Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A last chance of justice

In a few hours time, the House of Commons will vote on the following motion, tabled by the SNP and Plaid Cymru and backed by the Liberal Democrats.

That this House believes that there should be a select committee of seven honourable Members, being members of Her Majesty's Privy Council, to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq and all matters relevant thereto, in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.

I hope they get it. Because contrary to what the Government maintains, the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry were not enough. They failed to nail the real responsibility for the lies and deceptions that resulted in us going to war on a false prospectus, or to establish the extent of the Blair Government's culpability in failing to plan for the post-war aftermath.

If anyone still believes that Tony Blair did not know that intelligence was being fixed to fit a predetermined policy of regime change, or that he was unaware of the total lack of a reconstruction plan, they should read THIS.

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Bloggers 4 Benn?

With Hilary Benn now officially in the race for Labour's deputy leadership, it is already clear that a head of steam is building up behind the International Development Secretary - in the blogosphere as well as among MPs.

A totally unscientific survey of leading Labour bloggers appears to show support pretty evenly dividing between Mr Benn and Jon Cruddas, with little support as yet for Harriet Harman, Peter Hain or any of the other possibles.

Among the Bloggers 4 Benn are Mike Ion who says: "I admire Benn enormously and feel that he is a man of real moral stature and courage and I am confident that he will have broad appeal both across the party and the country."

Paul Burgin, author of the Mars Hill blog agrees saying: "Like his father - although father and son are from different wings of the Party - he is charming, polite, sociable and thoughtful....He is also down-to-earth and the only sitting cabinet minister I have met who I have dared to address by his first name."

Against that, Reclaim Labour's Harry Perkins reminds readers of a speech earlier this year in which Mr Benn criticised the Make Poverty History campaign this evening for ignoring the role jobs and economic growth play in lifting the poor out of poverty.

Influential Labour blog Kerron Cross appears to be firmly behind Cruddas, as is The Daily, whose Westminster-based authors claim to have been the first to reveal plans for a Benn challenge.

And me? Well, I am really none too sure at the moment who I will back, although, as I will be supporting Gordon Brown for the leadership come what may, I will be looking towards the candidate who I think will provide the most balanced ticket.

In this context, there is a good case to be made for a gender balanced ticket, but Ms Harman was in my view one of the least distinguished of Blair's female Cabinet ministers and the only other female alternative, Hazel Blears, comes from the wrong wing of the party in my view.

No, what is needed to balance a Brown leadership is someone from the sensible left, and, although Hilary Benn may pick up substantial support from this section of the party, I don't think he really fits the bill in terms of bringing an alternative perspective to bear on future policy direction.

For me, then, the choice currently lies between Cruddas and Peter Hain. I like a lot of what Cruddas has been saying about reconnecting the Government and the party, but am not at all convinced that disconnnecting the roles of Deputy Leader and Deputy Prime Minister is the best way to achieve this.

As for Hain, I have great admiration for him and what he has achieved in his career as a campaigner and as a politician but I think there has to be some question mark over whether, alongside Gordon, he would provide a sufficiently fresh face.

So, for now at least, I'm keeping my options open.

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Democracy in Iraq? We should have tried it at home first

What's the relationship between the War in Iraq and House of Lords reform? Well, perhaps little, except that they were both in the news last week and therefore provided some of the subject matter for my latest Column and accompanying Podcast.

But is there not a delicious irony in the fact that a Government which has preached so much about the need to export democratic values to other countries cannot, even after nine years in power, bring itself to support a democratically-elected Second Chamber?

"[Jack] Straw's plan for a 50-50 split between elected and appointed peers scarcely seems like a great step forward, especially when a 2003 plan for the Upper House to be 80pc elected came within three votes of gaining Commons approval. But the really amazing thing is that there should be any debate about this at all.

"As one newspaper's leader column put it this week: “The starting point for any debate about any legislature should be that is democratically elected. It therefore ought to be for the opponents of democracy to have to justify themselves.”"

Incidentally, the Lincolnshire Echo version of the column is now no more, having been summarily axed in an email sent out on Friday. Coming soon after the loss of my North West Enquirer column as a result of that newspaper going into receivership last month, it is a not inconsiderable blow.

They say these things normally come in threes, don't they?

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Better late than never

Having just come back from possibly the wettest walking weekend I have ever experienced in the Lake District - the highlight of which was having to wade across a swollen river normally crossed by a small footbridge - I am fairly sympathetic towards the Government's belated attempts to push climate change to the top of the political agenda.

Of course, Labour are playing catch-up here. The Liberal Democrats have a well-deserved reputation as the most environmentalist party in British politics, having long favoured greater "green taxation." Latterly, David Cameron has also jumped on the bandwagon and, to be fair, seems to be far more serious about green issues than any of his predecessors.

