Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Miliband move means Milburn is out of it

So where do the events of the last 24 hours leave us? David Miliband has set out his stall in what despite his protestations is a barely-concealed leadership bid. Sam Coates and Francis Elliott on The Times reckon it will boil down to a contest between him and Harriet Harperson, which, with due respect to Sam and Francis, is no contest.

Meanwhile Alan Johnson is being speculated about as a running mate for Miliband rather than as a candidate in his own right and James Purnell is also reportedly backing the 43-year-old Foreign Secretary. Jack Straw is currently looking a rather poor third and other potential contenders such as John Denham are nowhere, although one must assume that on the broad left of the party, John McDonnell, Jon Cruddas and possibly even Ed Balls are also quietly making plans

I made clear a couple of months ago my own preference for Alan Milburn as the next leader on the grounds that, having been out of the Cabinet for three years, he alone could combine relative freshness with top-level experience. Speculation about a potential Milburn challenge at the time was running high, but his subsequent near-invisibility coupled with Miliband's latest move must mean he is now out of the running.

There was, in my view, an opportunity there for Milburn after Crewe and Nantwich and Henley to steal a march on the Cabinet contenders by coming out publicly against Brown. It would have made the potential Cabinet contenders look lily-livered by comparison and put Milburn at the vanguard of the growing Dump Brown faction among the party's grassroots. Sadly, it didn't happen, and it's now clear from Miliband's intervention and also from recent comments by Straw and Harman that, far from allowing a leftfield stalking horse like Milburn or Clarke to do their dirty work, the Cabinet contenders are preparing to move against the PM themselves.

I will give my more considered views on the main contenders at a later date, but if the field remains as it is, Miliband must be the man.I don't think he has all the qualities needed, but he does at least negate some of Brown's perceived drawbacks - for instance he is young, English, reasonably charming on a human level, and most importantly, was not responsible for every mistake in economic and social policy that has been made by New Labour since 1997.

I don't think he is an ideal candidate by any means - I would still prefer someone with wider experience such as Denham or even Johnson - but he would certainly be preferable to either Straw or Harperson in terms of articulating a compelling vision for a fourth Labour term and taking the fight to David Cameron.

The line that stood out for me in his Guardian article was the one about Cameron's project being about decontaminating the Tory Party rather than changing the country. For me, this message rings so true that the public will eventually be forced to concede it, once they can get beyond their current inability to see anything good in what Labour is saying.

I am reviving my poll on the potential contenders, minus Milburn this time, and this can be found in the sidebar and HERE

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Brown-must-go watch

Just as I did with Tony Blair in 2006-7, I'll be keeping a tally over the next few weeks of which Labour MPs, union leaders, Labour-supporting MSM columnists and newspapers and also left-leaning bloggers are publicly calling on Gordon Brown to go. Messrs Stringer and Prentice have seemingly started the ball rolling at the Westminster end, while Mrs Andrew Marr has emerged as the unlikely cheerleader for the Dump Gordon faction in Fleet Street. Please feel free to email me any other examples you know about, and remember to include a link.

Labour MPs

Graham Stringer
Gordon Prentice

Union leaders

Paul Kenny

Labour-supporting columnists

Jackie Ashley
John Rentoul

Left bloggers


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Monday, July 28, 2008

Pitt the Obscure

My second monthly "Where are they now?" contribution to Total Politics magazine can now be found online HERE and deals with the short parliamentary career of Bill Pitt. Hopefully this won't persuade him to attempt a political comeback, unlike last month's subject, Walter Sweeney.

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An ultimate weekend

Apologies for the light blogging over the past week or so, but strange as it may seem at this particular political juncture, I've been taking a break from following the travails of Mr Gordon Brown to organise my daughter Clara's dedication, which took place on Saturday.

Rather than have her baptised, we held a simple but moving service to say thank you to God for her and to ask His blessing on her life. Hopefully she will come to baptism when she is old enough to explore the claims of Christianity for herself.

Highlights of the service included a perfect solo rendition of John Rutter's setting of All Things Bright and Beautiful by my nephew Myles, a reading from Proverbs 3 vv 1-18, which contains all the advice necessary for a happy and fulfilling life, and some beautifully written and heartfelt prayers from her four godparents.

It was followed by a barbecue in the garden of our Derbyshire home for which we were blessed by the best weather of the year so far. When we bought the place last November, we hoped it would prove to be a "party house," and Saturday certainly bore that out.

Over the past week, my wife and I have also celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary with a trip up to Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales, which included some wonderful walking in Wharfedale and a shopping trip to Harrogate.

Never fear, though....I'll be back on the Brown stuff before long.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

A clear and demonstrable collapse

Crewe. Henley. Glasgow East. Are the voters trying to tell us something? Here's today's Newcastle Journal column.


