Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Not the Labour Party

This week's Saturday column in the Newcastle Journal focuses on the Conservatives and specifically on whether David Cameron needs to do more to set out a distinctive vision for the country.


Of all the many political truisms that get trotted out from time to time, one of the most oft-heard but possibly most misleading is the one that says oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

It is true there has been the odd election where that has been the case, but by and large, it is bunkum.

In the last election, in 2005, for instance, an unpopular and discredited Labour government was grudgingly returned to office not on its own merits but for fear of what a Michael Howard-led administration might do.

Another election that was “lost” by the opposition as opposed to “won” by the government was Labour’s “suicide note” election under the leadership of Michael Foot in 1983. The contests in 1987, 1992 and 2001 fall into a similar category.

The 1997 election was a bit of a special case. Perhaps uniquely in the past 40 years, this was an election which the opposition did as much to win as the government did to lose.

John Major’s government may have been universally derided – but Tony Blair never took victory for granted, and his mantra of “no complacency” continued long after it became obvious to everyone else that he was heading for a landslide.

Practically the only election in modern times where the old cliché about governments and oppositions did hold true was 1979, when Margaret Thatcher’s Tories defeated Jim Callaghan’s Labour.

This was not so much a triumph for “Thatcherism” which was only a half-formulated ideology at that point, as a defeat for Old Labourism in the wake of the chaos of the Winter of Discontent.

So what’s all this got to do with the present day? Well, it is clear that the next general election, if it were held tomorrow, would be another which fell into the 1979 category.

We have in this country at the present time a government that seems to have decisively lost the public’s confidence, yet an opposition that has not yet done enough to earn it.

In 1979, people voted for Mrs Thatcher despite having little idea what her government would look like – it is possible that had they known it would mean 3m unemployed, she would not have won.

Likewise today, David Cameron appears to be on course for an election win even though very few people have any clear idea what sort of Prime Minister he will turn out to be.

Mr Cameron’s true appeal would currently appear to rest on the fact that he represents the Not Labour Party, and that he is Not Gordon Brown.

The collapse of public confidence in the government has yet to be matched by any great outpouring of public enthusiasm for the Tories – hardly surprising given that Mr Cameron has turned the party into a policy-free-zone.

What we do know is fairly unconvincing. For instance, we know Mr Cameron would stick to Labour spending plans for much of his first term, while somehow delivering a large cut in inheritance tax for the richest 6pc of voters.

Meanwhile he has yet to discover a compelling “Big Idea,” while a lot of what he says is merely vacuous mood-music such as “let sunshine win the day.”

There are basically two schools of thought within the Conservative Party as to how they should respond to the current crisis facing the Brown administration.

Essentially, the debate is over whether they should follow the sort of strategy successfully employed by Mrs Thatcher in 1979, or the one equally successfully employed by Mr Blair in 1997.

Some argue that the party now needs to do very little in the way of setting out a new policy agenda, and simply sit back and let the government continue to destroy itself.

Others, however, maintain that this is not enough, and that the party still needs to articulate a clear vision of what it will do with power, as Mr Blair did to great effect between 1994-97.

This is in essence a refinement of the continuing debate within the Conservative Party over how far it needs to change in order to be entrusted again with the nation’s destiny.

By and large, those who fall into the “modernising” camp are arguing that the party still needs to do more to “decontaminate” the Tory brand.

But the seeming inevitability of a Tory victory has latterly encouraged the “traditionalists” who want Mr Cameron to stop the political cross-dressing and place more emphasis on cutting taxes and cutting crime.

At the moment, this camp seems to have the upper hand – there has been markedly less talk from Mr Cameron in recent weeks about the importance of winning from the “centre ground.”

But whichever side prevails in this argument will ultimately depend on what happens to the government.

There is still time for Mr Brown to recover, although that really depends on an improvement in the economy that is looking less and likely with each new doom-laden forecast.

The only other alternative for him is the so-called “go for broke” strategy which involves him throwing caution to the winds, doing something radical, and somehow discovering a convincing narrative.

There is also, of course, time for Labour to change its leader again, although many Labour MPs fear that would now do no more than avert a landslide.

Logically speaking, a situation in which a government has lost the public’s support but an opposition has not yet earned it should have “hung Parliament” written all over it.

Oddly enough, that is what Jim Callaghan’s pollsters told him was the best he could hope for if he were to go to the country in the autumn of 1978, as everyone expected him to.

As I have pointed out before, had Mr Callaghan known that his delay would lead not to outright Labour victory but to 18 years of Tory rule, he would have taken that hung Parliament.

Three decades on, I suspect that the current generation of Labour MPs would take it, too.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Labour's Master Plan Revealed

Hat-tip to Justin for alerting me to the existence of this brilliant analysis of what appears to be Labour's current electoral strategy. As I'm sure you will agree, it beats all the current MSM punditry hands down.

Labour will today unveil a detailed plan to alienate its last remaining pockets of support.

The central plank of the party's strategy involves identifying the 10 most popular family cars in Britain and then making them a nightmare to own.

A Labour spokesman said: "We're going for the double whammy of making them too expensive to drive, but also impossible to sell.

"And if that doesn't work we'll just spray paint a big swastika onto the bonnet."

The party is also drawing up plans to spend £200 million of taxpayers' money on a vicious PR campaign against the country's 100 most decorated war veterans.

Meanwhile teams of party researchers will tour marginal constituencies, identifying Labour voters and then kneeing them in the groin or setting fire to their coat.

And later this week, in a carefully stage-managed event at Westminster, at least 10 Cabinet ministers will explain why they intend to vote Conservative.

The spokesman added: "We'll take stock during the summer and if, at that point, there are any Labour voters left, the prime minister will send them each a personal, hand-written letter calling them a c*nt."

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

North-East referendum defeat was Prescott's "greatest regret"

Having closely followed the long debate over North-East regional devolution in my old role as Political Editor of the Newcastle Journal, I was intrigued to read this story in today's Guardian, in which John Prescott speaks of the failure to win the 2004 regional assembly referendum as his "greatest regret" in politics.

