Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The great Tory U-turn

It would be devastatingly easy to take the piss out of David Cameron's Statement of Aims and Values published today.

Briefly summarised, the statement reveals that the Tories believe in a strong economy, stable communities, caring for the environment, trusting people, and representing modern Britain. Oh, and they believe in society again, too.

So, motherhood and apple pie, then. Scarcely worthy you would think of the lead item on the 10 o'clock news or, come to that, lead item on Guido Fawkes' blog.

Except that the amazing thing is, as Danny Finkelstein put it on Newsnight last night, that for years and years and years, the Tories didn't believe in motherhood and apple pie.

The really interesting thing about this document, the measure of the extent to which the Tories had lost touch with modern Britain, is that it was necessary for an allegedly serious political party to have to make such a statement in the first place.

So don't be tempted take the piss. By finally rejoining the real world, the Tories have performed their greatest Tory U-turn since the Lady said she was not for turning.

March 2 update: The Guardian's Ben Rooney has included the fifth paragraph of this post in his daily roundup of what's on the web. Fame at last!

Issues mainstream politics is ignoring: 1. Long haul travel.

There's a definite mood in the air at the moment - from Prince Charles' railing against the prevailing political consensus to the stark findings of the Power Inquiry - that mainstream politics is manifestly failing to address certain long-term issues facing the country and indeed the planet.

Here's a good example of what I mean from George Monbiot in today's Guardian on the question of whether unlimited growth in commercial aviation is in any way compatible with the need to tackle global warming.

I have a personal pet theory that eventually the world will be forced to bite the bullet on this and that long-haul air travel will ultimately either be outlawed or become once again the preserve of the super-rich.

No sign of this from our present political leaders though who insist that the construction of a fifth runway at Heathrow Airport and the development of Stansted, Manchester and other regional airports in no way detracts from their "commitment" to the environment.

March 1 Update: John Humphreys must have been reading Monbiot (or even this blog..!) because he asked David Cameron about this very point on this morning's Today Programme. Cameron accused him of trying to set up a "false choice" between growth and greenery, arguing that investment in new technology would solve the problem. In fact as Monbiot points out, switching aircraft fuel from kerosene to hydrogen would produce so much water vapour it would probably make the "greenhouse effect" even worse.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Brown in fair votes hint as Liberty Central goes live

New pro-constitutional reform website Liberty Central has gone live today, by happy coincedence on the day an important new report is published on the future of politics.

The authors of the Power Inquiry argue that we have fallen out of love with "democracy" and that without a major shake-up of the system, politics will effectively die.

Not surprisingly Gordon Brown has been swift to recognise the importance of this and has given an interview to the Guardian in which he backs giving the vote to 16-year-olds and - incredibly significant in my view - opens the door for a fresh look at electoral reform.

All in all a very auspicious beginning for this welcome new addition to the political blogosphere.

A missed opportunity for the Lib Dems

Good piece by Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday's Observer on the Lib Dem leadership contest and why it has been a bit of a missed opportunity for the party to thrash out some of its strategic dilemmas.

Andrew correctly makes the point that all three candidates have shied away from confronting the most difficult policy issues and instead concentrated on seeking to prove themselves the most experienced (Campbell) the most passionate (Hughes) or the cleverest (Huhne.)

I didn't really expect a lot more from Campbell or Hughes but as a supporter of Chris Huhne I thought he would be much more radical than he has been, like setting out a distinctive political direction instead of banging on about his six years in the European Parliament all the time.

I am increasingly convinced that the Lib Dems should have followed the Tories' example and had a six-month contest which would have enabled a much more searching debate to take place.

Charles: Should he speak out - or shut up?

I devoted my column and accompanying podcast this week to the issue of Prince Charles's political involvement.

Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the Prince in his railing against the prevailing political consensus, as a monarchist I am concerned about the potential longer-term implications of this.

"The bottom line is that as long as Charles continues to involve himself in issues of political controversy, it will be used by some as a stick to beat him with. The position of the Monarchy is not so strong that it can withstand that sort of criticism on an ongoing basis."