When in years to come, historians pore over the long, slow demise of New Labour, the series of by-elections in the spring and summer of 2008 will, I believe, be seen as a crucial period.

First there was the catastrophe in Crewe, after the contest held in the wake of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death saw David Cameron’s Tories win their first seat off Labour for nearly 30 years.

Then it was humiliation in Henley, as Labour lost its deposit and slumped to fifth place behind the British National Party and the Greens.

Finally, on Thursday night, the earthquake in East Glasgow, after Labour’s hitherto third-safest seat in Scotland disappeared to the Scottish National Party on a 22pc swing.

As he surveys the wreckage this weekend, Prime Minister Gordon Brown must be cursing the malign combination of political circumstances that forced him to fight three by-elections in as many months.

Had they not taken place, he might by now have been able to shore-up his position and even build some political momentum. As it is, a clear alternative narrative is now emerging.

There can be no writing-off these results as a short-term protest vote such as happened in the post-Iraq War by-elections in the predominantly Moslem constituencies of Leicester South and Brent East during the last Parliament.

No, the story of the three 2008 by-elections is of a clear and demonstrable collapse in public support for Labour in general, and Mr Brown in particular.

What is particularly damaging about the Glasgow East result is that this was a revolt not of the swing vote but of the Labour core vote, which now seems to be bleeding away.

When the by-election date was set for July 24 – two days after the start of the summer Parliamentary recess – there were those who claimed it had been deliberately timed to minimise the threat of MPs plotting against Mr Brown.

If that is the case, then Mr Brown’s strategists have clearly never heard of email or the mobile phone.

Labour MPs may be scattered to the four winds this weekend, but expect the lines to be humming between the beaches of Europe and beyond.

As it is, a number of Labour MPs and ministers will not be sunning themselves, despite the current unaccustomed spell of decent summer weather.

Instead, they will be at the party’s national policy forum in Warwick, discussing the contents of the next Labour manifesto with the trades unions and grassroots constituency activists.

Ostensibly, the conference is about whether or not to implement a.long shopping list of demands ranging from scrapping NHS prescription charges to the reintroduction of secondary picketing.

But the subtext will be the position of Mr Brown. To paraphrase the Bible verse, when two or three Labour activists are gathered together, the talk shall quickly turn to the leadership.

Up until now, the prospects of a successful challenge to Mr Brown have been hampered by the absence of a clear alternative candidate, but if one is to emerge, then now is surely the time.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell set out his stall this week by publishing a Green Paper on welfare reform, advocating the scrapping of Incapacity Benefit and making those out of work for more than two years work full-time in the community.

At one level, it demonstrated that there is intellectual life in New Labour yet, in terms of fresh ideas which could underpin what would be an unprecedented fourth term in power.

But at another level, it was hard to escape the conclusion that it was designed as a piece of pre-leadership election positioning, a warning to Foreign Secretary David Miliband that he is not the only Blairite pebble on the beach

Despite his undoubted intellect, though, Mr Purnell carries the air of a lightweight about him and his election would manage the considerable feat of making Mr Cameron look statesmanlike.

South Shields MP Mr Miliband remains the man to beat, although it seems clear he will not be the one to raise the standard of rebellion.

His old alliance with Health Secretary Alan Johnson could be key. The two were education ministers together under Mr Blair and became huge admirers of eachother’s work.

Mr Johnson has said he is not up to the job of Premier, but the idea of him playing John Prescott to Mr Miliband’s Tony Blair could be an increasingly seductive one.

Mr Brown’s instinct will be to plough on. We read this week that he is planning a September reshuffle, the centrepiece of which will be to bring back Margaret Beckett as the government’s chief apologist, or “Minister for the Today Programme.”

Now Mrs Beckett has been a loyal servant of the nation, and despite an undistinguished spell as Foreign Secretary, she was rather harshly treated when left out of Mr Brown’s first administration last year.

But if the Prime Minister really believes that bringing her back into a senior Cabinet role is going to restore his or Labour’s political fortunes, it demonstrates how out of touch he is.

Increasingly, the view among Labour MPs is that the only minister Mr Brown should consider reshuffling is himself.

A dream scenario for Mr Brown is that no clear challenger emerges over the course of the coming weeks, and he restores his authority with the conference speech of his life in September.

But such has been the scale of the public backlash against the government in recent months that it is unrealistic not to expect his leadership to now be openly called into question.

The corresponding nightmare scenario for the Prime Minister is that, against a backdrop of dissension and even open revolt, he makes a poor speech which reinforces the speculation about his position.

