Friday, July 31, 2009

Thanks Sir Bobby

I could write a lot about Sir Bobby Robson, but most of it has probably already been said elsewhere already and if it hasn't, it surely will be by the time tomorrow's papers hit the streets.

So I will just say: thanks, Bobby, for putting together the best bloody England team of my adult lifetime, and for a World Cup memory that will never, ever be forgotten.

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PM for PM

More on Mandy's assumption of power in my weekly column tomorrow.....

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Cat-ching up

Bit late on this one, but I couldn't help but be amused by Ben Brogan's eulogy to Sybil the Downing Street cat which concludes: "Sybil was named after the terror of Fawlty Towers. Her No 10 predecessor Humphrey died in 2006 after being exiled by Cherie Blair."

In that great journalistic parallel universe where all the stories that ought to have been true were true, that last sentence would surely have read: "Her No 10 predecessor Humphrey died in 1997 after being murdered by Cherie Blair."

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Could it be the war that finally does for Brown?

The current mood of unease about the war of Afghanistan constitutes a dangerous moment for Gordon Brown. Here's today's Journal column.

It is one of those enduring yet misleading clich├ęs of British political life that in times of war or national emergency, the public invariably and instinctively rallies towards the government.

Certainly, when civilian lives are threatened on the mainland, it is a rule that by and large holds true. It is not so very long ago that Gordon Brown’s popularity soared in the wake of a series of terrorist incidents which he was deemed to have handled well.

But history shows that wars more often break than make governments, and for Mr Brown, the war in Afghanistan is proving a rather different proposition.

The loss of 15 British soldiers’ lives in a fortnight has not only seen the conflict return to the top of the political agenda for the first time in seven years, it has led to some searching questions for the Prime Minister about the purpose and conduct of the whole operation.

There has always been a hard core of outright opposition to the conflict, ever since it was first launched as part of George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of 9/11.

But those who opposed the war on principle have now been joined by a growing number of people who, while sympathetic to the cause, believe the government is guilty of letting down ‘Our Boys.’

Mr Brown insists that none of the recent losses were down to shortages of equipment or helicopters or men, as has been variously claimed by Opposition MPs and Army chiefs.

Nevertheless, the suspicion persists that government penny-pinching is, if not directly leading to solidiers’ deaths, certainly hampering their task in what is an already difficult situation.

That was the essence of the accusation made by the Commons’ backbench defence select committee in its report this week.

Although it stopped short of saying that servicemen were dying because of a lack of helicopters, the committee clearly believes the government is making things more difficult than they need to be.

Chairman James Arbuthnot said: “Operational commanders in the field are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations.”

Head of the Army General Sir Richard Dannatt, who is becoming increasingly outspoken as he approaches retirement, added that “more boots” were needed in order to keep the Taliban at bay.

The mood of dissatisfaction with Mr Brown’s conduct of the war has also been reflected in criticism of his choice of Bob Ainsworth as defence secretary in his recent reshuffle, and his subsequent ranking as 21st out of 23 in the Cabinet hierarchy.

This is desperately unfair on Mr Ainsworth, a stalwart minister who is one of those increasingly rarities in today’s Labour Party, namely a fully paid-up member of the working-class.

But Mr Brown’s decision to appoint a relative unknown to such a pivotal post in the midst of a desperately difficult conflict has inevitably raised questions over his judgement.

It does not help Mr Ainsworth’s cause that he is the fourth defence secretary in as many years, following in the footsteps of John Reid, Des Browne and John Hutton.

This point was well made by the former head of the Army, General Sir Michael Jackson, who himself worked with three defence secretaries in his three and a half years in the job.

“I think as a matter of principle it is better that such key positions as defence secretary are held on a longer term to provide continuity,” he said.

Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute said defence secretaries needed “stature and respect” which had to be earned over time.

It seems we have moved a very long way from the days of Denis Healey and Michael Heseltine when the defence job was seen as effectively the fourth great office of state after Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

But this is essentially a row not about personalities or status in the Cabinet pecking-order, but about money.

The crux of the accusation against Mr Brown is that, as Chancellor, he failed to give a high enough priority to defence spending, and that, as Prime Minister, he is now paying the political price of that.

At a time when more and more British lives are being lost by the day, this is a highly dangerous accusation for the Prime Minister.

At the current rate of casualties, it is only a matter of time before a specific death becomes linked to a specific cutback, and that would be a perilous moment indeed for Mr Brown.

The ‘War of Terror’ has never been the great vote-winner for Labour that, for instance, the Falklands War was for Mrs Thatcher. Coupled with the Iraq conflict, there is a strong argument for saying that the entire New Labour project was blown permanently off-course by it.

It helped do for Tony Blair. Could it now help drive the final nail in Mr Brown’s political coffin, too?