A contrasting and perhaps rather more eloquent view came from Simon Jenkins in yesterday's Sunday Times.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Get on with it, Blair!

Tony Blair today announced he is to create a Cabinet-level minister for social exclusion in his speech to the Scottish Labour Conference.

Unfortunately he didn't enlighten us as to who it is going to be, further prolonging what is fast becoming the most protracted reshuffle in recent political history.

This clearly would have come as a surprised to the normally impeccably well-informed Guardian pol ed-elect Patrick Wintour, who wrote in this morning's paper that the appointment was to be made today. Predictably this story no longer appears on the Guardian site having been replaced by a reaction piece saying charities are welcoming the announcement.

The hot money is still on Hazel Blears, but I reckon it's about time Mr Blair put her out of her misery.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

All aboard for Liberty Central?

There's an increasing amount of talk on various blogs at the moment about the formation of a new network aimed at securing a Written Constitution and simultaneously getting rid of New Labour. Follow the links to find out more.

Since I am highly sympathetic to both of these aims, I've told them they can certainly count me in!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My Top 10 Political Speeches

Folllwing the success of my top 10 political books - well, four comments are better than none! - here's my list of the ten best political speeches I have heard during my lifetime. Unfortunately, I am too young to have heard either Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King in their prime.

1. Neil Kinnock, party conference speech, 1985. No surprises here. This was the speech that, in my view, defined modern politics, in that it set in train the process that eventually led to New Labour. But don't hold that against it - this was political passion at its best. No full text exists online sadly, but James Naughtie's Guardian report of the time has been re-created here while the key paragraph, about the far-fetched resolutions that were pickled into a code and ended in grotesque chaos, has a permanent home at the foot of the contents panel of this blog.

2. Robin Cook, resignation statement, 2003. This was the best Commons speech I heard in nine years as a Lobby Correspondent, and the hushed atmosphere in the Chamber as he delivered it - and the spontaneous applause when he finished - was something I will never forget. The statement, explaining his opposition to the Iraq war, has become all the more poignant in retrospect for being right, and in view of Cook's tragically early death. Full text here.

3. Geoffrey Howe, resignation statement, 1990. If Kinnock's speech was the most passionate, and Cook's the most prescient, Howe's was easily the most lethal. Denis Healey memorably said that being savaged by Sir Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep. I doubt if Margaret Thatcher sees it that way. Full text here - the only British political speech to get its own page on Wikipedia.

4. Roy Jenkins, Richard Dimbleby Lecture 1979. This was the speech that laid the ground not just for the SDP but arguably also New Labour in its appeal for an end to class-based politics and the "queasy rides on the ideological big dipper" that accompanied it. At the time, Jenkins looked like the likeliest successor to Thatcher as PM. No text, but more information by following the links from here.

5. William Hague, "annual report" debate, 2000. With the possible exception of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn's attempt to describe the homosexual act, this was the funniest speech I heard in my time at the Commons and deserved to inflict much greater damage on Tony Blair than it actually did. A fuller appreciation from the BBC's Nick Assinder can be read here.

6. Denis Healey, party conference debate, 1976. With the economy in a state of near-meltdown, Chancellor Healey dashed to the Labour Conference in Blackpool to defend his proposals for an IMF loan coupled with savage cuts in public spending. With the Labour left baying for blood - his - it took all the guts this great man possessed. More here.

7. Norman Lamont, resignation statement 1993. Unlike Healey, Lamont was not a great Chancellor, but he was very unfairly made to carry the can for the 1992 Black Wednesday debacle, which was really much more down to Prime Minister John Major's decision, when Chancellor, to enter the ERM at the wrong rate. Lamont had his revenge by memorably describing Major as "in office, but not in power." Full text here.

8. Tony Blair, post 9/11 conference speech, 2001. This speech was much derided, notably by Matthew Parris. "Tony Blair left the runway on a limited strike to remove one individual from a hillside in Afghanistan - and veered off on a neo-imperial mission to save the entire planet," he memorably wrote. True, but even for a cynic like me, it was impossible not to admire the passion and brilliance of his oratory. Full text here.