It was obvious all along that Prescott attached huge importance to the issue. Unfortunately for him, no one else in the Blair Cabinet thought it was remotely important, including of course the then Prime Minister himself.

Prescott is often derided as a figure of fun, but it is a measure of his underlying seriousness of purpose as a politician that he should regret this policy failure more than, say, the Prescott punch, the Tracey Temple affair, and building on the green belt, all of which had a much bigger impact on the way he was viewed by the press and public.

Regional government is now about as fashionable as a Spam fritter-eating Phil Collins fan in hot pants, but I for one have to admire Prezza for the fact that he is still happy to be identified with such an unpopular cause.

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A broken reed

This Friday, BBC Parliament is planning to screen 11 hours of coverage of the 1983 General Election, the one that has gone down in history as the point at which when moribund Old Labour finally committed suicide, although in truth the stricken patient lingered on until Neil Kinnock finally put it out of its misery at Bournemouth in 1985.

I was at uni in London during the course of that election and my most abiding memory of it was a visit by Michael Foot to a West London housing estate where large numbers of students then lived.

As Footie tottered into view, a bearded Labour activist suddenly started bellowing at the top of his voice: "Michael, save us from this woman," as if he were imploring Christ to come down from heaven and vanquish the devil and all his works.

The idea of this pathetic old man acting as any kind of saviour in the face of the irresistable force of nature that was Thatcher struck me as a telling metaphor for the Labour Party's weakness at the time.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Damage limitation may require new leader

Today's column in the Newcastle Journal, focusing on the potential fallout from Crewe and Nantwich and the prospects for a Milburn leadership challenge.


It would be fair to say that, during the course of her long parliamentary career, the former Crewe and Nantwich MP Gwyneth Dunwoody was not exactly a friend of New Labour.

As chair of the Commons Transport Committee, she regularly lambasted the government’s failure to make the railways a priority and, in particular, its slowness in tackling the chaos of rail privatisation after 1997.

Indeed, she proved so troublesome that, in 2001, the then Chief Whip, Durham North West MP Hilary Armstrong, made a ham-fisted attempt to keep her off the committee so she could not be re-elected as its chairman.

But backbench Labour MPs rose up in support of their doughty colleague, and Mrs Dunwoody continued to be a thorn in the side of the government moreorless up until her death last month.

There is, therefore, no little irony in the fact that the by-election caused by her passing has now resulted in Tory leader David Cameron hailing “the death of New Labour.”

But party stalwart that she undoubtedly was, I doubt that even Mrs Dunwoody would have wished what happened on Thursday night on Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Whether the 17pc swing to the Tories leaves Mr Brown’s leadership holed below the waterline only time will tell. It certainly constitutes the gravest crisis of his premiership.

It will, I suspect, become clearer over the next 48 hours whether there will be a serious attempt to depose him now, or whether he will be given until the autumn conference season to try to turn the situation round.

Is there a historical precedent for what happened at Crewe? The most oft-heard one this week has been the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, won by the Liberal Democrats from the Tories on a 20pc swing.

Within five weeks of that result, the most successful Conservative Prime Minister of modern times, Margaret Thatcher, had been unceremoniously ousted.

As is often the case with Mr Brown, however, the case of James Callaghan provides an interesting counter-precedent.

In April 1977, the Tories won Ashfield from Labour on a 20pc swing, a year or so after Mr Callaghan had become Prime Minister. It was another two years before he left No 10.

The contrast between Mr Callaghan’s position then and Mr Brown’s now illustrates how much politics – and the media’s coverage of it – has changed in the ensuing three decades.

The loss of an old mining seat like Ashfield was a truly catastrophic result for Labour – but no media pundits rushed into print demanding that Callaghan make way, and certainly no MPs did so.

Perhaps the key difference was that Callaghan’s personal popularity ratings always remained high – right up to his defeat by Mrs Thatcher in May 1979.

Maybe because he lacks “Sunny Jim’s” avuncular disposition, the voters’ attitude to Mr Brown seems entirely more visceral. It is not just his policies which are the issue, it is him personally.

So should Mr Brown now do the decent thing to spare his party any further carnage? Well, the arguments for and against are not straightforward.

The Labour mantra about the former Chancellor being the best man to steer the economy though the current choppy waters still just about holds true, if only for the lack of an obvious alternative.

In my post-Budget column in March, I wrote that if Mr Brown can succeed in guiding the economy through the current slowdown, he will in all probability win the election. Crewe notwithstanding, I stand by that claim.

I would add, however, that it has become increasingly clearer since then that the situation may be beyond even his legendary powers of economic management

A more persuasive reason not to change leaders at this stage is that Labour could not possibly get away with foisting two unelected Prime Ministers on the electorate in close succession.

Whoever took over would therefore be virtually obliged to call an immediate election that Labour would be bound to lose, thereby negating the whole point of changing leaders in the first place.

That said, if the situation gets much worse for the party between now and the autumn, MPs would have very little left to lose by gambling on another leadership change.

At some point, it may become simply a case of damage limitation. The question would not be so much “could a new leader win?” as “could a new leader save at least some of our seats?”

A couple of weeks ago, I ran the rule over some of the possible contenders to take over should Mr Brown fail to recover. My view then, and now, was that Darlington MP Alan Milburn represented the best option.

During the past week, there has been some considerable speculation that Mr Milburn will indeed challenge Mr Brown, with backing from his old chum, North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers.

Some would regard the former health secretary merely as a stalking horse. My view, for what it’s worth, is that he would be a very serious candidate.

He is the right age for No 10 and having served in Blair's Cabinet, but not in Brown's, can combine top-level experience with relative freshness, enabling him to more credibly claim to be “the change the country needs" than Mr Brown has been able to do.

Were he to stand for the leadership, Mr Milburn would invariably have to deal with a certain amount of mud-slinging over the reasons behind his original Cabinet resignation in 2003.