It has been said that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won in Helmand Province, but it could be lost there, and a similar point could be made about Mr Brown’s premiership.

The war in Afghanistan will not win the Prime Minister the popularity he so desperately seeks - but it could well lose him what little support he still retains.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Another nail in the coffin of Barnett

I sometimes wonder how many times the noble Lord Barnett will have to disown his own formula, and how many critical reports on the infamous system of regional funding will have to be published, before the government finally decides to do something, but hopefully the latest intervention by a House of Lords committee will nudge things another few centimetres in the right direction....

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Don't mess with us

I have to say I share Martin Bright's sadness at this.

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Government statistics

More on the current spate of casualties in Afghanistan and their potential political impact in tomorrow's weekly column.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not-so-new Labour say their goodbyes

This week's Journal column focuses on North-East matters, namely the forthcoming retirement of at least ten of the region's 30 MPs. Most of them are going not because of the expenses row but because they're 60 and facing a spell in Opposition, but some of them will leave a bigger hole than others....

All general elections involve goodbyes. Over the last decade and a half, those who have bidden farewell to the Commons’ green benches have included such North-East political luminaries as Don Dixon, Sir Neville Trotter, Dr David Clark and Derek Foster.

In between times, the region also saw two of its most famous ‘imports’ move on to fresh woods and pastures new – Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair.

But even that loss of political talent looks set to be dwarfed by the scale of the exodus when the next election finally takes place.

Ten of the North-East’s 30 MPs have already announced they are standing down – or in the case of Stockton North’s Frank Cook, had it announced for them – and several more may yet follow.

As well as Mr Cook, who has been deselected, those on the way out include former ministers Hilary Armstrong (Durham North West), Alan Milburn (Darlington), Doug Henderson (Newcastle North) and Chris Mullin (Sunderland South).

They are joined in the queue for the exit door by backbenchers Jim Cousins (Newcastle Central), Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington), John Cummings (Easington), Bill Etherington (Sunderland North) and Peter Atkinson (Hexham).

Some of these departures can be put down to natural longevity – with the exceptions of Mr Kemp and Mr Milburn, all are either at or approaching the normal retirement age,

But there has inevitably been speculation that the MPs’ expenses scandal, while not directly implicating any of the above-named in wrongdoing, may have persuaded at least some of them that Parliament was no longer worth the candle.

For my part, I’m not sure. While some no doubt view with trepidation the prospect of having the public pore over their expense claims online, it is as nothing compared to the far grimmer prospect of Opposition.

With Labour providing 28 of those 30 MPs, the prospect of a Labour defeat in 2010 will inevitably have a bigger impact in the North-East than elsewhere.

Most of the Labour MPs who are retiring have already experienced a longish spell in Opposition prior to 1997 – but back then, they were in their 40s, and could look forward confidently to ministerial office one day.

For an MP past his or her 60th birthday, five years of Opposition presents a quite different proposition. Even if Labour is only out for one term, there would be little for them to come to back to save for a lap-of-honour on the backbenches.

So Ms Armstrong and Mr Henderson, for instance, are right in their assessments that it is time for a younger person to take over the reins in their respective seats, and although they have not all said so explicitly, the same goes for many of the others.

That is not to say, however, that some of those going will not constitute a grievous loss to the politics of the region, and indeed to the UK as a whole.

The MP who will be most sorely missed in terms of his dogged and occasionally lonely championing of the region’s interests will, without doubt, be Jim Cousins.

Meanwhile the ones who will leave the biggest holes in terms of their wider contribution to Parliament and to centre-left politics more generally will be Chris Mullin and Alan Milburn.

So why single out those three? Well, Mr Cousins first. Back in the days before 1997, the Newcastle Central MP had legitimate ambitions to be a minister, and served at one time as part of Robin Cook’s Shadow Foreign Office team.

But to the region’s very great fortune, he lost that job and ended up in what turned out to be the very much more influential role of backbench member of the Commons’ Treasury Committee.

For the past 12 years, he has used that platform to advance the interests of the North-East at every opportunity, from bemoaning the impact of London-centric interest rate policies in the late 90s to helping facilitate the rescue of Northern Rock last year.

Jim would have been a perfectly competent minister, but the truth is he’d have been wasted. Quite simply, there has been no finer advocate for this region over the past two decades.

But if the North-East owes Mr Cousins a great debt, the country as a whole owes a greater one to Mr Mullin – another who found his talents more suited to being out of government than in it.

His championing of the cause of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four highlighted two of the worst miscarriages of justice of the past half-century, and led to lasting changes in the criminal justice system.

As for Mr Milburn, he will, to my mind, go down as largely unfulfilled political talent. He had a lot more left to contribute to the Labour Party, and had he chosen to do so, could have helped Gordon Brown renew its policies for new political times.

