Saturday, December 24, 2011

Review of the Year 2011

Ever since the formation of the Coalition between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the May 2010 general election, British politics has by and large been dominated by two interrelated questions.

The first was whether, in spite of the obvious chemistry between the two leaders, an alliance between two parties with such vastly differing worldviews could actually come close to achieving its stated aim of governing for a full five-year Parliament.

The second was whether the tough economic measures it adopted would succeed in tackling the deficit, as the Tories had argued during the election campaign, or merely succeed in choking-off an incipient recovery, as Labour had warned.

Eighteen months on, those questions remain unresolved, but as the political year 2011 draws to a close, we are at least a little closer to knowing the answers.

On the first point, I wrote at the start of the year that if the Coalition managed to get through 2011, it would in all likelihood survive until its target date of 2015.

In making that prediction – which I may well be forced to revise over the coming 12 months - I was looking to May’s referendum on reform of the voting system as the likeliest breaking point between the two partners.

As it turned out, the Lib Dems’ crushing defeat in the referendum did not prove the Coalition breaker some of us thought it might, despite Mr Cameron having apparently given his party the green light to launch some bitter personal attacks on Mr Clegg.

And late in the year another issue emerged which on the face of it now seems much more likely to prevent the Coalition going the course: Europe.

Mr Cameron’s self-imposed isolation at this month’s European Summit capped what on the face of it was not a great year for the Prime Minister.

He found himself forced into a series of policy U-turns – over privatising forests, reducing prison sentences for defendants who plead guilty, and most notably over the ill-judged attempt to impose competition on the National Health Service.

Meanwhile the phone-hacking affair at the News of the World threw the spotlight on Mr Cameron’s close personal links with the Murdoch empire, while the travails of his defence secretary Liam Fox forced him into his first reshuffle.

And with the economy flatlining and unemployment on the rise, Chancellor George Osborne was forced to revise growth forecasts downwards and borrowing forecasts upwards as he conceded that the deficit would not, after all, be paid off in the current Parliament.

The fact that, in spite of all this, Mr Cameron ended the year ahead in the opinion polls probably says less about him that it does about the plight of the Labour opposition.

Party leader Ed Miliband’s one big success – and it was a not inconsiderable one – was to lead the attack on Murdoch and in so doing prevent him taking control of BSkyB - the first time the political establishment had stood up to the ageing media mogul in three decades.

He also made by far the most substantial of the three party leaders’ speeches in what was otherwise a distinctly unmemorable conference season, setting his face against the “fast buck culture” of the Thatcher-Blair years.

But the largely negative public reaction to the speech showed the extent of his task in winning over an electorate that still seems resolutely underwhelmed by him, and as Parliament broke up for Christmas, the muttering about his leadership in the Labour ranks was growing.

Mr Miliband’s failure to make the political weather was all the more baffling given the grim economic news, which increasingly appeared to bear out Labour’s warnings against cutting “too far, too fast.”

Inevitably the impact of the cuts was most keenly felt in the North-East, where more than 30,000 public sector jobs disappeared at a time when they were apparently still being created in other more prosperous regions.

But Labour remained hampered both by its failure to articulate a clear position on the deficit and by its perceived complicity in having created the problem in the first place.

And unless and until the public changes its collective mind about who is really to blame for the country’s economic plight, Mr Cameron’s continued political ascendancy seems assured.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

On the big issues, is Cameron actually a worse PM than Brown?

A few weeks ago, a backbench Conservative MP got himself into a spot of bother after being caught on tape using a four-letter word to describe his leader David Cameron.

Given that the offending word used by backbencher Patrick Mercer began with an ‘a’ rather a ‘c’, the implication was not so much that he finds the Prime Minister personally unpleasant as that he regards him as a bit of a clown.

Mr Mercer’s accompanying description of Mr Cameron as “the worst Prime Minister since W.E. Gladstone” was generally viewed at the time as a rather unwarranted slur on both of these two worthy occupants of Number 10 Downing Street.

But in the wake of his potentially career-defining veto at last week’s EU summit on the future of the Eurozone, the question ‘Is Cameron actually any good?’ has suddenly assumed an added pertinence.

It is, of course, far too early to tell whether the Prime Minister did the right thing by blocking the proposed Treaty on stabilising the currency or whether it will turn out to be, in the words of his own deputy Nick Clegg, “bad for Britain.”

It may be a decade or more before we are able to arrive at a settled historical judgement on the issue, by which time Mr Cameron will almost certainly no longer be in office.

Will Hutton, the former Observer editor and author of influential 1990s tome ‘The State We’re In,’ believes it will turn out to be a mistake of historic proportions, and that by 2020 a flatbroke Britain will be begging to join a newly-thriving Eurozone.

This is however currently very much a minority view. Mr Cameron may have turned us into what one Cabinet minister this week called ‘the Billy No Mates of Europe,’ but if the opinion polls are anything to go by, the public seems to be applauding rather than condemning him for that.

As far as short-term tactical considerations are concerned, Mr Cameron’s actions at the summit cannot be faulted.

He knew that if he agreed to the proposed Treaty, his party’s increasingly self-confident right-wing would use it as an excuse to demand a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – the last thing Mr Cameron wants to see.

Rather than entertain that possibility, he chose instead to risk infuriating his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, knowing full well that they are in no position to bring down the government and fight a general election, especially over the issue of Europe.

Political pundits who tell us that Europe is a potential coalition-breaker are forgetting the fact that the Lib Dems’ pro-Europeanism is wildly unpopular in the Southern seats where the Tories are their main opponents.

So looked at purely from a domestic political point of view, Mr Cameron’s gamble seems so far to be duly paying off.

After a fortnight in which the Chancellor admitted his borrowing forecasts were wildly off course, unions staged the biggest strikes seen in a generation, and the Prime Minister was outvoted 26-1 at an important international gathering, the Tories pulled two points ahead of Labour in the polls.

This is a deeply worrying state of affairs for Labour leader Ed Miliband, one which victory in the Feltham and Heston by-election on Thursday night will have done little to alleviate.

As I wrote in this column the week before last, Labour ought to have a compelling narrative on the economy, but the public is currently not listening. So too it is with Europe.

Ultimately, however, Prime Ministers are not judged on whether or not they manage to secure a short-term tactical advantage over their opponents, but on whether or not they are seen to have acted in the national interest – a judgement that will rest in part on consequences as yet unseen.

It is already clear, for instance, that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond intends to use the issue to ratchet up calls for full-blown Scottish independence, arguing that the UK’s new-found isolation will harm the economy north of the border.

For Mr Cameron, who leads what is still nominally called the Conservative and Unionist Party, this would be as perfect an illustration of the law of unintended political consequences as you are ever likely to see.

Perhaps the so-called ‘Little Englanders’ in his ranks should be careful what they wish for.

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

A large slice of humble pie for Osborne - but was it really a game changer?

An extra £111bn of borrowing over the next five years. A fresh squeeze on public spending. No prospect of any tax cuts before the next general election.

It is easy to see why many commentators have described Tuesday’s Autumn Statement by Chancellor George Osborne as a ‘game changer’ in British politics.

Here we have a government that was elected in order to sort out the nation’s finances and eliminate the budget deficit by 2015 admitting that it will fail in that central objective.

Far from the being able to fight the next election on the sunlit uplands of fresh economic growth following the hard years of austerity, it will now have to do so against a continuing backdrop of cuts.

As the BBC’s James Landale put it on Tuesday evening: “Just as the facts have changed, so must the politics.”

“Until this morning, the assumption had been that the election would be about which party was best placed to use the proceeds of an incipient recovery – what taxes would they cut and what spending would they increase. That debate is now for the birds.”

And yet, and yet…I wonder if the Chancellor’s statement really has altered the terms of the underlying political debate about the country’s economic prospects all that much.

Despite all the economic doom and gloom, and the large slice of humble pie that the Chancellor has been forced to swallow this week, nothing has yet happened to demonstrate beyond doubt either that the government’s prescription is mistaken, or that a better alternative exists.

On the face of it, Labour’s narrative ought to be a compelling one. It is that an incipient recovery that was already under way by the time of the last election was then choked-off by a combination of spending cutbacks and “austerity rhetoric.”

But the public remains to be convinced that Labour’s more limited ambition to halve rather than eliminate the deficit in four years would not have landed us with a different set of problems.

There is also, still, a powerful residual feeling that Labour is really to blame for the country’s economic plight, even though history will surely show that Gordon Brown’s actions at the height of the banking crisis in 2008 saved us from a far worse fate.