Although he maintained it was to enable him to be a father to his two young sons, there are many other theories, not all of which would be particularly helpful in the context of a leadership campaign.

Whatever the truth of it, I always believed that Alan Milburn had too many unfulfilled ambitions not to return to frontline politics one day.

Could this now be a case of "cometh the hour, cometh the man?"

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Reid backs Gordon

"We think Gordon is doing a great job and we thought that before last night...There is no reason why Gordon shouldn't carry on." So said Dr John Reid MP on the Today Programme this morning.

Unfortunately for the Labour Party, Celtic chairman Dr Reid was speaking about manager Gordon Strachan, in the wake of the club's third successive SPL title win yesterday.

Needless to say I'll be looking at the implications of Crewe and Nantwich for Gordon Brown in my Saturday column, which will be available here from tomorrow morning.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lib Dems take control of Derby

After a near three-week hiatus following the local elections, the Lib Dems last night took control of Derby City Council, my old stamping-ground during my days as a local government reporter in the late 1980s.

With 18 seats to Labour's 17, the Tories' 14 and two independents, the Lib Dems' hold on power is precarious, and although the other two parties rejected new leader Hilary Jones' offer of a grand coalition, there will clearly have to be very close co-operation between the parties if anything is to get done.

Furthermore, there is a potential sting in the tail for Ms Jones' new minority administration in the shape of independent councillor Wendy Harbon, who was thrown out of the Lib Dems last year and has since moved to Blackpool.

She was nowhere to be seen at last night's Cabinet-making meeting of the full council, and if she continues in this vein, she will be thrown off the authority, forcing a by-election in Darley ward, until recently a Labour stronghold.

Anyway to cut a long story short, if Labour were to win back this seat, it would be back in control of the city on the casting vote of the new Mayor, Barbara Jackson, who was also elected yesterday.

Sometimes, you know, I miss all this....

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Come on you Reds

I may be a Londoner by birth, but I'll be cheering on Man U tonight, if only for purely sentimental reasons. It's fifty years since the Munich disaster destroyed potentially the greatest English club side ever, forty since Matt Busby's reconstructed team, George Best to the fore, walloped Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to lift the European Cup for the first time. With history on their side, surely they cannot lose?

May 22 Update: The right result, even if it was a bit of a game of two halves - but you have to feel for John Terry. Once again, sport proves its ability to humble even the greatest - one is reminded of Bradman, b Hollies, 0.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fathers made redundant

Last night's votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill were, for me, perhaps the most depressing outcome to a parliamentary debate since Labour MPs went back on their 2001 manifesto pledge not to introduce tuition fees.

I have blogged previously about the hybrid animal-human embryo issue, but to be absolutely honest, what really wound me up about the Bill was not this, but the fact that it effectively denied the importance of fathers in bringing up children.

I did not oppose this simply because I am a Christian, but because it cuts across everything in my own experience both as a father and as a son.

It is blindingly obvious to all sensible people - those not consumed by political correctness - that the absense of fathers and other male role models has been a major contributory factor to social breakdown in some of our most deprived communities.

If MPs - and we are talking all three main parties here - want to deny children the right to grow up with a father, that is their lookout. In one sense it is scarcely surprising, since they also voted last night to deny hundreds of children a year the right to any life at all.

Just don't ever let them tell you again that they are putting "the family" at the heart of policy, or that "the interests of the child" are paramount. Patently, they are not.

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Has Milburn's time now come?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the following sentences in my Saturday Column in the Newcastle Journal.

"Potentially the most promising “change candidate” is Darlington MP Alan Milburn, whose still-youthful appearance belies his five years’ Cabinet experience. More importantly, he alone among Labour’s big-hitters has demonstrated an appetite for thinking outside the box. Whether he actually wants the job is unclear, but in my view, this could be his time."

Today, as I noted earlier, Mike Smithson on has claimed that Milburn is preparing to challenge Brown for the leadership if Thursday's Crewe and Nantwich by-election turns out as disastrously for Labour as everyone is now predicting.

I have no idea if the story is true, although as Iain Dale has already noted, Mike is not the sort to take a punt on such a tale. But as I have previously made clear, in the event of a leadership vacancy, the former health secretary would in my view be an extremely strong candidate.

Like most on the centre-left who hoped that under Gordon the Labour Party would rediscover its lost moral compass, I have been extremely saddened by what has happened to his premiership over the past seven or eight months.

Granted, he has not played his cards well - although the critical strategic error was not cancelling the autumn election as most allege, but allowing the speculation about an autumn election to get out of control in the first place.

Much of what has happened since then, however, has either been down to the incompetence of minor officials and party functionaries (discgate, David Abrahams) or, in the case of Northern Rock and the whole gamut of issues stemming from the global credit cruch, down to economic circumstances way beyond his control.

If he cannot now recover - more specifically, if the voters of Crewe and Nantwich deliver him a knockout blow - then Milburn is in my view the next best choice to lead the party into the next General Election.

In historical terms, it would be a bold move. Milburn would be the first premier since Churchill to take over mid-term while not occupying a major office of state (Eden, Home, and Callaghan all went from the Foreign Office to No 10, Macmillan, Major and Brown from the Treasury) and Churchill had of course previously been both Home Secretary and Chancellor.

Of the three current holders of the major offices, David Miliband has been much touted but is still less than fully-formed as a politician in my view, much as William Hague was when it fell to him to lead the Tories. He is still in the next-leader-but-one category.

The younger contenders - the likes of Purnell, Balls, Burnham and Ed Miliband - are even more lacking in experience and gravitas, while the older hands - Straw, Johnson, Harriet Harman - have simply been around the block too many times now.

At 49, Milburn is the right age for No 10 and having served in Blair's Cabinet, but not in Brown's, can combine top-level experience with relative freshness, enabling him to more credibly claim to be the "change the country needs" than Brown has been able to do.

