Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 and all that

The last day of the year always brings conflicting emotions, but on the whole, I won't be sad to see the back of 2006. Like most years it began promisingly for us, with the works on our house in Derbyshire nearing completion and our family finally settling into some sort of normality after the change and upheaval of the past few years.

The defining moment of the year came on Good Friday, April 14. I had broken up for the Easter Holidays and we spent most of the day in the garden, planting new shrubs and trees ready for the summer.

Gill and I went to bed that evening feeling tired but happy with a week off work stretched out ahead of us. Then, at 3.20am, we got the news that my American brother-in-law Mitch Hodge had been killed in a road accident near his home in Arizona.

We have had many things to be thankful for over the past 12 months, not least the joy that our son George continues to bring us. But when we look back on 2006 in the years to come, it will always be tinged with sadness.

Tonight, as has become our custom in recent years, we will see out the old year over a meal with some of our oldest friends - or perhaps I should say auldest acquaintances.

New Year is, above all, a time of hope, a time for fresh starts. I feel that it's not just in the sphere of British politics that we need one of those.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

My preview of 2007

There are a lot of New Year predictions on the blogosphere today, so here is my analysis of what the political year ahead will bring, first published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.


Over the years, the job of writing this annual look ahead to what the next 12 months may have in store politically has involved a certain amount of crystal ball gazing.

But it's a bit different this time round. The key political event of 2007 is already more or less set in stone.

At some as yet indeterminate point in the next six months, Tony Blair will finally step down as Prime Minister, almost certainly after chalking-up ten years in 10 Downing Street this May.

Speculation about the political year ahead therefore really boils down to two questions: who will replace him, and what kind of Government will that successor seek to lead?

Much has already been written about the likely leadership denouement, but there are, to my mind, four basic scenarios as to how it could all pan out.

The first is the one that most Labour supporters in their heart of hearts still long for - a "stable and orderly transition."

In this chain of events, Mr Blair announces his departure date, endorses Gordon Brown as his successor, forestalls any serious Cabinet challenge, and the sunlit uplands ensue.

It could still happen, but such is the fragility of the Blair-Brown relationship - and the visceral hatred between the two camps - that the odds must be against.

The second, and to my mind more likely scenario, then, is that Mr Brown wins the leadership, but has to fight a nasty and potentially divisive battle to get it.

It is hard, at this stage, to predict where the challenge will come from. Both David Miliband and Alan Johnson have ruled themselves out in what look like unequivocal terms.

But as I have said more than once in this context, politics abhors a vacuum, and if Mr Brown appears at any point to be beatable, then someone, somewhere will step up to the mark.

In my view, Home Secretary John Reid remains both overwhelmingly the most likely challenger, and the one most likely to force the Chancellor into a serious battle.

Which neatly brings us to the third scenario, in which Mr Brown is not only forced into a serious contest, but actually manages to lose it.

It could surely only happen if a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party membership became convinced that he could not secure a fourth election victory.

The key to that is the polls, and in particular Mr Brown's personal ratings when up against Tory leader David Cameron.

If these were to go into freefall, it is just conceivable that the Labour Party may reluctantly persuade itself that it was time to look elsewhere.

Perhaps the most intriguing scenario, though, is the fourth and final one, in which Mr Brown was not even a candidate in the leadership election at all.

It would require the intervention of a deus ex machina - either a huge political scandal in which he was implicated, or some personal family or health problem serious enough to force his withdrawal.

In those circumstances, the field would open up to perhaps six or seven candidates, including some of those currently pledged to support the Chancellor.

Messrs Miliband, Johnson, Reid and Hain would be there or thereabouts, but the dark horse could be Jack Straw, who would be seen by many as a natural compromise choice.

I did wonder whether to add a fifth scenario, in which Mr Blair does not stand down at all.

In terms of sheer comedy value, it almost merits inclusion, but not on any serious political criteria.

There was a time when the party, staring at a huge poll deficit and the prospect of a Cameron victory, might have turned and implored him to save them - but no more.

As one senior MP said a while back: "The Labour Party will let him do his ten years. If he tries to go on a day longer than that, they will kill him."

As for what sort of Government Mr Blair's successor will lead, Mr Brown for one has already made clear there will be a renewed emphasis on both constitutional reform and social justice if he takes over.

In Mr Blair's eyes, these are the kind of ideas that "butter no parsnips," but a period of decent, steady government free from scandal may be just what Labour needs.

But if there is one thing about which most commentators - and even some of the candidates - now agree, it is that it will have to be a new government.

Such is the low level of public esteem in which Mr Blair and his administration are now held that "continuity" is now no longer an option.

