Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review of the Year 2008

It's that time of the year again. Here's my look back at an extraordinary political year from today's Newcastle Journal.

The year 2008 will be remembered as the year that defied the normal laws of political gravity. While the British economy came crashing down, the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government somehow went up and up.

This time last year, the Prime Minister looked down and almost out, likely to go down in history as the short-lived leader of a fag-end administration that looked long past its sell-by date.

It was to get worse before it got better. A succession of dire by-election performances coupled with the loss of the London Mayoralty to Boris Johnson and the Scottish Parliament to the SNP led to a summer of plotting and serious talk of a leadership coup.

But then, in one of the most bizarre and unexpected twists of political fate in recent times, the credit crunch and the accompanying economic downturn rode to Mr Brown’s rescue, enabling him to play to his strengths as a “serious man for serious times.”

Actually, when the Prime Minister used those words, he was talking about someone else – his old friend Peter Mandelson. But more of him later.

At the start of the year, though, Mr Brown seemed less of a serious man for serious times than a political figure of fun, ruthlessly characterised by the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable as having undergone a transformation “from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

He had still, at that stage, not recovered from the debacle of the election-that-never-was in the autumn of 2007 and the succession of rows over Labour funding that followed.

One of those rows claimed a ministerial scalp early in the new year in the shape of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing over the matter of his deputy leadership election expenses claims.

The first half of the year was dominated by the run-up to the May elections – notably Ken Livingstone’s battle for a third term as Mayor of London against Mr Johnson’s challenge.

But any hopes Mr Brown might have had of using those elections as a springboard from which to relaunch his flagging premiership were sunk by a chicken coming home to roost in the form of the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

When he had announced this in his final Budget as Chancellor the year before, there had been scarcely a murmur of opposition from either the Labour or Conservative benches.

Not so this year. When Labour MPs realised that the tax change would hit their own people the hardest, it sparked a backbench revolt that forced Mr Brown into a humiliating climbdown.

But the inevitable loss of London, Scotland and hundreds of council seats nationwide was not the worst of it. Far more damaging was the disastrous sequence of by-election losses that saw some of Labour’s safest majorities overturned.

It had begun in Crewe and Nantwich where Tamsin Dunwoody’s attempt to inherit her late mother Gywneth’s Commons seat drowned under a tidal wave of anger over the 10p tax rate.

It continued in Mr Johnson’s old seat of Henley as Labour lost its deposit and slumped to fifth place behind the British National Party and the Greens.

And it finally culminated in Glasgow East, with Labour’s hitherto third-safest seat in Scotland disappearing to the Scottish National Party on a 22pc swing.

Many concluded that Mr Brown’s authority and standing with the public was now so badly shredded as to be beyond recovery. Talk of a leadership challenge began to grow.

Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband had long been regarded as the great hope of the party’s Blairite wing. Now he made his first, tentative moves.

In a national newspaper article which caused shockwaves throughout Westminster, he set out a possible prospectus for a Labour fourth term with not a single mention of Mr Brown.

Shortly afterwards MPs went off on their holidays. Mobile phones buzzed between Italian villas as, somehow, the Labour Party tried to come to a collective judgement about what to do with its beleaguered PM.

But there was no September coup. In its wisdom, the party decided it would give Mr Brown one last chance to turn things around at Labour’s autumn conference.

It was too much for four junior members of the government - Siobhan McDonough, Joan Ryan, Barry Gardiner and David Cairns – who all resigned in frustration at the cabinet’s refusal to move against the Prime Minister.

It could hardly have been a worse preparation for the conference, but Mr Brown rose to the challenge and made what by common consensus was the “speech of his life.”

Its key soundbite - “This is no time for a novice” – neatly skewered both Tory leader David Cameron and the banana-wielding young pretender, Mr Miliband.

Then came the reshuffle, with Mr Brown cutting the ground from under the Blairite plotters by bringing back the Blairiest Blairite of them all – former Hartlepool MP Mr Mandelson.

The return of the newly-ennobled Lord Mandelson had a profound impact on the government, and he is now de facto deputy Prime Minister in addition to his official role as Business Secretary.
Finally, there was Mr Brown’s audacious £500bn banking rescue which meant that ten major banks, including the already-nationalised Northern Rock, are now at least partly in public hands.

