Saturday, May 23, 2009

The big, unanswered questions

Who will be the next Speaker? Will there be an October election? And will we get proportional representation? Just some of the many unanswered questions that have arisen from the MPs expenses scandal. Here's today's Journal column.

For most of the past two years, the biggest unanswered question in politics has been whether Gordon Brown will survive to lead Labour into the next election, and it is a question that is still awaiting an answer.

But seldom can any week in politics have thrown up as many unanswered questions as the last one, a week which has seen the first defenestration of a House of Commons Speaker for 300 years and talk of a “quiet revolution” in our political system.

Several careers besides those of Michael Martin have already ended. Several more are hanging by a thread. And the pressure for a wholesale electoral clear-out of the "Duck Island Parliament" is growing.

We now know the true, appalling extent of the scandal over MPs' expenses. What we can still only guess at at this stage is its longer-term impact.

First, there are the small-to-middling questions, mainly concerning individuals. How many more MPs will be forced to stand down at the next election? Who will lose their jobs in the next reshuffle? Who will be the next Speaker?

Then there are the slightly broader questions. How will the public’s anger at the behaviour of the political classes feed through into voting habits? Will the “incumbency factor” that has always favoured sitting MP go into reverse? And will the next election herald a new wave of independents?

Then of course there is the question of when that election will finally be held, and whether Mr Brown will pay the political price for failing to reform the system until it was too late.

Finally, perhaps the most far-reaching question of all. Will the expenses scandal ultimately result in an historic reshaping of our parliamentary democracy, or alternatively bring about its final demise?

In terms of the questions around the futures of individual MPs, the North-East is as good a place as any to start.

Will Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland, controversially reselected in preference to neighbouring MP Sharon Hodgson, now fund himself deselected after claiming for the cost of buying out his partner’s £45,000 stake in his London flat, despite his very full and frank explanations of the reasons behind the move?

Will Durham North’s Kevan Jones and other “squeaky clean” MPs who voluntarily laid bare their expense claims be rewarded for their candour, or will they find themselves tar-brushed along with their sleazier counterparts?

And will Sir Alan Beith crown a notable career of public service by achieving his ambition of the Speakership - or will the fact that both he and his wife, Baroness Maddock, claimed second home allowances on the same property ultimately count against him?

On that last point, I have to say it would give me great pleasure to see the long-serving Berwick MP in the Speaker’s chair, although if he were not standing down from Parliament, Sunderland South’s Chris Mullin would be an equally admirable choice.

If the truth be told, the North-East should have had the Speakership last time round. The region had three candidates in Mr Beith, David Clark, and John McWilliam, all of whom would have done a better job than Michael Martin – though some would argue that is not saying much.

Ultimately Mr Martin fell not because of shaky grasp of Commons procedure or even last week's ill-judged attacks on backbench MPs, but because his continual attempts to block the freedom of information request over MPs expenses caused this whole debacle.

Just imagine for a moment that Dr Clark had got the job. Would he have fought the provisions of the freedom of information legislation that he himself pioneered? Of course not, and our Parliament would now be much the better for it.

But enough of the ancient history. What on earth will happen to the House of Commons now?

One oft-heard prediction this week is that we will end up with a chamber full of Esther Rantzens, Martin Bells and toast of the Gurkhas Joanna Lumley, and it's certainly one possibility.

We are living through such an extraordinary period of “anti-politics” that there could even be a return to the situation that existed before the rise of the party system in the 19th century – the “golden age of the independent House of Commons man” as one historian called it.

But while celebrity politicians may well play a part, I think the next election is just as likely to throw up more “local heroes” like Dr Richard Taylor, who defeated an unpopular Labour MP over hospital closures and is now himself even being mentioned as a possible Speaker.

Should that election now take place sooner than spring 2010? Well, there has to be a very strong argument for saying that, just as the Speaker who resisted reform for so long has had to go, so too should the Prime Minister who failed to grasp the nettle.

When a Parliament has lost moral authority to the extent that this one has, a clear-out becomes almost a democratic necessity, and Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament – “In the name of God, go!” - once more have a certain resonance.

Against that, there is a case for allowing passions to cool. In the words of one commentator: "If an election were called next week, Britain might well end up with a Parliament for the next five years that is defined entirely by its views on claiming for bath plugs, rather than on how to get the country out of the worst recession in 70 years."

Mr Brown will no doubt still try to hang on until next May, but in my view an autumn 2009 election has become significantly more likely in recent days.

As far as the longer-term implications of the scandal are concerned, there is already talk of radical constitutional reforms including an elected second chamber, fixed-term Parliaments, more powerful select committees, and even proportional representation.

