Saturday, May 29, 2010

The old politics is back

Is politics returning to normal? Even before the government's pettyfogging decision to boycott Question Time over, of all things, the presence of Bad Al Campbell on the panel, the signs were there. Here's today's Journal column.

After the unchartered waters of the post-election period and the initial excitement of the Lib-Con coalition deal, the political events of the past week had a reassuringly familiar feel to them.

A Conservative Chancellor unveiled a swingeing package of spending cuts. Labour frontbenchers queued up to attack them.

Meanwhile a Conservative Education Secretary unveiled plans to reduce the role of local authorities in schools – as Labour accused him of trying to recreate a two-tier education system.

So much for the 'new politics.' This was just like old times.

For the North-East, the new political era is already carrying unwelcome echoes of the Thatcher-Major years.

National newspapers have once again started to carry long features on the region's plight, and how its relatively high proportion of public sector jobs will leave it vulnerable to the spending cutbacks. Tell us something we don't know.

The one bright star on the horizon is that ministers have bowed to the demands of this newspaper among others to retain a region-wide economic body.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles moreorless confirmed on Wednesday that this would be the existing job-creation agency One NorthEast, albeit in a radically slimmed-down form.

But though some will doubtless bemoan the loss of Labour's child trust funds, there is a consensus of sorts over the cuts, the only argument being whether they should have happened now or later.

Michael Gove's education proposals - a re-run of the Major government's grant-maintained schools initiative - are however likely to be far more controversial.

By opening the way to thousands of schools to become 'academies,' the Tories' real aim appears to be to further neuter the role of local government.

For all the talk of 'localism,' all this will result in is more and more schools being directly-funded – and thus ultimately controlled – from the centre.

Labour activists, many of whom are teachers and many more of whom work in local government, will hate this measure probably more than any other to emerge from the coalition so far.

In terms of the Labour leadership contest, it ought to play into the hands of the former children's secretary, Ed Balls, who led the attack on it this week in his usual combative style.

Nevertheless Mr Balls remains very much an outsider in the race which thus far looks set to be a contest between the Miliband brothers, David and Ed.

The election of South Shields MP David as Labour leader would, at least, be some compensation for the fact that the North-East is the only region without a single MP in the government.

Of all the many vignettes that have emerged from that strange five-day post-election limbo when no-one quite knew who had won, one of the most intriguing concerns a 3am conversation between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown.

The former Lib Dem leader was apparently begging his old friend to broker a Lib-Lab coalition and finally realise their dream of a new 'progressive alliance.'

But Mr Blair said no, it was time Labour went into opposition, arguing that if it clung on to power this time round, it would pay a terrible price at the next election.

As the initial euphoria around the coalition subsides, and the harsh reality of its programme starts to bite, it is looking increasingly like the right judgment call.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wanted: More candidates

I have to confess to being decidedly underwhelmed thus far by the Labour leadership election. Aside from the fact that many of the best candidates have ruled themselves out of the running on the grounds of age - always a depressing state of affairs for those of us who are nearer 50 than 40 - the distinctly monochrome nature of the four leading candidates, all white middle-class males who moved into important positions in government on the back of having once been junior research assistants to Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, leaves little to get excited about.

Of the four - I am discounting Diane Abbott and John McDonnell as no-hopers - the one that has so far talked the most sense is Andy Burnham. He at least seems to have some understanding of the Labour Party's roots, and a coherent story to tell about how it managed to lose touch with its natural supporters over recent years. I have also, in the past two days, been impressed by Ed Balls: the new government's divisive new education reforms, a throwback to the mid-1990s mania for grant-maintained status, will surely give him a platform from which to rally support.

Of the Miliblands, there is much less positive to be said from my point of view. To tell the truth, I would not be unhappy with either of them as leader, and David's so-called 'Blairite' credentials - a fatal drawback if genuine - have always been seriously overplayed in my view. But I wonder whether either of them are quite combative enough for the role at a time when the Con-Lib coalition is threatening to carry all before it.

Certainly Harriet Harman made a good stab at puncturing David Cameron's growing self-confidence this week, and I still don't think it is entirely outside the bounds of possibility that she could come into the race. For one, I don't think she would be entirely happy to see Abbott carrying the torch for Labour's wimmin. For another, I think it's very noticeable that some of the key Brownites who were behind her deputy leadership campaign - the likes of Nick Brown and Kevan Jones - have yet to declare for any of the other candidates.

