Saturday, November 28, 2009

Return of the Bliar

On Saturday 19 July 2003, the day after the death of Dr David Kelly, the Guardian journalist Hugo Young wrote a magisterial column which concluded with the following immortal words:

But the most eloquent message concerns the Blair government. It must be right at all times. Above all, the integrity of the leader can never be challenged. He never did hype up intelligence. He didn't take Britain to war on any other than the stated terms. Any suggestion of half-truth, or disguised intention, or concealed Bushite promises is the most disgraceful imaginable charge that deserves a state response that knows no limit.

That's how a sideshow came to take over national life. Now it seems to have taken a wretched, guiltless man's life with it. Such is the dynamic that can be unleashed by a leader who believes his own reputation to be the core value his country must defend. (My italics)

Six years on, will the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq War do what Hutton and Butler failed to do, and ensure that sainted reputation is finally and deservedly shredded? It's certainly looking that way.

Here's today's Journal column.

Earlier this week, a somewhat startling press release landed in my inbox from the PoliticsHome website, which as well as being a reliable source of Westminster news also carries out regular opinion polls.

It revealed that 70pc of the British public thought the process that led to the emergence of Herman Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton as EU president and foreign minister respectively had been undemocratic.

So far, so predictable, you may well say, given the byzantine processes that led to the selection of the little-known pair.

But the release went on to reveal that the public were actually quite relieved that the top Brussels jobs had gone to such relative political pygmies, rather than what our very own David Miliband described as a "traffic stopper" like Tony Blair.

At first sight, this looks like a pretty savage indictment of the former Prime Minister from a public which once lionised him.

But if anyone is wondering why a man who won three elections in a row between 1997 and 2005 is now less popular with the British public than a 62-year-old Belgian economist, the Iraq inquiry which commenced this week may provide a clue.

The reports by Lords Hutton and Butler were damning enough, for those of us who took the trouble to read between the lines rather than fall hook, line and sinker for the Alastair Campbell spin - but this is something else entirely.

After only a few days' evidence from civil servants with no particular political axe to grind, it is already clear that this inquiry is going to lay waste Mr Blair's reputation like nothing before it.

Already, we have learned that the government knew 10 days before the 2003 invasion that Saddam Hussein had dismantled his chemical weapons and had no warheads capable of delivering them.

We have learned that “huge gaps” in intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were flagged up to ministers before the compilation of the so-called “dodgy dossier” in September 2002.

We have heard former US ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer claim that the decision to go to war was taken in 2002 when Mr Blair met US President George Bush at his ranch in Texas.

And we have heard the former ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, express the opinion that the war was of “doubtful legitimacy.”

Any one of these revelations by themselves would have been damaging enough. Taken together, and with the promise of much more to come, they are devastating for Mr Blair.

But so what, you may say. He’s now left office, and while all this sort of stuff might be interesting to historians, it will have little impact on the electoral battle for 2010.

Well, two things. Firstly, it was very clear from Mr Blair’s conduct in office that he cares very much about his place in history, and in particular, about how his decision to go to war in Iraq is ultimately perceived.

Secondly, it is na├»ve to assume that this won’t feed into the general feeling of ‘time for a change’ that is providing the backdrop to the 2010 contest.

But even though it will scarcely help his re-election chances next spring, the Iraq inquiry may yet give Prime Minister Gordon Brown the last laugh on his old rival.

Routinely rubbished while in office, he might turn out to be viewed more kindly by history, as someone who, like Callaghan, like Home, simply had to make the best of a bad job.

For Mr Blair, that already seems unlikely. His long descent from public adoration in the mid-1990s to public obloquy now seems close to completion.

The European Union must be breathing a huge collective sigh of relief.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Less popular than Van Rompuy

Most opinion polls tend to tell you what you already know, and to reinforce the "received wisdom" about politics and politicians. But I have to admit to being startled by one of the findings in the PoliticsHome poll on the European presidency released this afternoon.

In my own personal view, the whole appointments procedure has been a complete fiasco and we have ended up, in Herman Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton, with a pair of complete political pygmies in the EU's two most senior roles.

Yet that is not entirely how the wider public sees it, apparently. While agreeing that the process has been undemocratic, most people are relieved that a low-profile figure such as Van Rompuy has taken the presidential job rather than a "traffic stopper" such as Tony Blair.

According to PH: "61% believe that Van Rompuy is preferable to Tony Blair as president." Isn't that just a spectacular measure of the obloquy into which the three-times election victor has now sunk?

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another missed opportunity for Brown

Time is fast running out for the Prime Minister to provide us with a good reason to re-elect him. Here's today's Journal column.