Nevertheless, today's publication of the Stern Report together with Gordon Brown's appointment of Al Gore as an environmental adviser have to be seen as steps forward. I cannot understand my fellow blogger Iain Dale's oft-stated objection to Gore and can only put it down to pure Conservative tribalism.

When I went to bed at 2am on 8th November 2000 after watching the early results come in, Gore was US president-elect. When I got up at 7am and turned the telly back on, Bush was. There are very few people among my own circle of friends who do not think the world would now be a much better place had that reversal of fortune not occurred.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pretty Abominable

Okay, so it's a five year old story recently given new legs. But I couldn't let the week pass without commenting in some way on the fresh attempts by Her Majesty's Press Association to put regional lobby journalists out of work by offering to take over their jobs.

This story has been extensively covered by the UK Press Gazette, and also, in one of his less distinguished moments, by Guido Fawkes, who appears to take the side of PA by suggesting that its service can be provided for "a fraction of the cost of having your own lobby correspondent drinking in the bar all day."

I won't dignify that with a response, but the fact is PA has been trying to do this for five years. One of my former editors received a letter from PA encouraging him to sack me as long ago as 2001, but thankfully, it went straight in the bin as, like most editors, he realised that good regional political coverage depends on being able to work a single patch well and not try to juggle four in the air at once as PA's "Lobby Extra" service attempts to do.

As the Express and Star's John Hipwood said: "Times are hard and all regional newspapers need to look closely at their costs. But you do not improve the situation by removing your own Lobby correspondent, making do with an inferior alternative and thereby reducing the quality of your product." All power to your elbow, John.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Balls for Leeds, Battle for Lords

There has been much speculation of late as to the fate of Treasury minister and Gordon Brown first lieutenant Ed Balls following the Boundary Commission's decision to do away with his Normanton constituency. Well, I reckon the answer lies in this recent post on Labour Watch.

It reveals that Leeds West MP and former Foreign Office minister John Battle, has become the latest MP, at the age of just 55, to announce he will not be standing again at the next General Election. Leeds West is but a short train ride away from Normanton and his decision leaves a convenient opening for Mr Balls.

Call me a cynic if you like, but I have been in the political game too long not to believe that Battle's reward for this unexpected act of selfless generosity will be to return to government under Gordon Brown as a Minister in the House of Lords.

Mr Balls meanwhile is tipped by many to succeed his old boss at the Treasury, but I reckon the Brownites have pulled off another deal over that one - with one-time Blairite leadership favourite turned enthusiastic Brown cheerleader David Miliband.

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Just whose candidate is Jon Cruddas?

There's a widely-held view abroad in the blogosphere at the moment that Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas is the Blogger's Candidate to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. I am sure this perception is at least partly behind Cruddas's recent surge in the betting from around 25-1 last week to 8-1 now.

There is also a related debate going on over at Labour Home as to whether the "Diamond Geezer" is the Left's Candidate. And there has also been some interesting speculation on Political Betting and in other places as to whether Cruddas is actually Gordon's Candidate, and whether the Chancellor is secretly backing him in return for the support of the big union leaders.

Well, I can't enlighten anyone on the latter point, except to say that practically everyone in the contest has been named as "Gordon's Candidate" at one stage or another. A few months back, the conventional wisdom was that he was backing Harriet Harman - until, that is, someone wrote a story implying he was backing anyone but Harman.

On another occasion, he was said to be backing Alan Johnson in return for the Education Secretary not standing against him. The truth is, no-one really knows who Gordon is backing except Gordon himself, and I doubt very much whether it would be in his or anyone else's interests to tell us.

What about "Blogger's Candidate," then? Well, again, I find it hard to see how this legend arose. Alex Hilton, probably the most influential Labour blogger by dint of his stewardship of both Recess Monkey and Labour Home was said by the Daily Pundit to be backing Cruddas, but this is emphatically not the case.

What Cruddas is clearly becoming, though, is, the "Heartlands" Candidate - or more specifically, the candidate both of the unions and, more generally, those party members who have felt disenfranchised by the Blair leadership and want a bigger say in the formation of party policy.

Rightly or wrongly, they perceive the other main candidates - Harman, Johnson, and Peter Hain - as establishment figures who are more interested in futhering their own Cabinet ambitions than repairing relations between the Government and party, and Cruddas's disavowal of any interest in becoming Deputy Prime Minister has proved a compelling sales pitch.

On top of all that, Cruddas is also by far the best organised of the four candidates, as the Daily Mail's Ben Brogan recognised some time back.

So can he do it? Well, there now has to be a very real possibility that Cruddas will gain first place in the trades union section of Labour's electoral college. Although it is union members, not their Gen Secs, who nowadays make that decision, the recommendations of the big union bosses still count for something and I expect most members will follow their lead.

