Sunday, December 30, 2007

My preview of 2008

Following on from my annual Review of the political year, here's my political Preview of 2008, first published in yesterday's Newcastle Journal.


Twelve months ago, the central question which was dominating British politics as Tony Blair prepared to bow out as Labour leader and Prime Minister was “Can Gordon lose?”

One year on, with Mr Brown having succeeded to the top job unchallenged, the question is: “Can Gordon ever win again?”

The Prime Minister’s decision to funk an autumn election after appearing to prepare and plan for one created a new political narrative in which his administration seemed doomed to failure.

Whether he can recover will not only be the key talking-point of the new political year, but will also go a long way to determining the outcome of the next election whenever it is held.

Before going on to look in detail at Mr Brown’s prospects, here’s three things that, I confidently predict, won’t happen in 2008.

First, there won’t be a general election. Having ruled it out in October, Mr Brown can scarcely change his mind again, and with the economy set to take a turn for the worse, he can only now win by “playing it long.”

Second, there won’t be a referendum on the EU Treaty. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that Labour has broken its promise on this, but the point of maximum danger for the government has now passed, perhaps overshadowed by other events.

Third, the Liberal Democrats won’t change their leader again. They are stuck with Nick Clegg now until the election, though if that turns out as badly for them as the opinion polls are suggesting, the poor chap’s political career could be over at 42.

Away from these shores, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto looks certain to trigger a new wave of instability in the Islamic world, with the position of Pakistani leader and US ally General Pervez Musharraf looking increasingly unsustainable

It is also, of course, election year in the US itself, with the succession to George W. Bush currently looking wide open.

If Hillary Clinton runs away with the Democratic nomination, the Republicans will surely want to counter her with someone of similar weight and experience – and that means either Senator John McCain or former governor Rudy Guiliani.

Much more will become clear after Thursday’s Iowa caucuses which are expected to show which of the numerous candidates currently has what Americans call “the Big Mo.”

But what of Mr Brown and Labour? Well, the short answer to the big question is that, yes, he can recover, but the longer answer is that it depends on the confluence of a number of factors, not all of them within his control.

The first prerequisite of any recovery, besides demonstrating some basic competence, is for the Prime Minister to set out, if not a “vision,” then certainly a “big idea” that provides some connective thread to his government’s actions.

A number of possible options have been suggested, ranging from a new drive for social mobility under the banner of “opportunity for all,” to a generalised commitment towards “building the future,” starting with housing.

Either way, Mr Brown has to come up with something that gives people more of a sense of what his government is about, other than remaining in power for as long as possible.

Secondly, Labour needs to try to switch the focus of attention onto what alternative remedies the Tories are proposing for the nation’s current ills.

The one huge silver lining for Mr Brown in all his travails is that the public’s disappointment with him has not thus far been matched by an outpouring of enthusiasm for David Cameron.

If people don’t currently know what the central purpose of the Brown government is, neither do they know what would be the point of a Cameron one

For sure, the Tory leader is getting the mood music right, but with the sole exception of the proposed cut in inheritance tax, there remains a marked absence of specific, thought-through policies.

But the biggest determining factor in whether Mr Brown can mount a sustained recovery will, as always, be events.

The likelihood of an economic downturn will carry a particular danger for Mr Brown in that he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years. If it does all go wrong, there will be no one else to blame.

Some Tories believe the potential nationalisation of Northern Rock could yet provide a “Black Wednesday” type moment for New Labour.

Their thinking goes that if, in 2008, the government were forced to take a major bank into public ownership, it would symbolise the defeat of everything New Labour was supposed to stand for.

Could it get so bad for Mr Brown that he is forced to consider his position? I don’t consider it particularly likely, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul wrote this week: “The latest idea doing the rounds among serious Labour people is that of a David Miliband-Ed Balls dream ticket, with Miliband as prime minister and Balls as chancellor.”

My only comment on this is that if anyone thinks Miliband-Balls is a “dream ticket,” it is a measure of how bad things have got for Labour.

If there is to be another change of leadership, a more likely option is either Jack Straw as a safe pair of hands, or the return of one of the leading Blairites such as David Blunkett or even Alan Milburn.

So, cards on the table time - what do I think? Well, mainly because I do not think the public are yet convinced by Mr Cameron, I think there probably will be a Labour recovery of sorts.

It will not put Labour back into the lead, but it will leave sufficient room for doubt about the outcome of the next election to intensify the speculation about what Mr Clegg will do in the event of a hung Parliament.

The fact remains, though, that Labour’s best opportunity to renew itself in office came with the departure of Mr Blair, and they bungled it.

Whether another such opportunity will come along - and whether Mr Brown will be able to take it this time – is the question to which no political pundit really knows the answer.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Eight wishes for 2008

A few days ago I was tagged by Thunderdragon to do the "eight new year wishes" meme that originally started with Iain Dale, so here are mine:

1. That my wife Gill and I will be able to start putting our stamp on our new home.

2. That I will manage to spend more time enjoying the lovely countryside where I live.

3. That Gordon Brown will give us all some idea of what his government is supposed to be about.

4. That Channel 4 will decomission Big Brother.

5. That Hillary Clinton will lose the US presidential election.

6. That Mark Ramprakash will be recalled to the England cricket team.

7. That the nationwide Christian social action initiative, Hope 08, will bring in a rich harvest.

8. That the evil tyrant Robert Mugabe will finally be overthrown in Zimbabwe.

Most of the blogosphere seems to already have been tagged by this by now, but if they have not been "done" already, I am tagging Mars Hill,, UK Daily Pundit, Leon Green, Hopi Sen, and Kate.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A very special Christmas

I've just got back from Midnight Mass - so great to be able to sing the last verse of O Come all ye Faithful at last - and everyone else in the house has been in bed for about three hours, so just time to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas.

