Saturday, February 28, 2009

The answer's in the Post, Gordon

Wednesday's suspension of hostilities at PMQs showed Brown and Cameron in a good light - but with the Royal Mail row threatening the mother of all Labour rebellions, politics will soon be back to normal. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the course of recent years, it is fair to say that the weekly gladiatorial joust that is Prime Minister’s Questions has not always shown the British system of government at its best.

Although seen as vital for party morale, the exchanges between the two main party leaders frequently generate more heat than light while more often than not leaving the public cold.

The clashes between Gordon Brown and David Cameron over the past 18 months have proved no exception to this general rule.

In truth they have been less about policy and more about psychology – a series of confrontations in which the opposition leader has sought to get under a notoriously prickly Prime Minister’s thin skin.

But it is this evident personal edge to the Brown – Cameron rivalry which made the suspension of hostilities in the Commons Chamber on Wednesday of this week all the more remarkable.

For the best part of two years, they have kept their relations at a purely perfunctory level, avoiding the customary courtesies that take place between a Prime Minister and an opposition leader.

Yet on Wednesday, the two men set aside their personal and political differences as they found themselves united by the common bond of grief they share.

The death of Mr Cameron’s six-year-old son Ivan, seven years after the loss of Mr Brown’s own first child, reminded both them and us that there is more to life than politics.

The personal is of course political, and there can be no doubting the part that their respective private traumas have played in forming the political outlooks of the two men.

Mr Brown has spoken openly in the past of how his experiences of the NHS after losing an eye in a rugby injury as a teenager helped shape his politics from an early age.

More recently Mr Cameron too has made clear the important part he believes the health service plays in the life of the nation - based on the significant part it has played in his own life.

Much of what the Tory leader does in politics is pure positioning, but not this. This comes genuinely from the heart.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this week’s events will lead to any lasting thaw in the frosty atmosphere between the two party leaders.

Will they start to treat eachother with greater respect, now that each of them knows the other has shared their deepest personal tragedy?

I suspect the public would probably welcome that, but a year out from a general election, it’s probably not going to happen.

Mr Cameron may well now view Mr Brown in a more sympathetic light, but that won’t stop him trying to get the Prime Minister to admit that the recession was his fault.

What would the two men have talked about this week, had Wednesday’s clash gone ahead as normal?

Well, former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin’s £650,000-a-year pension certainly. It is becoming increasingly clear that the government may have missed a trick here.

But probably the big issue of the week would have been the government’s plans to sell off a 30pc stake in the Royal Mail.

Mr Cameron’s objective in this would have been clear: to drive a wedge between Mr Brown and the growing army of Labour backbenchers who are bitterly opposed to the plan.

There are broadly speaking three points of view in the Commons on the future of the Royal Mail. One is that it should be privatised – the view that is held by almost all Conservative and most Liberal Democrat MPs.

Another is that it should remain entirely in the public sector – the view held by 130 backbench Labour MPs who are determined to thwart the proposed legislation.

In this context, the government’s “third way” of part-privatisation might seem like an acceptable compromise – but it is hard to find anyone who believes in it outside the government.

As the rebel former minister Peter Hain has pointed out this week, it is not easy to see where a parliamentary majority for any of these positions currently lies.

The Commons arithmetic is such that if even a third of the 130 Labour rebels vote against the plans when they come before the Commons in June, Mr Brown will have to rely on the votes of Tory MPs to get them through.

Which essentially means that, on this issue at least, Mr Cameron has the Prime Minister by the short and curlies.

An added danger for Mr Brown is the fact that not everyone in his government – notably deputy leader Harriet Harman – appears to be wholeheartedly behind the proposed sell-off.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, like banking bonuses, this is yet another issue on which Mr Brown’s would-be successors are carefully positioning themselves.

For all these reasons, I expect Mr Cameron to try to keep this issue uppermost on the agenda when he returns from compassionate leave the week after next and Prime Minister’s Questions returns to its familiar format.

He knows that Mr Brown can ill-afford to fall out with his party at this point in his troubled premiership and that a rebellion of the magnitude of 130 MPs could prove terminal.

