Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Boring but Noteworthy

When Gordon Brown readmitted Paul Murphy to the Cabinet as, er, Welsh Secretary, he caused a vacancy in the chairmanship of one of the Commons Select Committees. Quite an important one too - the Intelligence and Security Committee. So which gallant campaigner for greater parliamentary scrutiny of the executive has been appointed? Step forward yet another ex-minister - the ex-Foreign Minister, Margaret Beckett. Beckett had arguably the least distinguished record of any foreign secretary, and certainly has no record as an indepedent minded legislator, so here's yet more evidence of the uselessness of the select committee system whose chairmen are appointed by government whim.

Tory MPs in Trouble

Derek Conway's offence is relatively easy to understand, compared to the sometimes labyrinthine arguments about campaign funding that have been afflicting a succession of Labour figures. The Tory MP for Old Sidcup and Bexley used his Commons expenses - a perfectly legal entitlement - to pay his two sons a hefty wage for 'research work' that coincided with their passage through university. A perfectly unethical action. Essentially, he took taxpayers' money for his own family's advantage - theft I think it's known as. Now Conway is not a significant figure in the Tory party - an old rightist of little wider influence who huffs and puffs a lot on right-wing issues. It probably wasn't the most difficult decision for David Cameron to remove the Tory whip from him. Nonetheless, at least Cameron did act, and relatively swiftly (although not without a bit of overnight dithering), which one can't help but observe was a deal more decisive than anything coming from Brown. MPs of all parties may be guilty of low-level misdemeanours - they are human after all - but one can judge a leadership by its willingness to draw a ruthless line and take clear action. John Major's downfall was occasioned in part by his supreme reluctance to sack ministers involved in sleaze. Seems he may have set the standard for his successors as PM.
There is another story emerging about Eastbourne's Tory MP, who has been questioned by police following assault allegations on his teenage son and daughter. The editor of Conservative Home, who seems to know a little about the case, is urging his readers not to jump to conclusions while the story stays under legal wraps. Indeed, he seems to suggest that Nigel Waterson may emerge with credit from the affair. Intriguing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reshuffle Time

Peter Hain's resignation prompted a mini-reshuffle which saw the photo-shopping Culture Secretary James Purnell promoted to Work and Pensions. The details of the reshuffle are here.

And have the Tories been caught on the hop? They didn't call for Hain's resignation, and are now being asked why, given that they have spent today saying he was right to go!

Gone At Last

All the normal news outlets can be used to pick up news of Peter Hain's resignation because police are now investigating him. He certainly has more support in resignation from Labour colleagues than he had in hanging on to office.
One of the perennial political questions is 'when should ministers resign?'. The honest answer is probably along the lines of 'when the heat becomes too much', although purists might prefer it if the old principle of ministers going either because their department made unacceptable mistakes, or because they themselves had been guilty of wrongdoing, still held good. Peter Hain left because the scandal became too great. He hasn't left because he admits any wrongdoing. He isn't the first self-justifying minister to be hauled out of office, and he certainly won't be the last, but we probably wait in vain for any repetition of a Lord Carrington-style resignation, back in 1981. Carrington, Foreign Secretary at the time, resigned because he accepted responsibility for the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, which was a clear foreign policy failure. He was right to resign, and honourable for doing so. Perhaps we need more hereditary peers in government to bring a sense of honour back!