This is a large part of the reason why, for all Mr Osborne’s difficulties, the opinion polls continue to show that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are still less trusted on the economy than their Conservative counterparts.

A real political game changer is the kind of event which transforms the fortunes of the key players involved almost overnight.

Sadly for Mr Brown, his decision not to hold an election in the autumn of 2007 was one such example. After that self—inflicted humiliation, the public never saw him in the same light again and nothing he did was able to reverse that negative perception.

For the Tories, the ejection of the UK from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 is the one that sticks in the mind, destroying in one fell swoop the party’s hitherto prized reputation for economic competence.

I’m no apologist for George Osborne, but I don’t think being forced to downgrade the growth forecast for 2012 from 2.5pc to 0.7pc or even up the public sector borrowing requirement by £111bn quite falls into the same category.

For all the talk of game changers and transformed political landscapes, I actually find myself wondering whether this week’s events might not help the Conservatives in the longer-run.

If history is any guide, it suggests the answer might be yes. While voters appear to have a habit of ditching Labour governments at times of economic difficulty (1979, 2010) they seem more inclined to stick with Conservative ones (1983, 1992).

The Tories will of course hope that some of the pro-growth measures announced this week – for instance bringing forward £5bn of spending on infrastructure improvements – will have made at least some impact by the time we come to go to the polls again, even if few in this part of the world will have been fooled by the reannouncement of some old money for the Tyne and Wear Metro.

But if not, they could find that their most potent message come 2015 could well be that familiar old refrain: “Keep hold of nurse for fear of something worse.”

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Osborne's date with political destiny

‘Make or break’ is doubtless an overused term in politics. Many are the times when it is said that a politician needs to make the “speech of his life” on such and such a day, only for the same old cliché to be trotted out again the next time he makes one.

Yet for Chancellor George Osborne, this Tuesday’s autumn statement on the economy is genuinely shaping up to be one of those dates with political destiny.

For years, Mr Osborne has been the man with the plan as far as the Tory Party is concerned, and his plan on taking over at No 11 Downing Street in May last year was straightforward and simple.

It was: sort out the deficit in the first couple of years, wait for economic growth to start kicking in again, sprinkle some carefully-targeted tax cuts around, and then win the next election hands down.

But it’s all gone horribly wrong. Far from providing a platform for new growth, 18 months of austerity measures have pitchforked the economy back towards the ultimate horror of a double-dip recession.

As such Mr Osborne’s masterplan for economic recovery – and outright Tory victory in 2015 – now looks hopelessly optimistic.

And of course, it is not just the fate of the economy and the government that is at stake here, but Mr Osborne’s own chances of succeeding David Cameron as Tory leader.

If recovery comes and the Tories win an overall majority next time, there will be nothing to stand between him and No 10. But if they lose – or are forced into another five years of coalition - it will be Mr Osborne who gets the blame.

All of which make Tuesday’s statement if not quite the “speech of his life” then certainly the most important he has made since that Tory conference address of 2007 which frightened Gordon Brown off from holding an election.

To succeed, he must somehow manage to reconcile two seemingly contradictory goals.

Firstly – and this almost goes without saying - he must manage to reassure the markets that the government remains serious about tackling the deficit.

But equally, he now needs to reassure an increasingly sceptical public that the government has a plan for growth – if not a ‘Plan B’ as Labour still insists on calling it, then at least a Plan A-Plus.

It is already clear from several strategically-placed leaks that switching more spending into capital investment in infrastructure is going to be central to Mr Osborne’s plans.

It all seems a far cry from the days when Margaret Thatcher commented sniffily: “You and I come by road or rail, economists travel on infrastructure” – but no matter.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander gave an insight into the government’s thinking in a speech to the National Association of Housebuilders on Wednesday.

"We are shaking the Whitehall tree to make sure no-one is stockpiling capital that can be put to good use today. That's why next week's announcement will switch funds to capital spending plans,” he said.

This is all of a piece with Mr Cameron’s speech on Monday setting out measures to boost the housing market, both by encouraging the construction of more homes and by helping first-time buyers obtain mortgages.

And yesterday Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg got in on the act by pre-announcing a £1bn scheme to help the young unemployed, apparently to be paid for by further savings in other areas.

The risk for the government is that it will all be too little, too late to counteract the chilling effects of 18 months of what Labour leader Ed Miliband this week called “austerity rhetoric.”

But if he can use Tuesday’s statement to get the economy moving again at last, then it may yet all come right – for the coalition, for Mr Osborne, and most importantly for the long-suffering British public.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lost North jobs still seen as a 'price worth paying'

Youth unemployment topping 1m. An additional 129,000 people out of work in the past month. The overall number of jobless at its highest level since 1994. This week’s unemployment figures told their own story.

If people were not already sufficiently well-appraised of the dire state of the British economy, Wednesday’s figures, coupled with more downbeat forecasts from the governor of the Bank of England, will surely have removed any lingering doubts.

Yet in the North-East, as is customarily the case when the economy as a whole is struggling, the picture is even bleaker still.

As The Journal reported on its front page the Monday before last, this region has seen a staggering 32,000 public sector jobs lost in the past year, while, public spending cuts notwithstanding, the number in London and the South East has actually risen by the same amount.

It is now more than a decade since the launch of The Journal’s original Case for the North campaign aimed at closing the economic divide with the South.

At the time, it was estimated that if economic growth continued at the same rate, it would take around 30 years to bridge the gap – a state of affairs which many of the region’s MPs and other political leaders regarded as intolerable.

I have to confess I don’t know whether any subsequent analysis has been carried out as to how long it would now take, but I don’t find it easy to hazard a guess as to how many more decades might have been added to that figure.

Back then, I wrote that the North-East cannot be expected to tolerate as a matter of course systemic imbalances in economic growth between regions, but in fact that has since become the unspoken policy of the British Government under both Labour and Tory administrations.

All of which makes the continuing debate over the direction of the economy perhaps more pertinent in this region than in any other.

For months, this debate has been stuck in a kind of stasis in which Labour endlessly and increasingly fatuously calls on the Government to adopt a ‘Plan B’ while the Government equally stubbornly insists it must stick to its course.

But this is now becoming more than just an arid intellectual battle between rival economic theories. People’s jobs, businesses and livelihoods are at stake.

The plaintive tone of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on Thursday certainly conveyed the sense that a crisis point has been reached.

"Austerity at home, collective austerity abroad is no solution to the problems of jobs, growth or the deficit,” he said.

“Don't believe those who will tell you that any change in course will make us like Greece. The markets are as worried about the lack of growth in the economy as they are about debt levels.

"Knowing what we know now, about our economy, about growth prospects, about unemployment, about higher than expected borrowing, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the government to carry on regardless.

"I urge David Cameron: change course now, change course for the sake of our young people, change course for the sake of the country."

As it is, Mr Miliband is pushing at a partially open door in seeking a shift in the Government’s emphasis from deficit reduction to growth.

Chancellor George Osborne is understood to be working on a package of pro-growth measures to be unveiled in the autumn statement later this month.

They are likely to include a new job-creation initiative for the young unemployed, incentives for private companies to invest in big infrastructure projects, and a scheme to under-write mortgages for first-time buyers.

There may also be a rebate for high-energy using industries to alleviate the impact of green taxes, blamed by RTZ Alcan for Thursday’s decision to close its plant in Northumberland.

Some of that will doubtless help the North-East, as will Thursday’s announcement that Virgin Money, newly-enlarged with the acquisition of Northern Rock, will have its headquarters in Newcastle.

But it scarcely amounts to a regional economic policy, still less a strategy for tackling the enduring North-South divide.

Thirteen years ago, lost North-East jobs were seen by the then governor of the Bank of England as an “acceptable” price to pay for preventing the South-East economy from overheating.

Now it seems they are once again being viewed as a price worth paying.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Theresa May faces long-drawn-out demise

To kick off this week’s column, here are a couple of questions for political anoraks with long memories or people who were paying attention in school history lessons.

Number One: Who was the last British politician to move directly from the office of Secretary of State for the Home Department to that of First Lord of Treasury and Prime Minister?

Number Two: What do Reginald Maudling, Kenneth Baker, Charles Clarke and Jacqui Smith all have in common?

The answer to the first question is Viscount Palmerston in 1855. The answer to the second is that all four found that the job of Home Secretary proved to be their political graveyard, the exit route out of government from once-promising careers.

Before they came to grief, at least three of the above named had previously been mentioned as potential leaders of their parties - as indeed was the current incumbent, Theresa May, when David Cameron got into difficulties over his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire earlier this summer.

But such is the extent to which the Home Office is subject to sudden
political storms which seemingly blow up out of nowhere that it is scarcely surprising that Lord Palmerston’s 156-year-old record remains intact.