Coupled with a Pre-Budget Report that saw the government effectively decide to spend its way out of the recession, it was no less than an attempt to turn the Thatcherite politics of the last 30 years on its head.

Labour’s recovery was confirmed by a triumphant by-election campaign in Glenrothes, finally ending the dismal sequence of defeats that had brought Mr Brown to the edge of the abyss.

The party still trails the Tories in the polls, but the 5-6pc deficit is now of the order of those from which mid-term governments often recover to win the next general election.

Whether or not Mr Brown can pull off that feat remains very much open to doubt, given that the economy is still likely to get much worse before it starts to get better.

But in the crucible of this crisis he has, at the very least, discovered a purpose for his premiership: nothing less than the saving of the British economy.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas Everyone

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger,
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation,
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

Candlelight, angel light, firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.

Candlelight Carol, John Rutter

A very Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 1

1. Candlelight Carol: John Rutter

And so my Top 10 concludes with what is surely Rutter's most sublime Christmas work. "Candlelight, angel light, firelight and starglow" - both the words and the music have a magical quality to them which for me capture the very essence of this most wonderful time of the year.

There's only one person I can dedicate this choice to, and that is the person who first played me this beautiful piece of music ten years ago. Back then we had only been going out for a few months, but we've now been married for more than seven years. To my wife Gillian - Happy Christmas, and thanks.

The full list of my Top 10 Christmas Carols can be seen HERE.

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Remembering John

We recently ran a story on HoldtheFrontPage which deeply affected me on several levels. It was about how a regional press campaign arising from the death of a little boy succeeded in plugging a loophole in the law, as a result of which the killers of Baby P were able to be charged with a much more serious offence than would otherwise have been the case.

John Smith would have been 13 now. Tragically he died at the age of four on Christmas Eve 1999 after a sustained campaign of abuse by a couple who were hoping to adopt him and who, amazingly, had been cleared as prospective adoptive parents by social workers.

Like most people I always find stories about child cruelty very hard to deal with. A story about a child battered to death on Christmas Eve, of all days, made particularly hard reading for me. I have great memories of my own childhood Christmases, some of which I have recently written about on this blog, but I am very conscious at this time of year that not all children are as lucky as I was.

What made the story even more poignant for me was that the picture of John (above, left) that was used in the papers at the time appears to show him looking happy and healthy in front of a Christmas tree - presumably taken the year before he died.

Yet grim as this story undoubtedly was, there was hope here, too, and a reminder that good can come out of the darkest evil.

A group of journalists from the Brighton Argus launched a "Justice for John" campaign after murder charges against his adoptive parents were dropped in favour of a lesser charge of cruelty on the grounds that it could not be proven who had struck the fatal blow.

In the end, this led to a change of the law, and the creation of a new offence of causing or allowing the death of a child - the offence of which the vile killers of Baby P have now been successfully convicted and for which they will be sentenced early next year.

Despite the general view of us as hardered cynics, stories like this are never easy for journalists. But it is stories like this which remind us why we are really here.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 2

2. Nativity Carol: John Rutter

Unsurprisingly, Rutter bags the top two places on my list. This gently flowing piece was one of his very earliest compositions back in the 1960s and for many years rated as my favourite carol, until the great man came up with something even more lovely in the 1980s.

Although not especially musical herself, the person who really gave me my love of Christmas music was the person who gave me my love of Christmas - my mum. This carol is duly dedicated to her, with thanks for having always made our Christmases so special.

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Where are they now No 7

My latest contribution to Total Politics magazine's Where Are They Now? series can now be found online here.

Its subject, Phillip Oppenheim, is probably my favourite-ever Tory politician. Despite coming from a fairly wealthy background, he was as at home in The Spanker, Nether Heage, in his Amber Valley constituency, as he was at Annabels' nightclub. I've enjoyed a drink with him in both venues.

We first got to know eachother in Derbyshire in the late 80s when I was working for the Derby Evening Telegraph and when I arrived in the Lobby several years later he continued to be helpful to me even though he had no particular career interest in being so. He may have forgotten that, but I haven't.