Unfortunately the two men found themselves unable to work together for the good of the party – a sure sign of a party that is about to lose power.

Inevitably, there have been suggestions that the great exodus will fundamentally change the political culture of the North-East, but that remains to be seen.

While the imposition of all-woman shortlists in some seats may very well make the Northern Group of Labour MPs less male, whether it will make the North-East less Labour is much more open to doubt.

The Tories can legitimately entertain hopes of winning perhaps three additional seats in the region next year, and the Liberal Democrats two – but that still leaves Labour as the overwhelmingly dominant force.

The region is seeing not so much a changing of the political guard, as the swapping of an ageing Labour generation for a younger one.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Wishful thinking

A warm welcome back to Slob....

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Building, or just blundering?

Gordon Brown's latest relaunch this week met with a preditably underwhelming reception from the public. Here's this week's Journal column.

Sometimes in politics, governments and Prime Ministers find themselves in a position where, whatever they do or don’t do, they are effectively in a no-win situation.

If they stick to their guns and attempt to drive through their programme in the teeth of opposition, they are criticised for being inflexible, arrogant and authoritarian.

But if, on the other hand, they try to demonstrate that they are “listening” to their critics by changing their mind on some key issue, they are lambasted for having “lost authority.”

It is a conundrum that goes to the heart of all political debate. Does the public actually want a government that “listens,” or does it merely want one that shows “strong leadership?”

Well, the answer is that it probably wants both, but history shows that while an ability to listen is all very well, the foremost requirement of any government is the ability to lead.

A government which proves, early on its lifetime, that is capable of “strong leadership” is much more able to show flexibility later on without the risk of damaging its authority.

By contrast, governments which fail to establish such a reputation in the first place tend to find that subsequent attempts to “listen” are invariably interpreted as further evidence of weakness.

In such a position does Gordon Brown’s administration find itself at the moment, in a week which saw both an attempt to show leadership in the shape of the draft Queen’s Speech, and a series of U-turns which, so ministers claim, show they are “listening.”

First, then, the attempted show of leadership. For me, the most interesting thing about Mr Brown’s latest “relaunch” on Monday was the slogan – “Building Britain’s Future.”

This is the nearest thing Mr Brown has had to a “Big Idea” in the whole of his two years at No 10 – but the amazing thing is that it has taken him so long to get there.

“Building the future” has been being talked about as a possible leitmotif for the Brown premiership for at least 18 months, – not least in this column where it was first mooted back in December 2007.

Okay, so it’s not the kind of soaring vision his predecessor might have come up with, but it’s as good a slogan as any for a Prime Minister who prides himself on his work ethic and sense of public service.

If “building” was the theme of Monday’s package, housing was the obvious focus, with a £2.1bn pledge to fund 110,000 affordable homes to rent or buy over the next two years.

But Mr Brown soon ran intro trouble with the promise to change council house allocation rules to allow councils to give preference to local residents.

Not only might this be illegal under EU equality laws, it will invariably be seen as a response to the growth of the British National Party in some traditional Labour areas.

As such, it risks having the same negative impact on the Prime Minister’s credibility as his infamous “British jobs for British workers” soundbite at last year’s Labour conference.

The other big problem with Mr Brown’s housing plans, in common with other pledges made in Monday’s Commons statement, was of course the price tag.

In the light of the massive debt burden already facing the British economy, it was hard not to listen to some of the Prime Minister’s announcements without a growing sense of incredulity.

It was a bit like Mr Brown’s Budgets and spending reviews of old, in the days when he was able to chuck a few billion here and a few billion there with seemingly gay abandon.

Part of Mr Brown’s problem is that he is still wedded to his old mantra of “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” – but most people now believe there will be cuts whoever wins the next election.

What of the U-turns? Should they be seen as evidence of a “listening” government, as Justice Secretary Jack Straw claimed on Thursday, or do they in fact show that it is no longer in control of events?

Well, the move to water-down the national ID card scheme has been predicted ever since Alan Johnson went to the Home Office in the recent reshuffle. If he ever does manage to become Prime Minister, it will almost certainly be scrapped altogether.

Likewise, the decision to abandon the proposed part-privatisation of the Royal Mail was forced on the Prime Minister by his backbenchers’ refusal to countenance the plan.

The measure was doomed once it became clear that Mr Brown would have to rely on Tory votes to get it through the Commons, however much Business Secretary Lord Mandelson may have fought to save it.

What this all demonstrates is that the overarching narrative of the Brown government isn’t “building,” it’s something else that begins with b – blundering from one crisis to the next.

And there comes a point where a government has blundered from so many crises to the next that everything it does starts to be seen in this light.

Sadly for Mr Brown, this point in the lifetime of his administration was reached a very long time ago.

Which is why this latest attempt at a relaunch is likely to be about as successful as the last.

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