Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review of the Year 2008

It's that time of the year again. Here's my look back at an extraordinary political year from today's Newcastle Journal.

The year 2008 will be remembered as the year that defied the normal laws of political gravity. While the British economy came crashing down, the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government somehow went up and up.

This time last year, the Prime Minister looked down and almost out, likely to go down in history as the short-lived leader of a fag-end administration that looked long past its sell-by date.

It was to get worse before it got better. A succession of dire by-election performances coupled with the loss of the London Mayoralty to Boris Johnson and the Scottish Parliament to the SNP led to a summer of plotting and serious talk of a leadership coup.

But then, in one of the most bizarre and unexpected twists of political fate in recent times, the credit crunch and the accompanying economic downturn rode to Mr Brown’s rescue, enabling him to play to his strengths as a “serious man for serious times.”

Actually, when the Prime Minister used those words, he was talking about someone else – his old friend Peter Mandelson. But more of him later.

At the start of the year, though, Mr Brown seemed less of a serious man for serious times than a political figure of fun, ruthlessly characterised by the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable as having undergone a transformation “from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

He had still, at that stage, not recovered from the debacle of the election-that-never-was in the autumn of 2007 and the succession of rows over Labour funding that followed.

One of those rows claimed a ministerial scalp early in the new year in the shape of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing over the matter of his deputy leadership election expenses claims.

The first half of the year was dominated by the run-up to the May elections – notably Ken Livingstone’s battle for a third term as Mayor of London against Mr Johnson’s challenge.

But any hopes Mr Brown might have had of using those elections as a springboard from which to relaunch his flagging premiership were sunk by a chicken coming home to roost in the form of the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

When he had announced this in his final Budget as Chancellor the year before, there had been scarcely a murmur of opposition from either the Labour or Conservative benches.

Not so this year. When Labour MPs realised that the tax change would hit their own people the hardest, it sparked a backbench revolt that forced Mr Brown into a humiliating climbdown.

But the inevitable loss of London, Scotland and hundreds of council seats nationwide was not the worst of it. Far more damaging was the disastrous sequence of by-election losses that saw some of Labour’s safest majorities overturned.

It had begun in Crewe and Nantwich where Tamsin Dunwoody’s attempt to inherit her late mother Gywneth’s Commons seat drowned under a tidal wave of anger over the 10p tax rate.

It continued in Mr Johnson’s old seat of Henley as Labour lost its deposit and slumped to fifth place behind the British National Party and the Greens.

And it finally culminated in Glasgow East, with Labour’s hitherto third-safest seat in Scotland disappearing to the Scottish National Party on a 22pc swing.

Many concluded that Mr Brown’s authority and standing with the public was now so badly shredded as to be beyond recovery. Talk of a leadership challenge began to grow.

Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband had long been regarded as the great hope of the party’s Blairite wing. Now he made his first, tentative moves.

In a national newspaper article which caused shockwaves throughout Westminster, he set out a possible prospectus for a Labour fourth term with not a single mention of Mr Brown.

Shortly afterwards MPs went off on their holidays. Mobile phones buzzed between Italian villas as, somehow, the Labour Party tried to come to a collective judgement about what to do with its beleaguered PM.

But there was no September coup. In its wisdom, the party decided it would give Mr Brown one last chance to turn things around at Labour’s autumn conference.

It was too much for four junior members of the government - Siobhan McDonough, Joan Ryan, Barry Gardiner and David Cairns – who all resigned in frustration at the cabinet’s refusal to move against the Prime Minister.

It could hardly have been a worse preparation for the conference, but Mr Brown rose to the challenge and made what by common consensus was the “speech of his life.”

Its key soundbite - “This is no time for a novice” – neatly skewered both Tory leader David Cameron and the banana-wielding young pretender, Mr Miliband.

Then came the reshuffle, with Mr Brown cutting the ground from under the Blairite plotters by bringing back the Blairiest Blairite of them all – former Hartlepool MP Mr Mandelson.

The return of the newly-ennobled Lord Mandelson had a profound impact on the government, and he is now de facto deputy Prime Minister in addition to his official role as Business Secretary.
Finally, there was Mr Brown’s audacious £500bn banking rescue which meant that ten major banks, including the already-nationalised Northern Rock, are now at least partly in public hands.

Coupled with a Pre-Budget Report that saw the government effectively decide to spend its way out of the recession, it was no less than an attempt to turn the Thatcherite politics of the last 30 years on its head.

Labour’s recovery was confirmed by a triumphant by-election campaign in Glenrothes, finally ending the dismal sequence of defeats that had brought Mr Brown to the edge of the abyss.

The party still trails the Tories in the polls, but the 5-6pc deficit is now of the order of those from which mid-term governments often recover to win the next general election.

Whether or not Mr Brown can pull off that feat remains very much open to doubt, given that the economy is still likely to get much worse before it starts to get better.

But in the crucible of this crisis he has, at the very least, discovered a purpose for his premiership: nothing less than the saving of the British economy.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas Everyone

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger,
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation,
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

Candlelight, angel light, firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.

Candlelight Carol, John Rutter

A very Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 1

1. Candlelight Carol: John Rutter

And so my Top 10 concludes with what is surely Rutter's most sublime Christmas work. "Candlelight, angel light, firelight and starglow" - both the words and the music have a magical quality to them which for me capture the very essence of this most wonderful time of the year.

There's only one person I can dedicate this choice to, and that is the person who first played me this beautiful piece of music ten years ago. Back then we had only been going out for a few months, but we've now been married for more than seven years. To my wife Gillian - Happy Christmas, and thanks.

The full list of my Top 10 Christmas Carols can be seen HERE.

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Remembering John

We recently ran a story on HoldtheFrontPage which deeply affected me on several levels. It was about how a regional press campaign arising from the death of a little boy succeeded in plugging a loophole in the law, as a result of which the killers of Baby P were able to be charged with a much more serious offence than would otherwise have been the case.

John Smith would have been 13 now. Tragically he died at the age of four on Christmas Eve 1999 after a sustained campaign of abuse by a couple who were hoping to adopt him and who, amazingly, had been cleared as prospective adoptive parents by social workers.

Like most people I always find stories about child cruelty very hard to deal with. A story about a child battered to death on Christmas Eve, of all days, made particularly hard reading for me. I have great memories of my own childhood Christmases, some of which I have recently written about on this blog, but I am very conscious at this time of year that not all children are as lucky as I was.

What made the story even more poignant for me was that the picture of John (above, left) that was used in the papers at the time appears to show him looking happy and healthy in front of a Christmas tree - presumably taken the year before he died.

Yet grim as this story undoubtedly was, there was hope here, too, and a reminder that good can come out of the darkest evil.

A group of journalists from the Brighton Argus launched a "Justice for John" campaign after murder charges against his adoptive parents were dropped in favour of a lesser charge of cruelty on the grounds that it could not be proven who had struck the fatal blow.

In the end, this led to a change of the law, and the creation of a new offence of causing or allowing the death of a child - the offence of which the vile killers of Baby P have now been successfully convicted and for which they will be sentenced early next year.