9. Margaret Thatcher, party conference speech, 1981. It's no great secret that I had very little time for Mrs Thatcher and spent most of my teenage/student years wishing she was no longer Prime Minister. But this was a wonderfully crafted speech capped by possibly the greatest sound-bite of the late-20th century - "U-turn if you want to - the Lady's not for turning." More here.

10. David Steel, Liberal assembly speech 1981. "I have the privelege of being the first Liberal leader in half a century to be able to say to you: go back to your constituencies and prepare for government," declared Steel. Okay, so history records that it turned out to be a false dawn for the fledgling Liberal-SDP Alliance, but there could be no doubting the power of the moment. More on Steel here.

Before anyone asks, I'm not going to compile a list of the ten worst speeches I've heard, because I've forgotten most of them. But if I did, it's a fair bet that IDS and his "quiet man turning up the volume" speech would be up there!

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Another reason to support Chris Huhne...and a bogus reason for supporting Ming Campbell

With the Lib Dem leadership battle entering its final stages, it is now widely perceived to be a two-horse race between Chris Huhne and Sir Menzies Campbell.

I've made no secret of my view on this blog and in my newspaper columns that Huhne is the man, and here's another reason for supporting him.

The indefatigable Gareth Young of the Campaign for an English Parliament Newsblog has been asking each of the candidates for their views on the "English Question."

While Simon Hughes fudged about with the discredited (and unworkable) "English Votes on English Laws" idea (EVoEL for short) Huhne correctly recognised that sorting out the mess of Labour's assymetric devolution strategy will require starting again from scratch.

"We need a comprehensive constitutional settlement which deals with this issue along with others - and indeed deals with financial matters. Because a lot of matters which are meant to be only English, if they affect public spending, affect Scotland through the Barnett formula," he said.

Quite right. Any solution which fails to include the Barnett Formula (see previous posts) would simply leave England under-financed and over-taxed as well as under-represented. More on this here.

Meanwhile....the Campbell campaign has been wheeling out the Lib Dem grandees in support, with David Steel making the following (preposterous) claim of Sir Ming:

"His bad luck was not to enter the Commons earlier than he did in 1987. Had he done so, he would probably have been leader instead of Charles Kennedy and possibly even Paddy Ashdown."

Er, wrong. The reason Campbell did not get the leadership in 1999 - indeed, the reason why politically he was not in a position even to contest it - was because he allowed himself to become mixed up in Paddy's abortive project to merge with New Labour.

Kennedy, on the other hand, recognised which way the wind was blowing in the party, and successfully managed to distance himself from it.

What this provides is further demonstration, as if it were needed, that Kennedy's political judgement was always superior to the man who has plotted so remorselessly to replace him.

More on this at Jonathan Calder's blog, here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

So is Gordon being set-up for a fall?

I promised in a previous post to return to the issue of whether Gordon Brown was being set-up by the Blairites and whether he could yet lose the premiership to someone currently considered a rank outsider like, well, like John Major was until shortly before he came PM.

Well, for anyone who wants to delve into this further, I have elaborated on these arguments in my weekly column.

"The likeliest ways in which Gordon Brown could still lose the premiership are either if he starts appearing to take the job for granted, or if the public simply gets bored of him. The longer Mr Blair strings out what is already becoming an interminable succession drama, the greater the chance of someone else emerging who can present a fresher alternative."

It's also available as a podcast.

Skipper's Guide to the Political Blogosphere

Skipper - one of the more thoughtful political bloggers around - has recently produced a Guide to the Political Blogosphere in which this blog gets an honourable mention.

"Paul’s comment tends to reflect his insider contacts and feel for the game of politics as well as enthusiasm for such non mainstream causes as the Campaign for an English Parliament. Informative and useful for anyone wanting an alternative well informed view" it says.

The full piece can be read here.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Would an English Parliament help the North-East?