What this is all leading up to is that, to my mind, the field is currently way too narrow. I am hugely disappointed that Yvette Cooper has decided not to stand - if brother can stand against brother, then why not wife against husband? - but I do understand her reasons. No such considerations apply, however, to the other great absentee from the race - Ben Bradshaw.

He was an experienced and successful minister. He was not clearly associated with either Brown or Blair but was regarded as having been loyal to both men. He has an interesting personal backstory that resonates with 21st century Britain. He is good-looking, articulate and good on TV. Perhaps most importantly of all, he has had a life outside the Westminster goldfish bowl and a successful career in the real world. Why is he not standing?

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Going home

For the last couple of years or so, Ashes to Ashes has been the only must-watch programme on TV for me, and last night's final episode certainly lived up to its billing.

DCI Gene Hunt's world, it turned out, was a kind of purgatory for dead cops, with Gene as the guardian angel trying to usher them all into pub heaven while his nemesis Jim Keats, a thinly-disguised Satan, attempts to send them to hell/oblivion/a nightclub where Club Tropicana is playing on endless loop.

Some will no doubt think it's a bit of a cop-out but speaking personally, I find the idea of the afterlife a lot more believable than the idea of time travel. Then again, as a Christian, I suppose I would do.

Heaven is a concept which, like most people, I sometimes struggle to understand. Who can even begin to fathom what it is and what it might consist of? But in my limited human understanding - and at the risk of being slightly subversive - I find the idea of heaven as the inside of a warmly-lit pub as good a metaphor for paradise as anything...

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Is this what Cameron wanted all along?

Two things are holding the new Lib-Con coalition government together. The first is liberalism, economic and social. The second is a mutual loathing New Labour and all its works. Here's today's Journal column.

Last week, I suggested that the enthusiasm with which Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced his new Liberal Democrat partners hinted that coalition might have been the election outcome he wanted all along.

If I’m totally honest, I don’t think there is any ‘might’ about it. As several other commentators have remarked over the past week, Mr Cameron is clearly more at ease with his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg than he is with most of his own backbenchers.

Had he succeeded in gaining a narrow overall majority on 6 May, Mr Cameron would now be at the mercy of a bunch of hardline right-wingers, much in the way that John Major was throughout the 1992 Parliament.

As it is, he can now safely tell them to get stuffed in the knowledge that the Lib Dems’ 57 MPs give his government a near-unassailable parliamentary majority – unless of course, they themselves rebel.

There is no sign of that happening at the moment. Granted, Business Secretary Vince Cable looks less than chuffed to be playing second fiddle to Chancellor George Osborne, and well he might in view of the latter’s relative lack of economic expertise.

But that apart, there seems to be a remarkable degree of cohesion between the two sides over the coalition agreement that was finally published in its full, 34-page format this week.

Some critics have said the coalition is merely held together by the desire for power, but for me that is way too simplistic.

I think the glue that is holding it together, for the time being at any rate, is rather a mutual loathing of what New Labour perpetrated in office, coupled with a mutual determination to address those perceived mistakes.

The economy is the most obvious example. Whatever their differences during the campaign, there is general agreement between them that deficit reduction is the coalition’s No 1 priority.

The new government’s unfolding narrative in this area is essentially that the previous administration had been spending far too much and it is this one’s job to balance the books.

The revelation that former chief treasury secretary Liam Byrne had left a note in his drawer saying “sorry, there is no more money” has hardly helped Labour’s cause in this regard.

That said, his Lib Dem successor David Laws appeared to have suffered something of a humour collapse in his account of the discovery of the infamous document.

Or take civil liberties. Here too the narrative is already clear – that Labour came close to turning us into a ‘surveillance society’ and it is the coalition’s task to unpick that.

Doubtless Labour was dealt a difficult hand in having terrorist outrages like 7/7 happen on its watch, but its response to those terrible events is increasingly seen as having been too authoritarian.

Some past Conservative leaders have also had a distinctly authoritarian tendency – and some of those right-wing backbenchers still do – but Mr Cameron’s own worldview is very different.