For beyond the timeframe of the next 12 months, Labour faces the prospect of what will surely be its most difficult election campaign since 1992.

The situation is not beyond recall. Mr Cameron too faces difficult challenges over the next year, not least the task of producing some actual policies in place of what so far has amounted to little more than mood music.

In short, the Tory leader remains vulnerable to the charge of all style and no substance, and it could yet all come good for Labour if it gets the leadership transition right.

But first, the party has to do what it really should have done a long time ago - and wave farewell to Mr Blair.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Hazel Blears goes up in my estimation

Whatever health minister Ivan Lewis has said today, there can be no doubt that Hazel Blears' protest against NHS reorganisation in her constituency is deeply embarrassing for the Government. It demonstrates not only that its internal discipline is continuing to break down, but also that ambitious, up-and-coming ministers like Blears are now able to defy those on the way down like Patricia Hewitt with impunity.

Blears also has the merit of being right. Like the abortive police force mergers project, which was sensibly scrapped by John Reid in one of his first acts on replacing Charles Clarke as Home Secretary, the current health reorganisation is doing exactly the opposite of what people want, and taking services further away from the people they serve.

In my area, the main A&E hospital in the centre of Derby is being closed and all services transferred to a site on the city's western extremity. That will no doubt make a huge amount of sense to people who live to the north, east and south of the city - not.

I have always regarded Hazel Blears as a just another shameless New Labour careerist, but perhaps there is more to her after all. She has certainly gone up in my estimation this week, and more importantly, I suspect she will also have gone up in the estimation of thousands of Labour members with votes in the party's deputy leadership election.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

President Gore and other things I got for Christmas

Regular readers of this blog will know I was a huge fan of the political counterfactuals book, Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. So it was great to find the new volume, President Gore.... lying under my Christmas Tree on Monday.

This one digs deeper back into political history than the original, for instance postulating what might have happened if the 1832 Great Reform Act had not been passed or if Sir Robert Peel had lived longer. I haven't had time to read it through from cover to cover yet, but three chapters dealing with more recent events immediately caught my eye.

The first, by Peter Riddell, looked at the question of what might have happened had Harold Macmillan succeeded in taking us into the Common Market in 1957. By and large I agree with Riddell that it would have made us far more European-minded as a country, but I disagree that it would have led to a moreorless permanent period of Conservative Government, under Macmillan and then Ted Heath, throughout the late 50s, 60s and early 70s. Riddell forgets that that was an era of political pendulum swings, and that Harold Wilson proved a much more successful election-winner than Heath.

The second standout chapter for me was written by the book's editor, Duncan Brack, and looks at what might have happened to the Liberal-SDP Alliance had it not quarrelled over defence and lost a third of its support during 1986. Brack presents a convincing argument that the row could have been avoided given a bit more political commonsense on the part of the protagonists, David Steel and David Owen, but I think he underestimates the extent to which Owen was determined to wreck the Alliance, and that, in this regard, the defence issue was little more than a pretext.

The most fascinating chapter, for me, was the one by R.J. Briand on whether,if John Major had become Chief Whip in 1987, would have have saved Margaret Thatcher from defenestration at the hands of her own party in 1990, only to see her defeated by Neil Kinnock at the ballot box in 1991. Quite possibly. By contrast, Mark Garnett's chapter on Michael Howard becoming leader in 1997 only served to demonstrate that very little would have changed for the Tories in that period, and that whoeever the Tories chose in 1997 and 2001, they were onto a loser.

Anyway, it all goes to show once again that there is very little historical inevitability about anything. I have always thought that the political history of my own lifetime would have turned out very differently if Jim Callaghan had fought an election in 1978, achieved a hung Parliament, gone into coalition with Steel, brought in PR, established a moreorless permament anti-Tory coalition....and relegated Margaret Thatcher to an interesting footnote about a failed ideological experiment instead of coming to dominate the landscape of the past 30 years.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

The most wonderful time of the year

Christmas Eve is and always has been my favourite day of the year, a day of wonder and expectation, a day for wrapping presents and preparing good things to eat, a day for listening to Carols from Kings on the radio, and singing them in church and in Belper Market Square later tonight.

No matter how much they try to commercialise Christmas, or secularise it, or even just turn it into into a week-long food and drink fest punctuated by endless episodes of EastEnders, it will never, for me, lose its magic and spirituality.

So if anyone is visiting this blog today, it's time to stop thinking about politics, or even about England losing the Ashes, and start thinking about what it is that we are celebrating.

