Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review of the Year 2009

With the possible exception of 2001 and 9/11, seldom has any political year in recent history been dominated by a single story to the extent that the MPs expenses scandal dominated this one.

Most people have a fairly cynical view of politicians, casually and sometimes wrongly assuming them to be in it for what they can get.

Few taxpayers however imagined that they might be footing the bill for the cost of cleaning MPs’ moats, mowing their paddocks, and doing up their second homes to enable them to make a killing on the property market.

The scandal that broke over the summer will, quite literally, change Parliament – and the nature of the relationship between the public and their elected representatives – for ever.

The sad thing is, it could all have been averted, with a little foresight and some courageous leadership on the part of the Prime Minister and his fellow party leaders.

If Gordon Brown really was the strategic political genius his admirers have always claimed him to be, he would have seen it coming a mile off and pre-empted it by introducing measures to clean up the place.

Okay, so MPs would probably have voted him down – but that would have left him in an even stronger position when the storm finally broke.

As it was, Gordon’s inability to regain the political initiative was another of the themes of a political year that seems likely to be Labour’s last full 12 months in office for some time.

At one point, it looked as though Mr Brown’s handling of the continuing economic crisis, and in particular his role in brokering the global recovery plan, was winning over the public.

But his difficulty is that when it comes to the economy, too many voters see him as part of the problem rather than part of the solution – thanks largely to his hubristic claims to have “abolished boom and bust.”

It all threatened to come to a head in May when the sequential resignations of Hazel Blears and James Purnell seemed to herald the start of a Blairite counter-revolution against his leadership.

Had South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband followed them out of the door, it would have been – but Lord Mandelson saved the day for Gordon by talking him out of it.

Mr Brown’s troubles were by no means over though. Another long-running story that caused big problems for the government over the summer was its alleged failure properly to equip British troops in Afghanistan.

It coincided with a terrible spate of British casualties as soldiers embarked on a perilous mission to drive back the Taliban in order to allow elections to take place.

And the year ended with startling revelations about another war – the 2003 Iraq conflict which is now the subject of a wide-ranging inquiry under Sir John Chilcot.

The disclosure that former Prime Minister Tony Blair knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ten days before the invasion seems likely to further sully his already tarnished reputation.

But to return to MPs’ expenses…one consequence of the saga is that it adds an extra element of unpredictability to the election which must now be held this spring.

More fringe party candidates are certain to be elected. The incumbency factor which traditionally favours sitting MPs may go into reverse. And the turnout may well be lower, leading to more volatility in outcomes.

Some believe that the scandal will ultimately lead to a better, more diverse House of Commons, a political culture in which MPs genuinely see themselves as the servants of the people rather than their masters.

Others, and I have to say I am one of them, take a more jaundiced view: that it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

free web site hit counter

Friday, December 25, 2009

The message of the star

At first there was a vaccum where creation came to be,
Singing 'save me, save me.'
Were we abandoned in the ether or did someone set us free?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the Lord.
Singing 'save me, save me.'
Why if it's no more than a fable should it strike so deep a chord?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

Science broke the news the only absolute is light.
Save me, save me.
Wasn't that the message of the star on Christmas night?
Love me, love me.

Earth, Earth, the story so far

Paddy McAloon

A very happy Christmas to all readers of this blog

free web site hit counter

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A lost Christmas classic

The world of music is full of records that would have made great Christmas Number Ones. My own personal favourite is a track called Walk Out To Winter by Aztec Camera, which I am still convinced would have hit the top spot in December 1983 if the record company hadn't gone and released it in...September.

Here's another song that might have been a big Christmas hit had it come out in 1993 as its composer, Paddy McAloon, originally planned.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blair's candour is six years too late

So Tony Blair has finally confirmed what we have all suspected for years - that he was determined to go to war in Iraq irrespective of whether or not there were any weapons of mass destruction there. Would that he had been so disarmingly honest with MPs and the public back in March 2003. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the past week, the world’s politicians have been focused on the future, specifically on how to combat the threat of climate change that promises some very uncertain futures for tens of millions of their people.

As I write, world leaders seem no nearer a deal, although such is the nature of these things that this may well have changed by the time today’s Journal arrives on your doormat.

