Saturday, December 29, 2012

Taxi for Balls? My political predictions for 2013

Andy Murray will win Wimbledon, Roberto Mancini will be sacked as manager of Manchester City, David and Victoria Beckham will return to the UK, and the X-Factor will finally be canned after ten not always glorious years.

Those were just some of the predictions for 2013 made by members of the public in a recent poll on what we expect to see happening in the year ahead.

But so much for the sport and showbiz; what of the politics?  Well, in last week’s column looking back at 2012 I suggested that the next 12 months may well see the Con-Lib Coalition that has governed the country since May 2010 finally splitting asunder.

It seems I am not alone in this view:  the prospect of Messrs Cameron and Clegg going their separate ways was also mentioned in the aforesaid poll, along with a rise in interest rates, a strike by NHS workers and the prosecution of a major bank for fraud.

So what’s causing the present bout of Coalition-busting speculation?  Well, anyone who heard Nick Clegg’s speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society shortly before Christmas will not be surprised that talk of divorce is in the air.

The speech was less about Lib Dem achievements in government as about what Mr Clegg’s party had prevented the Tories from doing.

It was all a far cry from the government’s early days when the Lib Dem leader had been determined that his party should jointly ‘own’ all of the Coalition’s policies - not just those which it had specifically advocated.

But that strategy was only destined to work so long as the Coalition was popular.   Once it started to be unpopular – as has happened in 2012 – it was inevitable that Mr Clegg would begin to embark on a strategy of differentiation.

It has been my view from the outset that the Lib Dems would somehow have to find a way of getting out of the Coalition alive in order to stand any chance of maintaining a significant parliamentary presence at the next election, and I expect this process to be accelerated in the coming year.

The internal politics of the two parties will play a big part.   If Mr Clegg does not, by the time of his party’s annual conference, set out some kind of exit strategy, he will almost certainly face a leadership challenge before the election.

At the same time, those Tory backbench voices which loathe the Lib Dems and all their works will grow louder, as they seek to press David Cameron into the more orthodox Conservative position that they believe – mistakenly in my view – will secure them an outright majority next time round.

I would expect the upshot to be that the Lib Dems will leave the government within the next 12-15 months, with the Tories moving to a “confidence and supply” arrangement for the remainder of the five-year Parliament.

But while the Coalition may struggle to maintain the semblance of unity, Labour leader Ed Miliband will also struggle to present himself as the Prime Minister-in-waiting that Mr Cameron and Tony Blair so obviously were in their opposition days.

Mr Miliband has had his successes, but the full rashness of Labour’s decision to choose him over his brother David will become clear over the next 12 months.

Overtures will be made to the South Shields MP to return the frontline as Shadow Chancellor in place of Ed Balls, whose closeness to Gordon Brown and the errors of the New Labour years will ultimately prove a fatal barrier to the party’s attempts to regain economic credibility.

But a likelier outcome is a comeback for the respected former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who has successfully managed to distance himself from Mr Brown’s mistakes.

Mr Balls may not be the only major economic player to be shown the door in 2013.  If the economy continues to stagnate, Mr Cameron may also be forced to find a new role for George Osborne as the election draws nearer.

And with Mr Osborne out of the Tory succession picture, attempts will be made to build up Education Secretary Michael Gove as the alternative contender from within the Cabinet to counter the continuing threat of Boris Johnson.

Unlike poor old Mr Mancini, I don’t expect we will see any of the three main party leaders actually losing their jobs in 2013.

What we will see, though, is each of them having to take fairly drastic action in order to save them.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Budget debacle that left Coalition floundering

Here's my annual political review of the year, published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.

Until the early months of this year, the Con-Lib coalition that has governed Britain since May 2010 had by and large done so with a fair wind behind it from the public.

Without ever reaching the heights of popularity enjoyed by New Labour as its zenith, David Cameron’s government appeared, at the very least, to have earned the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it came to the economy.

All that changed on Wednesday 21 March – the day Chancellor George Osborne delivered his third Budget.

To say it was the pivotal moment of the political year would be something of an understatement. In terms of its impact on public opinion, it may well prove to be the pivotal moment of the entire five-year Parliament.

In the space of a 59-minute speech, the Chancellor announced a package of measures which seemed almost deliberately designed to alienate as many sections of the electorate as he could find.

He slapped VAT on hot food and caravans, froze the age-related tax allowance for pensioners, removed a tax break on charitable giving that would have hit hundreds of good causes, and topped it off with a cut in the higher rate of tax worth £42,295 to anyone earning £1m a year.

It was the ‘pasty tax’ rather than the top rate cut which proved the most politically toxic, playing as it did into the ‘Tory toffs’ narrative which had increasingly started to dog Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

In the end, the plan was ditched following a campaign by this newspaper among others – one of a series of budget U-turns which left the Chancellor’s credibility seriously damaged.

From there on in, even though the festivities around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics provided useful temporary distractions, the government struggled to get back on the front foot.

And the slide in its opinion poll ratings was accompanied by increasing tensions within the Coalition itself – notably over Europe, welfare cuts, gay marriage and, most of all, Lords reform.

With his dream of a new electoral system shattered in the May 2011 referendum, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was pinning his hopes of achieving lasting political reform on securing an elected second chamber - but the Tory backbenchers were having none of it.