Ms Smith put it well in an article this week which simultaneously expressed sisterly sympathy for Mrs May while also gently managing to twist the knife.

"What is it about the Home Office that means we’re unsurprised to see the headlines explode in a frenzy of finger pointing, accusations, leaks and denials? More than any other British political institution, it has been the mirror that reflects back to people the things they worry about most – crime and punishment, equality and injustice, homegrown terrorists, noisy neighbours."

On the face of it, the similarities between the difficulties now facing Mrs May and those that brought down Mr Clarke in 2006 are striking.

Mr Clarke had to go after the Home Office took its eye off the ball over border checks and ended up letting a small number of individuals into the country who had been convicted of crimes overseas.

Granted, we don’t yet know whether any foreign criminals have been allowed into the UK as a result of the latest relaxation of border controls that occurred on Mrs May’s watch this summer.

But since we have no idea at all who actually was allowed in, this is surely just a matter of time and chance.

The key point at issue appears to be what degree of personal responsibility Mrs May exercised over the decision to relax border checks and whether operational staff went beyond what she actually asked for.

Brodie Clarke has quit as head of the UK Border Force after being accused by the Home Secretary of doing precisely that, although he vigorously denies acting improperly.

The argument has distinct echoes of another past Home Office debacle – the sacking of Derek Lewis as head of the prison service by Michael Howard in the mid-1990s.

On that occasion Mr Howard said Mr Lewis had had full operational responsibility for deciding whether to suspend the governor of Parkhurst Prison. Mr Lewis claimed that Mr Howard had overruled him.

So where does this current story go from here? Well, unlike many Home Office firestorms, this one could prove to be a slow burner.

Mr Clark will put his side of the story in an appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee next week that is certain to make uncomfortable listening for Mrs May.

Even more ominously for the Home Secretary, he is threatening to lodge a claim for constructive dismissal - a case which Mrs May’s Labour predecessor Alan Johnson believes he stands a good chance of winning.

My own view for what it’s worth is that Mrs May has committed two cardinal political errors which may well ultimately cost her her job.

She has attempted to blame officials rather than accept that as a minister, the buck stops with her, and has thereby admitted that she is not actually in control of her department.

As Ms Smith put it: "In British politics, it has never proven a robust defence to admit that you don’t know the numbers on immigration, or to give any impression other than that you’re in control and becoming more controlling."

The story probably still has a fair way to run, but I suspect this may ultimately prove to be the decisive word on the matter.

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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Cameron could lose big as Balls makes mischief

The week before last, 81 Conservative MPs ignored the blandishments of the party whips, and the pleas of Prime Minister David Cameron, to demand a referendum on EU membership.

It was the biggest rebellion of Mr Cameron's six years as party leader, but with Labour also supporting the government, it was far from being the tightest parliamentary vote since the Coalition took power.

For that, you would have to go back to July, and the vote on whether the government should contribute an additional £9bn to the International Monetary Fund to help prop up other countries’ ailing, debt-ridden economies.

On that occasion, the Coalition's majority was reduced to just 28 votes, with 32 Tories joining Labour in the lobbies to oppose the bailout plan.

At the time, Chancellor George Osborne hoped that would be the end of it, and that the international debt crisis would be making no further claims on the generosity of British taxpayers.

But in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, and specifically the Greek bailout, it seems that yet more billions will be required after all.

Mr Cameron was at great pains to stress yesterday that increasing Britain’s contributions to the IMF does not mean UK taxpayers are propping up the Euro.

“Britain will not invest in the IMF so the IMF can invest in a Eurozone bailout fund. That is not going to happen,” he said.

But nevertheless, there is a certain amount of hair-splitting, if not to say outright disingenuousness, going on here.

The role of the IMF is after all to help countries in economic distress all round the world – and there seems no reason why that could not include countries in the Eurozone.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has called on the government to make clear that “directly or indirectly this money will not end up supplanting the European Central Bank and putting liquidity support in for Spain and Italy. “

As the mischievous Mr Balls knows perfectly well, there are plenty of Tory backbenchers who privately suspect this is exactly what is going to happen to the additional IMF cash.

So why is this such a potentially difficult issue for Mr Cameron? Well, do the maths.

If there was a rebellion on the latest IMF handout, only this time on the scale of the EU referendum revolt, the government would not only lose – but lose big.

It is clear that Downing Street has already wised-up to this danger and is trying to argue that a second Commons vote would be unnecessary.

Asked about it yesterday, Mr Cameron said the July vote had "allowed for some extra headroom and what we would anticipate doing would be within that headroom.”

And there is, of course, another reason why the government is keen to avoid such a vote – namely that it would further highlight the divisions in the Coalition between his party and the Liberal Democrats.

The Coalition’s inherent instability derives from the fact that it is a marriage of convenience between two parties with wildly differing worldviews, and on no single issue is this more clearly exemplified than on that of Europe.

The Lib Dems, at some cost in terms of their own popularity, have consistently advocated the concepts of European integration and “ever closer union” for most of the past 30 years.

By contrast, the Tories have been drifting steadily in the opposite direction – to the point where Mr Cameron – our most Eurosceptic premier since we joined the EU – is seen by some on the right of his party as a creature of Brussels.

Going into this year, it seemed likely that electoral reform would be the rock on which this fragile Coalition ultimately foundered, but already that seems a very distant memory.

While the debacle that was the AV referendum in May has effectively buried that issue for a decade, the issue of Europe has risen phoenix-like from the flames.

Mr Cameron spent a good part of his leadership in the early years telling his MPs to stop ‘banging on’ about Europe, doubtless conscious of the fact that the issue had destroyed the last two Conservative governments.

Now that it is back on the agenda, I suspect they won’t stop banging on about it until it has broken this one too.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Victory strengthens Cameron's hand against rebellious party

Of all the many factors that determine political success and failure, there can be no doubt that luck features pretty high on the list.

David Cameron has always been a lucky politician. He had the good luck to be elected to the Tory leadership at just the point when people were starting to tire of New Labour, and the good luck to be battling for power against Gordon Brown rather than Tony Blair.

This week his luck held out again, just at the point when it looked as though it might be finally running out.

Amid continuing fallout from Liam Fox's resignation and a looming Tory backbench rebellion over Europe - remember those? - news came through of the death of Colonel Gadaffi - another enemy in whom Mr Cameron has been fortunate.

When Britain first entered the Libyan conflict on the side of the anti-Gadaffi rebels earlier this year, I have to confess that my first reaction was: "Oh, no, here we go again."

At best, I feared another misguided crusade to foist Western-style political values on an Islamic country with no tradition of democracy, and at worst, a lengthy civil war costing hundreds of British lives.

As it turned out, though, my fears proved groundless. Mr Cameron promised that Britain's role would be limited to aerial bombing rather than boots on the ground - and he was as good as his word.

He also repeatedly stressed the importance of Britain's national interest in the removal of Gadaffi, rather than making the case for Britain's involvement on moral interventionist grounds as Mr Blair might have done.

The involvement of the former Libyan regime in the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984 and the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 was of course well-documented, even if only one person has ever been convicted of either crime.

What was less well-known until the start of this conflict, was Gadaffi's involvement in arming the IRA and thereby prolonging the bitter conflict that blighted these shores from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

In this respect, Mr Cameron was merely following in a much older tradition of British foreign policy - the one first established by Lord Palmerston in the middle of the 19th century.

"We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." he said in 1848.

The danger for Mr Cameron, as the BBC's Nick Robinson has pointed out, is that having succeeded in Libya he develops something of a taste for military conflict.

In this context it is worth remembering that Mr Blair's first war was the successful intervention in Kosovo, not the later much more problematic entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some credit, too, should go to Dr Fox who, whatever his other shortcomings, left the Ministry of Defence with a reputation more formidable by far than any of his short-lived Labour predecessors.

Having faced down Chancellor George Osborne over the spending review last autumn, securing proper ongoing funding for our armed forces may well prove his most important legacy.

Victory over Gadaffi does not, by any stretch of the imagination, remove Mr Cameron's wider problems within his own party.

His enemies on the right are not in the least pleased by the substitution in the Cabinet of the right-wing traditionalist Dr Fox for the socially-liberal Justine Greening, who came in as transport secretary in last Friday’s enforced reshuffle.

They are said to be even more incensed by the elevation of a Cameron 'favourite,' Chloe Smith, to a middle-ranking Treasury job, ahead of what they see as more talented, but also more right-wing, rivals.

And above all, they are up in arms over the imposition of a three-line whip against plans to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2013, due to be debated in the Commons next week.