One footnote to the affair is the glee of the political bloggers - leading UK blogger Guido Fawkes is busy claiming credit for the Hain scalp, and is being lauded across the right-wing blogosphere. He's on Newsnight tonight, and it will be interesting to see if mainstream media agrees with his self-assesment!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Let Ahmadinejad Stew

As if we needed further evidence of the need for the West - and particularly America - to lay off grand-standing about Iran, this story in the Guardian reveals that the bellicose Iranian president is losing the support of Iran's Supreme Leader, and heading for a 'winter of discontent'. More significantly, the Guardian report suggests that domestic opposition to Ahmadinejad is being stepped up now that the president can't keep relying on the American bogey to prop himself up. Sane heads have argued for some time that Ahmadinejad needed the threat of American military action to shore up an increasingly untenable domestic position, and the ever obliging Bush administration has not, until recently, let him down. Leave him be, however, and his domestic chickens start coming home to roost. It is perhaps worth adding, in this US election year, that the candidate who has been most robust about Iran, thanks in part to his neo-con advisers, is Rudy Giuliani. Fortunately for the rest of the world, Rudy's hopes of gaining his party's nomination look like a distant one, although a final verdict has yet to be delivered by the primary voters of Florida, where Giuliani has been campaigning hard.

Jacqui Smith's Mistake

It was not, perhaps, the wisest move on the part of a Home Secretary in a government that's been in power for 11 years to admit that she didn't feel safe walking the streets at night, but that was indeed Jacqui Smith's mistake at the weekend. She made the admission while being interviewed by Andrew Marr, and came across as if she were just another of all these helpless people who can't do anything about the soaring crime rate. Except that she's, well, you know......Home Secretary, and sort of in charge of the police and keeping crime down.

One result of her admission has been to push one or two of the newspapers into an anti-crime frenzy, none more so than ardent Labour supporters, the 'Sun'. Their front page today prints a desperate reader's letter that talks about 'decent members of the public being murdered by the feral youths on our streets.' Their website page then goes on to catalogue a veritable smorgasbord of horrors to hammer the point home.

This is meat and drink to the 'Sun' of course, and the link between rising crime and increased police inability to tackle it, with the rise in bureaucratic requirements for the police as imposed by the current government, won't have occurred to them. The problem for the opposition parties, and especially the Tories, for whom this is supposed to be fertile territory, is how to sound strong on the issue without coming across as a hang 'em and flog 'em loony. Mind you, figures notwithstanding, it is just possible that for every Jacqui Smith, fearful of walking the streets lest she be mugged by an annoyed police officer struggling to make ends meet on his less than satisfactory pay rise, there could be a horde of citizens tramping the streets in perfect safety. That bit doesn't get reported of course. It's not really news, is it? 'Man Walks Home Safely'. Hmmm.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Tories' Successor to Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe, one of the most recognisable faces of Conservatism over the past decade, is stepping down from parliament. Her safe Kent seat, Maidstone and the Weald, has therefore been looking for a suitable successor and today they announced the result - Helen Grant, a black solicitor and mother of two. Raised by a single parent on a council estate in Carlisle, her personal profile certainly makes a change from the average one for a Tory candidate (although not completely - she is, as I mentioned, a lawyer!), which is possibly why David Cameron had been keen to put her on the party's A-list. (The Evening Standard image opposite is from the Conservative Home site.)

The selection of candidates, particularly in a party's safe seats, is one of the more hotly contested rights of local constituency parties. The local parties value, and fight for, their independence, not least because selecting the next MP is one of the few genuine, tangible powers that they hold. The central party leadership, meanwhile, is often desperate to denude this power from the locals and decide things centrally. One of the innovations that allowed Tony Blair to mould New Labour was an increased level of central control over candidate selection, thus preventing too many left-wingers getting seats. New Labour, of course, also imposed women-only shortlists, thus substantially increasing the number of women in parliament following the 1997 election, although storing up a bit of trouble for itself in the process. The reason why the once strong Labour seat of Blanaeu is now Independent is down to the furore over a women-only shortlist imposed by Labour's national Executive.

David Cameron has also tried to intervene in local powers, mainly through his 'A' list idea. Tory constituency parties have also been holding 'open primaries' in a bid to widen the representation of who selects their candidate.

The problem for party leaderships, of course, is that local party activists are a far cry from being representative of their constituency as a whole. By definition, a party member is more committed and probably possessed of more forthright political views than the average voter. The leadership wants to appeal to the mainstream voter; the party member wants to secure his or her favoured policies. The result is tension between the two.