Sadly for him, this seems overwhelmingly the likelier of the two outcomes.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Vote for your Top 10 political blogs

It's that time of the year again. Iain Dale is compiling his 2008/9 Guide to Political Blogging and is once again asking for your help in putting together his annual popularity poll.

This blog was placed 10th in the 2006 poll and 18th last year. I would love to do as well again, but seriously don't expect to, as I have had considerably less time to spend on blogging over the past 12 months or so and the frequency (though hopefully not the quality) of postings has suffered as a result. Obviously I'm not going to stop anyone voting for me though - email your Top 10 to

One or two well-known left bloggers are refusing to take part in the poll on the grounds that Iain Dale has consistently made a point of slagging off the left blogosphere, and also that by competing, we are feeding into Iain's image of himself as the "granddaddy of political blogging."

Although I should declare an interest both as a columnist for Total Politics and an (unpaid) contributor to the Guide - I'll be writing about the state of the MSM blogosphere - I disagree on both counts.

On the first point, refusing to take part in an election because a Tory blogger disses your blog is a bit like refusing to vote Labour because the Tory Party says they are shite. Unfortunately for those who would like to see the blogosphere as some sort of neutral platform for the exchange of ideas, political partisanship goes with the territory.

Iain's claim that the entire left blogosphere is rubbish is, in any case, a banquet of bollocks and I don't know why he goes on making it, especially when it contradicts the complimentary things he has said about this and other centre-left blogs in the past. But opting out of the only blog popularity poll currently in town is not the eway to counter that wrong impression.

Secondly, Iain is only the granddaddy of the blogosphere for two reasons - (1) Because Tim Worstall decided he didn't want to be any more, and (2) Because he is the only blogger who has the time and resources to compile the Guide. These aren't good enough reasons not to take part, in my view.

So what of my nominations? There are four leftish blogs in my top 10, three that are centre-ground and three that are right-leaning - a fairly balanced list!

1 Political Betting. Mike Smithson's one-man punditry factory is still the must-read among political blogs.

2 Liberal England. Well-written, funny and wistful, it's about time Jonathan Calder (Lord Bonkers) achieved wider recognition.

3 Benedict Brogan. One of only two newspaper lobby men (Sam Coates is the other) who really "gets" blogging and uses the medium to maximum effect.

4 Liberal Conspiracy. The best attempt thus far to corral together the disparate voices of the left blogosphere - far more so than Comment is Free.

5 Iain Dale's Diary. Still a right riveting read most days despite the (sometimes overdone) anti-Brown propaganda.

6 Hopi Sen. The best new blog to emerge over the past year from Labour's uber-Blairite former North-East press officer.

7 The Daily Pundit. First to predict David Davis's resignation - in 2006. What more can be said?

8 Coffee House. Fraser Nelson usually gets the credit, but in my view James Forsyth is the real reason for this group blog's success.

9 Rupa Huq. Didn't quite take the blogosphere by storm in the way some predicted, but still interesting and insightful.

10 Skipper. Consistently sharp political analysis, though from an increasingly Blairite perspective, from the much underrated Dr Bill Jones.

My list contains a couple of notable omissions in the shape of Dizzy Thinks and Bloggerheads. Both are still excellent blogs in my view, but they have spent too much time attacking eachother over the past year for my liking.

I also left out Guido Fawkes, even though I visit his blog most days. It's still a must-read most of the time, but he has published too many nasty smears about Gordon Brown over the past 12 months to be in my Top 10, not least trying to prove that there was something corrupt in his close relationship with a think-tank set up in memory of his great friend and mentor John Smith, and repeatedly rehashing Mandelson's Gay Gordon smear that was discredited sometime in and around 1994.

I think that's probably enough controversy for now...

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

The collapse of the "progressive consensus"

Do centre-left governments have any room for manoeuvre on tax anymore? Here's my column in today's Newcastle Journal.


Aneurin Bevan once famously described socialism as the language of priorities. It has been a fairly long time since the Labour Party talked about socialism, but at times like the present, it can't help but talk about priorities.

And few issues go more to the heart of what a centre-left government's priorities should be than the ongoing controversy over fuel taxes.

Is it the primary job of a Labour government, especially in times of economic hardship, to protect the living standards of the worst-off by trying to keep household bills as low as possible?

Or in this era of climate change, do governments of the left have a higher responsibility - to try to save the planet from the potentially deadly effects of the free market by curbing the use of fossil fuels?

The consensus of opinion within the wider public on this score has ebbed and flowed back and forth over the past decade.

Nearly eight years ago, in the autumn of 2000, New Labour's political hegemony was brielfy threatened by the eruption of the fuel protests, following the imposition of a "fuel price escalator" designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Public sympathy at the time was initially with the protesters, though it evaporated pretty swiftly once they started blockading power stations and generally behaving like a bunch of 1970s flying pickets.

