Friday, February 29, 2008

Harry leaves with his head held high

I have always been ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan, but I have nothing but respect for Prince Harry following his tour of duty there and I am glad he was able to pursue his wish to serve his country in this way even for so short a period.

As for the person who saw fit to release this story and put British soldiers' lives at risk - as well as destroying a young man's dream - I have little more to add to what I have already said here.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Next Speaker

Earlier this week I argued that while Michael Martin should certainly not be forced out of office in a way that would undermine the independence of the Speakership, he should start to make plans to leave his post before rather than after the next General Election. Realistically, this means within the next 12 months, as it is still quite feasible that Gordon will decide to go to the country in May next year.

A poll carried out on Iain Dale earlier this week showed long-serving (long-suffering?) deputy Sir Alan Haselhurst as the most popular choice to replace him. It will be interesting to see if my own poll produces a similar result, given this blog's more liberal-left readership.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Portillo finds his niche

Like Iain Dale I thought last night's BBC4 documentary by Michael Portillo on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher was a riveting watch. The degree of self-awareness displayed by Portillo, Michael Howard and William Hague in particular as they picked over the bones of the Tories' wilderness years was fascinating.

Portillo seemed to have been very affected by the fact that his defeat in Enfield Southgate was voted the 3rd most popular TV moment ever. Was this, I wonder, when he began to lose his appetite for leadership, and ultimately for politics in general? If so I can't really blame him - we all want to be loved after all - and he's clearly more at home in front of the cameras.

Hague once again admitted that he should not have contested the leadership in 1997 and waited until 2001 instead, something that was pointed out to him at the time by yours truly along with a number of others. It was a great tragedy for the Tories that Ken Clarke was not leader in that Parliament. He would have taken the shine off Tony Blair in no time.

Howard's admission that he knew the party had to modernise, but that he knew he was the wrong person to modernise it, was the most intriguing of all. Howard is a smart guy, but surely he would have had the self-knowledge to realise BEFORE 2003 that he was personally ill-equipped for the task of modernisation - in which case you wonder why he took on the leadership at all?

The point of the programme was to examine the continuing legacy of Margaret Thatcher to the Tories. In crude terms, it was to help destroy the premiership of John Major, then ensure that the party elected the wrong leaders in both 1997 and 2001, thereby condemning them to their two heaviest defeats in recent history.

Despite all she achieved for her party as Prime Minister, this baleful contribution after leaving office always has to be weighed in the balance.

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I want John, you want Barack

Just occasionally, I disagree with my own readers. The US presidential race is one such instance.

I'm with McCain. You voted:

Barack Obama 42%
John McCain 25%
Hillary Clinton 20%
Mitt Romney 3%
Mike Huckabee 2%
None of these 8%

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Why Gorbals Mick must stay - for now

I last wrote about Mr Speaker Martin on this blog in November 2006, after he had blocked David Cameron from asking pointless questions about who Tony Blair would be endorsing in the Labour leadership election.

On that occasion, I wrote that while I sympathised with Martin as a victim of the snobocracy which seeks to belittle anyone from a working-class background who rises above his station, the media hostility towards him was entirely explicable in view of his legendary acts of pettiness towards our profession in the past.

Furthermore, the cirumstances of his election in 2000 showed the Labour Party at its very worst and, like much else that happened in the party between 1994 and 2007, was a direct consequence of the Blair-Brown feud.

Blair stumbled into it by appearing to support the election of a Lib Dem speaker - his favoured candidate was in fact Ming Campbell. It provoked a backlash from backbench Labour MPs which was then gleefully stoked-up by the Brownites in order to deliver a bloody nose to Mr Tony.

One MP, a very close ally of the then Chancellor, said to me afterwards: "It was a chance for us working-class boys to put one over on the public schooboys." That was basically code for: "It was a chance for Brown to put one over on Blair."

Had No 10 not made the mistake of seeking to involve itself in an election that has always been a jealously-guarded prerogative of MPs, it is doubtful in my view that Martin would ever have been elected.