The Prime Minister is, and always has been, a liberal Conservative. Hardly surprising then that he should have described his government as such on its first full day in office.

In embracing partnership politics to such an extent, it is tempting to think Mr Cameron might be paying heed to a lesson from history.

Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown held extensive discussions about a coalition, but the sheer size of Labour’s majority eventually rendered the idea untenable.

Mr Cameron was dealt a rather different hand on 6 May – but has actually managed to turn a perceived setback into an opportunity.

If the new Prime Minister is already showing a determination to learn from the mistakes of previous ones, then that can only be an encouraging sign.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

In the end, the public got what it wanted

So is it a betrayal of millions of people who voted Liberal Democrat to stop the Tories getting in - or a noble attempt to set aside party differences in the greater national interest?

Is it a reflection of the public will as it was expressed on 6 May – or something absolutely no-one actually voted for?

Opinions have invariably been divided about the new Con-Lib coalition that took office this week following Gordon Brown's protracted but ultimately dignified exit - and doubtless will remain so.

Whether it succeeds or fails - and much will happen between now and the scheduled date of the next election in 2015 - British politics will surely never quite be the same again.

Given that I have said as much already, it won't surprise readers to know that I think this is probably the outcome that best makes sense of the inconclusive election result.

Whether by accident or design, the public has got what it wanted - change, but in a way that avoids entrusting the fortunes of the country entirely to the Tories.

Were it not for the case that the coalition had a fair wind of public opinion behind it, it would probably not have come about.

By contrast, the public's reaction to any Lib-Lab deal would have been far more hostile - as the likes of John Reid and David Blunkett realised from the start.

In retrospect, Mr Brown should have realised this too rather than allow himself to be persuaded by Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson into trying to stitch together such a deal on Tuesday.

Maybe he was playing a longer game. By staying in No 10 and holding out the prospect of a deal, he enabled Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to wring concessions out of the Tories that he would not otherwise have been able to.

Whether that was intentional or otherwise, we have ended up with a much less right-wing government as a result, and perhaps we owe the former Prime Minister a debt of gratitude for that.

That said, the enthusiasm with which the new Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced his new partners suggests that he may actually prefer it this way to governing alone.

There will be plenty of time over the coming months to analyse the new government - but what of Labour, in the week that it took its leave of power after 13 years?

Some think that by steering clear of a coalition that is destined to become hugely unpopular once the cuts start to bite, the party has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Had Labour somehow managed to stagger on in office, the resulting public backlash could have ended up destroying it for a generation.

As it is, the party now has an opportunity to rebuild and, free of the poisonous legacy of the Blair-Brown rivalry and the mistakes of the past 13 years, rebuild it surely will.

My own assessment of New Labour is that it was handed a remarkable opportunity to reshape British politics for good which, by and large, it squandered.

It has well and truly paid the price for its timidity. Mr Brown's opposition to Roy Jenkins' 1998 electoral reform plans finally came back and bit him on the bum this week - much as Jim Callaghan's opposition to Barbara Castle's 1969 trade union reforms were to bite him on the bum ten years' later in the Winter of Discontent.

He probably did save the economy from meltdown in 2008/9, but without a 'big idea' to take it forward, it was clear his government had run out of road.

It now falls to Messrs Clegg and Cameron to bring about the lasting changes which Messrs Blair and Brown ultimately failed to deliver.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Old school reunion

Contrary to what some people believe, I'm not a class warrior, and this apart, I'm generally feeling pretty positive about the Cameron-Clegg coalition thus far. But there must be some truth in the suggestion that the two former public schoolboys' shared social background made it easier for them to deal with eachother than with gruff old, state school educated Gordon, and this spoof report from the Daily Mash hits the nail on the head.

The coalition deal was finally sealed yesterday evening during a hastily arranged phone call between David Cameron and Nick Clegg where they compared notes on the daughters of minor aristocrats that they had felt up at charity balls in the 1980s.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "We knew we had a workable, four-year deal when David and Nick both realised they had probably fingered the Hon. Charlotte Brampton during the same Henley Regatta."
Sheer, er, class.

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Coalition to hold Inquiry into West Lothian Question

Forgive me if I'm wrong but I've not noticed any bloggers or journalists who have thus far picked up on this intriguing paragraph in the Lib-Con policy agreement document published yesterday:

We have agreed to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian Question
This could of course be no more than a means of kicking the issue into that bit of St James's Park where they can't quite get the mower - but it's certainly good to see it at least on the new government's agenda.

