Thursday, August 28, 2008

Holidays open thread

In case you're wondering.....I'm currently taking a two-week break from work, blogging, blogging league-tables, email, and anything else that involves sitting in front of a computer screen when I should be spending my time with the kids/in the garden/putting up shelves. Thankfully, there's absolutely nothing happening politically that is worth writing about, so those of you that come here for the incisive political analysis are not missing anything.

For those of you who come here for other reasons...we have once again been making use of the old Vango Diablo 900 (blame the credit crunch) and have so far had two very pleasant camping trips, one here in Derbyshire with some Sheffield friends, another down in Sussex which we combined with a visit to a friend's wedding and my brother-in-law's 40th.

We're now back at home enjoying what is left of the summer and today the weather has finally picked up. The farmer has been haymaking in the fields beyond our garden for the second time this year, and it briefly feels like midsummer again.

Barring a sudden change of Prime Minister, I am unlikely to be updating the blog again before September is upon us, so feel free to use the comments to raise any issues of interest, or even to tell me this blog is not as good as it used to be.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

To reshuffle, or not to reshuffle

The September reshuffle will be key to determining whether Gordon Brown faces a leadership challenge this autumn. Here's today's column from the Newcastle Journal.


This time last year, as I prepared to go off on my summer holidays, I openly speculated on these pages as to whether I would come back in the middle of a general election campaign.

Gordo-mania was then at its height and all the gossip at Westminster was that the Prime Minister was planning to hold an early autumn election.

Well, what a difference a year makes. Twelve months on, I am wondering whether by the time this column resumes on 6 September, we might be in the midst of a Labour leadership battle.

The one thing all Labour MPs seem to agree on at the moment is that the first week of next month will be crucial in determining whether or not the Prime Minister will survive.

Why is this? Well, that’s the week MPs start returning to Westminster for the three-week “mopping up” session that takes place between the summer recess and the conference season.

They will have had a chance to go away and reflect on their party’s plight, and reach some kind of collective judgement about whether or not Mr Brown’s position is recoverable.

At the same time, the Prime Minister will have to use that week to try to regain the initiative and demonstrate that there is

He has two potential weapons in his armoury – the proposed launch of a “new economic plan” to alleviate the worst effects of the credit crunch, and that old staple, a Cabinet reshuffle.

Taking the “new economic plan” first, this could well be a last opportunity for Mr Brown to set out some kind of distinctive agenda for his administration, based around the idea of “fairness.”

A series of over by measures to help the worst-off, possibly paid for by a windfall tax on energy companies, may well help win over rebellious Labour MPs.

But it’s the reshuffle that holds the key to the whole crisis. Mr Brown has to have one – partly as a means of reasserting his authority, and partly because the government is badly in need of refreshing.

But there is a very considerable risk that the whole exercise will backfire, with ministers either refusing to be moved, or even in some cases refusing to continue to serve under him.

Any meaningful reshuffle would almost certainly have to involve changes in the major offices of state, in particular the Treasury where Alistair Darling has endured a torrid 14 months.
But the trouble with Mr Darling is that he knows where too many of the bodies are buried.

He knows, for instance, that the 10p tax debacle was entirely of Mr Brown’s own making, and that the Prime Minister had been warned shortly after taking took over that the policy would need to be changed.

If he went to the backbenches, or was given a job which disagreed with him, there is always the risk that he could go nuclear.

There are those who might argue that Alistair Darling is too obviously nice and mild-mannered a character to do such a thing to poor Mr Brown, whatever the degree of provocation.

But in response to that I would say just three words: Sir Geoffrey Howe.

In 1979, Denis Healey said that being savaged by Sir Geoffrey was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Years later, Margaret Thatcher was to discover the inner wolf that lurked beneath.

It follows that Mr Darling is probably unsackable, although he might just decide go of his own volition following what has been a rather unhappy spell at the Treasury.

The biggest danger for Mr Brown, though, is not so much Mr Darling refusing to move as other people simply refusing to continue to serve under him.

One national newspaper reported last month, in the immediate aftermath of the Glasgow East by-election, that up to 15 ministers were prepared to do this.

If that is true, then I am very much afraid that Mr Brown is toast. No Prime Minister, not least one already as weakened as this one, could survive such a rebuff to his authority.

In these circumstances, the wisest option might seem to be not to have a reshuffle at all – except that this too would only serve to highlight his weakness.

But even if he manages to walk this difficult tightrope, Mr Brown faces another excruciating dilemma over when to hold the Glenrothes by-election following Labour MP John MacDougall’s death this week.