With mounting concern over the implications of the Eurozone bailout, this last issue has the potential to be as toxic for Mr Cameron as it was in the 1990s for his predecessor-but-three, John Major.

Unless the three-line whip is modified, there may well be resignations in the government’s junior ranks.

But in his calm and authoritative handling of the Libyan conflict, Mr Cameron has once again demonstrated why he is vastly more popular than his party.

And so long as that remains the case, they won’t dare push him too far.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

A tale of two reshuffles

A couple of months back, I wrote a column highlighting the absence this year of one of the hitherto regular features of the political scene – the summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Partly this could be attributed to David Cameron’s hatred of them. He had made clear he saw no purpose in shifting ministers around every 12 months, and wanted his team to stay in place for the duration of the five-year Parliament.

But while the Prime Minister should doubtless be applauded for such good intentions, politicians are always ultimately at the mercy of events.

And with the departure of Dr Liam Fox from the government yesterday afternoon after a week or more of damaging allegations about his links to unofficial adviser Adam Werrity, Mr Cameron has been forced to have a reshuffle after all – an Indian summer reshuffle, if you like.

Alastair Campbell famously said that if a story about a beleaguered minister ran for more than ten days it constituted a genuine crisis management situation rather than a mere media frenzy, and Dr Fox had already passed this point.

Whether or not he is found to have breached the ministerial code – Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell has yet to reveal his findings – the former defence secretary’s behaviour has been extraordinary by any standards.

I would be the last person to condemn politicians for needing to let off steam occasionally, but most of our elected representatives manage to do that without adding a day onto an official overseas trip in order to stage a boozy party with their mates in Dubai.

But if that element of the story was somewhat comical, more serious was the suggestion that Dr Fox had created a parallel foreign policy operation, with the help of ‘advisers’ paid for by a shady bunch of right-wing ideologues.

Dr Fox owed his position in the Cabinet to having come a good third in the 2005 Tory leadership contest, and to his status as the unofficial leader of the ‘traditionalist’ Tory right.

It partially explains why, even allowing for his dislike of reshuffles, Mr Cameron appears to have fought unusually hard to retain the defence secretary, long after his departure had begun to assume a certain inevitability.

It is hard enough for Mr Cameron trying to hold together the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while also trying to hold together the coalition of left and right, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, social liberals and traditionalists within his own party.

His appointment of transport secretary Philip Hammond as Dr Fox’s successor last night will have been calibrated not to upset that delicate balance, as well as keep the changes in government to a minimum.

In contrast to the Prime Minister, Labour leader Ed Miliband was so keen to have a reshuffle this year that he changed his party’s rules in order to do it.

The changes he announced last Friday by and large succeeded for the simple reason it did what Tony Blair’s reshuffles seldom did - and put round pegs in round holes.

So, for instance, former health secretary Andy Burnham, who had looked lost for ideas at education, moves back to cover his old brief, while the former schools minister Stephen Twigg, who returned to the Commons last year after losing his seat in 2005, takes on the education portfolio.

I am less optimistic about the much-hyped Chuka Umunna’s elevation to the role of Shadow Business Secretary up against Vince Cable, a man more than twice his age and with ten times his knowledge of the business world.

Nevertheless, focusing his changes on these three key policy areas makes good sense for Mr Miliband, as they are the areas where the opposition most needs to make political headway over the coming months.

The government may have won a narrow victory in the Lords this week over its controversial health reforms, but the issue remains a toxic one for the coalition and a potential election-loser for Mr Cameron.

For now, however, Labour will be content to have secured the unexpected scalp of a man who two weeks ago seemed secure in his role as one of the most senior ministers in the government.

How many more unwanted reshuffles will Mr Cameron be forced to perform before he comes to realise they are simply part of the territory.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Cameron's glass may be half-full - but the policy cupboard remains half-empty

It is generally true to say that in order to be successful in politics, you have to be capable of conveying a sense of optimism about your country and its future.

One of Tony Blair's key strengths at the start of his leadership was his ability to communicate a vision of a bright 'New Britain' in contrast to the greyness of the John Major years.

Later, David Cameron donned the same mantle, exhorting the voters to "let sunshine win the day" as he pitched himself against a tired old Labour government.

But there can come a time when optimism crosses the line into mere boosterism, and in my view it’s a line Mr Cameron crossed in his party conference speech in Manchester this week.

"Let's reject the pessimism. Let's bring on the can-do optimism. Let's summon the energy and the appetite to fight for a better future for our country, Great Britain," he told the Tory faithful.

And again: "So let's see an optimistic future. Let's show the world some fight. Let's pull together, work together, and together lead Britain to better days."

If, by his own admission, Ed Miliband is no Tony Blair when it comes to speechmaking, then David Cameron is no Winston Churchill either.

And I sense that I was not the only one who was left somewhat unconvinced by the Prime Minister's attempts this week to summon up the bulldog spirit.

To take another of Mr Cameron's optimistic soundbites: "Right now we need to be energised, not paralysed by gloom and fear."

Yet in the eyes of many, it is his government which has produced the economic paralysis by cutting too far, too fast and choking off the fragile recovery that had begun to see us through the downturn.

In this context, the announcement of a mere 0.1pc growth in the economy during the last quarter could not have come at a worse time for Mr Cameron.

Against that gloomy backdrop, his attempts at uplift were no more persuasive than his earlier, now seemingly discarded mantra that "we're all in it together."

The most startling omission in Wednesday’s speech was the absence of any policy detail from the Prime Minister on how he plans to ensure that economic growth in the next quarter does not grind to a halt altogether.

“Here’s our growth plan,” he said. “Doing everything we can to help businesses start, grow, thrive, succeed. Where that means backing off, cutting regulation – back off, cut regulation. Where that means intervention, investment – intervene, invest. Whatever it takes to help our businesses take on the world – we’ll do it.”

Commenting on this passage on his blog, Alastair Campbell wrote: “What was happening in the Team Cameron speech meetings? Did nobody stop and say ‘er, Prime Minister, this is a bit embarrassing, and doesn’t really say anything?’”

Okay, so Campbell is hardly an objective observer - but he knows what it takes to produce a good conference speech, and he also knows a turkey when he sees one.

The background story bubbling away behind the scenes at this conference was the nascent leadership battle to succeed Mr Cameron.

Home Secretary Theresa May made her pitch for the affections of the Tory Right by inflating a somewhat tendentious story about an over-stayed student who defied deportation on the grounds of owning a cat into front page news.

Then, as always, there was Boris Johnson, the London Mayor lobbing his own hand-grenade into the Tories' never-ending debate about Europe by announcing he favours a referendum on EU membership.

And even Mr Cameron himself felt the need to acknowledge Chancellor George Osborne's leadership ambitions, jesting about his choice of The Man Who Would Be King as an audio book.

But joking aside, the Prime Minister should surely be deeply worried by this outbreak of posturing and positioning among the potential contenders for his crown.

The result of the last general election showed that the public are not entirely convinced by him, and I sense that his party are increasingly unconvinced by him too.

Do the Tories believe that Mr Sunshine’s unflagging sense of optimism will be enough to save them from the gathering economic and political storm clouds ahead?

Or are they already secretly planning for Life after Dave?

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Miliband shows the extent of his boldness, but the reaction shows the extent of his task

Of all the many soundbites devised by Tony Blair’s speechwriters for their leader’s party conference speeches, among the most irritating was the claim that New Labour was “at its best when at its boldest.”

If New Labour had ever done anything remotely bold, it might have had more of a ring of truth about it, but all it ever really did was to maintain and entrench the political and economic consensus established in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher.

It was this implicit recognition of New Labour’s shortcomings which lay at the heart of Ed Miliband’s conference speech in Liverpool this week, and which gave Labour’s current leader his own, rather more plausible claim to boldness.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in setting out explicitly to overturn that consensus, Mr Miliband has made what was probably the most courageous conference speech by any major party leader over the course of the last two decades.

If anyone thinks I am overstating the case here, they had only to listen to the predominantly negative public reaction to the speech in Wednesday morning’s radio phone-ins.

Far from being a platform from which to relaunch his leadership, the speech left Mr Miliband on the back foot for much of that day, forced to defend himself against claims of a “lurch to the left.”

Does that mean the speech was not so much brave as foolhardy? Well, had it been a pre-election conference, then perhaps so.

But what Mr Miliband was setting out to do was not so much to secure a short-term electoral advantage as to change the entire terms of the political debate, and in this respect, he at least has time on his side.

Much of Labour’s week in Liverpool has been a collective ‘mea culpa’ for the failings and missed opportunities of the Blair-Brown years.