However, while I don't think the election of Mr Speaker Martin was exactly the best days' work the House of Commons ever did, the important thing about it was that it was a House of Commons decision, rather than one imposed by the executive.

And that is what is troubling me about the current wave of demands for the Speaker to go - that if he were to accede to them, it would set an extraordinarily bad precedent over one of the few offices in our constitution which is genuinely independent of the government.

If such a precedent were to be established, a future government could use that precedent to get rid of a Speaker it didn't like. That in turn would remove one of the last bastions of House of Commons independence.

For this reason, and this reason alone, I support Michael Martin's right to retire at a time of his own choosing. Although I also happen to think he should choose to go, as Betty Boothroyd did in 2000, before rather than after the next general election.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Not Black Wednesday yet

This weekend's column in the Newcastle Journal naturally focuses on the political fallout thus far from the Northern Rock nationalisation, announced a week ago today.

The full version is on Behind the Lines as usual but the digested read is:

  • Labour did the right thing nationalising the bank, although, driven by an irrational fear of the n-word, they took slightly too long to get there.

  • The Tories' response to the crisis has been confused from the start, as a result of which the party has failed to articulate a credible alternative.

  • The public's reaction thus far demonstrates that this has not been Labour's Black Wednesday, although there remain unanswered questions over Granite.

  • All in all, the whole episode ought to mark the end of our love affair with financial deregulation.

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  • Friday, February 22, 2008

    The Chairmen's Pint

    Good to see some old lobby traditions have survived despite the demise of the old Press Bar. And congratulations to the two new chairmen Colin Brown and Ben Brogan - a formidable duo if ever there was one.

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    The QT review

    Last night's Question Time from Newcastle was understandably devoted to Northern Rock. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of it was the reaction of the audience. Even allowing for the fact that this is a Labour-supporting area, there was no great outpouring of anger against the Government, confirming me in my view that this is not currently being seen by the public as "Labour's Black Wednesday."

    This week has been Vince Cable's moment of triumph after advocating nationalisation from the start, but he was surprisingly understated last night. Maybe this is what makes him such an effective operator. He also told it like it is, risking the wrath of the North-East audience saying "it is very clear that the Bank has to be shrunk."

    By contrast, Derek Simpson, general secretary of Unite, played to the gallery and spoke up for the workers. It was significant, though, that he got the biggest cheers of the evening not for lambasting the government, but for saying that he "has trouble understanding Conservative policies."

    That was not necessarily the fault of Tory panellist Alan Duncan, the shadow minister for Tyneside, but like David Cameron and George Osborne earlier in the week, he failed to articulate a plausible alternative policy, nor explain which of the six different policies espoused by the Tories since last autumn was curently in favour.

    Spectator Political Editor Fraser Nelson made the point that Gordon Brown's regulatory framework had been at fault for allowing the situation at NR to get out of control in the first place, but without pointing out that the Tories have previously favoured even lighter regulation. I rate Fraser pretty highly as an operator but I thought this was a rather careless omission.

    Ruth Kelly, for the government, was impressive in a quietly authoritative sort of way. Apart from one brief foray into Ed Balls-style spouting of economic bullet-points (someone should tell Labour that the political dividend from Bank of England independence has long since been used up) she seemed to be on her home ground talking about economic matters. Could she yet be the first female Chancellor?

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    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Should you ever go back?

    The list of prominent Tory casualties at the 1997 general election has become the stuff of political legend, culminating of course in the shock defeat of leader-in-waiting Michael Portillo which irrevocably changed the course of Conservative politics.

    One of the less well-known Tory MPs to lose their seats, however, was Phillip Oppenheim, who served as a minister in the department of trade and industry and was also one of Chancellor Ken Clarke's closest parliamentary allies.

    Phillip and I go back a fairly long way. From 1983-97 he was MP for the Derbyshire seat of Amber Valley where I live, and our paths crossed several times when I was a reporter on the Derby Evening Telegraph in the late 80s and early 90s.