Helen Grant's political stance within the Tory spectrum is unclear, but Conservative headquarters will at least be rejoicing in her selection, on diversity grounds alone. One of the unsuccessful candidates for the Maidstone seat blogged her experiences here, and there is an interesting comment below the post about whether a candidate selected as a good constituency representative can also fulfill the function of being an able legislator in the national interest. That, of course, is another of the debates about MP's and their role.

For completeness, I should add that Labour's Hazel Blears has also been successful in being selected for a new merged seat this weekend - her current one disappears under boundary changes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

3 Primaries, 3 Winners

Another winner for the latest Republican primary in Michigan, and at last the multi-millionaire former governor of Massachussetts has topped the poll.  Romney as a candidate has rather failed to define why he should be president, which might explain his defeats in New Hampshire and Iowa despite spending huge sums of money there.  Michigan has given his campaign a much needed oxygen injection, but we shouldn't read too much into it - this, after all, was a state where his family connections included having a father who used to be governor.  Romney also managed to be utterly underwhelming in his victory speech, trotting out what is by now the tired old 'Comeback' reference - although apparently, Mitt's comeback is 'for America'.  Er, right.

Giuliani and Thompson came bottom of the republican poll again, but I have been asked to comment on Ron Paul's little noted campaign.  Paul has been holding in there with a distinctive libertarian platform, and could yet decide to run as an independent, as could that other maverick Republican, the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hain Rumbles On

So now we have Hain the 'committed' campaigner for Labour Party office. So committed, in fact, that he was too busy concentrating on his cabinet jobs to take much interest in the financing of his campaign. And, of course, he has 'done nothing wrong' and has 'nothing to hide'. Well, nearly nothing. His late disclosures were not done without much media pressure, and we still know litle of the relationship between him and the mysterious think tank, Progressive Policy Forum. It has apparently done little actual thinking, but that seems to be de rigeur for anyone or anything connected to Peter Hain at the moment.

Nick Clegg made a good point this morning - either Hain is incompetent to an extraordinary degree, or he is indeed guilty of obfuscation. Neither accusation renders him able to credibly carry on as a minister of the Crown, and it is to the discredit of the opposition parties that they have not been calling for his resignation. Are they really enfeebled by the possibility that they themselves have unclean hands?

The Fawkes blog provides a forensic dismissal of Hain's pleadings of innocence, while blogger Iain Dale points up the hypocrisy of Hain's position with his reminder of the departmental campaign that Hain heads up to the public - 'No Ifs, No Buts'. Take your own advice, Mr. Hain.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hain's Woes

Peter Hain has long been one of the smuggest, smarmiest, most unbearably self-righteous of the New Labour mob, so it's difficult to feel anything other than genuine rejoicing over his current come-uppance. Lacking humour, self-deprecation, or stellar ability, this tediously tanned apparatchik is now splashing around in a little financial scam - namely, the inability to declare £103,000 in donations to his deputy leadership campaign. His justifications are typically self-serving and require real efforts at a suspension of disbelief - apparently he is such a committed public servant, and so uninterested in his party ambitions, that he really didn't pay much attention to the little matter of where the money was coming from. We should really stop hounding such a fine public servant.

Hain should probably resign, although the thought that he might do so quickly and voluntarily won't have occurred to him, so we'll have the unedifying spectacle of yet another cabinet minister clinging to office for dear life while their integrity and credibility get smashed around them. This is the new doctrine of ministerial irresponsibility.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

'Bring Back Vince'

At the time of writing the parliamentary sketches haven't appeared on the newspaper websites yet, so we await their all important verdict on Nick Clegg's underwhelming debut as Lib Dem leader at Prime Minister's Questions today. He didn't mess up, but he didn't stun either. There were, apparently, shouts of 'Bring Back Vince' from the Tory and Labour benches and actually, worthy though Clegg's question about fuel prices leading to 25,000 deaths might have been, he still lacked a bit of the humour and lightness of touch that served his predecessor well. But humour was at a premium today. Gordon Brown raged his way through PMQ's, asking almost as many questions of David Cameron as Cameron was asking of him (perhaps they could re-name this Leader of the Opposition Questions?), and Cameron tried some humour towards Clegg, and then more savage humour towards Brown, but it all came across as just rather bad-tempered. Where's the love??