Despite the general view of us as hardered cynics, stories like this are never easy for journalists. But it is stories like this which remind us why we are really here.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 2

2. Nativity Carol: John Rutter

Unsurprisingly, Rutter bags the top two places on my list. This gently flowing piece was one of his very earliest compositions back in the 1960s and for many years rated as my favourite carol, until the great man came up with something even more lovely in the 1980s.

Although not especially musical herself, the person who really gave me my love of Christmas music was the person who gave me my love of Christmas - my mum. This carol is duly dedicated to her, with thanks for having always made our Christmases so special.

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Where are they now No 7

My latest contribution to Total Politics magazine's Where Are They Now? series can now be found online here.

Its subject, Phillip Oppenheim, is probably my favourite-ever Tory politician. Despite coming from a fairly wealthy background, he was as at home in The Spanker, Nether Heage, in his Amber Valley constituency, as he was at Annabels' nightclub. I've enjoyed a drink with him in both venues.

We first got to know eachother in Derbyshire in the late 80s when I was working for the Derby Evening Telegraph and when I arrived in the Lobby several years later he continued to be helpful to me even though he had no particular career interest in being so. He may have forgotten that, but I haven't.

As my TP piece makes clear, Phillip has now clearly moved on from the loss of his seat and forged a new and perhaps more interesting career outside Westminster.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 3

3. A Spotless Rose: Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells is in my view the most under-rated British composer of the 20th century. As well as this wondrous carol and a host of other works he also wrote the stirring tune to my favourite hymn, All My Hope on God is Founded.

A Spotless Rose is dedicated to Peter Noyce, who took over from Colin Howard as St Mary's choirmaster in 1979 and who worshipped Howells with something approaching reverence. At one choir practice he described the end of this carol as "probably the greatest single bar of music ever written." I wouldn't quite go that far, but I know what he means.

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Don't just take my word for it

I wrote in my weekend column that I didn't think there would be a general election any time soon and that if Gordon Brown was bonkers enough to be provoked into calling one, he would lose.

But don't just take my word for it - Ben Brogan, who is much closer touch with the people taking these decisions than I am, said the same on his blog this morning.

Brogan has a strong track record when it comes to predicting that there won't be elections. In the last flurry of media election speculation in the immediate aftermath of the autumn conferences and the bank rescue, he made clear that Brown Central was not even considering the idea.

More notably, the Mail pol ed also stuck his neck out and said there wouldn't be an autumn election in October 2007 at a time when most of Fleet Street were still saying the opposite.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 4

4. The Shepherd's Farewell: Hector Berlioz

Part of the oratorio L'Enfance du Christ, this is another French composition that has become an essential part of the English choral repertoire. The composer, Berlioz, was operating at the height of the romantic era and the piece has a rather other-worldly feel I have always loved.

This carol was a favourite of my dad's in the days when he used to come along and hear the choir at Nine Lessons on Christmas Eve. Today would also have been his 81st birthday, so this one is dedicated to his memory.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 5

5. Mary's Lullaby: John Rutter

Into the top five, and another John Rutter classic, notable for having been written in the space of a single evening in order to fill a three and a half minute gap at the end of a BBC documentary about a choir he was involved with at the time. I think the basses are way too loud in this recording - it is a lullaby after all - but it was the best one I could find.

This carol, which ends with the words "Lullaby my little baby," did not mean a lot to me until I had children of my own, so this choice is dedicated to my babies - George and Clara.

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Could spring 2009 be a re-run of autumn 2007?

Will Gordon Brown call a spring election? I don't know. Should he? Of course not. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since Gordon Brown began his autumn political fightback and the opinion poll gap between the Tories and Labour started to narrow, David Cameron has faced a fundamental question from within his own party.

It is this. Why, in the teeth of a recession that was almost certainly exacerbated if not actually caused by Mr Brown’s stewardship of the economy over the past 11 years, was he not able to “seal the deal” and convert the Tories’ earlier advantage into a settled, potentially election-winning lead?

There are many explanations which I and others could give. The inexperience of the Cameron – George Osborne partnership when set against Brown and Alistair Darling is perhaps the most obvious one.

Another is that, for all their criticisms of Labour, the Tories have yet to articulate a clear and compelling alternative vision, either for the conduct of the economy or for Britain in general.

Either way, there is a growing fear in the party that Mr Cameron will somehow manage to end up a loser despite what, for him, ought to be the most propitious political circumstances for an opposition leader for many years.

One sporting analogy that has been drawn is with the 2005 Champions League Final, in which AC Milan contrived to lose to Liverpool despite being three-nil up at half-time.

With their opponents fighting back strongly and threatening to equalise, the Tories have somehow got to persuade the ref to blow the whistle before Labour can take it to penalties.

Which may be one reason why the Tories currently appear desperate to provoke Mr Brown into holding the election sooner rather than later.

It seems that not a month goes by at Westminster these days without a fresh bout of election speculation.

And with the Christmas silly season now upon us, it was perhaps inevitable that this would be another of those months.

It certainly cranked up a gear this week, with suggestions appearing on Tory blogs that Labour had block-booked hundreds of advertising hoardings for February.

The fact that this turned out not to be true only heightened the impression that the Tories were trying to fan the flames of the latest media frenzy.

There is a clear tactical logic to this from Mr Cameron's point of view. The darkest moment of Mr Brown's premiership so far was the point at which he decided not to hold an election in autumn 2007 after allowing his own ministers to stoke-up the speculation.

For a long time, it looked like he would not recover from that, but recover he eventually did, and Labour is now once again within spitting distance of the Tories in the polls.

So an obvious ploy for Mr Cameron is to try to turn spring 2009 into a re-run of autumn 2007 by generating another round of election fever, in the knowledge that it's a win-win situation for him.

If Mr Brown falls for it, the Tories will have the chance to end Labour's long hegemony. If he doesn't, it will be "bottler Brown" all over again.

Even so, there was little consensus among political commentators this week as to whether the speculation was Tory-inspired black propaganda or whether it is indeed actively being thought about in No 10.

One veteran political writer declared flatly: "There won't be an early election in 2009 for all the usual reasons, the most important being that Gordon Brown would lose it."

But another from the same newspaper maintained that, contrary to appearances, it is actually Mr Brown who wants the election to happen and Mr Cameron who doesn't.

"The reality is that while he says he wants it and Gordon says he doesn't, the opposite may well be the case," he said of the Tory leader.

There are two reasons being advanced as to why a Prime Minister who is still trailing in the opinion polls would choose now to have an election.

One is that the longer he leaves it, the worse the economy will get, although many economists think that there will be a recovery of sorts by 2010.

The other reason being put forward is that, despite being at least five points behind in share of the vote, Labour and Mr Brown could actually still win that way.

By a strange quirk of our electoral system to do with the relative distribution of votes, the Labour Party could be significantly behind the Tories yet still end up with more seats.

But the idea that emerging as the largest party while being behind on the public vote could constitute any kind of victory for Mr Brown is, in my view, nothing short of political insanity.

The Tories would argue, quite rightly, that they had the true mandate to govern and that Mr Brown had lost his.