It's a very special Christmas in the Linford household this year - our first as a family of four, our first in the new home, and the first at which we've been able to invite all our surviving parents to stay at the same time. Most of yesterday was spent cooking and a good part of tomorrow will be's just as well that it's my favourite way of relaxing!

I hope all your Christmases are equally special.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

My review of 2007

For the past 10 years, I have written a review of the political year for the Newcastle Journal. This year's was published yesterday, and here it is in full.


Eventful? The political year 2007 was certainly that. Entertaining? Well, that too – if you are the kind of person who enjoyed seeing Gordon Brown fall flat on his face, that is.

But as for epoch-making – only time will tell if 2007, or 6 October, 2007 to be precise, will go down as one of the great turning points of modern political history.

That was the day that Mr Brown finally resolved the question that had dominated the agenda ever since he had taken over as Prime Minister in June - whether or not he would hold a general election.

His decision not to go to the country changed the political weather at a stroke and left Labour on the defensive for the first time in 15 years.

The widespread public reaction to the decision was that a government that appeared to have so little confidence in itself certainly did not deserve the confidence of the voters.

Suddenly, a Labour Party which had carried all before it for a decade and a half began to look like losers.

The mistake, though, did not lie in the decision itself. Despite his earlier surge in popularity, by October the polls clearly showed the best Mr Brown could have hoped for was a hung Parliament.

No, it was in having allowed the speculation and planning to get so wildly out of control beforehand that the eventual cancellation could only be seen as a humiliating retreat.

The first few months of the year had been dominated by the endgame of the long Tony Blair premiership, played out against the grisly backdrop of the “cash for honours” inquiry.

In the event, no charges were brought, but the stench of sleaze would hang over the Labour Party long after the men from Scotland Yard had departed.

But the background story of the spring was not so much whether there would be charges, as whether there would be a challenge – namely to Mr Brown for the Labour leadership.

For a time, it seemed that South Shields MP David Miliband was the chosen one - not least in Mr Blair’s eyes – but he wisely decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

Mr Blair had stayed on, apparently with Mr Brown’s acquiescence, in order to “take the hit” for what were expected to be disastrous local and Scottish election results in May.

In the event these were every bit as bad as anticipated, with Alex Salmond’s SNP overtaking Labour to become the dominant force in the Scottish Parliament.

After what had seemed like the longest farewell tour since Frank Sinatra, the outgoing Prime Minister finally said his goodbyes with a bravura performance at his last Commons Question Time.

It was followed swiftly by his resignation as MP for Sedgefield to take up a new role as a Middle East peace envoy, though the irony of this seemed lost on most observers.

After such a long spell at 10 Downing Street, it was remarkable how little Mr Blair was initially missed.

An attempted terrorist attack, a spate of summer floods, and even a foot and mouth outbreak were all calmly and competently dealt with by Mr Brown and his new-look Cabinet team.

Even when the global “credit crunch” led to the first run on British bank in 150 years – Newcastle’s very own Northern Rock – the Government acted swiftly to cool the situation by agreeing to guarantee investors’ savings.

Consequently Labour went into the autumn conference season on a big high, with one poll showing a snap election would give them a majority of 134.

But the mood began to change after Mr Brown’s closest aide, Ed Balls, speculated openly on whether “the gamble” lay in going now, or delaying – with the clear implication that the bigger risk lay in delay.

From this, it became clear that uppermost in Mr Brown’s election calculations was not the long-term good of the country, but short-term party advantage.

His subsequent non-announcement created a new political narrative in which a government that had seemed destined to succeed appeared instead to be doomed to failure.

And as if to confirm that view, the government then found itself buffeted by a whole series of mishaps – all of them made and manufactured in the North-East.

First, the Northern Rock crisis blew up again, with questions over whether the £25bn of taxpayers’ money spent propping up the bank would be repaid. The outcome may yet be nationalisation.

Then it emerged that a computer disc had gone missing from the Revenue and Customs office in Washington containing the personal details of 25m child benefit claimants.

Finally, Labour sleaze reared its head again after it emerged that a Newcastle businessmen, David Abrahams, had used intermediaries to give money to the party in breach of the rules on donations.

Within a few short weeks, Mr Brown’s long-awaited inheritance had turned to dust and ashes in his hands.

The turnaround in Tory leader David Cameron’s fortunes was no less dramatic. Earlier in the year he had been vilified for going to Rwanda while floods devastated his constituency and for bungling a policy shift on grammar schools.

But he was rescued by Mr Brown’s dithering and an ace-in-the-hole from his Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, who pledged to scrap inheritance tax for all estates under £1m.