As my TP piece makes clear, Phillip has now clearly moved on from the loss of his seat and forged a new and perhaps more interesting career outside Westminster.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 3

3. A Spotless Rose: Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells is in my view the most under-rated British composer of the 20th century. As well as this wondrous carol and a host of other works he also wrote the stirring tune to my favourite hymn, All My Hope on God is Founded.

A Spotless Rose is dedicated to Peter Noyce, who took over from Colin Howard as St Mary's choirmaster in 1979 and who worshipped Howells with something approaching reverence. At one choir practice he described the end of this carol as "probably the greatest single bar of music ever written." I wouldn't quite go that far, but I know what he means.

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Don't just take my word for it

I wrote in my weekend column that I didn't think there would be a general election any time soon and that if Gordon Brown was bonkers enough to be provoked into calling one, he would lose.

But don't just take my word for it - Ben Brogan, who is much closer touch with the people taking these decisions than I am, said the same on his blog this morning.

Brogan has a strong track record when it comes to predicting that there won't be elections. In the last flurry of media election speculation in the immediate aftermath of the autumn conferences and the bank rescue, he made clear that Brown Central was not even considering the idea.

More notably, the Mail pol ed also stuck his neck out and said there wouldn't be an autumn election in October 2007 at a time when most of Fleet Street were still saying the opposite.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 4

4. The Shepherd's Farewell: Hector Berlioz

Part of the oratorio L'Enfance du Christ, this is another French composition that has become an essential part of the English choral repertoire. The composer, Berlioz, was operating at the height of the romantic era and the piece has a rather other-worldly feel I have always loved.

This carol was a favourite of my dad's in the days when he used to come along and hear the choir at Nine Lessons on Christmas Eve. Today would also have been his 81st birthday, so this one is dedicated to his memory.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 5

5. Mary's Lullaby: John Rutter

Into the top five, and another John Rutter classic, notable for having been written in the space of a single evening in order to fill a three and a half minute gap at the end of a BBC documentary about a choir he was involved with at the time. I think the basses are way too loud in this recording - it is a lullaby after all - but it was the best one I could find.

This carol, which ends with the words "Lullaby my little baby," did not mean a lot to me until I had children of my own, so this choice is dedicated to my babies - George and Clara.

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Could spring 2009 be a re-run of autumn 2007?

Will Gordon Brown call a spring election? I don't know. Should he? Of course not. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since Gordon Brown began his autumn political fightback and the opinion poll gap between the Tories and Labour started to narrow, David Cameron has faced a fundamental question from within his own party.

It is this. Why, in the teeth of a recession that was almost certainly exacerbated if not actually caused by Mr Brown’s stewardship of the economy over the past 11 years, was he not able to “seal the deal” and convert the Tories’ earlier advantage into a settled, potentially election-winning lead?

There are many explanations which I and others could give. The inexperience of the Cameron – George Osborne partnership when set against Brown and Alistair Darling is perhaps the most obvious one.

Another is that, for all their criticisms of Labour, the Tories have yet to articulate a clear and compelling alternative vision, either for the conduct of the economy or for Britain in general.

Either way, there is a growing fear in the party that Mr Cameron will somehow manage to end up a loser despite what, for him, ought to be the most propitious political circumstances for an opposition leader for many years.

One sporting analogy that has been drawn is with the 2005 Champions League Final, in which AC Milan contrived to lose to Liverpool despite being three-nil up at half-time.

With their opponents fighting back strongly and threatening to equalise, the Tories have somehow got to persuade the ref to blow the whistle before Labour can take it to penalties.

Which may be one reason why the Tories currently appear desperate to provoke Mr Brown into holding the election sooner rather than later.

It seems that not a month goes by at Westminster these days without a fresh bout of election speculation.

And with the Christmas silly season now upon us, it was perhaps inevitable that this would be another of those months.

It certainly cranked up a gear this week, with suggestions appearing on Tory blogs that Labour had block-booked hundreds of advertising hoardings for February.

The fact that this turned out not to be true only heightened the impression that the Tories were trying to fan the flames of the latest media frenzy.