More than that, by being seen to fail to deliver the will of the people, the entire political system would face a crisis of legitimacy that could send it into meltdown.

Of course electoral reform would have forestalled this, but Tony Blair chickened out of it and his successor seems no bolder in that regard.

The time for New Year predictions is still a couple of weeks off. As is my custom, these will appear in my first column of 2009 on Saturday 3 January.

But I will, nevertheless, lay my cards on the table and make two early ones.

The first is that there won't be an election in February, or indeed at any time early in 2009.

The second is that if I am wrong, and the Prime Minister is foolish enough to allow himself to be provoked into holding one, he will lose.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 6

6. Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable: Trad French

For the benefit of non-linguists, this translates as "Whence is that goodly fragrance?" and can be sung in either language. I particularly like the French version though, partly for the reasons I explain below.

This carol is dedicated to Phil Parkinson, a French and German teacher at my old school who was also a member of St Mary's choir. As our resident modern languages expert, Colin Howard enlisted Phil to teach us to sing the carol in French. David Agg and Jeffrey Gray were two of the senior choristers of the time and Phil caused great hilarity by pointing out that the word "agreable" contained not one, but both their surnames. There was no way we would mispronounce it after that.

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In The Bleak Midwinter

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An idea worth recycling

As a contributing editor of Total Politics magazine, I warmly welcome its new blog, but I couldn't help but be amused to see that it's been named after one of my old Newcastle Journal columns, Party Lines.

The column was a light-hearted, midweek counterpoint to my more serious "Saturday column" which still continues today.

It was actually the second column of that name to appear under my byline, the first having appeared in Derbyshire Now! magazine from 1992-94.

Sadly it was before the days of teh interwebs so no link but I still have the dog-eared cuttings in my attic somewhere...

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 7

7. O Little One Sweet - J.S. Bach

Although the main focus of my Top 10 carol selection is on English choral music, it would be impossible to leave Bach out of the list, such was his influence on the English church music canon. The vocal harmonies in this short carol are as close to musical perfection as anyone has ever come. The best recording I could find of it is in the original German - O Jesulein Suess. It's a little quiet so you may have to turn up the volume on your PCs.

I am dedicating this to my father-in-law, Neil Broome, who loves this kind of music and regularly gets the family to sing it round the piano at Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 8

8. In Dulci Jubilo: Trad German, arr. R.L. Pearsall.

Everyone knows the tune to In Dulci Jubilo - it was given the prog-rock treatment by Mike Oldfield and is frequently heard in the hymn Good Christian Men, Rejoice, nowadays sometimes rather mindlessly rendered by the PC brigade as Good Christians All, Rejoice. But few if anyone knows who originally wrote it, although its origins appear to be Germanic.

The carol was a regular staple of our Nine Lessons services at St Mary's, Hitchin, so this one is dedicated to Hugo Richardson, Mike Baxter and all my old friends from the choir, in fond remembrance of all those Christmas Eves when we belted it out together.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Election: But why would he?

The politics news and blog aggregation site PoliticsHome - still the only pure-play political new media operation which can boast a Lobby pass - sends me a breathless press release stating that most "Westminster experts" think Gordon Brown should call an election in the Spring.

Well, it's nice that I'm on their mailing list....but if that is what counts for Westminster expertise these days, it's perhaps a good thing they are not the ones advising the PM.

The question that no-one has really answered in this latest bout of media election frenzy is why Gordon Brown would or should go to the country with the Tories still comfortably ahead in the opinion polls.

In September 2007 Labour was 13 points ahead he and didn't have an election. Now he's at least 5pc behind even on the most positive polls for Labour and a bunch of "Westminster experts" think he should risk it. Why on earth would he?

The only leading blogger who seems to understand this is Ben Brogan, who, it should not be forgotten, correctly called the autumn 2007 decision a day or two before Gordon himself announced it.

He quotes a Brown aide thus: "Election? No chance. There's more chance of getting Gordon and David Cameron to record a duet of 'Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree'." Bring it on, I say.

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My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 9

9. Shepherd's Pipe Carol: John Rutter

This is the first of four compositions by John Rutter in my Top 10. His carols tend to fall into two groups: jaunty and bright (Star Carol, Jesus Child, this one) or gentle and richly melodic (Mary's Lullaby, the Nativity Carol, Love Came Down at Christmas). The South African-born composer has cornered the market in quintessentially Christmassy choral music over the past 30 years and I could easily have named six or seven of his works in my list.

Today's choice is dedicated to the composer himself. Christmas literally wouldn't be the same without him.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 10

10. The Truth From Above: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Okay, there will still be some politics on this blog over the next fortnight...but in the run-up to Christmas I'm going to be giving over some time and space to one of my other lifelong obsessions: English choral music.

When most people speak of "Christmas carols" they tend to mean the likes of Hark the Herald, Once in Royal, O Come All ye Faithful and so on, but technically speaking they are hymns. Carols, in the traditional sense as still preserved in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, are sung by the Choir, not the congregation.

So over the next 10 days I will be listing my top 10 carols, together with YouTube videos of each. I hope that those who are familiar with this genre of music will enjoy this diversion from the usual agenda, and that those who are not familiar with it will also give them a listen. My No 1 choice will be revealed on Christmas Eve.

The first of my choices, at No 10, is The Truth From Above. This was one of the many traditional English folk tunes, their origins lost in the mists of antiquity, which were rediscovered and rearranged by the brilliant English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died 50 years ago this year.

In addition to listing my favourites, each day I will dedicating my choice either to a person who has influenced me in my love of English church music, or alternatively someone for whom a particular carol has a certain significance or meaning.

My first carol is dedicated to the memory of Colin M. Howard, my former Choirmaster at St Mary's Hitchin, who sadly died of cancer earlier this year aged 63. By bringing me into his choir in 1975, Colin opened up for me a world of Christmas wonder which has never faded.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Could Mandy spin us into the Euro?

Well after all, who would have thought NuLab would have nationalised the banks? Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since Gordon Brown stunned the political world this autumn by bringing back Peter Mandelson into his Cabinet, there has been a general sense that things have changed at the top of the government.

An administration which had become a by-word for drift, purposelessness and lack of vision seems to have latterly acquired a new strategic focus and direction.

Sure, much of it can simply be put down to events, and in particular the need for Mr Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling to mount an effective policy response to the challenge of the economic downturn.

But there are many who nevertheless believe that it is the political genius of the former Hartlepool MP which has really been behind the revival in the government’s fortunes over the past three months.

One aspect of politics that has noticeably changed, for instance, is that the Tories are no longer having things all their own way in terms of national media coverage.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has been a particular target in what has all the makings of a Mandelson-inspired operation to undermine his standing with the electorate.

It was also Lord Mandelson who turned the fire on the Tories over the Damian Green affair, hinting that his Home Office “mole” was not necessarily acting out of the purest motives.

It has prompted some commentators to speculate that Mandy has effectively stepped into the role that has been vacant since the departure of John Prescott – that of Deputy Prime Minister.

Indeed one national newspaper writer, the Telegraph’s David Hughes, went even further, claiming this week that Lord Mandelson was now running the country.

