Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review of the Year 2009

With the possible exception of 2001 and 9/11, seldom has any political year in recent history been dominated by a single story to the extent that the MPs expenses scandal dominated this one.

Most people have a fairly cynical view of politicians, casually and sometimes wrongly assuming them to be in it for what they can get.

Few taxpayers however imagined that they might be footing the bill for the cost of cleaning MPs’ moats, mowing their paddocks, and doing up their second homes to enable them to make a killing on the property market.

The scandal that broke over the summer will, quite literally, change Parliament – and the nature of the relationship between the public and their elected representatives – for ever.

The sad thing is, it could all have been averted, with a little foresight and some courageous leadership on the part of the Prime Minister and his fellow party leaders.

If Gordon Brown really was the strategic political genius his admirers have always claimed him to be, he would have seen it coming a mile off and pre-empted it by introducing measures to clean up the place.

Okay, so MPs would probably have voted him down – but that would have left him in an even stronger position when the storm finally broke.

As it was, Gordon’s inability to regain the political initiative was another of the themes of a political year that seems likely to be Labour’s last full 12 months in office for some time.

At one point, it looked as though Mr Brown’s handling of the continuing economic crisis, and in particular his role in brokering the global recovery plan, was winning over the public.

But his difficulty is that when it comes to the economy, too many voters see him as part of the problem rather than part of the solution – thanks largely to his hubristic claims to have “abolished boom and bust.”

It all threatened to come to a head in May when the sequential resignations of Hazel Blears and James Purnell seemed to herald the start of a Blairite counter-revolution against his leadership.

Had South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband followed them out of the door, it would have been – but Lord Mandelson saved the day for Gordon by talking him out of it.

Mr Brown’s troubles were by no means over though. Another long-running story that caused big problems for the government over the summer was its alleged failure properly to equip British troops in Afghanistan.

It coincided with a terrible spate of British casualties as soldiers embarked on a perilous mission to drive back the Taliban in order to allow elections to take place.

And the year ended with startling revelations about another war – the 2003 Iraq conflict which is now the subject of a wide-ranging inquiry under Sir John Chilcot.

The disclosure that former Prime Minister Tony Blair knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ten days before the invasion seems likely to further sully his already tarnished reputation.

But to return to MPs’ expenses…one consequence of the saga is that it adds an extra element of unpredictability to the election which must now be held this spring.

More fringe party candidates are certain to be elected. The incumbency factor which traditionally favours sitting MPs may go into reverse. And the turnout may well be lower, leading to more volatility in outcomes.

Some believe that the scandal will ultimately lead to a better, more diverse House of Commons, a political culture in which MPs genuinely see themselves as the servants of the people rather than their masters.

Others, and I have to say I am one of them, take a more jaundiced view: that it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

The message of the star

At first there was a vaccum where creation came to be,
Singing 'save me, save me.'
Were we abandoned in the ether or did someone set us free?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the Lord.
Singing 'save me, save me.'
Why if it's no more than a fable should it strike so deep a chord?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

Science broke the news the only absolute is light.
Save me, save me.
Wasn't that the message of the star on Christmas night?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

Paddy McAloon

A very happy Christmas to all readers of this blog

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A lost Christmas classic

The world of music is full of records that would have made great Christmas Number Ones. My own personal favourite is a track called Walk Out To Winter by Aztec Camera, which I am still convinced would have hit the top spot in December 1983 if the record company hadn't gone and released it in...September.

Here's another song that might have been a big Christmas hit had it come out in 1993 as its composer, Paddy McAloon, originally planned.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blair's candour is six years too late

So Tony Blair has finally confirmed what we have all suspected for years - that he was determined to go to war in Iraq irrespective of whether or not there were any weapons of mass destruction there. Would that he had been so disarmingly honest with MPs and the public back in March 2003. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the past week, the world’s politicians have been focused on the future, specifically on how to combat the threat of climate change that promises some very uncertain futures for tens of millions of their people.

As I write, world leaders seem no nearer a deal, although such is the nature of these things that this may well have changed by the time today’s Journal arrives on your doormat.

By all accounts, our own Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been working hard behind the scenes to secure some kind of agreement - in between paying tribute to Sir Terry Wogan, of course.

So often all at sea in the domestic political arena, international politics seem to bring out the best in Mr Brown, as she showed earlier this year in the talks over the global economic recovery plan.

But even if there is a deal or sorts, and the Prime Minister is seen to have played a part in brokering it, the impact of Copenhagen on the political battle back home will be minimal.

So I make no apologies this week for focusing once again on an issue where, far from working to achieve global consensus, a British Prime Minister fairly comprehensively ruptured it.

I refer of course to the Iraq War, and specifically to Tony Blair’s startling admission last weekend that he would have taken us into it come what may.

Asked by interviewer Fern Britton whether he would have still sought to remove Saddam Hussein had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction, he replied: "I would still have thought it right to remove him.”

Now the first thing to say about this is that it was actually the wrong question by Britton, a mistake which an experienced political interviewer like Nick Robinson would surely not have made.

Because thanks to Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry, we now know that the government did indeed have cause to realise there were no WMDs before the conflict even began.

Foreign Office official Sir William Erhman told the inquiry last month that, ten days before the invasion, intelligence was received that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons has been dismantled.

Yet the government decided to conceal this game-changer from MPs and the public in the full knowledge that it would drive an Exocet through its case for war.

Let us for a moment imagine a counterfactual history based on the premise that Mr Blair was indeed “a pretty straight kind of guy” and as such had been more honest with the public about his reasons for going to war.

Let us suppose that he had come to the House of Commons on the day of that dramatic debate in March 2003 and said: “There are no WMDs, but we’re still going in because I promised George Bush that we would a year ago.”

Would he still have been Prime Minister by the end of that evening? Of course not.

We wouldn’t have just have been talking about Robin Cook and Clare Short resigning. Most of the Cabinet, including, I suspect, Mr Brown himself, would have followed them out of the door.

Mr Cook said that night: “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.”

Well, thanks to Chilcot, we now know there was no “probably” about it.

The idea that Mr Blair could ever have secured a Commons majority for a war based on regime change is utterly fanciful.

And the more of these grubby revelations emerge, the harder it will be for his unfortunate successor to retain his own majority next Spring.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

The politics and the economics are inextricably intertwined

Opposition criticisms of the Pre-Budget Report as "electioneering" are fatuous and naive. Government denials that it is such are evn more so. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the past couple of years, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable has proved himself to be one of the most prescient, as well as one of the most popular politicians in the country.

It was he who first predicted the banking crisis, he who first advocated the nationalisation of Northern Rock – and he who told Gordon Brown he had gone “from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

Yet for all his undoubted expertise in economic matters, his criticisms of the pre-Budget Report unveiled by Chancellor Alistair Darling on Wednesday came over as rather naive and facile.

He charged Mr Darling with the grave offence of having unveiled “an election manifesto” rather than a national economic plan – scarcely surprising given that there is, er, an election happening in six months’ time.

Much of the debate over the PBR has thus far revolved around this point, with claims that Mr Brown overruled Treasury plans for faster action to reduce the country’s £178bn budget deficit.

The central accusation against the Prime Minister here is that he is allowing the politics of the situation to dictate the economics – and in so doing, putting the future economic health of the country at risk.

But although governments of both colour have certainly been guilty of that in relation to pre-election budgets in the past, I am not sure the two can so easily be disentangled in this instance.

To my mind, the differences between the parties are as much about the fact that Mr Brown has a genuinely different view from his opponents over how to tackle the recession, as they are about electoral politics.

For several months now, the main point at issue between the two main parties has been not whether spending cuts need to be made, but whether they should be made in 2010 or 2011.

In this sense, the PBR changed absolutely nothing. It merely made these already well-established dividing lines a little clearer.

Neither are those dividing lines in themselves anything new, being merely a modern-day re-run of the economic debates that have recurred since the original Great Depression of the 1930s.