The Lib Dems retaliated by scuppering the Tories’ plans for a review of Parliamentary boundaries that would probably have gained them 20-30 seats at the next election

Frustrated in his attempts to regain the political initiative, Mr Cameron resorted to the time-honoured tactic of a reshuffle, but some of his new appointments soon began to unravel.

He shunted Justine Greening out of the job of transport secretary on account of her opposition to a third runway at Heathrow only to see London Mayor and would-be leadership rival Boris Johnson rally to her cause.

His appointment of Andrew Mitchell as chief whip also swiftly backfired when he was involved in an altercation with police officers at the entrance to 10 Downing Street.

However in what has surely been the most interminable and convoluted political story of the year, Mr Mitchell now looks likely to have the last laugh, after it emerged that a police officer may have fabricated evidence.

In the North-East, the regional political agenda continued to be dominated by the fallout from the government’s spending cuts.

Newcastle city council responded to the spending squeeze by taking the axe to the arts budget – reminding those of us with long memories of the antics of so-called ‘loony left’ councils in the 1980s.

Yet at the same time, the year saw something of a rebirth of regional policy, driven by Lord Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ report which was explicitly endorsed by Mr Osborne in his autumn statement.

The mini budget also saw the Chancellor forced to back down on plans to introduce regional pay rates following a fierce campaign by the unions.

The year ended with increasing speculation that the Coalition may not, after all, go the distance to the planned next election date of May 2015.

With the government seemingly stuck in a trough of unpopularity, the need for the Liberal Democrats to assert their separate identity from the Tories is growing.

Mr Clegg’s decision to make a separate Commons statement from the front bench on last month’s Leveson report into press regulation was unprecedented, but may well prove to be the start of a trend.

If 2012 was the year the Coalition lost the public’s goodwill, 2013 may prove to be the one that sees it splitting asunder.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

At last: The beginnings of a regional economic policy

free web site hit counter
IN terms of the political big picture, Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement on Wednesday this week may well come to be seen as a pivotal moment in the next general election battle.

Whether the so-called mini budget will win or lose that contest for his party, however, is currently a difficult one to call.

On the one hand, the Chancellor was, against the expectations of most pundits and economists, able to reveal that the deficit is continuing to fall, and that government borrowing would therefore not need to increase after all.

On the other, he was forced to admit that the years of austerity would continue at least until 2018, that growth would continue to be sluggish, and that his original target of reducing debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015 would be delayed by at least a year.

Too much has been made of the fact that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, thrown by the unexpected news on borrowing, made an uncharacteristic hash of his set-piece reply to Mr Osborne’s Commons statement.

The truth is that only political anoraks get worked up about that sort of thing.  What will linger more in the public’s mind is the fact that Chancellor’s harsh medicine is still no nearer to bringing about a lasting economic recovery.

Of potentially much greater significance than Mr Balls’ incoherent ramblings is the risk that Mr Osborne’s failure to meet the debt reduction target will mean Britain losing its AAA credit rating.

Much of what Mr Osborne has done over the past two and a half years has been designed to stave off this very threat, and if the rating is indeed downgraded, it will surely be time for David Cameron to find a new Chancellor.

What, though, does it all mean for the North-East?  Well – and how many times have I had to write this line over the past 15 years? – there will be no dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle for starters.

Other proposals which failed to win the Chancellor’s stamp of approval included a £25m upgrade for the Tyne and Wear Metro, and a package of support for the region’s offshore wind industry.

Furthermore the proposed welfare cutbacks, with benefit rises for the next three years capped at a below-inflation 1pc, will also disproportionately hit those regions with higher rates of unemployment such as this one.

But amid all this, there are continuing signs that this government – more so than its recent predecessors – is starting to take the idea of regional policy seriously.

The most obvious indication of this came a few weeks when Lord Heseltine, the arch-interventionist of Tory politics in an era where the free marketeers held sway, published his ‘No Stone Unturned’ report.

The Chancellor has explicitly backed its call for a single funding pot covering housing, skills, transport and job creation as well new powers and funding for local enterprise partnerships.

Significantly, the government is to give each LEP the chance to nominate a single major infrastructure project which will then be eligible for a new concessionary public works loan rate, up to a value of £1.5bn.

In addition Whitehall will provide a further £350m towards the Regional Growth Fund, to provide support for jobs and growth across the English regions until 2015.

While the impact of those changes remains to be seen, a more immediate boost to the region came with the announcement that  - 54 years on from the opening of the Preston by-pass - Newcastle will finally join the motorway network, with all stretches of the A1 south of the city to be upgraded to motorway standard.

And the spectre of regional pay, which could have led to teachers and nurses in the North being paid less than their Southern counterparts, has also receded in what was a notable victory for both the unions and the Lib Dems.

It was surely coincidence that, on the day the Tories were pushed into fourth place by UKIP in the Middlesbrough by-election last week, Mr Osborne appointed a new adviser in Neil O’Brien who has previously warned that the party risks ‘pariah status’ in the North.

If the autumn statement is anything to go by, maybe he is already making his voice heard.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The hard choice facing Justin Welby

The reaction of the North-East media to the recent appointment of Dr Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury says much about the unusually high regard in which he has come to be held in the region since becoming Bishop of Durham last year.

An editorial in The Journal described his appointment to Canterbury as a significant loss to the North-East and, with due respect to other church leaders in the region, few of them would merit such an accolade.

