Friday, September 29, 2006

Labour contest: How is the Cabinet shaping up?

I began this week's postings on the Labour Conference by posing the question who is backing Gordon Brown for PM among the Press. I end it by looking at how much support he - or any other candidate - can expect from within the Cabinet.

For this purpose I have divided Labour's 23-strong top team into four groups ranging from Gordon's most public and enthusiastic supporters to the small faction who seem determined to stop him at any price.

It will immediately be seen that the Chancellor is in a very strong position, and that's reckoning without the cash for honours affair bundling Mr Blair out of office early after all.....

I will be updating this list regularly as the contest draws nearer and if and when the public positions of any Cabinet members change. I have a slight hunch that Alan Johnson might well be the next one to endorse him.

Cabinet members explicitly and publicly backing Gordon Brown for the leadership

John Prescott
Margaret Beckett
Peter Hain
David Miliband

Cabinet members who have not expressed a public preference but who are known allies of Mr Brown

Jack Straw
Alistair Darling
Douglas Alexander
Des Browne
Ruth Kelly
Stephen Timms

Cabinet members who are currently remaining neutral, including those required to do so by virtue of their position

Tony Blair
Alan Johnson
Patricia Hewitt
Hazel Blears
Hilary Benn
Hilary Armstrong
Jacqui Smith
Valerie Amos

Cabinet members who have privately expressed doubts about Mr Brown and who can reliably be expected to support "Anyone but Gordon"

John Reid
John Hutton
Charles Falconer
Tessa Jowell

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Have we all misinterpreted John Reid?

Virtually everybody is interpreting John Reid's speech to the Labour Conference yesterday as the opening salvo in a leadership bid, and they may very well be right. It is not the only interpretation however, and Reid deliberately left things a bit ambiguous so that any of these interpretations can be retrospectively applied.

They are:

1. Reid has no intention of standing for the leadership. Yesterday's speech was purely the speech of a Home Secretary and any suggestion to the contrary is just media "froth." When Reid used the L-word, he was simply talking about the need for strong leadership in confronting crime and terrorism.

2. He hasn't made up his mind. The speech was a toe-in-the-water exercise, more than likely prompted by the Frank Luntz survey on Newsnight on Monday evening showing him as potentially the most popular leader among floating voters. If this interpretation is correct, JR would have been heartened by the response in the hall.

3. He is leaving open the option of running for the leadership, but the primary purpose of yesterday's speech was to keep up the pressure on Gordon Brown. This view rests on the theory that what happens next depends on whether Gordon behaves himself. If he does, he gets the endorsement. If not, he gets challenged.

4. His purpose was not to put down a marker for the leadership at all, but to reinforce his own position against the possibility of dismissal by Prime Minister Brown. The phrase "I intend to play my full part" could be translated: "I mean to extract a firm promise from the bastard to keep me in my current job. Or else."

5. He is definitely a candidate for the leadership, although he will not actually announce it formally until Tony Blair names the date for his departure. The remarks about others not being diminished when one shines could be read as an appeal for Brown to accept a position in his Cabinet.

If I have to take a view, I'm going with a combination of Nos 3 and 4 for now, as I genuinely do believe that Reid hasn't decided and that Blair is still keeping open the option of endorsing Brown at the last minute.

I think it was telling that Trevor Kavanagh, who must know Reid fairly well, said on Newsnight this week that he didn't think Reid really wanted the job. Against that, he is a politician, and somebody who doesn't want to be PM probably has no business being in the Cabinet in the first place.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

So where does it all leave us?

So as Labour bids farewell to Manchester, as well as John Prescott, what conclusions can we draw from the week's events? I would draw the following:

1. By dint of his conference tour-de-force on Tuesday, Tony Blair has earned the right to stay on into the summer of 2007.

2. Gordon Brown has largely recovered the ground lost in the aftermath of the abortive "coup," but remains on probation.

3. Provided there are no further attempts to hustle him out of the door, Mr Blair will continue to hold out the possiblity of endorsing Brown, while making him sweat for it until the very last minute.

4. If however the infighting erupts again, and the polls show they can win, the Blairites will run John Reid against the Chancellor.

That's my objective assessment of the situation. My personal view remains however that to challenge Brown would be a mistake that will only help the Tories, and that the Blairites should stop threatening an alternative candidate and accept this.

Of all the punditry I have read about the conference, the piece that made the most sense to me was the piece by David Clark in today's Guardian.

