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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Friday, August 14, 2009

Some Tories more equal than others

Heartfelt thanks to Slob for sending this one over - it echoes my sentiments about Mr Duncan entirely. His contempt for the public ought to have been clear from his infamous HIGNFY appearance and it's a mystery to me why Cameron hasn't fired him.

More in my weekly column tomorrow.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Johnson lies low as Hatty and Mandy slug it out

Is the Home Secretary the big winner after two weeks of "grandstanding" by Harman and Mandelson? Here's today's Journal column

Last week, in the course of describing Peter Mandelson’s assumption of the reins of power in Whitehall, I made passing reference to talk of the former Hartlepool MP becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister.

At the time, the spate of “PM4PM” rumours doing the rounds struck me as no more than silly season tittle-tattle, and to be fair, the Business Secretary himself seemed keen to play them down.

But silly season or no, over the past seven days the story has both acquired ‘legs’ – as they say in the trade – and a fresh North-East dimension to boot.

According to at least two Sunday newspapers, a serious plot to install Lord Mandelson as Gordon Brown’s successor is already under way, with former Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong said to be playing a key role.

The plan, or so we are asked to believe, is for a leading Blairite Cabinet minister to stage what is being termed a “nuclear resignation” in the middle of Labour’s conference this autumn which would force Mr Brown out within hours.

Lord Mandelson would then take advantage of a new measure which became law this summer to allow life peers as well as hereditary peers to disclaim their titles.

At this point, Ms Armstrong, who has already announced she is standing down as MP for Durham North-West at the next election, would vacate her safe seat, allowing Mr Mandelson – as he would now be called - to stand in a by-election.

The one-time Prince of Darkness would then be duly returned to the Commons in good time to be installed as Labour leader and Prime Minister by Christmas.

Fanciful? Well, the fact that Peter Mandelson has even managed to get people talking about the idea of him as Prime Minister is surely proof that, in politics, nothing can ever be ruled out.

As the humourist and commentator Matthew Norman put it: “Even by the standards of Bob Monkhouse Syndrome, whereby the most reviled national characters inevitably come into vogue if they hang around long enough, this is some transformation.”

Either way, one politician who will have been looking somewhat askance at all this Mandy-mania is Harriet Harman, Labour’s nominal Number Two and Mr Brown’s official holiday stand-in.

She once again left us in no doubt this week that, if there were to be a vacancy at the top of the Labour Party in the near future, her hat remains very firmly in the ring.

First came her assertion that the party should never again be led by an all-male leadership team, on the grounds that men “cannot be left to run things on their own.”

Allied to this was the suggestion that men were effectively to blame for the recesssion, and that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters we would not be in the mess we are in now.

There followed rumours of a spat with Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, in which Ms Harman was said to have vetoed a review of rape laws because it did not go far enough.

Solicitor-General and Redcar MP Vera Baird attempted to pour oil on these troubled waters, but Ms Harman hit back again by telling Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she would not “tippy-toe” around issues she believes in.

For Ms Harman, it’s a dangerous game. While few doubt that playing the ‘women’s card’ has got her a long way in the Labour Party, it has not always endeared her to the wider public.

Some elements of the party have been criticised in recent years for trying to re-launch the class war, but it has seemed at times this week as if Labour’s deputy is trying to start a gender war.

And if her pro-feminist agenda sometimes plays badly with floating voters in ‘Middle England,’ neither is it always overwhelmingly popular with Labour’s own core supporters.

Many Labour activists believe that all-women shortlists, for instance, have actually harmed equal opportunities by making it harder for black and Asian men to become Labour candidates.

What should Mr Brown make of all this “grandstanding?” Maybe he’s enjoying the spectacle of leadership wannabes vying for media attention as he himself takes a much-needed break.

Maybe there’s even an element of Machiavellianism in it, the kind of divide-and-rule strategy that his predecessor sometimes employed to good effect, setting Mr Brown, Robin Cook and John Prescott against eachother.

But while Mr Brown is undoubtedly devious enough to play such a game, he is not secure enough in his own job to be relaxed about such open jockeying for power among his subordinates.

If it carries on into the autumn, it risks the conference turning into a ‘beauty contest’ between the would-be successors, rather than the launch-pad for what would surely be the final Brown comeback bid.

But while Mandy and Harriet have been slugging it out across the airwaves and column inches over the past fortnight, one politician has been carefully staying out of the fray – Mr Johnson.

For all the bigging-up of Lord Mandelson over recent weeks, the Home Secretary is still the one the Tories most fear, the man whose common touch would instantly make David Cameron look like the privileged Old Etonian he is.

Mr Johnson has spent the last few weeks quietly liberalising the Home Office and neutralising ID cards as a potential election issue – both moves which will play well with Labour MPs in any contested leadership race.

Some will see his decision to lie low as evidence that he doesn’t really want the top job. But in so doing, perhaps he is showing the political astuteness which Harriet Harman so often lacks.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Has Bradshaw been sidelined by Mandy?

I posted this piece earlier today on HoldtheFrontPage's offsite blog The Journalism Hub but I thought I'd cross-post it here as it may have a wider political interest. It concerns the question of who is now taking overall ministerial responsibility for the government's Digital Britain proposals.

After some confusion as to whether Sion Simon or Stephen Timms would be taking over the Digital Britain brief from the now-departed Lord Carter, Downing Street has now ruled in favour of Mr Timms.

But anyone expecting any degree of clarity from the government over which Whitehall department will be ultimately responsible for implementing the plans will have been sorely disappointed.