I have to confess I am a little biased where Dr Welby is concerned as we went to the same London church in the 1980s before he received the call to ordination, although I doubt he would have much cause to remember me.

There are many reasons why he will make a first-class archbishop, but in an age when many young people go straight from university into church leadership without the intervention of a career in the real world, the best thing about him is the grounding he gained from 11 years in the oil industry.

But if Dr Welby’s appointment was greeted by a general chorus of media approval, the universal disapproval that greeted this week’s decision by the church’s general synod to say no to women bishops highlights the extent of the challenge facing him.

It must be a moot point as to whether he or the new director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, has been handed the more poisoned chalice.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue itself – and the beliefs are passionately held on both sides of the debate – it seems beyond doubt that the vote will make it harder for the church to get its message across.

The national and broadcast media has given the church a fearful kicking over the issue in recent days, and it didn’t take long for the politicians, from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards, to start joining in.

The broad thrust of their criticisms is that the church has shown itself to be out of touch with modern values and, as the former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it, no longer reflects society as it is.

However it is by no means axiomatic that any faith community should be required to conform to the prevailing culture. Indeed, its belief system may at times require it to be vigorously counter-cultural.

To take a different example, there is a widely-held view in society that the accumulation of wealth and possessions is a good thing, and that our political and economic systems should be so arranged as to promote and encourage this.

Christianity, however, takes a different view, arguing not only that you can’t take it with you, but that, in the eternal scheme of things, the abundance of possessions may actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

So for politicians to suggest that a church should necessarily buy in to politically fashionable causes without reference to its teachings and traditions is too lazy an assumption.

No, the real difficulty arises here because of the particular nature of the Church of England as the established church and the role of its all-male bishops in the legislature as members of the House of Lords.

In this regard, it is surely significant that, while MPs mutter dark threats about subjecting the Church of England to equalities legislation over its failure to ordain women bishops, no-one is suggesting doing the same to the Roman Catholic Church over its refusal to allow women priests.

Indeed, if anyone were to suggest that the government should start regulating churches in this way, I suspect the resulting uproar would make the row over whether it should regulate the press look like a vicarage tea party.

Of course, a move to a democratically elected House of Lords, minus the bishops, would remove part of the problem at a stroke.

But Tory MPs foolishly voted down that option as part of their petty feud with the Liberal Democrats, and it is unlikely to come back onto the table before the next election.

The upshot is that unless Dr Welby and his colleagues can find some way of revisiting the women bishops issue, preferably before another five years of argument and bloodletting have passed, the church may be forced to make a hard choice.

Either accept the increasing and unwelcome intervention of politicians in its affairs – or take the nuclear option of disestablishment.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A welcome report - but why is Heseltine having to reinvent the wheel?

free web site hit counter
OF all leading Conservative politicians of the past half century, the former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine is perhaps the one who has enjoyed the most complex relationship with his own party.

To some, he will be remembered as a spellbinding orator and party conference crowd-pleaser par excellence – or as the late former MP Julian Critchley memorably put it, the man who “always knew where the find the clitoris of the Tory Party.”

To others, he will forever be the dark villain at the centre of what they would see as the most shameful episode in the party’s recent history – the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher after 11 years as Prime Minister in 1990.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the party, though, will be to have kept the flag flying for what became some distinctly unfashionable causes in Conservative circles – Europe, state intervention, and above all, regionalism.

Lord Heseltine’s long advocacy of regional policy as a way of promoting both economic growth and social cohesion dates back to his time as the ‘Minister for Merseyside’ in the wake of the Toxteth riots in the early 1980s.

But is a concept that fell so far out of favour among his colleagues that practically the first thing the Tory-led Coalition did on coming to power in 2010 was to abolish the regional development agencies.

In the light of this, perhaps the most surprising thing about Lord Heseltine’s report on industrial strategy published this week under the title ‘No Stone Unturned’ is that he was asked to write it at all.

Is it a sign of a new open-mindedness on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne - or merely a sign of desperation in the face of the country’s continuing economic plight?

Either way, it was inevitable that Labour would seize on Lord Heseltine’s headline statement that the UK currently “does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation.”

This is, after all, exactly what Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has been saying all along – that the government needs an economic ‘Plan B’ that puts more emphasis on generating growth and slightly less on cutting the deficit.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is also understandably keen to appropriate the ideas of a One Nation Tory like Heseltine in order to bolster his own attempts to seize the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservatives.

Indeed, it is a measure of how far politics has shifted on its axis since the early 1980s that talk of measures to promote economic growth and wealth creation is now regarded in some circles as “left-wing.”

Some of Lord Heseltine’s proposals have a familiar ring to them.  Since the early 1990s he has viewed elected mayors as a general panacea for everything wrong with local government, and it was no surprise to see him giving this another airing.

The idea of conurbation-wide or even region-wide mayors have also been batted around before, and has some attractions as a halfway house between an elected regional assembly which might be too big to care and local authorities which are too small to cope.

A Mayor of Tyneside, for instance, would have the requisite critical mass of political and financial clout to make a difference while still retaining an element of local accountability.

As I have noted before in this column, it isn’t regional government as we once knew it, but it may be the best, or indeed only, form of regional government that’s ever likely to be on offer.

Lord Heseltine has also advocated handing over responsibility for billions of pounds of central government expenditure to the Local Enterprise Partnerships set up last year following the demise of the RDAs.