It is true that he lacks a power base in the party, but then so do most of the other names that have been mentioned. There has never been a "Straw-ite" faction or a "Johnsonite" faction for instance, and even Miliband has allegedly failed to cultivate much of a following in the PLP.

It is also true that there have been various unsubstantiated rumours about his private life prior to his present relationship which, in the context of a leadership election, could result in a certain amount of mud being flung, as indeed was flung at Gordon in 1994.

Milburn would also have to overcome the suggestion of dilettanteism arising from his two Cabinet resignations. Some claimed it was a case of "can't stand the heat," but I genuinely believe he made a long-range calculation about his chances of succeeding Blair, correctly realised that Brown had it in the bag, and resigned to spend more time with his young sons at what was a critical age for them (they are older now.)

One thing I always believed though was that Milburn would return to frontline politics. Could this now be a case of "cometh the hour, cometh the man?"

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++ Milburn to challenge Brown says ++

Mike Smithson has a potentially huge story HERE. Mike is to the political blogosphere what Phil Webster of The Times was to the Lobby in my time there - if he has a story, it's worth taking seriously.

More on this from me later.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Clegg "to back election winner" shock

God forbid that I ever turn into one of those gnarled old ex-lobby hacks who continually lament that political reporting is not what is was in their day....but the latest breathless revelations from Rosa Prince of the Telegraph's new-look political team had me shaking my head.

Writing on the usually excellent and informative Three Line Whip blog, she informs us that Nick Clegg will back David Cameron to become Prime Minister in the event of the Tories being the largest single party in a hung Parliament at the next General Election.

"Before now, it had been thought likely that Mr Clegg would wait until after an election to embark on negotiations with both of the main parties in the event of a hung Parliament. But The Daily Telegraph understands that he has decided that the public would not forgive him if he propped up a Labour administration that they had voted to throw out."

Well, blow me down. How long did it take The Daily Telegraph to "understand" that one, I wonder? I mean, it's not exactly rocket science, is it, to suggest that there would not be many votes for Cleggover in propping up a defeated Brown administration? With a second General Election likely to follow within the space of a year, he knows perfectly well it would be electoral suicide for him and his party.

The real dilemma for Clegg will come if Labour is the largest single party and the Tories are sufficiently far behind that they cannot form a government even with Lib Dem support - still a possible if currently rather unlikely scenario. In those circumstances the Lib Dem leader might be obliged to prop-up Labour in order to avert constitutional chaos.

Avid election speculators may like to take part in my Poll on the election outcome which I will be running between now and whenever the election comes. I plan to tot up the results each month and track the changes to see how opinion among blog readers is moving.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

By-election will settle Brown's fate

Will Gordon Brown's determined fightback over the course of the past week be enough to save Labour in Crewe and Nantwich? And why is the contest beginning to resmeble another by-election battle in an old railway town some 25 years ago? Here's today's column in the Newcastle Journal.


The Queen’s Speech and the Budget are the pivotal moments of the parliamentary year, the points at which the government sets out its law-making programme on the one hand and its spending priorities on the other.

Traditionally, they have been held at opposite ends of the year – the Budget in early spring, the Queen’s Speech in late autumn.

This week, however, we had the almost certainly unique spectacle of a Budget and a Queen’s Speech effectively being unveiled within 24 hours of eachother.

It was perhaps a reflection of the strangeness of the political times we are living in, and the fact that, for Gordon Brown’s government, desperate times require desperate measures.

There are two ways of looking at Alistair Darling’s announcement on Tuesday of a
rise in tax thresholds to compensate most of those who lost out through the abolition of the 10p starting rate.

One is that for a Chancellor to have to come back to the Commons with what amounted to an emergency Budget within ten weeks of the original one is a fair old humiliation.

Furthermore, if the government now accepts that scrapping the 10p was a mistake, it has to go down as one of the most expensive mistakes in recent political history.

Raising the threshold by £600 for all taxpayers is costing the Treasury £2.7bn, all of which will have to be funded out of increased borrowing.

That said, there is a sense in which the government may have accidentally arrived at the right decision even if it was probably for the wrong reasons.

Pumping more money back into the economy via tax cuts is a fairly classical policy response to the sort of slowdown in economic growth which we are now experiencing.

From the point of view of family finances, the additional £120 a year for all those earning up to £40,835 a year will certainly help weather the rise in food and fuel costs.

Of course, the more sensible thing to have done would have been to put 1p on the top rate of tax to pay for all this, but that’s forbidden territory for New Labour.

So much for the emergency Budget – what, then, of the draft legislative programme – a Queen’s Speech by any other name?

Well, again, this may just be a case of serendipity - of a government almost accidentally rediscovering its sense of purpose in its desperation to avoid a shattering by-election loss.

The most damning accusation made against Mr Brown during the course of the 10p tax row was that it seemed emblematic of a government which had lost touch with people’s everyday concerns.

But ideas such as the new savings scheme for eight million low earners, more flexible working rights for parents and action to tackle underperforming schools seem to suggest the government has started listening again.

Meanwhile the plans to allow local communities to elect police chiefs and enable parents’ councils to help run schools show New Labour at last breaking free of control-freakery.

Both are nods in the direction of the local decentralising agenda which Darlington MP Alan Milburn has again hailed this week as the new “big idea” of 21st century politics.

Okay, so some of these ideas have previously been proposed by the Conservatives, but that's politics.

Given that the Conservatives have ditched most of the policies they fought the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections on in order to be more like New Labour, it’s not an accusation that can be easily sustained.

So where now for Mr Brown? Well, his dream scenario would be that this week’s “relaunch” will be followed by victory in Crewe and Nantwich, enabling Labour to claim that the worst is now behind them.

It will give Mr Brown the vital breathing space he needs to get through the summer and into the conference season without facing endless speculation about his leadership.

But the problems will come if, in spite of the fact that he thrown virtually the kitchen sink at it this week, next Thursday’s by-election is still lost.

Having fired off the two biggest shots in his armoury in the shape of this week’s announcements, it is unclear what ammunition Mr Brown would have left to turn the situation round.