“While Gordon Brown spends his days masterminding the economic rescue of the entire planet, the everyday business of government seems to have been devolved to Lord Mandelson,” he wrote.

“Virtually everything the Government does - and it is being hyper-active at the moment - has his fingerprints on it.”

Hughes cited last week’s two-year mortgage holiday for middle-earners who lose their jobs as a classic bit of Mandelsonian positioning, letting Middle Britain know that Labour hasn't forgotten about them.

Others have even credited Lord Mandelson with bringing about the recent improvement in the Prime Minister’s general mood.

For those who view politics as essentially a psycho-drama, and the story of New Labour as an eternal triangle involving its three prime movers, there is probably something in this.

On this view of history, Gordon and Peter were best friends, until Peter decided to become Tony’s best friend. But when Tony finally left to travel the world and make lots of money, Peter and Gordon were free to make up again.

Those who have called Mandelson the Prime Minister’s “NBF” – New Best Friend – are missing the point. In fact he is Mr Brown’s Old Best Friend - and there’s nothing like having your old friends around when the chips are down.

But whatever impact Peter Mandelson has had on the government’s performance since his return, it could turn out to be a case of “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

For the man who spun Labour back into power in the 1990s may yet be dreaming of one last political triumph to top them all – to spin Britain into the European single currency.

Even three months ago, the very idea would have seemed absurd, but the plummeting pound and the deepening recession have at last seen the debate starting to move in the direction of the euro-enthusiasts.

The question is: could the downturn finally bring about the economic conditions for British entry, and if so, would political attitudes start to change as a result?

Already, no less a figure than European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has claimed that “significant people” in the UK are talking about abandoning the pound.

Lord Mandelson, his former Commission colleague, was obliged to deny he was one of them – but the way he did so was, in my view, highly revealing.

His exact words were: "My view is that the Government is right to maintain the long-term policy objective of taking Britain into the euro, but it is not for now.”

Well, joining the euro may indeed be “a long-term policy objective” but then so is a referendum on proportional representation, and neither have been openly talked about by Labour for years.

For about a decade after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the debate over the single currency dominated British politics.

It was largely responsible for the internecine warfare which came close to destroying the Tory Party as a political force and also ensured they were landed with a succession of unelectable leaders.

Between them, David Cameron and Mr Brown had manage to kick the issue into the long grass, but thanks to the credit crunch, it’s now back on the agenda.

Not only does Mr Brown have the chance to resurrect all those old Tory splits, he may even conceivably get the opportunity to do what his predecessor failed to do, and settle Britain’s “European destiny.”

So could it really happen? Could there be a referendum on the euro in this Parliament? And could the public even be persuaded to vote yes?

Well, it would certainly require a dramatic shift in public opinion, but the lesson of the past year in politics is that changes in economic circumstances can bring about such shifts.

If had wrote in my annual Preview of the Year last January that New Labour would end up nationalising two major High Street banks, most of you would have thought I was off my rocker.

Yet it happened – and the one certainty in politics over the next 12 months is that we should expect the unexpected

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Freudian Slip

Actually I'm not sure it really was...but here's Slob's take on it anyway....

Other sayings which Prime Ministers may have come to regret:

"Most people who know me know that I'm a pretty straight kind of guy." Tony Blair.

"I don't think other people in the world would necessarily take the view that there is mounting chaos." [translated by The Sun as "Crisis? What Crisis?"] Jim Callaghan

"[Devaluation] means the pound is now worth 14pc less on the foreign exchanges. It does not mean that the pound in your pocket or in your purse or in your bank has been devalued." Harold Wilson

"Most people in this country know they've never had it so good." Harold Macmillan

"I bring you peace in our time." Neville Chamberlain

"Psst...wanna buy a peerage?" David Lloyd George (okay I made this one up.)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't forget the Pogles

Okay, so I'm a bit late on this - I was in London yesterday for a day-long newspaper awards-judging session - but most of the well-deserved Oliver Postgate tributes this week have focused on his classic shows Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers.

And yes, they were all brilliant - especially The Clangers which coincided with the Moon landings and briefly became terriby topical and zeitgeisty around about 1968/69. Despite this I was rarely allowed to watch it as my dad found the "swanee whistle" sound made by the knitted creatures intolerable and invariably switched channels if he came into the room while it was on.

But my own personal favourite Postgate show has received relatively little mention in the national press over the past couple of days. This was Pogles' Wood, the gentle tale of woodland folk that was screened between 1966 and 1968 as part of the Watch With Mother series.

Children today would probably find it too gentle, too uneventful when set against the delights of Me Too, Balamory and so on. To my four-year-old eyes, though, it was simply magical.

But those looking for an assessment of the political significance of Oliver Postgate should look no further than the increasingly must-read blog of Independent on Sunday political editor Jane Merrick.

With more and more MSM writers launching themselves on the blogospehere, Jane has carved out a notable niche for herself of late. Her blog may not necessarily always be the most authoritative to emerge from a national newspaper, but it is, by some considerable distance, the funniest.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Coming home

I don't often write about my "real world" career on this blog, but this little announcement today seems worthy of mention. As the story says, I've been doing the job in an acting capacity for nearly six months so it's great to have it made official.

A colleague recently said that this job seemed like a bit of a "homecoming" to journalism for me after a few years doing different sorts of new media stuff. The truth is it's not an entirely journalistic role - there's a fair bit of commercial stuff in there too - but it's certainly the most journalist-y job I've had since I was political editor of The Journal.

Editing HoldtheFrontPage was a role I'd quietly fancied for some time, while never really expecting it to become available, so I'm really pleased to get the opportunity. After 22 years in the industry, I feel I know it pretty well by now, so hopefully I'll be able to bring some of that experience to bear in our coverage.

Now that I'll be writing about the media on a full-time basis I would expect to see more journalism-related stuff on this blog from time to time, in particular the interplay between politics and journalism which is an area which has always fascinated me. But I'll still be keeping in touch with political developments via my Journal column so hopefully things won't change too much!

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fairness agenda gets lost in the melee

The Queen's Speech is normally one of the highlights of the parliamentary calendar - but the fact that this year's found itself rather drowned-out shows just how much the political agenda has shifted. Here's today's Journal column.

In any normal year, the Queen’s Speech to the State Opening of Parliament – officially known as the Gracious Address - would be one of the key events in the political calendar.

Admittedly, Gordon Brown has somewhat diluted its impact over the past couple of years by introducing a Draft Queen’s Speech in July – much as the Pre-Budget Report has somewhat diluted the importance of the Budget.

But even so, the Speech was still seen as one of the big parliamentary set-piece occasions, the point in the political year when a government sets out its agenda and tries to convey a sense of what it is all about.

Until this week, that is. For of course, this year is no normal political year – and this year’s rather truncated legislative programme was certainly no normal Queen’s Speech.

Even within the context of the week’s political news, the Speech seems to have been overshadowed by other, more immediate issues.

On Monday, for instance, we had the statement to the Commons by Childrens’ Secretary Ed Balls setting out the findings of the preliminary inquiry into the Baby P tragedy.

