Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Gordon's Government

....But who will get his old job?

With Gordon Brown's accession to the Labour leadership now looking all-but-assured, guessing the shape of his first Cabinet has become one of the favourite pasttimes of political bloggers and even some serious journalists. I myself have been challenged a couple of times to name who I think will in be Gordon's line-up.

Well, I'm not only going to take up this challenge, I'm going to do a whole series of posts on it, starting today with a look at who I think will get his current job as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Before turning to that, however, I thought I would, by way of a general introduction to the series, make some general observations about what factors I think will guide Brown in his choices.

They are: the need to be seen as a new government, the need to unite a divided party, the need to placate potential rivals, the need to ensure competence and continuity, and finally the need to reward those who have stuck by him through thick and thin.

1. A new government. Most observers now agree that the Brown accession will see a big influx of fresh talent from the younger generation, including some MPs elected as recently as 2005. I would expect at least eight members of the present Cabinet - more than a third - to leave the Government.

2. Party unity. There will, I believe, be a return to the Wilsonian style of party management. Jon Cruddas will be offered a senior role whether or not he wins the deputy leadership. Iraq War resigner John Denham will be given a Cabinet job. And some key Blairites will be kept on.

3. Placating rivals. In the same vein, Gordon will be magnanimous to those who could have emerged as potential rivals. John Reid will remain in a senior role. Charles Clarke may be offered a way back into government, though he may decline it. And then there's David Miliband....(see below)

4. Competence and continuity. I believe Gordon wants to run a government that will be noted for its quiet efficiency, with a premium on ministers who get the job done. There will be less of the putting square pegs in round holes (eg Reid to Health) that frequently happened under Blair.

5. Rewarding loyalty. There are some people who were extremely badly treated by Blair on account of their closeness to Gordon - most notably Nick Brown and Yvette Cooper. Gordon will want to repay them for the years the locusts have eaten.

So, turning to the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer, what do I think will Gordon do about his most vital appointment - that of his own successor?

Well, any assessment of this is complicated by the recent discussions about splitting the Treasury into a Ministry for Economic Affairs (also subsuming the DTI) and a Finance Ministry (a bit like the difference between a finance director and a commercial director in most companies.)

Assuming though, for the sake of argument, that the job remains intact, attention has focused primarily on two candidates.

They are Gordon's former economic adviser, now junior Treasury minister Ed Balls, and his long time ally, the Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling.

Taking Balls first, I find Philip Webster convincing on this one, and not just because he goes to watch football with Balls every other Saturday.

I have long taken the view that promotion to the Chancellorship this early on in his career would be too big a leap, and according to the Political Editor of the Times, so does Gordon. Balls seems destined instead for the Chief Secretaryship, with the big promotion coming some time in the next Parliament.

So what about Alistair Darling? Well, I am going to come out against him as well, not because I think Gordon wouldn't want him as Chancellor, but because I don't think he can have him.

At a time when the Tories are seeking to make a general election issue of Brown's Scottishness, he simply cannot afford to have the two most important jobs in British politics occupied by politicians from north of the border - particularly if he also keeps John Reid at the Home Office.

That, to my mind, leaves two English candidates as the front-runners for the Treasury role.

The first of these is David Miliband. He was the only potential leadership rival that Brown ever really feared, and had he been a slightly cannier operator, I think Miliband could have played on that fear and demanded the Exchequer as his price.

But his current role as Environment Secretary has, suddenly, become a very high profile as well as a very important role in terms of helping to shape the politics of the next few years, and he may well elect to stay there.

Miliband also weakened his own negotiating position by making it clear fairly early on that he wouldn't stand for leader. In conclusion I'm not as convinced as I once was that he will end up as Chancellor, although I still think he is a very strong contender.

The other candidate is Jack Straw, the great survivor of the New Labour years. Some tip him for a return to the Foreign Office, but though this could well happen, other strong candidates for the FCO exist, notably Hilary Benn or even Peter Hain.

In contrast, there seems an absense of real heavyweight contenders for the Treasury, and I am now tending towards the view that if Brown decides to keep the department intact, Straw could well be his man, perhaps with the brief of overseeing the eventual transition to two separate departments.