There is a clear tactical logic to this from Mr Cameron's point of view. The darkest moment of Mr Brown's premiership so far was the point at which he decided not to hold an election in autumn 2007 after allowing his own ministers to stoke-up the speculation.

For a long time, it looked like he would not recover from that, but recover he eventually did, and Labour is now once again within spitting distance of the Tories in the polls.

So an obvious ploy for Mr Cameron is to try to turn spring 2009 into a re-run of autumn 2007 by generating another round of election fever, in the knowledge that it's a win-win situation for him.

If Mr Brown falls for it, the Tories will have the chance to end Labour's long hegemony. If he doesn't, it will be "bottler Brown" all over again.

Even so, there was little consensus among political commentators this week as to whether the speculation was Tory-inspired black propaganda or whether it is indeed actively being thought about in No 10.

One veteran political writer declared flatly: "There won't be an early election in 2009 for all the usual reasons, the most important being that Gordon Brown would lose it."

But another from the same newspaper maintained that, contrary to appearances, it is actually Mr Brown who wants the election to happen and Mr Cameron who doesn't.

"The reality is that while he says he wants it and Gordon says he doesn't, the opposite may well be the case," he said of the Tory leader.

There are two reasons being advanced as to why a Prime Minister who is still trailing in the opinion polls would choose now to have an election.

One is that the longer he leaves it, the worse the economy will get, although many economists think that there will be a recovery of sorts by 2010.

The other reason being put forward is that, despite being at least five points behind in share of the vote, Labour and Mr Brown could actually still win that way.

By a strange quirk of our electoral system to do with the relative distribution of votes, the Labour Party could be significantly behind the Tories yet still end up with more seats.

But the idea that emerging as the largest party while being behind on the public vote could constitute any kind of victory for Mr Brown is, in my view, nothing short of political insanity.

The Tories would argue, quite rightly, that they had the true mandate to govern and that Mr Brown had lost his.

More than that, by being seen to fail to deliver the will of the people, the entire political system would face a crisis of legitimacy that could send it into meltdown.

Of course electoral reform would have forestalled this, but Tony Blair chickened out of it and his successor seems no bolder in that regard.

The time for New Year predictions is still a couple of weeks off. As is my custom, these will appear in my first column of 2009 on Saturday 3 January.

But I will, nevertheless, lay my cards on the table and make two early ones.

The first is that there won't be an election in February, or indeed at any time early in 2009.

The second is that if I am wrong, and the Prime Minister is foolish enough to allow himself to be provoked into holding one, he will lose.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 6

6. Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable: Trad French

For the benefit of non-linguists, this translates as "Whence is that goodly fragrance?" and can be sung in either language. I particularly like the French version though, partly for the reasons I explain below.

This carol is dedicated to Phil Parkinson, a French and German teacher at my old school who was also a member of St Mary's choir. As our resident modern languages expert, Colin Howard enlisted Phil to teach us to sing the carol in French. David Agg and Jeffrey Gray were two of the senior choristers of the time and Phil caused great hilarity by pointing out that the word "agreable" contained not one, but both their surnames. There was no way we would mispronounce it after that.

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In The Bleak Midwinter

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An idea worth recycling

As a contributing editor of Total Politics magazine, I warmly welcome its new blog, but I couldn't help but be amused to see that it's been named after one of my old Newcastle Journal columns, Party Lines.

The column was a light-hearted, midweek counterpoint to my more serious "Saturday column" which still continues today.

It was actually the second column of that name to appear under my byline, the first having appeared in Derbyshire Now! magazine from 1992-94.

Sadly it was before the days of teh interwebs so no link but I still have the dog-eared cuttings in my attic somewhere...

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 7

7. O Little One Sweet - J.S. Bach

Although the main focus of my Top 10 carol selection is on English choral music, it would be impossible to leave Bach out of the list, such was his influence on the English church music canon. The vocal harmonies in this short carol are as close to musical perfection as anyone has ever come. The best recording I could find of it is in the original German - O Jesulein Suess. It's a little quiet so you may have to turn up the volume on your PCs.