The Crewe and Nantwich excuses are already lined up. If Labour loses, the government will seek to pass it off as part and parcel of the local election debacle rather than as a separate crisis.

That, however, will only work if Labour’s share of the vote remains broadly in line with what happened on May 1.

If the result suggests that the crisis has actually worsened since Mr Brown launched his “fightback,” then the pressure will really be on the Prime Minister.

In those circumstances, it is entirely possible that he may shortly be receiving a visit from the men in grey suits – or whatever Labour’s equivalent of them may be.

Indeed, Thursday’s by-election is rapidly assuming the same degree of importance as the one that took place a quarter of a century ago in another old railway town, Darlington.

On that occasion, Labour went into the contest beset by internal divisions and with serious question marks over the leadership of Michael Foot.

Had Labour lost, it is likely Foot would have been replaced by Denis Healey, but university lecturer Ossie O’Brien pulled off a shock win and saved his leadership, albeit only temporarily.

Can Tamsin Dunwoody pull off the same trick for Brown? This time next week, we’ll know the answer.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Four out of five readers back leadership change

For the past fortnight since the local election debacle I have been running a Poll on who should lead the Labour Party into the next general election. Gordon Brown was of course included in the shortlist, but the results show that, however much support he retains among Labour Party members, readers of this blog at any rate are less than enthused by his leadership.

Although Brown topped the poll with 20pc of the vote, four out of five of those who took part backed other candidates, with Jack Straw and Jon Cruddas the next most favoured. Furthermore there are strong suggestions that some of those who want to keep Brown in place were Tories - there was a surge of votes for the Prime Minister after my commentary piece last weekend was linked to by Guido Fawkes, sending traffic temporarily through the roof.

The full results were:

Gordon Brown 20%
Jack Straw 15%
Jon Cruddas 14%
David Miliband 13%
Alan Johnson 11%
John McDonnell 7%
Ed Balls 6%
Hilary Benn 6%
John Denham 5%
Alan Milburn 2%

Since the poll began Gordon has obviously launched a fairly determined fightback with this week's emergency Budget and draft Queen's Speech, and I'll be saying a bit more about the potential impact of this in my weekly column which will be on here from tomorrow morning.

One name I didn't include in the list was James Purnell, mainly because I view him as an incurable lightweight. However Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, who knows more about these things than I do, has since penned this piece arguing that Purnell, not David Miliband, is now the great hope of the Blairite faction.

I was in London yesterday and read a scandalous piece in the Standard's Londoner's Diary suggesting the Speccie has turned against Miliband because its editor Matthew d'Ancona's wife Sarah, who is Miliband's special adviser, has left him. This is so outrageous that it either has to be (a) true or (b) a particularly unfortunate case of a journalist putting two and two together and making seventeen.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gordon listens

I'll have more to say on it later in the week no doubt, but first impressions of today's Draft Queen's Speech are fairly positive.

More help for first-time buyers, a savings scheme for eight million low earners, more flexible working rights for parents, action to tackle underperforming schools - you cannot say that the government is not listening to peoples' everyday concerns in bringing forward such ideas.

Okay, so some of the ideas have previously been proposed by the Conservatives, but that's politics. You could argue that the Conservatives have been not exactly been shy of emulating Labour policies over recent years, particularly since David Cameron became leader.

Media reaction tommorrow morning will be interesting. Will the papers treat these proposals on their own merit, or will they just decide that everything that comes out of the Brown government is thereby automatically damned? Watch this space....

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Farewell Justine?

If it's true that Justine Henin is to retire from tennis as reported in two Belgian newspapers earlier today (4pm update: it is) it will be a very sad loss to the sport. Having followed the game since I was about seven or eight, I can safely say that she is the most watchable player I have ever seen on court. Her backhand in particular is a thing of beauty.

She has been runner-up in two Wimbledon finals, in 2001 and 2006. If Ken Rosewall is by common consent the greatest men's player never to win the trophy, Henin will go down in my view as the finest woman player never to lift the crown.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Is Prescott rewriting history?

Gordon Brown has not been a particularly lucky Prime Minister so far - while some of his mistakes have been of his own making, others, such as "discgate" and the David Abrahams affair were down to others' incompetence. But looking at the headlines of the last couple of days, I wonder whether the Prime Minister is perhaps more fortunate in his enemies.

Who are these people who are currently twisting the knife? An ex deputy leader who was very lucky not to be sacked himself by Tony Blair, a failed ex welfare minister who has borne a deeply personal grudge against him for the past decade, and a sleazy fundraiser whose activities did more than anyone else to bring disgrace on the party.

The activities of Lord Cashpoint in persistently seeking to link Brown with the cash for honours affair on the strength of absolutely no evidence are simply beneath contempt. It's the kind of thing you expect from Tory bloggers, not people who are allegedly supporters of the Labour Party.

As for Frank Field, he has been seeking to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of Labour MPs by spearheading the rebellion over the abolition of the 10p tax rate, but such is the depth of his hatred for Gordon that anything he says about him is worthless.

John Prescott is a different case altogether. His loyalty to the party and determination to hold it together at all costs has been the hallmark of his long career, which is what makes the revelations about the Blair-Brown feud in his memoirs all the more surprising.

I wonder if he is re-writing history somewhat. Either that, or else his words are being rather badly edited.

In truth, I don't think for a moment he actually wanted Tony to sack Gordon or for Gordon to resign and attack Tony from the backbenches. Prescott knows perfectly well that both of those scenarios would have led to civil war in the party, and that is not something which he would ever have wanted.

I think his comments have more the air of exasperation about them. If he did indeed urge Blair to sack Brown, it was probably said more as a reductio ad absurdam than anything else.

Contrary to the impression given in the book, I am in fact as certain as I can be that he wanted Brown to succeed Blair, saw him as the best guarantor of the Labour Party's core values, and was working quietly to ensure his succession from a fairly early stage.

Indeed I was told all of this by one of Prescott's very closest ministerial colleagues shortly after the 2001 election.