But this nothing terribly new either.   Moving power and budgets out of Whitehall was exactly the idea behind the creation of the Government Offices for the Regions in 1994 by the Major administration in which Lord Heseltine served, and also New Labour’s establishment of the RDAs in 1999.

The GORs were wound up by the Coalition in March 2011, exactly a year before the RDAs closed for business, but now Lord Heseltine proposes to turn the LEPs into something that looks suspiciously like a recreation of the two.

While it will be welcomed by those who bemoaned the loss of this institutions, it surely also begs the question why it has been necessary for him to reinvent the wheel.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Deeply disingenuous, but Cameron has the final say

Seven years ago, the Conservative Party faithful gathered in Blackpool for what most observers expected would be a leadership stand-off between right-wing former council house boy David Davis and veteran Europhile Ken Clarke.

That was, of course, before a young MP by the name of David Cameron came along and tore up the script, delivering a speech without notes that electrified the party and made them believe that, with him in charge, they could finally put an end to their losing streak.

That all seems a long time ago now.  Although he did become Prime Minister, Mr Cameron did not turn out to be quite the winner his party had hoped for, and this week’s conference in Birmingham had an element of seven-year-itch about it.

So notwithstanding the fact that his speaking-without-notes routine has since been successfully imitated by other political leaders, it was perhaps no surprise that Mr Cameron eschewed it this week in favour of a traditional, scripted address.

It was, by some distance, the most serious speech of the conference season and indeed of Mr Cameron’s political career to date.

His talk of an “hour of reckoning” for the British economy was a far cry from the David Cameron of a few years back who exhorted us in a previous conference speech to “let sunshine win the day.”  

If that was possibly the worst Cameron soundbite ever coined, someone had clearly been working on them in the run-up to Wednesday’s address.

“The party of one notion:  borrowing” and “I’m not here to defend privilege, but to spread it” may not be in quite the same league as “the Lady’s not for turning”  but they are likely to stick longer in the memory than anything either of the other two party leaders have come up with in the past three weeks.

But for all its statesmanlike qualities and oratorical panache, it was, however, a deeply disingenuous speech by the Prime Minister.

Nowhere was this more so than when Mr Cameron sought to claim that only the Conservatives had ‘protected’ the NHS from spending cuts, saying:  “Be in no doubt:  this is the party of the NHS and that’s the way it’s going to stay,”

Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that the government’s Health and Social Care Act has actually turned the NHS into no more than a brand, the situation on the ground is very different.

The reality, in my own local health trust at any rate, is that a fifth of the workforce is to be sacrificed over the next four years to meet the government’s spending squeeze.

In terms of political positioning, the core message of Mr Cameron’s speech was in its appeal to the aspirational voters who previously helped deliver election success to both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

“They call us the party of the better-off.  No, we are the party of the want to be better off,” he said in another of those catchy soundbites.

But the truth of the matter is that, in the public sector at any rate, there are tens of thousands of “want to be better offs” who have simply had the rug cut from under them - a disproportionate number of those being in the North-East.

If the unspoken assumption behind this is that no-one with any genuine aspiration actually goes into the public sector in the first place, then that betrays how little Mr Cameron knows about the way most of us live.

The conference season ends with the battle line starting to be drawn for an election which, on the evidence of the past few weeks, is shaping up to be much more of a two-way fight than the last one.

Ed Miliband’s speech, with his audacious bid to grab the One Nation mantle of the old-style Tory moderates was, once again, the boldest of the three, while Nick Clegg’s, at a time when he needed to put clear yellow water between himself and the Tories, was sadly forgettable.

Mr Cameron’s was the most sombre, but perhaps more importantly in terms of shaping the political agenda going forward, also the last.

It’s purely an accident of history that always lets the Tory leader have the final say in this three-week battle for political supremacy, but this year, at least, it was one he took full advantage of.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Can 'Red Ed' really command the centre ground?

Twelve months ago, Ed Miliband delivered what I described at the time as probably the most courageous party conference speech by any major political leader over the course of the last two decades.

The Liverpool address, in which he admitted that New Labour had not done enough to change the “values” of the British economy, amounted to no less than an attempt to overturn the political consensus that has been maintained by successive governments of right and left since the 1980s.

This year’ s speech, delivered 30 miles down the road in Manchester, was no less audacious - but whereas then Mr Miliband appeared to be adopting a distinctly leftish analysis of the country’s problems, this year saw him resorting to one of Tony Blair’s favourite pastimes – stealing the Tories’ clothes.

And it is perhaps in that apparent contradiction – between the leftward-lurching ‘Red Ed’ of 12 months ago and the ‘One Nation’ Labourite of this week – that Mr Miliband’s problem lies.

You cannot fault the Labour leader’s instincts in seeking to place himself and his party firmly in the centre ground of British politics. That is, after all, where elections are invariably won and lost.

And Prime Minister David Cameron can surely only blame himself for giving his opponent the opportunity to indulge in a spot of political cross-dressing.

By instinct a One Nation, compassionate Conservative himself, he has allowed himself since entering Downing Street to be blown off course by an angry right-wing rump who cannot forgive him for failing to win the election outright and thereby forcing them into a Coalition with those ghastly Lib Dems.

The past 18 months have seen a grisly procession of rightward shifts, from his backbenchers’ piece-by-piece demolition of Nick Clegg’s plans for political reform, to a reshuffle that saw a climate change sceptic put in charge of environment policy.

