Friday, May 23, 2008

Crewe's Verdict

There is little to add to the acres of comment about the stunning Tory win at Crewe and Nantwich. In some ways it is difficult to work up yet more excitement over what is undoubtedly a dramatic political event given its predictability. We may not have expected the Conservative candidate to get a majority even larger than that awarded at the last election to St. Gwynneth, but we certainly expected him to win. And win he has. Big time.

I had a couple of texts from a Labour supporting ex-student last night who, for presumably masochistic reasons, had decided to head up to Crewe. The first, early in the evening, announced that things were 'grim'. The second, much later, abandoned reason in favour of more anglo-saxon comments about Labour's chances. It was as eloquent an expression of Labour's failure as anything I've read.

The message for Brown is obvious (and I don't think we need to waste time analysing the message for the Liberals). But what is the message for Cameron? Very positively, he has finally won a by-election off Labour. The last Tory to do this, before she was in government, was Margaret Thatcher. The impact of Thatcher's electoral shadow since 1978 has been such that every Tory leader, including herself, has struggled at by-elections. Why? Because the Tories have been so viscerally hated. That's Thatcher's legacy, but Cameron may now be feeling vindicated and triumphant at having laid to rest that mendacious Tory ghost. It's OK to vote Tory again - they are back in the game of proper vote-winning politics.

But Cameron himself has tacitly acknowledged the task ahead with his relatively low-key victory comments. He has resisted the temptation to gloat. He knows the Tories have achieved stage 1 of their come-back, but stage 2, the definition of workable, appealing policies, is still very much a work in progress. You only had to listen to George Osborne this morning on the 'Today' programme, wheeling his way round having to explain what the Tory tax policy was, to realise the significance of the task.

Finally, by-election triumphs don't necessarily equal general election wins. Ask Neil Kinnock. But here there is really worrying news for Brown. Kinnock won by-elections, but no-one could really picture him as prime minister. Looking at Cameron, however, most voters do see a prime minister, even if it is one in the image of Tony Blair.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Last of the Kennedys

Love them or loathe them, the Kennedy brothers have been amongst the most remarkable trio of politicians in US history. Teddy Kennedy has just been admitted to hospital with a malignant brain tumour, marking perhaps the end game in the original Kennedy story. He is the most tarnished of the three brothers, especially with the mystery surrounding the Chappaquiddick tragedy which resulted in the death of a campaign worker. Nevertheless, Kennedy has, as a senator for over 40 years, proved to be an effective legislator, and an articulate spokesman for the liberal cause in America. His own rhetoric occasionally matched the heights of that of his brothers, no more so than in his speech to the 1980 Democratic convention. His campaign for the nomination - against incumbent president Jimmy Carter - was hugely damaging to his party, but his speech allowed them briefly to forget their woes and remember the soaring heights that politics can aspire to. Kennedy's peroration is below, and worth re-visiting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tamsin the Toff

The Labour candidate in Crewe and Nantwich has expended lots of time and leaflets attacking the Tory candidate for being a 'toff'. Apparently, she's the one listed in 'Burke's Peerage', not him.....

Meanwhile, watching the Newsnight programme on the by-election, with its live audience of authentic voters, I'm not sure which is more irritating...Paxman, with his increasingly sneering, self-righteous and hectoring questioning, or the pathetic inability of seasoned politicians (on the panel - Hoon, Gove and Cable) to make adequate responses. Hoon is one of the most wretched Cabinet performers around, weak, spineless and utterly incapable of levelling with anyone, dependent as he is on a dissembling script prepared by Labour HQ. Gove is, at best, an intellectual naive, unable to communicate straightforwardly with voters and patronising interviewers alike, wearing his look of eternal bewilderment, while good old Uncle Vince is trying to get by with as few words as possible lest he undermine his much vaunted credibility. As for the candidates, the Tory didn't turn up (probably the best decision of the evening), while Dunwoody and the carpet-bagging Liberal woman were truly dismal spokeswomen for their parties.

Brown Challenge?

With a potential Labour wipe-out in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election two days away, rumours are beginning to circulate of a a possible leadership challenge to Gordon Brown in its aftermath. The Blairite duo Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn have made sure they have done some high-visibility campaigning in the seat - all the better to launch a challenge themselves? The website Political Betting has this story of a possible Milburn challenge.

