point of principle and later openly challenged the most powerful Prime Minister of modern times.

Some of the shine was inevitably knocked off the Prime Minister’s speech by the 3am news of Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly’s resignation the following morning, but like so much in politics, this turned out to be cock-up rather than conspiracy.

Dark rumours had initially swirled around Manchester that Ms Kelly was part of a nefarious Blairite plot to undermine Mr Brown in his moment of triumph.

The truth was rather more prosaic. It appears that a Downing Street press officer got into a rather heavy session with some journalists in a hotel bar and became a trifle indiscreet.

It shows that things haven’t changed all that much in the five years since I last attended a party conference as Journal political editor.

For Mr Brown, the prospect of another humiliating by-election defeat, in Glenrothes in early November, still hangs over him like a sword of Damocles

The reshuffle, too, looks ever more problematical. Rumours persist that a cadre of ministers will refuse to be moved or even refuse to serve in a clear challenge to Mr Brown’s authority.

Over him, too, hangs the twin spectres of Sir Menzies Campbell in 2007 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, two leaders who got rapturous receptions from their party conferences yet were gone within weeks.

The Prime Minister made a great speech on Tuesday. But he has a long way to go before he alters what still seems to be the inevitable tide of history.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ruth's choice **updated**

I know not why Ruth Kelly has announced her intention to resign from the Cabinet. Some will probably be prepared to take her assertion that she needs to spend more time with her family at face value. Others will hint that she is part of the plot to undermine the Prime Minister. My view, for what it's worth, is that it probably has something to do with the ongoing row within the government over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as some Labour conference sources have apparently already suggested.**

If this is the case, then I applaud Ruth for taking an honourable course in relation to a truly baleful piece of legislation. If more ministers are indeed considering resigning as we keep being told, then they should perhaps consider resigning over this rather than in protest at Gordon's leadership.

The HFE Bill was wrong on three counts - wrong to sanction to use of hybrid-human embryos when there is no proven scentific need to do so, wrong to further undermine the position of fathers in today's society by removing the legal requirement for doctors prescribing IVF treatment to take account of a child's need for one, and wrong not to take the opportunity to adjust the time-limit for abortion to take account of medical advances which in exceptional circumstances can allow babies born at 22, 23 or 24 weeks to survive.

Ruth's decision has focused my thoughts on a long-standing personal dilemma of my own in relation to the same issue, to which I will return shortly.

** Thursday 25 Sept update: Apparently it was none of these things. It was, in a word - as they say by way of explanation for the multifarious "big cat" stories that appear here in Derbyshire from time to time - alcohol.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The lost moral compass restored

Gordon Brown has always been a man with a huge sense of Labour history. And while his speech to the party's conference today was certainly focused on the present and future, it was also deeply rooted in the history of the party.

Harold Wilson used to say the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. During the Tony Blair years, it was pretty clear that it had become nothing. Yet in one passage of today's speech, Mr Brown restored the moral purpose that has been missing from the party for so long.

"And why do we always strive for fairness? Not because it makes good soundbites. Not because it gives good photo opportunities. Not because it makes for good PR. No. We do it because fairness is in our DNA. It's who we are - and what we're for. It's why Labour exists. It's our first instinct, the soul of our party. It's why when things get tough, we get tougher."

Although the pundits will doubtless focus on his clever two-in-one put-down of the two Davids - "This is no time for a novice" - this, for me, was the key message of the speech, a reminder to the country that this party is about more than simply a desire to stay in power for as long as possible.

The message was underlined, near the very end of the speech, by Mr Brown's use of the phrase "United we are a great movement."

The words "This Great Movement Of Ours" or "TGMOO" used to be practically obligatory in Labour leader's speeches in the pre-Blair days, but references to Labour as a "movement" went dramatically out of fashion during the NuLab era, presumably because, like "moral crusade," the word implies some higher purpose. The idealists among us will be pleased to see it back again.

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The good old, bad old days...

If like me you miss the good old, bad old days when Labour conferences were effectively pitched battles between the leadership on the platform and the delegates on the floor, you'll have enjoyed this bit of reminiscing today from Neil Kinnock and James Naughtie. There's an excerpt from Kinnock's great Bournemouth '85 speech at 6.03 minutes in.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Where are they now No 4

The latest edition of Total Politics is now in circulation together with the fourth instalment of my "Where Are They Now?" series of columns. This one focuses on the Liberal Democrat David Bellotti who won one of the most significant by-elections in modern times in 1990, but whose newsworthiness lay less in his rather inconsequential political career and more in having been one of the worst football club proprietors in the history of the game.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

How the Prawn Cocktail Offensive skewered New Labour

What with global economic meltdown and the ongoing crisis over Gordon Brown's leadership, poor Nick Clegg found himself struggling for attention this week. Here's today's column from the Newcastle Journal.


There is an old and venerable tradition in this column, going back a decade or more, that each September the Liberal Democrats get an annual opportunity to bask in the Linford, er, spotlight.

It’s only fair, after all, that a party that is invariably subjected to the third-party squeeze should have at least once chance each year to get its message across.

They certainly need it, with one poll this week showing the party’s share of the vote down to 12pc – its lowest standing since the early days of Paddy Ashdown’s leadership.

Two changes of leader since 2005 have not altered the party’s fundamental problem: that the Tory revival under David Cameron looks set to deprive it of most of its MPs in the South and West, with few corresponding gains from Labour in the North.

New-ish leader Nick Clegg did at least demonstrate this week that, like Mr Cameron, he too can make a speech without notes, even if he needed the help of a set of giant autocues all around the conference hall in Bournemouth.

