Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blair presidency would be gift-horse to the Tories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Remembering Ian Craig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Miliband rises as Griffin bombs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Brown's losing hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cameron does the vision thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Moving on up

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

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Too late to change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

White lines

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

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

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

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

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