The obvious option seems to be to delay it at least until after the conferences, by which time Mr Brown may have had a chance to stabilise his leadership.

But that runs the risk that the by-election will reverse any gains made as a result of the “September relaunch” and deliver a final knockout blow to the Prime Minister.

If he makes the speech of his life at the party conference, carries out the reshuffle to end all reshuffles, unveils a new economic plan, and Labour still can’t win a by-election, then what on earth is there left to do except change the leader?

So, cards on the table time. Will Mr Brown face a leadership challenge this autumn? Probably. Should he face one? Regretfully, I have to say yes.

The past year has been, I don’t mind admitting, a depressing one for those of us who invested such hopes in the Brown premiership.

I had argued for years that his more understated style would put an end to the spin that marred his predecessor’s reign, and that his commitment to social justice would restore Labour’s lost moral compass.

The fact that Mr Brown has done neither of these things is the biggest single reason why he has forfeited the support of so many of those who once championed him.

Historians will argue for years about what went wrong, and why this considerable political figure managed to make such a hash of the premiership he coveted for so long.

The best answer I can give is that, like Anthony Eden, it was his misfortune to come to the top job when his best years were behind him.

The long years of waiting for Number 10 appear to have made Mr Brown old before his time, and worn-out his once legendary political stamina.

I think it will probably take more than a two-week summer break in Suffolk to revive him.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Doctors of nonsense

I'm not going to accuse the Tory Party of being about to abandon the North of England on the back of today's report by the right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange. David Cameron has, after all, made clear his view that the report is "insane rubbish."

But you have to question the report's basic assumption that people should move out of the North to avoid becoming trapped there by low house prices and finding themselves unable to move to more prosperous areas.

Have the report's authors actually been to Newcastle recently? If so, they would realise that those aspiring to live in the more desirable parts of the city are already paying London prices, and have been for several years.

I may return to this subject shortly, but all in all, this report strikes me as a rather ignorant contribution to the great North-South debate.

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Olympic memories

I will doubtless be following the Olympics over the next couple of weeks or so, but I doubt I will see anything that will enthrall me so much as the great athletics performances which inspired me as I was growing up. Thankfully, many of these are now available on YouTube, so here are three of my favourites.

1. "And Viren defends his title wonderfully well." Quite simply one of my favourite sporting moments ever, from the Montreal games.

2. "Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class." Okay, so David Coleman didn't really say this, but a great performance nonetheless.

3. "Akii Bua coming on the inside." Coleman did say this, no fewer than three times as the Ugandan overhauled David Hemery in '72.

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A quiet departure

Autumn is meant to be the time for those, but Brockley Kate has chosen high summer to hang up her laptop. A shame, as she was one of the better writers in the 'sphere, but blogging should never become a chore, and if it's not fun any more, she's right to walk away.

I actually voted for Kate in the Witanagemot Club Awards as the blogger I'd most like to have a pint with, solely on the strength of this post last October which revealed that we share a mutual passion for the Lakes.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Miliband must distance himself from Blair

If David Miliband is to become Labour leader, he will have to win it from the centre, not by surrounding himself with Blairite "ultras." Here's my column in today's Newcastle Journal.


With the new football season almost upon us, hundreds of thousands of armchair fans will doubtless be spending the next few days selecting their Fantasy League sqauds for 2008/2009.

But as far as political journalists are concerned, there is nothing they enjoy more at this otherwise lean time of the year than a good old game of Fantasy Cabinets.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising this week to find one national newspaper attempting to guess the shape of David Miliband’s government line-up before the poor man has even got as far as the starting-line in a leadership race.

The South Shields MP, we are told, will appoint his fellow North-East Blairite, Darlington’s Alan Milburn, to the job of Chancellor if he succeeds in replacing Gordon Brown.

On the face of it, they might seem like a good combination, a political Sutton and Shearer – or for Newcastle fans with longer memories, a Macdonald and Tudor, perhaps.

Here, after all, are two youngish, thrusting reformers with the energy, charisma and above all fresh ideas to revive Labour’s moribund political fortunes.

But to return to the footballing analogy, in Labour Party terms it is a bit like playing David Beckham and David Bentley – two right-wingers – in the same England XI. It makes the team look unbalanced.

And if the 43-year-old Foreign Secretary is serious about winning the Labour leadership, putting together a balanced ticket is going to be absolutely key to his prospects.

It is not hard to see why this should be the case. Although Mr Miliband has few personal enemies in the Labour Party, he is instinctively distrusted by many as a “Blair Mark 2.”