But where the Cruddas campaign will almost certainly fall down is in the PLP. I would be mildly surprised if Hain does not top the MPs' ballot, and there will be significant support there for Johnson and Harman as well - all of which will leave Mr Cruddas needing to come either first or a very good second in the vote among party members to win.

For my part, I am also not at all convinced that having a Deputy Leader who is not actually a member of the Cabinet will necessarily improve the links between party and government in the way that Cruddas suggests, and that the flaws in this proposal may unravel as the campaign progresses.

Either way, you can place your own Labour leadership and deputy leadership predictions by visiting another of Mr Hilton's many internet projects HERE.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Should ex-PMs quit the Commons?

We are only a year and a bit into the current Parliament, but already 11 Labour MPs have announced they will not be contesting the next General Election. Tribune's Barckley Sumner has posted the full list on Labour Home.

As Barckley himself notes, one name not currently on the list is that of Tony Blair, but it is widely assumed that, in view of his decision not to fight a fourth election as leader, he will not be contesting Sedgefield again either. Indeed, his agent John Burton appeared to confirm this in an interview with the Newcastle Journal's Ross Smith about 18 months ago.

The practice of former Prime Ministers standing down at the election immediately following their departure from No 10 is a relatively recent constitutional development. Margaret Thatcher started it, leaving the Commons in 1992, two years after her defenestration as Premier.

Likewise, her successor John Major, who famously took the view that when the curtain falls, it's time to leave the stage, quit the Commons as soon as decently possible, at the 2001 election which followed his landslide defeat at the hands of Mr Blair in 1997.

But there are other historical precedents. David Lloyd George, who was ousted as Premier in 1922, stayed on as an MP for a further 23 years, while Winston Churchill remained on the backbenches for nearly a decade after his retirement from No 10, and was pushing 90 when he finally left the Commons at the 1964 election.

More recently, Sir Edward Heath stayed on for 27 years after his eviction from No 10 before stepping down in 2001. It became known as "the longest sulk in history," but I suspect he was motivated not only by a determination to outlast Thatcher, but by a genuine desire to see the Tory Party return to the sort of centrist politics he espoused.

Sadly for him, he died only a matter of months before David Cameron took over as party leader and began the long march back to the centre ground.

I suspect that Sir Edward's example is one that subsequent premiers have been keen to avoid. But nevertheless, I am by no means sure that ex-premiers leaving the Commons at the first available opportunity is necessarily a good thing for the country.

I think our national legislature is much the poorer for the loss of the accumulated wisdom of those who have "been there and done that." It also makes politics less interesting.

I would have paid good money to hear John Major, whose government New Labour successfully tarred with the brush of sleaze even though it only ever involved very minor figures, ask Mr Blair a PMQ about the cash for honours affair which, by all accounts, will shortly result in him being personally questioned by Scotland Yard.

It's also a shame from her own point of view that Mrs Thatcher was not in the Commons when Britain was forced out of the ERM. She had, after all, always resisted joining, only being persuaded to do so by Mr Major and Douglas Hurd, and it is just about conceivable that she could have got her old job back.

Perhaps the wisest example to follow is that of those former premiers who opted for a happy medium, staying on till the election after next following their initial departure from office.

These include Harold Wilson, although he slightly blotted his copybook by voting for Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey in the 1980 Labour leadership election, and James Callaghan who stayed on until 1987.

When Churchill died in January 1965, Wilson, who was then Prime Minister, concluded his tribute in the House with the words: "We in this House, at least, know the epithet he would have chosen: He was a good House of Commons man."

Sadly, that could never be said of Tony Blair. And his contempt for the institution is reflected in his decision - if such it be - to leave it.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Kenyon Wright, right, right

This was supposed to be embargoed until 5am tomorrow morning, but as reported in today's Glasgow Herald and on the Campaign for an English Parliament Newsblog, an English Constitutional Convention under Canon Kenyon Wright is to be launched at the House of Commons tomorrow afternoon to call for a "strong" English Parliament as part of a federal UK.

Canon Wright was of course the chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s which helped pave the way for Scottish devolution, and was also, like me, a supporter of the North-East Constitutional Convention established in 1998 under the chairmanship of the then Bishop of Durham, which aimed to establish a North-East Assembly as a precursor to English regional government.

In the press release announcing tomorrow's event, Canon Wright acknowledges that he was formerly an active campaigner for the regionalisation of England, but that he now believes only the establishment of a Parliament for England will answer "the so-called West Lothian Question."

He explains: "Two things have changed my personal view. First, it is now clear after the North East Referendum, that regional government is a non-starter in the foreseeable future, and we cannot wait for further change. Second, I have become convinced that England has a growing sense of national identity as strong as ours, and therefore that an English Parliament, if the people want it, is as much your right as we claimed it to be ours."

It is very hard to disagree with any of this. I myself reached the same conclusion within nine days of the referendum result, in a Newcastle Journal column published in November 2004 entitled England Expects a Fair Crack of the Whip.

