Saturday, January 31, 2009

A prophecy fulfilled

A month into the new year, the 2008 media narrative of the Second Brown Bounce now seems a very distant memory. Here's today's Journal column.

Four weeks ago, in my annual preview of the political year ahead, I commented that the art of political forecasting was now becoming a good deal harder than predicting the outcomes of sporting contests.

My point was that the sheer unpredictability of the UK political scene during 2008 – the year of bank nationalisation and the Second Brown Bounce – made sports punditry a doddle by comparison.

But a month into the New Year, I seem to have proved myself wrong. The sporting prediction I made, that Chelsea would regain the premiership title, is already looking pretty threadbare.

By contrast, it seems I was spot on with my political forecasting – that the recession would get much, much worse – and that the political standing of Gordon Brown and Labour would again start to deteriorate.

It didn’t take long, did it? Once again, the Tories are now enjoying the kind of double-digit lead in the opinion polls that would see David Cameron on course for a sizeable Commons majority.

The mood in the country appears to have turned, perhaps decisively. An electorate which a few months back appeared to be impressed with Gordon Brown’s handling of the economic crisis now seems angry and looking around for someone to blame.

I myself noticed the atmosphere change around the back end of November, perhaps at the point at which Woolworths went into administration, to be followed by a series of other High Street names.

Up until then, it had been possible to believe that the crisis really was just about banks refusing to lend to eachother. Over the past two months, though, the impact in the “real economy” has finally been felt – with a vengeance.

Two weeks ago, it was 1,200 jobs lost at Nissan in Sunderland. This week it was 2,500 at steelmaker Corus. Once again the very survival of the UK’s manufacturing base is under threat.

And it’s not just manufacturing of course. It is very obvious to anyone working in a commercial environment that we are facing unprecedentedly difficult times - not least in the newspaper industry.

So the Prime Minister is once again back in a very bad place, and for the Cabinet, as well as for the rest of us, these are anxious days indeed.

As one of the more perceptive Westminster observers wrote this week: “Nerves are beginning to fray. Ministers watch the polls and the economy with equal fascination. The debate about the future of the party and its leadership is under way.”

And if the mood in the country has changed, so has the Prime Minister’s. Once again, the pressure seems to be starting to get to him.

The self-confident, swaggering Gordon of last autumn, when he was busy saving the world from economic catastrophe, has gone, and the old, anxious, workaholic Gordon has returned.

Some say that the possibility of a parliamentary defeat in the vote over the Heathrow third runway this week - a potentially serious blow but hardly terminal, if you’ll excuse the pun - had Mr Brown close to tears.

It seems it was less the issue itself, more the prospect of being seen to be losing his grip that was exercising the Prime Minister.

What has been particularly damaging for Mr Brown over the past month is that, increasingly, independent economic assessments of the UK’s position seem at odds with his own.

Since the start of the crisis, the Prime Minister’s defence has been twofold. Firstly, that it wasn’t my fault, guv. Secondly, that Britain was better placed to weather the coming storm than any other major economy.

The International Monetary Fund begs to differ, however, arguing this week that the slump’s impact will be worse in the coming year in Britain than in the US, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, Canada and Germany.

Even if they turn about to be wrong, it’s a gift to the opposition parties who will no doubt use it repeatedly to undermine the Prime Minister’s boasts about his management of the economy over the past 12 years.

And there is of course one boast in particular will haunt Mr Brown to the end of his days – the claim, repeated as recently as his 2007 Budget Speech, to have abolished “boom and bust.”

The Radio Four presenter Evan Davis gave a fairly good impersonation of his BBC colleague Jeremy Paxman when asking him about it on the Today Programme this week.

Whereas Paxman famously asked Michael Howard 14 times whether he had threatened to overrule the director of the prison service, Davis only managed to ask Brown seven times whether he now accepted that boom had indeed followed bust.

But the effect was the same – a politician pointlessly trying to dodge a journalist’s question when he has already damned himself out of his own, hubristic mouth.