The post entitled English knives out for Brown kicked off the biggest debate yet on this blog with 17 comments so far - most of them fairly uncomplimentary to me and/or Gordon!

Meanwhile Inamicus picked up on the question of whether an English parliament would benefit the North-East - a subject well worthy of consideration on its own.

He asked:

Perhaps given your previous pro-regional views you might like to expand on how a region like the North East might stand to gain from an English Parliament dominated by the interests of London and the SE (i.e. the status quo), as I've yet to hear this explained by the pro-EPers ;)

It's a good question, and a fair one, given my past record of support for an elected North-East Assembly as the best way of tackling that region's economic and social problems.

Basically, the answer lies in the funding system used to allocate resources between the four constituent parts of the UK, known in Whitehall circles as the Barnett Formula.

Drawn up in the late 70s when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were the most deprived parts of the UK, it awards each of them a higher proportion of spending than either their population or tax-take would otherwise merit, meaning spending-per-head levels are far higher in those areas.

In other words, taxpayers in England are currently subsidising the cost of providing a higher standard of public services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than is available in our own country.

Were an English Parliament to be set up, it would necessitate a fundamental review of the formula which would see all four nations and regions treated on the same basis.

The ending of cross-border subsidies would be worth approximately £2bn to England which, if redistributed pro-rata across the eight English regions, would boost government spending in the North-East by around £100m a year.

This may seem a relatively small sum in the context of regional spending overall, but in the North-East it would probably make the difference between being able to fund vital economic development projects such as the A1 dualling and not.

In my view the degree of hostility towards an English Parliament that undoubtedly exists in the North-East is largely down to a fear that it would be perpetually dominated by Tories rather than a clear-headed assessment of the potential economic benefits.

It is, however, at least arguable that the North-East does better out of Tory Governments, given that Labour has shown an alarming tendency over the years to take voters in that region for granted.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

My Top 10 Political Books

Political blogging is an essentially ephemeral phenomemnon, but a good political book lasts for ever. Here's my Top 10 reads.

1. The Time of My Life - Denis Healey. Beautifully-written autobiog from the best Prime Minister we never had.

2. Friends and Rivals - Giles Radice. Superb triple biography of Labour's original modernisers - Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland.

3. Diaries - Alan Clark. The original and best account of the high politics of the Thatcher era, which now all seems strangely far-off.

4. Peter Mandelson - Donald Macintyre. Don never even said hello when I was in the Lobby but his biog of Mandy is a masterpiece of objectivity.

5. Alastair Campbell and the Rise of the Media Class - Peter Oborne. Devastating expose of the man and his methods from a true comrade-in-arms.

6. Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things that Never Happened - Iain Dale and Duncan Brack. Book of counterfactuals I wish I'd thought of first.

7. The Ashdown Diaries Vol 2 - Paddy Ashdown. Detailed chronicle of the abortive Lib-Lab "project" and Ashdown's ultimate disappointment.

8. Servants of the People - Andrew Rawnsley. The "official" version of the world according to New Labour, 1997-2004.

9. Blair - Anthony Seldon. Brilliantly conceived biography looking at the PM through his relationships with the 20 key figures in his life.

10. The Autobiography - John Major. Okay, so he should have mentioned Edwina, but ghostwriter Julian Glover did a wonderful job with this.

In answer to my orginal question.....

....the Make Socialism History blog has carried out a poll on whether Hilary Armstrong is the worst chief whip ever. Here's the result.

To be fair to MSH, they did acknowledge their debt to me for this idea in a previous post.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

English knives out for Brown

According to Charlie Clarke and others, Gordon Brown is now virtually "Joint Prime Minister" with Tony Blair, though as he perfectly well knows, in our system of government such an idea is a constitutional nonsense.

The more of this sort of thing I hear, the more I am tending to the view that Brown is being set up by the Blairites - an idea I explored in a previous post last week and may well return to....

Meanwhile, supporters of the Campaign for an English Parliament, of which I am also a supporter, have launched a campaign to stop Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister on the grounds that, as a Scot, he has no mandate in England.