And over the ensuing years, opinion swung decisively back in the direction of the "green" lobby, to the point where any government which failed to do something to tackle car use risked being seen as irresponsible.

But that was before the credit crunch. The environment, which at one time was a big enough issue to persuade David Cameron to start cycling to work, has now slipped back down to its customarily more lowly place in the public consciousness.

Instead, we're back on the old, familiar ground of "the economy, stupid."

When the proposed fuel tax increase was first outlined in last year's Pre-Budget Report, inflation was still well under control and the effects of rising food and fuel costs had yet to be seen.

But nine months on, it seems, greenery has once again become a luxury that the nation cannot afford.

The pressure had been on Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling over the fuel tax issue since the start of the year when the business and motoring lobbies first begun to hone in on it.

At one time, it might have been seen as a test of the government's resolve. I myself wrote in this column that the question of whether ministers were still prepared to make the case for the tax rise would show whether the Brown administration retained a shred of self-belief.

In the end, though, it was no great surprise when Mr Darling announced on Wednesday that the increase had been postponed once again. He probably had little option.

Indeed, with another crucial by-election for the government coming up in Glasgow East next Thursday, perhaps the only surprise was that he didn't do it sooner.

It won't stop there, either. Now that the government has u-turned on the fuel tax rise, expect it to come under sustained pressure to scrap the planned changes in vehicle excise duty to discourage "gas guzzling" cars.

When this idea was first dreamed up, the government probably had the so-called "Chelsea Tractor Set" in mind - a fairly convenient political target.

But in yet another example of the law of unintended political consequences, it turns out that the cars most likely to be hit by the proposed changes are overwhelmingly owned by the worst-off.

In the end, backbench Labour MPs are no more likely to let this happen than they were likely to allow the government to scrap the 10p tax rate.

I recently saw the planned changes to vehicle excise duty rather unfairly but amusingly caricatured on a satirical website as a spoof news item about Labour's "master plan" to restore its political fortunes.

"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 ten most popular family cars in Britain and then making them a nightmare to own," it read.

A “Labour spokesman” was quoted as saying: "We're going for the double whammy of making them too expensive to drive, but also impossible to sell."

Silly? Maybe, but it was a light-hearted way of making the serious political point that Labour simply cannot afford to antagonise its natural supporters any more than it already has done.

But the vehicle taxation issues are an illustration of a much wider political truth, that the government now finds itself in a position on tax where it has virtually no more room for manoeuvre.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have talked at length over the past decade about the need to build a “progressive consensus” in which people accepted that decent public services required taxes to be maintained at a certain level.

In fact the opposite has happened. People seem increasingly less and less happy to pay their taxes, with the result that the existing tax-take as a proportion of GDP is likely to come more and more into question.

It is this that has essentially brought about the Liberal Democrats’ near-total volte-face under new leader Nick Clegg from being a party of 50p tax rates to a party of tax-cutters.

Back in the early days of New Labour, John Prescott and others dreamed of using the tax system to bring about a major shift in public behaviour, making private transport progressively more expensive and using the proceeds to fund better and more accessible public transport.

However desirable this might once have seemed, the government’s inability to impose even small increases in fuel tax show that it has now become a political impossibility.

When Bevan talked about the “language of priorities,” there was a basic assumption that governments had the ability to choose between competing interests and concerns.

Increasingly, for this government at least, those choices no longer exist.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Linford v Smithson on Brown v Blair

Mike Smithson is one of the genuine giants of political blogging so I'm always rather flattered when he namechecks this blog. Today he devoted an entire post to a discussion I raised on his blog last week over whether Labour would be in quite the mess it's in now had Tony Blair stayed as leader.

My view on this has always been that Blair had become a liability for Labour long before 2005 and that had Brown been leader at the last GE the party would actually have won a majority in excess of 100, but Mike disagrees and thinks that if Blair were still leader the Tories' lead now would still be only in single figures.

Most of the posters on sided with Mike on this but there was some support for my point of view from the distinguished pollster Robert Waller who made the following very interesting comment:

"By 2005 Blair was a very significant disadvantage to Labour, with Professor Harold Clarke and other academics using the British Election Study claiming that there would have been another 100 plus landslide majority if he had not been PM at the last general election.

"Thereafter, he did have to go, forced out earlier than he intended by pressure within various sections of the party culminating in the ‘plots’ around the time of the Lebanese invasion/crisis.

"With his party as well as the public thoroughly fed up with him, there was no possibility of remaining; the massive sigh of relief was the cause of the ‘Brown bounce’ (that really wasn’t Brown’s attractions!) in the third quarter of 2007. If for some reason Blair had managed to avoid all the pressure to go in mid 2007, the head of steam of ‘time for a change’ would just have got stronger and stronger.