There will always be those like Mr Brown who believe that increasing spending is the best way out of a recession, and those like Tory leader David Cameron who believe that simply makes a bad situation worse.

Hence, if the Prime Minister has his way, the cuts will come only once the economy has started growing again – as it is projected to do by 1.5pc next year and by 3.5pc in 2011.

As well as spending cuts, the fiscal tightening from 2011 onwards will also see a 1pc rise in National Insurance and a 1pc cap on public sector pay settlements.

This was reasonably smart politics by Mr Darling as it means an incoming Tory government is now committed either to carrying out a tax increase, or having to explain why they are making even deeper cuts.

He also scrapped his earlier proposal to increase inheritance tax thresholds, thereby challenging the Tories to axe their own controversial plan to raise it to £1m.

But if Mr Cable’s accusation of electioneering against the Chancellor was somewhat fatuous, Mr Darling’s denial of the charge was possibly even more so.

Indeed, it was about as disingenuous as Mr Brown’s claim to have cancelled the autumn 2007 election in order to “set out his vision” rather than because of a couple of adverse opinion polls.

The truth is, this PBR was designed to convey a very blunt message to the voters: “Things are bad, but they would be a damned sight worse with the other lot in charge.”

It may not be the most inspiring of election pitches, but as Labour discovered to its cost in 1992, it’s one that has often proved successful.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Was the 'election-that-never-was' actually the political judgement call of the century?

Sorry Jack, but you were right all along. Gordon Brown made the right call not to hold an election in autumn 2007 - and if all the recent chatter about hung Parliaments proves to be correct, he will ultimately be vindicated in it. Here's today's Journal column.

Amidst all the many and varied factors that have contributed to the unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s government over the past couple of years, one stands out above all others.

It came, of course, in October 2007, a little over three months into his premiership, when Mr Brown decided not to call the snap general election for which some of his closest allies had been actively preparing.

From being 11 points ahead in the opinion polls during his party’s conference a fortnight earlier, Labour suddenly found itself up to 20 points behind, a reversal in fortune from which the government has never quite recovered.

As such, it seems likely to be remembered as the decisive moment when Mr Brown lost it - lost the respect of the British public, lost the political initiative to the Tories, and lost any chance of securing his own personal mandate.

At the time, I was one of those who argued that holding an opportunist election when there was no need to do so risked destroying Mr Brown's hitherto highly-prized reputation as a serious statesman.

I was by no means alone in this. Another who urged restraint was the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, one of only three men to have served continually in the Labour Cabinet since 1997.

Yet with the benefit of hindsight Mr Straw has now changed his mind, saying this week that he was wrong and that the Prime Minister should have called that autumn '07 contest.

For my part, I am still not convinced. The public do not like unnecessary elections – especially in November – and I still reckon the best Mr Brown would have ended up with was a hung Parliament.

There has been little talk of hung Parliaments since then, but it has suddenly revived over the past week, thanks largely to a - possibly rogue - opinion poll showing the Tory lead down to just six percentage points.

As regular readers of this column will know by now, our skewed electoral system means the Tories have to be 10-11 points ahead of Labour to be sure of securing an outright Commons majority.

And lo and behold, alongside talk of a hung Parliament comes fresh talk about proportional representation, with Labour confirming it will pass legislation before the election to enable a referendum on the voting system to be held after it.

It’s a smart tactical move by Mr Brown, as it means an incoming David Cameron government will have to repeal the legislation to stop the referendum taking place – unlikely if the Tories end up dependent on Lib Dem support.

That Mr Cameron is facing the distinct possibility on having to rely on Nick Clegg to put him in No 10 is seen by many as proof that he and his party have yet to "seal the deal" with the electorate.

If he is to become Prime Minister, it seems to likely to be more a result of Labour's ineptitude and lack of fresh vision than out of any great public enthusiasm for the Conservatives.

But what is also interesting about the recent chatter is that it puts a slightly new perspective on Mr Brown's October 2007 decision not to go to the country.

Had he done so, and gone from a majority of 66 to a hung Parliament, it would have gone down in history as a terrible misjudgement.

But were he to secure one in 2010, in the teeth of the worst recession for seventy years and up against a moderate, likeable Tory opponent, it would not look anything like that.

Is it just possible that ‘bottler Brown's' great election choke could yet come to be seen as the political judgement call of the century?

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Less popular than Van Rompuy

Most opinion polls tend to tell you what you already know, and to reinforce the "received wisdom" about politics and politicians. But I have to admit to being startled by one of the findings in the PoliticsHome poll on the European presidency released this afternoon.

In my own personal view, the whole appointments procedure has been a complete fiasco and we have ended up, in Herman Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton, with a pair of complete political pygmies in the EU's two most senior roles.

Yet that is not entirely how the wider public sees it, apparently. While agreeing that the process has been undemocratic, most people are relieved that a low-profile figure such as Van Rompuy has taken the presidential job rather than a "traffic stopper" such as Tony Blair.

According to PH: "61% believe that Van Rompuy is preferable to Tony Blair as president." Isn't that just a spectacular measure of the obloquy into which the three-times election victor has now sunk?

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another missed opportunity for Brown

Time is fast running out for the Prime Minister to provide us with a good reason to re-elect him. Here's today's Journal column.

As the date of the next general election draws ever nearer, so the remaining windows of opportunity for a revival in Gordon Brown's political fortunes continue to dwindle in number.

In the calendar of set-piece political events, perhaps his best hope of an uplift came with his speech to Labour's conference seven weeks ago, but as I noted in last week's column, The Sun newspaper put paid to that.

Still to come are the pre-Budget report, the Budget itself, and the proposed TV debates with David Cameron, which could yet see the lightweight Tory leader laid out by Mr Brown’s fabled Big Clunking Fist.

But as opportunities go to set out a compelling set of reasons why Labour should remain in power for a fourth term, this week's Queen's Speech has to go down as yet another missed one.

Mr Brown's allies would claim that, with only a maximum of seven months of the current parliament to go before the election has to be held, setting out too ambitious a programme would have invited ridicule.

But surely even ridicule would have been better than the collective "so what?" from the public which seems to have greeted this timid set of proposals.

Despite the criticisms of MPs expenses watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly, it was not so much the absence of a specific piece of legislation to tackle that issue that was the problem.

As the government has pointed out, it is not clear that it requires primary legislation to sort it out anyway, and even if it does, ministers can always resort to Her Majesty's customary catch-all phrase: "Other measures will be laid before you."

No, the real problem with Wednesday's package, as with so much else the Brown government has done, is the lack of any connective tissue to tie these disparate policy threads into a 'Big Idea.'

At one time, before Mr Brown came into office, it seemed likely that the leitmotif of his premiership would be a drive to restore public trust in politics after the spin and sleaze of the Blair years.

In the end, those bright hopes were shot to pieces by a combination of the Prime Minister's timidity, the “smeargate” affair involving his adviser Damien McBride, and finally the expenses scandal.

But this should have been a cue for the government to step up the process of constitutional change, not relegate it to the backburner.

As it is, the only concrete constitutional reform pledge contained in the Queen's Speech is to abolish the absurd "by-election" for Lords' seats for hereditary peers which occurs each time one of them shuffles off this mortal coil.

The fact that hereditary peers remain in the House of Lords at all is almost - but not quite - as savage an indictment of 12 years of Labour rule as the fact that inequality has increased.

The government paid due recognition to this by having Her Majesty utter a solemn pledge to "narrow the gap between rich and poor" - but, like all the other positive measures in the Speech, it begs the doorstep response: "Why didn't you do it in the first place."

If Mr Brown does survive to lead Labour into the election next Spring, that is perhaps the hardest question he and his party will have to answer.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Regaining sympathy not the same as regaining trust

The Sun's quite disgraceful personal attacks on the Prime Minister over his letter to Jacqui Janes understandably swung some public sympathy behind him this week. But neither that nor the Glasgow North East by-election result means he is necessarily "safe." Here's today's Journal column.