Ironically, Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell had made probably the best speech of the conference season - but much good did it do him.

Within a month he was gone, citing the media “obsession” with his age, to be replaced after the closest-fought leadership contest of modern times by the 40-year-old Nick Clegg.

Mr Brown ends the year in a deep, deep hole, with opinion polls now consistently showing a Tory lead of 10-15pc.

The Prime Minister is nothing if not resilient, but his government, of which Labour supporters had such high hopes, has thus far been a huge disappointment.

Where he promised quiet competence, there has been only ineptitude. Where he promised “vision” there has been only drift. Above all where he promised to restore trust in politics it has been dragged only further into the mire.

Can he turn it around? That’s the question for next week’s column, when I’ll be looking ahead to what we can expect the political year 2008 to bring.

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A study in contradictions

Should we be even mildly surprised that the man who singlehandedly pushed through a piece of legislation earlier this year which forced the closure of several Catholic adoption agencies is now promising to follow all of the teachings of that church?

Well, we are talking here about the instinctive conservative who became leader of the Labour Party; the one-time CND supporter who went to war more times than Churchill; the "pretty staight kind of guy" who presided over the sleaziest government in modern times; the man who "didn't do God" but claimed he would "answer to his maker" for his most controversial decisions; the invader of Iraq who became an ambassador for peace in the Middle East; and the man who promised a "stable and orderly transition" and then spent the first half of this year trying to persuade David Miliband to stand against Gordon.

So no, I think the honest answer is that nothing that Tony Blair says or does should surprise any of us in the least any more.

Like Archbishop Rowan, I wish him well on his Christian pilgrimage. But if there is one thing on which myself and most of those who commented on this recent post would agree, it is that he is not a particularly great recruiting sergeant for those advocating the importance of faith in political life.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Could Milburn come back

Some interesting speculation today from Peter Diapre, writing on Boulton and Co, about the possible return of Alan Milburn to a governmental role in 2008.

"With his impeccable working class background and rags to riches story (single mum, council estate etc), he has the right credentials to look at issues such as social mobility. It wouldn't surprise me to see him leading a review of some kind in 2008, or how about a return to government? Watch this space."

For the record, this was what I wrote about the prospect of a Milburn comeback in my Newcastle Journal column a week ago today. I was writing in the context of the damning report published ten days ago which found that social mobility in Britain had ground to a halt.

"The upside for Labour is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might just give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way out of its current political malaise.

There is also, if Mr Brown’s pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task – Darlington MP Alan Milburn, Labour’s Mr Upward Social Mobility himself in more ways than one.

The former health secretary famously grew up, the child of a single mother, on a council estate in a remote ex-mining town in County Durham.

Yet he himself has stated that he could not now imagine anyone from such a background as his reaching the Cabinet.

He is also, as far as this issue is concerned, Labour’s prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, having first warned about the looming problem as long ago as 2003.

Back then he wrote: “We should aim to reverse the slowing down of social mobility of recent decades. If these trends continue, Britain will be in danger of grinding socially to a halt.

"Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits.”

When Mr Milburn wrote those words, it was designed as a possible prospectus for the third term, a call to arms for Labour to be more, not less radical in its thinking

It didn’t work out that way. Although he did come back briefly to help run the election campaign, Mr Milburn along with most of his ideas ended up being marginalised.

Would Mr Brown now pick up the phone and ask Mr Milburn to join his Cabinet line-up? I don’t know, but it would certainly strengthen what is commonly seen as a rather lacklustre team.

Would Mr Milburn, for that matter, ever want to work again with Mr Brown? I don’t know the answer to that either.

I do know, however, that the last time I spoke to Mr Milburn, he was reading Giles Radice’s “Friends and Rivals,” a cautionary tale about three men whose rivalry prevented them working effectively together.

And as the Tories used to say in the days when they regularly won elections, surely now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party?"

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Political blogger of the year: Sunny Hundal

Tory blogfather Iain Dale is running a comprehensive set of End of Year Political Awards, with categories from Politician of the Year, to Political Journalist of the Year, to Sexiest Politician of the Year (what?) and Political Blogger of the Year. The results should be entertaining.

But rather bizarrely, his shortlist for Political Blogger of the Year includes neither himself nor his left-of-centre counterpart, Sunny Hundal. This is odd as the pair of them are by far the two most influential figures in the blogosphere at present.

Sunny is the man who, in setting up Liberal Conspiracy has brought some sort of order to the disparate left blogosphere this year. The site is still in its early days, but to get 15-20 left-of-centre bloggers working together at all represents a huge achievement in my view.

The political blogosphere, initially a rather liberal-left fragment of cyberspace, has been dominated by the right for the past couple of years. Next year, thanks in no small part to Sunny's efforts, we will hopefully see some balance restored.

* To spare Sunny's blushes, I have NOT cross-posted this at Liberal Conspiracy.

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Birthday memories

My dad, Ken Linford, would have been 80 years old today. It's weird to think of what life might have been like over the past 27 years if he had lived, and what kind of life he and mum would be living if he was alive now. Would they still be living at our old house in Hitchin, Herts? Would they have moved down to Devon to run a garage as they had often spoken about? Would he even have enjoyed being old? Almost certainly not.