This image of Gordon Brown currently appears on the CEP newsblog, along with a lengthy comment from me and response from the blog's author, Gareth Young.

Although I support the CEP's overall aims I think there is a rather unpleasant and personal overtone to this campaign. It doesn't seem so very far away from the sort of "send the buggers home" saloon-bar racism which still exists in some inner-city areas where racial tensions are high.

Gareth's argument is that until we have an English Parliament, we can't have a Scottish Prime Minister of the whole of the UK, but this seems a bizarre point of view to take if Gordon is the best candidate for PM in all other respects.

That said, Gordon could stop this sort of sabre-rattling in its tracks by saying a bit more about how he plans to tackle the West Lothian Question if and when he finally does become Prime Minister.

As I have said on previous posts, one of the opposition parties is going to come out in favour of an English Parliament before too long, because the status quo simply cannot be justified. Brown should pre-empt them by promising an English Constitutional Convention to look at the whole issue in the round.

February 15 update: Iain Dale's Diary is also inviting comments on this post.

February 16 update: More hostile comment on this post can be found at the CEP Cambs blog and The England Project. Some posters on CEP Cambs seem to think I am some kind of wealthy academic stuck in my ivory tower - if only they knew!

We hate it when our friends become successful....

...was of course originally the title of a Morrissey song. But it applies equally well to the world of journalism as Lib Dem leadership contender Chris Huhne is now finding to his cost.

Huhne, an ex-journalist, seems to have a fair few enemies in the media, which doesn't surprise me knowing what a bitchy, backstabbing world it is.

In a column published on Saturday, the normally scrupulously-fair minded commentator Matthew Parris described Huhne as "mysteriously and indefinably ghastly."

I think if people with Matthew's sort of power as an opinion-former are going to throw that sort of mud around, they really ought to say more by way of explanation, and I have written to the Times to say so.

But Parris is not alone. In this space filler at the end of his Observer column on Sunday, Nick Cohen dredges up some ancient story about Huhne driving a flash motor in the 1980s and contrasting this with his support for green taxes today.

And even the Daily Telegraph, whose esteemed political correspondent Brendan Carlin was the first to reveal the Huhne leadership bid, has come out against him in this editorial published on Friday, accusing him of "duplicity."

Against that, Polly Toynbee in the Guardian last week constitutes a rather lone supportive voice in the national media.

No doubt there is always some resentment towards poachers-turned-gamekeepers, but the level of media abuse being directed at Huhne in this contest is well in excess of his opponents.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Why it has to be Huhne

I've been plugging the claims of Chris Huhne for the Lib Dem leadership on this blog for some weeks now but I'd not had a chance to do so in my newspaper columns or podcast until the Dunfermline East result gave the issue a fresh topicality.

To read my detailed explanation of why Huhne is the man, click here, or alternatively, if you want to hear it, click here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

To the hills....

I'm off here this weekend - Llanthony Priory in South Wales for the stag do of my oldest friend for whom I'm best-manning in April. Be back Monday assuming I survive the whitewater rafting!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Huhne in the driving seat

Yesterday I was (wrongly) accused by an anonymous user of this blog of being the person behind a "fake" YouGov poll which artifically inflated Chris Huhne's support in the Lib Dem leadership election in a bid to create a false sense of momentum.

I suppose I ought to be flattered that anyone could think that I (1) had that much influence, or (2) was wealthy enough to fund YouGov polls.

The truth is Chris Huhne's campaign needs no help from me to give it a sense of momentum. According to a real YouGov poll published today, Huhne is now the front-runner in the race, with 38pc of the votes to 34pc for Ming Campbell and 27pc for Simon Hughes

Click here for the full story, and here for a detailed breakdown of the results.

The three candidates are due to appear on Question Time tonight which should be very interesting. Last week Huhne wiped the floor with the rest of the panel, despite Iain Dale hilariously claiming that actor and would-be Tory MP Adam Rickitt was the star of the show.

As for who was really behind the YouGov poll that wasn't - suspicion points firmly at Camp Campbell as has been covered in detail on Guido's blog.