The report was as damning as they come and led to the immediate suspension of Haringey Council’s director of childrens’ services, Sharon Shoesmith – though she remains unaccountably on full pay.

Mr Balls may not be the most empathetic of politicians, but he does at least do firm and decisive well – and this Commons statement showed him in his best light.

Then we had the ongoing and increasingly bitter controversy over the arrest of the Tory frontbencher Damian Green and the raid on his Commons office just over a week ago.

No-one seems to have come out of this episode particularly well so far. For House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, in particular, it seems to have turned into the story from hell.

Already under fire from MPs for having allowed the police to raid parliamentary premises in the first place, his troubles intensified this week when he was forced to admit that they had done so without a warrant.

It would, in my view, set an incredibly unfortunate precedent if MPs felt obliged to defenestrate him – but perhaps instead Mr Martin should now make clear he will be standing down ahead of the next election.

The position of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith seems less under threat, but she seems scarcely less culpable than Mr Martin in her handling of the affair.

To cut a long story short, it seemed she knew that the police were investigating the leaking of confidential Home Office documents, and knew that the said documents were being passed to the Tory Party.

What she claims she didn’t know was that Mr Green was the Tory frontbencher specifically under investigation by detectives, or that he was about to be arrested.

Whether she should have known is the key point at issue here. At least two of her predecessors – the Tories’ Michael Howard and Labour’s John Reid – clearly think she should.

All of that said, I have my doubts as to whether the Conservative Party will itself come out of this sorry affair with its reputation enhanced.

Much will depend on the motives of the “mole” and whether, as Business Secretary Peter Mandelson alleged on the BBC’s Today Programme, he was leaking material to Mr Green in order to further his political ambitions.

Occasionally in political journalism, you come across a story that starts out by looking highly embarrassing to one side and ends up with the other side having egg on its face.

I have a slight hunch that this could turn out to be one such case.

But if the Baby P inquiry and the Damian Green affair were not enough to squeeze the poor old Queen’s Speech off the front pages, we then had the reduction in interest rates to their lowest level for 57 years.

Since this will actually put money back in peoples’ pockets in the form of lower mortgage payments, it is far more likely in my view to kick-start economic activity than last week’s 2.5pc cut in VAT.

But the swift change of direction by the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee – it is only last year that rates were still going up – is almost worthy of a Private Eye-style apology.

“For years, we along with the rest of the UK political establishment may have given the impression that inflation is the worst thing can happen to the economy. In fact, we now realise that deflation is much worse, and apologise for any misunderstanding.”

So at the end of the day, was there actually anything in the Queen’s Speech worth writing about? Well, yes, although it was probably just as notable for what it left out as for what it included

What it did include was the remnants of what Mr Brown in his party conference speech in September termed the “fairness” agenda.

This included a Bill aimed at getting people on lower incomes to save more with the government promising to contribute 50p for every £1 saved up to £600.

And back on the agenda, to some surprise, was the measure to give employees the right to request flexible working hours, which many suspected Mr Mandelson had killed.

Perhaps significantly, though, the Speech did not include Mr Brown’s much-vaunted Constitutional Renewal Bill, which would among other things have given MPs the final say on going to war.

This was once a key plank in Mr Brown’s reform programme and was actually the subject of his first statement to the Commons as Prime Minister.

That it now no longer even merits a place in his government’s legislative programme is just one small illustration of how events have altered Mr Brown’s priorities and how the political agenda has shifted.

And the fact that it went almost unnoticed by the national media surely only serves to underline the point.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's not that I don't care, honest....

To anyone who has come here this week hoping or expecting to find my thoughts on the Damian Green affair, or the Queen's Speech, or the suspension of Sharon Shoesmith, or the interest rate cut, or anything else for that matter, may I offer my apologies.

They were all subjects worthy of a blog post and, had I had more free time this week, I would certainly have done covered them.

That said, I am in one sense relieved that I didn't rush into print with my thoughts on the Green controversy. As a democrat, my initial instincts would obviously have been to defend the Tory frontbencher's right to leak confidential material, and to question the political wisdom of Gordon Brown's refusal to condemn the police action.

Now, I'm not so sure. Yes, Jacqui Smith should have known what was going on in her own department. Yes, Michael Martin should have known the police didn't have a warrant, but my gut instinct tells me that we've not heard anything like the whole of this story yet, and it would not surprise me in the least if it eventually turned itself inside out, leaving the Tories as the ones with egg on their faces. As I said, just a hunch.....

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

On reflection...they could have spent that money better

There's an old saying in politics that Budgets look different a week after they are delivered than a day after - and I guess Pre-Budgets are no exception. After initially praising the Chancellor's decision to cut VAT on Monday, I've revised my opinion somewhat. Here's today's Journal column.

Thirteen months ago, Chancellor Alistair Darling stood up to deliver his first Pre-Budget report in the House of Commons in what was an atmosphere of political ferment.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was coming under heavy fire after scrapping plans for an autumn election and the PBR – brought forward by a month from its normal November slot – was being seen as a chance for Labour to regain the political initiative.

In a bid to trump Tory plans to scrap inheritance tax for all estates below £1m, Mr Darling announced an immediate doubling of the threshold for the tax to £600,000.

But the attempted vote-grabbing manoeuvre backfired horribly, making Labour look like a government that had run out of steam and which was now reliant on the opposition for new policy ideas.

A year on, the stakes for Mr Darling were even higher. Against the backdrop of the worst economic downturn in decades, this year’s PBR needed to show that the Chancellor was the man with the plan with tackle the crisis.

Not only that, but Messrs Brown and Darling also needed to demonstrate that their plan was better than anything David Cameron’s Conservatives might come up with.

Well, the backlash against this week’s PBR has been nothing like the widespread public contempt that greeted last year’s, but neither has there been anything resembling a public outburst of enthusiasm for it.

It’s still relatively early days for Mr Darling’s Chancellorship, but if pressed for a judgement I would have to conclude that Pre-Budget Reports are probably not his strong point.

Sure, Monday’s statement had its good points, notably the decision to bring forward £3bn of spending on infrastructure projects and the earlier-than-planned increases in pensions and child benefit.

Welcome, too – at least as far as this columnist is concerned – was the long overdue decision to increase the top rate of tax on the highest earners, though only on those earning what for most of us is the undreamed-of sum of £150,000-a-year.

This has been predictably hailed by some as heralding the death of New Labour, but in truth, the 1997 commitment not to raise the higher rate of tax had become almost as much of an outdated shibboleth as the original Clause IV.

The essence of New Labour did not lie in adherence to any single policy stance, more the idea that different times require different solutions, and in that sense, the 45p tax move is as New Labour as they come.

Neither, in my view, can Messrs Brown and Darling be accused of lacking courage in bringing such a package before the voters.

The Prime Minister has been called many things over the past fifteen months - but the soubriquet which possibly did him the most damage was the one applied to him in the wake of the non-election debacle - 'Bottler Brown.'

Well, he certainly didn’t bottle this one. On the contrary, he has been completely upfront with the public both about the sheer scale of borrowing that is required, and the fact that it will require post-election tax rises to pay for it.