New Hampshire Screws Media

I was jolted awake some time after 6 by the very voice of the devil talking about hell. When I'd recovered my sanity, I realised that the voice belonged to Senator John McCain. The Today programme was broadcasting his speech about Osama Bin Laden - McCain proclaims, lest anyone be in any doubt, that as president he 'would chase Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell'. Excellent. Because what we need is a president who is prepared to get a little more aggressive out there in the Middle East.

Actually, McCain, to be fair, is one of the better Republican candidates (I know, I know - that really is like suggesting Posh is one of the more intelligent Spice Girls, but there we go) and his win in New Hampshire was every bit as exciting as the astonishing Hillary Clinton turnaround. Well, actually, more a sort of turn-and-turn-again-around, since Clinton was well in the lead, then behind after Iowa, then back in the lead. Americans are nothing if not fickle, and they do love their underdogs. At this rate, every candidate will have a chance to top a poll somewhere; there's definitely space for someone to grab the Alaskan primary.

This is the most open presidential race for about half a century. After getting huge amounts of egg on their face in New Hampshire, the pundits are certainly going to be wary about calling the results. It was great, for instance, to read the 'Sun's' usual crass anti-Hillary slot and fawn all over Obama before they'd got the actual result. There's actually beenm quite a lot of fawning over Obama, even from Tories, as Conservative Home shows in this post. But then, he is an exciting candidate, even if he hasn't quite worked out all his ideas, and both he and Hillary have genuine political star power. For the Republicans, McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee are all 'outsider' possibilities; I think Romney is frankly too damaged now though. McCain is a solid 'anti-Bush' Republican for all his hard line on the war, but I think the race is still the Democrats' to lose - 'change' is the most over-used word in the campaign at the moment, but Americans seem desperate for it, and that probably means changing party in the White House as well. Let's see - for all the January excitement, the presidential poll isn't until November. And a mere week is.........well, you should know the rest!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Age is the Thing

John McCain is 71 and is a serious contender for the presidency. Ming Campbell, in his 60s, was seen as being too old to be leader of a party that is unlikely to form a government. The main opposition leader, David Cameron, is 41, as is the Liberal leader, Nick Clegg. Hence, an interesting bit of musing by Newsnight's Michael Crick here about the vagaries of age in politics. To be honest, we should be wary of callow youths seeking office before they've experienced the world in all its glory. Hitler was 44 when he became Chancellor - a real advert for virulent youth, and he was of course the ultimate youth worshipper with his interminable youth brigades. But who was it who brought him low? Winston Churchill, 65 when he became Prime Minister. Still a bit young, but needs must.

Brown's new Aide

One of Gordon Brown's great boasts, after the era of spin, was that he wouldn't succumb to dark arts himself. After all, here was a man who it was very difficult to spin, and whose great strength would be that what you see is what you get. But prime ministers need help from whatever quarter they can get it, and the PM today announced the appointment of his new 'Principal Political Adviser'. And the lucky winner? Step forward media and PR man Stephen Carter, straight from his post as CEO of the, er, PR firm Brunswick. They don't get much more senior than that in the spinning world! And you can see here for the inevitable Guido Fawkes diatribe!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Tale of Three Elections

In the Russian state of Georgia, where democracy is a new and fragile thing, the snap election called by President Saakashvili looks as if it has been conducted fairly - according to the legion of foreign election observers - and has resulted in a victory for the reforming Mr. Saakashvili. As such, it marks a useful milestone on Georgia's road to the democratic community of nations, and potentially lifts her up as a lodestar to surrounding nations in the tortured Caucasus region. (The Economist comment prior to the election result is an illuminating one, and is here.)