"Parties that spurn leadership favourites for internal reasons unrelated to merit tend to regret such decisions. Labour passed over Denis Healey for Michael Foot in 1980 even though he was far better qualified for the job. The Tories did the same to Michael Heseltine 10 years later in revenge for his role in deposing Margaret Thatcher.

"Labour can avoid that fate, but only if it is willing to put the spite merchants in their place and choose the only candidate with the substance and experience to govern successfully and win the next election. That means uniting behind Gordon Brown."

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Blair the ingrate

Mo Mowlam (pictured) was just one of the people who played a big part in the creation of New Labour who didn't get a mention in Blair's valedictory conference speech. Maybe he was afraid she would get another standing ovation. Should he have taken this last opportunity to express his gratitude to the contribution made by those who, like Mo, are no longer with us? More on this theme on my Labour Home Blog.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A ministry of all the talents?

"I would relish the opportunity to take on David Cameron and the Conservative Party. And in that endeavour I would be determined to draw on all the talents of our party and country." So said Gordon Brown in his conference speech on Monday, in what was probably intended more as an "inclusive" gesture to his potential Cabinet rivals than a pledge to bring Tories and Liberal Democrats into a national unity Government.

By complete coincedence, however, the BBC is currently running one of its periodic Fantasy Cabinet games which does indeed give users the right to select a team of 10 drawn from all the major parties.

Mine is predictably left-of-centre in nature, though I have found room for two Lib Dems and two Tories. Gordon Brown gets the premiership of course, as befits the most towering figure in British politics besides Blair, but I've also found room for other leadership hopefuls John Reid, David Miliband and Alan Johnson.

My favourite Tory politician, David Davis, gets the Defence brief, while David Cameron gets the consolation prize of Culture Sec, a suitably lightweight post for an incorrigibly lightweight politician.

The full list:

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown
Deputy Prime Minister: Sir Menzies Campbell
Chancellor: David Miliband
Foreign Secretary: Peter Hain
Home Secretary: John Reid
Defence Secretary: David Davis
Health Secretary: John Denham
Education Secretary: Alan Johnson
Environment Secretary: Chris Huhne
Culture Secretary: David Cameron

Incidentally the BBC game also allows people to vote for TB. It will be interesting to see how many takers they get after yesterday.

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Spot the difference

"Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Matthew 28, vv 18-20

"Whatever you do, I'm always with you. Head and heart. You've given me all I have ever achieved, and all that we've achieved, together, for the country. Next year I won't be making this speech. But, in the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do. I'm with you. Wishing you well. Wanting you to win. You're the future now. Make the most of it."

Tony Blair, 26 September 2006

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Blair the healer says farewell

And so it is done. Tony Blair has made his last party conference speech as Labour leader and Prime Minister, and British politics will never be quite the same again.

Watching the speech via the BBC website rather than live in the conference hall as of old, it was clear to me that he has his eyes on one last great historical achievement before he hands over, working to resolve the Middle East conflict that is the fulcrum of so many of the world's problems.

"I will dedicate myself with the same commitment I have given in Northern Ireland to advancing peace between Israel and Palestine," he said.

If he can achieve that, I will gladly take back everything I have ever said about him.

But Mr Blair also made clear his intention to try to heal the wounds closer to home, pledging to work to unify the party in pursuit of "the only legacy that matters" - a fourth-term general election win.

And in that context, though they stopped short of an endorsement, his words about Gordon Brown this afternoon must surely be seen as an attempt to end the "deep fissure" in the New Labour family about which Peter Mandelson spoke this morning.

Mandelson's words seemed to me to signal a rapprochement and Blair's tribute to Brown's "remarkable service to the country" has underlined that.

Are the Blairites finally getting the message that by attacking Gordon, they only help David Cameron's Tories in the longer-run? Let's hope so.

Either way, this speech surely laid to rest any scurrillous suggestions that Blair sees Cameron as his real political heir, and is content to adopt an "apres moi le deluge" approach to the Labour Party.

The attacks on Cameron were the most convincing - and most loudly applauded - bits of the speech, mocking his foreign policy for simultaneously flirting with both anti-Americanism and Euro-scepticism.

"If we can't take this lot apart in the next few years, we shouldn't be in the business of politics at all," he said.

I may hate the bugger for what he did in Iraq, for what his henchmen did to David Kelly, and for all the years of media-manipulation and spin. But you can't help but admire a winner.