    Later, after I "went into the Lobby" we met up again and he invited me to a couple of legendary summer parties at his basement flat in Westminster. It was a nice gesture as by then I was working for the South Wales Echo and could not have been of any conceivable use to him in his career.

    Since Phillip lost his seat and went off to run a Cuban cocktail bar, I have often wondered whether he would return to politics. This post, on his new blog, Party Political Animal seems to give a pretty unequivocal answer.

    The post, published in response to the Derek Conway affair, questions what "1997 retreads" such as Conway and Andrew Mitchell achieved by going back into Parliament and earned him this characteristically charming rebuke from Mitchell.

    On the point at issue, I happen to think Phillip is wrong. The likes of Conway, Mitchell and Greg Knight were all in their mid-to-late 40s when they lost their seats in '97, which is a bit young in my view to be thinking of abandoning your political career.

    He is right to point out that the "retreads" have achieved little since returning in 2001 - but it is scarcely their fault that their party rendered itself so unelectable that it was unable to get back into power.

    As far as his own case is concerned, Oppenheim was certainly young enough to have come back and made a big contrubution and, as one of the more socially liberal Tories, I think he probably would have been more comfortable on today's Tory frontbench than the one of ten years ago.

    That said, such is the intensity of life at Westminster that, once you've been away, you do tend to get a bit of a feeling of "been there and done that" about the place. Indeed, I feel much the same way about the Lobby.

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    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    Make February 29 a public holiday

    Various campaigns have recently drawn my attention to the fact that every four years, the British workforce do an extra day's work without pay. It's called February 29.

    To its great credit, the National Trust is viewing this as an opportunity to raise awareness of environmental issues, and has given all its employees the day off on Friday week to do something green.

    The excellent Big Green Switch website, which seeks to encourage people to find simple, practical ways to reduce their carbon footprint, is also backing the move, and lists a number of things which people can do to help ranging from cancelling their junk mail to planting a tree.

    Obviously part of the logic of the NT's move is to save on the carbon emissions generated by people driving into work, which if replicated across the UK workforce, would be considerable.

    I agree wholeheartedly with all this both as a means of helping the environment and because there are currently far too few public holidays in this country. A holiday devoted to tackling climate change - even it is one only every four years - would help on both counts.

    Regular blog readers will know I have already called for St George's Day to be made a national holiday, along with January 2 (the Scots get this already) and the Queen's Official Birthday.

    It's not because I'm a workshy slacker, it's because I think we live life at such a pace and intensity in this country now that we occasionally need to take a step back, and additional public holidays would provide an opportunity to do this.

    It would also constitute a belated recognition by the government and the "business lobby" that we are all working much harder and longer hours as a nation, and against the backdrop of much greater job insecurity, than we did 20 or 30 years ago.

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    Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    Was Neil Hamilton hard done by?

    Following on from the previous post...a number of posters on Iain Dale's Diary today have posed the question whether the former Tory minister Neil Hamilton got a raw deal when the jury in the libel case arising from the cash-for-questions affair believed Mohammed al-Fayed's version of events rather than his.

    Quite possibly so, in the sense that I doubt whether any jury would believe al-Fayed now. But if public preconceptions of the key protagonists did a play a part in deciding the original trial, Hamilton has only himself to blame.

    For all I know, his experiences since 1997 may have made him a humbler man now, but throughout his time in the political frontline Hamilton appeared to revel in portraying himself as the sort of smug, arrogant, unpleasant Tory git who personified the "nasty party" during the Thatcher-Major years.

    I had some experience of this during the early 1990s when I was a reporter on the South Wales Echo and attended the Welsh Press Awards. Hamilton, then a trade and industry minister, was the guest of honour, and began his after-dinner speech with some mildly amusing recollections of fighting election campaigns in the early 70s in various hopeless, Labour-dominated Valleys seats.