The warm-up act for Mr Miliband was provided on Monday by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who expressed his own regrets over Labour’s economic record.

But while Mr Balls was talking merely about some aspects of economic management, the scope of Mr Miliband’s admission went far wider. “We did not do enough to change the values of our economy,” he said.

While cleverly branding David Cameron – the youngest Prime Minister in almost 200 years! - as the “last-gasp” of the ancien regime, the clear message was that Messrs Blair and Brown were also part of that failed consensus.

Not the least ambitious aspect of the speech was its attempt to restore the concept of ‘morality’ as a defining feature of our political culture.

Usually when a politician starts banging on about morality it precedes a dramatic fall from grace, but the confluence of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the banking crisis and phone-hacking has created a moment of opportunity which Mr Miliband has not been slow to spot.

Having already made his pitch for the moral high ground by leading the attack on Rupert Murdoch this summer, the Labour leader sought this week to build on that good work.

Now that Nick Clegg has vacated the role, there is a clear gap in the market for a ‘Mr Clean’ of British politics, and Mr Miliband has an authentic claim to the mantle.

Was it a lurch to the left? Well, in the sense that it was setting its face against the centre-right consensus of the past 30 years, then yes.

But on closer inspection there was little in the speech that would fit any traditional idea of left-wingery.

For instance, Mr Miliband said at one point that “government spending is not going to be the way we achieve social justice in the next decade.”

Had Tony Blair said this, everyone would have seen it as further evidence of his determination to bury Old Labour-style tax-and-spend and shift the party several degrees further to the right.

When Ed Miliband fought his brother for the Labour leadership a year ago, he made clear that he thought it was time to move on from New Labour.

At the time, this came over merely an adroit piece of positioning in a party weary of the factionalism of the Blair-Brown years, but now it is starting to look like there was real substance to it.

The largely hostile reaction to Tuesday’s speech illustrates the scale of Mr Miliband’s task – but at least he has a clear idea where he is going.

Now all he needs to do is to take the public with him.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

At some point, Clegg will have to start thinking about the next election, not the last

If one sign of a good politician is the ability to learn from the greats that have gone before you, then Nick Clegg certainly hit the mark in at least one respect this week.

“You don't play politics at a time of national crisis, you don't play politics with the economy, and you never, ever, play politics with people's jobs," the Liberal Democrat leader told his party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday.

Westminster watchers of a certain age were instantly transported back more than a quarter of a century to Bournemouth, 1985, when Neil Kinnock tore into the grotesque chaos of Militant-run Liverpool.

“I’ll tell you – and you’ll listen!” he told the delegates as left-wing MP Eric Heffer stormed out of the conference hall. “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs, and with people’s homes, and with people’s services.”

But words aside, was there any parallel between Kinnock’s great oratorical tour-de-force and the Deputy Prime Minister’s rather more pedestrian
efforts of this week?

Well, up to a point. Kinnock’s words were of course solely directed at his own party, and so, to an extent, were Mr Clegg’s.

Coming as they did at the end of a lengthy defence of his party’s decision to join the Coalition, the words seemed primarily a rebuke to those Lib Dems who would rather they had sat on the sidelines.

That might have been better ‘politics,’ in that the Lib Dems would not now be languishing at 15pc in the opinion polls – but the whole thrust of Mr Clegg’s argument was that the national interest required him to set such considerations aside.

Currently, people views on whether the Lib Dems were right to join a Conservative-led Coalition will depend by and large on whether or not they agree with the Conservatives’ economic prescriptions.

In the North-East and other regions where the fragile recovery of 2010 appears to have been choked-off by the government’s public spending cuts, it is hardly surprising that many one-time Lib Dem voters think they were wrong.

But ultimately the question of whether Mr Clegg was right or wrong will be left to the judgement of history.

If Chancellor George Osborne’s great economic gamble ultimately succeeds and the economy returns to strong growth before 2015, it will look like a good call – but if not, he will be seen to have sold his birthright for no more than a mess of potage.

Thankfully, there are at some Liberal Democrats at least who already seem to be making plans for the latter eventuality.

In a widely-reported speech at the start of the conference, party president Tim Farron made it clear that the ‘marriage’ with the Conservatives, while currently good-natured, would inevitably have to end in divorce.

In one sense this was no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious from Mr Farron, who is widely expected to succeed Mr Clegg as Lib Dem leader.

Even if Mr Osborne manages to preside over an economic miracle, the Lib Dems cannot go into the next election hanging on to the Conservatives’ shirt-tails. Rather they will need, between now and then, to re-establish their identity as an independent party.

One of the fundamental rules of politics is that when you go into an election, you at least have to make a pretence of fighting to win.
People simply will not vote for a party that sees holding the balance of power within a hung Parliament as its explicit objective.

One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the Conservatives won’t be going into the next election with the objective of another Coalition – explicitly or implicitly.

Many on the right of the party still blame David Cameron for failing to achieve an outright majority in May 2010 when faced by an exhausted, hapless Labour government. They will simply not permit him to aim for anything less next time.

How Mr Clegg ultimately handles this dynamic will, I suspect, determine whether it is he or Mr Farron who leads the Lib Dems into that election.

It is entirely possible that he may go down as one of those politicians – Ramsay Macdonald being another example – whose names become a byword for betrayal within their own parties.

This year’s conference was all about reassuring the doubters in his party that he did the right thing in May 2010.

The next one, however, will need to be much more about what he is going to do come May 2015..

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Could boundary review put regional governance back on agenda?

Over the course of the long debate about North-East regional governance, one of the most oft-heard arguments was that the region lacked the clout to make its voice heard at Westminster.

Well, if that was true then, when the region sent 30 MPs to the Commons, it will be even more the case after the next election when its representation will fall to just 26.

This week’s review of the Parliamentary boundaries will leave no part of the region untouched, with every single one of its current 29 constituencies affected.

Some constituency names – Blaydon, Wansbeck, Stockton South – will disappear from the electoral map altogether. Others will be variously merged, dismembered or renamed.

In sub-regional terms, the impact of the Boundary Commission’s proposed changes will be fairly evenly spread.

Northumberland and Teesside will each suffer a net loss of half a seat, while Durham and South Tyne and Wear will each suffer a net loss of one.

Faced with the choice of having constituencies that crossed county boundaries, or ones that crossed the River Tyne, the commissioners somewhat bizarrely opted for the former.

The result is a series of new seats – for example Newcastle North and Cramlington – where the traditional divide between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas will be breached.

In terms of the impact on individual careers, one odd, but surely unintended consequence of the proposals is that two of the region’s ‘awkward squad’ – Wansbeck’s Ian Lavery and Blaydon’s Dave Anderson – are among those most at risk.

And those MPs which survive are likely to find themselves standing for re-election in constituencies which are almost unrecognisable from their existing ones.

Much of Nick Brown’s Newcastle East constituency, for instance, will go into the newly-created seat of Newcastle South.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Brown, who will be a month short of his 65th birthday by the time of the next election, will see that as an appropriate moment to call time on his long and distinguished career.

So much for individuals – what of the impact on the electoral politics of the region?

Well, for all the widespread assumption nationally that the changes are designed to clobber the Labour Party, this seems unlikely to be the case here.

The Liberal Democrats have been Labour’s main challengers in many of the region’s inner-city seats, but given their collapse in support in the North of England generally, Labour have little to fear in this regard.

While Hexham can be expected to remain solidly Conservative, and Berwick and Morpeth is likely to remain Lib Dem at least as long as Sir Alan Beith is its MP, the proposed changes appear to create few obvious opportunities for the Tories and Lib Dems elsewhere.

The biggest impact of the changes is likely to be on the influence of the region as a whole.

In terms of Parliamentary representation, it already lacked the critical mass to do much to influence the overall direction of government policy, as was seen during the Blair years when the region was effectively taken for granted.

This gradual loss of influence coincides with another broader trend, namely the increasing divergence between domestic policy in England and in other parts of the UK.

Post-devolution, Scotland and Wales had already begun to develop policies on health and education that are well to the left of the UK’s as a whole, and the Coalition’s public services reforms in England are further widening the gap.

The end result of all this may well see the North-East increasingly out of sympathy with the political consensus within England, yet unable to do much about it.

With its predominantly left-of-centre political culture, the region might start to look longingly in the direction of Scotland and Wales and the devolved powers which they enjoy.

It was widely assumed that the resounding no vote in the November 2004 regional government referendum had settled this question for a generation, perhaps even for eternity.

