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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