Saturday, July 24, 2010

The coalition fractures start to show

Prime Minister David Cameron committed something of an historical gaffe this week when he referred to Britain having been the Americans' "junior partner" in 1940 in the war against Hitler.

Given that the US did not even join the war until 1941, it was not even historically accurate, quite apart from the, probably unintended, slight on our own WW2 heroes.

But while Mr Cameron was busy making friends across the pond, his own 'junior partner' was committing a possibly more serious gaffe in regard to a more recent conflict.

Standing in at PMQs, deputy premier Nick Clegg allowed himself to be goaded by Labour's Jack Straw into declaring the 2003 invasion of Iraq "illegal."

The comment was interesting on both a personal and a political level. It demonstrated that, for all his polished performances in the TV election debates, Mr Clegg hasn't yet quite made the transition from leader of a protest party to statesman.

While many voters will applaud his honesty in speaking from the heart, ministers sometimes have to be more circumspect.

More broadly, the comment also highlighted the fact that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are very different parties, one instinctively pro-establishment, the other instinctively anti.

As we come to what is generally considered to be the end of the political year, the talk at Westminster is inevitably that the coalition is showing its first signs of fracture.

If the truth be told, the tensions were there from the start, but they really only began to come to a head once the scale of George Osborne's Budget cuts became clear.

If there were protests on the Lib Dem side about that, they were then more than matched by the mutterings on the Tory benches following the announcement of the electoral reform referendum to be held next May.

Then, this week, came Mr Clegg's PMQs outburst and a separate row over the Lib Dems' proposed graduate tax to pay for higher education, which the Tories have now turned their backs on.

Still to come in the autumn is a party conference season in which I expect to hear Lib Dem activists sounding-off loudly about the Tories' plans to reform education and the NHS.

With an election theoretically five years off, no-one is currently paying too much attention to opinion polls, but they nevertheless paint an intriguing picture of how the public mood has shifted since 6 May.

Leaderless Labour are up an average five percentage points for the loss of Gordon Brown, which tells its own story of what might have happened had someone else been leading them on election day.

Meanwhile Mr Cameron's Tories are up around eight percentage points at 44pc, while Mr Clegg's Lib Dems have slumped to around 13pc.

The worrying conclusion here for the Lib Dems is that while the public seems to generally approve of what the government is doing, it is currently only benefiting the Tories rather than them.

One of the most prescient questions of the week was posed by the blogger Henry G Manson, writing on the excellent website.

In a neat reworking of the title of an old club anthem from the late 1980s, he asked: "Clegg: How low can he go?"

Henry's point was that there has to come a point beyond which Lib Dem MPs and activists will not allow the party's support to slump before they are finally moved to act.

I suspect that this is a question which will not only help shape the politics of the next 12 months, but one which may ultimately determine the fate of the government.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Peter self-destructs for the final time

Asked once how he would know his transformation of the Labour Party would be complete, Tony Blair famously replied: "When it learns to love Peter Mandelson."

Judged purely on that measure, however, it seems from this week's events that the party which Mr Blair led for 13 years still has a way to go.

There was a point, 18 months or so ago, when it looked as though the former Hartlepool MP had finally managed to win his way into the hearts, as well as the minds, of the party faithful.

But all the goodwill engendered by his return from Brussels to stand at Gordon Brown's side during his government's most difficult days has been dissipated at a stroke by his decision to publish a trashy account of the New Labour years.

In the past, many Labour people who found Lord Mandelson's style of politics distasteful have nevertheless forgiven him on the grounds that he was a loyal party man with Labour literally running through his veins.

But the publication of his book 'The Third Man' this week has surely demolished that defence once and for all.

It has oft been said of Peter Mandelson that he was always better at guiding the fortunes of the party and its leaders than he ever was at managing his own career.

But the lack of judgment that resulted in at least one of his two Cabinet resignations seems to have returned with a vengeance in his apparent eagerness to cash in on the lucrative summer 'beach read' market.

It is not even as if any of the revelations in the wretched book tell us much that we didn't know already.

Much of the focus of attention has inevitably been on whether or not Tony Blair called Gordon Brown "mad, bad and dangerous" and likened him to a "Mafia don."

Well, "mad" is one of those words that gets thrown around a little too loosely these days. It can mean anything from clinical insanity to having a bit of a temper on you.