I leave you with the words of Thomas Hardy, who, in this short poem, summed up the meaning of Christmas better than I, or any other writer for that matter, could ever hope to do.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Wishing you a Christmas full of wonder

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

My Political Review of 2006

It's been a highly eventful year politically, so for those who would like to relive with me the ups and downs of the past 12 months, here's my Political Review of the Year, first published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.


IT was the year of Charles Kennedy’s downfall, the year of David Cameron’s rise and rise – and the year John Prescott was forced to give up any remaining claims to be taken seriously.

But the political year 2006 will be remembered, above all, for one over-arching story – the long, slow demise of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It was a story that took on many different guises. The police investigation into “cash for honours.” The increasingly bitter power struggles with Gordon Brown. Iraq’s descent into chaos following the disastrous war that Mr Blair helped initiate.

But these stories were really all one – the story of a leader who had long outstayed his welcome, yet who, in the vain search for a legacy, continued to rage against the dying of the light.

But to begin at the beginning – to borrow another of Dylan Thomas’s famous phrases – the year kicked off with attention focused on another party leader.

Dissatisfaction with Mr Kennedy’s leadership had been simmering within Liberal Democrat ranks for a while, and before the New Year was a week old it had finally boiled over.

Having belatedly admitted to a drink problem, Mr Kennedy was forced out in a revolt by his own MPs, some of whom probably owed their seats to his personal popularity with the voters.

Sir Menzies Campbell saw off a spirited challenge from newbie MP Chris Huhne to win the leadership, but he lacks his predecessor’s common touch and the party’s ratings remained in the doldrums.

For the Tories, too, it was a testing year, as David Cameron continued his march towards the political centre-ground to the dismay of the party’s more traditional elements.

Like Mr Blair before him, Mr Cameron set out to define himself in opposition to his own party, notably by backing redistributive taxation and highlighting green issues.

It was all too much for some, and his talk of “tough love,” “hug a hoodie” and “letting sunshine win the day” was widely ridiculed.

But it seemed to strike a chord with the electorate, with the Tories ending the year eight points ahead of Labour in some polls – enough to convert into an outright election win.

The Cameron phenomenon was partly, though not solely responsible for the continuing political malaise within Labour.

For the fist time since 1997, Mr Blair was up against someone who looked like a genuine contender for power – but Labour seemed unsure of how to respond to the Tory young pretender.

With all the self-delusion of those who remain in power too long, the Prime Minister continued to see himself as part of the solution rather than the problem.

But the voters begged to differ, and a dismal set of local election results in May saw more and more Labour MPs come to the view that he should stand down sooner rather than later.

Initially, Mr Blair tried to blame the poor showing on the revelation of Mr Prescott’s affair with his diary secretary shortly before the poll, and a row over the deportation of foreign prisoners which had been badly mishandled by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

He staged a dramatic Cabinet reshuffle in which Mr Clarke was summarily sacked and Mr Prescott stripped of all his remaining powers.

But the view among a growing number of Labour backbenchers was that the person Mr Blair really needed to reshuffle was himself.

It all came to a head in September. A group of previously loyal MPs signed a letter demanding that Mr Blair set out a timetable for his departure.

At first, it seemed the tip of the iceberg. There was excited talk at Westminster that up to 50 MPs would join in and that a Cabinet minister would deliver the coup-de-grace with a Geoffrey Howe-style resignation.

But although the coup attempt faltered, Mr Blair was forced to make clear that he would stand down next summer, and that the forthcoming conference in Manchester would be his last.

The Blairites, furious that their man had been backed into such a corner, attempted to implicate the Chancellor in the plot as relations between Labour’s Big Two plummeted to an all-time low.

It was clear that a patching-up operation would be needed to get through the conference, but Mr Brown’s attempts at conciliation were undermined when Cherie Blair was heard to call him a liar during his keynote speech.

Thereafter, an uneasy truce prevailed. Mr Brown remained on probation, while the Blairites secretly hoped another contender might step up to the mark.

But their great hope, Environment Secretary David Miliband, ruled himself out of the race, while new Home Secretary John Reid also appeared reluctant to join in.

Mr Brown’s succession began to appear increasingly assured, if only from the lack of plausible alternatives.

He even received a somewhat double-edged endorsement from Mr Blair, who warned Mr Cameron during a Commons debate that a “big clunking first” would soon lay him out on the canvas.

By the year end, it seemed politics had gone into a bizarre state of inertia, with Mr Blair increasingly in office but not in power.

He suffered the humiliation of becoming the first serving premier to be questioned by police over abuse of the honours system, but still he hung on, sullying not just his party’s reputation but that of politics in general.