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Memories of Tony

As any regular reader of this blog, or for that matter any of my newspaper columns will know, I have not always been very complimentary about Tony Blair. There is something about his showmanship and shallow ideological roots that repels me and in that respect, I suppose I have always been a natural Brownite, yearning for a return to the more substantial, less image-based style of politics that prevailed during my formative years.

But it is that very showmanship and ability to make others hear what they want to hear that makes him a master of the setpiece party conference address, and I confess that there have been times when even a sceptic like me has been held spellbound by them.

I heard my first live Blair conference address in 1995, shortly after joining the Lobby. This was the year of his "Britain as a young country" speech, with Blair successfully projecting himself as the young moderniser who could give Britain a fresh start after the sleaze and division of the Major years.

Each of his subsequent speeches was distinguished by a memorable catchphrase, from "A beacon to the world " (1997), to "The giving age" (1998), "The forces of conservatism" (1999), "My irreducible core" (2000) and so on up to "No reverse gear" (2004) and last year's "We are the changemakers."

Without a doubt, though, the best and in retrospect most poignant was his 2001 "New world order" speech made in the aftermath of 9/11, in which he set out his vision not just of a better Britain, but a better world.

It was much caricatured. Matthew Parris memorably wrote at the time that he "left the runway on a limited strike to remove one individual from a hillside in Afghanistan, then veered off on a neo-imperial mission to save the entire planet."

True, but there undoubtedly was a feeling in the days immediately after 9/11 that, as Blair put it in that speech, "out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good."

"This is a moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world around us and use modern science to provide prosperity for all. Science can't make that choice for us, only the moral power of a world acting as a community can."

He was right, but sadly, he couldn't be as good as his words, and that phrase "The moral power of a world acting as a community" sounds unbearably hollow in the light of the unilateral invasion of Iraq which shattered not just that world community but the whole concept of international co-operation.

Today Mr Blair makes his 13th and final speech. But whatever memorable phrases he comes up with, it won't change the fact that his premiership has been a missed opportunity, both at home and abroad.

Update: More great party conference memories, including Iain Duncan Smith turning up the volume, David Steel telling the Liberals to prepare for government, and Denis Healey defying the old left, can be viewed HERE.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Gordon shows why he's the man

As the previous post makes clear, it's not my opinion that counts. Gordon Brown's campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party will stand or fall on the extent to which he can win over those people who are NOT his natural supporters.

But for what it's worth, the Chancellor's brilliant party conference speech today demonstrated to me exactly why I believe he is the man to run Britain.

It wasn't so much the stuff about social justice, constitutional reform, the "empowerment agenda," the "good society" and rebalancing the honours system - although I warmly welcome everything he said about those things.

No, it was because Brown tackled head-on the idea that political style is somehow more important than political substance - encapsulated in his phrase: "I am more interested in the future of the Arctic Circle (pictured) than the future of the Arctic Monkeys."

"If I thought the future of politics was about celebrity, I wouldn't be in politics. Some see politics as spectacle. I see politics as service," he said.

The significance of this lies in the context in which it was said - a concerted attempt by the Blairites to hang Brown out to dry by calling his "image" into question, knowing they cannot get him on his record.

The reason I hope they fail is not necessarily because I disagree with them politically - many of Alan Milburn's ideas about the "new localism" are brilliant, for example - but because I think they are cheapening politics.

Brown closed his speech by saying he would "relish" the chance to take on David Cameron, the apotheosis of style over substance. Today's speech showed why he should get it.

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Who's backing Gordon?

Gordon Brown is today making the most important speech of his career. But as Iain Dale has already pointed out, it is not the reaction in the conference hall that will really matter but the reaction in the media.

Says Dale: "If it bombs, the media will again develop a herd instinct, just as they did last year following David Davis's speech." And he should know of course.

To me this touches on an important issue - just where is Brown's support in the media going to come from in the forthcoming leadership election?

Over recent weeks, even newspapers one might have expected to be loyal to the Chancellor in any leadership campaign have started to question his credentials - as Mike Smithson pointed out on on Saturday.

Brown's most steadfast ally in the media is likely to be the Daily Mirror. Its Associate Editor Kevin Maguire calls the shots on political matters and he is a long-standing admirer of Brown. Besides that, the Mirror is likely to view a Brown premiership as slightly more in tune with the traditional Labour values held by much of its readership than a continuation of Blairism under an alternative leader.