It is hardly surprising, though, that Labour's opponents in the media have put the worst possible construction on it, with Mr Brown's reputation taking a further battering as a result.

But in my view, the book is far more damaging to Mr Blair's historical reputation than to his successor's.

It confirms what many have long suspected, namely that he did indeed promise Mr Brown in 2003 that he would not fight a third general election, but went back on it.

It is impossible to over-estimate the impact of this on subsequent Labour history. Had Mr Brown been Labour leader up against Michael Howard in 2005, he would have won that election with at least as good a majority as Mr Blair managed.

He would then, in all likelihood, have retired with dignity mid-way through the last Parliament, giving Labour a chance to renew itself in office under a new generation.

As it is, Mr Brown is currently being subjected to all sorts of indignities, with his government's record being trashed by the Con-Lib coalition on an almost daily basis.

But I wonder whether when people realise what the coalition is really doing to our public services – privatising the NHS by the back door being its latest wheeze – they might start to feel some sympathy for the former Prime Minister.

Either way, the Labour Party will doubtless in time come to love Gordon in the way it does all its old leaders – particularly the unsuccessful ones.

One thing it will never now do, though, is to learn to love Peter.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

'Miserable pipsqueak' won't rescue Balls

Ever since the new coalition came into office, the consensus has been that its political honeymoon would last only as long as it took for real cuts in public services to start happening.

While people seem happy for ministers to talk about efficiency savings and even 25pc cuts to government departments, they become rather less so when that starts to impact on local schools, hospitals and police.

So this week's announcement of the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme, aimed at refurbishing every school in England, was one announcement the government needed to get right.

And as we all now know, Education Secretary Michael Gove managed to get it totally and spectacularly wrong, producing at least four different lists of the schools affected each of which contained inaccuracies.

In this region alone, the original announcement led to building work being halted at 46 schools including five in South Tyneside.

However it later emerged that all five of these schools had been mistakenly included on the list and that the work would, after all, be continuing as planned, although other areas were not so lucky.

Those who long to see a bit of passion restored to the political arena will have loved Labour MP Tom Watson's Commons attack on Mr Gove after the minister was forced to make one of several apologies for the blunders.

Former whip Mr Watson concluded his onslaught with the words "You're a miserable pipsqueak of a man, Gove!" – incurring the wrath of Speaker John Bercow who swiftly ordered him to withdraw.

Ultimately, though, it is not the chaotic presentation of this announcement which is the real issue. It is the fact that cuts to school building projects should be happening at all.

Once again, the government has tried to pin the blame on Labour, arguing that the Building Schools for the Future programme was wasteful and bureaucratic.

This would be all very well, had Mr Gove outlined how the new government proposes to refurbish our dilapidated school buildings in a more cost-effective and less bureaucratic fashion.

His failure to do so leads one to assume there is no such plan, and that they will consequently be left to rot.

One consequence of this week's fiasco has been talk of an upturn in the fortunes of Labour leadership contender Ed Balls, who has led the attack on Mr Gove.

The Shadow Education Secretary is currently trailing in, at best, third place behind the Miliband brothers in the race, but with voting not due to happen until the end of August, much could theoretically change before then.

For my part, I don't think it will. While accepting that Mr Gove's hapless performance this week has given Mr Balls a chance to shine, I think the party has by and large made up its mind about him.

Sure, they want to see his combative political skills used to good effect in a senior role - almost certainly Shadow Chancellor – but my hunch is they want someone more emollient as leader.

The longer-term impact of the week's events is likely to be less on Labour and more on public perceptions of the coalition.

Even within the North-East, the scrapping of the rebuilding programme runs the risk of creating a postcode lottery between areas such as Newcastle, where all the projects had already been approved, and Durham, where 14 have had to be cancelled.

It is invariably going to create a huge sense of injustice in those areas unlucky enough to miss the cut-off point and which now face an indefinite wait for new facilities.

And at some point, that sense of injustice is something the coalition will need to address.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

How open is the Labour Party to persuasion?

Cross-posted from Political Betting.

Early on in the Labour leadership battle, Mike [Smithson] drew what I thought was potentially a good analogy between David Cameron’s succesful campaign for the Tory leadership in 2005 and Andy Burnham’s candidature for Labour this time round.

Young Burnham, he surmised, could turn out to be the Cameron of this campaign - a relative unknown coming from behind to win while better-known front-runners faltered.

