Saturday, November 29, 2008

On reflection...they could have spent that money better

There's an old saying in politics that Budgets look different a week after they are delivered than a day after - and I guess Pre-Budgets are no exception. After initially praising the Chancellor's decision to cut VAT on Monday, I've revised my opinion somewhat. Here's today's Journal column.

Thirteen months ago, Chancellor Alistair Darling stood up to deliver his first Pre-Budget report in the House of Commons in what was an atmosphere of political ferment.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was coming under heavy fire after scrapping plans for an autumn election and the PBR – brought forward by a month from its normal November slot – was being seen as a chance for Labour to regain the political initiative.

In a bid to trump Tory plans to scrap inheritance tax for all estates below £1m, Mr Darling announced an immediate doubling of the threshold for the tax to £600,000.

But the attempted vote-grabbing manoeuvre backfired horribly, making Labour look like a government that had run out of steam and which was now reliant on the opposition for new policy ideas.

A year on, the stakes for Mr Darling were even higher. Against the backdrop of the worst economic downturn in decades, this year’s PBR needed to show that the Chancellor was the man with the plan with tackle the crisis.

Not only that, but Messrs Brown and Darling also needed to demonstrate that their plan was better than anything David Cameron’s Conservatives might come up with.

Well, the backlash against this week’s PBR has been nothing like the widespread public contempt that greeted last year’s, but neither has there been anything resembling a public outburst of enthusiasm for it.

It’s still relatively early days for Mr Darling’s Chancellorship, but if pressed for a judgement I would have to conclude that Pre-Budget Reports are probably not his strong point.

Sure, Monday’s statement had its good points, notably the decision to bring forward £3bn of spending on infrastructure projects and the earlier-than-planned increases in pensions and child benefit.

Welcome, too – at least as far as this columnist is concerned – was the long overdue decision to increase the top rate of tax on the highest earners, though only on those earning what for most of us is the undreamed-of sum of £150,000-a-year.

This has been predictably hailed by some as heralding the death of New Labour, but in truth, the 1997 commitment not to raise the higher rate of tax had become almost as much of an outdated shibboleth as the original Clause IV.

The essence of New Labour did not lie in adherence to any single policy stance, more the idea that different times require different solutions, and in that sense, the 45p tax move is as New Labour as they come.

Neither, in my view, can Messrs Brown and Darling be accused of lacking courage in bringing such a package before the voters.

The Prime Minister has been called many things over the past fifteen months - but the soubriquet which possibly did him the most damage was the one applied to him in the wake of the non-election debacle - 'Bottler Brown.'

Well, he certainly didn’t bottle this one. On the contrary, he has been completely upfront with the public both about the sheer scale of borrowing that is required, and the fact that it will require post-election tax rises to pay for it.

For Labour to try to turn the normal laws of politics on their head by promising both
tax increases and spending cuts if re-elected is a strategy so bold it almost deserves to succeed on that alone.

But for all its boldness, there was a huge unanswered question at the heart of Mr Darling’s plan, namely, whether it will actually work either economically or politically.

The centrepiece of the Monday’s package was not the aforementioned tax increase for the super-rich, but the £12.5bn tax giveaway via the temporary reduction in VAT from 17.5pc to 15pc.

The economic thinking behind this at least is clear. The government hopes it will encourage people to go out and spend, and that the resulting boost to the retail sector will somehow kick-start the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a price-cut that amounts to a fiver off a £200 telly will have anything like the desired effect in this regard.

But if the economic case for the VAT cut is unproven, the politics of it seem even less clear-cut.

Just ask yourself for a moment, if you were Prime Minister and had £12.5bn with which to try and win the next election, what would be the most vote-winning policy you could come up with?

Well, I don’t think Gordon Brown has asked himself this question anything like as hard as he should have done – because I am quite sure the answer is not a 2.5pc cut in VAT.

A cut in direct taxation, that would have put money directly back in people’s pockets rather than making goods very slightly cheaper in the shops, would have been a far, far better option.