I still dream about him quite regularly as if he is still alive, that he didn't really die but went off to start a new life somewhere, but I guess this kind of thing is normal when you lose someone so important at a young age. Wherever he is, I hope it's somewhere peaceful.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The importance of faith

By way of reply to Ourman, Davide Simonetti and others who have questioned my previous post about Nick Clegg, and an earlier one about whether Tony Blair should have discussed his faith, the first thing I want to say is no, I don't believe non-Christians are lesser people, no, I don't believe Christians have a monopoly on morality, and yes, I do agree with Archbishop Rowan that, while I would prefer it if Clegg was a Christian, it is his integrity that matters most.

But I do nevertheless believe that having a personal faith does on the whole make you a better politician, although as I will also make clear, there are always exceptions. So why do I believe this?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, I believe that faith can and usually does give politicians a stronger ethical framework for their actions. I am not saying here that atheists will invariably lack a moral compass, just that having an outside point of reference for one's political beliefs and decisions is helpful.

Canon David Sharp puts it thus: "The Protestant tradition particularly requires a careful examination of the conscience; what will be popular with the public or the party comes far lower down. [His] belief creates another criterion to be passed before he can act. Surely such extra moral tests, over and above strictly political considerations, are likely to make for more responsible decisions."

Secondly, and more fundamentally, I think that because faith in a higher being gives people an awareness of their own limitations and imperfections (the Biblical word "sin" is probably not helpful here) it generally tends to incline them towards humility, and this for me is an essential personal quality for anyone seeking to exercise power over people's lives.

This was why I found Tony Blair's particular brand of Christianity so perplexing. I don't doubt he is a Christian, as indeed is Margaret Thatcher, but his apparent Messiah complex and belief that he could singlehandedly save first the Labour Party, then Britain, then the World, often struck me as evidence of a rather anti-Christian state of mind.

Gordon Brown is a much more genuinely humble man in this regard. His Christianity is much more about applying Jesus's ethical teachings to present-day social problems than rescuing the planet from an axis of evil, and in this sense he seems to me to be a much better example of a Christian politician.

I realise that in the current climate, citing Gordon as a good example of anything is unlikely to convince many to change their point of view, but it is nevertheless as sincere an explanation as I can give of why I believe faith to be important in a political context.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Clegg says no to English Parliament (and God)

BBC coverage of this morning's radio Q&A with Nick Clegg has thus far focused on the revelation that he doesn't believe in God. While that is certainly concerning for me as a Christian, equally so is the fact that the new Liberal Democrat leader used his first day in office to deliver a clear snub to those of us campaigning for symmetrical devolution across the UK - ie giving English voters the same democratic rights and representation as their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.

"Do you believe there should be a Parliament for England similar to what Scotland and Wales has?" was the clear question posed. Clegg replied: "No, but we should devolve power to regions and communities," apparently contradicting his own policy announcement of April this year in which he ended decades of Lib Dem support for elected regional government.

I don't think this is going to play at all well with English voters alienated by New Labour's half-finished devolution project and disillusioned by David Cameron's failure to properly address the issue. Maybe Clegg feels he doesn't need them, but the desire for proper representation for England is part of a much broader revolt against current political structures with which the Lib Dems should be aligning themselves.

English Parliament campaign guru Toque is somewhat pithier as you would expect. "The Clegg family motto is “Let him take what he is able to take”. In Nick Clegg’s case he feels able to take the piss, and so he does."

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The challenge for Clegg

So Nick Clegg it is. I made no secret of the fact that I supported Chris Huhne, but although I still have my doubts over whether Clegg is quite the gifted communicator his supporters have always made him out to be, I wish him well.

Britain needs a successful Liberal Democrat party for the simple reason that New Labour has never really been that serious about implementing the constitutional changes needed to introduce genuine democracy to this country. It abandoned any meaningful look at a fair voting system within 18 months of the first term, and has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to an acceptance of the very basic democratic principle that members of the second chamber of Parliament should be elected.

Labour's conversion to greenery has also been rather dilatory and skin-deep in my view. On these and other issues the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties have been setting the agenda in British politics for most of my adult life.

So the first challenge for Clegg in my view is to re-establish the Lib Dems as the party of the environment at the very point it has become the touchstone issue for many voters, and the party of political reform at a time when trust in the established order has never been lower. If he can do this, then I and others will forgive him any amount of cliche-ridden vacuity of the kind we heard in his acceptance speech.

It is clear from both post-declaration speeches that the two candidates have now put the Calamity Clegg episode behind them and are now preparing to work closely together. Huhne has to be Shadow Foreign Secretary in my view, possibly also retaining the climate change brief - it is global warming we are talking about after all.

As a further unifying gesture, I hope Clegg can find room in his team for Huhne's campaign manager, the excellent Lynne Featherstone.

He would of course be mad to move Vince Cable from the Treasury brief, and I don't think for a minute that he will do, but the now-vacant Home Office brief offers the chance for a bold appointment, with Julia Goldsworthy, Ed Davey and David Laws all potential candidates.

Meanwhile, expect Clegg to be the subject of a sustained love-bombing campaign from the Tory bloggers as they seek to persuade Clegg to join Sham Cam's so-called "progressive alliance." Indeed, some would say this has already begun.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Is Cameron playing fast and loose with words?