In that New Year column, I made reference to the possibility that Mr Brown may not, in the end, lead his party into the next general election.

This might have seemed like a foolhardy thing to say at the time, given that the dominant 2008 media narrative had been of Mr Brown’s amazing comeback from the ranks of the political walking dead following the election-that-never-was debacle of autumn 2007.

But just as he never succeeded in abolishing boom and bust, I never seriously believed he had succeeded in abolishing the most fundamental law of politics – that governments who preside over economic catastrophe invariably end up facing electoral oblivion.

Now that this fundamental law is starting to reassert itself, it is only a matter of time before the plotting begins again.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Louse of Whores

Like the UK Daily Pundit,I am snowed under at the moment - in my case trying to deal with the impact of the recession on the regional press industry - so blogging will continue to be light, though not non-existent, over the next few weeks.

I wish I had had the chance to post this week on the latest in the long and growing line of British political corruption scandals, and what it ought to tell us about the current method of choosing members of the Second Chamber, but you'll have to make do with this cartoon from Slob instead. Visitors of an overly squeamish disposition should perhaps look away now.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

An old debate rears its head again

Today's call by the House of Lords' Communications Committee for the introduction of televised lobby briefings inevitably gave me a certain sense of deja vu. They were talking about this back in 2004 when I left the Lobby and, given the usual pace at which things tended to change in that august place, I'm not entirely surprised to find they are still talking about it now.

I suppose that now I am a website editor I ought to be instinctively in favour of the committee's proposal for video-streaming the briefings on the No10 site, but the regional press print journalist in me still suspects that it would be bad news for the sector.

To me, what was so remarkable about the lobby briefings was how incredibly democratic they were, in the sense that a regional political reporter like myself had as much opportunity to ask a question as the political editor of the BBC. That would no longer be the case if they were televised, as the broadcasters would invariably fight to get their questions in first for the requisite news footage.

I was surprised to find that my written contribution to the original Phillis Review on government comunications in 2003 in which this issue was also raised is still available online at the Cabinet Office archive. You can read it in full HERE.

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The day Downing Street "lost it"

Most journalists have a favourite story, and most people who knew me in my Lobby days would probably assume mine was the infamous Eddie George gaffe - in which the then Bank of England Governor told me that lost North-East jobs were an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in London and the South.

But they would be wrong. The story I enjoyed the most was actually written a year earlier in October 1997 and concerned the then Labour Cabinet Minister and South Shields MP, Dr David Clark.

A Downing Street press officer, perhaps mistaking me for someone who could be relied on to unthinkingly recycle the New Labour spin, told me that Dr Clark had "lost it" and would shortly be sacked in a reshuffle. We duly turned the story round, reporting that far from having "lost it," Clark was actually the victim of a smear campaign, and splashed it all over the front page.

But what was No 10 up to, exactly? You can read the full story in my "Where Are They Now" column this month's edition of Total Politics which focuses on the Good Doctor's short but fascinating Cabinet career.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Charisma alone is not enough

Can Barack Obama restore the American public's faith in politics? And can David Cameron restore the British public's faith in the Tory Party? Here's today's Journal column.

Politicians are ultimately frail vessels for the hopes they are meant to bear. They are only human, yet sometimes we invest them with such superhuman qualities as to practically invite disappointment.

Tony Blair certainly fell into that category. When he took over as Prime Minister in May 1997 after a dismal period of Tory misrule, the sense of a new beginning in the country was almost palpable.

As the man himself memorably said on that bright morning at London’s Royal Festival Hall as Labour activists gathered to celebrate their victory: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”

Nearly twelve years on, another politician finds himself in a similar position. Barack Obama this week took over from quite possibly the worst president in 200 years of American history, and once again a country is filled with new hope and optimism.

As George W. Bush leaves office after eight tumultuous years, it is interesting to reflect on the part he played in souring the British public’s relationship with Mr Blair.

We will, of course, never know what might have happened had Mr Bush not decided to go to war with Iraq, and Britain not been dragged into the imbroglio, but the suspicion persists that the course of the Blair premiership would have been rather different.