One person who seems to have realised this is North Tyneside MP and former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers, who asked a revealing parliamentary question earlier this year.

Mr Byers wanted to know how much it would cost to lift half a million people, a million and a million half out of income tax altogether.

Intriguingly, the answer he received showed that the cost of lifting a million people out of income tax for one year—by raising the personal allowance by £960—was £11.1bn.

Would that not have been a much better use of the £12.5bn at Mr Darling’s disposal? And would not the Tories have had a much harder time arguing against such a tax cut?

It is for these reasons that I cannot see this Pre-Budget Report as anything more than a missed opportunity for Labour.

Unlike some, I don’t view it as a suicide note to the electorate on a par with the party’s infamous “Shadow Budget” in 1992, but neither do I see it as the springboard for a 2010 election victory.

My hunch is that if the economy recovers, and Labour’s political prospects with it, it will be more in spite of this package than because of it.

Once again, a chance to regain the political initiative has been squandered – along with the taxpayers’ billions.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

A crisis carol

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mandelson should answer Commons Questions

So says the Business and Enterprise Select Committee whose job is to monitor the activities of Lord Mandy's new department. But not just him. In my view, anyone should be able to be quizzed on the floor of the Commons, whether they are a member of either House of Parliament.

Here's what I wrote on the Guardian Politics Blog earlier today:

In my view we should go further, and make it possible for people to answer questions in the Commons without needing to be a member of either House of Parliament. This would achieve two things. Firstly, it would enable Prime Ministers to appoint the very best people to their Cabinets without them needing to become MPs or peers. Secondly, it would move us closer to the classic Separation of Powers doctrine on which the US constitution is built. The Prime Minister would continue to be the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons, and would thus invariably be an MP. But he would be able to appoint anyone he liked to his Cabinet in the knowledge that they remained accountable to Parliament through parliamentary questions and (more powerful) select committees.

To see the whole discussion in context, see Andrew Sparrow's original blogpost here.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering Big Cyril

The latest issue of Total Politics is now out and Sir Cyril Smith is the latest subject in my Where Are They Now? series. The short answer is that he's alive and well and living in the same terraced house in Rochdale which he's lived in for 80 years, but you'll have to click on the link to see the rest.

The mag also has a poll on The Top 100 Political Journalists in Britain on which I feel obliged to pass some comment. I don't want to be too critical, as it was compiled fairly objectively from the votes of politicians, lobby journalists, and the TP Facebook group, but any such poll that places Peter Oborne at 60 and David Hencke at 93 has to be taken with something of a pinch of salt.

It seems the editorial team of Total Politics weren't entirely in agreement with their electorate on this either. In the preamble to the piece, they say: "We found it difficult to understand why neither Andrew Neil nor Ben Brogan made the Top 20. Surely Patrick Hennessy, Nick Watt and Peter Oborne should have been far higher than mid-table mediocrity?"

Leaving aside the odious Mr Pad, who Daily Politics show I find consistently unwatchable on account of his overweening presence, I would second all of that.

The other point I would make about polls listing political journalists is that you are essentially trying to compare very different skills. During my time in the Lobby, Philip Webster of The Times was regarded by many as the greatest story-getter, which on a traditional view of what constitutes journalism would make him the No 1 political journalist. But not even Phil would claim he was the greatest writer, commentator or sketchwriter.

The truth is that while the most highly-rated political journalists tend to have more specialised skills, venture lower down the list and you are more likely to find genuine all-rounders. The Guardian's ace sketchwriter Simon Hoggart (No 14) would be hard-pressed to write a front-page scoop, but the Mail on Sunday's Brendan Carlin (No 73) not only excels at that but wrote a mean parliamentary sketch in his Yorkshire Post days as I recall.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

No more the bottler

VAT down from 17.5pc to 15pc. New higher tax band for the super-rich. £3bn of capital spending brought forward. National insurance to go up after the election. New air taxes on long-haul. Increases in pensions and child benefit brought forward. Whatever you make of today's Pre Budget Report, no-one can say it lacks ambition.