I am dedicating this to my father-in-law, Neil Broome, who loves this kind of music and regularly gets the family to sing it round the piano at Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 8

8. In Dulci Jubilo: Trad German, arr. R.L. Pearsall.

Everyone knows the tune to In Dulci Jubilo - it was given the prog-rock treatment by Mike Oldfield and is frequently heard in the hymn Good Christian Men, Rejoice, nowadays sometimes rather mindlessly rendered by the PC brigade as Good Christians All, Rejoice. But few if anyone knows who originally wrote it, although its origins appear to be Germanic.

The carol was a regular staple of our Nine Lessons services at St Mary's, Hitchin, so this one is dedicated to Hugo Richardson, Mike Baxter and all my old friends from the choir, in fond remembrance of all those Christmas Eves when we belted it out together.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Election: But why would he?

The politics news and blog aggregation site PoliticsHome - still the only pure-play political new media operation which can boast a Lobby pass - sends me a breathless press release stating that most "Westminster experts" think Gordon Brown should call an election in the Spring.

Well, it's nice that I'm on their mailing list....but if that is what counts for Westminster expertise these days, it's perhaps a good thing they are not the ones advising the PM.

The question that no-one has really answered in this latest bout of media election frenzy is why Gordon Brown would or should go to the country with the Tories still comfortably ahead in the opinion polls.

In September 2007 Labour was 13 points ahead he and didn't have an election. Now he's at least 5pc behind even on the most positive polls for Labour and a bunch of "Westminster experts" think he should risk it. Why on earth would he?

The only leading blogger who seems to understand this is Ben Brogan, who, it should not be forgotten, correctly called the autumn 2007 decision a day or two before Gordon himself announced it.

He quotes a Brown aide thus: "Election? No chance. There's more chance of getting Gordon and David Cameron to record a duet of 'Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree'." Bring it on, I say.

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My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 9

9. Shepherd's Pipe Carol: John Rutter

This is the first of four compositions by John Rutter in my Top 10. His carols tend to fall into two groups: jaunty and bright (Star Carol, Jesus Child, this one) or gentle and richly melodic (Mary's Lullaby, the Nativity Carol, Love Came Down at Christmas). The South African-born composer has cornered the market in quintessentially Christmassy choral music over the past 30 years and I could easily have named six or seven of his works in my list.

Today's choice is dedicated to the composer himself. Christmas literally wouldn't be the same without him.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

My Top 10 Christmas Carols: No 10

10. The Truth From Above: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Okay, there will still be some politics on this blog over the next fortnight...but in the run-up to Christmas I'm going to be giving over some time and space to one of my other lifelong obsessions: English choral music.

When most people speak of "Christmas carols" they tend to mean the likes of Hark the Herald, Once in Royal, O Come All ye Faithful and so on, but technically speaking they are hymns. Carols, in the traditional sense as still preserved in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, are sung by the Choir, not the congregation.

So over the next 10 days I will be listing my top 10 carols, together with YouTube videos of each. I hope that those who are familiar with this genre of music will enjoy this diversion from the usual agenda, and that those who are not familiar with it will also give them a listen. My No 1 choice will be revealed on Christmas Eve.

The first of my choices, at No 10, is The Truth From Above. This was one of the many traditional English folk tunes, their origins lost in the mists of antiquity, which were rediscovered and rearranged by the brilliant English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died 50 years ago this year.

In addition to listing my favourites, each day I will dedicating my choice either to a person who has influenced me in my love of English church music, or alternatively someone for whom a particular carol has a certain significance or meaning.

My first carol is dedicated to the memory of Colin M. Howard, my former Choirmaster at St Mary's Hitchin, who sadly died of cancer earlier this year aged 63. By bringing me into his choir in 1975, Colin opened up for me a world of Christmas wonder which has never faded.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Could Mandy spin us into the Euro?

Well after all, who would have thought NuLab would have nationalised the banks? Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since Gordon Brown stunned the political world this autumn by bringing back Peter Mandelson into his Cabinet, there has been a general sense that things have changed at the top of the government.

An administration which had become a by-word for drift, purposelessness and lack of vision seems to have latterly acquired a new strategic focus and direction.

Sure, much of it can simply be put down to events, and in particular the need for Mr Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling to mount an effective policy response to the challenge of the economic downturn.