As the late Robin Cook noted in his resignation speech in the Commons in March 2003, had the hanging chads in Florida fallen the other way and Al Gore become president instead, the whole debacle would probably never have happened.

Would Mr Blair still be Prime Minister even now? It will, I suspect, go down as one of the great modern political counterfactuals, alongside "What would have happened if John Smith had lived?"

Our experiences over the past decade have perhaps caused us to distrust “charisma” as a political commodity. Certainly we seem as a nation to be less easily persuaded by Tory leader David Cameron’s easy charm than we were by Mr Blair’s in the mid-1990s.

American voters, though, have always been more star-struck, even though they have suffered far deeper and more bitter disillusionments over the past 40 years than we have on this side of the pond.

Yet despite the national humiliation of the Watergate scandal and the sheer, downright sleaziness of the Monica Lewinsky affair, they have never quite given up on their search for someone capable of stepping into the shoes of their lost leader, John F. Kennedy.

Mr Obama is the kind of politician who has it in him to fill that void in the American psyche, to renew their faith in politics and political leadership, but of course, the corollary of that is he also has it in him to further deepen that disillusionment – as Mr Blair ultimately did in the UK.

President Obama has at least made a positive start. The promised dismantling of Guantanamo Bay has already begun, and moves are already under way to bring an end to the Iraq adventure.

But if anything, the new leader of the western world seems to be intent on playing down those great expectations that surround him.

The inauguration speech did not last an hour and a half. It contained little soaring rhetoric. And there were no compelling soundbites of the magnitude of "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Instead, the watchword was "responsibility" as Mr Obama sought to present himself perhaps less in the mould of JFK and more in the mould of Gordon Brown - less a Hollywood-style superstar and more a “serious man for serious times."

Indeed, Mr Obama’s use of the phrase “a new era of responsibility” on Tuesday carried uncanny echoes of our own Prime Minister’s attacks on “the age of irresponsibility.”

While as a soundbite, this is not quite in the league of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” it will probably go down as the defining message of Mr Obama’s inaugural address.

Back home, though, the other big political story of the week was the return of Ken Clarke to the Tory frontbench as Shadow Business Secretary after nearly 12 years in the wilderness.

This too was in part a consequence of the economic downturn, but in the broader political picture, it is a recognition of the fact that the Tories have not been making the best use of their available talents.

Much has already been written about the head-to-head between Mr Clarke and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, two politicians as different as chalk and cheese.

With Mr Clarke, what you see is by and large what you get, but the former Hartlepool MP has always been a much more elusive figure, ultimately more at home operating in the shadows than in front of the camera.

They do, however, have two very important things in common. They are both very divisive figures within their respective parties, and they are both wildly pro-European.

It will doubtless be a fascinating contest, but I personally think the 68-year-old former Chancellor has sold himself short. He should be back as Shadow Chancellor, flaying Labour for its squandering of the golden economic legacy he left them in 1997.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Mr Clarke’s return is what it says about Mr Cameron.

His undoubted charisma won him the party leadership after he wowed the 2005 conference with his oratory, and it has won him a generally positive public image, but it has not been enough to create that sense of inevitability behind a Tory election victory that Mr Blair enjoyed in the mid-90s.

The return of Mr Clarke has given the Cameron team a much-needed injection of experience and gravitas at a time when it has been struggling to establish itself as a government-in-waiting.

Like Mr Obama, perhaps Mr Cameron too is recognising that charisma alone is not enough.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Now what about DD?

Reaction to the Tory reshuffle and the return of Ken Clarke has been generally positive today - well, from Tories at least. But as I made clear in this post last Friday, I was hoping David Cameron would have the courage to bite the bullet and invite his old rival David Davis back on board as well.

Although I am not a Tory supporter, I hate to see men and women of geniune ability languishing on the backbenches and if Cameron really wants to put the strongest available alternative government before the electorate in May 2010 he needs to find a place for DD in his team.