The same source made clear that Prescott envisaged continuing as Brown's deputy for a while, presumably on the assumption that the handover would come sometime in the 2001-2005 Parliament.

Blair's decision to stay on until 2007, coupled with the Tracey Temple affair, evidently put paid to that ambition.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sands of time running out for Gordon

How much longer has Gordon Brown got to turn things around for Labour? And if he fails, who might replace him? Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.


Last Saturday, I wrote in this column that despite Labour’s abysmal performance in the local election, I did not detect any appetite in the party for another change of leadership.

For now, I am sticking to that. In spite of Labour’s current dreadful plight, the party as a whole remains overwhelmingly loyal to Gordon Brown and desperately wants to see him succeed.

At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness that things cannot go on like this indefinitely, and that there may come a point where a change has, however reluctantly, to be made.

Mr Brown, in other words, is now on notice. Unless he can demonstrate that he is still the one to turn things around, the pressure on him to do the decent thing will become insurmountable.

The past week has brought no respite for the government. Last Thursday’s local election carnage was followed by Boris Johnson’s totemic victory over Ken Livingstone in London in the early hours of Saturday morning.

More damaging still was Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s decision to back a referendum on Scottish independence, almost certainly without Mr Brown’s approval.

The potential longer-term consequences of that announcement are worthy of a column in itself, but the short-term impact was to make it look like the Prime Minister had lost control of his own party.

Yesterday, the polling organisation You Gov piled yet deeper humiliation on Mr Brown as its latest survey showed the Tories 26 points in front, with Labour on its lowest rating ever at 23pc.

Estimates vary as to how much time Mr Brown has left in which to turn the situation around. Some say a year, some say as little as three or four months.

My own take on the matter is that there will need to be evidence that the crisis has bottomed out and the situation begun to move back in Labour’s favour by the time of the autumn conferences.

Furthermore, by next May’s local elections, there will need to be proof that Labour is at least on the road to recovery, back within touching distance of the Tories in terms of overall share of the vote.

If neither of those things happen, I think it entirely plausible that Mr Brown will fall on his own sword. The one thing he has always been is a party man.
So who might take over? Well, the one consolation for Gordon in yesterday’s You Gov poll is that it showed that any other leader – including South Shields MP David Miliband – would do even worse.

This bears out my own view that this crisis is not primarily about personalities, but about Labour’s collective failure to articulate a new vision capable of re-enthusing the electorate.

It follows from what I have said thus far that in my view, replacing Mr Brown with another old-stager from the Cabinet would be a completely pointless exercise.

The name most mentioned in this regard is Jack Straw, but he would carry all of the baggage of having served in the Blair-Brown Cabinet since the start, as well having been Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Skipping a generation has a far greater potential appeal, and overwhelmingly the name on people’s lips in this context is Mr Miliband.

The other young hopefuls, James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband, fall into the next-leaders-but-one category, while Ed Balls would simply be Mr Brown without the gravitas.

The main advantage of having a leader from the thirty- and forty-something age-band is that it would indicate that the party was looking ahead and moving on from the now seemingly discredited Blair-Brown era.

That said, none of the “next generation” candidates are exactly over-endowed with charisma, and if they do have any fresh ideas, they have not exactly been much in evidence thus far.

What, then, about a backbench heavyweight - someone who could combine experience with the appearance of change, by virtue of not having been party to the debacle of the Brown premiership.

Of the obvious contenders, Charles Clarke has made too many foolish outbursts and hence too many enemies, while David Blunkett has made too many personal errors of judgement.

Potentially the most promising “change candidate” is Darlington MP Alan Milburn, whose still-youthful appearance belies his five years’ Cabinet experience.

More importantly, he alone among Labour’s big-hitters has demonstrated an appetite for thinking outside the box. Whether he actually wants the job is unclear, but in my view, this could be his time.

But while the election of Mr Milburn would represent a shift back towards a more “Blairite” agenda, another, riskier option would be to make a conscious shift to the left.

The man for that task would be Jon Cruddas, whose thoughtful campaign for the deputy leadership last year now appears prophetic in its attacks on the intellectual emptiness of New Labour.

There is also a case to be made for a woman, given that Mr Brown has been criticised for his inability to “empathise” with voters in the way that David Cameron appears to be able to do.

The difficulty is that none of the available women seem particularly empathetic. Indeed the likes of Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper are even more prone to New Labour-style hectoring than their male counterparts.

After reading this far, you might think that, with no single candidate entirely free from drawbacks, the party would be better off sticking with the devil they know.

But politics doesn’t really work like that. Unless Mr Brown can recover, there will come a point when Labour MPs start to take the view that it’s his neck on the line or theirs.

Some argue that no-one really wants the job any more, that it is too much of a poisoned chalice – but politics doesn’t work like that either, and there will be someone, somewhere prepared to grasp the opportunity.

All is not quite lost for Mr Brown. But he knows that the sands of time are now fast running out on him.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Could Geoff Hoon or Tessa Jowell really be the next PM?

The weeks between the start of the summer Parliamentary recess in July and the party conference season in September have traditionally been known in the "silly season" in political and journalistic circles. With the MPs off on their holidays, it is a time of long, slow news days at Westminster, with the result that any small thing that happens tends to get rather blown out of proportion.

Perhaps the greatest silly season story of my time in the Lobby came in August 1997, when John Prescott's throwaway remark about naming a baby crab after Peter Mandelson made headlines the length and breadth of Fleet Street.

But if the past couple of days are anything to go by, the silly season has arrived early this year. Two of my favourite bloggers have come out with what can only be described as outlandish theories about the post-Brown Labour leadership.

Mike Smithson of is one of the most insightful political commentators in the country - inside and outside the MSM. Yet incredibly, he decided to devote an entire blog post yesterday to the idea that Tessa Jowell could become Prime Minister.

Now I do realise that the raison d'etre of is political betting, as it says on the tin, and that one aspect of this is the seeking-out of unlikely scenarios from which the site's aficionados can thereby profit at long odds, but even so....