But there are many who nevertheless believe that it is the political genius of the former Hartlepool MP which has really been behind the revival in the government’s fortunes over the past three months.

One aspect of politics that has noticeably changed, for instance, is that the Tories are no longer having things all their own way in terms of national media coverage.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has been a particular target in what has all the makings of a Mandelson-inspired operation to undermine his standing with the electorate.

It was also Lord Mandelson who turned the fire on the Tories over the Damian Green affair, hinting that his Home Office “mole” was not necessarily acting out of the purest motives.

It has prompted some commentators to speculate that Mandy has effectively stepped into the role that has been vacant since the departure of John Prescott – that of Deputy Prime Minister.

Indeed one national newspaper writer, the Telegraph’s David Hughes, went even further, claiming this week that Lord Mandelson was now running the country.

“While Gordon Brown spends his days masterminding the economic rescue of the entire planet, the everyday business of government seems to have been devolved to Lord Mandelson,” he wrote.

“Virtually everything the Government does - and it is being hyper-active at the moment - has his fingerprints on it.”

Hughes cited last week’s two-year mortgage holiday for middle-earners who lose their jobs as a classic bit of Mandelsonian positioning, letting Middle Britain know that Labour hasn't forgotten about them.

Others have even credited Lord Mandelson with bringing about the recent improvement in the Prime Minister’s general mood.

For those who view politics as essentially a psycho-drama, and the story of New Labour as an eternal triangle involving its three prime movers, there is probably something in this.

On this view of history, Gordon and Peter were best friends, until Peter decided to become Tony’s best friend. But when Tony finally left to travel the world and make lots of money, Peter and Gordon were free to make up again.

Those who have called Mandelson the Prime Minister’s “NBF” – New Best Friend – are missing the point. In fact he is Mr Brown’s Old Best Friend - and there’s nothing like having your old friends around when the chips are down.

But whatever impact Peter Mandelson has had on the government’s performance since his return, it could turn out to be a case of “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

For the man who spun Labour back into power in the 1990s may yet be dreaming of one last political triumph to top them all – to spin Britain into the European single currency.

Even three months ago, the very idea would have seemed absurd, but the plummeting pound and the deepening recession have at last seen the debate starting to move in the direction of the euro-enthusiasts.

The question is: could the downturn finally bring about the economic conditions for British entry, and if so, would political attitudes start to change as a result?

Already, no less a figure than European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has claimed that “significant people” in the UK are talking about abandoning the pound.

Lord Mandelson, his former Commission colleague, was obliged to deny he was one of them – but the way he did so was, in my view, highly revealing.

His exact words were: "My view is that the Government is right to maintain the long-term policy objective of taking Britain into the euro, but it is not for now.”

Well, joining the euro may indeed be “a long-term policy objective” but then so is a referendum on proportional representation, and neither have been openly talked about by Labour for years.

For about a decade after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the debate over the single currency dominated British politics.

It was largely responsible for the internecine warfare which came close to destroying the Tory Party as a political force and also ensured they were landed with a succession of unelectable leaders.

Between them, David Cameron and Mr Brown had manage to kick the issue into the long grass, but thanks to the credit crunch, it’s now back on the agenda.

Not only does Mr Brown have the chance to resurrect all those old Tory splits, he may even conceivably get the opportunity to do what his predecessor failed to do, and settle Britain’s “European destiny.”

So could it really happen? Could there be a referendum on the euro in this Parliament? And could the public even be persuaded to vote yes?

Well, it would certainly require a dramatic shift in public opinion, but the lesson of the past year in politics is that changes in economic circumstances can bring about such shifts.

If had wrote in my annual Preview of the Year last January that New Labour would end up nationalising two major High Street banks, most of you would have thought I was off my rocker.

Yet it happened – and the one certainty in politics over the next 12 months is that we should expect the unexpected

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Freudian Slip

Actually I'm not sure it really was...but here's Slob's take on it anyway....

Other sayings which Prime Ministers may have come to regret:

"Most people who know me know that I'm a pretty straight kind of guy." Tony Blair.