What is interesting about the Clarke comeback is that DC and KC have agreed to overlook what is a huge and fundamental policy difference between the two of them over Europe, recognising, quite rightly, that the future of the British economy is currently much more important than that.

By contrast, DC and DD have no major policy differences at all, certainly not on the 42-day detention issue that led to Davis's resignation. Their only difference was a tactical one on how to respond. Sure, Cameron's pride was probably wounded by what happened, but that is no excuse for Davis's continued exclusion.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Heathrow: the regional angle

Much of the criticism of the Heathrow decision has centred on what it says about the government's environmental credentials, but there is another angle worth exploring. Here's today's Journal column.

If the old saying is true that the first casualty of war is truth, so it is probably also the case that the first casualty of a recession is usually the environment.

The last time there was a serious upsurge of interest in environmentalism in Britain was in the late 1980s, when the Green Party looked briefly like it could replace the Liberal Democrats as the country’s “third force.”

It reached its apogee in the 1989 euro-elections, when the Lib Dems finished a distant fourth in terms of share of the popular vote behind the Greens.

Then came the recession of the early 1990s, and interest in green politics faded. It took years - and the prospect of runaway, irreversible man-made climate change - before it assumed the same kind of prominence on the political agenda.

Now, as Britain and the world once more face the certainty of tough economic times ahead, the environmental lobby is again struggling to make its voice heard.

Against the backdrop on the economic downturn, there was never any real doubt that Gordon Brown's Labour government would give the go-ahead to the £9bn scheme for a third runway at London's Heathrow Airport this week.

New Labour's three top priorities used to be education, education, education - but it is clear from what the Prime Minister has been saying over the past fortnight that they are now jobs, jobs, jobs.

And with unemployment set to head towards the 3m mark by the end of this year on some projections, most would say quite rightly so.

The government points out that construction work on the new runway could create 65,000 new jobs alone, in addition to the 100,000 existing jobs in the aviation industry that would be safeguarded by the project.

The additional tonnes of CO2 that will be belched into the atmosphere as a result are seen as a very secondary consideration, despite the government's pledge to reduce such emissions by 80pc by 2050.

In an effort to appease critics, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon said airlines using the new runway would be required to use the newest, least-polluting aircraft.

Few will be convinced by that though. In reality, the Heathrow decision drives a coach-and-horses through any pretensions that Mr Brown may have had to “going green.”

But if the decision is hard to defend on environmental grounds, so too is it when seen from the perspective of regional policy.

In pure cash terms, it is another £9bn of public expenditure being channelled into the London and South-East economy on top of the £16bn already committed to the Crossrail deep tube link and heaven-knows-what for the 2012 Olympics – also hailed by Mr Brown this week as an important job-creator in the face of the downturn.

Vague talk of a more high-speed rail links between East and West and North and South to complement the runway project sounds suspiciously like political window-dressing designed to keep Northern Labour MPs quiet.

I recall that similar things were said by the Tories when the Channel Tunnel was given the go-ahead. Yet the "regional eurostars" that were supposed to link Newcastle to Paris were never used and were eventually sold-off for use elsewhere on the rail network.

Throughout the lifetime of the Blair-Brown government, it has taken the view that the prosperity of UK plc depends vitally on the economic health of London and the South-East and its ability to act as a "driver" for the economy as a whole.

Rather than seek to create a more balanced economy, it has sought to make a virtue out of the current very unbalanced one by pumping more and more resources into the capital.

However much the government may talk about regional policy, this is in fact no such thing. It is, rather, a national economic policy in which, in effect, one region is expected to deliver prosperity for all the rest.

The Heathrow decision takes this logic to a further level. If Heathrow is vital to the economy of London and the South East, which in turn is vital to the UK as a whole, then it follows that Heathrow is vital to the whole of the UK.

After 12 years in power, this particular leopard is unlikely to change its spots now, particularly as the financial centre of London and the South East is now as much in the eye of the economic storm as any other region.