As the date of the next general election draws ever nearer, so the remaining windows of opportunity for a revival in Gordon Brown's political fortunes continue to dwindle in number.

In the calendar of set-piece political events, perhaps his best hope of an uplift came with his speech to Labour's conference seven weeks ago, but as I noted in last week's column, The Sun newspaper put paid to that.

Still to come are the pre-Budget report, the Budget itself, and the proposed TV debates with David Cameron, which could yet see the lightweight Tory leader laid out by Mr Brown’s fabled Big Clunking Fist.

But as opportunities go to set out a compelling set of reasons why Labour should remain in power for a fourth term, this week's Queen's Speech has to go down as yet another missed one.

Mr Brown's allies would claim that, with only a maximum of seven months of the current parliament to go before the election has to be held, setting out too ambitious a programme would have invited ridicule.

But surely even ridicule would have been better than the collective "so what?" from the public which seems to have greeted this timid set of proposals.

Despite the criticisms of MPs expenses watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly, it was not so much the absence of a specific piece of legislation to tackle that issue that was the problem.

As the government has pointed out, it is not clear that it requires primary legislation to sort it out anyway, and even if it does, ministers can always resort to Her Majesty's customary catch-all phrase: "Other measures will be laid before you."

No, the real problem with Wednesday's package, as with so much else the Brown government has done, is the lack of any connective tissue to tie these disparate policy threads into a 'Big Idea.'

At one time, before Mr Brown came into office, it seemed likely that the leitmotif of his premiership would be a drive to restore public trust in politics after the spin and sleaze of the Blair years.

In the end, those bright hopes were shot to pieces by a combination of the Prime Minister's timidity, the “smeargate” affair involving his adviser Damien McBride, and finally the expenses scandal.

But this should have been a cue for the government to step up the process of constitutional change, not relegate it to the backburner.

As it is, the only concrete constitutional reform pledge contained in the Queen's Speech is to abolish the absurd "by-election" for Lords' seats for hereditary peers which occurs each time one of them shuffles off this mortal coil.

The fact that hereditary peers remain in the House of Lords at all is almost - but not quite - as savage an indictment of 12 years of Labour rule as the fact that inequality has increased.

The government paid due recognition to this by having Her Majesty utter a solemn pledge to "narrow the gap between rich and poor" - but, like all the other positive measures in the Speech, it begs the doorstep response: "Why didn't you do it in the first place."

If Mr Brown does survive to lead Labour into the election next Spring, that is perhaps the hardest question he and his party will have to answer.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Regaining sympathy not the same as regaining trust

The Sun's quite disgraceful personal attacks on the Prime Minister over his letter to Jacqui Janes understandably swung some public sympathy behind him this week. But neither that nor the Glasgow North East by-election result means he is necessarily "safe." Here's today's Journal column.

Six weeks ago, The Sun newspaper torpedoed Gordon Brown's hopes of a party conference uplift by announcing on the evening of his keynote speech that it would be backing the Tories at the next general election.

At the time, I was among those who sought to downplay the significance of this, arguing on these pages that it was no more than a right-wing newspaper returning to its natural ideological home.

But if I’m honest, I was swimming against the tide on this. Most of the media seem to take The Sun’s own estimation of itself as the paper ‘wot won’ every election since the 1960s completely at face value.

Hence the paper’s switch after 12 years of loyal support for New Labour was reported as a political event of huge symbolic importance which drove yet another nail in the government’s coffin.

Perhaps, though, they were right. We have seen over the past week just what a dangerous opponent The Sun can be when it has it in mind to ‘go for’ a particular politician.

It used an error-strewn handwritten letter he wrote to grieving mum Jacqui Janes expressing his condolences at the loss of her son in Afghanistan to mount a highly personal attack on the Prime Minister.

It’s all becoming very reminiscent of the latter days of John Major – another well-intentioned PM who seemingly could do nothing right and who incurred the wrath of a certain red-top tabloid as a consequence.

Who could forget the Sun editor on Black Wednesday who promised to take two large buckets of something unmentionable and empty them all over poor old Mr Major’s head?

But if that at least had the merit of humour, on this occasion the paper appears to have over-reached itself.

As the sheer ferocity of its attack became clear, the public’s sympathy seems for once to have swung towards Mr Brown.

Ironically, had the paper not previously announced its intention to support the Conservatives, its reporting of the whole episode might have had a greater political impact.

But as Alastair Campbell rightly pointed out: “Precisely because they made such a splash with the switch to the Tories, the wider public now know more than ever that their coverage is politically driven and totally biased against Brown.”

The Sun also has something of a credibility gap with some sections of the public on issues such as these – as David Higgerson, a former Journal political correspondent now plying his trade on Merseyside, was not slow to point out.