Embryos and Pressure Groups

The Human Embryo and Fertilisation Bill is being debated in the Commons at the moment, and one of the more controversial aspects is the amendment being moved by Tory MP Nadine Dorries to lower the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. I have no wish to go into the ins and outs of this super-charged debate, but it is worth noting the assistance given by one particular pressure group to Dorries. The Lawyers Christian Fellowship, headed by Andrea Williams, has been particularly active on this issue and even drafted the amendment for Dorries to move. they have not only been able to access Westminster - and Williams has worked very closely with Dorries - but have also organised protests outside Parliament on this issue. For AS students approaching Paper 1, this represents an excellent current example of the power of pressure groups. For more information on the link between the LCF and Westminster you can read this article by David Modell (who produced a 'Dispatches' programme on the same topic). The article itself has a clear axe to grind, but is useful in noting how the LCF sets about achieving its agenda - classic insider group tactics.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Crowd Pleaser - or Influences on a Prime Minister

After another tawdry weekend where he had to suffer the modern political torture of punishment by memoir, Gordon Brown has shown once again that there is no more effective influence on a prime minister than the perceived direction of public opinion. Thus, his chancellor is instructed to roll out a tax cut to make up for the problems caused by Brown's own earlier budget, while Brown himself seeks to present himself as Vision Man today, notably prioritising schemes for low earners. Not a minute too soon. If he is to go anywhere over the next couple of years he absolutely needs to re-stake out his ground on alleviating poverty, and the elections will have served him a useful purpose if they remind him of this.

The memoirs he can dismiss as the short-lived revelations of political or personal rivals with an axe to grind. We enjoy them, but we don't believe them, and we certainly don't buy them. Today's political sensation is tomorrow's remainder after all. Of more concern is the upcoming Crewe and Nantwich by-election, and we have about a week to see whether Brown's remedial action can rescue the seat for him. I suspect it may not, but if the result goes against him he might now be able to take some comfort from the fact that he can honestly say, "Look, I'm listening, ok?"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Got a Job? Get an old friend in.

Boris Johnson has hit the ground running in his first week as mayor, with eye-catching appointments such as Ray Lewis, his new deputy mayor, and his meeting with New York's Michael Bloomberg yesterday, as well as his attedance at last weekend's Sikh festival. As well as his clearout of Livingstone cronies, he has started to appoint some of his own. His new Director of Communications, Guto Harri, is a former BBC journalist. He seems well qualified for the job and there's no doubt Boris needs an effective spin-meister. But his most important qualification appears to have been that he and Boris go back 20 years, to their time at Oxford together.

As if to really enforce the Oxford point, who's this who's just popped up as David Cameron's new appointment as Chief Executive at Conservative Campaign Headquarters? One Andrew Feldman - very able, I'm sure, but principally qualified as a mate of Cameron's from, yes, Oxford. Never mind Eton, the Oxford network's as strong as ever. Good to know that egalitarianism has its limits. I'm looking forward to the first Bristol-based administration!

Blair on Brown (Cherie, that is...)

So the last thing you want when you're down is a potentially gloating memoir from your predecessor's wife, detailing the ins and outs of that tricky relationship. Entirely true to form, Cherie Blair has brought the publication of her memoirs forward, and they do not make the easiest reading for Gordon Brown. Her disdain for him, and her admirable belief in her husband, only reawakes memories of when Labour used to win things - under Tony. She also suggests that Tony would have stood down earlier if he had any confidence in Brown's willingness to maintain his public service reforms.

Cherie Blair maintains that she has no animosity towards her former neighbour, but who could blame her if there isn't a feeling that Gordon Brown is seeing his appropriate nemesis. For ten years, Brown seethed at not having the top job and plotted continuously to gain it sooner rather than later. It must seem a little bit of bitter sweet revenge for the Blairs to witness his troubles today, and the Cherie memoirs, whilst not triumphalist, are hardly designed to soothe the present leader's troubled brow.
Oh, and if you've read Robert Harris's admirable novel 'The Ghost', you will have real trouble reading Cherie's own words with anything like due objectivity!
The Times extracts from Cherie's book are here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Mayor in Action

Boris officially took office at midnight, and will apparently be at his office in City Hall all day today putting his team together. He has continued to emphasise that he wants to crack down on crime, and has said he will seek the Met commissioner (Iain Blair's) dismissal if there is not sufficient progress.