Although Mr Miliband’s politics are rather more nuanced than this – in some respects he is well to the left of his old boss – there are some who would view his candidacy as a sort of restoration project.

Hence the very last thing he needs is to be seen to be teaming up with Mr Milburn, who apart from his old chum Stephen Byers is about the most dyed-in-the-wool Blairite “ultra” around.

What he needs is to be seen to be reaching out not to his natural allies on the right of the party, but to his potential opponents on the centre-left.

In the light of all this, it is understandable that many observers this week saw the claims about a “Mili-Mil” leadership plot as a piece of black propaganda by the Brownites to discredit the Foreign Secretary.

Indeed, so successful does it appear to have been in this regard that I wonder if the Prime Minister’s old spinmeister Charlie Whelan is back at his side.

The genius of the story – if indeed it did have Mr Brown’s fingerprints on it – was that it played exactly into the party’s fears about what Mr Miliband might do as leader.

No matter that Mr Milburn himself has dismissed the reports, in terms, as “balls” – enough seeds of doubt will have been planted to make people think twice about the whole enterprise.

So let me indulge in a bit of Fantasy Cabinet-making myself on Mr Miliband’s behalf, of the kind that would suggest he is genuinely reaching out to all sides of the party.

The two people who are going to be crucial in any leadership contest – the kingmakers in my view – are the health secretary Alan Johnson in the centre, and the former deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas on the left.

I wrote a fortnight ago that Mr Miliband’s old friendship with Mr Johnson dating back to their days as education ministers could be central to his chances, and I stand by that.

Many MPs would like Mr Johnson to stand himself, but failing that, his endorsement will carry huge weight.

As for Mr Cruddas, it was he who swung the deputy leadership for Harriet Harman last year after making clear on the BBC’s Question Time that his second-preference vote would go her way.

But the job he really wants is not the deputy leadership, but that of reforming the party’s internal structures and galvanising its decrepit grassroots organisation.

If Mr Miliband really is in the business of handing out Cabinet jobs in advance, he should promise Mr Johnson the job of Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Cruddas the party chairmanship.

With those two on board, he could make a powerful case that, far from being a divisive “Blairite,” he is really the candidate who can unite this fractious, divided party.

As for Mr Milburn, while there should clearly be a place for him in any post-Brown administration, I doubt if that place is the Treasury.

Although the Darlington MP was briefly Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1998-99,
his real political talents lie in blue-sky thinking and communicating a vision, rather than figures and grasp of detail.

Indeed he has the kind of skillset that is required more for No 10 than for No 11, which is one of the reasons I have previously advocated him as a leadership contender.

I can see him being offered a Cabinet Office cross-cutting role to "think the unthinkable," possibly looking at policies across the piece to kick-start social mobility, his pet subject.

In the final analysis, Mr Miliband needs to keep his eyes not just on the internal party selectorate but on the broader electoral picture.

If the idea of a “Blair Mark 2” is unpopular within the Labour Party, it is not likely to prove any less so amongst the public as a whole.

The main reason Mr Brown has proved an unpopular Prime Minister is because he was unable to be the change the country wanted after his predecessor’s long reign.

Mr Miliband must base his appeal not just on the fact that he isn’t Gordon Brown. He must make clear that he isn’t Tony Blair either.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Milburn for Chancellor? Absolute b****cks

Those were the words apparently used by Alan Milburn to describe Rosa Prince's now-infamous Telegraph story that he had been offered the Treasury in a David Miliband administration, should one come about.

Well, he would, wouldn't he? But you know, I think Alan is telling the truth on this one and for once I agree with Guido. This was not hubris on the part of an increasingly over-confident Blair/Miliband camp, it was a piece of black propaganda by the Brownites designed to discredit the Foreign Secretary in the eyes of the Milburn-hating party selectorate.

Indeed, so successful does it appear to have been in this regard that I wonder if that grandmaster of the dark arts Charlie Whelan is back at Gordon's side?

Andrew Sparrow on the Guardian Politics Blog said charitably that even the flakiest stories usually contain "some slither of truth," and I agree. The slither in this case is that Milburn will play a role in a Miliband government, if it happens - but not at the Treasury.

Although Milburn was briefly Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1998-99, figures and grasp of detail are not really his strong points. He is much more of a Blair than a Brown, a broad-brush man whose real political talents lie in blue-sky thinking and communicating a vision. That is the kind of skillset that is required for No 10, not No 11, which is one of the reasons I have previously advocated Milburn as a leadership contender.