    This was received with good humour, until Hamilton came to his punchline: "But we got our revenge on them later when we closed all their pits!" This bon mot, delivered to a Welsh audience at a time when Tower Colliery was threatened with closure, was predictably greeted by a stunned silence, followed by cries of "Shame!"
    "Disgraceful!" and "Resign!"

    I don't of course claim that this story proves Hamilton was necessarily guilty of all the charges which al-Fayed and the Guardian threw at him. But it does go part of the way to explaining why his fall, when it came, was so little lamented by the wider public.

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    But where the fuggin' hell was Gordon?

    So The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Robin Cook, Lady Sarah MacCorquodale, Sir Robert Fellowes, Paul Burrell, Sir Paul Condon, Sir John Stevens, Lord Mishcon, Rosa Monckton, Henri Paul, Trevor Rees and the two doctors at the Paris hospital who treated her were all involved in either the plot to kill Princess Diana or the subsequent cover-up.

    Or so says Mohammed al-Fayed, who - let's try and be charitable - is clearly a man who is still in a deep state of grieving for his dead son.

    But what struck me as interesting about al Fugger's long list of suspects is that he didn't include Gordon Brown among them.

    Could it be that this is another one of Blair's many crimes that El Gordo successfully managed to extricate himself from? And more to the point, why isn't the entire Tory blogosphere demanding to know why the man they call "Macavity" wasn't there?

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    Monday, February 18, 2008

    The least worst option

    Not surprisingly, the Tories are trying to have it both ways over Northern Rock today. One the one hand, they criticise the nationalisation of the Rock as a "disaster for the taxpayer." On the other, they criticise Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling for spending six months arriving at that decision. The two don't actually add up.

    The whole reason the Government has spent the last six months exploring every other conceivable option for the future of the stricken bank was precisely because they were desperate not to have to nationalise it. For this reason, I am inclined to believe Alistair Darling when he says that the deal represents the best value for the taxpayer. Because if it didn't, they sure as hell wouldn't have done it for any other reason.

    Let's also dispose of the idea - championed by Guido Fawkes here and here - that this is primarily about saving North-East jobs. If that was the case, the government would presumably have nationalised Siemens and Fujitsu when they crashed with significant impact on the regional labour market in the late 1990s.

    The reason they didn't, of course, was because Siemens and Fujitsu, although large regional employers, were not banks, and there was no risk that their collapse would cause instability to spread throughout the country's entire financial system, which is the reason Messrs Brown and Darling have acted as they have done in relation to Northern Rock.

    In fact, after ploughing through half a dozen Tory blogs claiming this is a worse political catastrophe than Black Wednesday, the death of Dr Kelly, and cash-for-honours rolled into one, I was somewhat relieved this afternoon to come across a "counter-intuitive" post from Hopi Sen in which he makes the following prediciton:

    Northern Rock will end up making the Government money and be sold off at a significant profit (or have made a net contribution to public sector finances) before the next election.

    The point is, there is actually just as much chance of this being right as the Tories' prophecies of doom. The answer is, we don't know, and we probably won't know for several years yet.

    The Tories will doubtless go on claiming that this shows Labour has lost its reputation for economic competence, that Brown is a dud, that Darling should be sacked and so on. It may mean all of that, but it could also turn out to be the most brilliant piece of financial management in recent political history.

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    Saturday, February 16, 2008

    Darling's U-turns show Labour's lack of self-belief

    It's been open season on Alistair Darling at Westminster this week and my Saturday Column published today duly focuses on the Chancellor's performance.

    Like Polly Toynbee, I am dismayed by the U-turns on capital gains tax and the taxation of non-domiciles, which provide further proof as it it were needed that this government is adrift without a philosophical anchor.

    "As things stand, the Tories will be going into the next election pledged to tax “non-doms” at five times the rate now proposed by Labour – although there has to be a question mark over whether their plans are any more workable than Mr Darling’s.