In an emotional final keynote conference speech in Manchester, Mr Blair had declared that his most important legacy would be a fourth term Labour Government.

But history may well judge that, by his actions during 2006, he greatly reduced the chances of such an outcome.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

The Seven Best Things I did in 2006

James Higham has tagged me among others to name the seven best things I have done this year. This seems like a good, last-day-at-work-before-Christmas sort of thing to do, so happy to oblige, James.

  • Watched my son George continue to develop into a right little character.

  • Celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary.

  • Moved to a new role at work, away from the online-print interface into web project management.

  • Built up this blog from nothing to a place in Mr Dale's Top 10.

  • Bought a big family tent and enjoyed a lovely holiday in the Lakes

  • Finished landscaping my garden

  • Although I would rather not have had to do it, helped my sister organise a very moving send-off for my brother-in-law Mitch, who was killed in a road accident on Good Friday.

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  • Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Who is now the "Bus Candidate?"

    There's an interesting if ultimately rather academic discussion currently in progress on on who might win the Labour leadership if anything were to happen to Gordon Brown over the next few months - if he were to "fall under a No 13 bus" in the traditional Westminster parlance.

    In the context of leadership speculation, the bus is used as a convenient shorthand for (i) a debilitating illness or family difficulty that might put a leadership candidate temporarily or permanently out of consideration, or (ii) the emergence of a sudden scandal that could engulf his or her hopes. Both are possibilities in Gordon's case, though unlikely.

    In the event of GB being forced to pull out, Mike Smithson is backing David Miliband rather than John Reid to emerge as the frontrunner, although Miliband's September statement - "I am not a runner nor a rider for any of the jobs that are being speculated about" - appears to suggest he is not just ruling out a challenge to Gordon but making clear he will not be a candidate for the leadership in any circumstances.

    For my part, I think both Miliband and Reid would struggle to build the kind of broadly based support within the party that would be needed to mount a successful challenge. Rightly or wrongly, they would both be seen as Blairite continuity candidates, and I think that, in the unusual circumstances of a Brown withdrawal, a compromise candidate would be certain to emerge.

    The obvious name that springs to mind here is Jack Straw. He will not stand against Mr Brown, but I have always regarded it as a certainty that he would stand against anyone else. Jack knows his own worth, and as the next most experienced and senior figure in the Government after Mr Brown, he would regard himself as the natural successor were the Chancellor to be put hors de combat.

    Margaret Beckett is also a possibility. She too would never oppose Brown, but she has an unerring habit of being in the right place at the right time politically, and it is more than conceivable that she could come through on the rails.

    There is another factor which would put Straw and Beckett ahead of the likes of Miliband, and that is their age. If Gordon were put out of action, his people would look around for a caretaker leader who could be relied on to stand aside after four or five years, by which time Gordon might have overcome his personal or political difficulties.

    Having observed Gordon Brown from a distance for a number of years, I am convinced he will never give up his ambitions of reaching No 10. And even if he were to be forced to do so temporarily, he will try to arrange things in such a way that he lives to fight another day.

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    Wednesday, December 20, 2006


    An occasional series dedicated to bringing choice quotes from the blogosphere to a slightly wider audience.
    No 4.

    "She has done little of note other than issuing the usual identikit centrally produced Labour MP press releases and attracting unkind whispered comparisons to the density of porcine ordure."

    - Labour Watch, on the failure of Gateshead East and Washington West MP Sharon Hodgson to be selected for the new Gateshead seat.

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    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    Poll: Should Brown call snap election?

    I must say I'm genuinely torn on this one. The Tories argue that Gordon Brown, or whoever else takes over as Labour leader, should call an immediate general election to give themselves a separate mandate from Tony Blair. Since we appear to live in an increasingly presidential system, there is some force to their argument.

    Against that, part of me thinks Labour won in 2005 in spite of, not because of Mr Bliar, and that therefore it's the party as a whole which has the mandate to govern for a full parliamentary term.

    Anyway, this seems like one to leave to you, the readers, partly to help me settle an argument in my own head and partly to demonstrate that, thanks to I can now introduce polling functionality onto this blog.

    I hope visitors will make use of it, as it's a feature I intend to do much more with in the New Year.

    Should there be a General Election if and when Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister
    Free polls from
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    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Some Ashes reflections

    "It will all be over by Christmas," they said when World War One broke out in August 1914. It wasn't, of course, but the 2006 Ashes series is, after Australia today won back the urn in the quickest possible time.

    So what went wrong? Well, in a sense, it's more a case of what went right for Australia. They were the better team, and this time they performed to the best of their abilities. I always thought that as long as they did that, they would win, given that in 2005 they collectively had an off-series and still only managed to lose to us extremely narrowly.