For Labour to try to turn the normal laws of politics on their head by promising both
tax increases and spending cuts if re-elected is a strategy so bold it almost deserves to succeed on that alone.

But for all its boldness, there was a huge unanswered question at the heart of Mr Darling’s plan, namely, whether it will actually work either economically or politically.

The centrepiece of the Monday’s package was not the aforementioned tax increase for the super-rich, but the £12.5bn tax giveaway via the temporary reduction in VAT from 17.5pc to 15pc.

The economic thinking behind this at least is clear. The government hopes it will encourage people to go out and spend, and that the resulting boost to the retail sector will somehow kick-start the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a price-cut that amounts to a fiver off a £200 telly will have anything like the desired effect in this regard.

But if the economic case for the VAT cut is unproven, the politics of it seem even less clear-cut.

Just ask yourself for a moment, if you were Prime Minister and had £12.5bn with which to try and win the next election, what would be the most vote-winning policy you could come up with?

Well, I don’t think Gordon Brown has asked himself this question anything like as hard as he should have done – because I am quite sure the answer is not a 2.5pc cut in VAT.

A cut in direct taxation, that would have put money directly back in people’s pockets rather than making goods very slightly cheaper in the shops, would have been a far, far better option.

One person who seems to have realised this is North Tyneside MP and former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers, who asked a revealing parliamentary question earlier this year.

Mr Byers wanted to know how much it would cost to lift half a million people, a million and a million half out of income tax altogether.

Intriguingly, the answer he received showed that the cost of lifting a million people out of income tax for one year—by raising the personal allowance by £960—was £11.1bn.

Would that not have been a much better use of the £12.5bn at Mr Darling’s disposal? And would not the Tories have had a much harder time arguing against such a tax cut?

It is for these reasons that I cannot see this Pre-Budget Report as anything more than a missed opportunity for Labour.

Unlike some, I don’t view it as a suicide note to the electorate on a par with the party’s infamous “Shadow Budget” in 1992, but neither do I see it as the springboard for a 2010 election victory.

My hunch is that if the economy recovers, and Labour’s political prospects with it, it will be more in spite of this package than because of it.

Once again, a chance to regain the political initiative has been squandered – along with the taxpayers’ billions.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

A crisis carol

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mandelson should answer Commons Questions

So says the Business and Enterprise Select Committee whose job is to monitor the activities of Lord Mandy's new department. But not just him. In my view, anyone should be able to be quizzed on the floor of the Commons, whether they are a member of either House of Parliament.

Here's what I wrote on the Guardian Politics Blog earlier today:

In my view we should go further, and make it possible for people to answer questions in the Commons without needing to be a member of either House of Parliament. This would achieve two things. Firstly, it would enable Prime Ministers to appoint the very best people to their Cabinets without them needing to become MPs or peers. Secondly, it would move us closer to the classic Separation of Powers doctrine on which the US constitution is built. The Prime Minister would continue to be the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons, and would thus invariably be an MP. But he would be able to appoint anyone he liked to his Cabinet in the knowledge that they remained accountable to Parliament through parliamentary questions and (more powerful) select committees.

To see the whole discussion in context, see Andrew Sparrow's original blogpost here.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering Big Cyril

The latest issue of Total Politics is now out and Sir Cyril Smith is the latest subject in my Where Are They Now? series. The short answer is that he's alive and well and living in the same terraced house in Rochdale which he's lived in for 80 years, but you'll have to click on the link to see the rest.

The mag also has a poll on The Top 100 Political Journalists in Britain on which I feel obliged to pass some comment. I don't want to be too critical, as it was compiled fairly objectively from the votes of politicians, lobby journalists, and the TP Facebook group, but any such poll that places Peter Oborne at 60 and David Hencke at 93 has to be taken with something of a pinch of salt.

It seems the editorial team of Total Politics weren't entirely in agreement with their electorate on this either. In the preamble to the piece, they say: "We found it difficult to understand why neither Andrew Neil nor Ben Brogan made the Top 20. Surely Patrick Hennessy, Nick Watt and Peter Oborne should have been far higher than mid-table mediocrity?"

Leaving aside the odious Mr Pad, who Daily Politics show I find consistently unwatchable on account of his overweening presence, I would second all of that.

The other point I would make about polls listing political journalists is that you are essentially trying to compare very different skills. During my time in the Lobby, Philip Webster of The Times was regarded by many as the greatest story-getter, which on a traditional view of what constitutes journalism would make him the No 1 political journalist. But not even Phil would claim he was the greatest writer, commentator or sketchwriter.

The truth is that while the most highly-rated political journalists tend to have more specialised skills, venture lower down the list and you are more likely to find genuine all-rounders. The Guardian's ace sketchwriter Simon Hoggart (No 14) would be hard-pressed to write a front-page scoop, but the Mail on Sunday's Brendan Carlin (No 73) not only excels at that but wrote a mean parliamentary sketch in his Yorkshire Post days as I recall.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

No more the bottler

VAT down from 17.5pc to 15pc. New higher tax band for the super-rich. £3bn of capital spending brought forward. National insurance to go up after the election. New air taxes on long-haul. Increases in pensions and child benefit brought forward. Whatever you make of today's Pre Budget Report, no-one can say it lacks ambition.

The Prime Minister has been called many things over the past fifteen months - but the soubriquet which possibly did him the most damage was the one applied to him in the wake of the decision to postpone a 2007 election - 'Bottler Brown.'

Well, I never believed Gordon Brown was a bottler, and this package today has proved it. He is, and always has been when it comes to the economy, a man of huge political courage.

Not the least courageous bit of it is that Mr Brown is attempting to turn the normal laws of politics on their head by promising tax increases if his party wins the next election, gambling that this will partly help defuse the inevitable Tory claims of a hidden "Labour tax bombshell."

Will it pay-off? Well, if I knew that, I'd be sitting in his chair. It doesn't help the government's case that it is borrowing huge sums of money in the hope of things turning out okay to address a problem caused by banks borrowing huge sums of money in the hope of things turning out okay.

But even if Brown goes on to lose in 2010, and the apparent rebirth of Keynesian economics after decades of monetarist orthodoxy turns out to no more than a fleeting glimmer, I think he's done the right thing by Britain and its neediest families today. Maybe history, if not the electorate, will give him credit for it.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Politics returns to normal

The age of political cross-dressing came to an end this week as David Cameron tore up his pledge to match Labour's spending plans. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since David Cameron became Tory leader nearly three years ago, the shape of British politics has been fixed in a fairly rigid mould.

A Labour Party which had already shifted several degrees to the right under Tony Blair found itself confronted by a Conservative Party suddenly seeking to "detoxify" itself by shifting to the left.

The upshot was what I termed the era of political cross-dressing - an increasingly desperate fight over the political centre ground in which policies drawn up by one party were swiftly and routinely purloined by the other.

Even when Gordon Brown took over the Labour leadership in 2007, he found himself unable to do much to break out of this straitjacket, for fear of ceding vital territory to the opposition.

And there we might have stayed right up until the next election, but for the credit crunch and the ensuing economic recessson that now seemingly grips the UK.