And he did demonstrate a determination to reach out to voters on both right and left, in a tactically clever speech that managed to be both redistributionist and tax-cutting.

But sorry chaps, it is impossible, for this year at least, for me to devote to your conference the level of attention to which you have become accustomed in previous years.

In a week which saw both continuing global economic meltdown and the beginnings of a concrete challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership, the events in Bournemouth were no more than a sideshow.

It was a desperate, desperate week for the Prime Minister. As he battles to save his premiership, the one thing he needed above all was a trouble-free run-in to his party’s conference.

But his hopes of presiding over a moreorless united gathering in Manchester were shot to pieces last Friday evening when junior whip Siobhain McDonough went public with her call for a leadership challenge.

Ms McDonough was followed out of the door by party vice-chair Joan Ryan and special envoy Barry Gardiner, while another 12 MPs put their name to a barely-coded call for leadership change.

Finally, on Tuesday, came the resignation of David Cairns, Minister of State at the Scotland Office and the most senior figure so far to put his head above the parapet.

The rebels are as yet small in number. But it’s not about numbers so much as momentum, and the momentum is with the rebels.
Thus far, the revolt has spread from a couple of obscure backbenchers to former cabinet ministers to the whips office to the parliamentary private secretaries and finally to a minister of state.

It is surely now only a matter of time before it spreads to the Cabinet, with Barrow MP and Business Secretary John Hutton the overwhelming favourite to wield the knife.

The fact that Mr Hutton could not bring himself to condemn those MPs who have called for a leadership challenge this week was surely significant.

I myself have thought it likely for some time that Mr Brown would face a challenge this autumn, and before the recess, I argued on these pages that he probably should face one.

That said, it would have made a certain amount of sense for the rebels to hear what Mr Brown had to say in his conference speech before rushing to judgement about his prospects.

What the rebels are effectively saying is that there is nothing he can possibly say in his speech on Monday that can make any difference to his public standing – which is a somewhat crass position to adopt.

They may well be right – but if so, why not wait until after the speech before speaking out? It would, after all, only serve to make their argument that much stronger.

The one thing, it seems, that might rescue Mr Brown, is the continuing economic turmoil resulting from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-collapse of HBOS.

It certainly seems to have removed the immediate threat. As Harriet Harman said on Question Time, holding a leadership contest while people are worried about their jobs and savings would make little sense to the public.

It is a seductively persuasive argument, but the events of the past week have not removed the Prime Minister’s underlying political weakness. Indeed, if anything, they have intensified it.

What we are actually seeing is the old argument about Mr Brown being the “best person” to deal with economic turmoil being turned on its head. Increasingly, people are in fact blaming him for the mess.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on Thursday about “cleaning up the city” is a case in point. If it needs “cleaning up” now, what on earth was Mr Brown doing as Chancellor for 10 years to allow it get in such a state?

The truth is, New Labour made a strategic decision a decade and a half ago that it needed to win the support of big business in order to demonstrate its credibility as a party of government.

It was once known as the Prawn Cocktail offensive - in the days when City executives still ate the stuff. Nowadays it would probably be called the Seared Scallops offensive instead.

Either way, the upshot was that when Labour came to power, it proceeded to apply a light-touch regulatory framework that was never likely to prevent a credit-fuelled boom getting out of hand.

To my mind, Mr Brown will now forever be haunted by the phrase which, during the early years of his Chancellorship, he made his own: “No return to Tory boom and bust.”

Back in the days when “Prudence” ruled the roost at No 11, he was as good as his word – but eventually, he allowed his vanity – or was it just ambition? – to get the better of him.

Like Anthony Barber and Nigel Lawson before him, Mr Brown found the temptation to bask in the reflected glory of economic good times too hard to resist.

Now, as Prime Minister, he is reaping the whirlwind – and how.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stating the obvious

Alan Milburn says that Labour must bring forward a message of "change" if the party is to win the next election. John Prescott says that in order to win the party needs to remain united.

They may be coming at the situation facing the party from different directions, but both are right.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

There can be no happy outcome

Firstly, I apologise for the lack of blogging during the past few days. Partly it's down to other commitments, but also it's down a feeling of deep despair about the current state of politics and the apparent sad denouement to which the Gordon Brown administration appears to be heading.

Today has seen the resignation of David Cairns and by all accounts two more Ministers of State are likely to follow. Take your pick from Tony McNulty, David Hanson, Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy, Kim Howells, Pat McFadden, Bill Rammell and Ben Bradshaw. It could be any of them, though Byrne would probably be the most damaging.

I still think these are essentially too disparate a group of people to be acting as part of some dark plot being co-ordinated behind the scenes by John Reid or even by Tony Blair as some bloggers have sought to suggest. But in that probably lies their strength.

If this was a Blairite plot, I think the charge would have stuck by now, and the party rallied much more strongly behind Gordon. The right-wing bloggers who delight in taunting Brown may find it hard to believe, but the very last thing the Labour Party wants - or for that matter needs - is a return to Blairism.

I myself thought it likely for some time that Gordon would face a leadership challenge this autumn, and before the recess, I argued that he probably should face one, on the grounds that he has failed to restore Labour's lost moral compass as his supporters hoped.

However he still had a few cards left to play - the September relaunch, the reshuffle, the conference speech, and finally the electoral test offered by the Glenrothes by-election. In my view, he should have been allowed to play those cards before the party was forced to reach a conclusion about whether his leadership should continue.

As it is, I think the failure of the party to remain united at this critical time has made it moreorless inevitable that there can be no happy outcome for Mr Brown. In other words, the rebels have created for the party a self-fullfilling prophecy - which no doubt was the intention of some of them.