The Daily Mail has also long been regarded as Brownite territory, largely on account of the friendship between Brown and its editor Paul Dacre, although presumably he also feels that the Chancellor's solidity and experience are the kind of virtues that appeal to Mail readers.

But leaving those two, admittedly influential newspapers aside, Brown appears to be facing an uphill struggle to build a broader coalition of media support as the contest draws nearer.

The Guardian has noticeably changed its editorial tune from "smooth and orderly handover" to "there must be a contest" over recent weeks and it might be that the voices of Brown's admirers on the staff - Toynbee, Ashley et al - are being cancelled out by those of Blairites such as Martin Kettle.

As for the rest, the $64m question is of course which way Murdoch will turn. He is said to like and admire Brown, but in a contest between Brown and, say, John Reid, it is hard to see Murdoch backing the candidate perceived as the more left-wing.

On the other hand the coventional wisdom about Murdoch is that he always backs the winner, in which case, it is hard at the moment to see any departure from Brown.

But if, as is widely believed, Murdoch is planning to endorse David Cameron at the next election, he might just do what he has never done before - deliberately back a Blairite loser, to give himself the perfect excuse to switch his support to the Tories.

I can almost see The Sun's front page now. "Tony Blair was a great British Prime Minister. We were proud to support him through three magnificent general election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. But now, by electing the old-fashioned socialist Gordon Brown as leader, Labour has turned its back on Blairism - and so we're turning our back on Labour. Vote Cameron for 2009!"

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Lib Dem conference podcast

Can Sir Menzies Campbell shift the Liberal Democrats from being "the real opposition" to a real party of power? Only as a result of a quirk of the electoral system, I argue in my latest podcast which rounds-up last week's Lib Dem conference in Brighton.

You can listen to it in full HERE or read the text version HERE.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Decent, statesmanlike - but political valium

In the last hour - as they say on the BBC - Sir Menzies Campbell has sat down after delivering his first annual conference speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats. And first off, I have to say that the speech contained many good things, notably some judicious and well-founded attacks on the two main parties.

Yes, Tony Blair has squandered an historic opportunity to build a progressive consensus. Yes, the gap between rich and poor is now wider than it was under Mrs Thatcher. And yes, a Government which came into power to "save" the NHS is now closing hospitals.

As for David Cameron - well as Ming oh-so-rightly said, where was he when Mr Blair was allowing Britain to be sucked into its biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez? In the Government lobby backing military action against Iraq, that's where.

All good stuff. But political parties - especially those that aspire to be "serious," cannot live by attacks on the opposition alone. And as their conference week in Brighton draws to a close, I am still struggling to work out what the Lib Dems now stand for - other than not being Labour or the Tories of course.

During the last two elections, the party at least had a unique selling point. Okay, so the 50p top rate of tax was more of a symbol than a genuine instrument of redistribution, but it was a potent symbol nonetheless that put clear yellow water between the Lib Dems and the other parties.

Now the party has ditched it in favour of a fiendishly complex set of tax proposals, the main effect of which will be to take hundreds of thousands of middle-income income earners out of the 40pc bracket and into the 22pc bracket. While this might well prove a vote winner if the Tories or Labour don't nick it first, progressive taxation it isn't.

As for Sir Menzies himself, besides the palpable decency and obvious statesmanlike qualities, where was the spark, the star quality that is going to force the public to stand up and take notice as they did with Cameron a year ago?

I listened to today's speech open to being convinced that he is the right man to lead the party. But alas, I remain to be.

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Air travel: Monbiot spells it out

I guess a fair few of my regular visitors already read the Guardian, but in case you missed it, I recommend that EVERYONE who has ever stepped on an aeroplane reads this piece by George Monbiot today.

The exponential growth in commercial aviation and the increasing availability of "cheap" flights with complete disregard for their true cost to the environment has been a long-standing concern of mine. Some politicians are now starting to talk about it, but as Monbiot argues, few would be prepared to contemplate the draconian measures that will almost certainly be needed if climate change targets are to be met.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Farewell to the Enquirer

Earlier this year, I was asked to write a weekly political column for the North-West Enquirer, a new weekly regional newspaper based in Manchester. It was a high quality product with which I am very proud to have been associated over the past six months.