By all accounts, our own Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been working hard behind the scenes to secure some kind of agreement - in between paying tribute to Sir Terry Wogan, of course.

So often all at sea in the domestic political arena, international politics seem to bring out the best in Mr Brown, as she showed earlier this year in the talks over the global economic recovery plan.

But even if there is a deal or sorts, and the Prime Minister is seen to have played a part in brokering it, the impact of Copenhagen on the political battle back home will be minimal.

So I make no apologies this week for focusing once again on an issue where, far from working to achieve global consensus, a British Prime Minister fairly comprehensively ruptured it.

I refer of course to the Iraq War, and specifically to Tony Blair’s startling admission last weekend that he would have taken us into it come what may.

Asked by interviewer Fern Britton whether he would have still sought to remove Saddam Hussein had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction, he replied: "I would still have thought it right to remove him.”

Now the first thing to say about this is that it was actually the wrong question by Britton, a mistake which an experienced political interviewer like Nick Robinson would surely not have made.

Because thanks to Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry, we now know that the government did indeed have cause to realise there were no WMDs before the conflict even began.

Foreign Office official Sir William Erhman told the inquiry last month that, ten days before the invasion, intelligence was received that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons has been dismantled.

Yet the government decided to conceal this game-changer from MPs and the public in the full knowledge that it would drive an Exocet through its case for war.

Let us for a moment imagine a counterfactual history based on the premise that Mr Blair was indeed “a pretty straight kind of guy” and as such had been more honest with the public about his reasons for going to war.

Let us suppose that he had come to the House of Commons on the day of that dramatic debate in March 2003 and said: “There are no WMDs, but we’re still going in because I promised George Bush that we would a year ago.”

Would he still have been Prime Minister by the end of that evening? Of course not.

We wouldn’t have just have been talking about Robin Cook and Clare Short resigning. Most of the Cabinet, including, I suspect, Mr Brown himself, would have followed them out of the door.

Mr Cook said that night: “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.”

Well, thanks to Chilcot, we now know there was no “probably” about it.

The idea that Mr Blair could ever have secured a Commons majority for a war based on regime change is utterly fanciful.

And the more of these grubby revelations emerge, the harder it will be for his unfortunate successor to retain his own majority next Spring.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The politics and the economics are inextricably intertwined

Opposition criticisms of the Pre-Budget Report as "electioneering" are fatuous and naive. Government denials that it is such are evn more so. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the past couple of years, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable has proved himself to be one of the most prescient, as well as one of the most popular politicians in the country.

It was he who first predicted the banking crisis, he who first advocated the nationalisation of Northern Rock – and he who told Gordon Brown he had gone “from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

Yet for all his undoubted expertise in economic matters, his criticisms of the pre-Budget Report unveiled by Chancellor Alistair Darling on Wednesday came over as rather naive and facile.

He charged Mr Darling with the grave offence of having unveiled “an election manifesto” rather than a national economic plan – scarcely surprising given that there is, er, an election happening in six months’ time.

Much of the debate over the PBR has thus far revolved around this point, with claims that Mr Brown overruled Treasury plans for faster action to reduce the country’s £178bn budget deficit.

The central accusation against the Prime Minister here is that he is allowing the politics of the situation to dictate the economics – and in so doing, putting the future economic health of the country at risk.

But although governments of both colour have certainly been guilty of that in relation to pre-election budgets in the past, I am not sure the two can so easily be disentangled in this instance.

To my mind, the differences between the parties are as much about the fact that Mr Brown has a genuinely different view from his opponents over how to tackle the recession, as they are about electoral politics.

For several months now, the main point at issue between the two main parties has been not whether spending cuts need to be made, but whether they should be made in 2010 or 2011.

In this sense, the PBR changed absolutely nothing. It merely made these already well-established dividing lines a little clearer.

Neither are those dividing lines in themselves anything new, being merely a modern-day re-run of the economic debates that have recurred since the original Great Depression of the 1930s.

There will always be those like Mr Brown who believe that increasing spending is the best way out of a recession, and those like Tory leader David Cameron who believe that simply makes a bad situation worse.