So the time was surely ripe this week for Mr Miliband to make a play for the centrist-minded voters that Mr Cameron appears to have all-but-abandoned in his desperation to keep the Boris Johnson fan club at bay.

And there was much about the labour leader’s ‘One Nation’ pitch that rang true, in particular his desire to focus attention and resources on the ‘forgotten 50pc’ who don’t go to university and his determination to speak up as much for the ‘squeezed middle’ as those living in poverty.

I was also impressed by the evident passion with which he spoke up, not for the unions, but for the Union – under threat as never before as a result of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s independence referendum plans.

Mr Miliband is right that only the Labour Party can save it. The Tories and Lib Dems are a busted flush north of the border, and only the Labour Party will ever have the strength in Scotland to defeat Mr Salmond’s nationalists.

Above all, the speech demonstrated that Mr Miliband has the potential to give the Labour Party the clear sense of direction it has lacked since Mr Blair left office in 2007.

Gordon Brown should have done this, and had the opportunity to do so, but for all his talk about restoring the party’s cherished ‘var-lues’, his much-vaunted Real Labour – or was it True Labour? – never really achieved lift-off.

Now we have One Nation Labour, which, if rather short on specifics at this stage, at least sounds as if it might finally resolve the vexed question of what follows New Labour.

If Mr Miliband is to ensure it is more than a slogan, he now needs to spend the 12 months between this and the next party conference putting some policy flesh on the bones.

There was widespread agreement, even among Tory commentators, that Tuesday’s speech was a bravura performance by the Labour leader, a brilliantly-crafted and passionate address that has the potential to be a political game-changer.

But the nub of Ed Miliband’s problem, as the former Tory MP turned political blogger Jerry Hayes put it rather crudely this week, is that he genuinely is the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot.

The really big question is whether, the light of this, Mr Miliband can come to be seen by the voters as a credible occupant of the political centre-ground in the way that both Mr Blair and Mr Cameron were before him.

And on that score, the jury is still out.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Clegg's apology will not ultimately save his leadership

Broken promises are nothing new in politics.  From the Labour Party’s 110-year-old pledge to introduce an elected House of Lords to George H.W. Bush’s infamous one-liner ‘Read my lips, No new taxes,’ history is full of instances of parties and politicians failing to keep their word.

But there seems to be something about the subject of university tuition fees which brings out the worst in politicians where keeping promises is concerned.

Back in 2001, New Labour went into the general election with the cast-iron manifesto pledge:  “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.”

Less than two years later Tony Blair’s government duly introduced them, in the teeth of a backbench parliamentary revolt in which several leading North-East Labour MPs were to the fore.

If Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had been more of a student of history, perhaps he would have reflected on this before issuing his similarly unequivocal pledge not to raise tuition fees in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Then again, had he done so he might have concluded that breaking promises is not necessarily politically fatal.   After all, Mr Blair’s original broken pledge on tuition fees did not prevent him winning a third general election in 2005.

By the same token, keeping your election promises is no guarantee of political success.

Indeed, it was Margaret Thatcher’s determination to stick to a promise to reform the system of domestic rates that led to the disastrous implementation of the poll tax in 1988 and indirectly to her fall from power two years later.

But for the Liberal Democrats, there was something about breaking the tuition fee pledge that seemed to strike at the heart of what the party is and what it stands for.

Partly because of its strong activist base in the education sector, and perhaps also because of its level of support among students, the question of tuition fees had become something of a touchstone issue for the party.

It was certainly one of the biggest reasons why, in the North East, the Liberal Democrats had become credible challengers in seats with large concentrations of students such as Newcastle Central and Durham City.

So in this sense, for the party leadership to change its mind over the issue was always likely to be viewed as a betrayal on a par with a Labour leader calling for the privatisation of the NHS or a Tory leader announcing we should join the euro.

But this is not all.    There was also something about the idea of breaking election promises at all that ran counter to the Lib Dems’ self-image as a party.

This is why the broken promise on tuition fees was such a watershed for the party – the moment it gave up – possibly for all time – any claim to be representative of a “new” or different kind of politics.

It is for all those reasons that Mr Clegg issued his videoed apology to party supporters this week ahead of what is certain to be a difficult party conference for him.

Whether it will do him any good however remains very much to be seen.  Many of the party’s supporters are likely to take a fairly dim view of the fact that he appeared to be apologising not for breaking the ‘solemn’ promise, but for having made it in the first place.

Mr Clegg finds himself in a strange kind of political limbo.  Despite the comments by Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott last month that any business that had lost so much market share would now be under new management, the coming conference week will not see any overt challenge to his leadership.

Yet at the same time, it is hard to find many Liberal Democrats who seriously believe Mr Clegg will actually lead them into the next general election in 2015.

The remorseless logic of their plight is that if they are to present themselves to the electorate as a viable alternative to the Tories as well as to Labour, it will have to be without the man who took them into a Tory-led coalition.

But that is next year’s Lib Dem conference story.  For now, Mr Clegg continues to inhabit the ranks of the political living dead.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hillsborough: The apology still missing

After more than 25 years in journalism, much of it spent covering the political arena, there is little that surprises me any more about the lengths to which some people will go in order to preserve their power, position or reputation.

