Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Remembering the public hangman

I enjoyed following the career of Peter Bruinvels in the 1980s - it was difficult not to as he was rarely out of the papers - and 20 years on I enjoyed writing about him for Total Politics magazine.

My "Where Are They Now?" feature for the magazine is now in its fifth month - previous subjects have been Walter Sweeney, Bill Pitt, David Bookbinder and David Bellotti.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prince of Darkness continues to weave his spell

Apologies for lack of blogging this week - a combination of illness and extreme busy-ness - but here's my weekly Journal column, focusing inevitably on the so-called Corfu capers.

It is no exaggeration to say that, of all the men and women who have influenced the course of political events over the past 16 months of the Brown premiership, the one who had possibly the greatest impact was Shadow Chancellor George Osborne.

It was his audacious plan to slash Inheritance Tax for all but the very-super-rich unveiled in his 2007 conference speech that, more than any other single factor, persuaded Mr Brown not to call a general election that autumn.

Many thought it finally marked the 36-year-old Mr Osborne’s arrival as a genuine player in the front rank of politics - a “Big Beast” in the old Tory parlance.

But if so, the events of the past week have reopened some of the old doubts in the party about whether Mr Osborne’s exalted position in the Tory hierarchy is a case of too much, too young.

The tale of the "Corfu Capers" is an intriguing demonstration of how high society and its tangled network of relationships can impact on day-to-day political events.

It all began when former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson, then a European Commissioner, made some critical comments about Mr Brown to Mr Osborne while they were both staying at the Greek villa of their mutual friend, Nathaniel Rothschild, this summer.

When a few weeks later Mr Brown made the dramatic step of restoring the newly-ennobled Lord Mandelson to his Cabinet in his reshuffle, what had been merely a juicy piece of gossip became political gold-dust.

A story duly appeared in The Sunday Times in which it was claimed that the new Business Secretary had “dripped pure poison into the ears of a senior Tory” about the Prime Minister during the holiday.

Mr Rothschild was furious at what he saw a breach of confidence, and got his own back by deciding to reveal what else Mr Osborne had got up to on his holidays.

Specifically, he claimed that Mr Osborne and the Tory chief executive Andrew Feldman had tried to solicit a £50,000 donation to Tory funds from a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, while visiting his yacht.

Mr Osborne has denied this, but "friends" of Mr Rothschild has now made clear that if he continues to query his version of events, he will destroy him, suggesting he has written witness statements from others who were present.

There is no suggestion that it was Lord Mandelson who tried to persuade Mr Rothschild to exact revenge on Mr Osborne.

It seems the merchant banker was simply so enraged by the breach of confidence that he decided to administer what one close associate called a "slap on the wrist."

However Tory leader David Cameron's office was warned following the Sunday Times' story that the Business Secretary knew something "explosive" about Mr Osborne and that the Shadow Chancellor should "be careful."

Mr Osborne has been forced to learn two hard lessons. First, you don’t breach confidences. Second, you don’t mess with Mandelson.

It seems unlikely as yet that the Shadow Chancellor will have to resign, and even though Mr Brown has said he hopes "the authorities" will investigate, it is not entirely clear whether any actual offence has been committed.

But it does focus attention on the Tories' readiness for government and specifically on whether they have yet got the make-up of their senior team quite right.

Already this question has been thrown into relief by Mr Cameron's failure to restore David Davis to the Shadow Home Secretaryship even though his successor Dominic Grieve seems ill-fitted for such a cut-and-thrust role.

Now the focus is on Mr Osborne - and whether someone who looks and sounds a bit less like a merchant banker might be a more convincing advocate for the Tories in the midst of the current crisis.

There has been persistent talk in Tory circles that if he wins the next election, Mr Cameron intends to bring Ken Clarke into a front-line role in government, possibly as Leader of the Commons.

But if he really does intend to employ the 68-year-old bruiser's considerable talents, he should not waste time hanging around for polling day.

He should bring Mr Clarke in now - preferably as Shadow Chancellor so he can deploy all his Treasury experience against Labour as the economic crisis continues to unwind.

Mr Clarke has long harboured a grudge against Mr Brown for the way he failed to give the Tories any credit for stabilising the economy between 1993 and 1997. What better way to get his own back.

The Corfu affair also focuses attention once again on the whole issue of political donations, demonstrating that no party is immune from the problem.

Last year we were all agog over whether Newcastle businessman David Abrahams had channelled donations to the Labour Party through associates in the city. Now the spotlight is once again back on the Tories.