Yet there was surely an opportunity here to address some of the regional economic imbalances that continue to bedevil the UK and its most outlying regions in particular.

Building a third runway with the possibility of a new North-South rail link as an afterthought was surely a reversal of what should have been the government’s priorities.

It was nice to hear the Tories talking in such terms this week, although it’s a shame they couldn’t have thought of that while they were busy creating the North-South divide in the 1980s.

The other point to be made about Heathrow is that it is on the wrong side of London. If you were building a new airport from scratch today, there is no way you would put it there.

The city's mayor, Boris Johnson, at least recognises this. His long-term dream is to move London's main airport to the Thames Estuary and retire Heathrow, enabling European flights to arrive without having to cross the city to land.

Since the outer reaches of the estuary are currently largely uninhabited, this would have had the additional merit of causing the least amount of disruption to people.

Instead, the third runway project threatens to make the communities of Sibson and Harmondsworth the modern-day equivalents of Dunwich, the lost village which fell into the sea in mediaeval times.

The political battle lines over the runway project are now clear, with Labour playing the jobs card and the Tories taking up the cause of the “little people,” threatened by noise, pollution and ultimately the loss of their homes.

But it would be naive to assume that the question of whether or not the runway will go ahead will depend entirely on the outcome of the next election.

Even if the Tories were to win, the future of the project would surely depend on what sort of state they find the economy in, and specifically what the jobless figures are looking like.

For all his supposed green credentials, it would be a brave Prime Minister Cameron who put the environment ahead of 165,000 jobs.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The Tories' elephant in the room

I've not written anything thus far over the big issue gripping the Tories at the moment, namely the potential return of Ken Clarke to the political frontline, but that's been more due to lack of opportunity than lack of interest. As it happens I am a huge KC fan and nothing, bar the appointment of fragrant Yvette Cooper as Chancellor over the head of her bumptuous other half Ed Balls would give me greater pleasure than to see him back in the Shadow Cabinet.

Will it happen? Well, David Cameron has allowed expectations of Clarke's return to reach such a point now that it would be a serious setback for the Tories if it didn't, which probably means it will. But it should be as Shadow Chancellor rather than Shadow Business Secretary. Gideon Osborne is a smart operator, as he proved in autumn 2007 when his inheritance tax ploy frightened Brown into cancelling the election, but he lacks the essential gravitas for the role at these troubled times and would be much better employed as party chairman and key strategist for the 2010 campaign.

Cameron should also bring back David Davis as Shadow Home Secretary in place of the ineffectual Dominic Grieve, and Iain Duncan Smith as Shadow Defence Secretary in place of the lightweight Liam Fox. Defence is one of the big jobs in a Tory government alongside Foreign Secretary, Chancellor and Home Secretary, and a "Big Five" line-up of Cameron, Hague, Clarke, Davis and Duncan Smith would for me have the look of a formidable government in waiting.

Meanwhile, here's regular cartoonist Slob's take on it all. What I like about this image is that it shows how the Clarke conundrum is currently dominating Tory politics, Heathrow, recession and Gaza notwithstanding.

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Monday, January 12, 2009


The peerless Jonathan Calder - peerless in the sheer range of esoteria featured on his Liberal England blog - has recently highlighted a plan to restore some of the Lost Rivers of London to their natural glory.

The Lost Rivers have long held a fascination for me. They merited a chapter in that wonderful book London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd - the man who should have been Mayor of London all along in my view - and, many years earlier, a whole book of their own in Nicholas Barton's The Lost Rivers of London (1960), which is probably now out of print but well worth snapping up if you ever come across it in a secondhand bookstore in Hay-on-Wye or Cromford or some such place.

Jonathan draws our attention to a little-reported proposal to open up some of the rivers of south and east London, including the Effra and the Ravensbourne, which have long been culverted beneath parks. A brilliant example of what can be achieved by this can be seen in Sutcliffe Park, near Kidbrooke, where Gill and I lived before we moved to Derbyshire in 2004. A sterile open space has been utterly transformed into a natural river valley by opening up the River Quaggy, which had previously been submerged since 1964.