Against the backdrop of long-term decline in the newspaper industry, it was a very brave experiment of founders Nick Jaspan and Bob Waterhouse to launch such a paper at this time. Some would say it was foolhardy, but I for one thought that developing a paper as a niche publication might just work in today's increasingly fragmented market.

Sadly, it didn't, and the paper was placed in administration yesterday afternoon after a refinancing package collapsed. The timing was particularly sad in view of the fact that next week's Labour Party Conference is in Manchester and offered great potential for the kind of serious regional-national coverage to which the paper aspired.

I had already written my column for this week, which both looks ahead to the conference and focuses on what seems to me to be the highly damaging issue for New Labour of proposed hospital closures. You can read it in full on my Companion Blog by clicking HERE.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In defence of Benedict

I hold no brief for the Roman Catholic Church. My general view of it is much the same as the bloke who wrote the script for Godfather III. But I do think Pope Benedict is being very unfairly, if somewhat predictably pilloried for his comments about Islam.

Don't get me wrong. If Benedict was primarily a political figure, a Head of Government or Head of any other State but the Vatican, then I would agree that he was under a duty to be inclusive and non-confrontational in his statements about people who held different religious beliefs. Or no beliefs at all for that matter.

But the role of the Pope is not - or should not be - to be a political leader or Head of State. It is to be the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Christians across the world.

And if the leader of the world's biggest Christian denomination cannot speak out against another religious faith which, by its very existence, denies the esssential truths of the Christian gospel, then who on earth can?

I have thought for some time now that we have been headed down a very dangerous road in our society, whereby lampooning Christians and Christianity is virtually de rigeur among the liberal elite but criticising any other faith - and in particular Islam - is almost on a par with racism.

Laws purportedly designed to promote "religious tolerance" are instead promoting a form of religious intolerance, whereby no-one is allowed to say anything about another religion, even if its beliefs are antithetical to one's own.

This will naturally militate against belief systems such as Christianity which make exclusive claims to validity, in favour of a syncretistic, New Age mush that holds that all religions are equally valid - and therefore equally meaningless.

I would not be in the least surprised if, in my lifetime, it became a criminal offence in this country to preach the authentic Christian gospel - that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to God.

At the conclusion of her piece in today's Guardian, Madeleine Bunting bewails the fact that the Catholic Church is in danger of "failing the great challenge of how we forge new ways of accommodating difference in a crowded, mobile world," speculating that Pope Benedict has "another direction altogether in mind."

Too right he has, Madeleine. He is trying to take a stand against the relativism that is poisoning Western Culture and threatening to snuff out our religious freedoms. And about time too.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

A musical interlude

Ever since I first heard them more than 20 years ago, I have been a huge fan of the massively underrated British band Prefab Sprout. Their main man, Paddy McAloon, is in my opinion the greatest songwriter these islands have produced since John Lennon and the relative lack of commercial success achieved by the band in its 1985-1990 heyday remains, to me, bewildering.

The same cannot be said of Massive Attack. They deservedly enjoyed huge commercial and critical success throughout the 90s and most informed observers rate their 1991 single, Unfinished Sympathy, as one of the greatest dance records of all time.

So it was partly in order to win a fresh audience for a forgotten Sprout classic, and partly as a bit of fun, that my friend David Gladwin and myself set about putting together a mash-up that brings together these two great bands.

The result, "Unfinished Jesse James Sympathy" by Massive Sprout can now be heard on the Prefab Sprout fansite by clicking HERE and scrolling down to the bottom of the Miscellaneous section.

The remix is credited to The Party, a musical outfit consisting of Dave and myself that has been dormant since a frenetic burst of activity in the summer of 1990, when we had the bright idea of mixing Bulgarian plainsong with dance beats. A year later, Enigma did the same thing and had a number one album.

I guess most of us have a story about how we were nearly famous. Well, that's mine.

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Deputy leadership podcast now live

My latest podcast focuses on the race for Labour's deputy leadership following last week's declarations by Peter Hain and Harriet Harman, with Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and Jon Cruddas also set to throw their hats into the ring.

My conclusion? Well, although I think Johnson is probably the man to beat, in my view it doesn't matter a great deal who wins, since as Denis Healey rightly concluded, the job is not worth a pitcher of warm spit.

"The week’s smartest move may been made by David Miliband, who this week once again confirmed that he will not contest either of the two leadership posts. If I was being cynical, I would say this almost certainly means that the Environment Secretary has concluded he would really be much better off as Mr Brown’s first Chancellor than as his deputy. For as Mr Brown himself has shown, that’s a job worth far more than a pitcher of spit – warm or otherwise."