One area of immediate action will be cutting the expenditure at City Hall, and Boris has apparently already committed to slashing the ex-mayor's vainglorious media and marketing budget by 20%. He will also replace the twelve key advisers currently inhabiting City Hall, as they are all, of course, Livingstone placemen.

Johnson is the most powerful Conservative in the country at the moment, so his actions will continue to be closely examined. I think he will surprise us all and could well prove an effective mayor. Incidentally, for all the accusations of homophobia thrown at him, I note that his key adviser and virtual 'deputy mayor', Nick Boles, is one of the few openly gay Tories around!

Statements of the Obvious.....

The Institute for Public Policy Reserach used to be regarded as one of the key New Labour think-tanks, thinking the things that others didn't dare to. So how about today's stunning report, which looks at teaching and concludes that better teachers can get higher grades out of students than poor teachers! I don't know about the level of intellectual rigour required for teachers in today's climate, but I'm beginning to wonder if think-tanks aren't picking up a few duds themselves!!

The report apparently also says teachers should be given 20 days training a year. A good idea, once you've dealt with the currently absymal state of teacher training. We have a couple of INSET days coming up which will offer nothing more useful than government initiatives poorly presented, and which could be better focused on offering revision sessions to exam classes. And I can well remember attending several days on one of the government's flagship training courses (run by something called the National College for School Leadership) and wanting to go and pick salt grains in Siberia rather than suffer any more of their extraordinarily low-level 'training'.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Mayor Boris!

To the fury of the left, Boris Johnson, the man they all thought was just a joke, has won the mayoral election. It's what makes democracy exciting. No-one would, at the outset, have predicted a Johnson victory, but during the course of the campaign a general schadenfreude with Ken Livingstone, coupled with the disaster that is, at present, the Labour government, combined to give a newly disciplined Boris the edge, and then a comfortable victory. He was way ahead on first preferences, and then the second preferences just confirmed his victory.

In victory, Boris's speech was magnanimous indeed. Not everyone would agree with his generous assessment of Ken Livingstone; perhaps it was true of his first term, but not of his second. But it was right to commend the man who was London's first elected mayor. Boris, too, showed he understood that his election was not ringing endorsement either of himself or the Tories. He said that he knew people's pencils had hovered above his name before voting; and that his victory had not turned London into a Conservative city. These were shrewd observations, and if he can maintain this sense of holding an office on trust from the people, and put his undoubtedly able team to work on London's behalf, then some people might need to eat their words in four years time, and he might even get a second term.

Brian Paddick, incidentally, gave a short speech which included his own tribute to Ken, but was noticeably lacking any congratulations to Boris. There are rumours that Boris is thinking of using Paddick to advise on police matters - I wonder if the man's lack of grace might make him think again.

There is, meanwhile, no shortage of advice to the Labour Party about what to do now (see the Matthew Parris article noted on the right), but Danny Finkelstein has some useful words of advice to the Tories too.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Rumour Has It

Danny Finkelstein of the 'Times' is busy updating his comment blog with rumours of the London mayoral result. Tories are all very chirpy apparently, with Conservative HQ looking forward to a Boris victory of between 4 and 8%.

Brown's Woes Pile Up

Not only is he having to put a brave face on a night of disastrous results, but Gordon Brown has just lost his hand-picked candidate for the job of Labour's General Secretary. Sky News reports that David Pitt-Watson, a millionaire city high-flier, has backed out for fear of being tainted in the ongoing investigation about cash for honours. He doesn't want to risk his own millions should Inspector Knacker close in on Labour party operatives.

Oh well, at least Gordon has plenty of ex-councillors who will be willing to step into the breach.

Blue Dawn?