"In addition he would have faced almost all the significant problems Brown does, unless he would be able to work a miracle with the oil and other commodity prices and economic peessimism which are the reasons for Labour’s current dire position in the polls. They would surely have been even worse off under Blair."

Ultimately, of course, as one other poster pointed out, all such counterfactuals are meaningless. But they are good fun, nevertheless.

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The Anglos

It's that time of the year again - the blogging awards season. First up are the Anglos - better known as the Witanegemot Club Awards, my favourite set of awards as no-one takes the results terribly seriously. There is even a category for the blogger you would most like to go for a pint with.

Cast your vote HERE.

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BBC perpetuates regional stereotypes

No further comment required.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

All quiet on the Barnett front

Why has it all gone quiet over the Barnett Formula? And could it be anything to do with Glasgow East? Here's my column in today's Newcastle Journal.


Earlier this year, a brief flurry of excitement went around the Westminster village that Gordon Brown might be about to do something that few thought possible for a Scottish PM.

The Treasury had ordered a study into the workings of the controversial Barnett funding formula which governs the allocation of public spending within the UK - surely a precursor to its eventual abolition.

At the same time, Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems agreed to set up a Commission to look at the Scottish Parliament’s powers and funding, likely to include consideration of whether the Scots should move towards greater financial self-sufficiency.

Could the 30-year-old formula, long a source of disquiet in the North-East on account of the tens of millions of additional spending it awards to Scotland, finally be on the way out?

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson certainly thought so, proclaiming on his blog that "the skids appear finally to be under the Barnett Formula.”

I myself was slightly more circumspect, commenting on these pages that the long battle for a fair funding deal for the North-East still had a way to go yet.

Since then, though, nothing. Maybe Mr Brown has thought better of it. Maybe the various reviews, studies and commissions are taking longer than expected to come to fruition.

Most likely, it's been put on the back burner pending the resolution of other political crises requiring more immediate attention.

The issue, of course, has not gone away. This week's report by the regional think-tank ippr north once again underlined the case for reform.

It found that although the gap between Scotland and the North-East in terms of public spending has narrowed in recent years, it still stands at £716 per head.

The report's main author Guy Lodge said the Barnett formula was no longer "fit for purpose" and should be replaced.

"It does not result in a fair distribution of spending, and is becoming an increasing source of tension between the nations of the UK," he added.

In its response to Thursday's report, the Treasury certainly gave little indication that anything was about to change.

It said there were "no plans" to change the Barnett formula, describing it as "a fair allocation which reflects population shares in the different nations of the United Kingdom" - which is pretty much what it's been saying for the past 11 years.

But whatever the reason behind the apparent lull in government activity around the issue, it is doubtful that much more is going to happen in the next fortnight at least.

Why? Because on July 24, voters in Glasgow East will go to the polls to elect a successor to Labour MP David Marshall, who resigned his seat on the grounds of ill-health last month.

Like Crewe and Nantwich, like Henley, this was undoubtedly a by-election that Mr Brown could have done without.

The main opponent will be Alex Salmond's Scottish Nationalists, and even the slightest movement on the Barnett Formula is bound to be exploited.

Mr Salmond, indeed, got his retaliation in early in his response to Thursday's report, saying: "It is abundantly clear that the motivation of both Labour and the Tories on this issue is slashing Scottish spending."

He claims that, far from being subsidised by England, Scotland's oil revenues are actually subsidising the rest of the UK to the tune of £4.4bn a year.

Does Glasgow East represent any sort of threat to Mr Brown, given that Mr Marshall had a majority of 13,507and had held the seat for Labour since 1979?

Well, ordinarily, no - but these are not ordinary times and the Prime Minister's record in by-elections thus far hardly inspires confidence.

Furthermore, there is one aspect of the Glasgow East contest that carries a particular danger for Mr Brown - the fact that it is taking place in his own Scottish political backyard.

If he can't win this one, Labour MPs will justifiably start to wonder whether he can actually win anywhere.

Mr Brown can at least take comfort from the fact that the by-election is taking place two days after the start of the summer Parliamentary recess, reducing the scope for plotting.

But the fact that even Harriet Harman has been talked about during the past week as a possible replacement demonstrates the extent of the trouble the Prime Minister is in.

My guess is that Labour will hang on, and that the immediate danger for Mr Brown will recede until the start of the conference season in September.

But as for the future of the Barnett Formula, the Prime Minister finds himself as caught between a rock and a hard place as he ever was.

It was, I think, always Labour's hope that it could safely ignore the problem, and that the formula would simply wither on the vine as spending between the different parts of the UK gradually converged.

It has now become clear, though, that this process will take so long that unless something is done sooner, the union could well fall apart in the meantime.