What it shows is that attempting to rid British politics of sleaze is a bit like trying to abolish sin

Unless and until we move a situation where political parties are state-funded, these sorts of controversies will surely continue to recur.

For me, though, what has really elevated this story beyond the realms of run-of-the-mill political tit-for-tat has been the involvement - however innocent - of Lord Mandelson.

It has been yet another fascinating example of the Prince of Darkness's almost unique capacity for causing mayhem, even if it is sometimes inadvertent.

We saw this in his Cabinet career with his two resignations. We have seen it in the way he can both electrify and terrify the political establishment in almost equal measure.

Three weeks into his third Cabinet comeback, the man once known as the Prince of Darkness has certainly not lost his lethal touch.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Normal politics returns

Brown to call snap election? Cameron to be replaced by Ken Clarke? Political pundits should stop getting carried away by the idea of a "Brown Renaissance," I argue in my Journal column today.

In last week's column, I wrote that it was unclear whether we are currently living in a period where "normal politics" has gone into abeyance, or whether the political landscape has undergone a permanent change.

In the sense that we don't yet know the extent to which the post-Thatcher free market consensus has been changed by the events of the past few weeks - and won't know for some time - that still holds true.

But in another respect, it was pretty clear that "normal politics" had indeed been temporarily put on hold, as the political establishment rallied round Gordon Brown at the height of the banking crisis.

Briefly, we saw the same sort of bipartisanship that was seen, say, in the wake of 9/11, when the then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was forced to tear-up his party conference speech and say nice things about Tony Blair instead.

For a fortnight or so, the current Tory leader David Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor George Osborne found themselves in a similar position.

It is often said that the job of an opposition is to oppose, but this is too simplistic. The truth is that sometimes, the job of the opposition is, in fact, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government.

This week, however, "normal politics" in the sense of the battle between the two main parties returned with a vengeance.

Mr Cameron's speech yesterday, in which he accused Mr Brown of a "complete and utter failure" in economic policy, gave us a flavour of the argument that will rage between now and whenever the next general election finally comes.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a total breakdown of economic responsibility," he told an audience in the City of London.

"We need change to mend our broken economy. This lot cannot do it - not least because they cannot own up to any mistakes.

Mr Cameron said that some people thought his party's decision to support the banking rescue plan meant it now "subscribed to the government's entire economic policy and doctrine."

But he added: "Let me make it crystal clear - we do not. And the complete and utter failure of their economic record has never been more clear to see."

All of this puts in stark perspective the talk of the "Brown renaissance" which has become widespread over the past fortnight or so.

Yes, the Prime Minister has certainly bought himself some breathing space, but talk of a complete turnaround in his political fortunes is still way too premature.

Gossip and rumour are part and parcel of political life, but some of what has appeared on political blogs and even in some national newspapers over the past few days has taken fantastical speculation to new heights of absurdity.

There was talk, for instance, that Mr Brown would hold a snap general election to cash-in on his new-found "popularity" in the wake of the crisis - as if he would even go near the idea after getting his fingers so badly burned last time.

One rumour even had it that backbench Tory MPs have been so angered by Mr Cameron's failure to land a killer blow on Mr Brown over the crisis they planned to replace him with Ken Clarke.

I think that David Davis - freshly vindicated by the collapse of the government's plans for 42-day detention - would have something to say about that, but no matter.

The truth is Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown this autumn any more than Mr Brown is going to hold an autumn election.

After yesterday, he must know that had he been foolish enough to call one, the whole country would by now have been plastered with posters bearing his picture and the words "no return to boom and bust."

The Prime Minister's only hope is still to play it long and hope that by May 2010, he can actually justifiably claim to have "fixed" the crisis.

Even then, it may still not be enough to secure him another term in 10 Downing Street.

At the risk of repeating what I said a week ago, the prevailing public sentiment towards him may still be a case of "we want you to sort out this mess - and then we want you to go."

The electorate can be an unsentimental lot, and as Winston Churchill found in 1945, saving the country from catastrophe is no guarantee of a further term in power.

If anything is going to do for Mr Brown, it is not an essentially arcane difficulty over whether or not banks will lend to eachother, it is what is happening in what has been dubbed the "real" economy.

People in the North-East know all about that. To paraphrase the old saying about America and Europe, the region is usually the first to catch a cold whenever London sneezes.

It was amusing to hear BBC political editor Nick Robinson say this week that unemployment had not been an issue in British politics for 15 years. He has clearly not spent much of that time in the North.