Seven years on, the day when it starts to creep back onto the agenda may not now be too far-off

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

The glorious failure of Tony Blair

Over the course of the years in which I reported on political conferences for The Journal, I listened to a fair few party leader’s speeches, some of them good, some of them almost embarrassingly bad.

Of the latter category, the one that most stands out is Iain Duncan Smith’s “The Quiet Man is turning up the volume” fiasco from 2003, closely followed by John Major’s solemn 1995 pledge to increase the number of pee-ing stops on Britain’s motorways.

But the one truly great conference address of those years was the one delivered by Tony Blair on the afternoon of Tuesday 2 October 2001, a little over three weeks after the 9/11 attacks had thrown the world into a state of turmoil.

Both as a piece of oratory, and as a superbly-judged response to the political demands of the moment, it is up there with all-time conference classics such as Neil Kinnock’s scourging of Militant in 1985 and Margaret Thatcher’s “Lady’s not for turning” from four years’ earlier.

"This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us,” the then Prime Minister told the Brighton gathering.

"Today, humankind has the science and technology to destroy itself or to provide prosperity to all. Yet science can't make that choice for us. Only the moral power of a world acting as a community can.

"By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we can alone.

"For those people who lost their lives on September 11 and those that mourn them; now is the time for the strength to build that community. Let that be their memorial."

But even though, ten years on, it is impossible not to admire Mr Blair’s passion and idealism, it is also impossible to escape the conclusion that his stated mission to "re-order the world around us" in the wake of the attacks proved to be a glorious failure.

More than that, it begs the question whether, in his subsequent foreign policy decisions – most notably the invasion of Iraq - Mr Blair himself contributed to that failure.

The former Prime Minister was right in his analysis that 9/11 was an opportunity to build a better, right to seek to articulate the hope that, out of this monstrous evil, some good could somehow emerge.

No, what was wrong was not the initial idea, but the subsequent execution of it by Mr Blair and other world leaders over the ensuing decade, which has, if anything, served to deepen rather than heal the world’s divisions.

Within that bigger picture thrown up by the shaken kaleidoscope of 9/11, there were a whole series of little pictures.

It was, for instance, the beginning of the end for Stephen Byers, the former North Tyneside MP who until then had been spoken of as a future Labour leader and Prime Minister.

His career never recovered from the revelation that his press officer, Jo Moore, had spent the afternoon of 9/11 telling colleagues it was now “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”

And if 9/11 marked the beginning of the end for Mr Byers, it also marked the beginning of the end for his erstwhile leader, as the Blair premiership was blown irretrievably off course by the ensuing global ramifications.

Most fundamentally of all – and ironically in the light of Mr Blair’s soaring vision of a new world order - 9/11 was the moment when politics ceased to be about selling people dreams of a better future and became more about protecting people from nightmares.

Until the economy returned to centre stage in 2008, the political agenda for much of the ensuing decade became dominated by security issues - a trend which only accelerated when Britain experienced its own ‘9/11’ on 7 July 2005.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, it seemed barely imaginable to most of us that such a thing could happen, least of all on American soil.

But such has been its impact that, ten years on, it is now almost impossible to imagine a world in which it had not taken place.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Whatever became of the August Silly Season?

In my last Saturday column three weeks ago, I highlighted the absence this year of what has hitherto been an almost annual feature of the summer political scene – the July Cabinet Reshuffle.

But as it turned out, that has not been the only thing missing from this strangest of summers. What on earth, I ask you, has happened to that other great British political tradition - the August Silly Season?

Gone, it seems, are those lazy, hazy days when all we political pundits had to write about at this time of the year was John Prescott finding a baby crab in the River Thames and naming it after Peter Mandelson.

No, this year's political close season has seen the worst rioting in English cities since 1981, the recall of Parliament, the fall of Tripoli to the anti-Gadaffi rebels and all the while the phone-hacking affair still simmering away in the background.

Prime Minister David Cameron must be wondering whether he is ever going to get a "normal" summer break again.

Last year, his August reveries were interrupted by the unexpectedly swift arrival of baby daughter Florence Rose Endellion during the family's holiday in, er, Endellion, Cornwall.

But if that was doubtless an unequivocally joyful experience for the Prime Minister, this year's riots represented an altogether grimmer intrusion into his family time.

For a day or two, indeed, it had looked as if the UK was sliding into anarchy, before Mr Cameron and the rest of the political establishment belatedly woke up to the danger and headed home to Westminster.

There was a brief hiccup for the Prime Minister when he came under fire for appearing to blame the police for not having responded quickly enough to the developing situation.

The evident anger felt by the boys in blue over this slur was understandable in the light of the ongoing cuts to police numbers which, though they may be intended to reduce police 'bureaucracy,' almost always seem to end up hitting frontline policing more.

This aside, though, the general consensus of opinion over the past fortnight has been that Mr Cameron has performed well in the aftermath of the troubles that briefly turned our city centres into no-go areas.

It has been an easier wicket for the Old Etonian premier than might ordinarily be supposed. It was, after all, he who bemoaned the 'broken society' when Labour under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown denied any such fracture existed.

Mr Blair probably would have done well to keep out of the debate, but predictably the temptation to pontificate proved irresistible for the increasingly ubiquitous former PM.

His argument that the riots were more the result of a disaffected underclass rather than a wider social breakdown or 'moral decline' begged more questions than it answered.

For starters, as Mr Blair himself was good enough to acknowledge, it contradicted his own assertions at the time of the James Bulger murder in 1993 that society was becoming "unworthy of the name."

Mr Blair now describes this intervention as "good politics but bad policy" – a telling admission that New Labour was always more about political positioning – or to give it another word, spin - than it was about policy substance.

As for the so-called underclass, they are hardly a new phenomenon, having been with us at least as long as the original English riots of Margaret Thatcher's day, and probably longer.

Alas Mr Blair had little time for them during his ten years as Prime Minister, preferring to focus his energies instead on more electorally important swing voters of Middle England.

Perhaps sensibly, the current Labour leader Ed Miliband has largely eschewed sociological analysis and spent most of the past three weeks agreeing with the government.

But this is always a difficult gig for an opposition leader, as Iain Duncan Smith found in 2001 when up against Mr Blair in the wake of 9/11.

Mr Cameron's wider difficulties with the economy, phone-hacking and above all the relationship with the Lib Dems have certainly not gone away, and will doubtless continue to loom large when politics resumes in earnest next month.

But as is almost always the case at times of national emergency, the overall political impact of the riots thus far has been to strengthen the government's position.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

What was missing about the political summer of 2011?

As anyone who has ever worked at Westminster for any length of time will know, there are certain fixed points in the parliamentary calendar which do much to shape the narrative of the political year.

Some of these are pretty well immovable feasts: the Budget, for instance, is almost always in March, the local elections in May, the party conferences in the autumn and the Queen's Speech in November.

But 2011 will go down as different from most other years in one significant respect: there was no summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Perhaps it was just the fact that everybody was too busy talking about phone-hacking, but the usual crescendo of summer speculation about who's heading up and down the greasy pole never even got going.

Tony Blair was addicted to reshuffles, although over the course of ten years as Prime Minister he never managed to become very good at them

One of my most abiding memories of my time in the Lobby was the chaotic Number Ten briefing after the 2003 reshuffle which followed the then Darlington MP Alan Milburn's surprise resignation as health secretary.

Initially we were told that the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office had been abolished and become part of the newly-created Department for Constitutional Affairs under Lord Falconer .

Half an hour later, after hasty consultations with shocked officials from the departments in question, we were told, er, no, that was not quite right after all.

Mr Blair didn't like round pegs in round holes. He was one of those leaders - you get them in all walks of life – who feel the need to move people around every couple of years or so lest they get too comfortable in the jobs they are in.

By contrast, David Cameron is said to hate reshuffles, and that certainly seems to be borne out by the relatively stable composition of his frontbench team in both opposition and government.

Unlike Mr Blair, he seems to make a virtue of stability and allowing ministers to get to know their briefs.

Usually this is a good thing – but sometimes, as in the case of health secretary Andrew Lansley and his NHS reforms, they can become so obsessed with their particular field of expertise they become blind to the wider political picture.

Mr Cameron, though, may yet be forced to do the thing he seemingly most hates, even if the traditional time of the year for reshuffles has now passed.

At the end of last month, a file was handed by Essex Police to the Crown Prosecution Service following an investigation into whether the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, persuaded someone else to take speeding penalty points for him.

Downing Street was said to be ready for Mr Huhne to walk, but the one-time Lib Dem leadership contender is not short of chutzpah, and he is still gambling that the investigation will come to nothing.