    "Once again, it poses the question whether voters of a leftish inclination are now better off supporting a right-wing party that leans to the left over a centrist one that leans increasingly to the right....what this week’s moves by Mr Darling really demonstrate is a catastrophic loss of confidence by the government in their own values of social justice and fairness."

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    Friday, February 15, 2008

    The quintessence of Englishness

    The Guardian had an interesting piece today in which it asked a series of musicians to name the songs that, for them, define Englishness. It struck a chord with me as a lot of my own favourite songs and bands are what I would describe as quintessentially English - indeed it is one of the main reasons I like them.

    There are some bands - The Smiths, Everything but the Girl, Gabriel-era Genesis - whose entire output to me evokes these shores. Going further back, you could say the same about much of what the Beatles did during their mid-60s psychedelic phase, as well as almost everything that the Kinks or The Who ever released.

    Then there are some bands who are distinctively regional English. New Order, Joy Division and Pulp are clearly the sound of the industrial north, St Etienne will always remind me of Brighton, for some reason, and The Jam will forever be the sound of suburban London.

    Here, then, are my Top 30 English Tunes that really couldn't have come from anywhere else. The list contains album tracks as well as singles and I've deliberately restricted myself to one per artist as Morrissey and Marr and Hook and Sumner would rather dominate the list otherwise. I'd be particularly interested to hear in the comments from anyone who also loves numbers 14 and 17, forgotten classics both.

    1 Waterloo Sunset Kinks
    2 Who Do You Think You Are St Etienne
    3 Can't Be Sure The Sundays
    4 English Rose The Jam
    5 Solsbury Hill Peter Gabriel
    6 William It Was Really Nothing The Smiths
    7 Blood on the Rooftops Genesis
    8 Subculture New Order
    9 Oxford Street Everything But The Girl
    10 Strawberry Fields Forever Beatles

    11 A New England Kirsty McColl
    12 The Day I See You Again Dubstar
    13 Slimcea Girl Mono
    14 Number Four St James' Square Mr Martini
    15 When the Cows Come Home Prefab Sprout
    16 My Name is Jack Manfred Mann
    17 Bloomsbury Blue Ruby Blue
    18 Staying Out for the Summer Dodgy
    19 See Emily Play Pink Floyd
    20 The Mayor of Simpleton XTC

    21 Louise Human League
    22 Razzmatazz Pulp
    23 West End Girls Pet Shop Boys
    24 I Can See for Miles The Who
    25 Wuthering Heights Kate Bush
    26 Have Fun The Beautiful South
    27 Crazy Man Michael Fairport Convention
    28 Don't Look Back in Anger Oasis
    29 Castles in the Air Colourfield
    30 Fool's Overture Supertramp

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    Thursday, February 14, 2008

    Should China have been given the Olympics?

    -----Question Time Review----

    Steven Spielberg certainly seems to have concentrated minds. My wife and I have long been expressing our incredulity that China could have been awarded the Olympic Games, but until now it has seemed like we were talking only to eachother. Tonight's BBC Question Time demonstrated otherwise.

    The programme was dominated by Melanie Phillips - scarcely surprising as she was the biggest brain as well as the biggest mouth on view. It's a sign of age, I suppose, but I find myself agreeing with her on more and more issues these days, not least on her view that awarding the Games to Beijing was a disgrace, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not fit for office. The government representative, Housing Minister Caroline Flint may be better-looking than Phillips, but her leaden asnwers to most of the questions showed she's an intellectual pygmy by comparison. In fact the opposition spokesman, Baroness Warsi, made a far better fist of the "constructive engagement" argument in relation to the Chinese, though she seemed to have little to say for the remainder of the programme.

    Of the other panellists, Clive James was amusing in a desultory sort of way, though it was scarcely the cutting-edge humour we might have expected from him a decade ago, and Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, was clearly there only to put the case for Dr Williams - not the most straghtforward of tasks.