February 10 Update: Question Time sort of confirmed me in my view that none of the candidates are as good as Charles Kennedy. Huhne did not quite sparkle as I had hoped but at least did not mess-up. For a fuller analysis (and more detailed comment from me) see Iain Dale again.

Since then, of course, we've had Dunfermline East, which demonstrates that the era of three-party politics is not quite as dead as the Tories and Labour would have had us believe.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Be careful, Gordy.

There now seems to be a general consensus across what might broadly be described as the political and media classes that Gordon Brown will be the next Prime Minister, and that the process for the handover is already under way.

According to this piece by Nick Robinson the Chancellor no longer greets questions about the succession with gruff denials.

But while I would by and large go along with this conventional wisdom, I would - to paraphrase John Cole's comment about the downfall of Margaret Thatcher - keep 1pc of my mind open to the possibility that Gordon is being rather royally set up.

Eighteen months is an awfully long time in politics, and if at any point Gordon appears to be taking the succession - and more importantly the Labour Party - for granted, then the mood could quickly change.

It is not impossible that someone like Alan Milburn could capitalise on a groundswell of resentment among Labour members at what might appear like an establishment "stitch-up." And this might be exactly what the Blairites are secretly hoping for.

If I were Gordon, I would revert to the "gruff denial" strategy - and fast.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

An offensive image

Here's an image that many Christians find offensive. It depicts the late Graham Chapman playing Brian, a spoof on our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the film Monty Python's Life of Brian. It is part of a long tradition of religious satire ranging from the doddery vicar in Dad's Army to Father Ted and the Vicar of Dibley. Christians, it seems, have always been considered fair game when it comes to humour.

Sadly, Chapman is now dead. I could go out on the streets waving a placard and calling for the other perpetrators of this image - Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and John Cleese - to be executed. But I'm not going to, because I happen to believe that the ability to poke fun at religion - or anything else - is an essential democratic freedom. And because even Christians need to be able to laugh at themselves.

February 7 update: Andrew Milloy has kindly sent me some more images which you would presumably never see in Arab newspapers. To view them, click here.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Blair - Brown handover: the latest

I reckon this story by Paddy Hennessy in yesterday's Sunday Tel predicting a handover by "next summer" is about right, though my money would still be on May 2007 - technically next spring if we're being pedantic.

Hennessy also reckons Blair will sack Hilary Armstrong and try to bring back Stephen Byers in the reshuffle, both of which were also predicted in my Column published the previous day and Podcast available from today.

Other reshuffle tips I've heard: Hilary Benn to go to the Home Office and Charles Clarke to Leader of the House; David Miliband Education Secretary with Ruth Kelly moving to International Development, and Prescott man Dick Caborn to become Chief Whip - possibly as a pay-off for the DPM's rescue act on school reform.

There's also speculation about Margaret Beckett but she will not leave the Cabinet unless it's of her own volition. Blair rates her extremely highly as one of his safest pairs of hands and she is also extremely close to Brown. I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that she would want to stay around for the handover.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hilary's Finest Hour

Those of us who think Hilary Armstrong has outlived her usefulness may like to recall this famous encounter between New Labour's Chief Whip and the rebel MP Paul Marsden at the height of the controversy over the war in Afghanistan, in which La Armstrong (1) denies the existence of spin doctors, (2) claims that war is not a matter of conscience, and (3) compares opponents of the war to appeasers of Adolf Hitler.

Here's the full transcript in all its glory.

Armstrong: "Look, Paul, those that aren't with us are against us."

Marsden: "You won't even give us a free vote on whether we go to war - it is a matter of conscience."

Armstrong: "War is not a matter of conscience. Abortion and embryo research are matters of conscience, but not wars."

Marsden: "Are you seriously saying blowing people up and killing people is not a moral issue?"

Armstrong: "It is government policy that we are at war. You astound me. We can't have a trusting relationship if you keep talking to the media without permission. You must stop using the media."