It is in fact ten years ago this month that the then Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, told me that lost North jobs were an "acceptable" price to pay to curb inflation in the South, following a spate of factory closures in the region.

Maybe the region's economy is more resilient these days, but if history is anything to go by, the North-East is once again likely to be in the eye of the economic storm.

The region's construction industry has already been badly hit by the crisis, but that is surely just the start.

I suppose those who are set to lose their jobs in the forthcoming months could always go and lag roofs for a living, as the Prime Minister helpfully appeared to suggest this week.

But as Mr Cameron might say, if he had actually fixed the roof while the sun was shining, they wouldn't need to.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The dead-fat-cat bounce

In his weekly take on political events, cartoonist Slob buys into the idea of a "Brown renaissance," but even if such a thing exists, I wonder how long it will last in the wake of David Cameron's speech today. More on this theme in my weekly column tomorrow.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Subcontinental drift

Life is full of unsolved mysteries. What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? Who killed JFK? Does the Bosun-Higgs particle exist? What did Margaret Hodge have on Blair and Brown, and so on.

But here's another question that's had me scratching my head over the last few hours or so: Why is the Man Booker Prize almost invariably won by a book about India?

Answers on a postcard in the comments please...

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Now give him his job back, Dave

David Davis says he feels vindicated over the government's decision to scrap its absurd plan to detain terror suspects for 42 days - once touted by the so-called political cognoscenti as the make-or-break issue that would define Gordon's premiership. And so he should.

Meanwhile it is reasonably clear that, for all his obvious intellectual firepower, Dominic Grieve lacks the political clout to shadow a major office of state.

The conclusion ought to be an obvious one for David Cameron: Restore David Davis to the Shadow Home Secretaryship forthwith. Not only would it be right and proper in view of his 42-day triumph, it would also steal some of Brown's thunder in the wake of his astonishing yet still widely-applauded decision to appoint his most implacable political enemy as Business Secretary.

Will Cameron will have the balls to do it? I'm not holding my breath...

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Nothing new under the sun

The frequent references in the mainstream media to "binge drinking" never cease to bring a smile to my face. News editors who think that women throwing up in the street is somehow representative of our having crossed the fine line between civilisation and anarchy have clearly never seen any Hogarth prints. In a similar vein, this article provides proof, if ever it were needed, that British men have always been, and always will be, overgrown schoolboys at heart.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Has politics really changed for good?

"Things will never be the same again" says Nick Robinson. "Don't believe a word of it" says John Rentoul. Who is right, and what are the implications of this week's banking rescue for Gordon Brown? Here's today's Journal column.

Politics is full of historical ironies – but ironies don’t come much bigger than what the Labour government has been forced to do to the British banking system over the past seven days.

Fourteen years ago, Tony Blair stood up at the Labour conference and pledged to scrap the infamous Clause Four of the party’s constitution and its commitment to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

“Common ownership of the means of exchange” was in fact just a fancy way of saying “nationalisation of the banks” even though this had long ceased to be a realistic policy goal.

Nevertheless, to Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, it was a meaningless shibboleth which only served to alienate floating voters, and as such it had to go.

Those with even longer memories may recall another little gem from Labour’s historical archive which first saw the light of day in the year Messrs Blair and Brown were both first elected to Parliament.

It consisted of a wish-list of improbable promises which included tighter government control over bank lending, creation of a publicly-owned investment bank, and a securities commission to regulate the City.

“We expect the major clearing banks to co operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership,” the document concluded.

It was of course Labour’s 1983 election manifesto – long-derided by those of a New Labour persuasion as “the longest suicide note in history.”

The main author of that document Michael Foot – still going strong at 95 – might have permitted himself a wry old smile this week.

The party he once led has spent a total of £500bn propping up the UK banking system, and that’s not including the £119bn already spent on rescuing Northern Rock and £14bn on Bradford and Bingley.

As a result of the deal the government now owns preference shares in eight leading financial institutions - Abbey, Barclays, HBOS, HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Nationwide Building Society, Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Chartered.

Add to that Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley and that’s ten major banks that are either wholly or part-owned by the taxpayer.

I will leave the economic analysis of whether this mother of all gambles is likely to pay off to the likes of BBC business editor Robert Peston, who has been transformed into an unlikely TV celebrity by the crisis.

I remember “Pesto” from my Lobby days when as FT political editor he was regularly the butt of No 10 press secretary Alastair Campbell’s mockery. I wonder who is laughing now.