But if Gordon decides to go for the Big Bang, I tip Straw to return to the Foreign Office rather than undertake either of what would both be lesser roles. In those circumstances, I would back Darling to become Economic Affairs Secretary and Miliband to take on the Finance brief.

I suspect the position will become clearer over the coming weeks as we get an idea of just how serious the proposal to split the Treasury really is.

free web site hit counter

They don't learn, do they?

You would think, wouldn't you, that with all the problems it is encountering as a result of the cash for peerages inquiry, Labour would have the good sense to end all Prime Ministerial patronage over House of Lords appointments and support a fully elected Second Chamber.

But, according to The Guardian's Patrick Wintour, apparently not.

free web site hit counter

A very un-British state of affairs

I have been struggling for anything original to say about the Government's so-called "compromise" on gay adoption, which whatever it may achieve in terms of homosexual equality represents yet another nail in the coffin of freedom of conscience in this benighted country - something which all of us, including the gay community, will pay for in due course.

The Prime Minister knew in his heart that his Communities Minister, Ruth Kelly, was right about this issue. But, battered by cash-for-honours and increasingly at the mercy of events, he lacked the authority to impose a sensible resolution, allowing the opportunistic and vote-seeking deputy leadership contenders Alan Johnson and Peter Hain to dictate events.

Much of the coverage of this issue on the blogosphere has been in the opposite direction, and it is hard to go against their views. But I came across something yesterday on a blog called For Queen and Country that sums up my thoughts on this entirely.

The author, who blogs under the name Cyberleader, makes the very wise argument that, when you have two competing sets of rights, it is better, and more British, to respect both points of view and try to muddle through than to impose one set of values over the other.

"The status quo before the Act - that gay couples could adopt from a number of agencies and that Catholic adoption agencies could turn them away - was a perfectly acceptable state of affair for all parties involved, and it seemed a common-sense way to avoid a clash of values.

"This would have been the perfectly sensible (and quite British) compromise - avoid the issue and everyone could live and let live.

"Roman Catholics didn't question the right of gays to adopt and in fact referred them to other agencies and in turn they had their rights to their beliefs in turn, which you would think would be fair enough.

"However, New Labour can't resist a bit of tinkering, and so we have another fissure point in British society, which has far deeper implications than they intended. We now have two competing sets of rights set against each other, and there can't be a return to the former status quo without one group taking great offence."

Spot on.

free web site hit counter

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Blog Questionnaire

This blog has now been running for a year and a half. It has grown into a medium-sized political blog with a thoughtful community of regular visitors which regularly gets namechecked on other, bigger blogs and in the mainstream media. By and large, I am very happy with the way things are going.

But there is always room for improvement, and over the next month I will be running this poll in my sidebar to try to find out what readers would like to see more of - whether it be more analysis, more gossip, more personal stuff or even, God forbid, more politics!

There are some interesting "strategic" issues which I want to try to address - such as whether people want to see this blog develop into more of a thorough-going political blog or whether they appreciate some of the non-political stuff that occasionally appears here.

My own view on this is that the combination of the personal and the political is one of the great strengths of blogging - as both Iain Dale and Rachel North have shown in their different ways. But I want to know your views.

One thing I would like to see more of is your comments! While the overall blog stats have grown steadily over the past few months, the number of comments has been slightly decreasing, which is odd. It could be that I'm not being controversial enough. Alternatively it could be that I am writing about things you are not interested in! Either way, I want to know.

It's a multi-choice poll so you can tick as many boxes as you like. Please also feel free to leave your observations in the comment box.

free web site hit counter

Who will stop Cruddas?

For the past four weeks I have been running a poll on this blog on Labour's Deputy Leadership election. The results are of course totally unscientific but they do suggest that I was right in my original supposition that Jon Cruddas and Hilary Benn are some way ahead of the field among ordinary Labour supporters (some of whom visit this blog!) with Alan Johnson, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears fighting it out for the minor placings.

The full results (which can also be viewed HERE if you like coloured graphs) are:

Jon Cruddas 35%
Hilary Benn 29%
Alan Johnson 6%
Peter Hain 5%
Harriet Harman 4%
Hazel Blears 3%
Jack Straw 3%
None of the above 15%

On the basis of this, and also some of what has appeared about the contest in the mainstream media and on other blogs, it is possible to draw some early conclusions about the candidates and the eventual shape of the field.