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No to 55pc

In response to a request earlier from my old friend Toque, I joined a Facebook Group dedicated to blocking the new government's daft proposal to stop this and future parliaments from being dissolved on a simple majority.

Here is what I wrote on the wall:

The 55pc proposal is the one really, really stupid idea* in an otherwise very sensible and forward-looking policy agreement by the new coalition. I am generally in favour of fixed-term parliaments in so far as we need to curb the power of Prime Ministers to seek dissolutions at the most electorally advantageous time, but there must always be an override to allow for situations where the government has lost the confidence of the House. The measure of this is and should continue to be 50pc of MPs plus one. To try to set that bar any higher is completely undemocratic, completely unworkable, and in fact completely implausible, in that no government that had lost the confidence of a majority of the House could ever hope to retain the confidence of the public.

* That was written before Cameron made Coulson his Director of Communications - easily the coalition's worst decision so far.

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Local paper reveals Brown is to stay on as an MP

I have to say I was gratified to read this story today, and not just because it gave us a great top story on HoldtheFrontPage this morning.

In my view, Tony Blair's decision to quit as MP for Sedgefield in 2007 in order to swan off round the world making millions of pounds was completely deplorable and an insult not only to his constituents but to the House of Commons.

My heart sank on Tuesday evening when Boulton and Co started suggesting that Gordon would do the same following his resignation as Prime Minister and Labour leader, but of course I should have known better.

Gordon always had that loyalty to his own people that Blair lacked, and there is no way a man with a public service ethic as strong as his would not wish to continue to serve his constituents as a backbench MP. Well done to the Fife Free Press for correcting this ill-informed national media speculation.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A strong-ish and stable government

So, what to make of the new Cabinet line-up unveiled by Nick and Dave (as they are now referring to eachother) earlier today?

On the whole, it looks like a good team. For those of us whose primary concern is to ensure that this is a radical reforming government, the key to it is Nick Clegg's appointment as Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for constitutional and political reform. This should mean Clegg exercising real influence over the government's political direction, and should ensure he doesn't end up like Geoffrey Howe, for whom the title of DPM was no more than a courtesy.

Other plus points for me include Ken Clarke's move to head up the Justice Ministry - a suitably weighty job for a man who still has much to contribute to British political life - and the return of IDS, who now gets the chance to show that social justice and right-wing Conservatism are not necessarily contradictions in terms.

I'm also naturally delighted to see Chris Huhne given the climate change ministry, given his excellent work in this field on the Lib Dem frontbench prior to his 2007 leaderhsip challenge. Doubtless Matthew Parris will have other views, but Chris is a politician of the first rank and richly deserves this opportunity.

On the downside, I think the Tories have probably hogged one or two jobs for their own people that might justifiably have been given up to brighter Lib Dem talents. What will Owen Paterson bring to the Northern Ireland job that Paddy Ashdown, say, would not have done? What will make 1997 retread Andrew Mitchell a better International Development Secretary than, for instance, Ed Davey or Michael Moore? The need to retain a certain balance between Tories and Lib Dems has militated against having the best people in some areas.

I also think Cameron has missed an opportunity to bring back David Davis, and his failure to do so moreorless condemns the one-time leadership contender to seeing out his career on the backbenches. A pity, because like Ken, he too still has much to give, and his championing of the civil liberties agenda over the past couple of years would appear to be a very good fit with this new government's own priorities in that area.

On a more procedural point, I was surprised to see that the job of Leader of the House of Commons has been relegated to non-Cabinet status. This makes little sense when, in a coalition scenario, good business management will become more, not less, important to the government's fortunes. I was also surprised to see the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices all retained even though both parties have at various points in the past called for them to be subsumed within a single Department for Devolution.

Finally, for professional reasons, I was disappointed to see Jeremy Hunt go into DCMS - for what appear to be entirely ideological reasons he has vowed to scrap the independently-funded regional TV news pilots that could have provided a lifeline for the regional press, but doubtless this will be covered in greater depth in the days and weeks to come in another place.