    They have also strengthened their team since 2005. Stuart Clark has come in for Jason Gillespie and on occasions looked Australia's best bowler. Mike Hussey has brought some real steel to the middle-order and become the most difficult player in their side to get out. And Michael Clarke - nicknamed "pup" by the Aussie tabloids - has finally blossomed into a great batting talent.

    Nevertheless, England could have made much more of a fight of it had we (a) not suffered injuries to three key players, and (b) not shot ourselves in the foot by daft selectorial decisions. Here's my list of six things that might, just might, have made a difference.

    1. The Captaincy. I don't think we missed Michael Vaughan greatly as a batsman, but we did miss his shrewd captaincy. In his absense, the selectors decided to go with the gung-ho approach of Andrew Flintoff, but they should have gone with the more cerebral Andrew Strauss. For one thing, I think the captaincy would have enhanced his form as opposed to inhibiting it in Freddie's case, and for another, I think he would have out-thought Ponting in the way Vaughan did in 2005.

    2. Simon Jones. On the first day of the last Ashes tour, in 2002, the Welshman suffered a tour-ending injury while fielding. This time, he didn't even make it on the plane. England have badly missed him on both occasions. At times during 2005, he was our most dangerous bowler, and would surely have thrived in Australian conditions.

    3. Marcus Trescothick. Whatever it was that happened to "Banger," it was very sad not only from his personal point of view but from England's. Some cricket-watchers who should have known better actually suggested that his absense would strengthen the team. Balderdash. His 431 runs in the 2005 series made him England's second highest run scorer after KP, and he was sorely missed.

    4. Selection. There is much that could be said here, but fundamentally, we failed to recognise that two of the stalwarts of our 2005 triumph, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles, were woefully out of form. Clearly Panesar should have been in the team from the start, and in retrospect so should Read, even given his batting shortcomings. Duncan Fletcher has much to answer for here.

    5. Troy Cooley. Was England's bowling coach during the 2005 series before moving to the same role with Australia this time round. His departure could probably not have been prevented - he is an Aussie after all - but it is clear that without his guidance, our main strike bowler Steve Harmison became a shadow of his former self.

    6. The Batting Order. Until Trescothick's breakdown, Paul Collingwood wasn't even in the Test XI. Then, suddenly, he was batting at four, the place normally occupied by the best batsman in the team. Colly did us proud with a double-ton at Adelaide, but Kevin Pietersen is our best player and should have been in the No 4 slot. Instead, he just kept running out of partners.

    And that's about it. More offbeat analysis from the excellent Middle and Off's Ashes Blog.

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    Blair is just making things worse for Labour

    Writing in this morning's Guardian, Jackie Ashley makes the point that the longer Tony Blair tries to drag out his increasingly discredited premiership, the worse it gets both for him and for the Labour Party.

    Following the shameful events of last Thursday, I came to a similar conclusion in my weekend columns and podcast which has gone live today.

    "The man who promised to clean up politics continues to sully it beyond anything achieved by John Major’s administration. Until the day he finally goes, his capacity to damage both the Labour Party and the reputation of British politics in general will remain unhindered."

    The full text is available HERE.

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    The Bloggers' Christmas Bash

    Ten years ago this week I held my leaving do from the South Wales Echo in the upstairs room at the Marquis of Granby in Smith Square, so it was great to be back there again on Friday for the Christmas Bash organised by Iain and Guido as a thank-you to those of us who contributed to The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.

    And an excellent gathering it was. Being out here in the sticks my forays into the London blogging scene are fairly rare, so it was great to meet, among others, Dizzy, Ellee Seymour, Croydonian, Tom Paine, James Cleverly, William Norton and Hoby.

    Iain announced there would be a second volume of the book next year and said 2006 had been "a great year to be an opposition blogger." "A great day," someone shouted out. Guido then stood up and told the most politically incorrect joke of 2006, or possibly of all-time. It cannot possibly be repeated here but it concerned the Ipswich murders and Cherie Blair.

    A big thank-you to Messrs Fawkes and Dale for organising. Other reviews of the event from Ellee, Croydonian, Tom and James.

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    Friday, December 15, 2006

    No coincidence

    I must be getting less cynical in my old age, but in retrospect I was far too kind to New Labour in yesterday's post on whether the Government might have been guilty of burying bad news under the cover of the Ipswich murders and Lord Stevens' inquiry in the death of Diana. It's now absolutely bleeding obvious that this is exactly what they were doing.