David Cameron is nothing if not audacious. He is after all, the Conservative leader who set out to be the "heir to Blair," who tried to steal the Lib Dems' long-held mantle as the party of the environment, and who even attempted to convince us that the Tories are now the party that cares most about "society."

So it should come as no great surprise that Mr Cameron, in his call for a Tory-Lib alliance to topple Gordon Brown, is now trying to purloin the label "progressive," which has, in British politics at least, traditionally belonged to the centre-left.

I seem to recall there was some discussion about using the word "progressive" in the title of the Liberal Conspiracy blog, but the common consensus was that it's a word that's more readily abused even than "liberal." If so, Mr Cameron's initiative seems to show we probably made the right decision.

Dictionary definitions are no great help. Among those listed by the Free Dictionary are:

  • Moving forward; advancing.
  • Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
  • Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.

  • By this token, "progressive" is about as meaningful as that irritating and vacuous piece of management consultancy jargon that is now heard in offices up and down the land - "going forward."

    The dictionary also lists a specific definition for "progressive" in the context of taxation, namely:

    A tax that takes a larger percentage from the income of high-income people than it does from low-income people.

    This is more helpful in terms of defining a centre-left agenda, but then again David Cameron probably claims he believes in this as well, in the sense that we already have a progressive taxation system, and he isn't seeking to make it any less progressive.

    Is progressive a word worth fighting over - or should its definition forthwith be restricted to a form of rock music involving long guitar solos, mellotrons and metaphysical imagery?

  • Cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy.

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  • Kylie in X-factor fix

    I'm glad I'm not the only political blogger who watched the X-Factor, and I agree that young Leon Jackson probably couldn't lose after a skimpily-dressed Kylie Minogue took to the stage to duet with him in a smooth jazz version of her summer 1990 classic Better the Devil You Know.

    Meanwhile, here (according to a poster on runner-up Rhydian Roberts' fan blog) is how the conversation between Kylie and X-factor judge sister Dannii might have gone....

    Dannii: "Kylie we want you to sing with Leon"
    Kylie: "Isn't he the one that you said almost wets himself on stage and sings flat?"
    Dannii: "Yes, but...well Simon says he can do something with my career if you agree"
    Kylie:" Hmmm"
    Dannii: "Oh, and don't bother with clothing, just wear your underwear"

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    Spot on, Sir John

    Sir John Major is spot-on with his comments about the difference between Tory sleaze in the 1990s and Labour sleaze now. And rather than bluster on about how useless a Prime Minister Major was, Labour people ought to have the good grace to accept it.

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    Friday, December 14, 2007

    Dr Crippen "not dead" shock

    Over the past couple of years, one of the best and most informative blogs around has been NHS Blog Doctor, written by an anonymous GP who styled himself Dr John Crippen.

    Unfortunately Dr Crippen had a long break over the summer and has not posted anything since October 17, which was understandably the cause of some perplexity among his regular readers.

    Earlier this week, someone purporting to be a colleague at his workplace left the following comment:

    I am a senior partner at 'John's practice, I have only become aware of this 'weblog' after accessing his email account through our internal system. Other partners have read this website, but none of us knew who the author was - although in retrospect there are a number of clues we could have picked up on!

    There is no easy way to say this, but the doctor known as 'John' or 'Crippen' passed away in a road traffic accident mid-October. Although I appreciate the esteem in which many of you obviously held him, I must ask that the emails cease as of now - they are all redirected to our mail server and this is causing some difficulty.

    Dr. Crippen's identity may no longer need to be secret for his own purposes, but out of respect for his family and remaining colleagues I shall not be sharing this here, neither will I post another message or reply to any left. This webblog will be removed once I can circumnavigate the security protocols for obvious reasons of confidentiality.

    This said, I thank all who visit here for their support of our dear, and much missed colleague.

    Kind regards, Dr.P.

    I thought this comment was exceedingly odd, not least because the bit about deleting the blog and "circumnavigating security protocols" sounded more like the work of a censorious saboteur than someone genuinely concerned to protect "confidentaility."

    Subsequent investigations by myself and a number of other bloggers revealed there had been no road accidents reported anywhere in the UK between 17-31 October involving the death of any GPs.

    The esteemed swearblogger Devil's Kitchen now claims to have proof that Dr Crippen is not dead, just that he has had enough of blogging for the time being.

    If that is so then I'm glad he's still with us - but if he has indeed given up blogging it's a sad loss to the 'sphere.

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    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    The real scandal of the New Labour years

    Harold Wilson once said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. Despite the focus of the last few weeks, I have long believed that the real scandal of the Blair-Brown years is not Sleaze, nor Iraq, nor even the fact that they managed to employ Alastair Campbell. It is the fact that a Labour Government - a Labour Government as Neil Kinnock would have put it - has managed to preside over an increase in inequality.

    Today's report by the Sutton Trust provides further hard evidence of this catastrophic policy failure for a party of the centre-left.

    Of course it wasn't Labour that started it. The decline in social mobility and emergence of a British underclass over the past 30 years is first and foremost the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. But the fact that the gap has continued to widen in the past ten years is proof, if ever it were needed, that the role of New Labour has essentially been to perpetuate the Thatcherite settlement rather than challenge or overturn it.