People have asked me since how I could possibly be in favour of an English Parliament if I was also in favour of regional assemblies, but the point was that something needed to be done to give England/the English regions a stronger political voice as well as a fairer funding deal, and, bizarre as it may now seem, regional government looked for a long time like the most politically plausible means of achieving that.

Other members of the Great and the Good who have lent their support to the Convention include Iain Dale of the blogosphere, who recently cryptically hinted that he was up to something on the English devolution front and is clearly now one of the main proponents of the idea within the Tory Party.

His party leader, of course, disagrees, preferring to put his faith in the unworkable policy of English votes for English Laws. Canon Wright will argue tomorrow that simply banning Scottish MPs from voting in the Commons on English legislation will "create more problems than it solves."

It will also be interesting to see what Dr Vernon Coleman brings to the party. I still have a (review) copy of his book I Hope Your Penis Shrivels Up, in which he expresses the view that all supporters of foxhunting should be "buried from the neck down in the fast lane of the M4."

Whilst not fundamentally disagreeing with the gist of those sentiments, I suspect that slightly more sophisticated arguments will be required if the campaign is to succeed in getting an English Parliament firmly on the national political agenda.

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That's enough Blunkett

As I have said all along, David Blunkett's diaries were chiefly memorable for their entertainment value, and so entertaining did I find them that I devoted my Saturday Column and Podcast to the subject this weekend.

In years to come, there will be a great political counterfactual to be written along the lines of "What would have happened if David Blunkett hadn't met Kimberley Quinn?" I suspect the consensus of future historians will be that he would have given Gordon Brown a very close run for his money in the 2007 Labour leadership contest, and might even have become Prime Minister.

"David Blunkett coulda been a contender, as Brando might have put it. Instead, he’s in danger of becoming a becoming an embarrassment to the party he once helped rebuild.....In the space of a fortnight, he has put himself in the doghouse not just with Mr Blair, but also with Mr Brown."

And the doghouse is where, I expect, he will now remain. As Clement Attlee once said about Harold Laski - or was it Herbert Morrison? - "A period of silence from you would now be welcome."

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Remembering Aberfan...

The Aberfan Disaster, which took place 40 years ago tomorrow, is my earliest memory of a news event. As I have said before on this blog, I have absolutely no recollection of England's 1966 World Cup win, but I clearly remember my mother watching the TV ashen-faced as the pit village catastrophe unfolded just a few months' later.

I guess that was part of the reason why, as a reporter on the South Wales Echo nearly three deacdes later, I felt drawn to highlight some of the terrible injustices suffered as a result of the coal industry in a campaign called Heroes of Coal.

The history of coal in the UK has been one of appalling industrial exploitation and official neglect, right up to the previous Government's flat refusal to compensate those former miners now suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. But even against that backdrop, Aberfan stands as the most notorious episode of all.

The people of Aberfan never wanted the publicity that came with the disaster and, as Melanie Doel of BBC Wales writes in this piece, tomorrow's anniversary will be marked by quiet reflection in the village. But our thoughts will be with them nonetheless.

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Another one bites the dust...

Clare Short's resignation from the Labour Party today is not just the culmination of a long process of personal disillusionment with the party, but the latest example of Tony Blair's failure to retain the trust of the people who once constituted his top team.

Short is the second member of the 1997 Labour Cabinet to leave the party, the first being ace badger-watcher Ron Davies. I cannot recall this ever happening to another Government in my lifetime, although others may have longer memories....

Of that initial Blair Cabinet, just six members remain - the Prime Minister himself, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and Alastair Darling, great political survivors all.

Four are dead - Ivor Richard, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam - while another five - Ann Taylor, Jack Cunningham, David Clark, Chris Smith and George Robertson - have joined Derrry Irvine in the land of the living dead, aka the House of Lords.

Oct 23 Update: Rumours of Ivor Richard's death are apparently greatly exaggerated - see comments thread below.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Forsyth still doing the Lady's bidding

It would be easy to dismiss the report of the Tories' Tax Commission under Lord Michael Forsyth as a political event of no great consequence, given that its proposals have not only been rubbished by Ed Balls on behalf of Labour, but also that the Tories' own Shadow Chancellor Gideon George Osbourne has felt the need to distance himself from them.

That wouldn't, however, be quite right. Although Osbourne has made clear today that the Tories will not be promising an overall reduction in the tax take, and that any cuts in personal taxes will be paid for by increases in environmental taxes, I would nevertheless expect some of the Commission's ideas to make it into the next Tory manifesto. Or even the next Labour one.

Chief among these, surely, is the replacement of Inheritance Tax by a new form of Capital Gains Tax that would exempt the family home, an idea which is looking increasingly like its time has come.

Originally envisaged as a tax that would affect only the very richest, the exponential increase in house prices over the last 20 years has now brought many hundreds of thousands of estates within its ambit, causing much anguish to elderly people whose home is their only asset and who want to be able to pass on something to their children.