Reforming the Barnett Formula might have been one of the many radical things that Mr Brown dreamed of doing once he got to Number Ten.

Now he's there, though, he has found himself far too preoccupied simply with staying alive.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Will DC bring DD back?

No, says Iain Dale, who as Davis's close friend and former campaign manager probably knows more than most.

But I'm not so sure. As I've said on Iain's blog, Cameron does not strike me as a vindictive man and if, in time, it becomes clear that bringing back Davis in a senior role would strengthen the team - which in my view it will - I think he'll probably be prepared to let bygones be bygones.

Whereas incoming Labour Prime Ministers are required by the party's own rules to appoint Shadow Cabinet members to the Cabinet - although it didn't stop Tony Blair sacking four of them after a year - there is a fairly long Conservative tradition of bringing in heavyweights from outside whenever the party enters government.

Lord Carrington, chosen as Foreign Secretary from outside the then Shadow Cabinet by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was an example.

There has been much talk in Tory circles about whether Prime Minister Cameron would bring in, not just DD, but also IDS, Ken Clarke and even Peter Lilley if he wins the next general election.

Such talk is a tacit recognition that the current Shadow Cabinet, while strong on intellect and ideas, is lacking in that indefinable quality that, in the days of Trollope, used to be known as "bottom."

My guess is that at least two of the aforementioned "Big Beasts" will return, and that the first Cameron Cabinet will indeed look fairly different from the current Shadow Cabinet line-up.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Harman Hypothesis

Much comment in the MSM and blogosphere alike today over the leadership chances of Harriet Harman as she stood in for Gordo at PMQS. The Sun reckons she's already plotting to take over, as does Andrew Rawnsley. Mike Smithson on Political Betting rates her chances, but Ben Brogan thinks she's already blown it. Iain Dale suggests Jack Straw could be in on the plot, while a thoughtful Tory perspective comes from new-kid-on-the-blog Alan Collins.

So what do I make of it? Well, if Harriet Harman is seriously being talked about as the answer to Labour's problems, it merely demonstrates the depth of the crisis the party is in.

Harman is political Marmite - she has her very strong admirers among a certain stratum of politically-correct London society - but she is not, and never has been, generally liked by the broader mass of the British public.

This did not really matter when Labour was choosing a deputy leader. The job of deputy is more about reassuring the faithful than reaching out to the uncommitted. But it will matter if and when the party comes to choose a new leader - particularly after their experience with Mr Brown.

I suspect that Harman knows this, and that her comment at PMQs about there not being enough airports for the men who would leave the country if she became PM displayed a certain degree of self-awareness.

Her primary objective in any leadership battle will be, firstly, to hold onto the deputy leadership - a generational shift in the leadership, for instance to David Miliband, could make her a casualty along with Gordon - and to secure the sort of senior role in the next Cabinet that Gordon has denied her.

I suspect her real aim is to be Justice Secretary rather than PM, but letting the speculation ride for a bit will do her no harm in this context, as it underlines her claims to be seen as a "key player" and strengthens her position for the inevitable job bargaining that will accompany a leadership change.

My guess is that she will eventually throw her weight behind the "Anyone but Miliband" bandwagon that appears to be growing and back the candidate most likely to give the Foreign Secretary a run for his money. As things currently stand, that surely means either Straw, or Alan Johnson.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

The greatest finals

The Monday after the end of Wimbledon always leaves me with a similar feeling to Twelfth Night. Something you look forward to all year has been and gone for another 12 months, and it is invariably a week or so before life returns to "normal."

Was Nadal-Federer the greatest Wimbledon Men's Final in history? Many are already saying so. For my part, I would rank it in my Top 3 alongside Borg-McEnroe (1980) and Smith-Nastase (1972) although I still think the most remarkable performances in Wimbledon history were Arthur Ashe's outfoxing of a rampant Jimmy Connors in the '75 final, and John McEnroe's demolition of the same opponent nine years later.

I reckon I have watched part or all of every Wimbledon Men's Final since 1970. Here's my Top 10.

1. 1980 Borg bt McEnroe. Still the greatest final for me - just. Lit up by McEnroe's sheer genius.
2. 2008 Nadal bt Federer. Nadal manages to hold it together despite blowing two match points in the 4th set. Incredible.
3. 1972 Smith bt Nastase. A lovely period piece from a gentler Wimbledon age.
4. 1975 Ashe bt Connors. The greatest individual Wimbledon performance - Ashe's tactics echoed those of Ali against Foreman.
5. 1977 Borg bt Connors. Possibly Borg's best final - Connors was still the best player in the world at the time.
6. 1984 McEnroe bt Connors. Mac's masterclass - surely the most comprehensive demolition job in the history of Wimbledon finals.
7. 1992 Agassi bt Ivanisevic. The counterpuncher overcomes the big server, a rare occurence at 1990s Wimbledons.
8. 1991 Stich bt Becker. Almost as big an upset as Ashe-Connors, Stich played serenely well to win this one.
9. 1970 Newcombe bt Rosewall. Heroic effort by Rosewall, who regains from Nadal the title of "best player never to win Wimbledon."
10. 2004 Federer bt Roddick. Roger at his sublime best - he made poor Roddick look ordinary.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Two fingers to the electorate

As promised, my weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal focuses on Mr David Clelland's little local difficulty, the row over MPs expenses - and what it all tells us about trust.