Six weeks ago, The Sun newspaper torpedoed Gordon Brown's hopes of a party conference uplift by announcing on the evening of his keynote speech that it would be backing the Tories at the next general election.

At the time, I was among those who sought to downplay the significance of this, arguing on these pages that it was no more than a right-wing newspaper returning to its natural ideological home.

But if I’m honest, I was swimming against the tide on this. Most of the media seem to take The Sun’s own estimation of itself as the paper ‘wot won’ every election since the 1960s completely at face value.

Hence the paper’s switch after 12 years of loyal support for New Labour was reported as a political event of huge symbolic importance which drove yet another nail in the government’s coffin.

Perhaps, though, they were right. We have seen over the past week just what a dangerous opponent The Sun can be when it has it in mind to ‘go for’ a particular politician.

It used an error-strewn handwritten letter he wrote to grieving mum Jacqui Janes expressing his condolences at the loss of her son in Afghanistan to mount a highly personal attack on the Prime Minister.

It’s all becoming very reminiscent of the latter days of John Major – another well-intentioned PM who seemingly could do nothing right and who incurred the wrath of a certain red-top tabloid as a consequence.

Who could forget the Sun editor on Black Wednesday who promised to take two large buckets of something unmentionable and empty them all over poor old Mr Major’s head?

But if that at least had the merit of humour, on this occasion the paper appears to have over-reached itself.

As the sheer ferocity of its attack became clear, the public’s sympathy seems for once to have swung towards Mr Brown.

Ironically, had the paper not previously announced its intention to support the Conservatives, its reporting of the whole episode might have had a greater political impact.

But as Alastair Campbell rightly pointed out: “Precisely because they made such a splash with the switch to the Tories, the wider public now know more than ever that their coverage is politically driven and totally biased against Brown.”

The Sun also has something of a credibility gap with some sections of the public on issues such as these – as David Higgerson, a former Journal political correspondent now plying his trade on Merseyside, was not slow to point out.

“Nobody in Liverpool needs reminding about the sick irony involved when The Sun decides to have a pop at somebody for being insensitive,” he wrote on his blog.

As it is, a difficult week for Mr Brown has ended on a triumphant note with Labour’s unexpectedly comfortable victory in the Glasgow North-East by-election caused by the defenestration of Mr Speaker Martin over his handling of the expenses affair.

It did not take long for the Prime Minister’s loyal ally, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, to claim the party’s thumping 8,111 majority over the SNP as “an endorsement of Gordon Brown and what he is trying to do.”

But is it? Earlier this week, South Shields MP David Miliband’s decision to turn down the chance to become EU Foreign Minister led to more speculation that he could yet take as Labour leader before the next election.

A defeat for Labour in Glasgow North-East on Thursday might have raised that speculation to fever pitch.

As it is, the consensus among political commentators last night was that the result will make Mr Brown “safe” from any further attempts to unseat him – but I’m not at all sure they’re right.

The Prime Minister may have garnered some public sympathy this week. But regaining the public’s sympathy is a long way from regaining its trust.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Sympathy for Icarus

Slob returns with a reminder that you should never fly too close to The Sun. More on the red-top's little disagreement with Gordon in tomorrow's weekly column.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Kelly has gone too far

Yes, MPs brought the expenses affair on themselves, and yes, the system needs to be reformed - but reforming it on the basis of a 'blood sacrifice' will not necessarily produce a better Parliament. Here's today's Journal column.

Ever since the start of the MPs expenses affair, it has been clear that no one political party has had a monopoly on sleazy behaviour.

From Tory knight Sir Peter Viggers’ duck island to Labour ex-minister Elliott Morley’s mortgage claims, the scandal has engulfed those on all sides of the political divide.

You might expect from this that the net effect of the whole debacle in terms of the opinion polls would be pretty well neutral.

But that is not in fact how the public has seen it. In fact, polls have consistently shown that the public regards Labour as far more culpable than the Tories in its handling of the affair.

In a sense, that is inevitable given that Labour is the party in power.

After all, as I have noted previously, the government had every opportunity to spot this car crash coming down the tracks, and every opportunity to reform the expenses system before the extent of the abuse became clear.

But of course, it didn’t, and fearful of the hostile opinion polls, the Prime Minister is now falling over himself to implement the clampdown on MPs expenses that he should have brought forward a year ago.

The net result is that Mr Brown was left with very little wriggle room once standards chief Sir Christopher Kelly had published his own recommendations on how to reform the system this week.

Mr Brown and the other party leaders have already made clear they expect MPs to implement Sir Christopher’s proposals in full – but to my mind, this is not necessarily a good thing.

At the risk of provoking a furious backlash from Journal readers, I am not sure that effectively banning most MPs from purchasing second homes does not amount to something of an over-reaction.

The statute books are full of bad legislation, hastily passed in the aftermath of a moral panic, of which the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1995 is perhaps the most notorious example.

We seem to be on the verge of making a similar mistake with MPs’ expenses, inventing rules designed to produce a ‘cathartic moment,’ or worse, a ‘blood sacrifice,’ rather than considering the most sensible system going forward.

For me, the key question is: will what is being proposed improve the quality of Parliament?

In this region, we are set to see perhaps the biggest exodus of political talent in a generation, with parliamentarians as diverse and distinguished as Jim Cousins, Alan Milburn and Chris Mullin all set to leave the Commons.

Their departures will, in my view, leave a hole in the region’s body politic that may take some years to fill.

But if on top of that, the new expenses regime causes some genuinely public-spirited individuals to conclude that they can no longer afford to represent us, it will be a sad day indeed.

My worry is that we are seeing an example the law of unintended political consequences, whereby a measure designed to clamp down on the political gravy train ends up primarily penalising MPs of no independent means.

There is a risk that we will end up with a situation in which the only people who can afford to be MPs are those rich enough to be able to buy second homes in London without the help of a mortgage.

If so, it will mean history will have come full circle since the days before the Labour Party was formed in order to provide parliamentary representation for the newly-enfranchised industrial working class.

Perhaps, at a time when Eton College seems set to regain its reputation for supplying the British ruling elite, we should not be so surprised at this.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

A fond farewell

An emotional day today as I travelled to North Wales to bid farewell to my former regional lobby friend and colleague Ian Craig. A sad occasion, for sure, but it was lovely to meet Ian's family and to see so many old faces from my Westminster days. The turnout at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wrexham, which included one or two senior politicians as well as numerous Press Gallery figures past and present, was yet a further indication of the huge esteem in which Ian was held.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blair presidency would be gift-horse to the Tories

The tide already seems to be going out on the Blair bid for the European presidency, but were it to happen, it might actually help David Cameron. Here's today's Journal column.

There are many reasons why William Hague was not a successful leader of the Conservative Party – the fact that he had the bad luck to come up against Tony Blair at the height of his powers being perhaps the most significant.

But one thing no-one has ever doubted about Mr Hague is his wit, a weapon he has regularly deployed to devastating effect at the expense of his political opponents.

Back in 1998, his savage deconstruction of the government’s “annual report” reduced the Commons to tears of mirth, and accurately predicted New Labour’s journey “from fascination to admiration to disillusion to contempt.”

More recently, he conjured up an equally hilarious image of Gordon Brown’s ultimate nightmare – having to greet Mr Blair’s EU motorcade in Downing Street and being forced through gritted teeth to utter the words: “Welcome, Mr President.”

Cue loud laughter on both sides of the Chamber – except that, on the question of whether Mr Blair should assume the presidency of the European Council, Mr Hague was possibly being a trifle unfair on the Prime Minister.

For in a bizarre piece of role reversal, it is Mr Brown who is supporting the man he schemed and plotted to destroy for ten long years, while Tory leader David Cameron, the self-proclaimed “heir to Blair,” is fighting desperately to block it.