The podcast can be heard in full by clicking HERE. To subscribe to the podcast, which updates every Monday, cut and paste the following URL into your listening software:

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That List: My Verdict

Iain Dale has published his long awaited booklet listing the Top 100 Political Blogs. He's ranked me at No 10 so, before I say anything else, thanks Iain for the accolade. At the start of this year, when my blog had only a few hundred visitors a month, I'd have more than settled for a Top Ten placing. And to finish one ahead of Boris Johnson and two ahead of Adam Boulton was particularly satisfying!

Dale describes me as a "Regional Lobby Journalist based in Derbyshire whose writing is like fine wine." Tim Worstall has had a bit of fun at my expense with the "fine wine" bit, but I don't mind that. What I do mind (though only slightly) is being called a regional lobby journalist. I am, of course, ex-lobby.

Anyway, it's a truly Stakhanovite effort from the great man. He not only lists the Top 100 blogs overall, but the Top 100 in the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and non-aligned categories. I am fourth in the non-aligned group behind Guido, Political Betting, and Dr Crippen, aka the NHS Blog Doctor. Can't complain about any of that.

To my mind, however, Iain's complex ranking system has thrown up one or two rather glaring anomalies in the list which I feel it is my duty to point out.

First, he rates the new Lib Dem version of Conservative Home, Liberal Democrat Voice at No 4 in the list, despite the fact that it has only been existence for about a fortnight. Meanwhile Political Betting is placed no higher than No 6.

This is simply silly. is a Top Four blog by anyone's standards and as high an authority as Guido - who doesn't dish out the compliments readily - once described Mike Smithson as having "more insight than the whole of the Lobby put together."

The most glaring omission however is Labour Watch, which makes only No 89 in the non-aligned list. This is very unfair on Lib Dem blogger Inamicus who, in compiling tales of Labour misdeeds from local and regional papers around the country, is doing something no other blog is currently doing.

Finally, Dale is way too modest about his own standing in the blogosphere. He rates his blog as the 3rd best overall and the 2nd best Tory blog, but most people would rate it No 1 in both categories.

Guido is frequently more amusing and his stories more politically damaging, Conservative Home is more comprehensive in its breadth of coverage of Tory politics, and generates easily the best online debates, but none is consistently as good as Dale's Diary.

Apparently his career is about to go in a new direction. I wonder what we are going to do without him?

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Friday, September 15, 2006

The Johnson-for-PM plot: Where are the mainstream media?

I won't bore you with the technical details. Suffice to say that if you are really interested in how registering domain names works, and how an Alan Johnson 4 Leader website came into being, you can read it all in detail on Dizzy Thinks and Bloggerheads.

But the point is not how they did it, but the fact that it was done at all. And it seems to me that, between them, Dizzy and Tim Ireland have established beyond reasonable doubt that - in Tim's words - before there was an alleged plot by Brownites to depose Blair, there was an actual plot by Blairites to undermine the Chancellor and push Alan Johnson as the next PM!

The key figure in the plot is a character called David Taylor who will already be well known to readers of Tim's blog. He is the absurd loyalist behind the Keeping the Faith website set up to proclaim the Prime Minister's "achievements" in the aftermath of last week's "Brownite coup."

But inquiries have now revealed that prior to that, on 5 September in fact, he registered four new domain names for a Johnson leadership campaign:,,, and

This story has now been on Dizzy's blog since Monday. It has even been on Iain Dale, the blog which not inaccurately boasts that it is read by virtually every political journalist in Westminster. So why hasn't it been in the papers?

Eleven years ago, when I first started out in the Lobby, some friends of Michael Portillo were caught installing some phone lines in a house near Westminster which was to have been used in a leadership campaign. There was an almighty furore and Portillo's leadership chances were sunk, as it turned out, for ever.

The technology may have moved on - but is what Taylor is now doing on behalf of Alan Johnson really any different to this?

Could it possibly be that the papers have ignored the story because they hate the thought of the leadership contest turning into a foregone conclusion, and are themselves desperate to promote Johnson as a credible alternative?

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Clare Short - the woman who saved Bliar

Doubtless Tony Blair will be glad to see the back of Clare Short, who today confirmed that she would be standing down as an MP at the next General Election.

In reality, though, Blair has cause to be extremely grateful to the former International Development Secretary, whose failure to resign along with Robin Cook prior to the Iraq War in 2003 arguably saved his premiership.