    According to the Daily Tel's George Jones and others, Scotland Yard has made it clear that the timing of yesterday's interview of the Prime Minister over the cash-for-honours affair was determined by Downing Street, not by the police.

    Another Lobby doyen, Trevor Kavanagh, writes in his Sun column: "We all guessed weeks ago that this would be the perfect day for Mr Blair to invite the police in – the day the world would be transfixed by the [Diana] report."

    Somehow, though, I don't think even a gnarled old cynic like Trevor really thought they would actually do it. And neither, I confess, did I.

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    Thursday, December 14, 2006

    Burying bad news?

    Of course it could just be coincidence. But isn't it just a teensy bit suspicious that the long-awaited interview of Tony Blair by police investigating the cash for peerages affair should take place on the very morning that Sir John Stevens publishes his equally long-awaited report on the death of Diana?

    Further, isn't it also a teensy bit suspicious that someone should see fit to leak a damaging story about Gordon Brown's possible involvement in the affair on the very day that Blair is questioned?

    I only ask the question....

    Update: Iain unearths some more bad news while Guido speculates on the contents of today's "grid."

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    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    They will get him for this

    This is Sir Jeremy Beecham, former chairman of Labour's National Executive Committee and hitherto one of Tony Blair's most loyal supporters in the party hierarchy. I once had a conversation with him in which I invited him to speak frankly about the Prime Minister, on an off-the-record basis. He replied: "I don't do off-the-record, Paul, I'm a member of the NEC for God's sake."

    Well, now Sir Jeremy's loyalty has finally been provoked beyond endurance by the news that Mr Blair plans, as his parting gift to the party, to use the cash for honours affair as a pretext to sever its links with the unions.

    On one level, it's a truly breathtaking manoeuvre, an attempt to turn a hugely damaging political scandal to his own advantage by doing something he has dreamed of for years. On another level, though, it's political suicide.

    Earlier today, Mike Smithson posed the question on Political Betting whether Blair's union funding plans were a step too far. If he seriously hopes to remain in office until next summer, they are.

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    Where's Denis?

    Hat-tip to Kerron Cross for drawing this to my attention, but the BBC's Politics Show is currently holding an end-of-year poll to find out people's
    Greatest Living Political Heroes. A fair enough idea, I thought, until I saw the so-called "Magnificent Seven" shortlist which comprises the following:

    Tony Benn
    Neil Kinnock
    Alex Salmond
    Clare Short
    Norman Tebbit
    Margaret Thatcher
    Shirley Williams

    Now there can be no disputing the heroic status of three of these names - Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and Shirley Williams - while Neil Kinnock might just scrape in for the "grotesque chaos" speech and for generally losing elections in a rather heroic way.

    But Norman Tebbit? Alex Salmond? CLARE SHORT?!! Come on, you're having a laugh, surely?

    The absense of my own greatest living political hero Denis Healey from this list is a startling omission on the part of the Beeb.

    Denis is widely acknowledged to be the greatest Labour Prime Minister we never had and his recent interview with The Observer's Bill Keegan shows he has lost none of his sharpness.

    If he had been on the list, I'm willing to bet he would have got many more votes than his old rival Tony Benn.

    That is, after all, what happened in the Deputy Leadership Election in 1981, even though the union block vote nearly conspired to turn it into a Benn triumph.

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    Will Brown scrap the monthly press conferences?

    On his peerless blog yesterday, Iain Dale posed the question whether Tony Blair's monthly press conferences serve any remaining purpose, given his refusal to answer the important questions currently on the lips of voters. To take two examples: (i) what does he think of the findings of James Baker's Iraq Study Group report, and (ii) whether he has been questioned by detectives investigating the "cash for honours" affair.

    I was in the Lobby when the "pressers" started up an few years back and the common consensus at the time was that they provided a useful opportunity to put the Prime Minister on the spot. I even managed to get the odd question in myself occasionally.

    Recently, though, the monthly Q&As seem to have got stuck in a bit of rut. The BBC's James Landale had to ask three questions yesterday before he found one the PM was prepared to answer, and practically the only decent story to come out of it was that Mr Blair thinks the PC anti-Christmas brigade are misguided, which is nice to know.

    It could just be that it's because Mr Blair is on the way out, and he really doesn't give a monkey's any more. But either way, I seriously question whether Gordon Brown, if he becomes Prime Minister, will continue with them, for two reasons.

    Firstly, they are very "presidential" in nature, and I don't think that will be Gordon's style as premier. Secondly he will be looking to make changes in the structure and conduct of government that draw a line under the Blair years and make the point that this is a new administration.