It's not about numbers - remember that Chamberlain was never defeated in the Commons in 1940 - it's about momentum. And the political narrative created by these sackings and resignations will ultimately ensure that all roads conspire towards one end.

But what most deeply depresses me about all this is not the fact that a politician I still admire has failed to live up to the high hopes invested in him. It is the fact that politics is increasingly starting to resemble a reality TV show.

Political leaders who once might have expected to be around for a generation as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher were, or going further back, for several generations in the case of Gladstone and Churchill, now have a shelf-life of only a few years before an increasingly superficial electorate becomes bored of them.

Over the past 11 years, the Tories have had five leaders, the Liberal Democrats four, and by the end of the year Labour will possibly have had three, but I don't think this rapid turnover is because the quality of political leadership is declining. It is rather a by-product of a national obsession with celebrity which in turn demands a style of political leadership based on glitz and "personality" rather than solid achievement.

For me, the accession of Gordon Brown represented a chance to put an end to all this rubbish. The most baleful legacy of his apparent failure will be to condemn the United Kingdom to twenty or thirty years of showbiz politics.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

The week ahead in view

This week the blog welcomes a new regular feature courtesy of budding cartoonist Slob. Not surprisingly his first contribution focuses on Nick Cleggover and the Lib Dem conference which began yesterday.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

The vision comes into view

Is the Brown government finally starting to set out a distinctive political agenda? Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.


When he stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister less than 15 months ago, Gordon Brown told us his would be “a new government with new priorities.”

Ever since then, though, the country has waited in vain for some demonstration of how exactly he planned to renew the government, and how its priorities would be different.

Most people, including myself, have moreorless given up hope of hearing the answer, concluding that Mr Brown’s administration has no real purpose beyond staying in power as long as possible.

But this week, at five minutes to midnight in political terms, some straws in the wind began to emerge. Could Gordon, at long last, be about to set out his long-awaited “vision?”

What kicked it all off was an article in the obscure and normally uncontroversial Parliamentary Monitor, an in-house Commons magazine read exclusively by MPs, their staff, and people who attend party conferences.

Among other things, Mr Brown said it was time to “adapt and rethink New Labour policy” and admitted that something needed to be done to kick-start social mobility.

The Prime Minister’s spin doctors attempted to play down the significance of those words, but in a speech to the TUC the following day, his deputy Harriet Harman went much further.

Her address, saying the government needed to start tackling the inequality of opportunity between "rich and poor" and "north and south” had the Tories foaming at the mouth about a new “class war.”

So what’s happening? Well, it was understandable that Team Brown would try to make light of it all.

The worst thing that could happen, going in to what really is a make-or-break conference season for the Prime Minister, is for expectations about his big speech the week after next to get out of hand.

But nevertheless, I think we are finally seeing the genesis of a distinctive Brown agenda, although whether it will do much to rescue his political fortunes is very open to doubt.

Labour will probably call it “fairness first.” The Tories will brand it a “lurch to the left.” Either way, it is, at last, authentic Gordon.

Mr Brown’s comments in the Monitor contained more clues as to what he’s going to say in Manchester a week on Monday than the average Agatha Christie novel.

“We need to be honest with ourselves: while poverty has been reduced and the rise in inequality halted, social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted,” he wrote.

"A child's social class background at birth is still the best predictor of how well he or she will do at school and later on in life. Our ambitions for a fairer Britain cannot be satisfied in the face of these injustices."

“At our conference in Manchester and in the weeks that follow, I will set out how I – and our party, and our government, and our country – must rise to conquer those challenges and to ensure fairness for all.”

The theme was picked up by Ms Harman on Wednesday when she said she wanted everyone to "get a fair crack of the whip" whatever their "socio-economic class.”

It was entirely predictable that the Tories would cry “class war!” with Shadow Commons Leader Teresa May saying focusing on class and background was "outdated and distracts from the real issues.”

If Britain was a genuinely classless society, she would be right. But whereas class distinctions did begin to blur in the 70s and 80s, the whole point about social mobility is that it has since ground to a halt.

Ms Harman is doing no more than point out a very obvious truth, albeit one that, Darlington MP Alan Milburn aside, New Labour has refused to talk about for most of the past decade.

All of this ought to be music to the ears of Labour supporters in the North-East – assuming they are still listening, that is.

Narrowing the gap in economic growth rates between the North and South used to be an explicit aim of government policy, but it was quietly dropped once they realised how difficult it would be – and that it would involve spending large amounts of money in the poorer regions.

These days, it is rare to find explicit mention of the North-South divide in Labour ministerial speeches, but Ms Harman appears to have bucked that depressing trend.

Sure, it needs to be backed up by some action – but if it’s a sign that regional inequalities are back on the government’s radar, then it’s certainly a start.

The wider politics of all this are unclear. The Tories will doubtless try to characterise it as a “core vote strategy” on Labour’s part, claiming they are vacating the much-prized “political centre ground.”

But to my mind, that analysis falls into the Blairite trap of arguing that any departure from the “Middle England” agenda of the previous Prime Minister spells electoral doom for Labour.

What Messrs Brown and Harman are saying is no more than what used to be known as good old-fashioned “One Nation” politics – the idea that economic and social divisions are quite simply bad for the country as a whole.

I think Mr Brown is quite capable of making a reasoned case for this without looking like some throwback to the 1970s Trotskyist left.

As I have written before, the growth in inequality that has occurred under a party whose whole raison d’etre was to help the worst-off is the biggest single blot on Labour’s record over the past 11 years.

If they can start to turn that around in their 12th and 13th years in office, they will at least have done something to redeem themselves.

It is unlikely, if we’re honest, to alter the result of the next election on its own. But if Labour is destined to lose, the party will at least leave office with its head held higher.