The Prime Minister has been called many things over the past fifteen months - but the soubriquet which possibly did him the most damage was the one applied to him in the wake of the decision to postpone a 2007 election - 'Bottler Brown.'

Well, I never believed Gordon Brown was a bottler, and this package today has proved it. He is, and always has been when it comes to the economy, a man of huge political courage.

Not the least courageous bit of it is that Mr Brown is attempting to turn the normal laws of politics on their head by promising tax increases if his party wins the next election, gambling that this will partly help defuse the inevitable Tory claims of a hidden "Labour tax bombshell."

Will it pay-off? Well, if I knew that, I'd be sitting in his chair. It doesn't help the government's case that it is borrowing huge sums of money in the hope of things turning out okay to address a problem caused by banks borrowing huge sums of money in the hope of things turning out okay.

But even if Brown goes on to lose in 2010, and the apparent rebirth of Keynesian economics after decades of monetarist orthodoxy turns out to no more than a fleeting glimmer, I think he's done the right thing by Britain and its neediest families today. Maybe history, if not the electorate, will give him credit for it.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Politics returns to normal

The age of political cross-dressing came to an end this week as David Cameron tore up his pledge to match Labour's spending plans. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since David Cameron became Tory leader nearly three years ago, the shape of British politics has been fixed in a fairly rigid mould.

A Labour Party which had already shifted several degrees to the right under Tony Blair found itself confronted by a Conservative Party suddenly seeking to "detoxify" itself by shifting to the left.

The upshot was what I termed the era of political cross-dressing - an increasingly desperate fight over the political centre ground in which policies drawn up by one party were swiftly and routinely purloined by the other.

Even when Gordon Brown took over the Labour leadership in 2007, he found himself unable to do much to break out of this straitjacket, for fear of ceding vital territory to the opposition.

And there we might have stayed right up until the next election, but for the credit crunch and the ensuing economic recessson that now seemingly grips the UK.

Suddenly, things became politically possible that would once have been quite beyond the pale - nationalisation of the banks being perhaps the foremost example.

Against the odds, the one-time high-priest of "prudence" re-discovered Keynesian economics and tore up his own much-vaunted "fiscal rules" which had previously imposed a strict limit on borrowing.

Suddenly, the Tories found themselves having to rethink their own approach to economic policy, for fear of finding themselves outflanked by Labour on both tax cuts and spending increases.

The result was that, this week, the era of political cross-dressing finally came to an abrupt end, as Mr Cameron announced his party would no longer match Labour's spending plans.

In a keynote speech on the economy, the Conservative leader insisted increased borrowing today would mean higher taxes tomorrow as he ripped up his spending pledge.

"Gordon Brown knows that borrowing today means higher taxes tomorrow and if he doesn't tell you that he's misleading you," he said.

"And in any case, after 11 years of waste and broken promises from Labour, they can see that spending more and more alone does not guarantee that things get better."

In one sense, it takes politics back to where it was before the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, when the battle-lines were essentially between Labour "investment" and Tory "cuts."

But in truth, in the case of the most recent contest, that was no more than mendacious spin by Labour - as I pointed out on these pages at the time.

The platform on which the Conservatives fought in 2005 was not cutting spending, merely allowing it to rise at a slower rate than had been proposed by Labour

This is essentially the same as what Mr Cameron is now proposing, despite the inevitable Labour taunts that the Tories are reverting to their slash-and-burn, nasty party stereotype.

It's undoubtedly a big gamble by the Tory leader. Ever since Labour pledged not to exceed the Tories' own spending plans prior to 1997, the watchwords in economic policy have been "don't frighten the horses."

To put it another way, the conventional wisdom for the past decade and a half has been that parties which pledge to change things too much - either by big increases or big cuts in spending - risked electoral suicide.