I'll believe it when I see it....but if a consensus does emerge that radical parliamentary reform is the way out of this mess, it stands to reason that the party that will most benefit will be the one that has consistently advocated such reform for the past 40 years.

The Liberal Democrats have long been the recipients of the "anti-politics" vote, and on this issue as well as that of the Gurkhas, their leader Nick Clegg has looked over the past fortnight like a man whose time has come.

Sir Alan Beith is not the only Lib Dem for whom this crisis may prove an historic opportunity.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

In the midst of life....

Shortly after 9.30am on 3 August 2007, I held my new-born baby girl Clara Eloise in my arms for the first time.

It was one of the most joyous moments of my life, and ever since then my beautiful daughter has continued to delight all around her with her sunny personality and winning smile.

But we now know that on that very day, 130-odd miles away in North London, another father was having to cope with very different emotions.

On the day the evil killers of Baby Peter were finally jailed, the victim impact statement by the child's father makes somewhat harrowing reading.

Describing his arrival at the hospital he says: "I saw his little, limp body just laying there, naked except for a nappy. I could not believe what was happening, I could not believe that was my son.

"He appeared to be asleep and I just wanted to pick him up and take him home. There was nothing I could do for him … all I could do was kiss his forehead and say 'goodbye'. My son was gone forever."

"Having a boy meant the world to me, the thought of having a son to continue the family name was a source of great pleasure …He was such an adorable, lovely little boy, he loved to be cuddled and tickled, his laughter and smile could not help but make anyone in his presence feel happy."

"Like all fathers I had imagined watching my son grow up, playing football with him, taking him to see Arsenal play, watching him open his Christmas and birthday presents and just develop as a person. All that has been taken from me."

I would like to think that in the years to come, as I watch my own beloved child open her birthday presents every 3 August, I will spare a thought for that poor bereaved father.

This appalling case has stirred deep emotions in the hearts of millions, but for me, it has been a humbling reminder not just of the fragility and preciousness of human life, but of just how much I still have to be thankful for....

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Trouble down at the farm

Animal Farm is one of my all-time favourite books, so I was delighted to see this week's offering from Slob.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Will Labour MPs back Bercow?

Now that Michael Martin has finally gone, after what were surely two of the most ill-judged Commons performances of modern times last Monday and again yesterday, the question turns inevitably to the identity of his successor.

The key strategic questions for MPs will be what kind of Speaker they want to follow Gorbals Mick, and whether anyone currently tainted by the expenses scandal should be ruled out. To my mind, there are three options:

1. A "reforming Speaker" who will help draw a line under the expenses scandal and present a new, modern face to the electorate. In this event, the standout candidates from each of the main parties would be Tony Wright, John Bercow and Vince Cable. Cable, who still sees himself as David Cameron's first Chancellor, has already ruled himself out, which could allow fellow Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith to come into his own.

2. A "safe pair of hands" who can unite the House and pour balm on the current turmoil. In this event the overwhelmingly most likely choices are either Sir Alan Haselhurst or Sir Menzies Campbell, but both are vulnerable to criticism over their own expense claims.

3. An "interim Speaker" who will mind the shop until the next election, after which more far-reaching choice can be made. This would have to be someone who has already announced they are standing down, so Ann Widdecombe or Chris Mullin are the likeliest options if this route is followed.

One rumour currently sweeping Westminster is that Labour MPs are getting behind John Bercow, which could constitute sweet revenge as Bercow is not wildly popular in the Tory Party. By contrast, a lot of Tory MPs - and bloggers - are keen on Frank Field, who has about as many fans in the PLP as Joey Barton has in the Newcastle dressing room.

At this rate, the Speakership election on 22 June could bring (another) whole new meaning to the term "flipping."

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

The week that changed Westminster

The expenses scandal is an indictment on the whole political class rather than one individual or party - but ultimately it will be Gordon Brown who pays the price. Here's today's Journal column.

If there has been a single, over-riding theme that has characterised British politics over the past decade and a half, it has been the long, slow collapse of public trust in those who govern in our name.

It started with cash for questions under John Major, continued with legislative favours to Labour donors under Tony Blair, and reached a new depth with the dodgy dossiers which sent British troops to war in Iraq on a false prospectus.

After that shameful episode, we probably thought we had seen it all – but the cascade of revelations about MPs expenses over the past eight days has taken public contempt for politicians to a new and potentially dangerous level.

It has truly been a game-changing week in British politics, and for the House of Commons, it is already clear that nothing will ever be the same again.

It began with the publication of the Cabinet’s expense claims last weekend, with Communities Secretary Hazel Blears bearing the brunt of the criticism both inside and outside the Labour Party.