If Labour had any sense, they would nick this idea pretty damn quick. Most of the newspapers are already behind it, and my bet is that it's going to be as certain a vote winner among potential Labour-Tory switchers as council house sales were in the late 70s.

Fortunately for the Tories, Brown and Balls appear set on continuing to regard the abolition of IT as a tax cut designed to help the rich, missing the point that, because of the uneven pattern of house prices, it's really a tax that nowadays owes much more to location than social class.

One thing is for certain - that Margaret Thatcher would certainly approve of the work her old protege Forsyth has done in putting tax cuts firmly back on the Tories' longer-term agenda.

An old friend from my Lobby days, who was certainly in a position to know, once told me that Thatcher had actually marked him out as her long-term successor, and that, had she been able to fulfill her ambition to go "on and on and on," would eventually have anointed him ahead of the other Michael, Portillo. I wonder.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Blunkett is cast into the outer darkness

There was a time when David Blunkett entertained serious hopes of becoming Labour leader and Prime Minister. More recently, after he realised that Gordon Brown is unbeatable, he appeared to make his peace with the Chancellor, and indicated that he might be interested in succeeding him in that post.

Today, however, those hopes are in ruins. As the controversry over his diaries continues to rage, the Brownite camp in the shape of Gordon's First Lieutenant, Right-Hand Man and Vicar-on-Earth Nick Brown has delivered a death blow to any lingering prospect of Blunkett resuming his frontline career.

"Newcastle" Brown does not normally do on-the-record quotes. He is the kind of politician - and all parties have them - who prefer to operate in the shadowy realms of thinly-veiled hints and off-the-record briefings, generating the kind of stories that end up being attributed to "close friends," and "key allies" rather than any named individual.

Yet here is the former Chief Whip telling today's Times: "Politics is a team game. Politicians on the same side have to stick together. I cannot understand what David Blunkett thinks he is doing except disqualifying himself from consideration as a serious politician."

This comment will need no deciphering among the ranks of Labour MPs who are used to Nick's ways. He could have chosen to employ his usual, less direct methods, and still got someone to write a story along the lines that "key allies" of Gordon Brown were warning Blunkett as to his future behaviour - but he didn't.

It can only mean that Gordon is sending a clear an unambiguous message to the former Home Secretary. "You're out."

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Did I do Stephen Byers a disservice?

David Blunkett's tape-recorded diaries The Blunkett Tapes are published today having been serialised in the Grauniad last week. I have already made clear my view that the content should be viewed primarily as entertainment rather than enlightenment, in particular the assertion that Tony Blair was ready to sack Gordon Brown unless he backed the Iraq War in 2003.

One little gem did catch my eye though in Friday's final instalment. Had I not been in a very important meeting for most of that day, and had my home dial-up connection not been buggered for most of the weekend, I would have blogged on it before now.

Anyway....I refer to a passage in which Mr Blunkett gives his take on one of the infamous episodes in the entire history of the Blair administration, the email sent by Stephen Byers' special adviser Jo Moore on the afternoon of 9/11 stating that it was now "a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."

Blunkett's account casts a completely new light on the episode, and therefore merits reproduction in full:

October 2001

[Leak of email sent by Jo Moore, special adviser to Stephen Byers, to Department of Transport press office on September 11 saying it would be a "very good day" to "bury" bad news]

The world has gone crackers, and the cause célèbre of the week has been the débâcle over Jo Moore, which is going on and on. Steve was intending to sack Jo Moore, but by early afternoon it had all changed and apparently it was because, quite rightly, Tony had perceived that this was a try-on by the civil service. It was felt that they were the ones who had received the email and leaked it, and no matter how appalling the email, the declaration of war by the civil service and their ability to leak emails and thereby bring down special advisers had to be countered. Unfortunately life is not as simple as that. Tony's interpretation of the situation is right, but Steve's initial decision to sack Jo Moore for the content of the email was also right because this story has run and run and run.

In dictating this I had no idea just how catastrophic it was going to be for Steve Byers. I think those advising really did mean well, and it was a difficult situation to call. There is no doubt that Jo Moore paid the price, but what price.

Now this, to my knowledge, is the first time anyone has claimed that the decision not to sack Moore after her initial, appalling misdemeanour was not Byers's, but Blair's.

I was of course working in the Lobby at the time as Political Editor of the Newcastle Journal, and since Byers is a Tyneside MP, it is fair to say I took a keen interest in the story. It was common knowledge within the Lobby that Alastair Campbell, then at the very height of his powers, wanted Moore out, and the supposition was that it was Byers - not Blair - who was resisting this.

I have myself written on a number of occasions in my Journal column and elsewhere that not sacking Moore was the mistake that wrecked Byers' career. Yet it now turns out that it might not have been his decision at all.