But the real gamble here is not Mr Cameron's, but Mr Brown's, for it is the Prime Minister who is making the biggest departure from economic orthodoxy.

While Mr Cameron is merely promising lower spending increases and no immediate tax cuts, Mr Brown is promising not just higher spending, but tax cuts into the bargain as well.

People often think the era of economic orthodoxy - of not spending more than the country can strictly afford - began with Mrs Thatcher, but it did not.

It actually began with a Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who went to his party conference in 1976 to tell them "the party's over."

"We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists," he said at the time.

Well here, 32 years on, is his successor-but-five as Labour leader telling us that we can now do exactly that.

We will see on Monday, when Chancellor Alistair Darling unveils his Pre-Budget Report, just how much Mr Brown is prepared to bet on red as he attempts to beat the slump - but all the talk is that it will be big.

Tax credits for the worse off seems a given in the the light of the Prime Minister's recent comments, so too a decision to bring forward spending on major infrastructure projects - which could potentially be good news for the North-East.

If it works, it will go down as possibly the greatest economic rescue operation since Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If it doesn't, Mr Brown will go down as yet another Labour PM who tried and failed to suspend the normal laws of economics.

Westminster is once again rife with talk about a snap general election - even that it could be announced immediately after the PBR on Monday.

I still don't buy it. For a start, the British don't hold elections in the middle of December. Secondly, Brown got his fingers burned so badly last time that I can't believe he would go down that route again.

But what is true is that battle lines for the next election have now started to become clear - with a classic left versus right battle in prospect for perhaps the first time since 1992.

The outcome will almost certainly determine the shape of British politics for the next decade.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloggers and the Lobby

After initially taking the view that political bloggers had little to gain, and much to lose in terms of their independence by joining the parliamentary lobby, my thinking has changed on this point over the past couple of years. The gradual convergence of the blogosphere and the mainstream media which I wrote about in the Guide to Political Blogging earlier this year has rendered the old dividing lines obsolete.

As I have pointed out before, what we must now call the Big Five political blogs are, by virtue of their size, influence, and networks, practically part of the mainstream media already. They are, in no particular order, Iain Dale's Diary, Guido Fawkes, Political Betting, Conservative Home and the most recent newcomer to the elite, Liberal Conspiracy. In my view, all should be in the lobby.

I wrote in the 2008 Guide: "I always thought the day political blogging really entered the mainstream would be when one of the big four blogs managed to obtain a lobby pass. If they haven’t yet given one to the new co-editor of Con Home, I have a feeling they soon will do."

This was a reference to Jonathan Isaby, who had just proved my point about convergence by moving from being a Daily Telegraph lobby hack to editing the site which used to be, rather unfairly, known in some circles as Continuity IDS.

But according to this report in a well-known journalism trade publication yesterday, I was apparently premature in my forecast. In a speech at the London School of Economics, lobby chair Ben Brogan said the issue of whether to admit bloggers to the lobby was in fact causing "a huge headache."

Asked by a member of the audience whether the Commons authorities would consider the move, Brogan replied: "They've been very reluctant to start issuing passes to new media outlets. There's an ongoing conversation whether the House of Commons authorities start issuing media passes to bloggers. That remains unresolved."

Now I am all too aware of the limitation on desk space in the Press Gallery, having been involved in the very early planning stages of the refurbishment that eventually took place in summer 2007, but in the era of wireless broadband, bloggers hardly need a permanent desk in the Gallery in order to update their sites. This is essentially an argument about access, not desks.

Ben's comment doesn't make it entirely clear whether it's the lobby or the Serjeant-at-Arms Office - or both - which is resisting the move. But as a blogger himself - and a very fine one in my view - I would hope that Mr Brogan is quietly making the case for reform.

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Now give Sergeant a proper job

Ex political hack John Sergeant has doubtless provided the nation with much entertainment during his stint on Strictly Come Dancing, and his parting shot at those who persisted in taking the wretched programme far too seriously was as graceful as his dancing was grace-less, but perhaps the BBC should take this opportunity to give him a proper job.