    Some people will point to the demise of the Grammar Schools as a factor in preventing children moving out of deprived backgrounds. Others will blame house prices. Others will fatalistically conclude that the establishment always reasserts itself, and that the effortless superiority learned at public school will always be worth more in the job market than countless A-grades.

    Either way, the political upside is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might even yet give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way back from the political malaise in which it finds itself.

    There is also, if his pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task - former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, who was warning about this as long ago as 2003.

    Back then Milburn wrote: "Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits."

    It was designed as a possible prosepctus for the third term. Four years on, is it too much to be hoped that such ideas could yet form the basis of Labour's programe for a fourth term in power?

  • Cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy.

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    More than 80pc of you say Harriet should go

    Despite the current focus on Jacqui Smith - a sacrifical lamb if ever there was one - Harriet Harman is not yet quite out of the woods over the dodgy donations affair. My poll shows that 84pc of readers of this blog think she should resign and I reckon that is pretty close to where public opinion as a whole currently stands.

    Clear favourite to replace her was Jon Cruddas with 38pc of the vote to 15pc for the next highest-placed candidate, Alan Johnson, 13pc for John Denham and 12pc for Hilary Benn but there appears to be much less interest in this potential contest, possibly reflecting the fact that after this summer's interminable marathon, we're all feeling a bit deputy-leadershipped-out.

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    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    No way to treat a great English composer

    For those who haven't heard the story, it seems the BBC has sent a rejection letter to an independent producer who wanted to make a film about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, citing lack of topicality (or "findability" in the new jargon) as the reason.

    The letter includes a now-infamous request to the producer in question to let them know about any forthcoming premieres of Mr Williams' work, so that this apparent "findability" deficit could be addressed. As any fule kno, Vaughan Williams died in 1958 and the whole point of the proposed film was to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death next year.

    I have to confess that this story, originally published in the Observer, had me checking the date on Sunday to make sure it wasn't an April Fool, but I'm not going to blog in detail on it because (a) it's a few days old now, and (b) The Half-Blood Welshman has said all I would really want to say on his blog.

    Suffice to say that RVW was, as Half-Blood says, a signifcant musical figure. One of his most under-rated pieces, in my view, is Five Tudor Portraits, which I sung at the Royal Festival Hall in 1978 as part of the Hertfordshire County Youth Choir. Happy memories.

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    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    Is Richard Dawkins a tad confused?

    I've avoided commenting on the whole "Christianophobia" debate thus far, mainly because I think protesting about "wintervals" and the demise in school nativity plays is the kind of thing that makes Christians look slightly absurd - in much the same way as I regularly despair of that group of people in the Church of England who think the biggest issue facing Christians today is not injustice, or poverty, or climate change, but homosexuality.

    However the recent intervention on the issue by the UK's most well-known atheist Richard Dawkins has finally compelled me to put finger to keyboard.

    Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, claims to be a "cultural Christian" who, far from wanting to marginalise Christian traditions and "purge our society of its Christian history," is quite happy to take part in some of them himself.

    He then comes out with the quite remarkable statement, for someone of his stated views: "I like singing carols along with everybody else."

    Let's look at the words of some of those carols for a moment. How about:

    "Christ by highest heaven adored,
    Christ the everlasting Lord"
    (Hark the Herald Angels Sing.)


    "Not in that poor lowly stable
    With the oxen standing by
    We shall see him, but in heaven
    Set at God's right hand on high."

    (Once in Royal David's City)


    "Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
    Born this happy morning,
    Jesus to thee be glory given,
    Word of the Father,
    Now in flesh appearing....
    O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord"
    (O Come All Ye Faithful)

    There is no doubt what all these carols are saying - that Jesus is the Lord of creation, or in the words of St John, the eternal Word who was not only with God in the beginning, but who was God.

    Don't get me wrong, I am glad that Richard Dawkins likes singing carols, glad that someone who has been as militantly anti-Christian as he has even celebrates Christmas at all.

    But as he sings them again this Christmas, I hope he can reflect on what they really mean - and maybe ask himself again the question "....and is it true, this most tremendous tale of all?"

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    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Is it time for a Ken Clarke comeback?

    Fraser Nelson spent most of this article in the Spectator assessing the state of the Brown premiership, but in a revealing throwaway paragraph near the end he also had some trenchant words for David Cameron and his team.

    David Cameron has meanwhile been going back to his constituency and preparing for government. This has involved a fairly sober assessment of how many genuinely Cabinet-grade people he has on his team (he struggled to get into double digits). Ideally, his next reshuffle should be the last. It is vital for his prospects that the Tory frontbench look and sound like a competent government-in-waiting in comparison to the disintegrating Brown Cabinet.

    I think this assessment is pretty near the mark. For all the government's troubles, there are really only two shadow spokesmen who look as if they could do a better job than their opposite numbers - David Davis (Home Affairs) and George Osborne (Treasury.) What they are desperately short of is gravitas.

    If Cameron wants his Shadow Cabinet to look like a government-in-waiting as Nelson suggests, the man he needs is Ken Clarke, ideally in a cross-cutting, non-departmental role such as Shadow Leader of the House where he could deploy his political skills across the board.