Over the course of his political career, David Clelland has been a notable servant of the North-East, both as an MP for the past 23 years and as leader of Gateshead council before that.

But in spite of – or perhaps because of – his doughty work on behalf of the region, the Tyne Bridge MP has only twice hit the national headlines.

The first was ten years ago, when he left his wife for his then secretary Brenda Graham, now the second Mrs Clelland, although media interest in the “story” proved thankfully short-lived.

The second was this week, when it emerged that he had told a constituent, Gary Scott, where he could “stick” his vote at the next election after he sent Mr Clelland a letter of complaint about the government’s record.

Mr Clelland’s actions have engendered widely differing reactions. Some have cited his behaviour as evidence of the “arrogance” of the political class and the growing gulf between MPs and the public.

To those of this persuasion, MPs are “servants” rather than “masters” and should behave as such, no matter what the provocation.

Others have seen Mr Clelland’s dismissive response as an indication that Labour has given up on the next general election already.

As Mr Scott himself told The Journal: “Labour are struggling for supporters as it is but if they don’t want voters who dare to question policies, they are finished.”

But on the opposing side of the argument, there are those who have applauded Mr Clelland’s honesty in speaking from the heart rather than sending the standard stock reply: “Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.”

Surely, they argue, we want our MPs to be human beings, not machines? It’s a fair point.

Still others have hailed Mr Clelland a hero for striking a blow for MPs who long to be able to tell vexatious letter-writers where to get off.

Said one MP’s researcher: “They regularly write book-length tomes on everything from climate change to Big Brother and expect the MP to address each and every point - all of which takes time away from helping constituents in true need.”

For my part, I would in the natural scheme of things have a fair degree of sympathy for this point of view, and indeed for Mr Clelland personally.

By and large, he has been a good thing for the North-East – most notably in campaigning for both a fairer funding deal and a stronger political voice for the region over the course of many years.

One thing, though, makes me stop short of a more whole-hearted endorsement – the fact that, on Thursday night, he voted to keep the discredited system of MPs allowances.

This, to me, says rather more about Mr Clelland – and the other 171 MPs who voted alongside him – than a minor spat with a constituent.

For the benefit of those who missed it, MPs were presented with a report from a special committee recommending the end of the so-called “John Lewis List” which enables them to claim expenses for new kitchens and TVs.

The review committee also wanted to replace the so-called £24,000 allowance for the upkeep of second homes.

In the event, MPs voted by 171 to 143 to keep both, although many more abstained.

Overwhelmingly, it was Labour MPs who voted in favour of retaining the current system, even though Prime Minister Gordon Brown had indicated that he favoured reform.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that North-East MPs, who have to live away from their constituencies during the week, would naturally tend to support generous allowances for second homes.

Other regional parliamentarians besides Mr Clelland who voted to keep the current system included Nick Brown, Kevan Jones, Stephen Byers and Ronnie Campbell.

But significantly, it was by no means a universal view among the Northern Group of Labour MPs, with Sir Stuart Bell, Vera Baird, Helen Goodman and Chris Mullin all backing the proposed reform.

It is also worth noting that Sir Alan Beith, whose constituency is further away from London than any MP in England, let alone the North, also supported change.

What we have here, then, is not so much a regional divide as a clash of values – between MPs who think it is fine to charge the taxpayer for new tellies and those who would draw the line at that.

Perhaps at a deeper level, too, it is a clash of values between those who care what the public think of them, and those who are happy to tell the electorate to “stick it” – to coin a phrase.

In the context of the overriding need to rebuild public trust and confidence in the political system, Thursday’s vote was not just perverse, it was stupid.

Yes, MPs need a certain amount of taxpayers’ money to do their jobs, but for them to insist on their right to buy TVs and sofas on the public purse – particularly at this stage in the economic cycle – was just asking for trouble.

It was not, of course, backbench MPs who were primarily to blame for the loss of public trust in politicians that has occurred over the past decade and a half.

It started with the Tory sleaze of the mid-1990s and intensified as a result of New Labour’s spin and sleaze over the past 11 years under both Mr Brown and Tony Blair.