Two possibilities spring to mind. He has been by far the best of the numerous temporary presenters used by Have I Got News For You since the demise of Angus Deayton, and his appointment as the permanent replacement could restore the show to its former glories. Alternatively, he could take over Question Time, which is badly in need of someone of Sergeant's political nous after more than a decade of Dimblebore.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two cheers for pirouetting Purnell

The government was as all over the place over the post office contract as it was over Baby P - but at least they got there in the end. Here's today's Journal column.

It is easy to become cynical about politicians, especially when you've been following their activities for as long as I have. But just occasionally, they can surprise us all and do something right.

It is true they hardly covered themselves with glory this week over the Baby P tragedy, although I'm not sure which of Gordon Brown or David Cameron was more culpable in that regard.

The Tories have spent most of the week trying to blame Mr Brown for allegedly trying to turn the case into a "party political issue," with the implicit suggestion that he doesn't care about the dead child.

For my part, I think if Mr Cameron was so keen to take a non-partisan approach to the issue, he could have chosen a less highly-charged arena in which to raise it than Prime Minister's Questions.

But to be fair to our Westminster masters, they partially redeemed themselves with the announcement of a lifeline to 3,000 post offices under threat of closure, on top of the 2,500 which are already due to close by the end of the year.

For some years, it has been apparent that wherever this government's priorities lay, they certainly did not lie with preserving essential services to isolated or rural communities.

I could list numerous examples of this from the gradual demise of village schools to the trend towards distant super-hospitals, but its apparent willingness to allow village post offices to go to the wall is perhaps the most emblematic.

Which is why Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell's decision on Thursday was as unexpected as it was welcome.

Ministers have decided that the £200m-a-year contract to handle benefit and pension payments - known as the Post Office Card Account - will not after all be handed over to a private sector provider.

Instead, the Post Office will continue to run the card account which distributes benefits to 4.3 million claimants.

Mr Purnell told MPs he would do "nothing to put the network at risk" and that the contract was "central to the viability of the network."

It guarantees the contract until at least March 2015 with what Mr Purnell called "the possibility of an extension beyond that".

Perhaps one of the reasons the announcement caught my eye was because, a few months back, I wrote in this column that "real Labour governments don't close local post offices."

In the light of this, it would be nice to view the decision as further evidence that Mr Brown's administration is rediscovering some sense of moral purpose, though the truth may be more prosaic.

Almost certainly, it had more to do with the impact of the financial crisis and the need to ensure that the people's money is handled by a trusted organisation.

Mr Purnell himself hinted at this in his statement, saying: "The circumstances have changed because of the current financial situation. It means that people are even more reliant on the Post Office than before."

The Tories are certainly in no doubt. Shadow Business Secretary Alan Duncan called the contract announcement "a humiliating climbdown for the government, who have done everything they possibly can to find a way of awarding it to somebody else."

There is possibly something in that, given Mr Purnell's own performance in a Lib Dem-inspired Commons debate last Monday.

The Work and Pensions Secretary insisted there would be "due process" in relation to the award of the contract, and Labour MPs duly trooped through the lobbies to defeat a Lib Dem call for the tendering process to be abandoned.

Yet 72 hours later he was back in the Commons announcing that he done precisely that, prompting one commentator to call it the "Purnell Pirouette."

If the truth be told, the government has been a bit all over the place on the issue

It was a not dissimilar story with Baby P, with the initial refusal to hold an inquiry into Haringey Council's handling of the case swiftly reversed by Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

All in all, it is hard to disagree with the verdict of the Lib Dems' work and pensions spokeswoman Jenny Willott.

"This could all have been avoided if, as the Liberal Democrats have long argued, the Post Office Card Account had never been put out to tender in the first place," she said.

But if the U-turn was, in any sense, a nod to traditional Labour values, it was ironic to see former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson taking a key hand in it.