The “fairness agenda” may not gain Mr Brown more support. What it will do is gain him more respect.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Siobhain McDisloyal

I have been as critical as anyone of Gordon Brown's failure over the past 15 months to set out what 12 Labour MPs* writing in Progress magazine term "a convincing narrative." But as I have written in my Newcastle Journal column to be published tomorrow, the Prime Minister - and Harriet Harman - have had some good things to say this week about tackling inequality and social mobility, and the emergence of a "fairness agenda" over the past week offered some small hope that this long-awaited narrative had finally started to take shape.

So to my mind, Siobhain McDonagh's call for a leadership challenge to Mr Brown today is singularly ill-timed and presents a gift-horse to the Tories at the start of a critical conference season for Labour.

If the Prime Minister had hoped to mount an effective fightback over the next two weeks, based around some of the ideas he and his deputy have been airing this week, then Ms McDonagh's intervention this afternoon has probably killed it. Instead, the Labour conference in Manchester looks set to be dominated by yet more speculation about the leadership.

I hope she is bloody proud of herself.

* For the record: Janet Anderson, Karen Buck, Patricia Hewitt, George Howarth, Eric Joyce, Sally Keeble, Stephen Ladyman, Martin Linton, Shona McIsaac, Margaret Moran, Tom Levitt, and Paddy Tipping. I would say that only three of these (Anderson, Howarth and Joyce) are out-and-out Blairite loyalists, so speculation that they are part of a concerted Blairite plot is, in my view, probably misguided.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spot on, Gordon

I generally think Gordon Brown should steer clear of involving himself in English sporting matters. Although I am sure it is well-intended, the public seem to think it's rather insincere and I am not at all sure that the players appreciate it either.

I remember feeling desperately sorry for the Prime Minister when he attempted to shake hands with one of the England rugby team during last year's World Cup and was ignored. Although in my view the player in question displayed the height of rudeness, the truth is Brown would have been well-advised not to have put himself in that situation.

All that said, however, it is very hard to disagree with Brown's comments on the non-availability of terrestrial highlights of last night's England-Croatia game, in which the national side suddenly appeared to rediscover its self-confidence after months of dire performances.

Seven years ago, I watched England and Michael Owen demolish Germany 5-1 with Gill and an old university mate who was staying the night at our old house - a truly memorable evening. Last night, when we should have been watching England and Theo Walcott demolish Croatia, we were forced to make do with Ainsley Harriott on "Who Do You Think You Are?" instead. No disrespect to Ainsley, whose revelations about being descended from a white slave owner were indeed shocking and compelling, but it didn't quite compare.

Pay-TV station Setanta, which now inexplicably owns the rights to England matches despite having an audience of little over 1m, had apparently agreed beforehand that it would show highlights on its free-to-air channel. But they then went on to take the complete piss by showing highlights of the Wales and Scotland games first, and not showing the England highlights until well gone midnight.

Unfortunately, we sold the pass on "Crown Jewels" sporting events such as World Cup matches being shown on terrestrial years back, largely as a result of pressure from Rupert Murdoch. Highlights are a different matter though. It should not be beyond the power of the regulators to ensure they are shown the same day.

As for England's great performance, and today's coverage of it in the national press, I think I can feel a Private Eye apology coming on....

"This newspaper, in common with all other newspapers, may have given the impression that Fabio Capello is a hapless buffoon who was leading English football into a new dark age. We now realise that Mr Capello is in fact a managerial genius who is worth every penny of his zillion-pound salary and is certain to win us the World Cup in 2010."

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fear of the fear of crime

I don't often use this blog to promote my current day-time interest HoldtheFrontPage but this story which we ran today courtesy of the Oxford Mail really touched a nerve with me, as well as raising a wider political question.

I too was one of that generation of local newspaper reporters who would spend literally hours each week talking to local police sergeants and inspectors on the phone or sometimes even in person as they reeled off scores of local misdemeanours for use in the paper.

Since the "professionalisation" of police press offices began in the mid-90s, that source of information has dried up, with the Mail's investigation revealing that just 22 out of more than 6,000 reported crimes during July were being passed on to reporters.

At first, I assumed this was sheer laziness on the part of police PROs who thought they had bigger fish to fry. In fact it seems it's part of a deliberate police spin operation to reduce the fear of crime by not telling the public it is happening.

This of course has wider political implications. If all the crime that takes place in any local area was reported in the local paper, as it used to be, would not the government be coming under greater pressure to do something about it than is currently the case?

It's probably beyond the scope of the Oxford Mail's investigation, but it does beg the question whether in this case the police were acting on their own initiative, or whether they were themselves under pressure to reduce the fear of crime for political reasons.

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Black hole humour

I didn't really think the world would end when they turned on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva this morning, but I did enjoy this story from the inimitable Daily Mash.

Scientists believe they will have less than four seconds to spot the mysterious Higgs Boson particle before their bodies explode, atom by atom. A black hole will open up in what used to be Geneva, spreading rapidly across Europe, angrily devouring Belgium and reaching the outer London boroughs by 3pm.

Cambridge physicist Dr Tom Logan, explained: "At this point you will be stretched out slowly until you resemble a very thin piece of spaghetti about 250,000 miles long. It will hurt like fuck."
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Visions of Brown

Gordon Brown tells the Parliamentary Monitor it is time to "adapt and rethink New Labour policy." But his spin doctors have played down the comments and Nick Robinson thinks we should not get too excited.

Nevertheless, there are, to my mind, some intriguing straws in the wind in this article for those of us who had all but given up hope of seeing Mr Brown set out a distinctive post-Blair agenda, notably his admission that after more than 11 years in power Labour has not improved social mobility.