But in my view, the Environment Agency's plans don't go far enough. If they really want to do something radical which would make Central and North London a much pleasanter place to live and work, they should open up the Fleet, which wends its way from its source beneath Hampstead Ponds through some of North London's grimiest streets, flowing into the Thames just south of Fleet Street.

The river which gave its name to the national newspaper industry has been buried for more than 150 years and for much of that time was a sewer, a fact which some will doubtless regard as deeply symbolic.

Ackroyd records in his book that at one point, the noxious gases in the underground river built up to such a point that it exploded, taking three houses in the Kings Cross area with it. If tape recorders had been invented at the time, this would probably have constituted the loudest recorded fart in the history of the world, ever.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jobs crisis threatens Brown's "New Deal"

Today's Journal column is the last to be illustrated n its print version by cartoonist Geoff Laws who is leaving the paper. He provided a great illustration of Gordon Brown injecting the arm of a stricken hospital patient while all the blood drained out of the other side. You'll have to buy the paper to see it, but if you read the column below you'll get the meaning.

Enjoy life outside newspapers Geoff - and don't stop eating the seared scallops.

First this week, some words of thanks. For all of the 12 years of this column’s existence, its words have been brilliantly illuminated by Geoff Laws’ wonderful cartoons.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and since that is the average length of the column, the old adage was never more apt than in the case of the long-running Linford – Laws partnership.

Geoff is now leaving the staff of The Journal– although he will still be contributing regular restaurant reviews to the paper – so today’s illustration will be his last.

I’m sure regular readers of the column will join me in thanking him for brightening up our Saturday mornings for so many years, and wishing him all the very best for the future.

And so without further ado to the politics. In my preview of 2009 last week, I ventured the possibility that the next 12 months may be rather difficult ones for Gordon Brown as the state of the economy worsens.

Well, nothing I have seen in the first full week of the New Year has done anything to dissuade me from that view.

Sure, the Prime Minister has come out fighting, as by now we would expect him to, with a whistlestop regional tour and a package of public works designed to create 100,000 new jobs.

But out there in the “real economy,” companies continue to go to the wall and jobs continue to go – not least in this region which on Thursday saw the loss of 1,200 posts at Nissan in Sunderland.

For the North-East, this is about as bad as it gets, short of the closure of the entire Nissan operation in Sunderland as was feared at various points in the late 1990s.

The car plant has long been emblematic of the “rebirth” of the region as a manufacturing centre after the painful demise of its coal and steel industries in the 1980s.

Its current plight illustrates the difficulties Mr Brown is facing not just in trying to mitigate the worst effects of the recession, but also in convincing the public that he is succeeding.

While he is desperately trying to give the economy a shot in the arm with his public sector job plans, the lifeblood continues to drain out of it in the shape of private sector job cuts.

The Prime Minister does, at least, have a clear strategy – to create and preserve British jobs amid predictions that in 12 months’ time one in 10 of us will be unemployed.

“I want to show how we will be able, though public investments and public works, to create probably 100,000 additional jobs over the next period of time in our capital investment programme – schools, hospitals, environmental work, transport,” he said last weekend.

Mr Brown even went so far as to suggest that combating the recession could be combined with the grand purpose of re-equipping Britain for the digital age.

“When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous time – and those were anti-recession measures – you could talk about the digital infrastructure at a period when we want to stimulate the economy,” he added.

It’s hardly surprising to hear Mr Brown talk like this. In a sense, he’s now in his political comfort zone.

If people sometimes think Mr Brown seems to be revelling in the economic downturn, it’s perhaps because it has opened the way to the kind of New Deal politics he has always believed in.

He’s been compared in much of the media this week to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who built America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, although I seem to recall making that comparison myself a while back on these pages.

With President-elect Barack Obama being spoken of in similar terms, he is no doubt hoping that some of those comparisons – and some of that stardust – will rub off.