He of course is the man who has been most closely associated with trying to get the Labour Party to behave more like the Tories in their general attitude to the private sector.

Yet Mr Mandelson - or someone acting on his behalf - had clearly briefed the Sunday papers last weekend that there might be some good news in the offing for the Post Office this week.

The Prince of Darkness has certainly not lost his eye for a good headline in his time away from UK domestic politics.

But in the final analysis, the point is that no matter how we got here, the right result has, for once, been achieved.

People in rural Northumberland whose post offices may now remain open where once they faced closure will not worry too much about the motives behind the government’s change of heart.

Whether it was a case of principle or pragmatism, what's important is that a vital social service is now set to be preserved, at least in some areas.

Surely our political leaders deserve at least two cheers for that?

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Wading through the swamp

The last few days have seen a determined effort across the Tory blogosphere to nail Gordon Brown over his Commons performance on Wednesday in relation to the Baby P case.

It was clearly not one of the PM's best days, but the Tories' ongoing attempts to equate his below-par display with somehow not caring about the dead child are, in my view, a disgrace, although entirely consistent with their general view of Brown as some sort of devil incarnate.

If David Cameron really wanted an intelligent debate on the issues surrounding the tragedy, he should have submitted a Private Notice Question which would have obliged the Speaker to schedule an emergency debate, not brought it up in the highly-charged, partisan arena of PMQs.

Cartoonist Slob, though, has a slightly different take. As far as he is concerned, Messrs Brown and Cameron are both as guilty as eachother....

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Andy Donkersley

In the course of 22 years in journalism, ten of them in the parliamentary lobby, I have seen a fair few top-class reporters in action. From my Westminster days I would single out the Guardian's David Hencke, the Standard's Joe Murphy and the Liverpool Echo's Ian Hernon as three of the best. But right up there with them would have to be Andy Donkersley, a dishevelled, long-haired hack from Huddersfield who spent a year or so alongside me in the Derby Evening Telegraph newsroom of the late-1980s. He was so bloody good, so unfailingly spot-on in his news instincts and writing style, that at times he made me feel about as much use as a chocolate teapot by comparison, quite unintentionally I'm sure.

Andy was found dead at his home in Shifnal last week at the age of 52, two years after having left his last job in the profession. Some of his old colleagues have left some nice tributes on HoldtheFrontPage, while former Wolverhampton Express and Star friend and colleague Reg Pither has penned a moving piece on his blog, Grantham New Town.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thirty years too late....

The Guardian reports today on moves towards the formation of a UK football team for the 2012 Olympics. It's easy to see why this idea is being considered now, when in the past it has been vociferously opposed by every major UK sporting body, but from where I'm standing it's about 30 years out of time.

With all due respect to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, a UK football team as constituted today would be basically the England XI. Welshman Ryan Giggs might make the subs bench, but he won't be around for 2012.

I say this with no great relish or desire to do down our Celtic cousins. I was in fact a huge fan of Scottish football in the 1970s and it is a matter of regret that the land of Jim Baxter, Jimmy Johnstone, Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish would no longer be able to provide realistic contenders for a UK-wide XI.

But the days when a collection of mining villages west of Glasgow could supply an entire European Cup-winning team, as amazingly happened with Celtic in 1967, are sadly long gone.

I personally would have loved to have seen a UK team when I was growing up as a football-mad youngster in the 70s. England had some decent players then - Kevin Keegan, Colin Bell and Roy McFarland to name but three - but we were always two or three players short of a great team, hence our elimination from the World Cup qualifiers of 1974 and 1978.

How different might that story have been had the national team been able to call on the likes of Bremner, Peter Lorimer, John Toshack, Pat Jennings - still the greatest goalie I have ever seen - and of course, George Best.

Incidentally I reckon Best's career would have been prolonged if he'd had the incentive of meaningful international competition. Given that he'd achieved everything there was to achieve in the club game by 1968, it was hardly surprising that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll became a more interesting option.