But I digress. The truth is I am not qualified to give a judgement on whether I think the rescue plan will work, whether the stock market will recover, or whether we are now in a “feedback loop” – apparently the new name for a vicious circle.

And I know not who was to blame for persuading Derwentside District Council and scores of other local authorities to place their deposits in Icelandic banks – this year’s equivalent of Bulgarian umbrellas it seems.

But what of the political implications? Peston’s BBC colleague Nick Robinson intoned gravely this week that “things will never be the same again,” but he really should know better than to make such sweeping claims.

The truth is, it is far from clear at this stage whether we are in a period in which “normal” politics has simply gone into abeyance, or whether the landscape really has undergone a permanent change.

The events of the past few weeks may very well mark the end of the free market political consensus that was ushered in by Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and assimilated by New Labour after 1994. Or then it again, it may not.

Until we’ve come through this and out the other side, we won’t really know.

Similarly with Prime Minister Gordon Brown. History may show that the past few weeks have transformed him from a political dead man walking into a popular and respected leader who is set to go on and win the next election.

He certainly has a bit more a spring in his step these days, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that, like Churchill, like Thatcher, he is more at home in a crisis.

But the pro-Labour but anti-Brown commentator John Rentoul was scathing about the very idea that Mr Brown’s fortunes had undergone a turnaround.

“Don't believe a word of it. People think the Government has made a terrible mess of the economy and are furious that it is asking taxpayers to pick up the tab….this is game over,” he wrote this week.

Once again, we won’t really know who is right about this at least until the government has faced another serious electoral test.

My own hunch is that while this crisis has undoubtedly given Mr Brown the opportunity to redefine himself and his premiership, the public’s underlying attitude to him may not, in fact, have changed.

Has the prevailing sentiment “We think you’re a lousy Prime Minister and we want you to go” been replaced by “We actually think you’re quite good on the whole and we’d really rather like you stay?”

Or has it simply changed from “We want you to go,” to “We want you to stay and sort out this mess which you helped create – and then we want you to go.”

To put it another way, will this week’s part-nationalisation of the banks prove to be Gordon Brown’s Falklands Moment – the point at which he stood up to the enemy in the form of rampant, unregulated capitalism and slew the monster?

Or will it prove to be his ERM moment, the moment his party’s old reputation for economic incompetence resurfaced and all New Labour’s work was undone?

On the answers to these questions will, almost certainly, hang the ultimate fate of Mr Brown’s premiership – and the result of the next general election.

Only then, I suspect, will we see whether the political world really has changed for good.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Good luck Chris

It's never nice to see a newspaper or magazine go under and I have latterly had my attention drawn to this piece by my old lobby colleague Chris McLaughlin about the potential demise of Tribune.

Chris is a fine chap and a fine journo who has done wonders with the dusty old left-wing mag over the past few years, and his efforts to save the title deserve to succeed.

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Gordon's gamble

As previously mentioned I've not had time to blog on the economic crisis this week although I will be looking at the political implications of it in my weekly column tomorrow - but I reckon Slob's cartoon below pretty well sums it up nicely.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

The not-the-global economic meltdown open thread

Profuse apologies for lack of blogging this week - it's been a hectic time both at home and at work and my No 2 is off on holiday so it's been a case of too few hours in the day.

Feel free to use this thread to raise any issues of interest, so long as they are not about the global credit crunch as I'm bored rigid with it.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brown does while Cameron talks

The Boy Dave may have done good this week, but he couldn't change the fact that oppositions are at the mercy of events. Here's today's Journal column.


It was, of course, a Conservative Prime Minister who coined the famous truism about the nature of politics - namely that governments are invariably at the mercy of “events, dear boy, events.”

But what Harold Macmillan didn’t say was that oppositions can be just as vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in the political weather.

The truth is that “events” are an ambivalent force of political nature, and can just as likely ride to a government’s rescue as to blow it off course.

And in the case of the global economic crisis, it is David Cameron’s Conservative opposition – not Gordon Brown’s Labour government – who have been left scratching their heads.

This week’s party conference in Birmingham should have been the opportunity for Mr Cameron to “seal the deal” with a British electorate that has still not quite taken him to their hearts.

With a lead in the opinion polls of around 20 points going into the conference season, their plan was to give the public a much clearer idea about what a Cameron-led government would actually do.

But the global credit crunch changed everything. New policies which had spent up to two years in incubation swiftly had to be torn-up or rewritten.

Mr Cameron’s own keynote speech apparently went through five or six rewrites as each new twist in the economic crisis hit home.