But while Mr Brown has certainly hit the ground running at the start of the New Year, the other two parties have not let been letting him have things all his own way.

David Cameron has launched a further bid to detoxify the Tory brand by talking about the need for “ethical capitalism,” a fresh twist on the old Blairite saw about economic efficiency and social justice going hand in hand.

It’s a brave, if somewhat belated attempt to tackle the perception of the Tories as the “do nothing” party, content to let laissez-faire economics and the recession run their inevitable course.

Meanwhile Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg decided to have a reshuffle, although it is unclear what, if anything, was achieved by this.

But to conclude this week, here’s a few further thoughts about Nissan together with a bit of a history lesson.

I alluded earlier to the fact that, in the late 1990s, there was a question mark over the entire future of the Nissan plant, but the issue back then wasn’t the state of the UK car industry – far from it.

No, it was the almost evangelical belief on the part of the plant’s Japanese owners that Britain – and more importantly, their own business - would be better off in the euro-zone where most of its markets were based.

The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was known to be worried that contracts to build new models would go to Nissan’s European plants unless ministers made more positive noises about the euro.

Interestingly, it is not an argument that has been made this time around – but let’s just suppose that it were to be.

What would Gordon Brown do if a major British employer were to go to him and threaten to move tens of thousands of jobs to Europe unless Britain joined the single currency?

We saw in 2008 the impact that changes in economic circumstances can have, when the credit crunch turned the once-derided Bennite policy of bank nationalisation into the political flavour of the month.

The baleful prospect of a million UK job losses in the next 12 months could similarly turn the current conventional political wisdom on its head.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Credit crunch Britain

Throwaway line spotted in Manchester Evening News report on Ronaldo's car smash earlier today:
It has been estimated Ronaldo has spent around £2m on cars since joining United five years ago.

Sadly, such largesse was not quite enough to save the 1,200 workers at Nissan who have lost their jobs today.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Brown spooked by curse of Clough

Nine times out of ten whenever a Prime Minister pays a flying visit to a provincial city to talk about safeguarding thousands of jobs he would expect to make the front page of its local evening newspaper. Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, his arrival in Derby today coincided with the news that Nigel Clough is to follow in Old Big 'Ead's illustrious footsteps as boss of the Rams. No real contest for the Derby Evening Telegraph's splash in this footie-mad city.

It would never have happened back in the days of Alastair Campbell's famous "Grid" of course. He'd doubtless have been on the phone to the club telling them to delay their announcement of a new manager for 24 hours.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Clegg in the spotlight

In my Preview of the Year at the previous post I briefly alluded to the fact that Nick Clegg is likely to become the most sought-after man in politics in 2009 as thr two main parties seek to insure themselves against the possibility of a hung Parliament at the next general election.

But Peter Oborne in today's Daily Mail goes much further. He says Brown won't wait until after the election to put together a Lib-Lab coalition, but will actually try to stitch one together this year, with Vince Cable as Chancellor, Lord Pantsdown as Defence Sec and Sir Menzies Campbell eased into the Speakership.

I can't really see the political advantage for Mr Clegg in being seen to prop up what many floating voters still view as a failed and discredited regime despite Mr Brown's recent recovery in the polls, but the prospect of ministerial jags and bums on seats round the Cabinet table no doubt does strange things to some people.

One person who might have a wry smile on his face though is Tony Blair. He planned from the start to bring Lib Dems into the government as part of his grand project to reunite the liberal-left and keep the Tories out of power for 100 years, but was prevented from doing so by an unholy of alliance of Jack Straw, John Prescott and, you've guessed it, Gordon Brown.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Will Gordon survive 2009?

Could Gordon Brown yet stand down before the next election? It's possible. Here's my "Preview of the Year" column from today's Journal.

Chelsea will regain the Premiership title, the Man Booker Prize will be won by a book about India, Kate Winslet will win an Oscar, King Kev will not return to St James’ Park, and it will snow in April.

Next to UK politics, sport, award ceremonies and the British weather are relatively easy things to predict these days.