Faced with some stinging rebukes from some of her own colleagues, she later agreed to repay £13,332 in Capital Gains Tax on the sale of her second home, but any slim chance she may have had of becoming Britain’s second woman Prime Minister has probably gone.

This, though, was just the hors d’oeuvres. By the end of the week, MPs were not just paying for their sins by writing cheques, some of them were paying with their jobs.

And it’s not over yet. Andrew Mackay may have been forced to quit as an aide to Tory leader David Cameron, Elliott Morley has been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Shahid Malik has temporarily stepped down as a justice minister – but no-one seriously believes they will be the only casualties.

So where does it all leave us? Well, amidst the mayhem, four specific conclusions can so far be drawn.

First, the Tories have been shown by and large to be more greedy than their Labour counterparts, as indeed I suggested might very well be the case on these pages a week ago.

Okay, so Labour has its fair share of Maliks, Morleys and Phil Hopes, all of whom claimed large amounts to cover the costs of their second homes.

But so far as I am aware, neither they nor any other Labour MPs have so far claimed for cleaning moats, repairing swimming pools, mowing paddocks, manuring their vegetable patches, or adding porticos to the front of their houses.

Secondly, though, the past week has also revealed Mr Cameron to be a more instinctive and decisive leader than Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

When confronted with the scale of the problem in his own party, it would have been very easy for the Tory leader to go into defensive mode – but instead, he seized the moment by telling his MPs it was payback time.

His own Shadow Cabinet led the way by repaying more than £17,000 worth of claims on items ranging from chauffeurs to repairing a broken pipe underneath a tennis court.

Mr Brown has defended his more softly-softly approach on the grounds that he is trying to “build consensus” on a way forward - but there is no doubt which of the two leaders has looked more in tune with the public mood.

Thirdly, the affair has demonstrated beyond any remaining doubt that Michael Martin’s nine-year tenure in the House of Commons Speaker’s Chair should now be brought to a close as expeditiously as possible.

I have written previously of his tendency to see himself more as the shop steward for MPs than the guardian of the dignity of Parliament, and events this week proved the point.

Anyone who has followed Mr Martin’s career will know that he has always adhered to a fairly simple philosophy – that whenever anything goes wrong, it is invariably the press that is to blame.

His attacks on backbench MPs who dared to question his decision to mount a leak inquiry over the expenses revelations showed a man out of time, out of touch, and totally out of his depth.

Fourthly and potentially most damaging of all, it is already clear that this episode will have a baleful impact on the public’s attitude to the mainstream parties in the run-up to next month’s European elections.

As senior a figure as Norman Tebbit has already openly called for a “plague on all their houses” vote on 4 June, suggesting only the fringe parties are worthy of support.

Lord Tebbit probably came within a whisker of being thrown out of the Tory Party over his remarks, but I suspect they will nevertheless resonate with large numbers of people.

The UK Independence Party is confident it can beat Labour into fourth place, while more worryingly, the current febrile atmosphere might very well see the election of Britain’s first British National Party MEPs.

I wrote that week the expenses issue was an indictment of the political class as a whole rather than any one individual or party, but nevertheless, it is Mr Brown who stands to be the biggest loser.

It is not as if he couldn’t have seen all this coming. Before it all blew up, the Commons authorities under Mr Martin spent months trying to block a freedom of information request to make MPs expense claims public.

Had Mr Brown been true to his instincts, true to his stated intention to restore public trust in politics on entering No 10, he could have taken the bull by the horns, gone to the papers himself with the information and sacked all the transgressors within his party.

But of course that would have required real leadership. And we now know that this is the kind of leadership which is beyond him.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Riding the gravy train

Actually, I think Nigel Farage and UKIP will be the main beneficiaries...but here's Slob's take on it anyway.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Preserved for posterity

I don't get as much time as I would like to update this blog these days, but by and large I'm pretty happy with what I've produced here over the past three years or so.

So when I was approached by the British Library to be part of its national web archiving project last year, I admit to having felt a great sense of satisfaction.

Snapshots of the blog have now been permanently archived at this page, while the blog is also listed in the Library's politics and blogs collections.

In theory this means my grandchildren in 50 years' time will be able to read the blog to find out what grandad was up to back in the Noughties. Assuming I am lucky enough to have any, of course, and provided the world doesn't end before then.

When I heard that the blog had been archived, I did give some fairly serious thought to knocking it on the head, and treating what has now been preserved for posterity as a completed body of work.

But quite apart from the fact that this would have amounted to a rather arbitrary cut-off point, I found myself thinking that if the blog ceased to exist, I would probably have to reinvent it.