    Iain Dale once wrote a light-hearted but brilliantly entertaining political counterfactual about how a Michael Portillo-led Tory Party managed to overturn Tony Blair's first majority and win the 2001 election. Key to Portillo's victory was persuading Clarke to rejoin the frontbench.

    Okay, so that was fiction, but I reckon that if Cameron were to pull off the same stunt now, it would have a not dissimilar effect on his election chances. Ken Clarke is still one of the most popular politicians in the country, and as last week's Question Time showed, remains a class act.

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    Saturday, December 08, 2007

    Could Gordon stand down?

    Today's Saturday Column poses the question that would have been unthinkable even a few short weeks ago: Could Gordon Brown stand down as Labour leader before the next General Election?

    The digested read goes something like:

  • Labour MPs are now openly speculating as to whether Brown will fight on 2009/10.

  • This is in part down to the government's recent disasters, and in part to a sense that the Prime Minister is not enjoying the job.

  • Unless the political situation improves for Labour, there would be little to be gained by Brown staying on indefinitely.

  • The silver lining is that neither D. Miliband nor Balls come up to the mark as potential successors.

    Having long believed that Brown did indeed have what it takes to renew Labour in office, this is not a scenario I hoped or expected to be outlining at this stage in the lifetime of his premiership, but it is becoming a very real possibility nonetheless.

    I would say he has, at best 6-9 months to turn the situation round. If by that stage the prospect of a David Cameron election victory has hardened into inevitability, Labour really would have little to lose by changing horses once again.

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  • Friday, December 07, 2007

    The Special One

    I don't especially like Jose Mourinho - the man's obvious arrogance aside, his tactics at Chelsea with the wonderful players at his disposal seemed unduly negative at times - but there is no doubt that he is the man favoured by readers of this blog to restore the fortunes of England's national side.

    The full result of my poll on who should succeed Steve McClaren was as follows:

    Jose Mourinho 40%
    Fabio Capello 13%
    Martin O'Neill 12%
    Harry Redknapp 9%
    Arsene Wenger 7%
    Guus Hiddink 6%
    Sven Goran Eriksson 5%
    Stuart Pearce 3%
    Luis Felipe Scolari 3%
    Sam Allardyce 2%

    The interesting thing about this, particularly on a blog that is read by quite a lot of English nats, is that readers don't seem that bothered about the nationality issue. Only 26pc went for a British manager as opposed to 74pc for a foreigner.

    As I've said before, my choice would still be Hiddink, on account of his track record in achieving success with ordinary players. Wayne Rooney and possibly Gabriel Agbonlahor aside, let's not kid ourselves that we are currently awash with young talent in this country.

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    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Not a day longer

    Natually I will oppose any attempt by the government to extend the period of detention without charge by longer than 28 days - it is far too long already - but I've not blogged specifically on this since Sunny Hundal and my co-conspirators over at Liberal Conspiracy are doing a pretty good job already.

    I would just add that on the whole gamut of issues surrounding individual liberty, including of course ID cards, it seems to me that the Tories are currently more in tune with the public mood than the government, a peculiar and rather dangerous position for an avowedly left-of-centre administration to be in.

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    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Frustrate their knavish tricks

    Hard on the heels of the controversy about whether Wales should be represented on the Union Jack, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone kicked up a fuss about the sixth verse of the National Anthem, with its references to crushing "Rebellious Scots."

    Former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith says "concerns" have been raised that the anthem is "anti-Scottish." But if indeed such concerns have been raised, it is clearly by people who don't know what they are talking about.

    The verse about rebellious Scots was abandoned after the collapse of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 and never officially became part of the National Anthem as such. It does not appear in any hymnbook or songbook I have ever seen, and I would be surprised if it has been sung even once in public worship during the last 200 years.

    In short, I think someone is trying to manufacture a non-existent row here. I wonder why.

    On a related topic, I was one of thousands of people who signed a Downing Street petition in support of a specific anthem for England separate from the UK anthem. A couple of weeks back, I received the following rather dismal response from No 10.

    "There are currently no plans to introduce an official English anthem, but the Government recognises that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom may quite properly have national songs for which they have a particular attachment. However, the choice of anthem at sporting events is entirely a matter for the sport concerned."

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    Tony Holland RIP

    I'm a bit late in the day with this, but Tony Holland was in my view one of the foremost television figures of the last 30 years. He not only created EastEnders and most of its core characters (the Beales and Fowlers were based on his own family), he was the programme's creative driving force in the days when it was worth watching.

    His contribution to British television over the last half century is matched only by that of another Tony - Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street when it, too, was a ground-breaking drama. Interestingly both men were gay, which may or may not have made it easier for them to write for what have always been primarily female audiences.

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    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Should Gordon hold a Night of the Long Knives?

    I'm not going to claim this is an original thought. The idea came from a post on Paul Burgin's blog earlier today entitled "Accountablity" but I hope Paul will take it as compliment rather than as deliberate plagiarism if I say that I think the question merits further examination.

    Paul's rather drastic solution to the Government's current troubles is to suggest that Gordon Brown should try to draw a conclusive line under the dodgy donations affair by sacking everyone involved, namely Harriet Harman, Peter Hain, Jack Dromey and Jon Mendelsohn. You would probably have to add Wendy Alexander to the list as well, though Paul doesn't mention her by name.