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Clegg has played a blinder

Okay, so I would have preferred a Lib-Lab coalition, but the numbers were never really there, the dangers for the Lib Dems in being seen to prop up a defeated party were obvious, and as it became clear today, elements of the Labour Party were not really fully signed up to it anyway, be that out of ideological purism (Diane Abbott), a desire to rub Gordon Brown's nose in it (John Reid, David Blunkett), or positioning for the forthcoming party leadership election (Andy Burnham.)

So instead we have the LibServative option, and on paper, it doesn't seem like a bad outcome. Whatever my own personal feelings, I have said on more than one occasion during this election that the will of the public was probably towards some sort of Con-Lib coalition, and as such I don't think there will be anything like the kind of backlash towards this deal that a Lib-Lab agreement might have attracted.

In terms of policy positions, the initial signs are good, with the Tories have dropped their absurd regressive stance on inheritance tax in favour of the Lib Dem policy of raising thresholds for the worst off, and of course the guarantee of a referendum on the alternative vote which, even if it is likely to be opposed by both main parties, stands a good chance of winning a yes vote from the public.

There also appears to have been a very broad level of agreement between the two parties over civil liberties issues, with the prospect of a 'Freedom Bill' to scrap not only ID cards, but many of Labour's little-used criminal justice measures of the past 13 years.

On personnel, I am obviously delighted to see Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and it is no less than he deserves for having not only fought a brilliant election campaign, but also for his conduct of the negotiations over the past few days. I am less delighted to see George Osborne move into the Treasury - Ken Clarke, Vince Cable or Phil Hammond would all have been preferable in my eyes - but you can't have everything.

The one outstanding mystery as we approach the early hours surrounds the post of Home Secretary. The absense of any briefing from No 10 clearly indicates that the job is not going to go to Chris Grayling, but may not necessarily mean it is going to Chris Huhne either. Could it be David Davis? If so, that would get the biggest cheer of all from me - the icing on the cake of what looks set to be a liberal government in the classical sense of the term.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Gordon makes the supreme sacrifice. Now bring on Bradshaw

Gordon Brown was always a party man at heart, and his decision to sacrifice himself in order to facilitate Labour's participation in a potential progressive coalition could yet go down as one of the great political game-changers in recent history.

Where Purnell, Blears, Flint, Reid and Co have failed, Nick Clegg has finally succceded, but for once I share Alastair Campbell's view - that Mr Brown never intended to stay long once the election result had become clear, and that far from 'squatting' in No 10, he was simply carrying out his duty to his country - and his Queen - by ensuring the business of government was carried on.

Against the odds, the prospect of a Lib-Lab dream team that can change this country for good is back in play, while the prospect of a 19th old Etonian Prime Minister has at least temporarily receded.

I am sticking by my view that Ben Bradshaw is the man to ultimately take this forward. Although I would be equally happy with Alan Johnson, it may be time to move to a younger generation of political leaders. David Miliband and Ed Balls will of course start favourites, but I think Labour now badly needs to move on from Blairite-Brownite battles and electing either of those two would simply perpetuate them.

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Will they do the deal?

Usually, it’s all over bar the shouting by 3am, sometimes even earlier if it is clear that one party has achieved a landslide. But this has been no ordinary election, and this was never going to be an ordinary election night.

With each hour that came and went, the picture appeared to grow more and more confused as those of us watching on telly struggled to make sense of it all.

At various points in the evening, it seemed as though the Tories would either get a small majority, or at the very least come close enough to the winning post to govern as a minority administration.

But in the end, they fell 20 seats short, paving the way for one of the most dramatic days of political wheeler-dealing in recent electoral history and the prospect of the first Lib-Con coalition since the days of David Lloyd George.

David Cameron’s offer of a deal with Nick Clegg which could extent to a formal coalition was nothing if not bold, and demonstrated the Tory leader’s ability to seize the agenda.

As I write, the two men have agreed to explore the idea further, and fresh developments over the course of the weekend seem very likely.

But although Mr Cameron in his St Stephen’s Club speech yesterday was at pains to point out the potential areas of policy agreement with the Lib Dems, he was not entirely convincing on this score.

The Lib Dems’ opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent and support for electoral reform are likely to be the big sticking points, although on the latter point, it has been suggested that the Tories could concede a referendum in which they would then campaign for a “no” vote.