    Having given it a fair amount of thought, I just don't buy Williams' argument that he has been misrepresented by the media. As Phillips rightly pointed out, his original comments amounted, in terms, to the advocacy of a parallel system of law to which Moslems could choose to give their loyalty. I have long believed Rowan Williams to be too politically naive to lead the Church of England effectively, but this was not mere naivety, it was wrongheadedness. It's time to bring on Sentamu.

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    Boulton's Babes and Linford's Lovelies

    Pleased to see that Sky Pol Ed Adam Boulton has once again ignored the PC brigade and published his list of the top ten most fanciable MPs for the second Valentine's Day running.

    With due deference to the poster who described last year's list as "sexist claptrap" which this blog should be "above," I shall do likewise (2007 figures in brackets.)

    1 Julia Goldsworthy (3)
    2 Caroline Flint (2)*
    3 Yvette Cooper (1)
    4 Justine Greening (7)
    5 Alison Seabeck (8)
    6 Celia Barlow (4)
    7 Claire Ward (5)
    8 Helen Southworth (6)
    9 Lynne Featherstone (9)
    10 Blunkett's Dog (New Entry)

    * Judge for yourself on Question Time tonight.

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    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Was entering WW1 the biggest mistake in British history?

    Last week The Times invited readers to nominate the biggest mistakes in history. Henry VIII's decision to break with Rome, Margaret Thatcher's signing of the Single European Act, and entering WW1 all figured quite prominently.

    But was WW1 quite the mistake it often seems? Here's what I wrote in response to a similar point on the ever-thought-provoking Kate's Home Blog.

    Let's just look at what would have happened had the conflict still taken place but with Britain standing on the sidelines. The war would effectively then have been between Imperial Germany/Austria-Hungary on the one side and Russia/France on the other.

    In all likelihood, Imperial Germany would have won, which would have meant it controlled virtually the whole of continental Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Arals. With Russia defeated, there would probably still have been a Russian revolution, but the resulting Russian republic would have been very much a client state of the dominant European superpower, Germany.

    The really intriguing counterfactual point about a German victory in WW1 is that the Hohenzollern dynasty would have continued, and Adolf Hitler would in all likelihood have remained an impoverished painter.

    So by entering the war, winning it, and giving the Germans a thirst for revenge, we ended up with Hitler. By not entering, we would have ended up with a German superpower controlling the whole of Europe. Take your pick...

    I think what this demonstrates is that quantifying whether something is a "mistake" or not is very hard. History tends to have a Yin and Yang about it, and sometimes apparently "bad" things have unexpectedly "good" consequences.

    A Christian would say that God ultimately redeems everything, or in the words of an old worship song "he turns our weaknesses into his opportunities."

    It's not in fact very Christian, but I would probably have to say that the biggest mistake in recent history was the Clinton administration's failure to take out Osama bin Laden when they had the chance in the mid-90s. Sadly, they were distracted by Kenneth Starr and the Lewinsky scandal.

    Closer to home, here are half a dozen things which I wish recent British governments had done differently, the consequences of which have been pretty baleful for all concerned, and which continue to be felt today.

    1. Introduced the Barnett Formula (Labour, 1978)

    2. Paved the way for Robert Mugabe to take over Zimbabwe (Tories, 1980)

    3. Allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and the Sunday Times (Tories, 1981)

    4. Privatised the railways (Tories, 1996)

    5. Chosen Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury ahead of Michael Nazir-Ali (Labour, 2002)*

    6. Joined the invasion of Iraq (Labour, 2003)

    * For the benefit of those who have asked me for my take on the Archbish.

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    Monday, February 11, 2008

    Curse of Petsy strikes Charles Clarke

    Petronella Wyatt is well-known in political journalism circles for an ability to put the black spot on the careers of interviewees. She seems to have an uncanny ability to get people to say or do things which are totallty indiscreet - a valuable quality for a journalist, but a dangerous one for politicians.