In the run-up to the crucial Parliamentary vote on the conflict early that year, all the speculation had been about whether Cook, or Short, or both, would quit - and whether that in turn might cause the Government itself to implode.

However a North-East MP who was once a close ally of Cook's told me at the time that under no circumstances would the two of them resign together. "If he goes, she won't, and if he doesn't, she will," he said.

In the event, this turned out to be spot-on. Apparently the enmity between the two went back to some arcane split on the left in the early 1980s, and though the subject of Iraq was close to both their hearts, they never even discussed it between them.

Short did of course resign after the war, and the content of her resignation speech about Mr Blair's obsession with his place in history was devastating, but by then, the PM had seen off the immediate threat to his leadership, and its political impact was greatly reduced.

I still believe that if she had delivered that speech immediately before or after Cook's at the start of the Commons debate, Blair could not have recovered.

In the end, Short's ego and desire not to be outshone by Cook was more important to her than getting rid of this lying Prime Minister and saving this country from a disastrous war.

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Beta Blogger is here!

Finally got around to switching over to the new Beta-Blogger service today although I've decided to resist the temptation to go for a big re-design because I really like the "clean" look and feel of the Rounders 3 Template I've been using since it started up.

Most of the improvements are for my own benefit - it's now much easier to install new links and move bits of text around - but hopefully it will also result in a better service to readers.

The two main changes from an end-user point of view are the much-improved Archive section which now enables you to drill down to the exact post you are looking for, and the installation of a politics news feed from the BBC for the benefit of anyone who might want to use the site as a first port-of-call when looking up the day's political developments.

Needless to say I'm continuing to enjoy doing the blog and was particularly chuffed to read on today that Mike Smithson rates it "the best blog for Labour matters." High praise indeed!

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

So when will the next election take place?

Conventional wisdom has it that the next General Election will take place in 2009. Indeed Jack Straw seemed to suggest this last week when he said Tony Blair would be stepping down at the "mid-point" of the current Parliament.

But I think there is, to say the least, room for doubt over whether this will in fact turn out to be case.

The convention of four-year Parliaments has grown up largely since 1979. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair clearly favoured a four-year electoral cycle, and when John Major opted instead for five years, much good did it do him.

But is this purely a matter of Prime Ministerial preference, or is there something inherent in the political cycle that makes four years an optimum time to seek re-election, as opposed to, say, three or five?

For my part, I think that if Gordon Brown wins the Labour leadership election - and I would certainly interpret today's "Real Labour" speech by Alan Johnson as a rival bid - he will be sorely tempted to call a General Election straight away.

There are some compelling arguments in favour of such a course of action. It would enable him to extract maximum political impact from the poll bounce from which all new leaders benefit, and also to exploit to the full his experience against David Cameron's lack of it.

Victory would give Brown his own mandate independent of Tony Blair and hence release him from any obligation to follow Blair's policies. It would also nip the Cameron revival in the bud, condemning the Tories to another four or five years of opposition in which they may well self-destruct again.

What might get in the way of all this, however, is Brown's natural caution, and desire to avoid going down in history as the shortest-serving Premier since Andrew Bonar Law.

By that token, if he does not hold an election in 2007, or perhaps early in 2008, I think there is just as much chance he will go on till 2010, particularly if he wants to be able to point to a solid record of achievement as premier when he eventually goes to the country.

Is there a betting market on this? If so, maybe this would be a good discussion point for Political to take up.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hain's debt to Ron Davies

Peter Hain's decision to run for deputy leader while supporting Gordon Brown for the top job is an astute move on his part and should help to further calm the situation at the top of the Labour Party following last week's troubles.

Given the prevailing view among Labour Party members - if not among the Blairite "ultras" - that the party needs to tack slightly to the left on issues such as social justice and constitutional reform - I think a Brown-Hain ticket will be marginally more in tune with mainstream opinion in the party than, say, Reid-Johnson or even Brown-Johnson.

But what few realise about Hain is that he might well have taken a lot longer to get a foot on the political ladder were it not for the unlikely patronage of Labour's forgotten Cabinet minister, Ron Davies.

Prior to the 1997 election, Davies went to see Tony Blair, who was initially sceptical about the former anti-apartheid protester's political abilities, to plead for the Neath MP to be given a job in government.