But in the week that the truth about the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was finally and dramatically laid bare, even an ageing cynic like me has to confess to being shocked by the sheer scale of deception and disinformation involved.

Of course bad apples can crop up in any organisations, and sometimes, as in the case of the West Midlands Crime Squad in the 1970s or, dare I say it, News International in the past decade, this can extend into institutional corruption.

But the fact that so many pillars of the establishment, from the police, to the ambulance service, the coroners’ service, the judiciary, the government and, yes, the media could somehow collude to deny justice for so long almost – but not quite - beggars belief.

Looking back at that old footage of the disaster, it seems in many ways to have happened in another country, a Britain where football was still a working-class game and where the North-South divide was as much a cultural phenomenon as an economic one.

As Labour MP Andy Burnham put it: “There was an 'us and them' culture in the 1980s where people seen as being troublemakers could just be treated as second class citizens - football supporters, people taking industrial action. That was very evident in the North of England when I grew up."

Some believe it couldn’t happen again, that in the age of email, mobile phones and Twitter a cover-up on this scale would be impossible to carry out even if it were to be attempted.

Yet the battle to get at the truth of what happened in more recent tragedies such as the deaths of Dr David Kelly, Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson suggest that perhaps the country has not changed quite as much as might first appear.

If Hillsborough has been a saga that has showed the best and worst of humanity – and there are many heroes to stand alongside the obvious villains - then it has certainly also demonstrated the best and worst of British journalism.

South Yorkshire Police’s deliberate campaign of misinformation found a ready outlet in The Sun, whose then editor was this week forced, to use his own immortal phrase, to empty a bucket of something very nasty over his own head.

Not surprisingly, it was the regional press which demonstrated that journalism can be a potent force for good as well as harm.

It was The Journal’s sister title the Liverpool Echo which, as Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledged on Wednesday, was primarily responsible for keeping the issue on the political agenda during the long 23-year fight.

But amid all the relief of the campaigners at having finally prevailed, there is, however, one aspect of the truth that is still to come out – the role of Margaret Thatcher.

The documents released this week by the independent inquiry panel make clear that the then Prime Minister was briefed by her aides over the level of deceit by South Yorkshire Police - yet she chose to do nothing.

Is it possible she may have felt she owed them one for helping her win the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 – a decisive encounter in the year-long conflict which ultimately led to the rout of Arthur Scargill’s miners?

She certainly cannot have been expected to show any instinctive sympathy for the victims, having previously been on record as linking football fans to the IRA and the miners as ‘the enemy within.’

In the midst of delivering his “profound apology” to the victims’ families this week on the nation’s behalf, the current Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that the Thatcher government had done nothing wrong.

Well, he had to say that, given the continued emotional hold that the Iron Lady retains over the party which he now rather precariously leads.

But it is nevertheless odd that in the week that has seen everyone from Kelvin Mackenzie to the Football Association to Boris Johnson forced to swallow a large slice of humble pie, there is still one apology missing.

From the woman who sat at the apogee of that complex, interwoven 1980s establishment, there remains an eerie silence.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Was reshuffle the beginning of the end for Cameron?

Much has changed for David Cameron over the course of his seven years in charge of the Conservative Party – but there are two aspects of his leadership that have remained pretty much constant throughout that period.

The first is that he has tried to avoid reshuffles as far as possible. The second is that in his efforts to detoxify the Tory brand he has, by and large, continued to lead the party from the political centre.

Well, it had to end sometime I guess. Two and a half years after taking up residence in Downing Street, he finally summoned the nerve to move some of his more middle-ranking Cabinet members around the political chessboard.

And in so doing, he tilted the balance of power within his government decisively rightwards – and away from that fabled centre ground he has spent so long trying to cultivate.

On the face of it, this looks like pretty poor judgement on the Prime Minister’s part. To win an outright majority at the next election, his party will have to win approximately 2m more votes than it won in May 2010.

Yet history shows that every time the Conservative Party has lurched to the right in recent years – most notably under William Hague in 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 - its support has gone down, not up.

Mr Cameron's entire political success, such as it is, has been built on persuading people that he is not like those Tory leaders of old and that his style of politics, like Tony Blair's, is about reaching out to those who are not his natural supporters.

On no issue is the change in Mr Cameron clearer than that of the environment. The man who once rode a bicycle to work to show his party’s new-found commitment to the green cause has now appointed a virtual climate change denier as environment secretary.

Sure, the changes announced on Tuesday may well bring about some superficial advances in terms of both service delivery and presentation.

On the latter score in particular, new health secretary Jeremy Hunt will surely be an improvement on the hapless Andrew Lansley who, in the words of one commentator, “could not sell gin to an alcoholic.”

But these are trifling gains when set against the central strategic error of failing to recognise that parties struggling to hold onto their support rarely solve their problems by retreating into their ideological comfort zone.

Indeed, it is tempting to believe the entire exercise was less a considered piece of political strategizing than an act of petulance designed to put the Liberal Democrats in their place following the spat over Lords reform and the boundary review.

With the forces of the Tory right now ranged even more formidably against him, there is no doubt that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will now find it even more difficult to persuade voters that he and his party are actually making a difference in government.

Meanwhile Labour leader Ed Miliband continues to make mischief by teasingly holding out the prospect of a post-Clegg, post-election Lib-Lab deal with ‘continuity SDP’ leader Vince Cable in the deputy PM role.