As it is, Burnham has hardly achieved lift-off. He has fought an oddly Old Labour sort of campaign, of which the last straw - no pun intended, Jack - has been his opposition to the proposed AV referendum which Labour supported in its manifesto.

But that’s not my main point. My question is: is there actually room in this race for any of the candidates to ‘do a Cameron,’ or is the nature of the contest such that the prospect of anyone springing a surprise is already closed-off?

One major difference between this and the Tories’ 2005 race is that the candidates are not being subjected to the pressure-cauldron of a party conference hustings.

When the Tories did this, it enabled them to weed-out a front-runner in David Davis who, whatever his other virtues, was clearly incapable of making a decent platform speech, in favour of someone who wowed his audience by speaking without notes.

Another key difference is the nature of the two parties. As I have pointed out on my own blog, the Tories are historically much more open to making unexpected choices of leader - Margaret Thatcher over Ted Heath in ‘75, William Hague over Ken Clarke in ‘97, Iain Duncan Smith over the same opponent in 2001.

Labour, by contrast, almost always sticks to the front-runner, sometimes because the front-runner is clearly the best candidate (Neil Kinnock in 1983, Tony Blair in 1994) but sometimes out of sentimentality or a resdual belief in ‘Buggins’ Turn.’

My hunch is that most of Labour’s electorate has already made its mind up about this election, and it is now a contest between the brothers. While it is not yet clear which of them will win, it is clear that one of them will.

I’m not sure what current prices are available on Burnham, Ed Balls and Diane Abbott, but whatever they are, my candid advice to PB aficionados would be: ignore them.

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Troubled times for Clegg and Co

After the initial thrill of seeing Liberal bums occupying ministerial seats for the first time since the wartime coalition of the 1940s, the past couple of months have proved something of a reality-check for Britain's third party.

First, there was the loss of their rising star David Laws from the coalition Cabinet after just 16 days following revelations in the Daily Telegraph about his expense claims and his private life.

Then the Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, was forced to do a Robin Cook and swiftly dump his wife for his mistress after their affair was exposed by the News of the World.

Mr Huhne kept his job, although conspiracy theorists would doubtless see a pattern in this double embarrassment for key Liberal Democrats at the hands of Tory-supporting newspapers.

But of course, the unease currently being felt across Nick Clegg's party is not just about the personal difficulties of individual Lib Dem ministers. It goes much deeper than that.

The first two months of the coalition have been dominated by the Tory 'cuts' agenda, with Chancellor George Osborne emerging as the dominant figure in the government much as Gordon Brown did under Tony Blair.

For the Lib Dems, it has meant the humiliation of being forced to eat their pre-election words, when they warned that cutting too deep, too fast could cause another recession.

More and more grassroots Lib Dems, and even some of the party's more left-leaning MPs, have started to ask the question: What's in this for us?

Well, this week came the answer – news that a referendum on changing the voting system from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote is to be held next year, probably on 5 May.

For Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg, who will formally announce the move next week, it represents perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve the Lib Dem Holy Grail of electoral reform.

There are strong practical arguments for having the vote this early on in the Parliament, in that if it were held any later there would be little chance of getting any changes through in time for the next election.

Against that, though, is the obvious danger that it could shorten the coalition's life by about four years if the referendum is lost.

Were that to happen, of course, there would be little incentive left for the Lib Dems to remain in the government, and Mr Clegg would come under pressure from his party to obtain a swift divorce.

This might, in turn, provide a perverse incentive for the Conservatives not to campaign too hard against the change to AV, although premier David Cameron has insisted that he will.

The referendum poses a dilemma for Labour, too. The logic of opposition suggests it is in their interests to get a 'no' vote in order to try to bring down the government and force a 2011 election.

But many Labour MPs favour AV, and both Miliband brothers have made clear the party will campaign for a 'yes' vote if they win the leadership.

Whether or not Mr Clegg succeeds in his ambition will depend at least in part on whether the coalition can retain the broad popular support it currently holds.

As the North-East knows all too well, referenda held at a time when the government is unpopular tend to result in resounding 'no' votes.

The biggest danger for the 'yes' campaign is that the public comes to view this as an irrelevance when set against the economic problems facing the country – as many Tory MPs already do.

Not for the first time in recent months, the Lib Dems are finding themselves having to negotiate uncharted – and shark-infested – political waters.

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