But what will the next 12 months hold for Messrs Brown, Cameron, Clegg and Co after a year in which expecting the unexpected became the only real political certainty?

Will 2009 be equally unpredictable – or will we see politics start to return to something approaching “normality?” Well, here are four consequential predictions for how I think the political year could pan out.

Firstly, the recession will deepen in the first half of the year, with soaring levels of unemployment, house repossessions and the number of firms going bust.

Secondly, the political standing of Gordon Brown and Labour, having recovered over the course of 2008, will again start to deteriorate.

Thirdly, the soul-searching will begin again as to whether Mr Brown should lead Labour into the next General Election and whether it would not be better if he stood down with dignity before then.

Fourthly, the outcome of this renewed bout of internal Labour navel-gazing will depend utterly on whether there is any evidence of recovery by the end of the year which could give the party a fighting chance in a 2010 election.

Of these four assertions, the most contentious is probably the second one.

That the recession is going to get worse is something which almost all economists agree upon. However not all political commentators agree that this will necessarily lead to a deterioration in the government’s political position

To suggest that it will do represents a departure from the 2008 “media narrative” of Gordon Brown as the “comeback kid,” defying the normal laws of political gravity by appearing to thrive on economic bad news.

But a new year often heralds a reappraisal, and to my mind, the sheer glut of economic bad news on the way suggests it will be hard for Labour’s recovery to be maintained.

No doubt some readers will already be wondering why I think the economy will cause the political tide to turn against Mr Brown in 2009 when it manifestly failed to do so in 2008.

Well, I think what it boils down to is the impact of what some have termed “the real economy” on voting intentions.

The 2008 crisis was effectively about banks refusing to lend to eachother and credit drying up, and Mr Brown was generally applauded for the way in which he tried to tackle this.

This year, though, the outworkings of the downturn will be much more immediately and keenly felt in peoples’ lives, and the level of anger directed at the government will increase as a result.

There is also the point that support for Mr Brown to tackle the economic crisis may still not translate into real votes for Labour when it comes to placing crosses on ballot papers.

As I wrote last year, the prevailing public mood towards him may very well be a case of: “We want you to stay to sort out this mess – and then we want you to go.”

It follows from my predictions that I don’t think Mr Brown is going to give the voters the chance to kick him out any time in 2009.

Indeed, if Mr Brown had been considering a 2009 election as an option, I think the decision will be very soon taken out of his hands by the wave of redundancies and bankruptcies in the offing.

There are, at least, some European elections coming up in June, and these are likely to be dire for the Prime Minister.

A combination of protest voting over the economy coupled with residual anger among some voters over the refusal to allow a referendum on the European constitution could prove a lethal cocktail for Labour.

It will add fuel to the new media narrative that Mr Brown and Labour are on the way down again and that the “Second Brown Bounce” has finally come to an end.

It is likely to herald a second successive summer of Labour leadership plotting, although whether South Shields MP David Miliband will dip his toes into the water again after last year’s abortive coup remains to be seen.

To retain the confidence of his party Mr Brown will need some economic good news as he goes into the autumn conference season – some demonstrable sign that he has started to turn things around again.

But what if the light at the end of the tunnel fails to appear? What if by that stage it has become clear that Labour is heading for a defeat as cataclysmic as 1997 was for the Tories?

Well, I have felt in my bones for some time that if Mr Brown reaches the point where he concludes Labour cannot win with him as leader, he will stand aside.

Everything in his character points to it – most notably his intense risk-aversion in relation to his own career coupled with his intense loyalty to the party.

The other two main party leaders seem safe for the time being. David Cameron may have failed to establish himself as a Prime Minister in waiting, but the polls are still running in his favour and his party will give him at least one shot at glory.

And Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will become an increasingly significant figure as the two big parties court his support in the event of a hung Parliament.

But as for Mr Brown….I think it is at least possible that by this time next year he will have announced he is not contesting the election, and that Labour will fight under a new leader to be elected early in 2010.

As ever, it will all come down to “the economy, stupid.”

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