Mr Cameron’s motives are perhaps the easiest to fathom. As he said this week, he doesn’t want an EU president anyway, and he certainly doesn’t want one as powerful and persuasive as the former Prime Minister.

The Tory leader may have copied much of Mr Blair’s style and many of his policies - but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to have to deal with the man at the international negotiating tables.

Mr Brown’s attitude, however, is possibly more ambivalent. On the face of it, he is probably telling the truth when he says the government is supporting Mr Blair’s candidature on the grounds that it would be “good for Britain.”

In so doing, he is also hoping to secure the kind of short-term tactical advantage over the Tories that Mr Brown loves to calibrate - by making it appear as if they are acting against the national interest.

But there is also the possibility that Brown backing Blair for EU president is part of some kind of Blairite-Brownite non-aggression pact under which one side dare not move against the other.

If Mr Brown’s people were to be caught briefing against a Blair presidency, Mr Blair’s might just feel tempted to start briefing that it’s time the Labour Party had a new leader.

So should Sedgefield’s one-time MP get the job? Well, the debate in the end really boils down to the question of whether his undoubted leadership qualities trump his flawed record.

Yes, he would give Europe a much stronger voice on the world stage, and, in a world that is too often dominated by the US, Russia and China, that would surely be no bad thing.

But many British voters find themselves unable to overlook the fact that, as Prime Minister, he led the country into a war which most now agree was fought on a false prospectus.

And as the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen said this week: “Like contempt of court, contempt of parliament should always be a disqualification for holding high office.”

Will he get the job? The signs were looking less than positive yesterday, with European socialist leaders refusing to endorse his candidature and deciding instead to convene a panel to consider names.

Furthermore, the EU has a history of making lowest common denominator appointments to its most senior roles, which is why becoming Prime Minister of Luxembourg is a better career move than it might at first appear.

But either way, if Messrs Cameron and Hague really think that President Blair is somehow going to get us all sold on the idea of European integration, they are surely worrying unnecessarily.

Is a discredited former leader re-emerging in a powerful unelected role really likely to endear the EU to an already sceptical British public? I think not.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Remembering Ian Craig

Last Friday I received an email from an old friend in the Press Gallery informing me of the death of Ian Craig, until earlier this year the political editor of the Manchester Evening News. We have since covered this sad story on HoldtheFrontPage, while both the Evening News and the North-West media website How Do have also published lengthy pieces.

As will be seen from those links, the tributes have been led by no less a figure than Tony Blair, and whatever you think about the former Prime Minister, the fact that he has chosen to take time out from campaigning for the EU presidency to express his sorrow at Ian's sudden loss is a measure of the huge respect in which this great journalist was held.

For those that don't know, I worked in the same room as Ian for the whole of my nine years in the Lobby. Not only was he someone I was proud to call a friend, but he was a hugely important guiding influence on my career throughout my time there.

As his distinguished former editor Mike Unger has already said, Ian was quite simply one of the greatest political journalists of his generation, and proof if ever it were needed that not all the best lobby hacks are to be found on the nationals.

There was nothing that went on at Westminster that Ian didn't know about - often several days before it appeared in print or was broadcast on the airwaves. But more than that, as the comments on the various threads have shown, he was a true gentleman, whose personal kindness and courtesy towards colleagues and contacts alike were legendary.

I find myself in complete accord with the comments of his former MEN colleague Rodger Clark on HoldtheFrontPage: "You could not wish to meet a finer journalist or a finer gentleman. Ian will be sorely missed."

Ian was one of the people I hoped I would stay in touch with after I left the Lobby in the summer of 2004, and although I did have one last drink with him on a brief visit back there in May 2005, I hadn't seen him since then.

That's modern life I guess. Times change, and people move on. But I never forgot Ian, and I never will.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Miliband rises as Griffin bombs

All the media attention this week was on Nick Griffin and the BNP. But meanwhile, some possibly more significant developments have been taking place behind the scenes in the Labour Party. Here's today's Journal column.

There is a widely-held maxim in our profession that all publicity is good publicity. But after Thursday night's Question Time on the BBC, I wonder if Nick Griffin would necessarily agree.

In the run-up to the programme, there were widespread fears that the British National Party leader's appearance would somehow give the far-right group the mainstream political respectability it craves.

Critics of the BBC's decision to allow him to appear cited the upsurge in support for Jean-Marie Le Pen's neo-fascist National Front party in France in 1984, following a high-profile television performance.

But in the event, those who were worried on this score need not have feared. Far from giving his party added credibility, Mr Griffin's appearance on the programme merely confirmed that neither he nor his party are serious political players.

If Mr Griffin was the political genius that his admirers - as well as some of his opponents - clearly believe him to be, then maybe they would have had a point.

But Mr Griffin is no Jean-Marie Le Pen, still less an Enoch Powell, and my overwhelming impression from watching the programme was to wonder why anyone would want to vote for this clown.

Grinning your way through a YouTube video about MPs' expenses as Prime Minister Gordon Brown did earlier this year is one thing. Grinning your way through a question about whether or not you denied the Holocaust is quite another.

For my part, I cannot disagree with Justice Secretary Jack Straw's verdict, that far from providing the BNP with a platform for a political "breakthrough," the whole episode has been a catastrophe for the party.

Meanwhile, back in the real world of serious politics....strange things seem to be stirring in the Labour undergrowth.

Today sees the return to the region of the one-time Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson to deliver the annual South Shields Lecture in the constituency of Foreign Secretary and potential Labour leadership contender David Miliband.

The confluence of these two leading Blairites in the region at the same time has led to excitable talk that Lord Mandy may be preparing to throw over poor Mr Brown in favour of the perennial young pretender.

While this may be a case of putting two and two together and making 17, there is a certain political logic to some of the speculation, in that most Labour MPs now believe the Prime Minister to be incapable of leading them to victory next May.

But as Mr Brown's fortunes have continued to decline, Miliband Senior seems to have overcome the political banana-skins that afflicted him during 2008 to become, once more, the flavour of the month.

As I noted a few weeks back, his cause has probably been helped by the fact that his chief rival, Home Secretary Alan Johnson, has now said he's not up to the job of PM so many times that most of the party agrees with him.

As well as resuming his front-runner status for the Labour leadership, Mr Miliband is also being spoken of as a contender for the post of EU foreign minister or "high representative," due to be created once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified.

Mr Miliband used Twitter to deny the rumour yesterday, but some insist he'd be happier in that role than in No 10, and that it's actually younger brother Ed who is Mandy's chosen one.

I wrote several months ago now that I did not believe Mr Brown would lead Labour into the General Election if it became clear that the only consequence of that would be a catastrophic defeat.

The recent drip-drip-drip of information about the Prime Minister’s health, some of it emanating from within Downing Street itself, seems to confirm that an exit strategy is being carefully devised.

At the moment, I suspect Mr Brown is keeping his options open in the hope that something will turn up, but yesterday’s news that the country is still in recession will hardly have lightened his mood.

One slogan heard doing the rounds this week was “New Year, New Leader” – and once again, the name of Miliband seems to be in the frame.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Brown's losing hand

The Prime Minister's belated decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is all of a piece with his failure to anticipate the MPs' expenses row. Here's today's Journal column.

As the dust settles on the 2009 conference season, the key issues which will decide the 2010 general election are becoming clearer – some of them the kind which arise at every electoral battle, others unique to this contest.

There is, as ever, “the economy, stupid” – the central question on which most elections are won and lost, and on which, in all probability, this one will be too.

In terms of a strategy for plotting our way out of the recession, the two main parties are about even, the main differences of opinion being over precisely how and when to start cutting the £175bn budget deficit.

On the question of who was to blame for the meltdown, however, David Cameron’s Tories have an unassailable advantage, thanks largely to Gordon Brown’s hubristic claim to have “abolished boom and bust.”

Then there is the “leadership” issue – which in essence boils down the question of which of the two main party leaders is (a) the most likeable person, and (b) the most convincing Prime Minister.