You know what I think? I think Bestie would have played in the '74 World Cup in Germany, and we'd have won the bugger, with Bremner as skipper emulating Bobby Moore's achievement of eight years' previously.

In the 80s, a UK team would potentially have been even stronger. This was the era in which Liverpool dominated Europe and Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Ian Rush would all have been key players in the national set-up. In the 90s, there would have been Giggs and Mark Hughes.

But as for today, I don't see a great deal to be gained from it, beyond raising the possibility of "tokenist" squad places for otherwise inferior Scottish, Welsh and Irish players, and creating a false sense of national unity in a political culture which is far more devolved than was the case three decades ago.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

A tale of two elections

It's all change in America, no change at Glenrothes - but which result tells us more about the current state of UK politics? Here's today's Journal column.

It was a tale of two elections, one that has seemingly given new hope to the whole world, another rather closer to home that has given new hope for Gordon Brown and his once-beleaguered premiership.

One outcome - the victory of Barack Obama in the US presidential election - was widely expected. The other - Labour's victory in Thursday night's Glenrothes by-election - was rather less so.

The first brought the sense of a fresh beginning for America and possibly the world, encapsulated in the words of Mr Obama's acceptance speech "change has come."

The second, by contrast, conveyed a message of “no change just yet,” at least from the voters of Glenrothes but also possibly from a wider British public that currently seems more content with Mr Brown.

Taking Mr Obama first, it has been notable how much of the coverage of his victory has focused on his colour when it was scarcely an issue in the campaign itself.

I don't deny it's a remarkable achievement for an African-American to become president of a country that 40 years ago denied blacks the right to travel on the same buses as whites, but Mr Obama won because of his charisma, not his colour.

Above all, he won because he successfully presented himself as the change candidate at a time when America appears to be crying out for change.

His republican rival John McCain also lost it by failing to do enough to distinguish himself from the increasingly unpopular George Bush, and also by appearing to be somewhat complacent about the state of the US economy.

Much discussion has already surrounded the impact of Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's surprise choice of vice-presidential nominee, on the eventual result.

On the one hand, she undoubtedly energised the Republican Party’s campaign and enabled Mr McCain to re-connect with a part of its core vote that has always distrusted him.

On the other, she was plainly out of her depth when dealing with foreign policy issues and, for all her freshness as a Washington "outsider," came over as something of a political ingenue.

All things considered, perhaps a 72-year-old man who has had cancer four times should have paid slightly more heed to the need for experience in choosing the person who would have been "a heartbeat away from the presidency."

As for what it means for UK politics, it was predictable that the two main parties would offer wildly differing interpretations of the significance of Mr Obama's triumph.

For Tory leader David Cameron, the important point was the message of change. For Mr Brown, it was the victory of progressive politics over the neo-Conservative right.

Both are plausible enough interpretations, but for me, the sight of British Tories attempting to clamber aboard the Obama bandwagon has been one of the more amusing aspects of the campaign.

No matter that Mr Obama is the most left-wing president since Franklin D. Roosevelt - there's absolutely nothing the ideology-free-zone that is today's Tory Party won't do to get with the zeitgeist.

For all the understandable excitement about Mr Obama, though, it is what happened in Glenrothes which says more about the current state of British politics.

That this is an extraordinary triumph for Mr Brown cannot be in doubt, even allowing for the fact that local issues dominated the by-election campaign.

Consider where the Prime Minister was before the conference season two months ago. He had lost three by-elections on the trot, all of them badly, and there was a growing perception in the party that he was a "loser."

Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband was openly agitating for his job, while deputy leader Harriet Harman told friends "this is my time."

There was a widespread expectation of an autumn coup against Mr Brown's leadership, and dark talk that up to 15 ministers would refuse to serve come the reshuffle - a rumour which, had it come to fruition, would surely have spelled the end of him.

Even at the end of what was judged a successful conference, the shadow of another disastrous defeat in Glenrothes still hung over him like a sword of Damocles, as I noted at the time.