"We need to be honest with ourselves: while poverty has been reduced and the rise in inequality halted, social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted," he says.

"A child's social class background at birth is still the best predictor of how well he or she will do at school and later on in life. Our ambitions for a fairer Britain cannot be satisfied in the face of these injustices."

If this is an attempt to finally give his administration some moral purpose beyond remaining in power as long as possible, then it has to be said that he has waited until five minutes to midnight to do it.

He now needs to put some flesh on these bones in Manchester the week after next. If he doesn't, we really will have to conclude the long-awaited "vision" is simply not there. Indeed, some of us could surely be forgiven for having concluded that already.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

They just can't get enough

I have never been a particular fan of electro-popsters Depeche Mode, with the notable exception of their brilliantly haunting 1990 single World in My Eyes, but I am a fan of Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

My sister, who shares her home in Arizona with a few of the creatures, has put together a video which apparently parodies a recent Gap commercial (although I wouldn't know myself.)

To cut a long story short, if it wins a competition against some other videos for the highest number hits in one month, the Arizona Animal Welfare League, which provides a temporary home for nearly 2,000 dogs and cats every year, will get $1,000.

So if you like Ridgebacks, or Depeche Mode, or just want to help animals, please give it a whirl. After all, it's for charidee.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

The state of the MSM blogosphere

For those who are not lucky enough to be going to the conferences, the 2008 Guide to Political Blogging can be downloaded from the Total Politics site. Here's the piece I wrote on the state of the MSM blogosphere and how, to some extent, the gamekeepers of the "dead tree press" are starting to beat the poachers at their own game.


A year ago, Iain Dale asked me to write a piece for the 2007 Guide entitled Journalist Bloggers: Gamekeepers Turned Poachers?. Broadly speaking, my conclusion was that, while blogging and journalism are clearly distinct disciplines, the dichotomy between the two was always something of a false opposition.

The evidence pointed less to a Manichean divide between “professional” hacks writing for major media organisations and “amateur” bloggers writing from their bedrooms, more to a growing and irresistible convergence.

If anything, that trend has accelerated over the past 12 months, as more and more “mainstream media” organisations have embraced blogging, with increasing degrees of success.

The question that Iain might have asked me to answer this year is: Are the Gamekeepers starting to beat the Poachers at their own game? To an extent, the answer to that has to be yes.

Last year, I identified two mainstream media political editors who, in my view, clearly “got” what blogging was all about and were using the medium as a “Politics Plus” channel to amplify their core political reporting. They were the Daily Mail’s Ben Brogan, and the BBC’s Nick Robinson.

At the time I wrote that, they were the exception rather than the rule, but since then, all of the major national newspapers have launched political blogs, and some of them, notably The Times’ Red Box and the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip, have quickly become required reading.

It still does not mean that all journalists are becoming bloggers and all bloggers are becoming journalists. It is more nuanced than that.

Instead, what we are now finding is that, just as within the political blogosphere there were bloggers who excelled at journalism, so too within the MSM there are political journalists who excel at blogging – though not necessarily always the ones of greatest renown.

James Forsyth of The Spectator is a case in point. He is not quite the force in print that his boss Fraser Nelson is, but online, on his home territory of the Speccie’s Coffee House group blog, he is invariably compelling reading.

Similarly, Sam Coates of The Times does not possess the story-getting skills of his political editor Phil Webster nor the elegant writing talents of his colleague Francis Elliot. But the success of Red Box is nevertheless very much down to his ability to write in a more gossipy, satirical style.

Over at Telegraph Towers, Rosa Prince is someone who has been much-mocked on account of the somewhat speculative nature of her stories – most recently the one about Alan Milburn being offered the Treasury in a David Miliband-led government.

But while this sort of thing is a little out of places in the news columns of a supposedly august broadsheet, it works very well on a blog, which appropriately enough was where the Guardian’s main blogger, Andrew Sparrow, chose to follow-up the Milburn story.

While the “MSM blogosphere” has been growing in size and stature, the independent blogosphere has appeared to stand relatively still. The only real newcomer of note in the past 12 months has been Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal’s attempt to corral the ‘sphere’s disparate liberal-left under a single banner.

Elsewhere Phil Hendren – Dizzy – has carved out a niche for himself as an astute commentator on the interplay between politics and technology, and has had a couple of pieces published in The Times, but few of the rest of us, if we are honest, have enhanced either our reputations or our traffic.

Thus it is that an elite has been perceptibly forming, comprising the so-called “Big Four” independent blogs – Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, Conservative Home and Political Betting – and the leading MSM blogs - Coffee House, Red Box, Brogan, Robinson.

Already, this elite is becoming self-perpetuating. While the MSM blogs link to very few “independent” blogs outside the “Big Four,” they invariably link to eachother, despite the long-standing and deep-seated commercial rivalries between their parent organisations.

In a sense, it’s unsurprising that the new MSM blogs have stolen a march on the rest. They are better resourced, and because servicing the paper’s group blogs are now part of their authors’ roles, it follows that they have more time for blogging than those of us who are doing it as a hobby.

Furthermore, because they are based at Westminster, as part of large newspaper lobby teams and an even larger corps of political hacks continually swapping gossip and information, they are also more likely to be better informed.

But where in my view the MSM bloggers fall down is in their failure thus far to create the kind of online communities that the “Big Four” have specialised in. That “conversation” with readers, sometimes at an intensely personal level, is still, for me, the essence of what makes a blog different from a newspaper website.

Had James Forsyth or Ben Brogan, for all their journalistic nous, written a long blog post about their godmother’s funeral, the reaction among most of their readers would have been bemusement. When Iain Dale did it, it generated scores of responses.