Of course, it could easily have been very different. Another 30 seats for the Lib Dems and a handful more for Labour, and we could have been talking much more seriously about a Lib-Lab deal instead.

But although Prime Minister Gordon Brown is playing a patient waiting game in Number 10 in the hope that the Clegg-Cameron talks fail, his position is exceptionally weak.

The option of a Lib-Lab pact has least two big drawbacks. Firstly, it would not provide a “strong and stable government,” because the combined forces of the two parties do not in fact add up to a parliamentary majority.

Secondly, both parties performed so poorly in the election that a Lib-Lab alliance would be too easily portrayed by the Tories and the media as a “coalition of losers.”

Mr Brown is pinning his hopes on the fact that he has already offered a referendum on proportional representation, while Mr Cameron has so far talked only of an “all-party inquiry” into voting reform - but this is a chimera.

The fact is, I doubt that an electoral reform referendum could actually be won in those circumstances, as the public would simply see it as two defeated parties teaming up to change the system for their mutual benefit.

In any case, as I wrote last week, a Lib-Con coalition would be the outcome that probably best reflects the will of the public as expressed in this election – a desire for change, coupled with a desire to deny any one party a majority.

There are still formidable obstacles to a deal, not least the views of Mr Clegg’s own MPs. But the public’s evident desire for one is the biggest single reason why it just might happen.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Over to Dave

The result is still inconclusive, but it's already clear that the dream of a progressive-left coalition will have to remain just that for now. Messrs Harman, Mandelson, Johnson and Co have talked all night in language that suggested an attempt would be made to form some sort of Lib-Lab pact, but given how the two parties have performed I think it would be pretty politically unsustainable.

Although it is still possible the Tories may win an overall majority, a minority Tory government remains the likeliest outcome and, whatever the constitutional position, it would now seem sensible for Gordon Brown to put the ball of forming a "stable government" in David Cameron's court.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Lib-Lab Dream Team

Today has been quite the grimmest weather I can remember on election day since I was old enough to vote. It may be a case of rose-tinted spectacles, but in my recollection all the others dawned bright and sunny. "The sun's out, and so are the Tories," quipped Neil Kinnock in '92. They were - but not in the way he meant. They were out at the polling stations ensuring victory for John Major.

Maybe this is a good omen, however. All of those bright and sunny election days ended in disappointment for yours truly, with the election of either a Tory government (1983, 1987 and 1992) or a pseudo-Tory one (1997, 2001 and 2005.) Today, for the first time in my adult life, there is the tantalising prospect of something genuinely different.

Of course, I'm not holding my breath. I have made clear in my Saturday column that I think the likeliest outcome today is a minority Conservative government, with a second election a little way down the line.

The result I am hoping for, however, is one which paves the way for a pro-reform coalition between the Liberal Democrats and post-Brownite Labour which can put this country's bent electoral system right once and for all.

To my mind, the chances of such a coalition depend on the Lib Dems outpolling Labour in the popular vote, for two reasons. Firstly, because such a result would make such a mockery of the current system that it will be rendered even more unsustainable than at present.

Secondly, because a 2nd or even 1st place for the Lib Dems in terms of share of the vote tonight could actually facilitate the arrival of Nick Clegg as the first Liberal Prime Minister since David Lloyd George.

Of all the possible election outcomes that have been outlined by the pundits over the past four weeks, the one that made most sense to me was Will Hutton's piece in last Sunday's Observer entitled: "If Labour is wise, it will usher Nick Clegg into Downing Street."

To coin a phrase, I agree with Will. If Labour comes third tonight and the Lib Dems second, Gordon Brown should immediately fall on his sword, and a caretaker triumvirate of Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson and Alistair Darling should deliver the Labour Party into a Lib-Lab coalition led by Clegg, the undisputed winner of this campaign.

What might such a coalition look like? Well, I've sketched out a possible version below. It has nine Lib Dem members and 13 Labour members, the latter incorporating the most pro-reform elements of the current Cabinet - Alan Johnson, Ben Bradshaw, Peter Hain and Lord Adonis for example.

With No 10 going to Mr Clegg, the Lib Dems could not have the Treasury as well, so Alistair Darling would stay on, reflecting his hard-earned status as the most trustworthy of Labour's senior figures.