    If Brown does decide to continue with regular press conferences, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he made them regional events, rehearsing the time-honoured technique of by-passing the venal Parliamentary lobby to talk "directly" to voters via the more trusted local press hacks.

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    Tuesday, December 12, 2006

    Bishop on the brink

    Am I the only person to have detected shades of the Ron Davies affair in the current controversy surrounding the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler? The former Welsh Secretary, who was forced to quit in 1998, initially claimed he had been the victim of a straightforward mugging. In fact the truth turned out to be rather more complicated.

    Likewise the Rt Rev Butler, who initially put his black eye down to having been mugged on the way home from a Christmas Party, has been forced to change his story after the emergence of witnesses who saw him throwing childrens' toys out of the back of someone's car while apparently the worse for wear for drink.

    If this blog by Times Religious Affairs Correspondent Ruth Gledhill is anything to go by, Butler is toast. La Gledhill is an influential figure at Lambeth Palace and while giving the appearance of an objective summary of the facts, in reality her piece is a ruthless hatchet-job.

    I doubt if many tears will be shed over him. Having lived in Southwark Diocese for six years I can testify that he has not been a particularly good Bishop, having generally failed to uphold Biblical teaching on personal morality issues and attempted to frustrate the efforts of churches who did so by refusing to ordain their clergy.

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    Monday, December 11, 2006

    Brown keeps his aces up his sleeve

    Last week's Pre-Budget Report was the first for many years I have not covered for either a newspaper or the this is sites, but I don't think I missed a great deal. It's clear that Gordon Brown is now looking to get through his remaining few months as Chancellor by doing as little as possible, holding back the really big announcements for the start of his premiership next summer.

    This is the theme of my current Podcast which is also available in text format HERE.

    "For now, British politics has entered a bizarre state of limbo, with Blair in office but not in power and Brown in power but not in office. It’s Brown who is the man with the plan – but it’s the plan for his first few months as Premier, not his last few months as Chancellor, and the name of the game last week was to give as little of it away as possible."

    My tip for Brown's "big bang" announcement to get his premiership off to a flyer and draw a line under the Blair years: NHS independence, on the Bank of England model.

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    "We love our Royals, don't we?"

    That was my wife's instant reaction last night on the announcement of Zara Phillips as Sports Personality of the Year, and I don't think she's too far off in her assessment. As someone who became a World Champion during 2006, Zara was one of the more deserving candidates, but her popularity as one of the highest-profile young royals may well have swung it over fellow world champs Beth Tweddle, Nicole Cooke and Joe Calzaghe.

    For me, it was the right result, even if by rights the horse should have been up there with her on the podium too. But what of the rest of the show, which seems to be held by much of our national media in an equal mixture of fascination and contempt?

    Well, first off, wtf was going on with that shortlist? Andy Murray appeared to be on it for having beaten Roger Federer in a minor tournament, despite the fact that he has yet to win anything. Nicole Cooke was on it, which is fair enough, but not fellow cycling world champ Chris Hoy, which merely smacked of gender-balance tokenism.

    Not sure why Steven Gerrard wasn't on the list following his Cup Final exploits. Maybe the BBC judge the Cup Final to be a bit parochial these days, but it's a strange judgement given that it's practically the only major domestic football match to which they still own the rights.

    The most irritating aspect of the show remains the lack of real sporting highlights, even in respect of the events the BBC actually does own the rights to such as Wimbledon. Practically the only pieces of real "action" plus commentary were the Cup Final goals and Lewis-Francis bringing home the baton for Britain's European Mens 4 x 100m relay gold.

    As for the good bits, well, apart from the moving Paul Hunter tribute, and seeing Beth Tweddle in a nice dress with her hair down, the highspot for me had to be Gary Lineker's comment on England's World Cup fiasco. "They arrived looking bright, confident and up for it - but that's enough about the WAGs."

    Update: Other, more critical bloggage on our Zara from:

    The Daily
    Kerron Cross

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    Friday, December 08, 2006

    Ashes to ashes

    It seems I am not the only "political" blogger to be diversifying into cricket coverage in the wake of England's Ashes flop. The Lib Dems' Jonathan Calder has an excellent post about how the lack of state games is affecting our chances, while Tory blogger Richard Bailey also has some very illuminating thoughts on the matter.

    Meanwhile Phil McIntosh, who has no particular political affiliations to my knowledge, has set up an excellent new blog dedicated to the Ashes series entitled Middle and Off.

    Perhaps the only vaguely amusing thing to have come out of England's trials and tribulations thus far is that Monty Panesar's failure to be picked for either the Brisbane or Adelaide debacles has apparently boosted his chances of winning the absurd Sports Personality of the Year contest on Sunday.