The first is that Jack Straw will not actually stand. He doesn't really need the job, and he seems to be in line for a return to the Foreign Office under Gordon, or alternatively, a surprise appointment as Chancellor. As I have pointed out previously, he could even stay in his current job and be appointed Deputy Prime Minister anyway if Cruddas wins, given that Cruddas doesn't want the DPM title.

My second preliminary conclusion, in common with UK Daily Pundit is that Hazel Blears is effectively out of the race, and that the female vote will line-up solidly behind Harriet Harman. Interestingly, Brendan Carlin in the Telegraph's new Little and Large blog also speculates that Harriet's campaign is gaining momentum.

By contrast, my third conclusion is that Peter Hain's campaign is in deep trouble. Already, Cruddas appeared to have stolen a lot of his natural support on the left. The fact that Guido has now got hold of a list of his supporters, including several paid Labour Party officials who are supposed to be neutral, has only added to the sense that this is turning into a rather ill-starred enterprise.

Finally, I conclude that while it is Cruddas rather than Hain who appears to be collaring the anti-war, anti-establishment left vote in the party, the pro-Blair, pro-war "establishment" has reached no clear consensus among itself as to the best way of stopping him. It is this that, to my mind, will now become the key question at the heart of the election.

From my poll, and also from much anecdotal evidence surrounding the campaign, it appears that the obvious answer to the question "Who will stop Cruddas?" is Hilary Benn. But some with much greater inside knowledge of the PLP than I have dispute this, and claim that it is Alan Johnson who actually has the greater support among MPs and even the unions.

So while I suspect that this battle is really boiling down to Benn v Cruddas, I'll err on the side of caution for the time being and just say that whichever of Benn or Johnson emerges ahead on the first ballot will go on to become the main challenger to Cruddas in the final run-off.

Much will then depend on what happens to Hain's support among the unions, which is still significant. Will it fall in dutifully behind the establishment candidate, or will it go to Cruddas, whose ideological position is much closer to Hain's own?

On the answer to that question, I suspect, the eventual outcome will rest.

  • This post was featured in Web Grab, on Daniel Finkelstein's Comment Central.

    free web site hit counter
  • Monday, January 29, 2007

    Things can only get worse

    There is a fair amount of speculation on the blogosphere today as to whether Tony Blair might surprise us all and resign this week or next rather than attempting to see it through to his 10th anniversary in May. Mike Smithson on Political Betting suggests his demeanour in yesterday's Politics Show interview was that of a beaten man. Meanwhile Iain Dale quotes an interesting exchange with a TV producer who seemed to think the PM's departure was now very imminent.

    This might or might not come to anything. But if Blair is contemplating a swift exit, then I would suggest it might have something to do with the recent revelations from Guido revealing the existence of the secret email system that No 10 initially denied, together with the Daily Telegraph story claiming that police have now found a handwritten note from Mr Blair implicating him directly in the cash-for-peerages affair.

    In my latest Podcast, which is now live, I take the view that things can now only get worse for Mr Blair, and that each new problem that arises, while it may be small in itself, is pushing him more firmly towards the exit door.

    "He has made it clear he still wants to go out on a high, and has publicly stated his intention to remain in charge at least until the EU Summit due to take place at the end of June, but the odds on an enforced departure occurring well before then are now shortening by the day. Indeed, all things now appear to be conspiring towards that inevitable conclusion."

    This post was featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

    free web site hit counter

    Sunday, January 28, 2007

    Just Fancy That

    "Tony Blair is not a Prime Minister going gently into the night. And it is easy to see why he is raging against the dying of the light."

    - Andrew Rawnsley, in his Observer column today.

    "A leader who had long outstayed his welcome, yet who, in the vain search for a legacy, continued to rage against the dying of the light."

    - My Political Review of 2006, first published in the Newcastle Journal on 23 December and also available on this blog.