The recent career of the former Daily Telegraph political diarist Jonathan Isaby provides as good a commentary as anything on the state of both the political blogosphere as a whole and the MSM blogosphere in particular.

Earlier this summer, Isaby quit the Telegraph to co-edit the Tory uber-blog Conservative Home, lamenting the decreasing amount of time available for newspaper journalists operating in this multimedia world to carry out original research and source exclusive stories.

In one sense, it illustrates the extent to which technological developments have altered the political reporter’s traditional role. In another, it is illustrative of a world in which leading bloggers like Iain Dale are writing columns for national newspapers and leading national political journalists like Isaby are editing blogs.

I always thought the day political blogging really entered the mainstream would be when one of the big four blogs managed to obtain a lobby pass. If they haven’t yet given one to the new co-editor of Con Home, I have a feeling they soon will do.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

New Labour's Prophets of Doom

My Newcastle Journal column is back this week after the August break. In today's piece, I focus on the recent interventions by Alistair Darling and Charles Clarke and what they may mean for Gordon Brown.


Sometimes, the summer break can work wonders for a government. People forget all the things they disliked about them in the first place, and when politics starts up again in September, it’s as if the slate has been wiped clean.

But given the depths of unpopularity to which Gordon Brown’s government has plummeted over the past year, it was never likely that this would be one of those kinds of summers.

If the Prime Minister did entertain any faint hopes that the August political close-season would herald a turnaround in his fortunes, the interventions of Messrs Charles Clarke and Alistair Darling over the past week would surely have dispelled them.

One of them is among his most loyal and long-standing allies, the other among his bitterest and most implacable enemies, but essentially their message was the same: “We’re all doomed.”

Many people were initially bemused as to why Mr Darling, for so long the mild-mannered Sergeant Wilson to Mr Brown’s Captain Mainwaring, suddenly decided to start playing Private Frazer.

The message in his now-infamous newspaper interview the week before last – that the country faces its worst economic crisis for 60 years - could hardly have been more stark.

Had he, perhaps, been beguiled into saying more than he intended by the female journalist, Decca Aitkenhead, who conducted the interview? He certainly wouldn’t be the first male politician to be caught out in that way.

But no, it turned out that Mr Darling himself had taken the initiative in inviting Ms Aitkenhead to his holiday cottage in the Highlands.

Much more likely, to my mind, is that it was a pre-emptive strike by the Chancellor against being moved in the autumn reshuffle that Mr Brown has been planning all summer.

As I wrote before going off on my own hols three weeks ago, any meaningful changes to the senior reaches of government will have to involve Mr Darling moving on.

But by speaking out about the state of the economy – and being more than candid about the government’s own shortcomings in that regard – he was making it clear that he was not going to go quietly.

Hence if there is now a reshuffle, Mr Darling has probably now done enough to keep his job – especially as South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband appears not to want it.

What, then, of Mr Clarke? Well, if the essence of Mr Darling’s argument was that we all face economic doom, Mr Clarke was arguing that Labour faces political doom under Mr Brown.

We have become used to these eruptions from the former Home Secretary. He increasingly resembles a large beer barrel which explodes periodically whenever the gaseous matter within reaches a certain level.

But it is too easy to write off Mr Clarke as an embittered old Blairite has-been. While he may have very little support among Labour MP, his analysis of the situation facing the Prime Minister is basically sound.

It is, in essence, that if Mr Brown cannot start to revive Labour’s fortunes within a matter of months, the Cabinet should force him to make way for someone who can.

When Mr Miliband issued his original rallying cry back in July, it looked as though there would be some movement on the leadership issue as early as the start of this month.

All the talk then was of a “Prosecco plot,” conducted by Labour MPs via their mobile phones over glasses of sparkling wine in the grounds of their Italian holiday villas.

But the party has reflected, and appears to have arrived at a collective judgement that Mr Brown should be left in place at least until the end of the party conference season.

If after then, the party still remains stuck in the doldrums, that may be the time for senior members of the Cabinet to make the kind of move that Mr Clarke is urging on them.

Mr Brown’s response so far to the ongoing leadership crisis does not exactly inspire any great confidence that he will be able to prove Mr Clarke wrong and turn the situation round.

We were told to expect a “New Economic Plan” that would show the government working to alleviate the impact of the credit crunch on ordinary people, but like so much of Mr Brown’s premiership, it failed to live up to its hype.

Sure, the proposed stamp duty holiday on properties up to £175,000 will make an impact in some places, but probably not in those areas – including some of the wealthier parts of the North-East – where house prices have reached London levels.

And the fact that Mr Brown has been hastily forced to scrap plans to give people £100 to help them with their rocketing fuel bills does not exactly suggest he is on top of the situation.

Perhaps I myself am being hasty in rushing to judgement on this, and there is more of this so-called “New Economic Plan” to come.

But thus far, it all has the air of tinkering at the edges, a collection of disparate policies without any connective thread or vision to link them together in a coherent new political narrative.

If Mr Brown cannot discover this narrative, nor even hold a meaningful reshuffle, it is hard to see what can rescue him, short of a speech of Sarah Palin-esque proportions in Manchester later this month.

It currently looks about as likely as the Third Coming of Newcastle’s erstwhile footballing Messiah.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

What is an uber-Blairite?

Sunder Katwala had a go at attempting to give a serious answer to this burning political question today over at Liberal Conspiracy, but with all due respect to Sunder and LibCon, I'm not at all sure it deserves one.