Suddenly, things became politically possible that would once have been quite beyond the pale - nationalisation of the banks being perhaps the foremost example.

Against the odds, the one-time high-priest of "prudence" re-discovered Keynesian economics and tore up his own much-vaunted "fiscal rules" which had previously imposed a strict limit on borrowing.

Suddenly, the Tories found themselves having to rethink their own approach to economic policy, for fear of finding themselves outflanked by Labour on both tax cuts and spending increases.

The result was that, this week, the era of political cross-dressing finally came to an abrupt end, as Mr Cameron announced his party would no longer match Labour's spending plans.

In a keynote speech on the economy, the Conservative leader insisted increased borrowing today would mean higher taxes tomorrow as he ripped up his spending pledge.

"Gordon Brown knows that borrowing today means higher taxes tomorrow and if he doesn't tell you that he's misleading you," he said.

"And in any case, after 11 years of waste and broken promises from Labour, they can see that spending more and more alone does not guarantee that things get better."

In one sense, it takes politics back to where it was before the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, when the battle-lines were essentially between Labour "investment" and Tory "cuts."

But in truth, in the case of the most recent contest, that was no more than mendacious spin by Labour - as I pointed out on these pages at the time.

The platform on which the Conservatives fought in 2005 was not cutting spending, merely allowing it to rise at a slower rate than had been proposed by Labour

This is essentially the same as what Mr Cameron is now proposing, despite the inevitable Labour taunts that the Tories are reverting to their slash-and-burn, nasty party stereotype.

It's undoubtedly a big gamble by the Tory leader. Ever since Labour pledged not to exceed the Tories' own spending plans prior to 1997, the watchwords in economic policy have been "don't frighten the horses."

To put it another way, the conventional wisdom for the past decade and a half has been that parties which pledge to change things too much - either by big increases or big cuts in spending - risked electoral suicide.

But the real gamble here is not Mr Cameron's, but Mr Brown's, for it is the Prime Minister who is making the biggest departure from economic orthodoxy.

While Mr Cameron is merely promising lower spending increases and no immediate tax cuts, Mr Brown is promising not just higher spending, but tax cuts into the bargain as well.

People often think the era of economic orthodoxy - of not spending more than the country can strictly afford - began with Mrs Thatcher, but it did not.

It actually began with a Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who went to his party conference in 1976 to tell them "the party's over."

"We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists," he said at the time.

Well here, 32 years on, is his successor-but-five as Labour leader telling us that we can now do exactly that.

We will see on Monday, when Chancellor Alistair Darling unveils his Pre-Budget Report, just how much Mr Brown is prepared to bet on red as he attempts to beat the slump - but all the talk is that it will be big.

Tax credits for the worse off seems a given in the the light of the Prime Minister's recent comments, so too a decision to bring forward spending on major infrastructure projects - which could potentially be good news for the North-East.

If it works, it will go down as possibly the greatest economic rescue operation since Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If it doesn't, Mr Brown will go down as yet another Labour PM who tried and failed to suspend the normal laws of economics.

Westminster is once again rife with talk about a snap general election - even that it could be announced immediately after the PBR on Monday.

I still don't buy it. For a start, the British don't hold elections in the middle of December. Secondly, Brown got his fingers burned so badly last time that I can't believe he would go down that route again.

But what is true is that battle lines for the next election have now started to become clear - with a classic left versus right battle in prospect for perhaps the first time since 1992.

The outcome will almost certainly determine the shape of British politics for the next decade.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloggers and the Lobby

After initially taking the view that political bloggers had little to gain, and much to lose in terms of their independence by joining the parliamentary lobby, my thinking has changed on this point over the past couple of years. The gradual convergence of the blogosphere and the mainstream media which I wrote about in the Guide to Political Blogging earlier this year has rendered the old dividing lines obsolete.

As I have pointed out before, what we must now call the Big Five political blogs are, by virtue of their size, influence, and networks, practically part of the mainstream media already. They are, in no particular order, Iain Dale's Diary, Guido Fawkes, Political Betting, Conservative Home and the most recent newcomer to the elite, Liberal Conspiracy. In my view, all should be in the lobby.

I wrote in the 2008 Guide: "I always thought the day political blogging really entered the mainstream would be when one of the big four blogs managed to obtain a lobby pass. If they haven’t yet given one to the new co-editor of Con Home, I have a feeling they soon will do."

This was a reference to Jonathan Isaby, who had just proved my point about convergence by moving from being a Daily Telegraph lobby hack to editing the site which used to be, rather unfairly, known in some circles as Continuity IDS.

But according to this report in a well-known journalism trade publication yesterday, I was apparently premature in my forecast. In a speech at the London School of Economics, lobby chair Ben Brogan said the issue of whether to admit bloggers to the lobby was in fact causing "a huge headache."

Asked by a member of the audience whether the Commons authorities would consider the move, Brogan replied: "They've been very reluctant to start issuing passes to new media outlets. There's an ongoing conversation whether the House of Commons authorities start issuing media passes to bloggers. That remains unresolved."

Now I am all too aware of the limitation on desk space in the Press Gallery, having been involved in the very early planning stages of the refurbishment that eventually took place in summer 2007, but in the era of wireless broadband, bloggers hardly need a permanent desk in the Gallery in order to update their sites. This is essentially an argument about access, not desks.

Ben's comment doesn't make it entirely clear whether it's the lobby or the Serjeant-at-Arms Office - or both - which is resisting the move. But as a blogger himself - and a very fine one in my view - I would hope that Mr Brogan is quietly making the case for reform.

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Now give Sergeant a proper job

Ex political hack John Sergeant has doubtless provided the nation with much entertainment during his stint on Strictly Come Dancing, and his parting shot at those who persisted in taking the wretched programme far too seriously was as graceful as his dancing was grace-less, but perhaps the BBC should take this opportunity to give him a proper job.

Two possibilities spring to mind. He has been by far the best of the numerous temporary presenters used by Have I Got News For You since the demise of Angus Deayton, and his appointment as the permanent replacement could restore the show to its former glories. Alternatively, he could take over Question Time, which is badly in need of someone of Sergeant's political nous after more than a decade of Dimblebore.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two cheers for pirouetting Purnell

The government was as all over the place over the post office contract as it was over Baby P - but at least they got there in the end. Here's today's Journal column.

It is easy to become cynical about politicians, especially when you've been following their activities for as long as I have. But just occasionally, they can surprise us all and do something right.

It is true they hardly covered themselves with glory this week over the Baby P tragedy, although I'm not sure which of Gordon Brown or David Cameron was more culpable in that regard.

The Tories have spent most of the week trying to blame Mr Brown for allegedly trying to turn the case into a "party political issue," with the implicit suggestion that he doesn't care about the dead child.

For my part, I think if Mr Cameron was so keen to take a non-partisan approach to the issue, he could have chosen a less highly-charged arena in which to raise it than Prime Minister's Questions.

But to be fair to our Westminster masters, they partially redeemed themselves with the announcement of a lifeline to 3,000 post offices under threat of closure, on top of the 2,500 which are already due to close by the end of the year.