    It's not the first time either, is it, Andrew?

    free web site hit counter

    Thursday, January 25, 2007

    Power is the great aphrodisiac

    Today's revelation that Gordon Brown has been voted one of the World's 100 Sexiest Men calls to mind a notorious episode in the recent history of political journalism when a couple of female ITN lobby hacks drew up a list of the "20 most shaggable men in the Lobby."

    It was topped by the then Sun Political Editor Trevor Kavanagh (pictured), who may or may not have been the sexiest man in the Lobby (I wouldn't know, dearie) but who was certainly, at the time, the most powerful.

    The list later became bitterly controversial after the New Statesman columnist Paul Routledge wrongly attributed it to Julia Hartley-Brewer, now of the Sunday Express, who fashioned the memorable retort: "I didn't know there were any shaggable men in the Lobby."

    For the record, I came 17th, a fact that, for some reason, Routledge seemed to find a great deal more interesting than who came 2nd or 3rd.

    free web site hit counter

    Political Heroes (Again!)

    Paul Burgin of Mars Hill has tagged me to name my six political heroes. I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave a few months ago.

    Paul and I share two heroes - Winston Churchill and Denis Healey (pictured). The others are Tony Crosland, David Lloyd George, Mikhail Gorbachev and Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I. Martin Luther King, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Lord Palmerston and Michael Heseltine were also named in my original Top 10.

    free web site hit counter

    Wednesday, January 24, 2007

    Stop Thatcher!

    The BBC's Daily Politics show is currently running a poll to find Britain's greatest peacetime Prime Minister. At least that makes for a relatively objective criterion for inclusion on the shortlist, in contrast with the recent Politics Show poll on political heroes which included the likes of Alex Salmond and Clare Short while leaving out genuine greats like Denis Healey.

    Margaret Thatcher, who is being championed by her old Fleet Street cheerleader Kelvin Mackenzie, has predictably already built up a big lead, but that may have something to do with the fact that the Labour vote appears to be splitting fairly evenly between Clem Attlee, Tony Blair and Harold Wilson. Some tactical voting is clearly called for here!

    For what is worth, this is how I would rank the ten Prime Ministers in the BBC's poll. Only the first two, I would contend, left the country overall in a better state than they found it. The rest have left it in varying degrees of messes ranging from industrial chaos to (in the case of the last two) disastrous military escapades.

    Anyway, here goes.

    1. Clement Attlee. The undisputed No 1 in my book for having fashioned, from the ruins of WW2, a country fit for heroes. The architect of much that was good about the Britain I grew up in.

    2. Margaret Thatcher. Yes, she sorted out Britain's industrial anarchy and restored our national self-confidence, but she also left a bitter legacy in social division that continues to this day.

    3. James Callaghan. The period of Lib-Lab government from 1977-78 was in my view the most sensible and humane of my lifetime. But Big Jim funked an election in '78 and paid a terrible price.

    4. Edward Heath. Another PM brought down by the industrial problems he had failed to solve, he deserves credit for his towering achievement in bringing Britain in from the sidelines of Europe.

    5. Harold Wilson. His achievements were primarily political, in making Labour for a time the natural party of government. But like many before and after, failed to arrest our long economic decline.

    6. Sir Alec Douglas Home. Considering he had less than a year in the job, he didn't make a bad fist of it really. Took over a party rocked by the Profumo Affair and nearly won the 1964 election.

    7. Harold Macmillan. A Blairite before Blair in political style, this consummate poseur told us we'd "never had it so good" while accelerating the post-war decline. Overrated in my view.

    8. John Major. Nice chap totally out of his depth after being chosen to succeed Thatch. Promised a nation at ease with itself, but ended up as the hapless fall-guy for his feuding, sleazy party.

    9. Tony Blair. Promised to restore trust in politics but ended up sullying it still further as well as embroiling Britain in possibly its most damaging military disaster for more than a century.

    10. Anthony Eden. Was kept waiting too long for the top job by Churchill (excluded from the BBC shortlist) and went bonkers, causing him to view Colonel Nasser as a reincarnation of Hitler.

    free web site hit counter

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007

    The Restructuring of Government

    The apparent confirmation by John Reid of the long-overdue restructuring of the Home Office begs several questions about what is currently going on in the corridors of power, and how if at all it relates to the forthcoming Blair-Brown handover. Dr Reid's proposal to split the creaking monolith into a Department of Homeland Security and a Ministry of Justice - a re-working of an old Number 10 initiative that was blocked by David Blunkett in 2003 - apparently has both Blair and Brown's backing.