Marsden: "That's a bit rich coming from people like you and Downing Street when Stephen Byers' spin doctor Jo Moore says September 11 is a good day to bury bad news."

Armstrong: "We don't have spin doctors in Number 10 - or anywhere else."

Marsden: "You aren't seriously telling me that you don't have spin doctors. You are losing it, Hilary."

Armstrong: "You wait until I really do lose it. I am not going to have a dialogue with you about that. It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938."

Marsden: "That's the official line now is it? We are all appeasers if we don't agree with everything you say?"

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Huhne right to reject Campbell coronation

What are we to make of the story in today's Times that Chris Huhne welched on a deal not to stand against Sir Menzies Campbell in the Lib Dem leadership contest?

I've no idea whether it's true, though I note that the author is not the impeccably well-informed journalist (I won't embarrass him by using his name) who usually covers Lib Dem matters for the Thunderer...

But whether or not there was such a deal, I think in retrospect it is clear that Chris Huhne made the right decision in asking Sir Menzies to release him from it.

The implosion of Mark Oaten's campaign, and the subsequent revelations about Simon Hughes, have left Huhne as the only credible alternative and a Campbell coronation would only have served the interests of Nick Clegg and Co, not the interests of the party.

As Huhne himself has said, appointing a "caretaker" leader who would stand down after the next election would effectively be like appointing "the chairman of an ongoing leadership campaign among the younger candidates."

The Lib Dems deserve a bit better than that, in my view.

Pukka choice!

One or two fellow bloggers seem to be a trifle narked about Jamie Oliver scooping a Channel 4 politics award for being the "most inspirational political figure."

To make matters worse, the great David Cameron - one of the Top 100 sexiest men in the world apparently - was pushed down into fifth place, behind Oliver, Shami Chakrabarti, George Galloway and Bob Geldof.

I can't quite understand what the fuss is about. What Jamie Oliver did was to succeed in taking an important but moreorless forgotten area of policy - namely what our children were being fed in schools - highlighting its inadequacy, and actually bringing about a change.

The fact that it is people like Oliver, Chakrabati and Geldof, operating outside of "mainstream" politics, who are changing hearts and minds over issues of vital concern to ordinary people is not a sign of "dumbing down," more an indication that "mainstream" politics is completely failing to address them.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Is Hilary Armstrong the worst Chief Whip ever?

I can't claim the credit for this question. The great Peter Oborne originally posed it in his Spectator column back in 2002 before answering in the affirmative. Unfortunately I can't include a link as the Spectator archive doesn't appear to go back that far....

But Oborne was right of course. Armstrong was a competent enough local government minister from 1997-2001 and deserved a promotion, but this was always going to be the wrong job for her. Despite her name, the ability to strong-arm recalcitrant Labour MPs into backing the Government is not part of her political armoury.

Armstrong has survived for nearly five years in the Whip's Office for the simple reason that, with a majority of 161, it just wasn't a very important job, as reflected in the fact that after her appointment, she was forced to give up the old Chief Whip's quarters at 12 Downing St to make way for Alastair Campbell.

Now, however, with Labour's majority cut to 66, and the Government suffering its two unexpected defeats on the religious hatred legislation, Armstrong has suddenly found herself in the firing line.

Tony Blair's loyalty to Armstrong extends beyond keeping her in a job for which she is so obviously unsuited. He also employs her husband, Professor Paul Corrigan, as his health adviser at Number 10, to the consternation of the health unions who know Corrigan to be a privatisation freak.

Back in 2001, when he was an adviser to Armstrong's North-East chum Alan Milburn at the Department of Health, it was revealed he was also working as a lobbyist for dozens of firms which have won lucrative NHS contracts, a story which deserves a much more prominent place in the annals of Labour sleaze.

Feb 2 Update.Oborne has returned to the attack in today's Daily Mail. Still no link sadly as he doesn't appear to be one of the Mail's featured online columnists (shame!) but here's a taste of what he had to say.

"Hilary Amstrong is just a harmless drudge. She commands as much mystique as a wet blanket and inspires as much fear as a tabby cat." Miaow!