    Perhaps the most famous example was Janet Anderson, a rising New Labour star until she unwisely agreed to be interviwed by Wyatt shortly before the 1997 election. During the course of the interview, Anderson revealed that there would be "more sex under a Labour Government," and of course her career never quite recovered.

    Now Charles Clarke has become the latest victim of the Curse of Petsy with a spectacularly ill-judged interview in the Daily Mail which has only served to provide plenty more ammunition about Gordon Brown for Labour's opponents, with Iain Dale suggesting CCHQ should thank Clarke "for doing our dirty work for us."

    I can only imagine this outpouring of bile was occasioned by Gordon's failure to restore Clarke to the Cabinet in the enforced reshuffle following Peter Hain's resignation. As the Sunday Tel's Paddy Hennessy reveals here, he certainly won't be coming back now.

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    Saturday, February 09, 2008

    Has Nick Clegg found a winning formula?

    For the first time since he became Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg found his voice this week with his attack on Gordon Brown over the "surveillance society" at Prime Minister's Questions.

    I have taken this as the subject for my weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal, arguing that for all the Prime Minister's exalted talk of extending liberty last autumn, he will struggle to lay hold of this issue so long as ID cards remain on the agenda.

    "Another part of the problem is the public perception of the Prime Minister himself. Rightly or wrongly, people see him less as the man who will let a thousand flowers bloom, and more as the man sat in a darkened room monitoring our every move on a set of CCTV monitors.

    It may be unfair, but the control freakery that has been associated with the New Labour project from its earliest days does sit easily with a commitment to defending individual freedoms."

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    Friday, February 08, 2008

    Stop Bliar

    Yes, we thought we were done with him but now it seems the Great Charlatan is threatening to step right back into all our lives again. Sign the petition.

    Hat-tip: Bloggerheads.

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    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    QT review

    Actually, for once Question Time wasn't the best thing on telly last night - that was Ashes to Ashes, the follow-up to Life on Mars with Keeley Hawes' Alix Drake replacing John Simm's Sam Tyler in the role of present-day cop who travels back in time to an era where the policing may be less enlightened but the music is just ace. Doubtless Paul Burgin will have a more in-depth review on his blog by tomorrow morning.

    So what of QT? Well, new Culture Secretary Andy Burnham had the job of keeping the government's end up and he was deeply unimpressive. He particularly struggled when asked to defend Caroline Flint's bonkers idea to chuck the unemployed out of their council homes - a suggestion which seemed to have little support in the Liverpool audience - and also when put on the spot about Labour's potty plan to expel the four MPs who are demanding a referendum on the EU Treaty. Burnham does at least seem to have a bit of passion about him, as well as an element of Northern grit, but the overall impression is of an intellectual lightweight. I was left wondering what on earth Telegraph pol ed Andy Porter sees in him.

    By contrast, Tory Chris Grayling did nothing to offset the view that he is one of his party's rising stars, helpfully pointing out that Ms Flint's housing proposal would actually be illegal in most cases in that local authorities have a duty to house children.

    Liberal Democrat Julia Goldsworthy also impressed, answering each question with calm authority and common sense. She has an extremely useful personality for a politician - high intellect and natural authority combined with accessibility and warmth. I am convinced that barring accidents she will lead her party one day.

    Businessman Duncan Bannatyne took a while to get into his stride. At the beginning he was stumbling over his words so much I wondered if he was pissed, but relaxed a bit after some playful banter with Dimbleby over his past donations to the Labour Party. He came over as an instinctive socialist, especially on the council housing issue, but took issue with his party over the EU referendum, posing the question whether they would chuck him out as well.

    The real star, though, was Shami Chakrabarti who once again showed why she is Britain's favourite campaigner. Seemingly despairing of Labour over the "surveillance state" issue, she saved her best flourish till last, declaring that the job of EU president was probably "not grand enough" for Tony Blair. I think it was probably her diplomatic way of saying that she wishes the former Prime Minister would simply f-f-f-ade away.