Mr Cameron has always been way ahead of Mr Brown on the first point. But he is now beginning to overhaul him on the second too, after a conference which saw him set out his vision of post-recession Britain.

But beyond the perennial questions of who can best be trusted to run the economy and who will make the best leader, there have been two other issues in the headlines this week which also seem likely to have a big influence on the 2010 contest.

The first of these is of course the MPs’ expenses scandal. The second is the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

It would have come as no great surprise to world-weary MPs to find the expenses issue making its way back onto the front pages as they returned to Westminster this week.

There has to be some question as to whether civil servant turned witchfinder general Sir Thomas Legge has been making the rules up as he goes along in his letters to MPs calling for sums claimed in respect of cleaning and gardening to be repaid.

But such is the public mood of anger towards our elected representatives at present, that, however ersatz Sir Thomas’s recommendations, no-one dare defy them - not least Messrs Cameron and Brown.

And so the list of political casualties from the scandal continues to grow, with Tory MP David Wiltshire the latest to be forced to walk the plank at Mr Cameron’s behest on Thursday.

Mr Cameron knows he is in a win-win situation when it comes to expenses. Whenever another Tory MP transgresses, it merely gives him another opportunity to look tough on sleaze.

At the same time, his party as a whole continues to benefit from the “anti-politics” mood thrown up by the whole affair, a mood which invariably harms the incumbent administration.

Mr Brown, by contrast, is on to a loser. He had one chance to claim the moral high ground on MPs’ expenses, namely by reforming the system before the full horror of the abuse came to light.

But he failed to take that opportunity, and ever since his calamitous YouTube video in which he announced a belated and half-hearted attempt at reform, he has been on the back foot.

It’s been a similar story with Afghanistan. This week, the Prime Minister announced that hundreds more British troops would be sent to the war zone – some six or seven months after they were initially requested by the military.

It really does beg the question why this was left to fester over the summer as the casualties in Helmand Province piled up and the issue became more and more politically toxic for Labour.

To do it at this late stage looks very much of a piece with Mr Brown’s response to the expenses scandal – an attempt to shut the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Afghanistan. Expenses. Leadership. The economy. The sad truth for the Prime Minister is that on none of these key election issues is he currently holding what looks like a winning hand.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cameron does the vision thing

Tory leader David Cameron has always sought to model himself on Tony Blair, and his policy-light, rhetoric-rich speech in Manchester on Thursday was no exception. Almost everything else about it was designed to demonstrate that he is both the heir to Blair and the antithesis of Brown. Here's today's Journal column.

It is inevitable that, as the Conservative Party moves closer and closer towards government, people will start to pay more and more attention to what a Britain led by David Cameron would actually look like.

The Journal has already begun to do just that, posing the question in Monday’s edition as to what a Tory administration would do for the North-East.

The answer, from where I’m standing, is probably precious little – Mr Cameron’s “pledge” on dualling the A1, for instance, is even more vague than the half-hearted promise uttered by Tony Blair as opposition leader 13 long years ago.

Then again, since New Labour has spent the intervening period doing very little for the region itself, the two main parties are probably pretty even on this score.

Labour’s abject failure to do more to help the least well-off during its long period in power is already emerging as a key Tory campaign theme.

“Don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to us, the modern Conservative Party, to fight for the poorest who you have let down,” said Mr Cameron on Thursday, in a passage aimed fairly and squarely at Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister’s people have already responded by pointing to the Tories’ decision to stick by their controversial 2007 pledge to raise inheritance tax thresholds for the richest 1pc of households in the country.

But having presided over a marked growth in inequality since 1997, the government is onto a loser here, and notwithstanding his own party’s record on the issue, Mr Cameron is certainly within his rights to point it out.

Thursday’s keynote speech – light on policy but big on rhetoric – seemed designed as a deliberate contrast with Mr Brown’s policy-rich but rather underwhelming effort of a week earlier.

Its central theme – an attack on “big government” – was certainly audacious, coming in the midst of an economic recession caused primarily by a failure properly to regulate the financial markets,

But the “anti politics” mood created by the expenses scandal, coupled with the general mood of disillusionment towards Labour’s target-setting and micro-management, makes this fertile ground for the Tories.

Mr Cameron is not making the case so much for deregulated financial markets, as deregulated schools, hospitals and councils, the “new localism” that Labour flirted with under Mr Blair but comprehensively abandoned under Mr Brown.

What policy detail there was in Manchester was to be found not in Mr Cameron’s speech but in Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s – another echo there of the Blair-Brown partnership.

He finally set out his plans to reduce the fiscal deficit by proposing an increase in the retirement age to 66, a one-year pay freeze for public sector workers, and a clampdown on “middle-class” welfare payments such as child tax credit.

By coming clean about his proposed cutbacks, Mr Osborne runs the risk of seeing his plans picked apart in the way John Smith’s proposed tax rises were in 1992, but in my view the electorate will respect his candour.

In any case, it wasn’t Smith’s Shadow Budget which lost Labour the ’92 election, but Neil Kinnock’s absurd histrionics in Sheffield – something Mr Cameron is unlikely to repeat.

With Labour having failed to produce a political “game changer” in Brighton, Mr Cameron had only to avoid a disastrous blunder this week in order to end the conference season in pole position for the election race.

Not only did he do that, he actually managed to articulate what Mr Brown has consistently failed to offer – a “big vision” of Britain’s future.

The best bit of Thursday’s speech was the last bit - the “view from the summit” passage where Mr Cameron started to set out the kind of Britain he wants to build once the deficit has been paid off.

After ten years of Mr Blair, the public was fed-up with this style of politics. Two years of Mr Brown has been enough to bring it back into fashion.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Moving on up

More on the Tories' week in Manchester in tomorrow's weekly column.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Too late to change

Why was Gordon Brown's well-crafted and policy-rich speech on Tuesday not more of a success? It wasn't because of a right-wing newspaper switching back to its natural allegiance, or even because of Andy Marr's impertinent questions about pill-popping. It was simply because all the talk of "change" begged too many questions about why real change hasn't happened earlier.

Here's today's Journal column - a couple of hundred words shorter from now on as it's moved to a new position in the paper.

One of the most oft-heard criticisms of Tony Blair’s conference speeches as Labour leader was that, although invariably delivered with great aplomb, they tended to be fairly vacuous when it came to policy.

Gordon Brown, it seems, has the opposite problem. His speeches are no more than workmanlike in comparison with the oratorical brilliance of his predecessor’s – but there is actually far more meat on the bones.

There was certainly plenty in his speech in Brighton on Tuesday to get your teeth into – be it electoral reform, the national care plan, supervised hostels for teenage mums, or free childcare for two-year-olds.

It also drew a very clear dividing line between the government’s handling of the economic crisis, and what would have happened under the Tories. And yet the press and public still seemed underwhelmed.

One criticism that has been regularly heard this week was that for all its new announcements, the speech lacked a real “game changer,” something capable of altering the political weather at a stroke.

One good example of this in recent years was George Osborne’s 2007 pledge to cut inheritance tax, which was widely credited with scuppering Mr Brown’s plans for an autumn election that year.

Mr Brown even managed something of a “game changer” himself last year with his “no time for a novice” soundbite which caught the mood of the country as the economy tipped into recession.

The lack of anything as dramatic or memorable this time round has led many to conclude that, despite all the talk of a fightback, the conference has ultimately done nothing to alter Labour’s downward political trajectory.

For my part, though, this wasn’t the most serious criticism of the Prime Minister’s performance. For me, the real problem with the speech and its panoply of new policies was that it begged the question: why now?

The key message of the speech, repeated again and again by Mr Brown, was “the change we choose” – yet if he was really the change-maker he believes himself to be, he would not have waited until now to make them.

He talked about ending 24-hour drinking back in 2007, shortly after he first came to power. Yet it has taken until now to announce it.