In the circumstances, he didn’t do half badly. Platform oratory is one of the Tory leader’s big strengths and many who watched his speech on Wednesday would have seen a PM-in-waiting.

His line about how it would be “arrogant” to try to prove you’re ready to be Prime Minister was just the sort of self-deprecation the British naturally warm to.

He was right, too, to say that if experience were the only criterion for choosing a PM, the government would never change – though wrong to compare himself to Mrs Thatcher in this regard.

The Iron Lady was far from being a political novice when she entered No 10, having served in Ted Heath’s Cabinet for four years and been an MP for 20. Mr Cameron, by contrast, only entered the Commons in 2001.

But David Cameron’s real problem this week was not lack of experience, but lack of relevance.

The economic crisis has left the Tories not only impotent in the face of events but ideologically on the wrong side of the argument.

Their traditional support for deregulation and free markets – and traditional opposition to the role of the state – is now looking increasingly at odds with the new political and economic realities.

They also seem confused as to which way to turn. For instance, they were against the nationalisation of Northern Rock, but in the case of Bradford and Bingley this week, they were rather unconvincingly in favour.

And if Mr Cameron has not been aided by events in the financial world, neither has he been helped by much else that has been going on politically over the past 48 hours.

We began this conference season with poor Nick Clegg trying to get a look-in amidst the financial turmoil, and we end it with the Tories too being overshadowed by happenings elsewhere.

First, there was the resignation on Thursday of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair at the instigation of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Although Sir Ian’s demise was long overdue, the bull-in-a-china-shop fashion in which Mr Johnson handled this will, in my view, come back to haunt him.

Then yesterday we had Mr Brown’s long-awaited reshuffle – and the sensational return of former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson for a third spell in the Cabinet.

In a sense, justice has been finally done. Mr Mandelson was forced to quit the Cabinet in 2001 after the Hinduja passport affair despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.

There is no doubting it is a massive coup for Mr Brown as he seeks to unite his fractious party and imbue it with an “all hands to the pump” mentality as it seeks that elusive fourth term.

He was rebuffed by Darlington MP Alan Milburn, rubbished by former Home Secretary Charles Clarke - but blow me if he hasn’t gone and landed the biggest Blairite of them all.

Labour Kremlinologists will immediately see the significance of Mr Mandelson rejoining the Cabinet at the same time as his old rival, Newcastle East MP Nick Brown, who returns as chief whip.

The briefing war between the Blair-Brown camps in the ’94 leadership battle was largely played out between these two, and this will be seen in the PLP as an attempt finally to put the old feud to bed.

The return of Mr Mandelson undoubtedly represents the biggest gamble of Mr Brown’s career. If he is forced out a third time, the Prime Minister’s judgement will be shot to pieces.

But if on the other hand Mr Mandelson can bring to the Brown administration the same strategic brilliance he displayed in the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, it will have been a gamble worth taking.

As for Mr Cameron, he is now being forced to face up to an uncomfortable truth about opposition – that while oppositions merely talk, governments can do.

Over the past few weeks, Mr Brown has used the power of incumbency, the power to shape events rather than be blown about by them, to absolutely maximum effect.

A lot of very clever and influential people thought that the Prime Minister might not survive this conference season, but against the odds he has come out of it far stronger than when he went in.

One thing is absolutely certain. If Mr Brown is going down, he is certainly not doing so without a fight.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Plotters routed

We were told that seven ministers were going to resign, that Ruth Kelly's was just the first in a series of departures which would deliver a crushing blow to the Prime Minister's authority. We were told that others, including John Hutton, would refuse to serve or be moved. And today, Gordon Brown has stuck a triumphant two fingers up to the lot of them.

The key to this reshuffle, for Gordon, was to find a way of demonstrating that he can unite the Labour Party and thereby isolating the rebels. Today he has done that - and then some.

Gordon's tactic from the start was to find a senior Blairite who would be prepared to join his team and help heal the party's wounds. Alan Milburn rebuffed him, while Charles Clarke simply rubbished him, but what did Gordon do? He recruited the archest Blairite of them all.

As a demonstration of "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" it could scarcely be bettered. If he'd persuaded Mr Tony himself to come back as Foreign Secretary, then maybe - but getting Peter Mandelson on board as Business Secretary was surely the next best thing.

The message to the rebels is unmistakable. To paraphrase Chapter Eight of the Book of Romans - if Mandy Mandelson, Maggie Beckett, Dolly Draper, Ali Campbell and yes, John Hutton are all for me, then who can be against me?