    It's an eminently sensible idea, and although it's been round the block a few times, Dr Reid's recent admission that the Home Office is "not fit for purpose" makes this a logical point at which to implement it. But that, to my mind, does not fully explain why an internal reordering of the structures of Whitehall has suddenly leaped to the top of the political agenda.

    As anyone who has ever tried to draw up an organisation structure for a business will know, no discussion such as this can ever be divorced from consideration of who might fill the resulting posts. I suggest that, in the context of national politics, this is even more likely to be the case.

    Reid's plan, then, and the Prime Minister-in-waiting's approval of them, has to be seen as part of a much bigger power game that is being played out within New Labour and across Whitehall.

    Splitting the Home Office in the way that has been mooted will have some interesting knock-on effects. For starters, the creation of a standalone Ministry of Justice in charge of prisons, probation and the criminal justice system, will necessitate a break-up of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is currently responsible for the courts.

    That will leave the DCA as much more what was originally envisaged when it was first created in 2003 - a "department for devolution" subsuming the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices, perhaps with added responsibility for issues such as Lords Reform.

    So who might fill some of these roles? Is Dr Reid, for instance, eyeing up the job of being Gordon's Homeland Security supremo in return for not running against him for leader? Could the new Min of Justice create an interesting new career opportunity for Brown ally Jack Straw?

    And would not the DCA's transformation into a department concerned more with political reform and devolved administrations provide a natural berth for another of Mr Brown's key allies, Peter Hain?

    Allied to all this are the suggestions that Mr Brown plans to split the Treasury into a Finance Department and an Economic Department, the latter of which would subsume most of the DTI.

    Once again, this change will create two senior Cabinet posts from one - perhaps enabling Brown to let Alastair Darling down gently while simultaneously buying-off his most dangerous potential rival for the leadership, David Miliband?

    All in all, it will give the new Prime Minister more room for manoeuvre at a time when he is going to be anxious to appease some of the big players, while also bringing fresh talent into the Cabinet.

    As Mr Blunkett has not been slow to point out, it will also give him much more power. And power is what this is really all about.

    free web site   hit counter

    Monday, January 22, 2007

    Is No 10 playing the expectations game?

    When dealing with stories emanating from "Senior Ministers," "Downing Street sources", "Friends of the Prime Minister" and the like, it is never particularly advisable to take things at face value. Such, I think, is the case with today's Guardian story asserting that Tony Blair will "go early" if anyone at No 10 is charged over the cash-for-honours affair.

    Now don't get me wrong. I don't doubt for a moment that Patrick Wintour's story is accurate, in the sense that (i) someone fairly senior said this to him, and (ii) that Blair would indeed quit if one of his key aides faced charges. He could hardly do otherwise.

    But what I am questioning is why someone close to Blair - and Wintour's contacts are pretty good in that sort of area - would want this information out in the open now, and specifically why a story speculating about the circumstances in which he could be forced to quit would be considered helpful.

    It's just a thought - but I wonder if No 10 is playing the expectations game, deliberately setting the bar at "charges" so that, for instance, any further "arrests" involving his inner circle can be brushed aside.

    My reason for asking this is that while I suspect that the cash-for-honours probe will eventually result in charges - the claims on Guido and elsewhere that they've found the smoking gun ring true to me - I also suspect that no charges will actually be brought until Blair has left No 10.

    Why do I think that? Well, for no reason other than that if the Police and the CPS can somehow avoid embroiling themselves in the unedifying spectacle of unseating a democratically-elected leader, with all the inevitable constitutional flak that will entail, then what have they really got to lose by a few months' delay?

    But let's just say for the sake of argument that Blair's people actually know, rather than just suspect, that this is the case. Well, if so, they know they can pretty safely promise that Blair will go early if charges are brought, without any fear of being made to deliver on the pledge.

    As I said, it's just a thought....