Everyone, however, privately acknowledges that if he is charged, he will be forced to stand down, at the very least temporarily, while he attempts to clear his name through the courts.

What would happen then? Under the terms of the Coalition agreement, Mr Huhne would have to be replaced in the Cabinet by another Lib Dem, though not necessarily in the same role.

Many in both coalition parties would like to see the former Lib Dem Treasury minister David Laws brought back into the Cabinet fold.

But the consensus is that it is still too soon for the ex-minister forced to resign in disgrace after just 17 days last summer after revelations about his expenses.

Safer but duller choices would be either the foreign affairs minister Ed Davey or Nick Clegg's chief adviser, Norman Lamb.

Mr Cameron could of course take the opportunity for a wider shake-up. Why, for instance, leave the highly-talented Philip Hammond mouldering at transport, or telegenic Jeremy Hunt in the relative backwater of culture, media and sport?

But all the indications, though, are that he will seek to limit the number of changes to the bare minimum.

During the Major-Blair years, the summer reshuffle, and the months of speculation that invariably preceded it, became as much a part of the political year as all those other fixed points in the calendar.

Under Mr Cameron, it looks like becoming no more than a distant memory.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Meanwhile, back in the real world....

Once again, the week concludes with phone-hacking back at the top of the political agenda, as MPs discuss a possible fresh grilling for News International's James Murdoch amid more conflicting tales about who knew what and when.

Sure, it's all very entertaining, especially for those of us who have spent years longing to see the Murdoch Empire cut down to size, and in view of his long-standing links with the NI crowd, it remains a potentially toxic story for Prime Minister David Cameron.

But sometimes the inevitable media firestorm around stories such as these can detract from the really big issues facing the country, the ones that affect peoples' lives on a day-to-day level.

And for most people, not least in the North-East, the really big issue remains the fragile state of the economy and its impact on jobs.

The publication of the three-monthly GDP figures on Tuesday saw a brief, almost evanescent shift in the news agenda away from phone-hacking and onto the bigger economic picture.

The revelation that the economy grew by just 0.2pc in the last quarter will have come as no great surprise to anyone who has been attempting to run a business over the course of that period.

If the previous set of GDP figures in April, showing 0.5pc growth, were seen at the time as disappointing, then this week's were truly dismal.

The country may have avoided a double-dip recession – but it has done so only by the skin of its teeth, and there seems no great reason to suggest we are anywhere near being out of the woods yet.

It was tempting to see George Osborne's attempts to pin the blame for the economy's continued sluggish performance on the Royal Wedding as part of a worrying pattern of behaviour on the part of the Chancellor.

After all, this is the man who found himself compared to a rail announcer of yore by blaming April's figures on the winter snows.

But maybe Mr Osborne had a point this time round. The confluence of the late Easter, the wedding, and the May Day Bank Holiday, though no fault of the government's, was scarcely helpful at a time when the economy is struggling to get into gear.

With the two four-day Bank Holiday weekends in succession, the country essentially took a 12-day holiday – helped by a patch of unseasonally warm weather.

For Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, of course, all this is hogwash. The cause of the problem is neither the Royal nuptials nor the weather, but the government's austerity measures which he believes are continuing to choke-off any chance of a recovery.

If Mr Balls is still some way from winning the argument on this, I sense that his calls for a shift of focus from deficit reduction to growth is at least starting to be given a fairer hearing by the public.

And of course, the overall GDP figures serve to disguise the very real regional disparities in growth that exist within the UK – as Institute for Public Policy Research director Nick Pearce pointed out on Tuesday.

"Outside of London, in particular, the recession continues to be felt and the UK economy might as well still be in recession, even if technically it isn't," he said.

But it is not just Mr Balls who is keen to see more measures to stimulate growth. Tory succession-watchers will have been intrigued to see London Mayor Boris Johnson setting out his own alternative economic strategy this week, with tax cuts top of his agenda.

Much as Gordon Brown once did, Mr Osborne is keen to create an air of inevitability around himself as the Prime Minister's eventual successor, but as the man who recommended Andy Coulson, he has been damaged by phone-hacking and his handling of the economy is also coming in for increasing criticism.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson, whose own ambitions to lead the Conservative Party one day remain undimmed, is playing a blinder on both issues, with the countdown to the Olympics only likely to increase his profile still further.

BoJo is on the move. Watch this space.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Cameron is not out of the woods yet

Ever since the start of the crisis over phone hacking that has engulfed the worlds of politics, journalism and the police over the past three weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron had appeared to be stuck on the back foot.

Much as he himself once managed to make Gordon Brown seem leaden-footed in his response to the MPs' expenses crisis two years ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband had seemed to be making the political weather as the public backlash against News International intensified.

Fortunately for Mr Cameron, he is far too skilled a politician for it to have lasted forever and sure enough, this week saw him finally come out fighting.

Prime Ministers always have an inbuilt advantage in the game of politics in that, while opposition leaders can just talk, they can actually do – and this week it was an advantage Mr Cameron exploited to the full.

Cutting short his trip to Africa, he postponed the parliamentary recess by 24 hours, enabling an extra session of Prime Minister's Questions and an emergency statement on phone hacking to be squeezed in before the MPs' summer break.

But besides raising the morale of the Tory Party by showing a bit of grit and determination in the face of his Labour tormentors, did it actually do him any good?

Well, his admission that he should not have hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press secretary will go part of the way towards defusing the issue which has dogged him since well before the start of the current media firestorm.

But as Mr Miliband was swift to point out, having regrets about the appointment does not get away from the fact that it was, as he put it "a catastrophic error of judgment."

Mr Cameron has still yet to satisfactorily explain why he chose to ignore so many warnings about the dangers of making Mr Coulson Downing Street communications director.

The suspicion persists that he adopted something of a wise monkey stance in relation to his trusted press adviser - 'see no evil, hear no evil, think no evil.'

The disclosure that his chief of staff Ed Llewellyn had refused a detailed briefing on phone-hacking from the police could be interpreted as wanting to protect the Prime Minister from any suggestion that he could influence the investigation.

But it could equally be the case that aides like Mr Llewellyn simply did not want to tell the Prime Minister what they knew he did not want to hear.

Wednesday's debate also provided a convenient platform for Labour MPs to raise some additional issues which have further muddied the waters in relation to Mr Coulson.

First, Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed that the Royal Family had raised concerns with Downing Street about Mr Coulson's appointment – which would be hardly surprising since most of them had had their phones hacked.

Then the highly-respected former local government minister Nick Raynsford suggested that Mr Coulson might actually have practised phone-hacking while in the role of Downing Street press secretary, with a senior government official as the victim.

The Cabinet Secretary denied it, but if this allegation were to turn out to be true, the situation would look very grave indeed for Mr Cameron.

But the biggest reason why the Prime Minister is not out of the woods yet on phone hacking is because the question of his longer-term political survival is not really about that.

It is, rather, about his relationship with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Nick Clegg and his party had no option but to go into the coalition in May 2011. The arithmetic of going with Labour didn't stack up, and standing on the sidelines and inflicting another election on the public would not have been forgiven.

But having entered it, they have found over the past 14 months just what a rock and a hard place they were put in as a result of the inconclusive election outcome.

As I wrote at the start of this year, a team is only as strong as its weakest member, and such has been the slump in the Lib Dems' political fortunes since joining the coalition that they currently constitute a pretty broken reed.

It remains my view that, in order to stand a chance of holding onto its Southern power base in which the Tories are its main challengers, the party has to find a way to break up the coalition at a point of maximum advantage to itself and maximum disadvantage to Mr Cameron.

As the political season draws to a close, that essential dynamic that makes this such a potentially unstable alliance between the two partners remains unaltered.

Mr Cameron may think he is safe for now. But as Lloyd George found, in a coalition, you are only ever as safe as your partners allow you to be.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murdoch's power has been broken. Could Cameron's be next?

For the past thirty years, the British political establishment has been in thrall to Rupert Murdoch - the 24th member of Tony Blair's Cabinet as he was once dubbed.

In the course of that period, his media empire has variously decided the outcome of elections, dictated the membership of Cabinets, shaped policies on a wide range of issues and even influenced whether or not the country went to war.

But this Wednesday, the worm finally turned as the Australian media tycoon's bid to buy 100pc of BSkyB was swept away in the storm that has engulfed him in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

It was as if three decades of pent-up resentment had suddenly been unleashed in a torrent , as the politicians who have been forced to kow-tow to Murdoch all that time finally broke free of his yoke.

There is a certain historical irony in the fact that it was the dear old House of Commons which finally delivered the coup-de-grace to Murdoch's dreams of further media expansion.