Yet here was a rare opportunity for backbench MPs to do something about it, to actually start to rebuild the frayed bond of trust between them and the people they purport to represent.

By spurning that opportunity, it is not just Mr Clelland who has given a metaphorical two fingers to the voters.

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Rough justice

The BBC drama Criminal Justice completed its run last night after having me and around 4.8m other viewers on tenterhooks for most of this week. If this doesn't win Baftas galore next year, I'll be amazed.

Basically the premise behind the programme appeared to be that everyone in the criminal justice system is bent except the defendant, Ben Coulter, and his gorgeous, idealistic 26-year-old barrister Frances Kapoor, played by Vineeta Rishi. I for one find this premise entirely believable.

Some found it too hard to watch in its searing portrayal of prison life and the evil that men are capable of. Watching a prisoner trying to conceal a smuggled mobile phone up his arse during a low squat I could probably have done without, likewise the scene in which heroin is forcibly injected into Ben by the other prisoners.

This was one of the less believable aspects of the production. I'm no expert on smack, but I would have thought that directly injecting it into the veins of a first-time user would more than likely be fatal.

The highlight of the whole thing for me was the performance of that marvellous actor Pete Postlethwaite. His character Hooch was the real hero of the piece, and his ultimate decision to put himself on the line for Ben carried shades of Sydney Carton's "far, far better thing."

Ben's ultimate fate was left hanging in the air. Would he be able to move on with the rest of his life, or would his experiences inside leave him irreparably damaged? This programme was something of a mind-fuck, but it was Ben's mind that was being fucked with as well as ours.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

And ballots to you too, sir

Veteran North-East MP David "Stick your vote" Clelland was among the 172 MPs who voted to keep the "John Lewis List" in Thursday night's vote on the expenses system. What does that say about him, and about the other MPs who voted against reform?

I'll try to give some answers in my Newcastle Journal column tomorrow.

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The week in journalism

A difficult week for Trinity, a world scoop for Torbay, and a possible antidote to summer slow news days. My weekly round-up of what's been making the news on HoldtheFrontPage can be found HERE.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad sleeps with the fishes

As a huge fan of The Godfather, I loved this report on the Today Programme this morning about a US foreign policy analyst's attempt to draw a complex analogy between the classic movie and America's current position in the world.

He likens 9/11 to the flowerstall attack on the ageing Don Vito Corleone, and Bush's response to the al-Qaeda outrage to hothead Sonny's attempts to punish the rival gang leader responsible for his father's attempted assassination.

In terms of the current presidential contest, McCain, who some claim would like to present the Iranian president with a horse's head in the bed, is also described as a "Sonny," while his opponent, Barack Obama, is compared to the Corleone's lawyer, Tom Hagen, the arch-conciliator who would always seek to negotiate his way out of a family crisis.

So far, so plausible. But the big, unanswered question in all this is where is Michael Corleone - and this, I fear, is where the analogy, enjoyable though it is, breaks down.

Michael may have been brighter than Sonny and employed more subtle methods, but the whole point of the film is that he turned out to be even more murderous, culminating in the desolate scene at the climax of the second movie when, having slaughtered all his rivals, he surveys the barren wilderness that is his life.

Is anyone seriously suggesting this as a model for future US foreign policy? Well, let's hope not.

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Decline and fall

Some people will regard this as sad. Indeed it is. But it is also a warning of how membership of the House of Commons can destroy people who aren't really mentally equipped to deal with it. When I first met her as a newly-elected Labour MP in 1997, Helen Brinton, as was, was a relatively normal human being.

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Recherchez la Femme

Forceful and Moderate was one of my very favourite blogs a couple of years back. It then went into abeyance while it's prime mover and creative driving force, Femme de Resistance, completed her Phd.

Now at long last she's back, with a redesigned blog and a follow-up to my story about another recent comeback - that of ex-Tory MP Walter Sweeney.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Labour after Brown?

A thoughtful piece by Andrew Sparrow in today's Guardian on what the Labour Party might look like after Gordon. It focuses on a speech by David Lammy - once dubbed "the Black Blair" by The Sun - which in fact sounded more Cameroonian than Blairite - particularly in its references to the "good society."

On a similar but lighter note, the Daily Pundit blog came up with a hugely entertaining prediction of what David Miliband's first Cabinet might look like, which I have been meaning to link to.

I have a few issues with his choices, mind. The Pundit reckons Prime Minister Miliband would make his brother Ed Foreign Secretary and James Purnell Chancellor. My money would be on Geoff Hoon and John Hutton for those two posts.

Perhaps we're all getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Over on Political Betting, HenryG Manson reckons Gordon Brown is good value at 50-1 to be still leading the party in 2013.

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