Uber-Blairism, to my mind, is not so much a serious political philosophy, as belief in a sort of political parallel universe in which Tony Blair still retains the support of the overwhelming majority of the public, Gordon Brown and his cohorts are a group of unpersons quietly fulminating on the backbenches, and the Labour Party, far from being a "moral crusade," is no more than a vehicle for the permanent retention of power at whatever cost.

This is the gist of what I wrote in the comments in the LibCon post:

Uber-Blairism is defined by the following core values:

1. That the Labour Party's position on any given issue should be defined in opposition to whatever views its traditional supporters hold on it.

2. That there should be no ideological constraints on the party drifting as far to the right as necessary in order to outflank the Tories.

3. That Gordon Brown is a useless twat who should never have been allowed to become Prime Minister and should now be got rid of at the earliest possible opportunity.

I could, perhaps, have added a 4th, namely: That the only viable British foreign policy is to disappear up the arse of the White House and stay there (a senior Blairite official actually said this once.) Can anyone think of any more?

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The 51st Blog

Iain Dale has today finally published the results of his annual blog popularity poll ahead of the publication of the full 2008 Guide to Political Blogging tomorrow.

Many thanks for all those who voted for me, but as anticipated I have fallen some way down the list from 10th in 2006 and 18th last year to 51st this time.

Finishing so tantalisingly close to the Top 50 has made me slightly regret not voting for myself, but I can have no real complaints.

This blog has moved much more in the direction of becoming a personal diary over the past year, and although I knew all along that this would cost me traffic, it has been entirely deliberate on my part.

In the longer-run, the blog is not in the business of becoming a money-making venture, nor a one-man instant punditry factory. It is, and can only ever be, no more than a reflection of whatever enthuses me enough to write about it.

At one time, that was primarily politics. Nowadays it's much more a mixture of politics, music, telly, journalism, and whatever's going on in my home and family life.

Ultimately, the blog will stand or fall on the quality of its writing, and in this regard I do have some plans for how the blog may develop over the next 12 months.

But what it won't be doing is going back to providing near-instant commentary on breaking political news, as it once did. There are others who are now far better resourced to do that sort of thing - including a growing number of people in the MSM who are actually paid to do so.

As to the rest of the list, I think the evident right-wing bias does bear out some of the fears expressed by the likes of Sunny Hundal and Tim Ireland that it would not be entirely representative, although to be fair to Iain Dale, he has never claimed it would be.

Right-wing blogs predictably dominate. Of the Top 10, only Political Betting at No 5 could genuinely claim to be non-aligned, and even the two highest-placed media blogs, Coffee House (7) and Ben Brogan (10) are right-leaning. The highest left-of-centre blog, Tom Harris, comes in at 13.

In addition several of the blogs up there are acquired tastes whose appeal does not generally spread beyond the right - for instance Burning Our Money, John Redwood, EU Referendum and Daniel Hannan, all of which make the Top 20.

A scientifically balanced sample would surely have placed the indispensible Political Betting higher than No 5 and probably at least one or two left-of-centre blogs in the Top 10

The thing that most interested me about the survey was the fact that of the left-of-centre blogs that did best, four were all newcomers - namely Tom Harris, Hopi Sen, Liberal Conspiracy and Sadie's Tavern.

While they all headed straight into the Top 40, longer-established names such as Recess Monkey, Tom Watson, Labour Home, Bob Piper and myself all found ourselves dropping down the list - to say nothing of Rupa Huq, Kerron Cross and Mars Hill who dropped out of the Top 100 altogether.

There must be something in that. People are clearly looking for something fresh from the left blogosphere, and this year at least, the older, more established blogs weren't able to provide that - a bit like the government really.

Maybe next year we will display greater resilience and teach these arrivistes a thing or two.

I was also surprised that some "big media" blogs didn't do better given the mainstream media's increasing attempts to appropriate the blogging medium over the past 12 months.

Spectator Coffee House and Ben Brogan both deservedly make the Top 10, but the Telegraph's Three Line Whip places no higher than 19th, the BBC's Nick Robinson slumps from 8th to 28th, and The Times' excellent Red Box blog comes in at 98th, which is just plain silly.

You can read my more detailed thoughts on the state of the MSM blogosphere in the Guide itself, published tomorrow.

But without further ado, here is the full, colour-coded list of blogs that were rated better than this one.

1. (2) Guido Fawkes
2. (1) Iain Dale
3. (4) Conservative Home
4. (3) Dizzy Thinks
5. (-) Political Betting
6. (-) Devil's Kitchen
7. (9) Spectator Coffee House
8. (12) Burning our Money
9. (42) John Redwood
10. (14) Ben Brogan
11. (20) EU Referendum
12. (15) Tim Worstall
13. (-) Tom Harris MP
14. (13) Archbishop Cranmer
15. (54) LibDem Voice
16. (16) Mr Eugenides
17. (-) Hopi Sen
18. (85) Daniel Hannan MEP
19. (-) Three Line Whip
20. (70) Stumbling & Mumbling
21. (35) Donal Blaney
22. (128) Boulton & Co
23. (-) Liberal Conspiracy
24. (8) Nick Robinson
25. (-) People's Republic of Mortimer
26. (11) Recess Monkey
27. (56) Adam Smith Institute
28. (27) Comment Central
29. (72) Luke Akehurst
30. (47) Waendel Journal
31. (38) LabourHome
32. (30) Ministry of Truth
33. (22) Tom Watson MP
34. (33) Nadine Dorries
35. (46) Dave's Part
36. (-) Letters from a Tory
37. (17) Norfolk Blogger
38. (-) Shane Greer
39. (-) Sadie's Tavern
40. (45) Samizdata
41. (32) Slugger O'Toole
42. (111) A Very British Dude
43. (21) Harry's Place
44. (-) SNP Tactical Voting
45. (61) Quaequam Blog
46. (104) UK Polling Report
47. (182) Socialist Unity
48. (59) Daily Referendum
49. (53) Liberal England
50. (172) Lynne Featherstone MP

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Commenting on today's latest helpful intervention by embittered former home secretary Charles Clarke, former Labour minister Nigel Griffiths told the Today Programme: "In 2007 he and Alan Milburn set up a think tank called 2020 Vision. It didn't think but it certainly tanked."