As Iris Murdoch wrote in The Sea, The Sea: "Life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubts on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after."

And since this blog was never meant to be art, merely a reflection of what has been happening in British politics and in my own life since 2005, I figure it had better "bump on" for a while longer yet....

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The John Smith Meme

Turns out I wasn't the only blogger who remembered that today was the 15th aniversary of the death of John Smith. Paul Burgin remembered too, and tagged me in a meme about Labour's lost leader. Happy to oblige, Paul.

Where were you when you heard John Smith had died?

I was at work in the South Wales Echo newsroom in Cardiff. It was the year before I went into the Lobby, so I ended up playing a supporting role in our coverage while our then Lobby men, Bill Doult and Bill Jacobs, did the business. I remember a conversation with a newsroom colleague, now a reporter on The Times, about who the likely successor would be: she said she thought it ought to be Blair, but we would probably end up with Brown. Ho hum.

How did you view John Smith when he was leader and how do you view him now?

Like Margaret Thatcher, I think John Smith would have turned out to be a better Prime Minister than he was a Leader of the Opposition. Doubtless the pace of reform in the party at the time could have been faster, but I have never bought into idea that this would have cost Labour the election, and Smith's essential decency coupled with the Tory disarray after Black Wednesday would have got him very comfortably into No 10.

Do you think he would have made a good Prime Minister?

I think he would have been a great Prime Minister. He would not have electrified the country in the way Blair did, but that would ultimately have been no bad thing - we would have had good, solid, responsible Labour government but without all the meretricious Cool Brittania nonsense that surrounded it, or the corrosive spin that ultimately destroyed the New Labour brand. He would also not have made the mistake of staying on too long, and would probably have handed over to Blair (or Brown) at a time when the political wind was still behind Labour. And of course, he would not have invaded Iraq, or built the Dome, or employed Alastair Campbell.

What do you think is his lasting legacy?

Devolution would clearly have been one of them - he would have embraced this enthusiastically rather than grudgingly as Blair did, and might well have extended it to some of the English regions as well as Scotland and Wales. He would certainly have pursued a more aggressive regional policy, rather than allowing inequalities between parts of the UK to widen as Blair did. More broadly, I think he would have restored trust in politics after the Major years, instead of which it has been steadily dragged down to new depths.

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What would he have made of it?

I've not got time to wade into the MPs expenses row in detail as yet, although I have made my views on Mr Speaker Martin clear on Iain Dale's blog.

But meanwhile, on the day that, 15 years ago, Britain lost a great Prime Minister in waiting, a thought occurs: what would he have made of it all?

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

The changing face of politics

Did Margaret Thatcher save Britain? Can Hazel Blears really become Britain's second woman PM? And could the MPs' expenses revelations ultimtately rebound to Gordon Brown's advantage? Just some of the questions addressed in today's Journal column.

All general elections bring change, but some general elections bring more change than others, and there is a pretty universal consensus that the one that brought the most change in recent times was the one that took place 30 years ago this week.

For better or worse, Margaret Thatcher's victory over Jim Callaghan in that 1979 contest has cast its shadow over moreorless everything that has happened in British politics in the ensuing decades.

There is still, to my mind at least, a debate to be had about the Thatcher legacy. The widely-held view is that she “saved” Britain, which is the fundamental reason why the Labour Party subsequently found it necessary to take on most of her ideas.

But in many ways we were a more contented society back then, and while the “opportunity economy” which she ushered in may have made some people considerably better-off, it has not necessarily made people happier or more secure.

Anyway, for those lucky enough - or should that be sad enough? - to have access to the Parliamentary Channel via Freeview, there was the chance to relive it all again last Monday, as the channel replayed all 17 hours of the BBC's election coverage.

I flitted in and out of it between DIY jobs and the snooker, the main points of fascination for me being the impossible youth of David Dimbleby and other BBC presenters, and hearing Labour politicians speaking with genuine working-class accents.

Superficially, there would seem to be obvious parallels between that time and this - a failing Labour government, a faltering economy, an experienced but somewhat shop-soiled Prime Minister, an untried Tory leader whose time nevertheless looked like it had come.

But that's way too easy. In truth, Mr Brown would probably kill for the kind of personal ratings enjoyed by Big Jim, and Labour's predicament then - popular leader but unpopular policies - is moreorless the reverse of the position the party finds itself in now.

Either way, one politician who clearly had Margaret Thatcher very much in mind this week was the Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, who enlivened the Bank Holiday weekend by launching an astonishing attack on Mr Brown.

She told the Observer that the government had shown a "lamentable" failure to get its message across, and that the public no longer believed any government policy announcements.