But inept as it may have been to drive his Coalition partners further into the hands of the enemy, even more ham-fisted was the Prime Minister’s treatment of his erstwhile transport secretary, Justine Greening.

Mr Cameron’s decision to remove her, apparently for having reaffirmed the government’s policy to rule out a third runway at Heathrow, has handed his real enemy – Boris Johnson – both a key weapon and a key ally in his campaign to replace the Tory leader.

The long-simmering battle between the two men has now moreorless descended into open warfare, with the London Mayor angrily denouncing Ms Greening’s demotion and demanding a statement ruling out a third runway for good.

Ms Greening – a former Treasury minister, take note – must now be odds-on to become Boris’s first Chancellor if he ever makes it into Number Ten – a double case of Blond(e) Ambition.

Hence a reshuffle that was supposed to relaunch Mr Cameron’s premiership has simultaneously risked alienating floating voters, angered his Coalition partners, and handed his main internal rival a big stick with which to beat him over the head.

From that perspective, it is tempting to see it as not so much a new dawn for his government, but the beginning of the end.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tony Blair: The once and and future king?

Anyone who has read this column more than once over the past 15 years or so will probably know by now that I have never exactly been the greatest fan of Tony Blair.

It was not just all the spin and smarm, it was the fact that having waited so long for a left-of-centre government, we ended up with one that behaved in much the same way as the Tory administrations that preceded it.

From the perspective of a political journalist on a North-East newspaper, what made it worse was the evident lack of regard in which the former Prime Minister appeared to hold his ‘home’ region.

Having got his big break unexpectedly at Sedgefield in 1983, he repaid the region’s loyalty by ignoring its needs at every turn and allowing its prosperity divide with the South to widen markedly during his time in office.

So why, then, am I secretly clucking with pleasure at the flurry of recent stories suggesting the great man may soon make a return to the political frontline?  Well, partly, I guess, because it would make politics more interesting.

But mainly it’s down to a feeling that, in Britain, we discard our political leaders far too early, that we should be making greater use of their accumulated wisdom in the interests of better and more enlightened government.

In this context, Mr Blair’s own estimation of why he would like the chance to be Prime Minister again makes interesting reading.

“I have learned an immense amount in the past five years. One of my regrets is that what I have learned in the last five years would have been so useful to me, because when you see how the world is developing you get a far clearer picture of some of the issues our country is grappling with,” he said recently.

Now it would be easy to dismiss this as another example of Mr Blair’s colossal self-regard, were it not for the fact that what he says actually rings true.

In the not-so-distant past, after all, people who had been Prime Minister once quite often went on to become Prime Minister again – and usually ended up making a better fist of it than they had the first time round.

If I'm honest, I think I probably have something of a romantic attachment to the politics of the 19th century, when political careers lasted 60 years and the likes of Palmerston and Gladstone could still become Prime Minister in their 80s.

It’s also probably down in part to an instinctive dislike of ageism, a dislike that is becoming stronger as I myself edge nearer and nearer towards the half-century mark.

Asked recently by London’s Evening Standard whether he would welcome a return as Prime Minister, Mr Blair was quoted as saying: "Yes, sure, but it's not likely to happen is it."

One of the biggest reasons it is so unlikely is that, as Mr Blair himself acknowledged on the day he left office, he is not, and never has been, a “House of Commons man.”

He made clear how he felt about the place by resigning as an MP on the very day he resigned as Prime Minister, and it is inconceivable to see him hanging around on the backbenches waiting for his chance to ‘do a de Gaulle.’

Could he, instead, become a House of Lords or a Senate man, one of the elected peers Nick Clegg hopes to see if he gets his way and forces the Tory backbenches to swallow Lords reform?  This, I think, is rather more likely.

But if Tony Blair really does want to be Prime Minister again – and if you are politician, I don’t think you ever quite lose that desire – he would have to do it by a very different route next time round.

He won’t come back as leader of the Labour Party.  They wouldn’t have him even if they lost the next election and the one after that too.

He would probably have to start his own party, join the Tories, or, more plausibly, put himself at the head of some sort of grand Coalition in a moment of national crisis.

And the other thing he would have to do differently, of course, would be to find somewhere to represent that was a long way away from the North-East.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A tale of three Prime Ministers

Shortly after Rupert Murdoch sacked him as editor of The Times in 1982, the great newspaperman Harold Evans wrote a book about his experiences which he both hoped and believed would devastate the Australian media mogul.

‘Good Times, Bad Times’ remains a classic of its kind and is still pretty much essential reading for anyone wanting to enter our profession, but if the truth be told, its political impact was far more limited than its author had envisaged.

Over the ensuing decades, Murdoch’s continuing accretion of power over the UK media became by and large a subject of interest only to a few left-wing mavericks, with governments of both colours content to indulge the News International chief in the hope of winning his papers’ backing.

Then came the phone hacking affair, propelling the ‘Murdoch question’ to the centre of national debate to the point where it now threatens to eviscerate the entire UK political and media establishment.

This week’s hearings of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards might be termed a tale of three Prime Ministers, each one giving a subtly differing account of his dealings with the Murdoch empire.

Of the three, Sir John Major - who once promised to create a nation at ease with itself - was the only one who looked remotely close to being at ease with himself.

Actually his most intriguing revelation was not about Mr Murdoch at all but the man who defeated him in that 1997 election landslide.