The new Prime Minister aside, Chris Huhne would have the toughest job - as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor it would be his task to pilot through the biggest set of constitutional reforms since those of the Liberal government of 1906, but the man who so narrowly missed out on the Lib Dem leadership is certainly equal to it.

As for should take its time to elect a new leader, but my tip is Mr Bradshaw, an excellent minister who has very few enemies in the party, has an interesting personal back-story, and, unsurprisingly enough for a former TV journalist, is very good on the box.

The Great Reform Cabinet of 2010

Prime Minister: Nick Clegg
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Cabinet Office: Alan Johnson
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Alistair Darling
Foreign Secretary: David Miliband
Home Secretary: John Denham
Justice Secretary: Chris Huhne
Leader of the House of Commons: Harriet Harman
Business Secretary: Vince Cable
Defence Secretary: Lord Ashdown
Education Secretary: Ben Bradshaw
Health Secretary: Andy Burnham
Work and Pensions Secretary: Yvette Cooper
Climate Change Secretary: Ed Miliband
Environment Secretary: Ed Davey
Transport Secretary: Lord Adonis
Communities Secretary: Julia Goldsworthy
Culture Secretary: Tessa Jowell
Leader of the House of Lords: Baroness Williams
Scottish Secretary: Charles Kennedy
Welsh Secretary: Peter Hain
Northern Ireland Secretary: Shaun Woodward
International Development Secretary: Douglas Alexander
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: David Laws
Chief Whip: Bob Ainsworth

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Mid Derbyshire Hustings

This election is a bit of a first in our part of the world, as we're part of the brand new seat of Mid Derbyshire. In truth it's something of a weird amalgamation, bringing together the former industrial town of Belper and its surrounding villages with some of the northern suburbs of the city of Derby itself. The two areas have very little in common, Derby being culturally part of the Midlands and Belper seen by some as the first Northern town in England.

Electorally speaking, the boundary shuffle has interesting implications. By removing the solidly Tory-supporting suburb of Allestree into Mid Derbyshire, the Boundary Commissioners have turned Derby North into a three-way marginal which is being seen as one of the bellweather seats in this election. In the past fortnight, it has been visited by all three main party leaders, with Messrs Cameron and Clegg both in town on Friday.

We won't be getting that sort of attention here in Mid Derbyshire. The Tory candidate, Pauline Latham, is going to win, and having honed her political skills across 23 years in local government dating back to the days of David Bookbinder, I have no doubt that she will prove to be an excellent constituency MP.

But even though the result is something of a foregone conclusion, it was good to hear what the various candidates had to say for themselves at last Friday's hustings organised by Churches Together in Duffield, particularly in relation to their own personal values.

Joining Pauline on the platform at Duffield Methodist Church were Derby city councillor Hardial Dhindsa for the Labour Party, political virgin Sally McIntosh for the Lib Dems and businessman Tony Kay for UKIP. The British National Party candidate, Lewis Allsebrook, and the Monster Raving Loony Party's R.U. Serious gave it the swerve.

This being a largely Christian audience, it did not take long for a question about abortion and euthanasia to come up. Forget sorting out the economy and cleaning up politics - for quite a few people I know in Christian circles locally, getting more people into Parliament who will defend the sanctity of human life is really the touchstone issue.

Pauline answered, very honestly, that although she did believe in the sanctity of life, "I do also believe women have the right to choose an abortion." Hardial woffled a bit while basically agreeing, and Tony sidestepped it by saying that, as he and his wife have never had children, it had never really come up as an issue.

But mother-of-three Sally struck a different note, revealing she had been offered an abortion as a first resort by her doctor at the start of her third pregnancy. "It shocked me because it wasn't something I would ever want to do." She went on to say that the balance had swung "too far in the direction of choice," and that she supported lowering the age limit for abortions from 24 weeks. "To abort children who are viable scares me very much."

If that probably won Sally a few votes from this largely pro-life audience, Pauline will have scored highly on her response to the next question, which focused on plans to build thousands of homes on greenbelt land in the new constituency - an issue which affects Belper in particular.

The town's essential character is that of a wheel with five spokes radiating from the centre - Bargate, Openwoodgate, Far Laund, Mount Pleasant and Cow Hill, each of them surrounded by a 'tongue' of green open space. Yet much of that open space will be built on over the next few years if planners have their way.