    If the award lives up to its name, the winner will surely be Darren Clarke, who did indeed show plenty of personality in overcoming his wife's death to help Europe win the Ryder Cup. But if it were about sporting achievement - which it never really has been - it should surely be between Joe Calzaghe, Beth Tweddle and Zara Phillips.

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    Thursday, December 07, 2006

    The mark of the Beast

    In a comment on the previous post, "Guardian Reader" questions the choice of Dennis Skinner as one of my least favourite MPs, saying: "I don't understand why you consider Dennis Skinner to be part of a deeply unpleasant Derbyshire old [Labour] mafia."

    "I agree that he is not the national treasure that he seems to have become, and I worry that his lack of engagement in his constituency is akin to Tony Benn's similar disregard of Chesterfield - notably lost to the Liberal Democrats once he left. (Will Bolsover suffer the same fate?)

    "However, when you consider the Derbyshire Labour MPs, I can't think of a single one who could be considered old Labour or mafia. That's not to say they're all Blairites, by the way.

    "If you mean the councillors in North Derbyshire, you might have a point; but to be fair to Dennis he only criticises Labour within the party, not in public - which is more than can be said about MPs such as Charles Clarke!"

    Well, the answer to the question why I consider Skinner to be part of a "deeply unpleasant Derbyshire Old Labour mafia" relates to an old story dating back to a General Election campaign in the 1970s which deserves to be retold in full.

    A group of Labour activists were out canvassing for Skinner on a bleak estate outside Clay Cross when the following doorstep exchange took place.

    Canvasser: "Own this 'ouse, do yer?"
    Voter: "No, it's rented."
    Canvasser: "Council 'ouse, is it?"
    Voter: "Yes, that's right."
    Canvasser: "Wanna keep yer council 'ouse?"
    Voter: "Well, yes, 'course I do."
    Canvasser: "Well then fookin' vote Labour."

    I doubt if the said canvasser was actually Skinner himself, or even his equally obstreperous brother David, a former road-ganger who was later awarded a job by Labour-run Derbyshire County Council as cultural attache to Japan. But it was on such Old Labour thuggery that his political career was built.

    There are probably plenty of other Labour MPs of whom the same could be said. But unlike Skinner, none of them have managed to fool the public into thinking they are some nice, cuddly old socialist.

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    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    Top 5 and Bottom 5 MPs

    Iain Dale has been having some fun over the last couple of days asking visitors to his blog to name their Top 5 and Bottom 5 MPs, so at the risk of shamelessly plagiarising a great idea, here are mine.

    Top 5

  • Kenneth Clarke. Last of the true Tory heavyweights but a politician who always put country before party.

  • Jim Cousins. Labour MP of high principles who I have always found to be a reliable barometer of backbench opinion.

  • Yvette Cooper. Should have been in the Cabinet years ago, and probably would have been if she hadn't married Ed Balls.

  • Chris Huhne. It is cerebral Chris rather than flashy Clegg who the Lib Dems should turn to post-Ming.

  • George Galloway. Gets in solely for telling that conceited git Paxman where to get off on election night.

    Bottom 5

  • Martin Salter. Labour MP who clearly doesn't know the meaning of the word fraternity, given his behaviour towards Jane Griffths.

  • Andrew George. Ditto - one of the idiots who thought the Lib Dems would do better without CK. Yeah, right.

  • Sarah Teather. Sees herself as a big player, but seen by practically everyone outside her party as a joke.

  • Marion Roe. Tory nonentity whose sole contribution to Parliamentary life has been to ban journalists from the Terrace.

  • Dennis Skinner. Now seen as a "national treasure" but in reality part of a deeply unpleasant Derbyshire Old Labour mafia.

    All other opinions/nominations welcome, of course.

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  • My podcast on The PodLounge

    My weekly Podcast on the this is network of regional websites has now been going for nearly a year. This is something of an achievement in itself given that many mainstream media podcasts have been launched in a blaze of publicity during that time and failed to stay the course.

    So I'm particularly pleased that podcast aggregator The PodLounge has decided to make it one of the three featured podcasts on its homepage this week.

    They've done a short interview with me about the podcast, which was originally launched last December as a pilot project for introducing podcasting onto the this is sites, an initiative which I oversaw and which now includes around 20 different podcasts from various regional newspapers across the country.

    The full list of episodes can be found HERE. The most recent, No 46, previewed this week's Trident announcement. Next week's may well feature something on the Pre Budget Report and what it means for Gordon Brown's chances of reaching No 10.

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