    There are some obvious attractions to such a strategy, primarily that it would rid the Government and the party of a lightweight deputy leader and a treasurer who doesn't seem to know what day it is, let alone who has given the party money. But the key political question is: would it work, or would in fact serve to deepen Mr Brown's difficulties?

    As I have said on Paul's blog, there are to my mind two major pitfalls with Nights of the Long Knives. Firstly, by sacking people you have only recently appointed, you call your own judgement into question. Secondly, some people know where so many bodies are buried that getting rid of them is likely to prove counter-productive.

    Jack Dromey is a real case in point here. He was, of course, the man who blew the whistle on the cash for honours affair that hastened Tony Blair's departure, and if the Gospel according to the Blairites is to be believed, he was acting on the direct orders of Gordon Brown in so doing.

    If this version of events is true, it makes Dromey unsackable, as the one man in British politics who could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Brown plotted to bring down Blair.

    On the more general point, while reshuffles have become a time-honoured way for Prime Ministers to "relaunch" their governments, recent history seems to suggest that the tactic very rarely works.

    The best historical analogy would be Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives in 1962 in which he sacked a third of his Cabinet - "the wrong third" as some commentators said at the time. It did him little good in the longer term, and caused one Tory MP to wryly observe: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."

    Finally, it seems to me that if Gordon is looking for scapegoats for the current political mess he finds himself in, Messrs Harman and Hain are no more deserving of the sack than Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.

    It was they who really kicked off the current crisis by over-egging the speculation about an autumn election and whipping the media up into such a state of frenzy over it that it virtually guaranteed a backlash.

    I do however think that Gordon could strengthen the government by making Jack Straw Deputy Prime Minister, as he should have been from the start, and by bringing back Alan Milburn as Minister without Portfolio to oversee some fresh thinking about a Labour fourth term, including a drive to improve social mobility.

    The problem, in my view, with the Brown Cabinet is not that it contains too many incompetent minsters, so much as the fact that it contains too many kids.

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    Monday, December 03, 2007

    Move over Darling

    A couple of weeks' back I asked readers on this blog who should replace Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such has been the pace of events since then that Mr Darling now looks like one of the government's more secure ministers but for the record the result was:

  • George Osborne 39%
  • Vincent Cable 17%
  • Ed Balls 11%
  • Jack Straw 11%
  • John Denham 5%
  • David Miliband 5%
  • Ruth Kelly 1%
  • Alistair Darling should keep the job 12%

    The most surprising thing about this was not that Osborne and Cable were ahead of all Labour contenders but that Ed Balls should be regarded as the leading alternative Labour Chancellor. I continue to believe that Balls has been overpromoted as he is and should go back to being a backroom boy, or preferably, to writing FT leaders.

    Anyway, a new week, a new poll - or two to be precise: Should Harriet Harman resign, and if so, Who should replace her as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

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  • Who breaks a Butterfly Song on a wheel?

    If I were ever to choose my Top 10 favourite hymns, I'm pretty certain that the Butterfly Song would not feature on the list. In fact, it's one of the Christian songs I least enjoy singing and until today, I could not have foreseen the circumstances in which I would ever feel moved to defend it.

    But that was until Tory blogfather Iain Dale laid into the 30-year-old ditty after being forced to sing it - presumably for the first time - at a friend's baby's christening yesterday.

    Dale pointed to the song's lyrics as indicative of why the Church of England is losing members, citing the line, notorious even in Christian musical circles: "If I were a fuzzy-wuzzy bear, I'd thank you Lord for my fuzzy-wuzzy hair, but I just thank you Father for making me me!"

    And yes, I agree, it's cringemaking in the extreme, and there hasn't been a single occasion on which I have sung it in the last 30 years without cringing. Except that, it's not aimed at me, is it?

    For a blogger of Iain's prominence and influence to do this is really a bit like Nancy Banks-Smith giving a critical pasting to In the Night Garden as if she were reviewing the latest Stephen Poliakoff epic.

    All that the Butterfly Song is really saying is that God made us as we are, and that we should celebrate our individuality. Somehow, I would have thought that was a sentiment which Iain Dale would have approved of.

    * On the subject of God-related stuff, some comments I made in an earlier post about whether or not I would vote for someone who wasn't a Christian seem to have been misinterpreted. I accept that the post in question was clumsily worded and have provided a bit of further clarification HERE.

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    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    Brown's lost mission to restore trust

    On a day on which even loyalist Labour commentators are openly discussing the succession to Gordon Brown, my column in the Newcastle Journal will probably seem kinder to the Prime Minister than some. Nevertheless, I too conclude that one of the key aims of his premiership, that of restoring trust in British politics, is now almost certainly holed below the waterline.

    "It is a very sad conclusion for those of us who hoped Mr Brown could offer a fresh start, but it is going to be hard if not impossible for him to do that now. Voters are starting to conclude that the job of restoring trust in British politics will require not just a change of leadership, but a change of government."

    As I said on this blog earlier in the week, it's all very unfair- but then again so was Labour's treatment of poor John Major in the mid-1990s when he was crucified for the sins of others in his party.

    The column can be read in full on my companion blog, HERE.

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