Leaving aside the fact that Jowell is the absolute personification of nannny-knows-best New Labourism, has Mike totally forgotten about the David Mills-Silvio Berlusconi affair, which nearly brought about Jowell's resignation from the Blair Cabinet?

The Daily Pundit is a less serious blog. Indeed at times, I have openly wondered whether it is a spoof on the entire political punditry industry. Today, for instance, it carries a delightful story speculating whether Guto Harri will shortly replace Michael Cole as spokesman for Mohamed-al-Fayed.

If so, it would explain why the Pundit's current hot tip for Labour leader is Geoff "Buff" Hoon, although in his defence, there is at least a literary precedent for a Chief Whip becoming party leader, namely Francis Urquhart in House of Cards.

In a recent comment on this blog, the Pundit takes me to task for failing to include Hoon in my current poll on the Labour leadership, still being headed by Jack Straw.

In my reply, I own up to the fact that I myself once tipped Hoon to be Tony Blair's successor over a few pints with a couple of Labour researchers in Bellamy's, only to be laughed out of the room.

Well, you may say, it's all very well me dissing others' efforts to make sense of the current political crisis - who do I think should become Labour leader if Brown were to be forced out?

Tomorrow, in my weekly column which will be available on this blog, I will give my answer.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Local history site unearths oldest ever England team photo

Anyone who has heard the news today or read any of the nationals will be aware of the discovery of what is believed to be the oldest ever photograph of an England football team. It dates from 1876 and was taken in Glasgow on the day England played Scotland in what was only the fifth ever international football match.

What you may not be aware of - because none of the nationals actually mention it - is that this was actually a world exclusive for a Derbyshire local history site with which I am currently involved called You and Yesterday.

The picture was uploaded to the site last weekend by one of its regular contributors, Peter Seddon, who unearthed it during a search of old newspapers on microfilm at the Derby Local Studies Library.

To its credit, the FA website's write-up includes a link enabling users to click straight through to the picture on You and Yesterday. Readers of this blog can do the same by clicking HERE.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Derby points record under threat

"Fortunately for Derby fans, their record for having the lowest Premiership points total will only last one season thanks to Stoke. Stoke are probably the weakest team to have ever been automatically promoted to the Premiership."

- Spotted on a Yahoo forum entitled "What do you think Stoke City will do now they're in the Premier League?"

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who should lead Labour into the next election?

In my weekend column (see previous post), I wrote that I don’t detect any appetite in the Labour Party for another leadership change, and that I don’t as yet detect any such stirrings in the political undergrowth.

I am sticking by that, in spite of certain Sunday newspapers' attempts to persuade their readers that David Miliband was about to announce his candidacy for the leadership.

That said, two years is a long time in politics and things could easily change between now and the date of the next general election. Indeed, it would be mildly surprising if they didn't.

To my mind, Phil Webster has it about right in today's Times, arguing that ministers are giving Gordon Brown a year to turn things round. There is a clear logic to the assertion that if next year's local election results are as bad as this year's, even he himself would question whether it was worth continuing.

It's all very sad. I continue to believe Brown would have resoundingly won an election in his own right had Tony Blair made good his promise to stand down mid-way through the second term, as he should have done in any case in view of his administration's culpability in the death of Dr David Kelly and its use of dodgy intelligence to support the case for war in Iraq.

His tragedy was to become leader at a time when New Labour's hold on the public was beginning to wane and the Tories were making themselves electable again.

Should he decide to soldier on until 2010, he could do a lot worse than to take the advice of Sunday's Observer editorial, and seek to lay down some solid achievements which will ensure he is treated more kindly by the historians than by his contemporaries.

Either way, blog readers can have their say in my current poll below which asks whether Brown or any one of nine other leading Labour figures (sadly all men) should take the party into battle in 2009/10.

So far, Jack Straw appears to have streaked into an early lead with Alan Johnson second and other votes spread evenly between Brown, Hilary Benn, Jon Cruddas, John Denham, John McDonnell and Alan Milburn, with no votes for Ed Balls as yet.

Oh, and for the benefit of the annoyingmong who keeps asking me about the sample size every time I run a poll, it's not an attempt to be "scientific," it's primarily a bit of fun for me and for readers of this blog. Got that?

Who should lead the Labour Party into the next General Election?
Gordon Brown
Ed Balls
Hilary Benn
Jon Cruddas
John Denham
Alan Johnson
John McDonnell
Alan Milburn
David Miliband
Jack Straw

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

What now for Brown?

Martin Kettle thinks Labour MPs should tell him: "In the name of God, go." The Observer, slightly more charitably, thinks he should now focus on trying to devote himself to one or two core policy areas, in the hope that, should he lose in 2010, he will still be remembered for something other than being one of the shortest serving Prime Ministers in modern history.

So what's my take on it? Here's what I wrote in my weekly column in yesterday's Newcastle Journal.


Amidst the long list of disasters to hit Gordon Brown and New Labour during the course of local election night and after, it is hard to say which will have hurt the party the most.

Was it, perhaps, the loss of more than 300 councillors, or the Labour national share of the vote plunging to its lowest level since the days of Harold Wilson’s premiership?

Was it the party’s dismal performance in its so-called Northern “heartlands,” including the loss of Hartlepool, the continuing erosion of its position in Newcastle, and the Tory victory in North Tyneside?

Or was it possibly the humiliation of having your newly-appointed General Secretary resign before he has even taken up his post?

To my mind, it will have been none of those things, so much as the realisation that all the hopes of revival under a new leader that the sustained the party faithful during the latter years of Tony Blair have now been blown out of the water.

Make no mistake, this is as bad as it gets for Mr Brown, short of being dragged out of Downing Street feet first by David Cameron in May 2010.

As the pundits have not been slow to remind us, the last time Labour did this badly in a set of local elections was in 1968 when The Beatles were at No 1 and Flower Power was all the rage.