Over a beer in the Stranger's Bar later - I was the Lobby man for the South Wales Echo at the time - Davies revealed he had told Blair "just how bloody good Peter Hain is."

But the episode had a sting in the tale which had interesting consequences for Welsh Labour politics.

When Labour came to power a few months later, Blair did indeed give Hain a job - as Davies's number two at the Welsh Office in place of his close friend and long-time deputy, Rhodri Morgan.

Nine years on, Hain is on the verge of becoming Labour's deputy leader. Morgan is the First Secretary of Wales. And Davies is no longer even a member of the Labour Party.

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Why Gordon is still the hot favourite

Amid all the speculation about possible Labour leadership contenders over recent days, some things are steadily becoming clearer.

There has inevitably been much excitement in the ultra-Blairite "Anyone But Gordon" camp at the prospects of Education Secretary Alan Johnson (pictured.) This always struck me as rather odd, however, as in no way could former trade union leader Johnson could be described as an ultra-Blairite.

Polly Toynbee makes the same point in today's Guardian. Johnson might well be a candidate, but will not be the candidate of the ultra-Blairite right. Furthermore, he is more interested in the deputy leadership than the leadership, although he will have Peter Hain for a rival.

Toynbee writes of Johnson: "He is too wise a politician to have this unsavoury, wrecking role thrust upon him. In fact, those who know him best say he will have none of it. So it seems certain he will only stand if some Blairite candidate stands first. In other words, he will not be their champion. But he might enter the race as a third force, intent on keeping the election clean, stopping it descending into internecine abuse. What's more, he would not enter the lists expecting to emerge as leader, but as a marker for his deputy leadership bid."

In a further blow for the ultras, David Miliband has again confirmed today that he will not be a candidate for either position, for the benefit of those who didn't believe him on the previous occasions on which he's said it.

So if Johnson won't be their candidate, and Miliband won't be a candidate at all, where does that leave the Blairites? With the somewhat unappetising choice of Reid (too much of a Scottish bruiser), Milburn (no support among MPs), Hutton (ditto, and lacks charisma) or Clarke (too prone to ill-considered outbursts after lunch.)

In other words, while Gordon undoubtedly did not help his chances during last week's shenanigans, I think the people who are predicting that he has blown it are getting slightly carried away.

As I said on last week, there is a fairly settled will among Labour Party members and the unions that it has got to be Gordon, and it would take an astonishing turnaround in mainstream party opinion for him to be denied the leadership at this late stage.

There is another point worth considering, and that is the fact that throughout Labour history, the party has almost always chosen the front-runner when electing a new leader.

In all but one of the Labour leadsership contests since the Second World War, the man who started out favourite has ended up winning comfortably: Hugh Gaitskell in 1955, Harold Wilson in 1963, James Callaghan in 1976, Neil Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992, and Tony Blair in 1994.

The sole exception was in 1980 when Labour MPs, by a tiny margin of 139 votes to 129, chose the hapless Michael Foot over the greatest leader they never had, Denis Healey.

And that, with all due respect to Footie, is hardly a precedent that the party will want to repeat.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

A day for remembrance

I guess everyone remembers where they were when 9/11 happened. I was working in the House of Commons at the time, just the length of a corridor away from Big Ben, while my wife and I were living in Docklands, a stone's throw away from another potential terrorist target, Canary Wharf.

A colleague hurried back from lunch to say a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Centre. We switched over to Sky News in our room in the Press Gallery and watched as the plumes of smoke rose from the first tower, convinced we were watching the aftermath of a terrible accident.

Then the second plane appeared. "Look, there's another one!" exclaimed a regional newspaper colleague. Almost as he said it, the other plane smashed into the second tower.

I don't think any of us could quite believe what was happening. For a moment, there was silence in the room, then someone said slowly "That was deliberate," and we all hit the phones to our head offices.

Of course it went without saying that the world had changed in an instant, but what I don't think we all fully appreciated at the time was how much British politics had changed too, kicking off the chain of events that was to destroy Tony Blair's once-promising premiership.

Mr Blair had been due to give a speech to the TUC that day in which he would mount a vigourous defence of the Government's public service reforms. Of course the speech was never delivered, and somehow the raison d'etre of a government that had come into power to improve the public services got lost along the way too.

But personal reminiscences and political consequences aside, it is right that, above all today, we remember those who lost their lives.

Here is one of many sites that aims to commemorate the victims of 9/11, including those that died in the other hijacks.

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