Ms Blears has since denied her comment should be seen in any way as a criticism of Mr Brown's leadership, but this is hogwash.

The giveaway was her use of the words "You Tube if you want to," a phrase which anyone over 40 will immediately recognise as an echo of the Iron Lady's famous soundbite: "You turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning."

Ostensibly, Ms Blears was of course referring to Mr Brown’s laughable performance on YouTube when he grinned his way through an announcement of a clampdown on MPs expenses.

But the subtext was clear: Ms Blears was suggesting that she is the new Margaret Thatcher, a plain-speaking, down-to-earth woman impatient with silly fads such as using internet video channels to make policy statements.

So can Hazel Blears really become Britain’s second woman Prime Minister? Well, I thinks she thinks so, although her last place in the 2007 deputy leadership election is hardly an ideal base from which to launch a successful leadership bid two years on.

That said, Mrs Thatcher herself is the supreme example of a rank outsider who propelled herself into the leadership ahead of more experienced and more highly-thought-of rivals.

In any case, to give Mr Brown his due, he promptly ignored Ms Blears’ protestations by going straight back onto YouTube to do a campaign broadcast for the European elections on 4 June.

But any hopes the Prime Minister may have had of regaining the political initiative in the run-up to those elections were hit by yesterday’s revelations about the Cabinet’s expense claims.

Although no rules appear to have been broken, stories about Mr Brown paying his brother £6,577 to cover the cost of cleaning services, Jack Straw overclaiming for his council tax, and Ms Blears juggling claims between three homes are hardly helpful at this juncture.

Whatever explanations ministers may offer, many voters are now conditioned to believe all politicians are guilty until proven innocent. – a sad state of affairs no doubt, but one which the political elite has largely brought on itself.

The wider political impact of these revelations may well depend on what is uncovered when the Daily Telegraph gets round to publishing the expense claims of the Tory frontbench, as no doubt it will do in the next few days.

Who knows, if it turns out that some of them have broken the rules while Mr Brown’s team stayed largely within them, it may even rebound to the Prime Minister’s advantage.

Indeed, at least one conspiracy theorist has already suggested that Brown Central could have orchestrated the whole thing as a way of staving off the anticipated Labour meltdown on 4 June.

If a real spin genius like Alastair Campbell was still at No 10, I’d be tempted to believe that, but it’s way too clever for the blundering bunch of incompetents that currently surround the Prime Minister.

The expenses issue is, at bottom, more an illustration of the changing relationship between politicians and the public than an indictment of any particular individual or party.

Old parliamentary stagers like Middlesbrough MP Sir Stuart Bell may look back fondly to the “age of deference” when MPs were implicitly trusted and the public left them alone to do their work.

But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and more generally the public’s desire for greater transparency in our political system, those days are gone for good.

It’s just another of the many ways in which politics has been transformed since the day Margaret Thatcher walked into 10 Downing Street all those years ago.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Not cricket

I don't want to take away from England's now near-certain victory in the First Test against West Indies - "West Indies get first taste of Onions" was my favourite headline on the match - but I can't get excited about it, for two reasons.

Firstly, it's on Sky, and therefore watching it would entail giving money to the man who has done more to debase British journalism and politics over the past 30 years than any other single individual, but I've been here before.

The second reason it all leaves me rather cold, however, is that Test cricket really shouldn't be played at this time of the year at all in my view - at least, not in England.

Early May is surely a time for tying up the loose ends of the football season before the summer sports take over, and for cricketers to try to score 1,000 runs for their county in a bid to force their way into the Test team. Or am I beginning to sound like my dad?

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Can Gordon save Labour? Paul and Skipper exchange views

The future of Gordon Brown is dominating political discussion at the moment both at Westminster and across the blogosphere. Fellow left-of-centre blogger Skipper and myself decided to hold an exchange of views which we hereby publish for your entertainment and, possibly, enlightenment.

If there are any other bloggers who would like to take part in a similar exchange on a politically-related subject - or even one about sport or music, for that matter - feel free to email me.

Paul: I said in my column at the weekend that in order to stand any chance of victory at the next election, there needs to be a fundamental change in the character, culture and direction of the government, and that this will probably entail a change of leadership. And yet, as a long-standing admirer of Gordon Brown, part of me still clings to the hope that he can somehow turn it round. I suppose his only real hope is an early end to the recession and some sort of vindication of his economic rescue package, but even then there is the danger that the voters will blame him for having created the mess in the first place. Do you think the party can still win under Gordon, or is it time for Labour to move on from the Blair-Brown years?