A more recent and more ominous historical parallel for Mr Brown is the 24pc share of the vote secured by John Major in 1995, two years before Mr Blair turfed him out of Number 10.

Is it bad enough for the Prime Minister to lose his job over? Well, it would be very easy for me to sit here and churn out a speculative piece about the potential runners and riders in a Labour leadership contest.

But in truth, it would be somewhat disingenuous. The fact is, I don’t detect any appetite in the party for another leadership change, and I don’t as yet detect any such stirrings in the political undergrowth.

Sure, some people are once again attempting to talk up the leadership chances of South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband - just as they were doing this time last year.

But he will have none of it, and neither will leading backbench Blairites such as Darlington MP Alan Milburn, although it has to be said he would have little to lose by trying.

As an aside, it is now clear that the Brownites made a serious strategic error in “hoovering-up” the votes of so many MPs last June that the left-winger John McDonnell was unable to get his name on the ballot paper.

Had Mr McDonnell been allowed to stand, Mr Brown would have won an easy victory and been able to swot away all those jibes about being an “unelected” Prime Minister.

Even better would have been a serious challenge, from the likes of John Reid or Charles Clarke, if only for the fact that it would have forced Mr Brown to set out his confounded “vision.”

I can only imagine they concluded it would have been a waste of their energies to take part in a contest that ultimately would only have strengthened the hated Gordon.

So there is, at least, the consolation for Mr Brown this weekend that, for good or ill, the party remains committed to going into the next election under his leadership.

But the continuing support of his party will be of little use to the Prime Minister in the longer term if the country has already decided that he is a liability.

In the wake of the credit crunch, there has been much talk of the need for an experienced economic helmsman to steer us through the choppy waters, but on Thursday night’s evidence, that argument is wearing thin.

It seems to me there are now just as many people who blame Mr Brown for the economic mess than there are people who think he is the best person to get us out of it.

And it’s not all about rising fuel bills and collapsing house prices. What is really harming Labour, in my view, is the feeling that they have run out of steam, that there is no longer any good reason to vote for them.

Less than a year ago, Mr Brown stood on the steps of Downing Street and used the word “change” 27 times as he set out his personal manifesto for power – but what has it actually amounted to?

Essentially, it has meant a greater emphasis on constitutional reform, the scrapping of the Manchester supercasino plan, tougher talk on cannabis, and a hospital deep clean.

They are all good things in themselves, in my view. But a programmme for government they do not make.

It is this paucity of vision, above all, that Mr Brown needs to address in the “relaunch” that he is now apparently preparing in the wake of Thursday’s election carnage.

Key to it will be the draft Queen’s Speech, which is set to be unveiled at the end of the month and which is expected to include measures on welfare, education reforms and involving the community in tackling crime.

But whatever its contents, it must demonstrate some innovative fresh thinking which captures the public’s imagination and which gives the government a new raison d’etre.

Above all, it must be authentically Labour, something which the public will see as fair and just and not simply as another piece of political posturing designed to out-tough the Tories.

This week, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg taunted Mr Brown by quoting Neil Kinnock’s “grotesque chaos” speech at him, in relation to the closure of thousands of post offices up and down the land.

Mr Clegg is right. Real Labour governments do not close the post offices on which deprived and isolated communities depend, any more than real Labour governments put up taxes on the poor.

That New Labour has tried to do both these things is symptomatic of a government which lost its moral compass a long time ago and, despite Mr Brown’s pretensions to the contrary, has failed to recover it.

Unless it can do so, and fast, then Thursday 1 May 2008 will come to be seen as the beginning of the end of the long Labour hegemony.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

The shame of Derbyshire

The town of Heanor is an otherwise fairly unremarkable little place in the old East Derbyshire mining belt about seven or eight miles away from where I live, but today is has earned itself the dubious distinction of boasting not one, but two British National Party councillors after they were elected to Amber Valley Borough Council in yesterday's poll.

This would be almost excusable if their election actually represented the democratic will of the people of the town, but it does not. Thanks to the workings of the first past the post system, the pair have managed to be elected despite less than 40pc of the vote in both cases.

In Heanor West ward, the BNP candidate Lewis Allsebrook won with 727 out of 1,836 total votes cast, or 39.6pc, while in Heanor East, Cliff Roper emerged victorious on the strength of 36.4pc of the poll, or 537 out 1,473 votes cast.

It's the rest of the townsfolk I feel sorry for. Most people in Heanor either didn't vote BNP or didn't vote at all, but they are now going to have to put up with their town being treated as the racism capital of the Midlands for the next four years. Shame.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Big bloggers call it for Boris

Right from the outset of the London Mayoral contest, I have had great difficulty believing in any other outcome than a victory for Ken Livingstone. To my mind, London is a Labour city, and despite his many personal foibles, Ken's overall political record as London Mayor is a strong one.

Furthermore, he is up against a principal opponent in Boris Johnson who, for all his wit and charm, is regarded as a buffoon by many voters and whose track record of offending minorities hardly seems to fit him for the mayoral role.

Yet, as someone who has followed this contest from a distinct distance, it's impossible to ignore the growing consensus among those bloggers who have followed it much more closely.

Both Mike Smithson, of Political Betting and Guido Fawkes have already called the election for Boris, Mike arguing that the core Tory vote is much more solid for Johnson than the Labour vote for Livingstone.

Smithson rarely if ever gets these things wrong, but admittedly Guido's record is mixed. He wrongly called the Labour deputy leadership election for Alan Johnson last year, but correctly called both Lib Dem leadership contests in 2006 and 2007.

My head tells me they must both be right, but my heart still tells me they are wrong. We'll know the answer soon enough.

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White on Brown

Donnish Times commentator Tim Hames caused a stir earlier this week by nominating the Guardian's Michael White for a political fixer's job at No 10.

White's response to this remarkable suggestion is contained in a Guardian podcast on today's local elections and is well worth hearing.

Fellow UCL alumnus Michael reveals: "Gordon has barely exchanged six words with me for several years. I don't know what I did to upset him."

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