In other words, relative political nonentities such as Joan Ryan, Graham Stringer and Siobhain McDisloyal have been put very firmly in their place.

It's not perfect. I'd like to have seen Jon Cruddas given the housing job, while I think the very talented and articulate Shaun Woodward is wasted at Northern Ireland - and you don't often see those two guys praised in the same sentence.

But that apart, this is a cracking reshuffle which demonstrates Brown using the power of incumbency to absolute maximum effect to make both the Tories and the rebels look irrelevant. The public loves a fighter, and Brown is fighting, fighting and fighting again to save the party he loves.

  • You can read more of my thoughts on the past week in politics - and where it leaves David Cameron - in my Journal column which will be posted here tomorrow as usual.

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  • Reshuffle kremlinology

    One for Labour kremlinologists, this, but the return of Peter Mandelson and Nick Brown to the Cabinet at the same time is significant. These two were the main protagonists in the briefing war that was fought between the Blair-Brown camps in the ‘94 leadership battle and afterwards. Bringing them both back into the Cabinet together could be seen as the ultimate healing gesture by Gordon - which is I suspect how it will be seen within the PLP.

    More on the reshuffle later, and in tomorrow's Journal column.

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    Digital Team of the Year

    I rarely blog about work stuff, but last night our company, Associated Northcliffe Digital, was named Digital Team of the Year at the Newspaper Society Digital Media and Advertising Awards. Its stable included the memorial site Lasting Tribute which I helped launch last year, green platform Big Green Switch, and my current baby, journalism jobs and news site HoldtheFrontPage.

    Since our original entry went in, these sites have been split between different parts of the business so the team no longer exists in the same form, but I'm sure the good work will go on. Congratulations all.

    More on this (with pics) from work colleagues and fellow bloggers Lactose and Alex.

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    Ever the buffoon

    It is of course right that Sir Ian Blair is to stand down as Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He arguably should have done so in July 2005 as soon as it became clear that his force had fired seven bullets into the head of an innocent man and that he had given a misleading account of the circumstances surrounding it. He should certainly have done so last November when the force was found guilty of health and safety offences in relation to the said shooting.

    But the circumstances of Sir Ian's resignation yesterday - effectively sacked by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson on his first day as chairman of the police authority - raises issues not just about Sir Ian's fitness for the job of Commissioner, but also about Mr Johnson's fitness for the job of Mayor.

    As the increasingly impressive Jacqui Smith pointed out in a Question Time performance of cool, controlled anger, there is a clear procedure in place for the removal of a Commissioner involving the police authority - not just its chairman - making a recommendation to that effect to the Home Secretary.

    By failing to follow this procedure, and behaving instead like a tinpot dictator, Mr Johnson has not only managed the considerable feat of inducing sympathy for Sir Ian Blair, he has demonstrated once again his deep and ineradicable buffoonery.

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    Thursday, October 02, 2008

    Limited reshuffle predictions

    So Gordon Brown is enjoying a new surge in popularity and there won't be a big reshuffle after all. How times change.

    One is reminded of Harold Macmillan's famous saying about "Events, dear boy, events." Of course when he said it, he was referring to the dangers that can beset a government and blow it off course, but the past couple of weeks have shown that "events" can sometimes come to a government's rescue, too.

    And so to the reshuffle. Instead of fantasising about replacing Alistair Darling with Ed Balls - and let's be thankful for Labour's sake that it remained in the realms of fantasy - Mr Brown is instead to carry out some limited changes to the lower reaches of his Cabinet.

    Here are three potential scenarios, depending on how "limited" Mr Brown wants to be.

    The not-very-limited-at-all reshuffle

    Tony McNulty to become Transport Secretary
    Jim Murphy to become Nations and Regions Secretary
    Shaun Woodward to become Minister for the Cabinet Office
    Ed Miliband to become Business Secretary
    John Hutton to become Defence Secretary
    Nick Brown to become Chief Whip
    Paul Murphy, Des Browne, Geoff Hoon and Ruth Kelly to leave the government

    The fairly limited reshuffle

    Ed Miliband to become Transport Secretary
    Paul Murphy to become Nations and Regions Secretary
    Shaun Woodward to become Minister for the Cabinet Office
    Ruth Kelly to leave the government

    The extremely limited reshuffle

    Tony McNulty to become Transport Secretary
    Ruth Kelly to leave the government

    October 3 Debrief: Well, I was right about, Hutton, Nick Brown and Des Browne, wrong about everyone else. C'est la vie.

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