It would be too much to expect a loyal Blairite such as Byers to now confirm the truth of Blunkett's account at the cost of dropping the Prime Minister in it. But once Mr Blair has left office, it will be interesting to see if Byers chooses to set the record straight.

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I'm a 40pc Political Junkie

I love all these Twenty Questions-type surveys that go round the blogosphere, so here, via Brod Blog, Mars Hill and Iain Dale is the latest, the Political Junkie Test.

The things that are true about me are in bold:

You're a political junkie if.......

1. The first thing you do in the morning is check the BBC’s politics website, followed by the broadsheets.
2. You can name 10 Lib Dem MPs.
3. The Today programme is as much a morning routine as brushing your teeth and taking a piss.
4. You know the URLs for the Top Three political blogs from memory.
5. In your briefcase is a copy of Private Eye, an iPod, and Alan Clarke’s biography.
6. You read Boris every week, even if its only to disagree.
7. You record Question Time via Series Link on your SKY + box.
8. You know the Huffington Post is not a newspaper from a town called Huffington.
9. You know who Nicholas Sarkozy is
10. Your family never brings up politics in your presence.
11. You have a complex opinion of Tony Blair.
12. You actually know where the politics section is at your local Waterstones.
13. You always vote.
14. Your water cooler conversations usually revolve around a recent Westminster scandal.
15. You have given money to a political party, via either membership or a donation.
16. Your dream is to appear on Question Time yourself.
17. You read political blogs during your lunch hour.
18. You see more of Iain Dale or Recess Monkey than your children, sadly
19. You can name the last four foreign secretaries.
20. You have a ‘handle’ at Labourhome.

I make that a score of 8 out of 20, or 40pc. A bit of a politics junkie, then, but not exactly mainlining on it.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Now even Blair's generals defy him

Ever since Tony Blair announced he would not fight a fourth election, we have witnessed a slow ebbing away of his authority. But today, that process took on a new dimension with the comments by General Sir Richard Dannatt over the War in Iraq.

Contradicting everything Mr Blair has been telling us since the start of the conflict, Army chief Sir Richard said the continued presence of our troops in Iraq was endangering British security, that they needed to be brought home "sometime soon."

Ordinarily, a Chief of General Staff who made a comment so undermining of government policy would be summarily sacked. But Mr Blair cannot afford to make Sir Richard a martyr to the anti-war cause any more than he could have done in relation to Gordon Brown in 2003 (see previous post.)

Parallels are now being increasingly drawn with the Suez crisis fifty years ago. Few questioned then that withdarwal was the right thing to do, but it still cost Anthony Eden his job.

16 Oct Update: More in this vein on my Week in Politics Podcast which is now online. The full text version is available HERE.

* Apologies to my regular visitors for the lower-than-normal volume of posts this week. I do however have a busy "day job" which is completely unrelated to my political writing, and until the day when this blog can pay me a living (!) it must always come first.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Blunkett is re-writing history

In the latest instalment of his diaries currently being serialised in the Guardian, David Blunkett claims that Gordon Brown only backed the Iraq War at the last minute after concluding that Tony Blair would sack him if he didn't. As well as making the paper's front-page splash this morning, this story was also being talked-up by a wide-eyed Nick Robinson on last night's 10 O'Clock News.

I am genuinely surprised at both the Guardian and the Beeb for giving this such credence. If they had cast their minds back to 2003 for a few seconds, they would surely have realised that any notion of the Prime Minister being able to sack the Chancellor at that juncture is palpably absurd.

The Iraq War was, and is, a bitterly divisive issue for the Labour Party. Tony Blair was extremely fortunate that only two Cabinet ministers, Robin Cook and Clare Short, resigned over it, and furthermore that they did so in such a way that the parliamentary opposition to the conflict was fragmented rather than brought together.

The idea that, in this highly unstable political situation in which his premiership hung by a knife-edge, Tony Blair could have sacked Gordon Brown without triggering a successful coup against his leadership is, as Charlie Whelan would say, bollocks.

Then again, it does throw up what would surely be an interesting chapter in a book of political counterfactuals, were Iain Dale and Duncan Brack ever tempted to repeat that exercise.

Had Blair been daft enough to make Brown a martyr to the anti-war cause in, say, March 2003 after the first phase of the conflict ended, Brown would undoubtedly have become Prime Minister by the summer of that year after the unravelling of the Government's case for the war and the suicide of Dr David Kelly.

Mr Brown, untainted by the "trust" issue that attached itself to Mr Blair post-Kelly, would then have led Labour to a third successive 100-plus landslide, reducing the Tories to a parliamentary rump and producing in them such a collective nervous breakdown that their prospects of ever regaining power became negligible.

In other words, if we really were living in David Blunkett's parallel universe, the cause of the left in British politics might today be looking a damned site healthier.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Has Reid really done a deal with Gordon?