For those of us with long memories, it seemed a fitting reward for the way in which he conned Parliament into agreeing to his takeover of The Times and the Sunday Times in 1981 by giving 'editorial guarantees' he had no intention of keeping.

These undertakings enabled the then Trade and Industry Secretary John Biffen to sidestep a reference to the then Monopolies Commission.

Within a year, Murdoch had broken every single one of them, including sacking the Times' editor and transferring the two titles into a different part of his business.

I will give two small examples from the recent past of how the influence of his empire has distorted the political life of the nation.

In 2009, the now former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks let it be known that David Cameron's Tories would not get their support at the ensuing general election unless Dominic Grieve was replaced as Shadow Home Secretary. He duly was.

Then, last year, James Murdoch made it clear he wanted the Labour government's plans for regional news consortia scrapped. When the Coalition came in, they duly were.

These, however, are relatively trivial examples compared with, for instance, his papers' routine character assassination of certain party leaders and consultations with Tony Blair in the days prior to the invasion of Iraq.

But if Murdoch was undoubtedly the biggest loser of the week, it's not been a great seven days for Mr Cameron either.

Because it was not the Prime Minister who finally led the fightback against the Murdoch empire, but the man who wants his job - Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Mr Miliband undoubtedly took a gamble by calling a vote on the BSKyB bid – but within 48 hours every other party had followed his lead.

His reading of the public mood in this crisis has been consistently ahead of the curve and, for now at any rate, he has drawn a line under the troubles that had beset his leadership earlier in the summer.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, too, ends the week with his position enhanced, again at Mr Cameron's expense.

It was his threat to vote with Labour on Wednesday that forced the Prime Minister into his U-turn on the BSkyB deal, potentially altering the balance of power within the Coalition in the process.

Mr Clegg has also pointedly disassociated himself with the shadow of Andy Coulson's appointment as Downing Street's director of communications that continues to hang over Mr Cameron.

"It was his appointment and his appointment alone. We did discuss it... it was something that we didn’t see eye to eye on," he said.

This is where the phone-hacking scandal starts to play into the much bigger and wider issue of the Coalition's ultimate survival.

Some Lib Dems have started to speculate that Mr Cameron may emerge from the scandal so badly damaged that they could actually bring him down.

I have argued from the start of this Coalition that the Lib Dems somehow have to find a way of getting out of it alive, and this might just be their best opportunity.

We would then not just be looking at the downfall of a media empire, but the downfall of a government.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Me, this blog, and Dale and Co

I started this blog in 2005 with no great ambitions for it other than to provide an outlet for my political writing which, at that time, was not afforded to me by my 'day job.'

I had left the parliamentary lobby the year before in order to pursue a different line of work and enjoy a better quality of life, and although I did not miss the lobby as such, I did miss being able to sound-off about the political events of the day.

To my surprise, the blog "took off" in a small way and for the first few years of its existence was regularly voted among the top 20 political blogs in the UK in Iain Dale's annual guide.

For a while, I thought it might even fill that much-talked-about left-of-centre "void" in a political blogosphere which, at the time, was dominated by three giant Conservative blogs - Iain Dale's Diary, Guido Fawkes and Conservative Home.

As it turned out, a number of factors militated against that, the biggest of which was that the mainstream media with their hugely superior resources swiftly got in on the blogging phenomenon.

Why bother reading what Paul Linford had to say about the latest Labour leadership crisis when you could read the views of people much closer to the action, such as Benedict Brogan or Paul Waugh?

Like many other 'lone' bloggers at the time, I also found the readers' appetites for constant updates - 'feeding the blog monster' as it became known - impossible to sustain.

And there were internal pressures within my then workplace too, something about which I will say more some day.

I kept the blog going, mainly because it still retained a small core of loyal readers and commenters (thanks, guys), and also to provide an online presence for my weekly column in The Journal, which otherwise only appeared in print.

But I had long since come to the view that the best outlet for my blogging in future would be to join a group blog where the burden of providing a constant stream of entertaining and informative new material could be shared with others.

For a while I contributed to Liberal Conspiracy, but although I am an economic leftist, I have always been a small-c conservative on social issues and it soon became clear to me that my views on such matters as abortion were not appreciated by my fellow group bloggers there.

Fortunately Iain Dale has now offered me another opportunity through his new, non-partisan megablog Dale and Co, and this is where my main political blogging will be done from now on.

My contributions at Dale and Co will be accessible at this page or via this RSS feed

So far I have contributed two pieces on Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal - the latest one focusing why yesterday's House of Commons vote to curb his expansion plans was 30 years overdue - and another more reflective historical piece on whether a British Prime Minister will ever again serve two non-consecutive terms.

As for this blog, it will continue, with the strictly limited purposes of providing the following:

  • An online presence for my Saturday column.

  • A central reference point for my output across a variety of print and online platforms, including Dale and Co, Total Politics and The Journalism Hub.

  • An outlet for some occasional personal blogging which will not be of great interest to readers of those other platforms.

  • A readily accessible archive of my blogging output over the past six years, including my 'Political Top 10s' which continue to get pretty high Google rankings.

  • A series of links to sites which interest me and which may interest others of a like mind who drop by here.

  • To those who are interested in that sort of stuff, please continue to visit. To the rest of you, see you over at Dale and Co.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    The day Mandy was 'rude' to Rebekah Brooks

    I thought this epic clip from the 2009 Labour Party Conference perhaps deserved another outing in the light of current events....

    The encounter happened the morning after the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper announced it was switching its support to the Tories on the night of Gordon Brown's pre-election conference speech.

    In what was surely one of Cathy Newman's finest TV moments, Mandelson denied using a four-letter word to the News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

    I bet he wishes he had now....

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    Saturday, July 09, 2011

    Phone-hacking casualties pile up - but spare a thought for Gordon

    First it was the News of the World, scrapped by its owner Rupert Murdoch in an attempted damage-limitation exercise amid allegations that it hacked into the voicemail messages of, among others, schoolgirl murder victim Milly Dowler, relatives of the 7/7 victims, the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, and - she had to get dragged in somewhere - Princess Diana's lawyer.

    Then it was the turn of the Press Complaints Commission, facing the axe after a rare outbreak of consensus between Prime Minister David Cameron, who branded it "ineffective" and Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose favoured adjective was "toothless."

    The casualties of the phone-hacking affair continue to mount up, with those still at risk including News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, and the company's increasingly forlorn hopes of taking over 100pc ownership of BSkyB.

    But the big question at Westminster this weekend is whether those casualties will stay confined to the world of journalism and the media - or whether the scandal will eventually claim political scalps.

    Phone-hacking has been branded rather too simplistically this week as journalism's equivalent of the MPs' expenses scandal, or even as the politicians' revenge on the trade for having uncovered their duck-island antics two summers ago.

    It is nothing of the sort. This is far more than a crisis in British journalism, it is rather a crisis in British public life that goes right to the top of the tree.

    No less a commentator than Peter Oborne this week described Mr Cameron as a "profoundly damaged figure" for having hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor arrested by police yesterday, and for his friendship with Ms Brooks.

    "The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation....He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments," he wrote.

    Is this overstating the case? Well, possibly - but if one thing is clear from the past week's events it is that this is a fast-changing story in which assumptions can be very quickly overturned.

    Nobody would have predicted a week ago that the country's biggest selling newspaper, an iconic title with 168 years of history behind it, would be abruptly closed. But it has happened.

    The most damning aspect of the affair for Mr Cameron is the fact that he was given details about Mr Coulson's possible involvement in phone-hacking before making him Downing Street director of communications after last year's election win.

    In his article this week, Mr Oborne disclosed that Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who was in possession of many of the facts long before they could be published, delivered the warning to Mr Cameron's adviser Steve Hilton prior to the election.

    It is inconceivable that Mr Hilton would not have passed on these concerns to Mr Cameron, but evidently the Prime Minister chose to ignore them.

    Knowing what we now know of the allegations made against Mr Coulson, that does not just call into question the Prime Minister's judgement, it calls into question his commonsense.

    Meanwhile, spare a thought this weekend for Gordon Brown, who wanted to hold the same kind of judicial inquiry into phone hacking that Mr Cameron has announced this week, but was blocked from doing so by the cabinet secretary, on the grounds that it would be too sensitive before the election.

    Had he got his way, and the grisly facts tumbled out ahead of polling day, it is very likely that Mr Brown would still be Prime Minister today.

    Mr Coulson, who was then Mr Cameron's chief spin doctor, would have had to resign, and the public's doubts about the Tory leader would have been dramatically reinforced.

    It's been said plenty of times before, but in politics, as in journalism, timing really is everything.

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