    This post was featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

    free web site   hit counter

    State of the Union podcast

    The Union between England and Scotland was 300 years old last Tuesday - but how much longer can it last in the face of the growing demands for independence north of the border and growing resentment south of it at the lack of an equivalent English voice?

    Plenty of subject-matter there for my latest Week in Politics podcast which can now be heard HERE

    free web site   hit counter

    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    Ten years of my Newcastle Journal column

    Okay, so they won't be letting off fireworks over the Tyne Bridge, but today is a celebration of sorts for me as it marks ten years of my Saturday Column in the Newcastle Journal.

    I was given the column shortly after starting work as the paper's political editor in 1997, and retained it despite standing down from that role in 2004 to spend more time with my family - yes, that really was the reason in my case!

    I will always be grateful to The Journal for giving me this break. I had written light-hearted Diary columns before, but it was The Journal which gave me my first chance to do a serious, big picture commentary on the week's political events and I would like to think I found a bit of a niche there.

    You can read this week's column in full on the Companion Blog HERE

    free web site hit counter

    Friday, January 19, 2007

    Whose sock-puppet is Bill Blanko?

    As a former Lobby hack, I had to laugh at the appearance in today's Guardian of this sparkling new column about Lobby life written by someone calling himself "Bill Blanko." I think that's what we in the blogosphere know these days as a sock-puppet.

    So which Guardian political hack is it? Is it a Guardian hack at all? Suspicion will undoubtedly fall on veteran former Pol Ed "Sir" Michael White, if only for the fact that whoever it is has obviously been around long enough to remember the infamous Lobby Bad Taste competition which used to be held annually at whichever party conference happened to be in Blackpool.

    As "Blanko" points out, the winner was whoever managed to purchase the tackiest souvenir from the resort's many tacky souvenir shops. The last contest I recall was won by Jon Craig (now of Sky News) for an imitation penis which you strapped to your ankle so that it protruded from the bottom of your trouser-leg.

    Presenting the award in the Press Room at the end of the conference, the Tory MP Alan Duncan announced: "And first prize goes to Jon Craig for confirming what we always knew about him."

    free web site   hit counter

    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    Hain rediscovers his balls. A pity he mislaid them in 2003

    There was a time when Peter Hain and the late Robin Cook were close allies, soft-left political soulmates who had essentially reached an accommodation with Blairism without ever really becoming "New" Labour.

    By and large, Cook maintained this position throughout his six-year ministerial career, pursuing such non-Blairite enthusiasms as proportional representation and an "ethical foreign policy" before finally deciding that supporting the Iraq War would be an accommodation too far.

    Unfortunately, Hain failed to resign with him, at a point where such a joint resignation might have brought down this lying Prime Minister and his pathetic excuse for a Labour Government.

    Now, belatedly, Hain has rediscovered his principles, arguing in the New Statesman that the neocon experiment has failed and branding George Bush "the most rightwing American administration in living memory."

    Why has Hain waited till now to say this? The answer, as at least one Jon Cruddas-supporting blog has pointed out, is that he is standing for Labour's deputy leadership and is trying to reposition himself as an anti-war critic within the Cabinet.

    But in my view, he could have had himself a much bigger prize had he joined Cook in opposing the invasion from the start, putting himself in the frame as a credible, sensible left candidate for the leadership.

    As it is, I might still back Hain in the deputy leadership election, as I think his views are probably the closest to my own on a range of issues from Iraq to devolution to personal taxation.

    But he will only have himself to blame if people who should have been his natural supporters end up backing Mr Cruddas instead.

    free web site hit counter

    Wednesday, January 17, 2007

    The lone voice

    I expect most bloggers will disagree or even laugh at this, but there is a certain, magnificent stubbornness about John Prescott which I can't help but admire. While the New Labour project as a whole has been all about shifting with the political wind, that is one thing you can't lay at Big John's door.

    Two years and three months ago, the people of the North-East dealt a death-blow to the prospects for English regional government by voting 4-1 against plans for an elected North-East Assembly. It immediately became clear that the idea was dead in the water as far as other regions were concerned and it swiftly disappeared off the political agenda.