He flirted with constitutional reform back then too, but his initial proposals were timid and it has taken until now to announce the one thing without which no meaningful change can occur - a referendum on the voting system.

The U-turns are equally perplexing. Compulsory ID cards were a Blairite idea borne of the former Prime Minister’s obsession with out-toughing the Tories on law and order, whatever the cost to individual liberties. Why wait until now to ditch it?

And it is this question – why now? – which goes to the heart not only of why Mr Brown’s speech ultimately failed to cut the mustard, but why his premiership has been such a disappointment.

The sad truth is that Mr Brown had his chance to be the change the country needed when he took over from Mr Blair - but he blew it by failing to follow his radical instincts.

Two years on, the public is rightly sceptical as to whether a man who has been at or near the top of government for 12 years, and who bears a fair degree of responsibility for some of the failings of that period, can credibly represent change now.

Mr Brown can at least take comfort from the lack of obvious competition for his job. Alan Johnson declared once again this week that he wasn’t up to it, and he’s now said it so many times that people are starting to agree with him.

Peter Mandelson’s virtuoso performance on Monday would surely have established him as the only credible replacement – were it not for the fact that he is in the Lords.

But while the policy programme set out by Mr Brown this week constitutes a decent enough prospectus for a Labour fourth term, the Prime Minister is no longer seen by voters as the man to implement it.

This realisation has already dawned on most of the Labour Party. At some point between now and next May, I expect it to dawn on Mr Brown too.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

White lines

Sadly, it seems the big media focus in Brighton all week has not been on Gordon's rather good speech (more on that on Saturday) but on The Sun's decision to switch allegiance from Labour to the Tories - which is really no more than a right-wing newspaper coming back to its natural home.

Of all the many words that have been written about it, The Guardian's Michael White surely put it best. "The Sun's policy switch is dictated by Rupert Murdoch and his well-documented policy of being on the winning side – from here to Sydney, Washington and New York, back again via Beijing."

I have to say I particularly enjoyed the paragraph in which Michael likened the red top's behaviour to "making a discarded girlfriend take the bus home carrying a black plastic bag full of clothes that have just been thrown on to the street. Laddish or what? We should hardly be surprised, should we?"

Those who were in or around the Lobby in 2002/3 will know exactly which well-known Sun journalist this was a reference to. Ouch.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

So just what do the Lib Dems stand for?

Nick Clegg scored 10 out of 10 for ambition in Bournemouth, and top marks for avoiding the trap set by David Cameron. But he needs to learn a thing or two about party management. Here's today's Journal column.

And so we come again to the conference season, and not just any old conference season, but the one which will see the race to govern Britain for the next five years effectively begin in earnest.

Most of the country will see it as a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories, but once a year, at their annual conference, the Liberal Democrats get the opportunity to explain why this cosy consensus should be broken up.

Whether Nick Clegg and his party made the most of that opportunity, amid a week of bickering and backbiting in Bournemouth, must be very much open to question.

But one thing you certainly can’t fault is the scope of his ambition. “I want to be Prime Minister because I have spent half my lifetime imagining a better society, and I want to spend the next half making it happen,” he told the gathering on Wednesday.

Lib Dem leaders have been somewhat wary of talking too openly about the prospects of power ever since David Steel’s infamous “go back to you constituencies and prepare for government” speech at his party’s 1981 conference in Llandudno.

The best they’ve been able to hope for since those heady days has been to hold the balance of power, although as yet, it has never actually happened.

But Mr Clegg, to give him his due, was not going to be bounced by Tory leader David Cameron into talking about which of the two main parties he would back in the event of a hung Parliament.

If the Lib Dem conference represents his one chance a year to say what he would do I the unlikely event of him actually becoming Prime Minister, he was going to make sure he took it.

Mr Cameron’s eve-of-conference “love bomb” urging the Lib Dems to team up with the Tories in a grand anti-Labour coalition was an extremely mischievous intervention by the Tory leader on a number of levels.

For one thing, his claim that there is “not a cigarette paper” between the two parties on key issues of policy is about as mendacious and misleading a claim as he has ever made – and that’s saying something.

As the Lib Dems’ chief of staff Danny Alexander swiftly pointed out, while the Tories want to reduce inheritance tax for the richest 1pc of people in the country, the Lib Dems want to take the poorest out of income tax altogether.

And for all Mr Cameron’s supposed “greenery,” his party’s representatives in Europe have allied themselves with a bunch of climate change deniers in the European Parliament.

But Mr Cameron’s suggestion was mischievous on another level too, because he knows perfectly well that there is only one thing the Lib Dems actually could do in the event of a hung Parliament – and that is support the Tories.

This is not just because it would be political suicide for Mr Clegg to be propping up a Labour government that had just lost its majority. It is about simple electoral arithmetic.

Such is the inbuilt bias of the electoral system towards Labour, that so long as Labour achieves the largest share of the vote, it is bound to have an absolute majority in the next House of Commons.

Therefore the only way in which a hung Parliament can actually occur is if the Tories are ahead on share of the vote, but by not quite enough to form a government on their own.

In those circumstances, the Liberal Democrats would really have only course of action consistent with their advocacy of a “fair” voting system – and that would be to support the Tories as the party with the biggest share of the vote.

Mr Cameron knows this, and so does Mr Clegg – which is why he is all the more determined not to admit it. To do so would remove any reason for voting Lib Dem at all

That said, post-Bournemouth, the country is really no clearer on what the reasons for voting Lib Dem actually are.

The arguments over university tuition fees and the proposed imposition of a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £1m have hardly served to clarify the party’s message.

Charles Kennedy’s strategy in his time as Lib Dem leader was to have two or three distinctive policies that would separate his party from the common herd – for instance, abolishing tuition fees.

It was not surprising to see the man who led the Lib Dems to the best performance by a third party since the 1920s bemoaning the loss of some of those policies this week

Mr Clegg may be right that different times demand different solutions – but his problem he has yet to find anything as distinctive to put in their place.

As for his talk of “savage cuts” or “progressive austerity” - yet another abuse of the p-word – this is hardly a very different agenda from that being put forward by the two main parties.

Nor surprisingly, media attention has already shifted towards Labour’s conference in Brighton beginning tomorrow.

Yesterday’s revelations that the mole behind the MPs’ expenses scandal was motivated by the lack of resources for British troops in Afghanistan links two of the three big running political stories of the year.

Meanwhile the third big story – the future of Gordon Brown – will continue to rumble on in the background at Brighton, with the party hoping against hope that their leader will manage to spell out some sort of compelling vision for a Labour fourth term.

If Mr Clegg’s task last week was to explain why he should become Prime Minister, Mr Brown’s even harder one this week will be to explain why on earth he should remain so.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Not left, not right, just a mess....

More Lib Demmery in tomorrow's column.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


For anyone who might be wondering where I stand on the issue that appears to be dividing the blogosphere at the moment, click here.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

The c-word is not enough

Gordon Brown's use of the "c-word" this week was designed to clear the air over spending - but Labour's problems as it approaches the next election go deeper. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the course of the last three general elections, British politics has followed a fairly familiar pattern, with the question of who can best be trusted to run our key public services the main point at issue in each contest.

For almost all of that time, a Labour Party which promised more national resources for services such as education and health after 18 years of Tory tax-cutting and spending restraint has had things by and large all its own way.

By contrast, the Tories found themselves on the wrong side of the political tide – instinctive tax-cutters and reluctant spenders who were simply not trusted to carry out the investment in schools and hospitals which, by then, the public wanted to see.

When the history of the Blair-Brown years comes to be written, this underlying political consensus for greater public spending will be seen as the key factor underpinning Labour’s long political hegemony.

Of course, there were other reasons for Labour’s three successive victories. In 1997, the country was so heartily sick of John Major’s sleaze-ridden Tories that Labour would probably have won irrespective of its spending pledges.