Instead, Mr Brown now finds himself back in the game and with an outside chance - I would put it no more strongly than that - of winning that elusive fourth Labour term.

Okay, so it's largely down to his handling of the economic crisis - but that fighting conference speech and the coup-de-theatre of Peter Mandelson's reshuffle comeback have certainly played their part.

Up until now, the Brown renaissance, or the "Second Brown Bounce" as some have called it, has been largely driven by a media narrative - a general consensus among the commentariat that the Prime Minister's position has improved.

But there is no substitute for actual real-life votes, and Thursday's result has provided concrete evidence that the "media narrative" is actually not that far off the mark.

In other words, the Labour fightback is no mere media invention designed to make politics more interesting again for readers, viewers and listeners. It really is now under way.

It doesn't prove that Mr Brown is a "winner." But it does show that he is not quite the inveterate loser that some thought he was.

So is it now "game on" for the next general election? Could we soon be back to a position where a hung Parliament, rather than an outright Tory victory, once more looks the most likely outcome?

Well, hang on. One swallow doesn't make a summer, and it's important for Mr Brown and Labour not to get carried away with Thursday night's success.

The truth is that Mr Cameron remains as much an overwhelming favourite to win the next general election as Mr Obama was to win the presidency.

But unlike Senator McCain, Gordon Brown still has time on his side.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A well-deserved victory

Okay, so I admit I didn't originally want Barack Obama to win the US Presidency. I thought he was too inexperienced, and there was something about his very smoothness, his apparent reliance on style over content, that reminded me uncomfortably of Tony Blair. In addition, I had a bit of a sentimental attachment to John McCain on the grounds that for someone of his age to win the presidency would give encouragement to clapped-out old gits everywhere.

But there's no point being churlish about this. Obama deserves his victory if only for having stood up to the onslaught of two of the hitherto most powerful machines in world politics - the Republican machine, and the Clinton machine.

I still don't buy all the silky, JFK-style rhetoric. I've already lived too long and seen too many smooth-tongued politicians worm their way into the affections of the British public to believe in all that stuff. But underneath it all Obama strikes me as a decent sort of man, and if he can restore some stability to American foreign policy and its domestic economy over the next few years he will be well on the way to becoming a great president.

Did he win it, or did McCain lose it? A bit of both I think. Obama clearly came into this election as the "change candidate" and played that hand for all it was worth, both against Clinton and later against McCain. But I think McCain also made errors, notably in failing to do enough to differentiate himself from the increasingly despised George W. Bush and claiming after the collapse of Lehman brothers that the American economy was "fundamentally sound."

Was making Sarah Palin his running mate an error? That's a difficult one to call. She certainly energised the McCain campaign and brought a much-needed touch of glamour, but perhaps a man of 72 who has had cancer four times should have paid slightly more heed to experience in selecting the person who would be "a heartbeat away from the presidency."

As for the most hilarious spectacle in the election, it has to be the sight of British Tories attempting to clamber aboard the Obama bandwagon once it became reasonably clear he was going to win. No matter that he's the most left-wing president since Franklin D. Roosevelt - there's absolutely nothing the ideology-free-zone that is today's Tory Party won't do to get with the zeitgeist.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Hors de Combat

I think I probably owe my readers some sort of explanation as to why it's all gone rather quiet over here of late - rest assured I haven't given up blogging, but I have been rather unwell, as a result of which I simply haven't had the energy or the inclination to think about politics, or much else for that matter.

One rather sad consequence of this was that I had to abandon my annual October walking pilgrimage to the Lakes which has continued, on and off, since 1993. It's been mostly off in recent years - last year I couldn't make it as we were moving house, and this year I was laid-up in bed. Maybe next year....

I'm slowly on the mend now, I hope, so hopefully things will be back to normal round here pretty soon. I gather there's some cotton-picking little election taking place somewhere this week, and I'm sure I'll have something to say about it before too long.

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