    Those of us, amongst whom I include myself, who initially supported the idea as a way of rebalancing our lopsided constitution, were forced to reappraise our position. I eventually concluded that an English Parliament represented a more promising way forward for English devolution, and recent polls seem to have borne that out.

    Yet, to listen to his speech to the New Local Government Network yesterday, none of it seems to have made the slightest dent in Mr Prescott's belief in the inevitability of his regionalist dream.

    "A regional level of administration is necessary alongside the need for the new localism. Regional planning is an essential part of the accountability that is needed from elected representatives rather than appointed regional civil servants," he said.

    "I'm sad that regional government was rejected in the North East, but I believe that England will eventually move to elected regional government - just as Scotland and Wales originally rejected devolution and then voted for it."

    Some might call it contempt for the electorate. Others might call it losing touch with reality. Both would be justifiable accusations, but for me there is still something admirable about a politician who is prepared to say what he thinks in defiance of the conventional wisdom.

    He may be wrong, he may even be stupid - but at least he's genuine.

    free web site hit counter

    Did Blair really say Brown was psychologically flawed?

    Blogger Iain Dale has been setting the political agenda again today following his 18 Doughty Street interview with former No 10 spin doctor Lance Price. In the interview, Price questioned the assumption that it was Alastair Campbell who first called Gordon Brown "psychologically flawed," suggesting that the phrase might actually have come from the Prime Minister himself.

    It's a great scoop, as evidenced by the fact that Tony Blair was asked about it at Prime Minister's Questions earlier today.

    But is Price telling the truth? Well, several things cause me to doubt that, I'm afraid, not least the fact that Price appears to be making a fine living at the moment out of the dishing dirt on his former employers.

    Entertaining as this sort of thing may be for the press, and for the publishing industry generally, I can't help thinking it is bad for British government.

    In his interview with Dale, Price also subtly misquotes the political commentator Andrew Rawnsley, who was the journalist originally on the receiving end of the "psychological flaws" comment and who wrote about it in his masterwork on early New Labour, Servants of the People.

    Price says that Rawsnley described his source as "somebody with a better claim than anyone else to know the Prime Minister’s mind. Well, the only person with a better claim to know the Prime Minister’s mind than Alistair Campbell is, possibly Cherie, is the Prime Minister himself."

    This is factually incorrect. The words Rawnsley actually used in Servants of the People were "someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind of the Prime Minister."

    Splitting hairs? Well, not really. Someone with a better claim than anyone else to know the Prime Minister's mind could only be Blair. Someone with merely an extremely good claim could be three or four people - Cherie, Campbell, Peter Mandelson, maybe even Jonathan Powell except that he doesn't often speak to journalists.

    As it is, Blair has now denied it in the House, and loath as I am to admit that the Prime Minister might, for once, be telling the truth, this, for me, seems to settle the matter.

    Why? Well, because if Blair is not telling the truth, he has just handed Andrew Rawnsley the golden bullet with which to put a fairly immediate end to his premiership.

    If Rawnsley were now to reveal that it was indeed Blair who said it, then the Prime Minister will have lied to Parliament and he will be forced to resign.

    Would Blair take such a risk with his political career even at this late stage? On balance, I think not.

    free web site hit counter

    A story of great importance, but nobody to know what it is

    I both like and respect my fellow leftie Christian blogger Paul Burgin, but this post on his Mars Hill blog earlier today really is the blogging equivalent of the South Sea Bubble (depicted by Hogarth, left.)

    To quote Tom Hamilton on Fisking Central, "give that man a newspaper column now!"

    free web site hit counter

    Tuesday, January 16, 2007

    The Union: Will it last another 300 years?

    Well, the answer to that is sadly not, unless the growing pressure from English voters for a distinctive political voice of their own is finally acknowledged and acted upon in the shape of an English Parliament.

    Indeed, if our political leaders continue to place their heads in the sand on this issue in the way that our esteemed Prime Minister is currently doing, it will be surprising if it lasts another ten.

    free web site hit counter

    It's War in Cyberspace

    I have long believed that Guido Fawkes and Tim "Manic" Ireland are the two greatest creative genii in the political blogosphere. They also come from completely different political persuasions and have wildly diverging views about just what the purpose of political blogging ought to be. So it's barely surprising that Tim has chosen to mark the return of his Bloggerheads blog from a period of semi-dormancy with this coruscating attack on his right-wing alter ego.