Hence, if the Prime Minister has his way, the cuts will come only once the economy has started growing again – as it is projected to do by 1.5pc next year and by 3.5pc in 2011.

As well as spending cuts, the fiscal tightening from 2011 onwards will also see a 1pc rise in National Insurance and a 1pc cap on public sector pay settlements.

This was reasonably smart politics by Mr Darling as it means an incoming Tory government is now committed either to carrying out a tax increase, or having to explain why they are making even deeper cuts.

He also scrapped his earlier proposal to increase inheritance tax thresholds, thereby challenging the Tories to axe their own controversial plan to raise it to £1m.

But if Mr Cable’s accusation of electioneering against the Chancellor was somewhat fatuous, Mr Darling’s denial of the charge was possibly even more so.

Indeed, it was about as disingenuous as Mr Brown’s claim to have cancelled the autumn 2007 election in order to “set out his vision” rather than because of a couple of adverse opinion polls.

The truth is, this PBR was designed to convey a very blunt message to the voters: “Things are bad, but they would be a damned sight worse with the other lot in charge.”

It may not be the most inspiring of election pitches, but as Labour discovered to its cost in 1992, it’s one that has often proved successful.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Was the 'election-that-never-was' actually the political judgement call of the century?

Sorry Jack, but you were right all along. Gordon Brown made the right call not to hold an election in autumn 2007 - and if all the recent chatter about hung Parliaments proves to be correct, he will ultimately be vindicated in it. Here's today's Journal column.

Amidst all the many and varied factors that have contributed to the unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s government over the past couple of years, one stands out above all others.

It came, of course, in October 2007, a little over three months into his premiership, when Mr Brown decided not to call the snap general election for which some of his closest allies had been actively preparing.

From being 11 points ahead in the opinion polls during his party’s conference a fortnight earlier, Labour suddenly found itself up to 20 points behind, a reversal in fortune from which the government has never quite recovered.

As such, it seems likely to be remembered as the decisive moment when Mr Brown lost it - lost the respect of the British public, lost the political initiative to the Tories, and lost any chance of securing his own personal mandate.

At the time, I was one of those who argued that holding an opportunist election when there was no need to do so risked destroying Mr Brown's hitherto highly-prized reputation as a serious statesman.

I was by no means alone in this. Another who urged restraint was the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, one of only three men to have served continually in the Labour Cabinet since 1997.

Yet with the benefit of hindsight Mr Straw has now changed his mind, saying this week that he was wrong and that the Prime Minister should have called that autumn '07 contest.

For my part, I am still not convinced. The public do not like unnecessary elections – especially in November – and I still reckon the best Mr Brown would have ended up with was a hung Parliament.

There has been little talk of hung Parliaments since then, but it has suddenly revived over the past week, thanks largely to a - possibly rogue - opinion poll showing the Tory lead down to just six percentage points.

As regular readers of this column will know by now, our skewed electoral system means the Tories have to be 10-11 points ahead of Labour to be sure of securing an outright Commons majority.

And lo and behold, alongside talk of a hung Parliament comes fresh talk about proportional representation, with Labour confirming it will pass legislation before the election to enable a referendum on the voting system to be held after it.

It’s a smart tactical move by Mr Brown, as it means an incoming David Cameron government will have to repeal the legislation to stop the referendum taking place – unlikely if the Tories end up dependent on Lib Dem support.

That Mr Cameron is facing the distinct possibility on having to rely on Nick Clegg to put him in No 10 is seen by many as proof that he and his party have yet to "seal the deal" with the electorate.

If he is to become Prime Minister, it seems to likely to be more a result of Labour's ineptitude and lack of fresh vision than out of any great public enthusiasm for the Conservatives.

But what is also interesting about the recent chatter is that it puts a slightly new perspective on Mr Brown's October 2007 decision not to go to the country.

Had he done so, and gone from a majority of 66 to a hung Parliament, it would have gone down in history as a terrible misjudgement.

But were he to secure one in 2010, in the teeth of the worst recession for seventy years and up against a moderate, likeable Tory opponent, it would not look anything like that.

Is it just possible that ‘bottler Brown's' great election choke could yet come to be seen as the political judgement call of the century?

free web site hit counter