The Independent today has the "story" of John Reid's decision to quit the Labour leadership race and back Gordon Brown in return for keeping his job, a tale which had previously appeared initially on The First Post and subsequently on Guido.

"Reid is said to have told Gordon Brown he will not stand against him.
Reid "has realised support for a serious challenge isn't there," noted the article, adding: "Odds are that ... Reid will remain Home Secretary when Brown moves into No 10."

But is it true? Well, my bet is that if the Independent genuinely thought it was, it would have put it somewhere near the front page, not buried it in the Pandora column.

I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if there were to be such a deal in the near future. But if there is, I think Gordo will find the Foreign Secretary's job is the one Reidy really wants....

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Conference round-up podcast

The conference season is over for another year, and my podcast rounding up the events of the past three weeks is now available HERE. All in all, I don't really think it taught us a great deal about the future direction of British politics over the next few years, for the simple reason that we are still in this sort of "phoney war" stage waiting for the new Labour leader to emerge to take on David Cameron.

"Until we know the identity of the person Mr Cameron will be up against at the next election, we won’t really know how the dynamics of the contest are going to shape-up. We also don’t know whether, once rid of Mr Blair, the public will be prepared to give the new Prime Minister a fair wind, as they did in 1990 for instance when John Major took over.

"Some in the Labour Party appear mesmerized by Mr Cameron, arguing that they need a figure of comparable freshness and charm to counter the new Tory threat. For my part, I tend more to the view that a “style v substance” election would suit Labour, and that a man of Mr Brown’s vast experience would take a jumped-up PR man like Cameron apart.

"What we do know is that governments tend to lose elections rather than oppositions win them, and that it is the party in power that has the greater ability to make the political weather. So whatever Mr Cameron may think, and whatever the polls may say, my bet is that the next election is still Labour’s to lose."

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Another Alastair Campbell whitewash

Contrary to what some people might think, I have some degree of respect for Alastair Campbell. Whether or not you agree with his methods - and I was on the wrong end of them for seven years - the way in which he overcame serious mental health problems in his late 20s and went on to have a highly effective career in government can be seen as an inspiration to others in similarly dire straits.

So it was not susprising that the Independent on Sunday chose an interview with Campbell as the centrepiece of a special edition yesterday highlighting the issue of mental health.

Looked at solely in that context, it was a decent piece of journalism. But in the wider political context, the problem with the IoS piece was that it allowed Campbell to present a completely disingenuous and self-serving account of the David Kelly affair.

In the interview, Campbell admits that the death of Dr Kelly was his "worst day" - and how his experience of a crippling breakdown in his 20s helped him to cope. He said: "It [the Hutton saga] was one of those episodes where things spiralled out of control... I felt completely confident in relation to the facts but during the whole period it was a nightmare. And you are thinking, 'There's this guy for whom it's been such a nightmare he's killed himself'."

Read like that, he almost makes it sound like they were all in it together, that Campbell, like Kelly, was a victim of a process over which none of them, least of all the spin doctor himself, had any control. The facts, as related in Campbell's evidence to the Hutton Inquiry and in his own diaries, are rather different.

Far from having sympathy for the plight of the MoD weapons expert, Campbell wanted his name out in the public domain because, as he so poetically put it, it would "fuck Gilligan" - as in Andrew Gilligan, author of the controversial BBC story which claimed the "dodgy dossier" on Iraqi weapons had been "sexed up."

As well as that one infamous phrase, the Campbell diaries also reveal that "GH (Geoff Hoon) and I both wanted to get the source up but TB was nervous about it," and that he and Hoon "felt we should get it out through the papers then have a line to respond."

In other words, Campbell tried his damnedest to ensure Dr Kelly's exposure, and despite being initially overruled by Tony Blair, in the end he got his way.

In his IoS interview, Campbell describes his original breakdown as having been brought on by work, drink and pressure at a time when he was in a job for which he was psychologically unsuited. Interestingly, at no stage does he mention guilt.

Is it not ironic that someone who displays such self-knowledge about what drove him to a "psychotic" breakdown at the age of 28 can fail to show the slightest understanding of his own role in a tragedy in which someone else was ultimately driven to take his own life?

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Spring conference decision gives Blair more legroom

What are we to make of the Labour Party's decision to abandon its Spring Conference, slipped out Jo Moore-style under the cover of David Cameron's speech yesterday evening? One thing's for sure, the official explanation that it's about getting out and involving more ordinary voters in the party's policy-making process is bound to be a banquet of bollocks.

No, my strong suspicion is that this is all about Mr Tony and the precise timing of the announcement of his wretched retirement date.

Had the Glasgow gathering taken place as planned, the Prime Minister would have been under enormous pressure to use it to name the precise date on which he plans to leave office.