For some years, it has been apparent that wherever this government's priorities lay, they certainly did not lie with preserving essential services to isolated or rural communities.

I could list numerous examples of this from the gradual demise of village schools to the trend towards distant super-hospitals, but its apparent willingness to allow village post offices to go to the wall is perhaps the most emblematic.

Which is why Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell's decision on Thursday was as unexpected as it was welcome.

Ministers have decided that the £200m-a-year contract to handle benefit and pension payments - known as the Post Office Card Account - will not after all be handed over to a private sector provider.

Instead, the Post Office will continue to run the card account which distributes benefits to 4.3 million claimants.

Mr Purnell told MPs he would do "nothing to put the network at risk" and that the contract was "central to the viability of the network."

It guarantees the contract until at least March 2015 with what Mr Purnell called "the possibility of an extension beyond that".

Perhaps one of the reasons the announcement caught my eye was because, a few months back, I wrote in this column that "real Labour governments don't close local post offices."

In the light of this, it would be nice to view the decision as further evidence that Mr Brown's administration is rediscovering some sense of moral purpose, though the truth may be more prosaic.

Almost certainly, it had more to do with the impact of the financial crisis and the need to ensure that the people's money is handled by a trusted organisation.

Mr Purnell himself hinted at this in his statement, saying: "The circumstances have changed because of the current financial situation. It means that people are even more reliant on the Post Office than before."

The Tories are certainly in no doubt. Shadow Business Secretary Alan Duncan called the contract announcement "a humiliating climbdown for the government, who have done everything they possibly can to find a way of awarding it to somebody else."

There is possibly something in that, given Mr Purnell's own performance in a Lib Dem-inspired Commons debate last Monday.

The Work and Pensions Secretary insisted there would be "due process" in relation to the award of the contract, and Labour MPs duly trooped through the lobbies to defeat a Lib Dem call for the tendering process to be abandoned.

Yet 72 hours later he was back in the Commons announcing that he done precisely that, prompting one commentator to call it the "Purnell Pirouette."

If the truth be told, the government has been a bit all over the place on the issue

It was a not dissimilar story with Baby P, with the initial refusal to hold an inquiry into Haringey Council's handling of the case swiftly reversed by Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

All in all, it is hard to disagree with the verdict of the Lib Dems' work and pensions spokeswoman Jenny Willott.

"This could all have been avoided if, as the Liberal Democrats have long argued, the Post Office Card Account had never been put out to tender in the first place," she said.

But if the U-turn was, in any sense, a nod to traditional Labour values, it was ironic to see former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson taking a key hand in it.

He of course is the man who has been most closely associated with trying to get the Labour Party to behave more like the Tories in their general attitude to the private sector.

Yet Mr Mandelson - or someone acting on his behalf - had clearly briefed the Sunday papers last weekend that there might be some good news in the offing for the Post Office this week.

The Prince of Darkness has certainly not lost his eye for a good headline in his time away from UK domestic politics.

But in the final analysis, the point is that no matter how we got here, the right result has, for once, been achieved.

People in rural Northumberland whose post offices may now remain open where once they faced closure will not worry too much about the motives behind the government’s change of heart.

Whether it was a case of principle or pragmatism, what's important is that a vital social service is now set to be preserved, at least in some areas.

Surely our political leaders deserve at least two cheers for that?

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Wading through the swamp

The last few days have seen a determined effort across the Tory blogosphere to nail Gordon Brown over his Commons performance on Wednesday in relation to the Baby P case.

It was clearly not one of the PM's best days, but the Tories' ongoing attempts to equate his below-par display with somehow not caring about the dead child are, in my view, a disgrace, although entirely consistent with their general view of Brown as some sort of devil incarnate.

If David Cameron really wanted an intelligent debate on the issues surrounding the tragedy, he should have submitted a Private Notice Question which would have obliged the Speaker to schedule an emergency debate, not brought it up in the highly-charged, partisan arena of PMQs.

Cartoonist Slob, though, has a slightly different take. As far as he is concerned, Messrs Brown and Cameron are both as guilty as eachother....

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Andy Donkersley

In the course of 22 years in journalism, ten of them in the parliamentary lobby, I have seen a fair few top-class reporters in action. From my Westminster days I would single out the Guardian's David Hencke, the Standard's Joe Murphy and the Liverpool Echo's Ian Hernon as three of the best. But right up there with them would have to be Andy Donkersley, a dishevelled, long-haired hack from Huddersfield who spent a year or so alongside me in the Derby Evening Telegraph newsroom of the late-1980s. He was so bloody good, so unfailingly spot-on in his news instincts and writing style, that at times he made me feel about as much use as a chocolate teapot by comparison, quite unintentionally I'm sure.

Andy was found dead at his home in Shifnal last week at the age of 52, two years after having left his last job in the profession. Some of his old colleagues have left some nice tributes on HoldtheFrontPage, while former Wolverhampton Express and Star friend and colleague Reg Pither has penned a moving piece on his blog, Grantham New Town.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thirty years too late....

The Guardian reports today on moves towards the formation of a UK football team for the 2012 Olympics. It's easy to see why this idea is being considered now, when in the past it has been vociferously opposed by every major UK sporting body, but from where I'm standing it's about 30 years out of time.

With all due respect to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, a UK football team as constituted today would be basically the England XI. Welshman Ryan Giggs might make the subs bench, but he won't be around for 2012.

I say this with no great relish or desire to do down our Celtic cousins. I was in fact a huge fan of Scottish football in the 1970s and it is a matter of regret that the land of Jim Baxter, Jimmy Johnstone, Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish would no longer be able to provide realistic contenders for a UK-wide XI.

But the days when a collection of mining villages west of Glasgow could supply an entire European Cup-winning team, as amazingly happened with Celtic in 1967, are sadly long gone.

I personally would have loved to have seen a UK team when I was growing up as a football-mad youngster in the 70s. England had some decent players then - Kevin Keegan, Colin Bell and Roy McFarland to name but three - but we were always two or three players short of a great team, hence our elimination from the World Cup qualifiers of 1974 and 1978.

How different might that story have been had the national team been able to call on the likes of Bremner, Peter Lorimer, John Toshack, Pat Jennings - still the greatest goalie I have ever seen - and of course, George Best.

Incidentally I reckon Best's career would have been prolonged if he'd had the incentive of meaningful international competition. Given that he'd achieved everything there was to achieve in the club game by 1968, it was hardly surprising that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll became a more interesting option.

You know what I think? I think Bestie would have played in the '74 World Cup in Germany, and we'd have won the bugger, with Bremner as skipper emulating Bobby Moore's achievement of eight years' previously.

In the 80s, a UK team would potentially have been even stronger. This was the era in which Liverpool dominated Europe and Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Ian Rush would all have been key players in the national set-up. In the 90s, there would have been Giggs and Mark Hughes.

But as for today, I don't see a great deal to be gained from it, beyond raising the possibility of "tokenist" squad places for otherwise inferior Scottish, Welsh and Irish players, and creating a false sense of national unity in a political culture which is far more devolved than was the case three decades ago.

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