Last week I posed the question whether the government can carry on much longer in an atmosphere where Labour MPs were indulging in ever more open speculation about the succession as the Prime Minister’s authority steadily drained away.

For Mr Brown, the answer to that could be in the Post.

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Friday, February 27, 2009


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Monday, February 23, 2009

Whatever happened to the Grey Man of Toryism?

The latest edition of Total Politics is now online and I continue my regular "Where Are They Now?" column with a look at the career of Grey Gowrie, who probably deserves to be remembered for more than just resigning from Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet on the grounds that it didn't pay him enough to live in London.

I would also strongly recommend an excellent a piece by blogging Labour MP Tom Harris on why David Cameron is guilty of "silly populism" and "dog whistle politics" in bringing forward plans to reduce the number of MPs.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Brown's authority is draining away

Could this week's "mini silly season" of Labour leadership stories turn into a full-blown crisis for Gordon Brown? Absolutely. Here's today's Journal column.

And so it begins again. From the high watermark of Brown Bounce II before Christmas, when it looked certain that Gordon Brown would lead the Labour Party into the next General Election, the Prime Minister is once again beset by rumours of his political demise.

Okay, so it’s moreorless exactly what I said would happen at the start of the year, but to be perfectly honest with you, it wasn’t rocket science.

Once the recession really started kicking in, it was never likely that the Prime Minister on whose watch it occurred would somehow manage to escape the blame for the whole crisis.

It was even less likely when that Prime Minister is Mr Brown, the man who claimed to have abolished boom and bust and to have presided over an economic miracle during his 11 long years as the self-styled Guardian of the People’s Money.

Mr Brown’s default response to the downturn thus far has been to blame it on global economic forces way beyond his or any of his ministers’ control.

For a while, the public seemed prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. But over recent weeks, the excuse has become increasingly threadbare as the failure of the government’s system of financial regulation has become more and more apparent.

Last week it was revealed that former HBOS executive Sir James Crosby, who went on to become deputy head of the financial services authority and a key Brown adviser, had sacked a whistleblower who had tried to warn the bank about excessive risk-taking.

While it did not constitute a “smoking gun” linking Mr Brown directly to the collapse of the bank, it added to a growing public feeling that he was part of the problem – and hence cannot be part of the solution.

When the former bosses of HBOS and other leading bankers appeared before the Treasury Select Committee ten days ago, they practically fell over themselves to apologise for effectively causing the banking crisis.

But there has, of course, been no such apology from Mr Brown, and nor is there likely to be.

As Shadow Chancellor George Osborne put it with lethal precision this week, the Prime Minister “is still living in his Walter Mitty world where his system of banking regulation didn't fail, where boom-and-bust had been abolished and where Britain is best placed to withstand the recession.”

It may be Punch and Judy politics, but it’s also a charge that is increasingly resonating with the voters.

The politics of the situation are being driven, as ever, by the polls, with the Tory lead once more stretching towards the 20-point mark.

It is important to remember that even at the height of Brown Bounce II, the polls never had Labour in front, but the pre-Christmas deficit of around 5-6pc was of such a magnitude as can often be clawed back during an election campaign.

It gave the party hope that they could at least get to the starting-line in 2010 with a fighting chance of victory, but as the Tory lead has grown over recent weeks that hope has turned steadily to despair.

As I wrote three weeks back, it was only a matter of time in those circumstances before the plotting to replace Mr Brown began again, and sure enough, this week it has.

At the start of the week, the main beneficiary of this renewed speculation around Mr Brown’s future appeared to be the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson.

"The Prime Minister's mistakes are catching up with him. Only Johnson can hold back the Tories,” cried John Rentoul, in the Independent

The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley wrote: "If Brown stepped aside and was replaced by, say, Alan Johnson, then Labour might do better…..the one quality Johnson does have is authenticity - and that is what is needed right now.”

And the Telegraph’s Matthew d’Ancona weighed in from the Tory perspective with: "Alan Johnson is the figure who bothers the Cameroons most."