The story so far is that Timms will remain in his current role as financial secretary to the Treasury, but with additional ministerial responsibilties at Lord Mandelson's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

In terms of his Digital Britain responsibilities, he will report to the Business Secretary, rather than the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Ben Bradshaw, whose department has hitherto led on the Digital Britain report and who personally delivered it in an oral statement to the Commmons back in June.

Meanwhile Mr Simon, as creative industries minister, is to undertake some ill-defined supporting-role in relation to those aspects of Digital Britain which are still the responsibility of the DCMS.

The upshot of all this appears to be that Mr Bradshaw, a former Exeter Express and Echo reporter who has recently made some welcome comments about the threat to regional newspapers posed by council propaganda sheets, has been well and truly sidelined.

A cynical interpretation of this would suggest that Bradshaw, who is also a former BBC reporter, was deemed insufficiently impartial to rule on the vexed issue of whether the BBC licence fee should be top-sliced to fund new regional TV news consortia in which the local press is expected to play a part.

Either way, with so many departments and ministers now apparently involved, the words "too many cooks," "dog's breakfast" and "camel designed by committee" all spring to mind.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Mandy takes up the reins

Whoever ends up leading Labour into the election, the past seven days have shown where the power really now lies. Here's today's Journal column.

Traditionally, the time of the year between the start of the MPs long summer recess in July and the build-up to the party conferences in September has been known as the political ‘silly season.’

In most years, an uneasy peace descends over Westminster, and political journalists are reduced to writing about such ephemera as John Prescott finding a baby crab in the Thames and naming it after Peter Mandelson.

But with an election less than a year away and Gordon Brown’s government still mired in difficulties at home and abroad, nobody expected this to be one of those summers when politics effectively goes into abeyance.

And something else has changed too since Mr Prescott observed that tiny crustacean in 1997. From being the butt of Old Labour humour, Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool is now seen by most of the party as vital to its slim hopes of election victory.

In one sense, it’s a fulfilment of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s more controversial pronouncements.

Asked once how he would know when his mission to transform his party had been completed, he replied: “When the party learns to love Peter Mandelson.”

With Mr Brown off on his holidays this week – in so far as the workaholic PM is ever off-duty – the former Hartlepool MP has been large and in charge around both Whitehall and the TV studios alike.

In so doing, he demonstrated beyond any remaining doubt that he has now inherited the mantle of his one-time tormentor Mr Prescott, as Deputy Prime Minister in all but name.

Lord Mandelson is sensibly playing down excitable talk that he could actually become the next Labour leader, although one influential backbencher declared this week that he was the only person who could beat the Tories.

There has not been a Prime Minister in the House of Lords since Lord Salisbury in 1902, and to have one in 2009 would be extraordinary even by the standards of Lord Mandelson’s topsy-turvy career.

Nevertheless, one had the unmistakeable sense this week that this was a moment he had been looking forward to for a long time, such was the relish with which he took up the levers of power.

His aim was nothing less than to set a new strategic course for Labour as it approaches an election that almost everyone now expects it to lose, and lose badly.

Such pessimism about the party’s prospects is hardly surprising given its dire performance in the Norwich North by-election ten days ago, a result which if replicated across the UK would give David Cameron a majority of 240.

So far, it has not led to a renewed bout of speculation about Mr Brown’s leadership, but it has brought about a growing realisation that he has lost the argument over “Labour investment versus Tory cuts.”

This tired old mantra has been central to Mr Brown’s re-election strategy, but has failed to gain any traction with a cynical public that believes spending cuts will follow whoever wins in 2010.

What Norwich North did was to present an opportunity to those Cabinet members who want to move away from a strategy which they think the public now regards as fundamentally dishonest.

Hence the new note of candour in Lord Mandelson’s interview with BBC Newsnight this week when, without actually using the c-word, he accepted that cuts would indeed be part and parcel of a Labour fourth term.

“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.

It wasn’t the only change in election strategy Lord Mandelson announced this week. He also appeared to commit Mr Brown to a televised debate with Mr Cameron, despite Downing Street’s insistence that the Prime Minister remains opposed to the idea.

“I think television debates would help engage the public, help answer some of the questions at the heart of the election, help bring the election alive in some way,” he said.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that it still won’t happen, for the simple reason that electoral law obliges the big broadcasters to give the Liberal Democrats almost equal airtime to that of the Labour and Conservative parties.

This will mean that Nick Clegg will have to be included in any head-to-head between the party leaders, something the other two might be keen to avoid.

But that is by-the-by. The real significance of Lord Mandelson’s comments this week is that he now feels in a strong enough position to set out his own agenda without clearing it with Number Ten.

Some could even see it as the beginnings of an attempt to distance himself from Mr Brown and prepare the way for a new leader with a new, more open style.

After the failed “coup” in May I predicted that Mr Brown would, at some stage, come under fresh pressure to stand down in favour of Home Secretary Alan Johnson, and nothing that has happened since has caused me to revise that view.

Mr Brown’s position remains weak. Labour MPs who effectively put him on probation in May spoke then of the need for a demonstrable improvement in Labour’s performance by the autumn, but there is absolutely no sign of this happening.

But whatever internal machinations occur in the run-up to the conference season – and my guess is that there will be plenty – one thing is becoming increasingly clear.

It is that whether it is Mr Brown or Mr Johnson who leads Labour into the next election, it will be Lord Mandelson who is once more pulling the strings.

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