Furthermore, he would have had to make yet another farewell speech to the party faithful, which would inevitably have been something of an anti-climax on top of last week's tour-de-force in Manchester at which he bade Labour what sounded like his last goodbye.

The general consensus after Manchester was that Mr Blair's speech had earned him the right to depart slightly later than originally expected - say the end of July as opposed to the May 31 date that was made up by leaked to the Sun.

Postponing the Spring conference may give the Prime Minister just that a little bit more legroom to enable him to hang on till the beginning of the summer recess.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Could Cameron really make the NHS a "Tory" issue?

There was no mention of "sunshine" in David Cameron's keynote speech to the Conservative conference this afternoon, which was probably just as well. I still can't believe that a political leader with apsirations to be taken seriously ever came out with the comment which he came out with last Sunday.

But leaving that and Gideon's "autistic" gaffe aside, it has been a reasonably good week for the Tory leader, although the "row" over tax cuts versus economic stability was far too manufactured ever to rank as Cameron's Clause Four moment.

His speech today provided few further clues to the make-up of the next Tory manifesto, but it was nonetheless notable for one rather breathakingly audacious move - an attempt to steal Labour's historic mantle as the party of the NHS.

Normally such an initiative would be doomed to failure. The NHS is "one of the 20th century's greatest achievements," Mr Cameron reminded us in his speech, neglecting to mention that it is, of course, a Labour achievement for which, historically, Labour has always reaped the political dividend.

But these are not normal times. As I wrote in my last column for the North West Enquirer - the one that didn't actually appear because the paper went bust the day before publication - a Government which came into power to "save" the NHS has ended up closing hospitals.

The prospect of this, in the tenth year of a Labour Government, offers a stark illustration of the gulf between the hype and the reality of Tony Blair’s administration which Mr Cameron is right to seek to exploit.

Don't get me wrong. I still think DC is essentially a jumped-up PR man who deserves to be smashed out of sight in a style v substance election against Gordon Brown in three years' time.

But by highlighting the NHS as an issue on which Labour is now deservedly vulnerable, he has done his cause no harm at all.

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Tories still don't get the English Question

To be fair, they are not alone. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have demonstrated in recent months that they don't really get it either. But David Cameron's comments yesterday indicating support for the ultmately unworkable concept of "English votes for English matters" is a real missed political opportunity in my book.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long advocated an English Parliament as the only way of answering the so-called West Lothian Question, although I prefer to call it the English Question as it is England which is the missing piece in the federal jigsaw that the Blair administration has created.

I don't want an English Parliament because I want to create another layer of politicians, but simply because I want to see the four nations of the UK treated fairly and equally. Any English Parliament would have to be accompanied by the abolition of the iniquitous Barnett Formula that gives the rest of the UK a huge inbuilt advantage in public spending-per-head that is no longer justified by their relative levels of need.

More than that, I believe the idea could have great electoral appeal in England. Labour's stubborn refusal to address the issue is a sitting duck for the Tories - especially in view of the overwhelming likelihood that the next Prime Minister will either be the MP for Kircaldy and Cowdenbeath or the MP for Hamilton North and Bellshill.

Mr Cameron's comments appear to have pre-empted the conclusions of the so-called "Democracy Taskforce" which has been set up under Ken Clarke to look at this and other issues arising from Labour's half-baked constitutional reforms.

It now appears that the king of the Tory blogosphere himself, Iain Dale, is going to launch some sort of campaign to get his party to take the issue more seriously. The very best of luck to him.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

George Osborne should be utterly ashamed of himself. And so should Mary Ann Sieghart

Gideon "George" Osbourne, Tory toff and Shadow Chancellor, wants to have a debate with the Tory right about tax cuts because it will show that the party is changing. What he doesn't want to do is have a debate about his use of the word autistic as a term of political abuse towards his opponents, in this case Gordon Brown.

It wasn't all Osbourne's fault. The word was put into his mouth by the Blairite journalist Mary Ann Sieghart who has penned her own piece justicative HERE.

Sieghart, who was once so close to Mr Tony as to aspire to a job in the No 10 policy unit, gaily reassures us that "autistic" is an epithet that "plenty of politicians and journalists" have used about the Chancellor. "He does, after all, have an obsessive personality and rather low emotional intelligence. That is why the audience laughed: Mr Osborne’s joke resonated with them."

In other words, because it's Gordon Brown we're attacking, that's okay then.

For my part, I prefer the verdict of Nick Hornby, father of a 13-year-old autistic son, who said: "George Osborne doesn't seem to have noticed that most people over the age of eight no longer use serious and distressing disabilities as a way of taunting people."

If this is the "modern, inclusive" face of the Tory Party, it is clear that it still has a very long way to go.

October 5 Update: Sieghart has now written another piece in defence of her actions in which she blames the whole thing on Evening Standard Political Editor Joe Murphy, one of the finest reporters in the Parliamentary Lobby.

I know who I'd rather believe....

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