Said Pauline: "We don't want Belper to join up to Heage. We don't want Little Eaton and Breadsall to join up with the city." All the other candidates seemed to agree, although in Hardial's case, it begged the question whether he's told his own government that.

Speaking to me after the meeting, Pauline told me that her first act if elected will be to try to block a planning application for the new homes in Belper that is due to be decided later this month. With local reporter Laura Hammond also in attendance, expect to see this story in the Belper News soon.

Another issue high on the audience's agenda was 24-hour drinking, with all the candidates moreorless agreeing that Tony Blair's attempt to create a "cafe culture" in the UK had been an unmitigated disaster, although Pauline fought shy of a suggestion that Derbyshire could become a pilot zone for new, more restrictive drinking laws.

The meeting meandered somewhat towards the end. In truth the debate format was rather static, and gave no opportunity for people from the floor to ask follow-up questions.

Tony Kay at least saved his best till last. In response to the final question - "Given that MPs are so reviled, why do you want to be one" - he replied: "Well, if I did want to be an MP I wouldn't be standing for UKIP."

His party, UKIP, may well finish a distant fourth in this contest. But in the contest for laughs on Friday night, he won hands down.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

It is still not clear who is going to win. It is clear, though, that Gordon is going to lose

In my Journal column today I'm calling the 2010 general election against Gordon Brown and Labour. Not an easy one for me to write for reasons I make clear in the text.

Here it is in full.

Thirteen years ago, on John Major’s last Saturday in 10 Downing Street, I wrote in my pre-election column that the over-riding factor when people cast their votes would be the desire for change.

Politics tends to go in cycles, and so this election, too, is likely to see the curtain fall for a Prime Minister who now seems ready to leave the stage.

For all the talk of “Cleggmania” and “Duffygate” altering the dynamics of the contest over the past three weeks, the key dynamic – the desire for a new beginning - has been in place from the start.

It is still not clear who is going to win on Thursday. It is, though, becoming clear that Gordon Brown is going to lose.

It’s not easy for me to have to write that. I continue to believe that Mr Brown could have been a perfectly good Prime Minister had he got the chance to be one at a time when his party as a whole was still riding high.

I also believe that history will judge him far more kindly than his contemporaries have done, and that the actions he has taken with regard to the recession will, in time, be vindicated.

But once the country began to tire of New Labour, it was always going to be a big ask for a man who has been so close to the centre of power for so long to successfully represent change.

The party’s core campaign message – “don’t risk the recovery” – has been an essentially defensive operation in a situation which cried out instead for vision.

The Gillian Duffy incident in Rochdale this week – which could have happened to any of the three party leaders – only put the seal on Mr Brown’s already fading prospects.

The real significance of it was not that he views the voters with contempt – he doesn’t – but the fact that he thought the initial exchange had been a “disaster.”

It wasn’t - Mrs Duffy had actually promised to vote Labour. But Mr Brown thought it was a “disaster” because he has lost both his self-confidence, and his ability to judge political situations.

His inability to make any inroads in the polling that followed Thursday’s final TV debate shows the public has by and large made up its mind about him, and they won’t change it now.

So, then, Clegg or Cameron? Well, I won’t dwell at length on the potential hazards for the North-East that may result from an outright Conservative victory.

Mr Cameron’s comments last weekend, suggesting the region receives too much public money, probably tell you all you need to know, however hard he later tried to row back from them.

Irrespective of that, I have argued previously that both Britain and the North-East need a balanced Parliament, for two reasons.

Firstly because the Tories cannot be trusted to govern on their own. Secondly, because this must be the last election fought on a bent electoral system which could yet produce a result on Friday that is beyond parody.

All along, the polls have suggested it will happen, but that may yet change as minds are concentrated over the remaining few days of the campaign.

The outcome that would probably best reflect the mood of the country at the moment is a Lib-Con coalition – but that can only happen, of course, if Mr Cameron puts electoral reform on the table.

If he does not, the likeliest scenario is a minority Conservative administration and – joy of joys! – a re-run of all this in a few months’ time as Prime Minster Cameron seeks a working majority.

One thing will be different next time though. Mr Brown will not be there.

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