A contender for Quote of the Year, surely.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Those Top Ten Journal Moments

My old colleague Graeme Whitfield recently celebrated ten years on the staff of Newcastle's Journal by naming his ten most memorable Journal moments on his blog.

I well remember hearing about some of the hilarious newsroom incidents he describes although being based down in Westminster I unfortunately never witnessed them in person.

Anyway, even though I only managed seven and a half years on the staff, Graeme's piece has inspired me to do the same and list my own Top Ten Journal Moments.

Here they are.

1. Going more than 40 hours without sleep as New Labour came to power on 1/2 May 1997. I was officially on duty in Newcastle from 2pm on May 1 and we wrapped up the final edition of our election special 14 hours later at around 4am. I then caught the first train down to London and was outside No 10 for Blair's triumphal arrival later that morning. It was exhausting, but the sense of watching history in the making was intoxicating.

2. Sitting in the Commons Chamber in March 2003 and listening to Robin Cook's masterful resignation speech.

3. Being on Prime Minister John Major's plane during the 1997 election campaign when smackhead novelist Will Self was caught jacking up in the toilets mid-flight. We were en route to a photocall with Margaret Thatcher in Middlesbrough.

4. Falling asleep in a fishing boat moored on Brighton Beach after a rather heavy night during a Lib Dem Conference. It was a long walk back to my hotel and the boat seemed a rather comfy place to lay my tired head.

5. Having an argument over the phone with my old editor about how much space to give Labour conference coverage which culminated in him threatening to "fill the paper with pictures of Kylie's arse" instead. I was laughing so much I couldn't think of a witty response.

6. Cherie Blair's attempts to get me to go soft on her husband after I interviewed him during the 2001 election campaign by sharing a bag of chips with me and telling me what a great paper The Journal was. Or maybe she was just being nice.

7. Alastair Campbell accusing me during a lobby briefing of having asked the Governor of the Bank of England whether he had stopped beating his wife. Being subjected to a full-frontal personal attack by Campbell signified your arrival as a lobby hack and, for me, this was the best bit of the whole Eddie George saga.

8. Spotting a North-East government minister lighting-up on the Commons Terrace in 1997 a few days after his press officer had told me he had given up smoking.

9. My ingenuous wife handing Nick Robinson her mobile phone so he could snap a picture of the two of us together outside No 10 following a Downing St reception. To his eternal credit, he took it.

10. A Labour press officer's unusual reaction when I told him Peter Mandelson had been involved in a traffic accident in his constituency in 1997. The accident turned out to be quite minor, but the press officer in question was so alarmed he spontaneously cracked one off.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Pundit calls it right again

Credit where credit's due. While I got all excited about the return of King Kev to Tyneside last January, the UK Daily Pundit declared in the comments that he'll be gone by the end of the year.

I suppose I should have known better. But so, more importantly, should the Board of Newcastle United Football Club.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

The "Where were you when.....?" meme

A week or so ago Bob Piper tagged me with the meme asking what were you doing when Princess Diana died, Thatcher resigned, the planes flew into the twin towers, Lineker scored, and Kennedy was assassinated.

Long-standing readers of this blog will know where to find at least three of the answers, but here for the record are my responses, although I'm not going to tag anyone else as this one has been round the block a bit already.

1. Diana's death.

Visiting my mum's. "I'd gone there for the weekend to help her with the garden, but the news from Paris put paid to that. By 11am the following morning I was at my desk in the Commons helping my paper, the Newcastle Journal, put together its Diana coverage. I ended up writing a piece about how the marriage turned sour, though I'm not sure what qualified me, as political editor, to do that one."

More HERE.

2. 9/11

In my old room in the Press Gallery (now the property of the Daily Mirror, I gather.) "We switched over to Sky News and watched as the plumes of smoke rose from the first tower, convinced we were watching the aftermath of a terrible accident. Then the second plane appeared. "Look, there's another one!" exclaimed a regional newspaper colleague. Almost as he said it, the other plane smashed into the second tower. For a moment, there was silence in the room, then someone said slowly "That was deliberate," and we all hit the phones to our head offices."

More HERE.

3. When Lineker Scored

The Rifleman's Arms, Bridge Street, Belper. "Germany scored a freak goal, an Andy Brehme free-kick that struck Paul Parker and looped over Peter Shilton's head, and we began to resign ourselves to the loss of our improbable World Cup dream. And then...and then...in the 81st minute, Gary Lineker got hold of a long through-ball, held-off the German defence and squeezed the ball into the far corner. The pub went wild. More wild than any place I have ever been in my life."

More HERE.

4. Thatcher's resignation

I was surprised to find I have never blogged on this, but the bizarre truth is that I was stuck on a train on my way to a job interview, so although I was the political reporter of the Derby Evening Telegraph at the time, I never actually covered the story for them! I remember two people getting on the train - possibly at Leicester - and saying that she had resigned. Unlike many lefties I felt no elation at her departure - I had wanted to see Michael Heseltine win as I thought it would mean much more enlightened government, but his chances disappeared the moment she quit.

5. Kennedy's Assassination

I was just over a year old, and don't remember it. I guess I must have been at our old house in Kenton, North London, where I spent the first eight years of my life.

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