    It's an extremely long post, but in summary, Tim argues that Guido is a danger to political blogging and accordingly should be sent to Coventry by the rest of us by having his link removed from our blogrolls. Guido has now hit back with the accusation that Tim is basically launching the "flame war" as a means of kick-starting his "moribund" blog.

    Well, for my part, I won't be removing either of them from my blogroll, for the simple reason that both of them are blogs I like and admire. Just as Guido has helped keep the pressure on No 10 over the cash-for-honours scandal, so Tim has uncovered some great stories of his own such as exposing the Johnson4Leader plot and highlighting the journalistic shortcomings in the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain.

    So, sorry to sit on the fence guys - but in my view the blogosphere is big enough for both of you.

    How the two sides are lining up so far:

    For Manic

    Chicken Yoghurt
    Tom Watson
    Stuart Bruce
    Ministry of Truth

    For Guido

    Theo Spark
    Tim Worstall
    The UK Daily Pundit

    Sitting Beside Me on the Fence....

    Labour Watch
    Liberal England
    Lib Dem Voice

    Keen observers may have noticed that, with the possible exceptions of UK Daily Pundit and myself, the debate is thus far polarising on political lines....

    free web site hit counter

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    Martin Kettle's flawed history lesson

    Amid all the spurious nonsense that gets written about the Labour leadership, one or two articles occasionally stand out. Such was the piece by Martin Kettle in Saturday's Guardian in which he advocated a six-way contest for the Labour leadership along the lines of the one that took place in 1976 - the only other time in its history that Labour has chosen a new Prime Minister while in office.

    Kettle's views on this subject have long been worthy of note on account of his close relationship with Tony Blair and evident dislike of Gordon Brown. If he is saying something, it is a fair bet that someone in the Blair inner-circle is thinking it.

    To my mind, his call for a contest is all of a piece with the recent similar intervention by arch-Blairite Stephen Byers - an attempt to turn what should be a debate about policy into a debate about personalities.

    This is to confuse two very separate issues. There is a genuine desire in the Labour Party, a genuine need even, for a debate over its future policy direction. But there is much less debate over whether Gordon Brown is the right person to take that forward, because the overwhelming view of the Cabinet, the PLP, the Unions and the Party as a whole is that he is.

    For those with an interest in recent political history, the most interesting aspect of Kettle's piece is his analogy with the 1976 leadership election, in which Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Tony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins all stood. He suggests that a contest between Hilary Benn, Gordon Brown, Peter Hain, David Miliband, John Reid and Jack Straw would have a similarly revitalising effect on the Government today.

    Superficially, it's an attractive argument, and it would certainly generate a lot of excitement at Westminster and beyond. But there are three major flaws in it as I will seek to show.

    First, it ignores what Kettle's would-be candidates have actually said on the record about the issue. Benn, Hain, and Miliband have all made it clear they are supporting Gordon Brown, and that they regard his claims on the job as superior to their own. Straw has said nothing but is widely assumed to hold the same view. Only Reid has stood aside from this consensus.

    Second, the "Class of '76" were, with the possible exception of Foot, all true political and intellectual heavyweights with genuine claims to leadership. Two of them, Crosland and Healey, would make most people's lists of the Best Prime Ministers We Never Had. Only Brown among the current crop can boast anything like that sort of stature.

    Third, there were genuine ideological differences between the candidates in 1976 which to an extent defined the contest. The party was deeply split between the Gaitskellite right represented by Crosland, Healey and Jenkins, and the Tribunite left represented by Foot and Benn. In the end it chose Callaghan in the middle as the best man to keep the two factions together. No such divisions exist at the top of the party today.

    A contest, not least a six-way one, would be great news for the press, and for the wider commentariat. I am increasingly coming to the view that, for the Labour Party, it would be a pointless diversion.

    free web site hit counter

    Podcast Episode 52

    A little later than normal, this week's podcast develops the theme of Tony Blair as a "follower not a leader" that I wrote about on this blog last week. It can be heard HERE or alternatively read on the Companion Blog HERE.

    free web site hit counter