Skipper: As a lifetime Labour supporter it grieves me to say that I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which Brown can win next year. He has been a huge disappointment. I thought this precocious political talent (oh yes, he has lots of it) would reveal his distinctive contribution to government once Blair had departed- God knows he conspired and plotted enough to get it- but he has contributed virtually nothing since June 2007. Most depressing is his lack of judgement: pulling back from the expected ‘snap election’ started the rot in 2007 and, adding to others we have seen most recently, his total misjudgement of popular sentiment on both the Gurkha issue and MP’s expenses.

Whatever his faults- and they were many- Blair would never have allowed both items in a single week to avoid his antennae. Gordon might climb partially out of the hole he’s in but I don’t think there’s time to complete the job. Even if he did I think he’s had his run in the first 11 but has come up only with low scores and ducks. I just hope he’ll recognise his own failure and go voluntarily but an obsessive introverted high achiever like Gordon will probably lack any true self awareness

Paul: I actually think there’s a chance he will go voluntarily, Bill – he’s a loyal party man if nothing else. But for the time being, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that he won’t. What, if anything, should the Cabinet do to bring the issue to a head? And do they even have the bottle? Last year, Labour found itself in a not dissimilar position, there was a lot of talk about plots, about Jack Straw handing him the pearl-handed revolver, about people refusing to be moved in a reshuffle or refusing to serve altogether, about David Miliband taking over – and none of it came to anything. Will this year be any different?

Skipper: Well, that's what we are all so fascinated about is it not? Will they have the bottle or will they fall away? I suspect the latter. There is no real alternative candidate available. Straw, Johnson and Harman could all make a fist of at least an interim leadership tenure: vital if Labour are to minimize the almost inevitable landslide in 2010. The smaller the loss the quicker it will be to recover. Johnson looks like the best bet to me; Straw would command respect; and Harman might think, as Thatcher did back in 1975, that 'This is my moment' and seek to advance the ambitions which I feel sure she is disguising.

But they have all three cried off over the past few days. Does this mean they won't stand in any circumstances? No. But those circumstances- a formal contest- are unlikely to occur. So the most likely outcome, I fear, is more of the same limping, faltering Brown until the meltdown happens. Depressing. A voluntary exit would be a hugely beneficial and unselfish act.

Paul: As I said before, I think there’s a chance he might do that. For starters, he is a loyal party man at heart, and I don’t think he would want the party destroyed in an election if there was a chance that someone else could achieve a better outcome. There is also Gordon’s risk-averse history to consider – his failure to contest the Labour nomination for the Hamilton by-election against George Robertson in 1978, his failure to contest the Labour leadership against Tony Blair in 1994, and as you have mentioned, his failure to hold a general election in 2007 (which I thought was the right decision at the time but events have probably proved me wrong.)

The unmistakable conclusion we should draw from this is that Gordon doesn’t fight elections when there is a chance he will lose. I think he would be especially unlikely to contest such an election against David Cameron, who is someone he genuinely despises. Against that, there’s the Micawberist argument – that something might turn up – and that Place in History argument – that three years in No 10 looks better than two. Although those can be persuasive factors, on balance my feeling is that he will go.

Skipper: This, along with whether the Cabinet are spineless or not, is the really intriguing question. In favour of a voluntary exit is your case- shies away from contests he can't win, 'solid party man' provides an excuse for bowing out. And, who knows? the 'men in flat caps' (I'm looking for the Labour equivalent of 'men in suits') might be down to pay a visit after the June elections.

Against that we have: your 'Micawber possibility', his stubborn grasp of the power he sought all his political life; and the desire to outstay the short term premiers like Canning (5 months), Bonar Law (6 months), Douglas Home (12 months) and Eden (21 months). So far he's running ahead of that lot but I suspect the one with whom he will compare himself is Jim Callaghan, who served virtually 36 months. Surely he wouldn't be so petty as to worry about such a thing? Oh yes, he would; remember how Blair hung on to make it into double figures?

So far Brown has managed nearly 24 months: he could equal Jim's stint if he hangs on. Which case will prove correct? Well, I can quite see Paul's persuasive argument and it wouldn't surprise me too much if Gordon fell on his sword, but I'd put a tenner on him not doing so.

Paul: I said at the outset that I’ve always been an admirer of Brown’s, and genuinely thought he would make a successful Prime Minister. Why do you think he has been such a spectacularly unsuccessful one? A lot of people have pointed to the so-called “psychological flaws” in Gordon, but to my mind you have to be pretty psychologically flawed to want to be a politician in the first place, so it’s not an argument I have ever had a lot of truck with. Was it simply that he had the bad luck to inherit the leadership just at the time the political tide was going out on New Labour and the roof was about to fall in economically, or has he been more the author of his own misfortunes? And will history look on him more kindly than his contemporaries, particularly if the economy does recover and his rescue package comes to be seen as having played a key part in that?