My tip for the Treasury is either James Purnell or, more likely, John Hutton. As for Milburn, I can see him being offered a Cabinet Office cross-cutting role to "think the unthinkable," possibly looking at policies across the piece to kick-start social mobility or tackle inequality. Indeed, Brown should have offered him this last year in my view.

The irony is that, had "Gypsy Rosa" written that Milburn's old flatmate Hutton was going to be offered the Treasury in a Miliband government, it would have proved even more damaging to the would-be young pretender, given the Business and Enterprise Secretary's current lower-than-zero standing with the union brothers.

It might also have had the merit of being - no doubt inadvertently - accurate.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A story with a happy ending

Clara's duck went swimming one day
Over the pond and far away.
Clara went "wah, wah, wah, wah"
And her little duck came swimming back.

  • With apologies to the original, and thanks to the staff at Nottingham's Dunelm Mill.

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  • Tuesday, August 05, 2008

    The blogger you would third-most like to have a pint with

    The first set of prizes in the political blogging awards season have been handed out courtesy of the Witanegemot Club, and I am pleased to say this blog was among the winners.

    I've never wanted the blog to be pigeonholed, so I was gratified as well as slightly amused to see it placed first in the "Best Centre Ground Blog" category (ahead of Mike Smithson's Political Betting) and second in the "Best Labour Party-supporting Blog" category (behind Bob Piper.)

    Best of all, though, was my equal third place in the "Blogger You Would Most Like to Share a Pint With" category, alongside Tim Worstall and behind Devil's Kitchen and Guido Fawkes.

    Cheers, guys! The Wadsworth 6Xs are on me.

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    Monday, August 04, 2008

    Tears are not enough

    Michael Vaughan's wept at his decision to stand down as England cricket captain. Jeremy Paxman cried when he discovered one of his ancestors had been sent to the workhouse. Tough-guy Aussie PM Bob Hawke shed tears about his daughter's drug addiction.

    The BBC has been asking visitors to its site today "What makes men cry?" Here's my list of anniversaries, films, songs, books, and memories that have turned on the waterworks in recent years.

    1. Good Friday.

    2. Leaving my old home last November. The rest of the family had gone on ahead to the new house leaving me to say my final farewells to the place that had been my home on and off for nearly 20 years. I was fighting back the tears as I said goodbye, but I think they were tears of love as much as grief.

    3. Thinking about how much I still miss my grandad, who died when I was 12.

    4. That bit in Love Actually when, having declared his (unrequited) love for his best friend's girl (Keira Knightley), Andrew Lincoln walks away from her home telling himself: "Enough, enough now."

    5. Thomas Hardy's Christmas poem, "The Oxen"

    6. The opening lines of "I Trawl the Megahertz" by Paddy McAloon. "We start with the joyful mysteries before the appearance of ether, trying to capture the elusive: the farm where the crippled horses heal, the woods where autumn is reversed, and the longing for bliss in the arms of some beloved from the past."

    7. The closing line of the hymn "I Cannot Tell, How He Whom Angels Worship," to the tune of "Danny Boy."

    8. Listening to recordings of Winston Churchill saying: "We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

    9. "Abraham, Martin and John," by Marvin Gaye. Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin...?

    10. Heroism, literary and real. Sydney Carton's at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Bigwig's at the end of Watership Down, the real-life heroism of my parents' generation who saved this country in WW2. I think this and No 1. are linked, somehow.

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    Saturday, August 02, 2008

    Miliband knocks at the door of Number 10

    It's game on for the Labour leadership after David Miliband set out his stall this week - and Britain looks set to get another Prime Minister from a North-East constituency. Here's my column in today's Journal.


    Harold Wilson famously coined the phrase that a week is a long time in politics. But had the pipe-smoking legend lived in the era of the 24/7 news media, he might have said it was an eternity.

    Events have moved thick and fast since, a week ago, I concluded that Gordon Brown’s nightmare scenario going into the conference season would be to deliver his keynote speech against a backdrop of party dissension and open revolt.

    Seven days on, I suspect the Prime Minister would now regard it as an achievement if he even makes it as far as the podium in Manchester next month with his leadership intact.

    What has changed? In two words, David Miliband. The Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP, widely criticised last year for not having had the bottle to fight Gordon Brown for the top job, has finally decided to stand up and be counted.

    Of course, Mr Miliband has denied that his article in Wednesday’s Guardian was intended as anything resembling a Labour leadership challenge. He had little option but to do so

    He is, after all, treading a very fine line between careful positioning and outright disloyalty, and already two backbench MPs have called for him to be sacked over it.

    But you do not write an article like that at a time of maximum vulnerability for the Prime Minister if you are not, at the very least, letting it be known that you would be available in the event of a vacancy.