“Nobody in Liverpool needs reminding about the sick irony involved when The Sun decides to have a pop at somebody for being insensitive,” he wrote on his blog.

As it is, a difficult week for Mr Brown has ended on a triumphant note with Labour’s unexpectedly comfortable victory in the Glasgow North-East by-election caused by the defenestration of Mr Speaker Martin over his handling of the expenses affair.

It did not take long for the Prime Minister’s loyal ally, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, to claim the party’s thumping 8,111 majority over the SNP as “an endorsement of Gordon Brown and what he is trying to do.”

But is it? Earlier this week, South Shields MP David Miliband’s decision to turn down the chance to become EU Foreign Minister led to more speculation that he could yet take as Labour leader before the next election.

A defeat for Labour in Glasgow North-East on Thursday might have raised that speculation to fever pitch.

As it is, the consensus among political commentators last night was that the result will make Mr Brown “safe” from any further attempts to unseat him – but I’m not at all sure they’re right.

The Prime Minister may have garnered some public sympathy this week. But regaining the public’s sympathy is a long way from regaining its trust.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Sympathy for Icarus

Slob returns with a reminder that you should never fly too close to The Sun. More on the red-top's little disagreement with Gordon in tomorrow's weekly column.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Kelly has gone too far

Yes, MPs brought the expenses affair on themselves, and yes, the system needs to be reformed - but reforming it on the basis of a 'blood sacrifice' will not necessarily produce a better Parliament. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since the start of the MPs expenses affair, it has been clear that no one political party has had a monopoly on sleazy behaviour.

From Tory knight Sir Peter Viggers’ duck island to Labour ex-minister Elliott Morley’s mortgage claims, the scandal has engulfed those on all sides of the political divide.

You might expect from this that the net effect of the whole debacle in terms of the opinion polls would be pretty well neutral.

But that is not in fact how the public has seen it. In fact, polls have consistently shown that the public regards Labour as far more culpable than the Tories in its handling of the affair.

In a sense, that is inevitable given that Labour is the party in power.

After all, as I have noted previously, the government had every opportunity to spot this car crash coming down the tracks, and every opportunity to reform the expenses system before the extent of the abuse became clear.

But of course, it didn’t, and fearful of the hostile opinion polls, the Prime Minister is now falling over himself to implement the clampdown on MPs expenses that he should have brought forward a year ago.

The net result is that Mr Brown was left with very little wriggle room once standards chief Sir Christopher Kelly had published his own recommendations on how to reform the system this week.

Mr Brown and the other party leaders have already made clear they expect MPs to implement Sir Christopher’s proposals in full – but to my mind, this is not necessarily a good thing.

At the risk of provoking a furious backlash from Journal readers, I am not sure that effectively banning most MPs from purchasing second homes does not amount to something of an over-reaction.

The statute books are full of bad legislation, hastily passed in the aftermath of a moral panic, of which the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1995 is perhaps the most notorious example.

We seem to be on the verge of making a similar mistake with MPs’ expenses, inventing rules designed to produce a ‘cathartic moment,’ or worse, a ‘blood sacrifice,’ rather than considering the most sensible system going forward.

For me, the key question is: will what is being proposed improve the quality of Parliament?

In this region, we are set to see perhaps the biggest exodus of political talent in a generation, with parliamentarians as diverse and distinguished as Jim Cousins, Alan Milburn and Chris Mullin all set to leave the Commons.

Their departures will, in my view, leave a hole in the region’s body politic that may take some years to fill.

But if on top of that, the new expenses regime causes some genuinely public-spirited individuals to conclude that they can no longer afford to represent us, it will be a sad day indeed.

My worry is that we are seeing an example the law of unintended political consequences, whereby a measure designed to clamp down on the political gravy train ends up primarily penalising MPs of no independent means.

There is a risk that we will end up with a situation in which the only people who can afford to be MPs are those rich enough to be able to buy second homes in London without the help of a mortgage.

If so, it will mean history will have come full circle since the days before the Labour Party was formed in order to provide parliamentary representation for the newly-enfranchised industrial working class.

Perhaps, at a time when Eton College seems set to regain its reputation for supplying the British ruling elite, we should not be so surprised at this.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

A fond farewell

An emotional day today as I travelled to North Wales to bid farewell to my former regional lobby friend and colleague Ian Craig. A sad occasion, for sure, but it was lovely to meet Ian's family and to see so many old faces from my Westminster days. The turnout at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wrexham, which included one or two senior politicians as well as numerous Press Gallery figures past and present, was yet a further indication of the huge esteem in which Ian was held.

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