Such a remarkable degree of unanimity from the commentariat suggested some kind of spinning operation on Mr Johnson’s behalf, but by the end of the week, other names had entered the frame.

Depending on which paper you read, deputy leader Harriet Harman and Children’s Secretary Ed Balls were either forming a leadership “dream ticket” or alternatively locked in a deadly briefing war against eachother.

The Balls camp was said to have fingered Ms Harman over a suggestion – floated in Ms Ashley’s column – that Mr Brown could be offered some grand international post to enable him to quit the UK stage with dignity.

Meanwhile Mrs Balls – Treasury minister Yvette Cooper – was named by London’s Evening Standard as a potential “Stop Harriet” candidate, although her husband’s response to this idea went sadly unreported.

Is this all just froth of the kind the national political media excel in? Well, up to a point.

But take it from me as someone who has been there, Westminster journalists don’t simply sit there making this sort of stuff up. There is always some grain of truth, however small, in what they are writing.

What I suspect is happening at the moment is that minsters are becoming increasingly indiscreet about what they say to journalists, and that some of that is finding its way into the news pages.

What that shows in turn is that the Prime Minister’s authority is steadily collapsing as Labour MPs indulge in ever more open speculation about what will happen when he goes.

Can the government go on like this? Not really, and certainly not for another 15 months up to a May 2010 election.

Mr Brown is in dire need of economic good news, but that currently seems very far away and, in any case, whenever good news of this nature occurs the government has a tendency to over-claim for it.

Until very recently, there was a settled will in the Labour Party that, for good or ill, the party was stuck with Mr Brown until the election, and that it had better knuckle down and make the best of it.

My instinct tells me this mood is changing, and that the party may be about to experience a spring awakening. Watch this space.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Second Home Secretary

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In defence of Mrs Balls

It was fairly predictable that the right-wing blogs would have a field day with yesterday's London Evening Standard story about Yvette Cooper running for Labour leader. Guido describes her as a comedy candidate while Iain comments: "Please let it be true. Pretty please."

For what it's worth, this is what I wrote on Iain's blog:

"It's not in the least absurd. Yvette Cooper is easily the most intellectually capable of all the potential women candidates and it's quite obvious to anyone who knows her that she is capable of being Prime Minister - something that could not be said of Ms Harman.

Yvette is handicapped by the fact that she occupies the most junior position in the Cabinet, and to a lesser extent by the fact that she is seen as junior to her husband, but it should not be forgotten that she has been in the Commons eight years longer than he has.

Her career has been held back thus far for two reasons. Firstly, she had an attack of ME during Labour's first term which hampered her progress up the ministerial ladder. Second, she incurred the emnity of Tony Blair who refused to promote her to the Cabinet even though she was widely regarded as the most able junior minister of her generation.

Now that she has finally made it to the top table, it is entirely proper that she should be talked about as a potential Labour leader. In my view, the party could do a lot, lot worse."

I'm not quite sure why it is that the right has it in for Yvette in a way that it doesn't, for instance, for Hazel Blears or Jacqui Smith. Sure, she can come across as a bit strident on the telly at times, but so did their heroine Mrs T. I personally think Cooper vs Cameron would make a very interesting contest.

One further point about the Standard story which some other bloggers may have missed: it carried the by-line of political editor Joe Murphy, which suggests to me there is probably something in it.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lets hear it for the girls...

At the risk of permanently alienating those who believe the history of popular music came to an end with the death of Curtis, or at the very least with the breakup of the Smiths a few years later, I thoroughly enjoyed last night's Brit Awards and in particular the award of Best Single to Girls Aloud for The Promise.

Okay, so I don't generally go in for their kind of music, and had such a manufactured outfit won an award such as Best Group it would have been a travesty, but I know a perfectly-crafted pop single when I hear one and The Promise is one such.

They don't come along too often. Keane had one a few years back with Everybody's Changing, Kylie Minogue has had several - notably Better The Devil You Know and Can't Get You Out of My Head - while one that I always remember from my teenage years was Never Let Her Slip Away by Andrew Gold.