Skipper: Well, there is not so much to chalk up in the 'achievements' column is there? And we've already discussed his poor judgement. It could be his economic remedies will come to be seen as well crafted, well timed and ultimately effective. I really do hope so for us all and for Gordon's reputation as there isn't much else in the locker is there? And as for his decade at the Treasury's helm, our present predicament has thrown into less flattering relief his championship of the ultra deregulated Anglo-American Model of capitalism.

But I do so agree he was unfortunate acceding to power after 10 years of his predecessor's squandering of Labour's political capital. However, I subscribe to the 'pathological flaws' view of Brown: a driven, manipulative, quite ruthless politician some degrees worse than the usual run of them, which usually includes, in my view some very decent and public spirited people.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sweet memories of '79

I bet you didn't think you'd see a headline like that today from a left-of-centre blogger. But just as 1979 turned out to be a seminal year in British politics, so was it a seminal year for yours truly, though for different reasons I hasten I add!

I was 16 at the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, and irrespective of what was going on in the world of politics, it was a great time to be alive.

I didn't of course vote in the general election, and neither did my parents, or at least not in persons. In fact they sent in postal votes as they were on holiday in California, having left me in charge of the house for three weeks.

I spent most of those three weeks revising for my O-levels, but I also found time to learn how to cook my own meals - the first flickerings of a love affair that has lasted ever since - and to watch a lot of snooker, the World Championships in Sheffield being then, as now, the main sporting interest on telly at that time of year.

It was the year of one of the sport's great fairytales - Terry Griffiths' amazing run from the qualifiers to the championship trophy, the first time this feat had been achieved. With no mum and dad around to send me off to bed, and with dad's bottle of Scotch providing liquid sustenance, I stayed up till 2.40am to watch the conclusion of Griffiths' epic semi-final encounter with Eddie Charlton, and hear him tell David Vine afterwards: "I'm in the final now, you know" in that lilting Welsh accent.

Later that year, I fell in love for the first time, something about which I'd love to write more, but I'm not Nick Hornby, and three decades on, it would be unfair to the lady in question.

And Thatcher? Well, I guess her coming to power did play a part in my political education. Up until then, I would probably have classed myself as an apathetic Tory, but it was only after seeing the impact of her policies on the country and the divisive nature of her rule that I realised where I really stood on the political spectrum.

There will doubtless be a great deal of bollocks talked over the next 48 hours about how Thatcher "saved Britain." To my mind, there is just as convincing a case to be made that in fact she ruined it, and since we may now be reaching the end of the neo-liberal consensus which she ushered in, I think it's important that this counter-argument is heard.

Neil Clark makes the case well in an article in The First Post, arguing that Britain had created a contented society that had managed to get the balance right between work, leisure and remuneration, contrasting it positively with the anxiety-ridden, job-insecure society of today.

He's right. Britain in the 70s wasn't all that bad a place to be really. And having grown up there, I think I'm in as good a position to know as anyone.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

On 6 June, all hell will break loose

"The Labour Party faces a shattering defeat at the next general election unless there is a fundamental change in the character, culture and direction of the government. That requires a change of leadership, for two reasons.

Firstly, because Mr Brown is simply too closely associated with the economic mismanagement of the past decade to be able to restore the party’s reputation for economic competence.

Secondly, because post-McBride, he cannot now escape responsibility for the corrosive culture of spin that has always characterised New Labour. Indeed, it is now clear that he has no more abolished spin than he has abolished boom and bust."

Here's the rest of today's Journal column.

It is not so very long ago that the main yardstick against which many political commentators sought to judge would-be Prime Ministers or party leaders was whether they were “good on TV.”

Tony Blair certainly fell into that category, and for a decade, he successfully used his mastery of the arts of communication to mask his numerous other political shortcomings.

But if the last few weeks are anything to go by, we are now entering a new age in which Prime Minsters could rise and fall according to whether they are good on the internet.

Recent political events have led some pundits to pose the question: Could Gordon Brown be the first occupant of 10 Downing Street to be brought down by the worldwide web?

First, we had the Damian McBride smeargate affair, a scandal that for all the damage it has done the government, could only really have occurred in the digital age.

To start with, the smears in question were contained within emails. Secondly, they were brought to light not by the compliant national political media, which had an interest in keeping Mr McBride onside, but by an internet blogger, Guido Fawkes.

We then had the spectacle of Mr Brown making an ass of himself on YouTube, bopping around and smiling in the wrong places while announcing a clampdown on MPs expenses.