"I don't think other people in the world would necessarily take the view that there is mounting chaos." [translated by The Sun as "Crisis? What Crisis?"] Jim Callaghan

"[Devaluation] means the pound is now worth 14pc less on the foreign exchanges. It does not mean that the pound in your pocket or in your purse or in your bank has been devalued." Harold Wilson

"Most people in this country know they've never had it so good." Harold Macmillan

"I bring you peace in our time." Neville Chamberlain

"Psst...wanna buy a peerage?" David Lloyd George (okay I made this one up.)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't forget the Pogles

Okay, so I'm a bit late on this - I was in London yesterday for a day-long newspaper awards-judging session - but most of the well-deserved Oliver Postgate tributes this week have focused on his classic shows Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers.

And yes, they were all brilliant - especially The Clangers which coincided with the Moon landings and briefly became terriby topical and zeitgeisty around about 1968/69. Despite this I was rarely allowed to watch it as my dad found the "swanee whistle" sound made by the knitted creatures intolerable and invariably switched channels if he came into the room while it was on.

But my own personal favourite Postgate show has received relatively little mention in the national press over the past couple of days. This was Pogles' Wood, the gentle tale of woodland folk that was screened between 1966 and 1968 as part of the Watch With Mother series.

Children today would probably find it too gentle, too uneventful when set against the delights of Me Too, Balamory and so on. To my four-year-old eyes, though, it was simply magical.

But those looking for an assessment of the political significance of Oliver Postgate should look no further than the increasingly must-read blog of Independent on Sunday political editor Jane Merrick.

With more and more MSM writers launching themselves on the blogospehere, Jane has carved out a notable niche for herself of late. Her blog may not necessarily always be the most authoritative to emerge from a national newspaper, but it is, by some considerable distance, the funniest.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Coming home

I don't often write about my "real world" career on this blog, but this little announcement today seems worthy of mention. As the story says, I've been doing the job in an acting capacity for nearly six months so it's great to have it made official.

A colleague recently said that this job seemed like a bit of a "homecoming" to journalism for me after a few years doing different sorts of new media stuff. The truth is it's not an entirely journalistic role - there's a fair bit of commercial stuff in there too - but it's certainly the most journalist-y job I've had since I was political editor of The Journal.

Editing HoldtheFrontPage was a role I'd quietly fancied for some time, while never really expecting it to become available, so I'm really pleased to get the opportunity. After 22 years in the industry, I feel I know it pretty well by now, so hopefully I'll be able to bring some of that experience to bear in our coverage.

Now that I'll be writing about the media on a full-time basis I would expect to see more journalism-related stuff on this blog from time to time, in particular the interplay between politics and journalism which is an area which has always fascinated me. But I'll still be keeping in touch with political developments via my Journal column so hopefully things won't change too much!

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fairness agenda gets lost in the melee

The Queen's Speech is normally one of the highlights of the parliamentary calendar - but the fact that this year's found itself rather drowned-out shows just how much the political agenda has shifted. Here's today's Journal column.

In any normal year, the Queen’s Speech to the State Opening of Parliament – officially known as the Gracious Address - would be one of the key events in the political calendar.

Admittedly, Gordon Brown has somewhat diluted its impact over the past couple of years by introducing a Draft Queen’s Speech in July – much as the Pre-Budget Report has somewhat diluted the importance of the Budget.

But even so, the Speech was still seen as one of the big parliamentary set-piece occasions, the point in the political year when a government sets out its agenda and tries to convey a sense of what it is all about.

Until this week, that is. For of course, this year is no normal political year – and this year’s rather truncated legislative programme was certainly no normal Queen’s Speech.

Even within the context of the week’s political news, the Speech seems to have been overshadowed by other, more immediate issues.

On Monday, for instance, we had the statement to the Commons by Childrens’ Secretary Ed Balls setting out the findings of the preliminary inquiry into the Baby P tragedy.

The report was as damning as they come and led to the immediate suspension of Haringey Council’s director of childrens’ services, Sharon Shoesmith – though she remains unaccountably on full pay.

Mr Balls may not be the most empathetic of politicians, but he does at least do firm and decisive well – and this Commons statement showed him in his best light.