    Apparently Caroline Flint herself is on next week...

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    Will you stay up for Question Time?

    Viewing figures for Question Time should be up tonight - not only is libertarian pin-up Shami Chakrabarti on the panel, she is joined Julia Goldsworthy, choice of many Lib Dem-leaning males for the party leadership last year.

    Also appearing are Andy Burnham, tipped by the Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph, no less, as the next Labour leader, Tory rottweiler Chris Grayling, who has been tipped by some (including me) as a potential next Tory leader, and entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne, who does not need to be tipped as any sort of leader as he is already worth £150m quid.

    As last week, I'll be reviewing how they got on later.

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    Wednesday, February 06, 2008

    Just say no it ain't so

    Bugger Super Tuesday, and even the supercasino decision...the story that's got me going today is the demise of Grange Hill after 30 glorious years.

    I suppose deciding when to end a successful series is always a difficult call to make. Brookside clearly went on a few years' too long - the final episode was one of the most surreal experiences in the history of TV soap, but by then the producers were clearly taking the piss. And Eastenders, in my view, should have finished about five years ago when it still maintained a modicum of artistic credibility, before they started resorting to Dallas-style stunts like bringing people back from the dead.

    If I'm honest, Grange Hill has probably passed its sell-by date too. The saddest and yet posibly most perceptive comment I have seen on its demise came from a commenter on the BBC website who said:

    "Things have changed too much in both education and society. If Grange Hill were to reflect the lives of teenagers today it would need to be shown after the watershed and not during children's prime viewing slots."

    Be that as it may, as a "first generation" viewer from the late 70s, nothing for me can sully the memories of Tucker, Cathy, Gripper, Duane, Suzanne and of course Messrs Bronson and Baxter, the kind of old-school teachers who simply wouldn't exist in today's education system.

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    Tuesday, February 05, 2008

    What I'm hoping for out of Super Tuesday

    I don't have a vote in the US presidential election, and I doubt I'll be filling this blog with speculation about it over the next nine months, but here, for what is worth, is my take on each of the five candidates left in the race.

    Barack Obama simply isn't ready to be president. Sure, he's got charisma, sure, he says the right things about Iraq, but he's done nothing of note in US federal politics and his election to the presidency at this stage of his career would represent a triumph of style over substance.

    Hillary Clinton is a good social democrat and if she were anyone else but Hillary Clinton I would be rooting for her. But as I have explained before, the greater health of US democracy requires that the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton era is brought to an end.

    Mitt Romney is a very right-wing version of Jed Bartlett. Enough said.

    Mike Huckabee is a good Christian and a man I agree with on many issues, but his selection as the Republican candidate would simply be too divisive and open the way to an Obama-Clinton landslide in November.

    So, almost by a process of elimination, it's John McCain for me. I think he is the right person to restore some credibility to the White House after Dubya and, as Ken Clarke said (although not in so many words) on Question Time last week, electing a 71-year-old to the presidency would give new hope to old gits everywhere.

    I'm hoping he will achieve a clear win tonight, with an inconclusive result on the Democrat side that will cause Obama and Clinton to go on fighting while McCain can concentrate on being statesmanlike. And before any of my leftie friends accuse me of letting the side down, I am at least being consistent.

  • Agree? Disagree? Take part in my quick presidential poll HERE.

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  • Monday, February 04, 2008

    They're not all bad

    A little later than usual...but here's my weekend Column in which I give my reflections on the Derek Conway affair.

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    Friday, February 01, 2008

    Following in Sir Nicky's illustrious footsteps

    For all the continuing furore around Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland calling health minister Ivan Lewis an arsehole, he is not of course the first politician to utter the a-word in the course of parliamentary business.

    The word was used by the Scottish Tory maverick Sir Nicholas Fairbairn when he intervened on Tony Blair during a 1994 debate on equalising the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts. On this occasion, Hansard actually allowed it through rather than placing the word in asterisks, and the full exchange can be read HERE.

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