The fact that he was this week forced to withdraw the wretched proposals for fear of a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own backbenchers only served to rub salt into the self-inflicted wound.

Finally, 10 Downing Street was hoist by its own digital petard when it found itself hosting a 24,000-signature e-petition on its website calling on the Prime Minister to resign forthwith.

To add insult to injury, a rival petition calling on him to stay was signed by just 600 “visitors” including the likes of Phil McCavity and Orson Carte.

All of which left Mr Brown not just struggling to hold on to his authority, but – far worse for someone of his intellectual seriousness – struggling to avoid turning into a national joke.

As one commentator put it: “The internet hasn't yet made a politician in Britain. But the comic relief it affords bored office workers is helping to finish off poor Mr Brown.”

Of course, that was not all that the Prime Minister had to cope with this week. He also had to deal with a good old-fashioned backbench rebellion over plans to restrict the rights of Ghurkas to settle in the UK.

The obvious injustice of the government’s position presented an open goal to opposition party leaders Nick Clegg and David Cameron, whose alliance gave a foretaste of what might happen in a hung Parliament.

On top of everything else, we even had Mr Brown trying to leave the Commons Chamber after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, forgetting that he had a statement to make on the war in Afghanistan.

How MPs fell about with laughter. How this most high-minded and sensitive of Prime Ministers must have inwardly squirmed.

So where does this leave Mr Brown now? Well, the Prime Minister’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed moreorless ever since he entered No 10, and in a sense we’ve been here before.

The problem is, there are some European elections coming up on 5 June which, in my view, are likely to prove a catastrophe for Labour.

Not only is the party up to 20 points behind in the polls, but as every Labour strategist knows, the party has always had a problem getting its vote out in elections where the government of the country is not at stake.

If the elections go as badly as everyone expects they will for Labour, it will create the political momentum for some sort of Cabinet-led putsch against the premier in the early weeks of June.

This is not the time to speculate on exactly how that might happen – there will be plenty of scope in future columns for me to do that.

But the underlying truth of the situation is that the Labour Party faces a shattering defeat at the next general election unless there is a fundamental change in the character, culture and direction of the government.

That requires a change of leadership, for two reasons. Firstly, because Mr Brown is simply too closely associated with the economic mismanagement of the past decade to be able to restore the party’s reputation for economic competence.

Secondly, because post-McBride, he cannot now escape responsibility for the corrosive culture of spin that has always characterised New Labour. Indeed, it is now clear that he has no more abolished spin than he has abolished boom and bust.

As someone who has always admired Mr Brown, and believed he would make a good Prime Minister, it gives me no great pleasure to write this. In fact I feel desperately sorry for him.

He should have had the chance to work for his vision of a fairer society at a time when the political wind was set fair for Labour. It was his tragedy to be denied that chance until the tide started going out on the party.

In the five weeks leading up to 5 June, we will by and large see the party rallying round him, Charles Clarke’s comments about being “ashamed to be a Labour MP” yesterday notwithstanding.

But once these elections are out of the way, expect all hell to break loose. And not just on internet blogs and YouTube.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

A tale of two council leaders

Nearly two decades ago, Labour councillors David Bookbinder and Martin Doughty fought eachother for control of Derbyshire County Council. David had been leader for 11 often controversial years, but Martin thought there needed to be a change of direction. Eventually in 1992, David stepped down, and Martin went on to lead the council for nine years. I chronicled the absorbing struggle between these two genuinely gifted men in the Derby Evening Telegraph, of which I was then the political correspondent.

More recently, David and Martin have found themselves fighting battles of a different nature - against cancer. Sadly Martin, who had gone on to become a national figure as chair of the environment quango Natural England, and a knight of the realm to boot, succumbed to the disease in March at the tragically young age of 59. Most of his obituarists have understandably highlighted his passion for the environment, but back in the early 1990s I knew Martin on a more personal level. I can genuinely say that he was one of kindest men I have ever encountered in public life.

David meanwhile has suffered more than most from the ravages of the Big C, having lost both his wife and son to it before himself being diagnosed with the disease in 2004. In a recent interview with the Evening Telegraph, he tells how at one point he came close to taking his own life, but ultimately overcame the disease by dint of a bizarre mixture of remedies, his sheer will to live, and his unwavering belief in Manchester City Football Club.

I had many battles with David - he did not brook criticism as council leader and my approach to political journalism and his approach to politics were always likely to end in conflict - but I am genuinely pleased to hear that he has beaten the disease like the fighter he always was. I am incredibly sorry that Martin Doughty is no longer with us, but I wish David Bookbinder many more happy years on this earth. And I bet you thought you'd never hear me say that, Harry Barnes.

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