It would be churlish not to allow David Cameron his day of triumph. He took over a party that looked as if it had become permanently unelectable outside a few privileged enclaves, and has seen it achieve ultimate electable status. 44% of the vote - against the dismal showings of his two rivals - in last night's locals is certainly nothing to be sneered at. Thatcher was getting that sort of percentage in her election winning prime. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has presided over Labour's worst performance in decades - even lower than Michael Foot's cataclysmic 1983 election. Worse for Brown, he is being increasingly tainted as the John Major of New Labour (see, for example, a comment on the post below). As for Clegg, well, while his party performed well enough in his own city of Sheffield, his inability to take it to a level of support beyond that which the much derided Menzies Campbell obtained hardly suggests a dynamic, frontier grabbing new leadership.

However, Cameron would be well advised not to spend too long on his celebrations. Despite last night, his task is strewn with problems.

First, he must be at least a little nervous about the capability of his new controlling Tory councillors to deliver effective leadership. The Tory party has been haemorhagging members for years now, with the result that too many of their councillors and council candidates are either hugely inexperienced, or represent some of the less attractive aspects of 1980s and 90s conservatism. For the Conservatives to keep Bury, and Southampton et al for more than a year or two will require real drive and discipline on the part of these new leaders.

Second, while Cameron is the first leader since Thatcher to see his party win seats in northern redoubts, they remain far and few between. The great urban breakthrough didn't occur. Margaret Thatcher may have won three elections in a row, but most Tories have never accepted the reality of the long-term damage her leadership did to her own party. The Thatcherite dominance saw the party's representation shrink away from cities and provinces into an insular, rural southern laager. Not only that, but the memory of Thatcherism is strong, and divisive, enough all these years later to still turn people off the idea of voting Tory. Be Labour ever so bad, many voters would never see Toryism as an appropriate alternative.

Third, and this is the Matthew Parris point, how ready is Cameron for government. Really. His policies remain a largely incoherent mix, and his leading spokesmen, with a very few exceptions, seem to be limited, uninspiring people. Winning power, be it locally or, potentially in a couple of years, nationally, will be a triumph for Cameron. Holding power will be far more difficult, and far more crucial. If the next Tory government fails to exercise power effectively and inclusively, it could well damn the Tories into opposition for far longer than 13 years.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mayor Boris?

At this early stage on election night (11.35pm) the - admittedly biased - website Conservative Home has already done it's own assessment of the day's voting, and called the London Mayoral election for Boris Johnson. I gather from Sky News that we may not actually find out the real result until late afternoon tomorrow, while the BBC's News 24 anchor says the London count is so 'tight' that nothing leaks out about likely results. This could make the evening rather duller, although I should dutifully note that much of the rest of the country are voting for a range of local council seats, electing councillors who not even their neighbours would recognise in the local Asda.

Boris Attack

The Day of Reckoning! It's the third ever mayoral election, it's a lot more exciting than the first two, and for the first time a Tory candidate has a chance of winning. The last time the Tories controlled London was back in the mid-70s when the Greater London Council was under the leadership of Tory councillor Sir Horace Cutler. He was defeated in the 1980 election which saw Labour's London leader Andrew Macdonald win...only to be ousted as Labour leader within 24 hours of victory by a young left-wing upstart called Ken Livingstone.
Boris clearly generates real hatred on the left, nowhere more so than in the pages of the 'Guardian' which has given him the tribute of a whole section entitled 'Stop Boris'. The lead article is by Zoe Williams, and is so gloriously intemperate, out-tabloiding the tabloids in its outraged, street-style language that we had great fun analysing it in politics today. Apparently Boris is only loved because of his floppy hair and 'sodding' bicycle. With penetrating analysis like that, no wonder the Guardian doesn't need to bother with facts. And one fact, incidentally, that eludes so many people, is that Boris never wrote the Liverpool article in the Spectator for which he apologised so profusely. As editor, he took the wrap for the unsigned piece, but it was actually written by right-wing columnist Simon Heffer. Which makes Heffer's own spluttering attack on Boris in the Telegraph all the more inexplicable. Heffer himself, of course, lay low and never openly admitted authorship of the offending piece.

Anyway, a man who alienates both a left-wing harridan like Zoe Williams and a right-wing blimp like Simon Heffer must be doing something right. More to the point, overpaid journalistic clap-trap notwithstanding, will Boris win? Well, in a few hours we should know, but I think I'm sticking with the view expressed today that he'll win on second preferences. Can't wait!!!