So well done to Cheryl, Kimberley, Nicola, Sarah and Nadine - not forgetting Miranda Cooper, Brian Higgins, Jason Resch, Kieran Jones, and Carla Marie who actually wrote the song.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Is it game on for Alan Johnson?

It's hard not to detect a pattern forming here....but full marks to the UK Daily Pundit who clearly knew something a good week or so before the mainstream media caught up with it.

"According to one source the Health Secretary will publicly denounce Brown's leadership before the June elections. Word is, the Miliband/Johnson dream ticket is back on and they want Brown out by September."

UK Daily Pundit

"Only Johnson can hold back the Tories. The Prime Minister's mistakes are catching up with him. If his party stays loyal to him, it means certain electoral ruin"

John Rentoul, Independent

"The Tories, for their part, are privately wondering which of his prospective successors they should fear most: as it happens, Alan Johnson, interviewed in the current issue of The Spectator, is the figure who bothers the Cameroons most."

Matthew d'Ancona, Telegraph

"If Brown stepped aside and was replaced by, say, Alan Johnson, then Labour might do better in that election. The one quality Johnson does have is authenticity - and that is what is needed right now. Labour people aren't saying they would actually win it, but think that they could limit a Tory majority, or hold them to a hung parliament."

Jackie Ashley, Guardian

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The Welsh and Irish Lions

A good weekend's rugby-watching is practically the only thing that makes this time of the year bearable, so it's great that the Six Nations is still one of the few sporting events available on terrestrial telly.

It's Lions year this year so after each Six Nations round I'll be posting regular updates on what, in my view, is likely to constitute the starting XV in South Africa this summer.

With Wales and Ireland storming to the top of the table, there would seem to be little scope for the inclusion of any English and Scotsmen in the line-up on current form, although I doubt if it will stay that way.

Here's my current selection.

15 Lee Byrne (Wales)
14 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
13 Jamie Roberts (Wales)
12 Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
11 Shane Williams (Wales)
10 Stephen Jones(Wales)
9 Mike Phillips (Wales)
8 Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
7 David Wallace (Ireland)
6 Ryan Jones (Wales, Captain)
5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
4 Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
3 John Hayes (Ireland)
2 Jerry Flannery (Ireland)
1 Garin Jenkins (Wales)

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Still Ill

No column today, I'm afraid, as this damned viral thing that was bothering me last autumn seems to have flared up again. Sincere apologies all round.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

State of politics is snow joke

Has inability to deal with a few inches of snow turned Britain into an international laughing stock? No, but there's plenty of other things which should have done. Here's today's Journal column.

For those of us of a certain age, it has become an inevitable source of amusement that whenever a few inches of snow falls in Britain these days, the country's entire transport infrastructure invariably appears to grind to a halt.

The country that survived the Blitz and which was once a by-word for phlegm and indomitability now seemingly crumbles at the slightest onset of bad weather.

To some extent it's a reflection of environmental change, and the fact that winter snow has become such an increasing rarity in some parts of the UK that we are less and less prepared for how to deal with it.

It’s also a reflection of trends in modern society - for instance, the tendency of people to live further away from their places of work, and the consequent pressure this places on an already fragile transport system.

Few will ever forget the “wrong kind of snow” excuse trotted out by what was then known as British Rail the last time the country had a “snow event” as serious as this week’s.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson duly paid homage to it this week with another memorable bon mot: “It's the right kind of snow, but unfortunately it's the wrong kind of quantity."

But while it’s fair game to laugh and joke about this sort of thing, we probably ought to keep a sense of perspective.

There is probably a legitimate debate to be had about whether we could have been better prepared for this week’s events, but to argue, as some did, that this makes us the “laughing stock of Europe” is a trifle OTT.

Much of the blame for the failure to grit the roads will, as ever, fall on local councils, but in my experience, if local government is failing to do something, it’s invariably because central government has cut its budget.

Either way, my view for what it’s worth is that while we undoubtedly could have done some things differently, we shouldn’t spend too much time and energy holding a national inquest about it.

The bottom line is that the snowstorms provided most of us with an opportunity for some much needed chilling-out – in more ways than one.