In America, the candidates had one of their vaunted television debates today, and all eyes are on New Hampshire to see if the weather will blow the same way as it did in Iowa. Hillary Clinton is falling in the polls as the Obama bounce takes hold, but even if she should fail to gain victory in New Hampshire, it would still, I think, be too early to write her off. These two caucuses/primaries count for nuts when it comes to actual delegates; it's the 'big mo' that's crucial. For the Republicans, McCain is the apparent 'Comeback Kid' of this year's campaign. He seemed dead in the water last summer; now he's headed for victory in New Hampshire. Go figure.

Finally, there's Kenya. As already noted, there couldn't be a clearer test case of how to abuse an election and ruin a country. Although there is some progress on the political front - opposition leader Odinga has hinted that he may agree to be part of a coalition government with President Kibaki - the net result of Kibaki's corruption now has been to see food convoys head into Kenya. That's the thing about elections. When they're good, they offer the people a voice. when they're bad, they are capable of casting the people into despair.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

TIA....

In the film 'Blood Diamond', Danny Kruger (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his erstwhile employer, the Colonel, coin the acronym 'TIA' - 'This Is Africa' - by way of justifying unjusitifiable events. Murder, corruption, mayhem, slaughter - they are all seemingly inexplicable, except for the fact that 'TIA'.

I was reminded of this when hearing about the Kenyan election debacle. Yet another power-hungry, corrupt African political 'big man' wants to hold on to power and the wealth that goes with it, and in consequence he is prepared to cast his country to the dogs. The inevitable response to Kibaki's stolen election was violence in the streets. One BBC image showed a man being pursued through town; the journalist informed us he had been hacked to death seconds later by his pursuers. TIA.

In a continent that contains Robert Mugabe, we might be inclined to dismiss Kibaki as pretty low level on the corruption scale, but his greed has turned what seemed one of the more successful African nations into another of that continent's typical disaster zones. The Economist have a shrewd leader here, but the fact is no-one can help the Africans except the Africans themselves - and too many of them are unwilling or unable to do so. Roll on more slaughter, tribal violence, poverty and anarchy. After all, TIA.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ready for Change in America?

The presidential election isn't until November, but the first electoral shots have now been fired. The Iowa caucus remains far too individual, small and, frankly, unrepresentative to stand as an indicator of American opinion, but it does provide momentum to the lucky winning candidates. And in both parties the winning candidates were the outsiders - former Baptist minister and small state governor (Arkansas - the Clinton state!) Mike Huckabee for the Republicans, and black first-term senator Barack Obama for the Democrats. The result is particularly galling, perhaps, for Hillary Clinton, who thought she had a lock on the Democrat nomination way back in 2007. But both she and the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, have suffered from campaigns that have been almost too calculating. Clinton's political positions have been varied and contrasting and it has been difficult to establish just what she does mean for the future of America. Experience and change are not exactly comfortable partners, and yet that was precisely what Clinton was offering the electorate. Barack Obama, by contrast, has been consistently fresh and exciting, and preaches clear messages - none more so than his 'troops out' approach to Iraq.

Well, in this longest of democratic elections, Iowa really is only a small first step, but it's provided an immediate upset and sparked renewed interest in the first presidential contest in over half a century where neither party boasts a sitting president or vice-president in the running. For some immediate analysis, the Spectator's James Forsyth has been blogging away madly on the Spectator's Coffee House blog; he is distinctly pessimistic about Hillary's chances, whilst acknowledging that it is obviously too early to write off such a well financed and experienced campaigner. Now, on to New Hampshire, where in the Republican camp John McCain may provide the next upset. I love American politics!