Sir John’s estimation that Tony Blair was “in many ways to the right” of him seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that Tory governments seeking to reach out to the centre-left end up being more progressive than Labour ones which seek to appease the right.

Unlike Sir John, who admitted he cared too much about what the papers wrote about him, Gordon Brown claimed he barely even looked at them during his two and a half years in 10 Downing Street.

This was one of many scarcely believable claims which, taken together, served to undermine the credibility of what otherwise might have constituted a powerful body of evidence.

Mr Brown effectively accused Mr Murdoch of having lied to the inquiry about a 2009 conversation in which the former PM was alleged to have threatened to “declare war” on News International.

Cabinet office records appear to bear out Mr Brown’s version of events, but claiming he had nothing to do with the plot to force Mr Blair out of office might lead some to conclude he is a less than reliable witness.

The contributions from Messrs Major and Brown contained much that will be of interest to future historians, and may yet have a significant bearing on Lord Justice Leveson’s eventual recommendations.

But in terms of the impact on present-day politics, the key session of the week came on Thursday as David Cameron took the stand.

For such a renowned PR man he seemed very ill at ease, perhaps unsurprisingly given the excruciating contents of the text messages which he exchanged with News International boss Rebekah Brooks.

To his credit, though, Mr Cameron did not attempt to shy away from the responsibility for some of his more controversial actions, admitting that he was “haunted” by the decision to make former News of the World editor Andy Coulson his communications chief.

For me, the party leader who emerged with the least credit from the week was not Mr Cameron but Nick Clegg, whose decision to abstain in the vote over Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s future looked like the worst kind of gesture politics.

If they really wanted to see an independent investigation carried out into Mr Hunt’s role in handling the BSKyB bid, they would have voted with Labour, but this was no more than a cynical exercise in political positioning.

In Journal political editor Will Green’s excellent analysis of the state of the Liberal Democrats in the North-East published earlier this week, Gateshead Lib Dem councillor Ron Beadle was quoted as saying that Mr Clegg would not lead his party into the next election.

Party loyalists aside, it is becoming harder and harder to find anyone prepared to dispute that assertion.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The woman who saved us from President Blair

free web site hit counterIf there is a single word that has come to define David Cameron's premiership over the past two years - and one that is likely to continue to define it long into the future - it is almost certainly the word ‘austerity.’

But although circumstances have decreed that the administration which he leads is overwhelmingly focused on economic matters, this almost certainly wasn’t the way the Prime Minister originally planned it.

A few years back, the then opposition leader could be heard opining somewhat heretically that perhaps the role of policy-making should be more focused on making people happy than on making them rich.

Alas, after a couple of outings, the so-called ‘happiness agenda’ sank without trace in the face of the financial crisis that gripped the nation from 2008 onwards and which has continued to set the parameters of current day political debate.

Perhaps this week's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, however, have shown that Mr Cameron remains at heart much more of a social cavalier than the economic roundhead his opponents would sometimes like to depict.

Asked on Thursday whether other European countries would benefit from having Jubilee days off like Britain's, Mr Cameron replied with disarming honesty: ''It is not good for the economy, but it was good for the soul.''

The first point is pretty much unarguable, with the £700m boost from overseas tourism barely registering against the estimated £6bn in lost economic productivity over the course of the long bank holiday weekend.

But what the heck, we have all had a damned good party, and after what already seems like years of economic doom and gloom, perhaps that's just what we needed.

Mr Cameron is a not entirely disinterested observer, of course. Historically the ‘King’s Party,’ the Tories invariably enjoy a boost whenever the red, white and blue bunting comes out.

Furthermore, as I noted in last week’s column, the government was pretty much relying on this Jubilee weekend to draw a line under the post-Budget ‘omnishambles’ that has seen it stagger from crisis to crisis in recent weeks.

As the Tory blogger Harry Cole put it: “As a big shiny distraction from our economic woes and the political disaster that David Cameron’s government is perilously close to becoming, the Royal Jubilee weekend was pretty good.”

Whether it will work remains to be seen. But if a new ‘feelgood factor’ can emerge from the Jubilee and Olympic celebrations that will book-end this summer, then perhaps the Coalition can look forward to some sunnier times ahead.

What of the monarchy itself? Well, despite being given a frankly puzzling degree of prominence by the BBC, the Republican cause was pretty much routed by this week’s show of public affection for the Queen.

Left-wing commentators who blame the Monarchy for the decline in social mobility in the UK are forgetting that the first two decades of the Queen’s reign saw the biggest upsurge in social mobility in our history.

On a personal level, surely no monarch could be more deserving of the adulation that has been heaped upon her this week than Queen Elizabeth II.

As the historian Dominic Sandbrook put it: "We have had more exciting, more effusive and more colourful monarchs. But we have never had a sovereign who worked harder, served her country with more devotion, or better represented the innate decency of our national character."

For me, though, as has often been said, the importance of the monarchy lies primarily not in the power that it has but in the power that it denies to others.

And as such, my own debt of gratitude to the Queen is not so much for her devoted life of public service, nor even for the way she has held this country together in a period of unprecedented social change.

No, it is for the fact that, by her very presence at the pinnacle of our political system, she saved us from the baleful prospect of President Thatcher or, even worse, President Blair.

And for that, if for nothing else, I gladly join with the rest of the country in wishing Her Majesty a very happy Diamond Jubilee.