Schoolkids who are being tested and assessed within an inch of their lives got a chance to go out and play – remember that? - while their mums and dads were able to spend some quality time with them for once instead of fretting over computer screens.

In any case, if we want to avoid being an international laughing stock, there are far more pressing things we should be addressing.

Take, for instance, the House of Lords. It is outrageous enough that there is still a part of our legislature which is chosen by patronage, and in a few cases by accident of birth, rather than by election as in most other civilised countries.

But if that were not enough to make us an international joke, four Labour peers were recently tape-recorded suggesting they could help with amending legislation in return for cash.

All four have denied any wrongdoing, but even if the ongoing inquiries result in a traditional British whitewash, it has scarcely improved the image of an already deeply flawed institution.

Inevitably, the allegations have led to renewed calls to ban convicted criminals from membership of the Upper House – but on the subject of international jokes, is it not even slightly laughable that this hasn’t been done already?

It is not just well-known convicts like Lord Jeffrey Archer and Lord Conrad Black whose continued entitlement to sit in the British legislature makes a mockery of our system of government.

One Labour peer, Lord Watson, was convicted by a Scottish court a few years back of wilful fire-raising after deliberately setting a pair of Edinburgh hotel curtains ablaze while drunk.

Since being freed on 23 May, 2006, he has attended the Lords on at least 102 occasions, and claimed £37,538 in attendance allowances.

Then of course there are those who, with monumental hypocrisy, continue to sit in the British Parliament while simultaneously refusing to pay tax to the British Treasury.

Last week, in a debate on reforms to both Houses of Parliament, the government put forward an amendment which would prevent so-called “non-doms” from sitting in the Upper House.

The move would potentially lead to the exclusion of major party donors on both sides of the chamber, including Tory Lord Ashcroft, and Lord Paul, a large funder of the Labour party.

It’s doubtless a welcome sign of the government’s determination to rebuild trust in politics, but once more, why is it even necessary in the first place?

And if the continued existence of the House of Lords isn’t enough cause for international mirth, how about our Prime Minister’s repeated boasts about his handling of the UK economy?

As I pointed out last week, Mr Brown’s claims to have left Britain better prepared for the economic downturn have received a belly-laugh not just from the public, but from the International Monetary Fund itself.

Then there’s the spectacle of seeing a British Foreign Secretary reduced to defending the decision of an American government to threaten refuse to share intelligence with us if allegations that a British resident was tortured were made public.

It is this kind of thing which causes cinema audiences to burst into spontaneous applause when fictional Prime Ministers make speeches about how bad the “special relationship” has become.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things we can be proud of in this country –but much of which we should be rightly ashamed as well.

Our inability to deal with a bit of snow, amusing though it may be, is not one of them.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A debt of honour

A few months' back, I ran into a former boss of mine at the Society of Editors' Conference in Bristol. After reminiscing for a few minutes about old times and old colleagues, he offered up the following interesting observation on my career: "You've worked for some pretty nasty people in your time, haven't you?"

He had a point, but thankfully, they've not all been like that, and it was a source of huge pleasure that today, 23 years after he gave me my start in journalism, it fell to me as publisher of HoldtheFrontPage to pen a parting tribute to my first editor, Jeremy Plews.

Jeremy is standing down as editor of the Mansfield Chad later this month after an amazing 36 years in charge. Although I hedged my bets somewhat in the story, I am quite sure he must be the longest-serving editor in the UK and quite possibly the longest-serving since WW2.

He told me with typical generosity that "the best aspect of the job over the years was being able to give a first break to so many youngsters, and the satisfaction gained from seeing many of them go on to success elsewhere." I feel genuinely privileged to have been one of those.

When I was plotting my route into journalism, I never expected to start my career in a place like Mansfield, in the bitter aftermath of the miners' strike and in the midst of the inexorable demise of the Nottinghamshire coal industry. But looking back, I'm bloody glad I did.

Quite apart from all the friends I made in that part of the world - two of whom are now godparents to my son - it was the best damned training I could possibly have wished for on the best damned weekly newspaper in the country. Thanks Jeremy.

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