The Tories then compounded their problems in both 2001 and 2005 by going into the election with the wrong leaders in William Hague and Michael Howard, when Ken Clarke would have been a much more voter-friendly choice on both occasions.

And of course, throughout this time they were up against an acknowledged master in Tony Blair who, whatever his shortcomings as a national leader, will go down in history as an election-winner par excellence.

But notwithstanding this, the essential dividing line in British politics between 1997 and 2009 remained one of Labour investment versus Tory “cuts” – although in reality that sometimes just meant the Tories were planning to spend slightly less than Labour.

For Gordon Brown, who as Chancellor oversaw the huge public spending programme, the lesson was clear. The way to win elections was to simply to highlight what local services the Tories would “cut” from Labour’s own programmes.

And who knows, it could have worked for him again, could have secured for Labour that elusive fourth term, were it not for the fact that the whole strategy was blown sky-high by the recession.

The extent of the problem really started to become clear in this year’s Budget which revealed the scale of the debt mountain facing the country in the wake of the government’s reflation measures.

Henceforth, there would be no “investment” as we have come to understand the term. There would, and could only be cuts.

This presented Mr Brown with an obvious difficulty. The Prime Minister is not known for his political agility and once he decides on a certain strategy, his usual approach, like Churchill’s, is to “keep buggering on.”

And so he did, through numerous Prime Minister’s Question Times this summer when the “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” mantra was faithfully trotted out to an increasingly weary public.

It was, unsurprisingly, Peter Mandelson who first cottoned-on to the fact that it just wasn’t working any more, and as I wrote a few weeks back, it was Mandy who began to lay the ground for a different approach, in his Newsnight interview last month.

“I fully accept that in the medium term the fiscal adjustment that we are going to have to make….will be substantial. There will be things that have to be postponed and put off, and there will probably be things that we cannot do at all,” he said at the time.

The upshot of all this repositioning was this week’s speech to the TUC Conference by Mr Brown in which he finally conceded, for the first time, that Labour too will oversee spending cuts if, against all odds, the party still manages to win next year.

To give Gordon his due, he didn’t just whisper the dreaded c-word. In fact he used it four times for good measure.

“We will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes, and cut lower priority budgets,” he told the conference.

Labour’s spinners say the speech was designed to “clear the air and enable Labour’s message to be heard again.” Whether or not it will achieve that end remains very much an open question.

As it is, the dividing lines between the two main parties, at least on the issue of public spending, now seem very blurred.

The argument between Mr Brown and Tory leader David Cameron would appear to revolve around the question of whether the cuts should happen now, as the Tories are advocating , or later, so as not to damage the recovery as Labour is arguing.

But of course, by the time the election actually comes round next spring, this distinction will have all but disappeared, and we will be in a scenario where cutbacks will swiftly follow whoever wins.

Lord Mandelson, with his customary indefatigability, is trying to draw a distinction between a Labour Party that will cut spending reluctantly and a Tory Party that will do it with relish, but it is doubtful how much traction this has with the public.

The real difficulty for Messrs Brown and Mandelson is that the next election is looking increasingly likely to be fought on what is natural Tory territory.

Thanks to the downturn, the consensus in favour of increased investment in public services which has been the foundation of Labour’s success over the past decade has finally started to shift.

What the public now wants and expects is, first and foremost, a government that will get the public finances in some sort of order, even if it means cutting spending programmes.

And if the prevailing public view is that spending has to be reduced, the hard truth for Labour is that the Tories are, by temperament and history, the party best-placed to do it.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

The grim reapers

A warm welcome back to Slob after his extended summer break...

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Lost Albums of Paddy Mac

Something significant has happened to me this week, and I'm pleased to say it's nothing to do with David Cameron or Gordon Brown. After 17 years, one of my all-time favourite bands has released an album, originally written in 1992, that has been at the centre of one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of rock and pop.

I have had many musical passions over the years, Genesis, New Order, John Rutter and Sergey Rachmaninov among them, but no music has ever touched me quite like that of Paddy McAloon, who formed Prefab Sprout with his brother Martin, sometime girlfriend Wendy Smith and drummer Martin Salmon (later replaced by Neil Conti) in the late 1970s.

In the 80s and early 1990s their albums From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback were rarely off my turntable for long, and friends who came to visit me at Number 13 around that time would invariably be forced to listen to them. Some of them even became fans themselves, although I doubt if they've still got the tapes I sent them.

And then, in about 1992, their once-prodigious output of wistful, brilliantly-crafted crafted pop songs came to an abrupt halt. Subsequently, the only new releases were the distinctly sub-standard Andromeda Heights in 1997, followed by the even more lacklustre The Gunman and Other Stories in 2001, while rumours persisted of a stack of unreleased albums languishing under Paddy's bed.

Which is where Let's Change the World With Music has presumably remained until last week, when it was finally released after a 17-year hiatus that has seen it assume legendary status among Sprout fans.

The reasons for the delay remain mysterious. In the sleeve notes to the new album, Paddy draws analogies with the Beach Boys' Smile, which went unreleased for nearly 30 years, and appears to take some of the responsibility for its non-appearance, saying: "Anyway, one day in May '93 we made a poor move."

But even though Paddy seems incredibly reluctant to point the finger at the record company, Sony, it seems likely that this is where the blame really lay, and my guess is that it will have had something to do with the overtly Christian nature of some of the songs - spritual blindness rather than tone deafness if you like.

Paddy's religious inclinations, previously only alluded to in lyrics such as "Don't you know who built Atlantis, and returned it to the sea, don't you know who owns the weather?," become much more in-your-face on Let's Change the World..... For example: "There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the Lord. Why if it's no more than a fable does it strike so deep a chord?"

It was obviously with a mixture of excitement and regret that I listened to the album for the first time this week. Back in the autumn of 1993, when it was originally scheduled to have been released, I was in the process of moving to a new job in Cardiff, and for my first few months down there I lived in a rather poky flat in the student bedsitland of Cathays. A new Sprout album would have brightened up that time no end.

But nevertheless, I feel blessed to have heard this lovely piece of music at long last, and although I don’t think I’ll ever love it quite as much as Langley Park or Jordan - ultimately, the songs you hear in your 20s are the ones that make you cry and the ones that save your life, as Morrissey said - it’s actually a more consistent album than either of those two.

I would certainly rank "Earth: The Story So Far" and "Music is a Princess" among their best-ever tunes, and I hope that the largely positive critical response to the LP - see the reviews in the Guardian, Times, BBC and Amazon - will encourage Paddy to raid his collection of lost albums at least one more time.

He is now in his 50s, partially blind, half-deaf, and with a grey beard of WG Graceian proportions that, together with his large dark glasses, obscures most of his weatherbeaten face, but wreck of a man that he seems on the outside, a musical genius still dwells within, and it seems inconceivable that we have heard the last of him.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

No change in the weather for Labour

I'm finally back from my late-summer break so without further ado here's today's Journal column rounding up the events of the past week and some of those which occurred while I was away.

Sometimes, the end of the summer holidays and the start of the new political season in the autumn can herald a change in the weather – in the political as well as the meteorological sense.

Governments or parties which have been going through a bout of unpopularity often come back rejuvenated, as people forget why they were unpopular in the first place.

But such is the trough of unpopularity in which Gordon Brown’s government has been mired for so long that this was never likely to be one of those kinds of Septembers.

Indeed, with the hugely damaging controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber still continuing to rumble on, Mr Brown’s position has, if anything, worsened over the course of the summer break.

The primary complaint against the Prime Minister’s handling of the issue is not so much whether he did or did not agree to exchange Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi as part of a new trade deal with Libya, although that may very well have been the case.

Rather, it has been his reluctance to speak out about an issue of such fundamental importance, when contrasted with his eagerness to comment on, say, the demise of Jade Goody or the fortunes of the England football team.

Mr Brown’s attempts to palm off all responsibility for the decision onto the SNP-led Scottish government have been exposed for exactly what they were – an abdication of leadership.