Then we had the ongoing and increasingly bitter controversy over the arrest of the Tory frontbencher Damian Green and the raid on his Commons office just over a week ago.

No-one seems to have come out of this episode particularly well so far. For House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, in particular, it seems to have turned into the story from hell.

Already under fire from MPs for having allowed the police to raid parliamentary premises in the first place, his troubles intensified this week when he was forced to admit that they had done so without a warrant.

It would, in my view, set an incredibly unfortunate precedent if MPs felt obliged to defenestrate him – but perhaps instead Mr Martin should now make clear he will be standing down ahead of the next election.

The position of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith seems less under threat, but she seems scarcely less culpable than Mr Martin in her handling of the affair.

To cut a long story short, it seemed she knew that the police were investigating the leaking of confidential Home Office documents, and knew that the said documents were being passed to the Tory Party.

What she claims she didn’t know was that Mr Green was the Tory frontbencher specifically under investigation by detectives, or that he was about to be arrested.

Whether she should have known is the key point at issue here. At least two of her predecessors – the Tories’ Michael Howard and Labour’s John Reid – clearly think she should.

All of that said, I have my doubts as to whether the Conservative Party will itself come out of this sorry affair with its reputation enhanced.

Much will depend on the motives of the “mole” and whether, as Business Secretary Peter Mandelson alleged on the BBC’s Today Programme, he was leaking material to Mr Green in order to further his political ambitions.

Occasionally in political journalism, you come across a story that starts out by looking highly embarrassing to one side and ends up with the other side having egg on its face.

I have a slight hunch that this could turn out to be one such case.

But if the Baby P inquiry and the Damian Green affair were not enough to squeeze the poor old Queen’s Speech off the front pages, we then had the reduction in interest rates to their lowest level for 57 years.

Since this will actually put money back in peoples’ pockets in the form of lower mortgage payments, it is far more likely in my view to kick-start economic activity than last week’s 2.5pc cut in VAT.

But the swift change of direction by the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee – it is only last year that rates were still going up – is almost worthy of a Private Eye-style apology.

“For years, we along with the rest of the UK political establishment may have given the impression that inflation is the worst thing can happen to the economy. In fact, we now realise that deflation is much worse, and apologise for any misunderstanding.”

So at the end of the day, was there actually anything in the Queen’s Speech worth writing about? Well, yes, although it was probably just as notable for what it left out as for what it included

What it did include was the remnants of what Mr Brown in his party conference speech in September termed the “fairness” agenda.

This included a Bill aimed at getting people on lower incomes to save more with the government promising to contribute 50p for every £1 saved up to £600.

And back on the agenda, to some surprise, was the measure to give employees the right to request flexible working hours, which many suspected Mr Mandelson had killed.

Perhaps significantly, though, the Speech did not include Mr Brown’s much-vaunted Constitutional Renewal Bill, which would among other things have given MPs the final say on going to war.

This was once a key plank in Mr Brown’s reform programme and was actually the subject of his first statement to the Commons as Prime Minister.

That it now no longer even merits a place in his government’s legislative programme is just one small illustration of how events have altered Mr Brown’s priorities and how the political agenda has shifted.

And the fact that it went almost unnoticed by the national media surely only serves to underline the point.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's not that I don't care, honest....

To anyone who has come here this week hoping or expecting to find my thoughts on the Damian Green affair, or the Queen's Speech, or the suspension of Sharon Shoesmith, or the interest rate cut, or anything else for that matter, may I offer my apologies.

They were all subjects worthy of a blog post and, had I had more free time this week, I would certainly have done covered them.

That said, I am in one sense relieved that I didn't rush into print with my thoughts on the Green controversy. As a democrat, my initial instincts would obviously have been to defend the Tory frontbencher's right to leak confidential material, and to question the political wisdom of Gordon Brown's refusal to condemn the police action.

Now, I'm not so sure. Yes, Jacqui Smith should have known what was going on in her own department. Yes, Michael Martin should have known the police didn't have a warrant, but my gut instinct tells me that we've not heard anything like the whole of this story yet, and it would not surprise me in the least if it eventually turned itself inside out, leaving the Tories as the ones with egg on their faces. As I said, just a hunch.....

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