    Hence unless Mr Miliband is now forced to beat a humiliating retreat – which, if he does, will finish him for good as a leadership contender – it’s game on.

    On the face of it, his much-pored-over Guardian piece said little that was new or original. In one sense, it was full of the kind of meaningless vacuities we have come to expect from New Labour politicians.

    But for those whose job is it is to look for such things – the media, and Labour MPs – the signs were all there.

    There was the non-mention of Mr Brown. The implicit criticism of his failure to get across Labour’s message by being insufficiently humble about its shortcomings. The attempt to set out a fresh “vision” for the party – something Mr Brown has palpably failed to do.

    Above all, perhaps, the article radiated a sense of optimism that has been missing from Labour of late, almost as if Mr Miliband was telling his party only he could give it back its self-confidence.

    Is Mr Miliband really an ideal candidate for Labour leader? Well, no. He still lacks enough experience for my liking, and has not exactly been a conspicuous success as Foreign Secretary.

    But from an electoral point of view, he does at least negate some of Mr Brown's perceived drawbacks - for instance he is young, English, and reasonably charming on a human level.

    Most importantly, he was not responsible for every mistake in economic and social policy that has been made by New Labour since 1997 – a legacy that is proving increasingly poisonous for Mr Brown.

    One other point in his favour that is rarely mentioned is that he has a deep understanding of Labour history – something which distinguishes him from his old mentor, Tony Blair.

    On these pages a couple of months back, I made clear my own preference for another North-East MP, Darlington’s Alan Milburn, on the grounds that he can offer greater experience combined with relative freshness.

    I still think there was an opportunity for the former health secretary following the Crewe and Nantwich and Henley by-elections to steal a march on the potential Cabinet contenders by coming out publicly against Mr Brown.

    It would have made his Cabinet rivals look lily-livered by comparison and put Mr Milburn in the vanguard of the growing Dump Brown faction among the party's grassroots.

    But it didn't happen, and it's now clear from Mr Miliband's intervention that, far from allowing a leftfield stalking-horse like Mr Milburn to do their dirty work, the Cabinet contenders are preparing to move against the PM themselves.

    Neither is it just Mr Miliband who has been making plans. Deputy leader Harriet Harman was forced to deny this week that she was assembling a leadership bid, but her actions are almost as transparent as the Foreign Secretary’s.

    Some commentators are already convinced that, although as many as six candidates could enter the fray, it will boil down to a contest between Mr Miliband on the right and Ms Harman on the soft-left.

    Those who argue Ms Harman could pull it off point to her success in last year’s deputy leadership election and her evident popularity with some sections of the party.

    But electing a deputy leader is not quite the same as electing a Prime Minister, and somehow, I think Labour MPs, union leaders and party members will be mindful of that fact.

    There has been talk of Mr Brown seeking a truce with Mr Miliband by making him Chancellor in the autumn reshuffle and formally anointing him as his heir apparent, but Mr Miliband would be mad to accept this.
    Firstly, to be Chancellor of the Exchequer in the midst of the current economic downturn is a poisoned chalice, as Alistair Darling has found. Secondly, it would tie him in too closely to Mr Brown’s own electoral fate.

    Most of all, though, if Mr Miliband allows himself to be bought-off now, after having also backed away from the fight last year, he will forever go down as the Michael Portillo of the Labour Party.

    Mr Portillo, it should be remembered, was the promising young Tory hopeful who backed off from challenging John Major in 1995 at a point where he could have won. His career never recovered.

    Will Mr Miliband win? In my view, yes. There will be a huge desire on the part of party members to signal a fresh start for Labour by drawing a line under the now discredited Blair-Brown generation, and he will be the beneficiary of that.

    That’s bad news for the likes of Jack Straw, but timing is all in politics, and the graveyards are full of politicians who might once have made good Prime Ministers but who missed their time.

    Between the retirement of Seaham’s Ramsay Macdonald in 1935 and the election of Sedgefield’s Tony Blair in 1997, the North-East had to wait 62 years for a Prime Minister who represented a seat in the region.

    Now, just 14 months from Mr Blair’s own departure, it seems odds-on that another one is about to come along.

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    Friday, August 01, 2008

    Blair debate takes to airwaves

    A couple of weeks back, Political Betting's Mike Smithson and I had an entertaining online debate over the question of whether Labour would now be doing even worse in the polls had Tony Blair remained as leader. Later today Mike and I will be taking to the airwaves with our respective views with a live debate on BBC Radio Five Live. It will be on air at about 6.35pm this evening, so do tune in!

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