His close ally Ed Balls’ declaration on BBC Radio this week that “no-one in the government” had wanted to see al-Megrahi released has only further added to the impression of a government trying to face all ways at once.

Neither has it been a good summer for the government in terms of its handling of the conflict in Afghanistan, with the eight-year political consensus over the war visibly starting to fray.

Ministers have been accused both of failing to provide adequate resources for British troops on the ground, and of conducting a smear campaign against Army chiefs who dared to point this out.

Whoever was behind the negative briefings – and Veterans Minister and Durham North MP Kevan Jones has denied claims that it was him – the perpetrators demonstrated spectacularly poor political judgment.

People are not fundamentally interested in whether the new Army chief’s daughter is a Tory activist, or how much his predecessor claimed on expenses. They want to know whether our boys in Helmand are getting the tools they need to do the job.

The government’s dismal performance over the summer – its ratings only went up when Mr Brown was on holiday – contrasts sharply with that of David Cameron’s Tories in the first week back.

There was nothing particularly sophisticated or even original about Mr Cameron’s speech on Tuesday in which he pledged to cut back on MPs’ perks including subsidised food and booze. Indeed some might even see it as cheap populism.

But what it did show once again is that Mr Cameron remains far more in tune with the public mood over MPs’ expenses than the government has been.

Likewise, his decision to demote Shadow Commons Leader Alan Duncan was a long overdue punishment for a politician who has continually demonstrated that he simply does not ‘get’ what the public are angry about.

Mr Cameron is now riding the wave of the “anti politics” vote that, in former leader Charles Kennedy’s day, was once the preserve of the Liberal Democrats.

As well as ending the gravy-train which entitles MPs to the cheapest beer to be found anywhere in London, his speech this week pledged a cut in their numbers, the abolition of the unelected regional assemblies, and fresh curbs on quango spending.

The amount of money saved – about £120m a year – is but a pinprick compared with the £175bn budget deficit facing the country – but that’s not really the point.

No, what matters is that Mr Cameron is being seen to take a lead in reforming what the public now views as a corrupt political system - something Mr Brown has continually failed to do.

So with the Tories looking increasingly like a government-in-waiting, what, if anything, can Labour do to fight back?

Post-Megrahi, a collective despair appears once more to have gripped the party, with many MPs and activists resigned to election defeat next year, yet seemingly unable to conceive of any course of action which could avert that.

The backbencher Jon Cruddas summed up the party’s predicament in a speech to the think-tank Compass this week in which he argued that the government no longer knows what it stands for.

“There are plenty of initiatives and announcements but no sense of animating purpose, no compelling case for re-election,” he said.

One blogger this week posed the question whether another coup attempt against Mr Brown this autumn was possible in view of the Blairite plotters’ failure to unseat him last May.

Well, against the current backdrop, it doesn’t only seem possible, it seems inevitable.

The stark reality of the situation is that there is currently as much chance of the public giving Mr Brown another five years in Number 10 as Colonel Gadaffi putting Mr al-Megrahi on a one-way flight back to Scotland.

In other words, the summer break has come and gone – and for the Prime Minister, absolutely nothing has changed.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Toxic Tories rain on Cameron's parade

David Cameron and George Osborne want us to think the Tories are the "new progressives" of British politics - but they can't stop reminders of the party's 'nasty' past from reappearing. Here's today's final Journal column before my summer break.

A few years ago, I posed the question as to whether voters of a leftish inclination would be better off with a Conservative party that sought to appeal to them, than with a Labour party seemingly only interested in pleasing those of a right-wing persuasion.

The conundrum arose as a direct consequence of David Cameron’s mission to “detoxify” the Tory brand following his election as Tory leader in autumn 2005.

For Mr Cameron, it meant focusing his energies on winning over left-of-centre voters concerned about public services and the environment, at a time when Labour’s Tony Blair continued to be more anxious about keeping traditional Conservative supporters on side.

Since Mr Blair moved on, Labour has thankfully stopped defining itself in opposition to its core voters, but as Shadow Chancellor George Osborne showed this week, the Tories remain as keen as ever to try on their opponent’s clothes.

The point was certainly not lost on stand-in premier Lord Mandelson, who in a masterly performance on Radio Four’s Today Programme on Wednesday, managed to dodge questions about his own prime ministerial ambitions by putting the boot into Ms Osborne at every opportunity.

“I think my old friend George Osborne is involved in a bit of political cross-dressing and I don’t think it’s going to fool anyone,” he said.

That “my old friend” was a reference to the fact these two have previous form. Nearly a year ago, each was accusing the other of trying to procure a donation to their respective party’s funds from the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

After briefly looking like he may have to resign from the Cabinet for a third time over a sleaze-related issue, Lord Mandelson decisively won that battle with a counter-attack that came close to ending Mr Osborne’s own frontbench career.

But putting personal rivalries to one side, what was really interesting about Mr Osborne’s audacious “we are the progressives” speech this week was what it told us about the underlying political consensus in the country.

And this, in turn, is perhaps the one thing that can still give Labour grounds for hope as it approaches the coming election battle.

Throughout all the troubles and travails of Mr Brown’s premiership over the past two years, the Prime Minister and his supporters have continued to clutch at a single straw – the fact that even though his government is wildly unpopular, there has been no fundamental shift in the climate of public opinion towards the Tories.

Mr Osborne’s speech this week proves the point. Rather than make the case for “conservative” values as Mrs Thatcher might have done, the Tories still feel the need to fight on what is essentially Labour ground.

As it is, Mr Osborne’s speech on Tuesday demonstrated the extent to which the word “progressive” has lost virtually all meaning in contemporary political debate.

It used to denote a form of taxation which sought to redistribute resources from the better-off to the worst-off, but since all parties subscribe to this to a greater or lesser extent, this definition does not help us much.

The central claim of Mr Osborne’s speech was that Labour’s “opposition to meaningful public service reform” meant it had “abandoned the field of progressive politics.”

While the Shadow Chancellor seems to be using “progressive” here to mean “reforming,” most Labour supporters would argue that a reform is only “progressive” if it actually helps the worst-off.

But this is more than just an arid debate about labels. The nature of Lord Mandelson’s response to Mr Osborne would suggest that Labour too believes “progressive” is a word worth fighting over.

And of course, Lord M. is quite right to point out that, in terms of its effect on the worst-off, the Tories plans for £5bn of public spending cuts would hardly be “progressive” in their human consequences.

The difficulty for Labour, as I pointed out a few weeks back, is that no-one now seriously believes that they won’t also be forced to make cuts of similar magnitude.

Maybe the argument, in the end, will come down to which of the two parties can convince the public they are wielding the axe with the greater reluctance.

Part of Mr Cameron’s problem, though, as he continues to try to persuade the public that the Tories have changed, is that old reminders keep popping up of their ‘nasty party’ past.

We already knew what Shadow Commons Leader Alan Duncan really thought about MPs’ expenses from his performance on Have I Got News For You a few weeks before this summer’s scandal broke.

“It’s a great system, isn’t it?” the one-time property millionaire told Ian Hislop as he struggled to contain the smug grin spreading across his face.

Mr Duncan claimed at the time that he had been joking – but the fact that he was later captured on film whingeing about MPs having to live on “rations” does rather give the game away.

Potentially even more damaging for Mr Cameron, though, were the comments by the prominent Tory MEP Daniel Hannan about the National Health Service.

Interviewed on US television, Mr Hannan backed Republican critics of President Obama’s plan for universal healthcare by saying he "wouldn't wish the NHS on anyone."

As Labour’s big hitters queued up to twist the knife yesterday, Mr Cameron was himself forced to take to the airwaves in a frantic bid to reassure the public once again that the NHS is safe in Tory hands.

Some are already seeing a Tory victory next year as a done deal - but episodes such as this show that Mr Cameron’s big rebranding exercise still has a way to run.

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