Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tory Hatchet Job

The Tories normally reserve their venom for their political opponents, but all may not be as well as it should be at Cameron HQ. The political magazine Standpoint have published a highly personalised attack on Cameron's chief strategist, Old Etonian Steve Hilton. You may not have heard of Hilton, but he occupies something of the position that Campbell and Mandelson occupied under Tony Blair. As such, he clearly generates enemies amongst the party apparatchiks, one of whom may be the author of the Standpoint piece. Entertaining though the piece is, however, if you like a bit of personal vitriol with your tea and toast, its credibility is somewhat emasculated by being published anonymously. So the most we can say is that one, relatively articulate, person, possibly at Tory HQ, doesn't like Hilton. And that's it. Nonetheless, it does give a bit of an insight into politics behind the scenes, and the editor of Conservative Home, Tim Montgomerie, sometimes suggested as an adviser for Cameron himself, did at least leap to Hilton's defence.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Blogging Punch

John Prescott has brought his own brand of say it like it is politics to the blogosphere. His blog seems to be very much the unvarnished Prescott, and is part of Alaistair Campbell's new website, campaigning for a Labour 4th. term. Prescott made minor ructions with a recent post describing former Downing Sreet policy chief Matthew Taylor as a "typical pointy head" and likening him to a "Mekon" (the science fiction villain from the Dan Dare comics!). Go and have a read - it'll cheer you up no end.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Change We Were Waiting For?

President Obama didn't get much joy from Iran's president as a result of his broadcast on Arab television the other day, but that shouldn't detract from the momentous nature of his words and his gesture. One thing I wanted from Obama was some indication that he might dare to tread where others would have feared. I wanted him to be as different from his predecessor as it is possible to be. And his appeal to the Muslim world was just that. A sign that there really might be a new way of doing things in the White House now. Andrew Sullivan has the issue down to a T in this post.

Liberals in Coalition?

The great debate about a hung parliament and coalition government after the next election continues to entertain Westminster insiders. The latest to launch into print on this charming parlour game is the Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala, in the New Statesman. He argues that it is time for Labour and the Lib Dems to acknowledge their position as progressive parties, and form a pre-emptive coalition against the skin-deep progressive Cameron Tory Party.

This might appeal to a Labour Party struggling to believe that its leader can give them another term in office, but it would be death to the Liberals. Paul Burstow, the Liberals' chief whip, suggested to the visiting SGS students this week that the present system in Britain was 'broken'. He used the term more than once. And if it is, and if the Liberals want to be seen as the party of system change, then a coalition with either of the major parties will merely usher them into the same tawdry pit. They cannot credibly pursue the Burstow claim if they are simply shoring it up by sharing power with one of the other parties. That was their problem in both Wales and Scotland, and it is noticeable that the Liberals in those two countries have chosen not to make the same mistake again, even at the expense of unstable minority government. A coalition may bring them power; it will also bring them political disrepute.

Thursday Update

The Labour rebellion on the Oppositions motion to do with the Third Runway included 3 MPs who have not rebelled before since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, according to the Philip Cowley Revolts site. More grist to the mill of those wanting to argue that large Commons majorities are not necessarily giving the government an easy ride.

The Four Lords a Charging scandal has given rise to a new rash of articles about reform of the Lords. Jonathan Freedland puts the case in the Guardian, and see also the letters which his article provoked.

Could there be an early election in Scotland? First Minister Alex Salmond failed to get his budget passed, thanks to Green non-compliance, and this might trigger the events that force a new election.

And Jon Rentoul in the Independent discusses teaching the history of the Blair government.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Update Links

Here are some links to bring you up to speed on a selection of current stories.

The story that no-one this morning seemed to be aware of - Sir Paul Stephenson is the new Met. boss. An intriguing appointment given the hash that was the Damian Green Arrest affair.

Is Gordon Brown in trouble? The FT speculates that he has been told to tone down all his frenetic activity, as it seems to be turning voters off. Especially since they don't appear to see many positive results.

The Spectator's Political Editor Fraser Nelson gives the monetarist view of the crisis, attacking Brown for not controlling the money supply. This crisis was predictable and man-made he says. Only problem being, as one commenter notes on the article, that Nelson wasn't one of those who predicted it!

Did the then Cabinet raise any concerns about the Iraq war? Cabinet papers eventually released under the 30 Year Rule should tell all, but, as the First Post reports, Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell is fighting hard to have those particualr minutes excluded from the Freedom of Information Act.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The First Day

There's no doubt that President Obama knows how to orchestrate the media! The minutiae of his first day in office has been carefully drip fed to the hungry media hordes, and there is little we don't appear to know. There is substance there as well. His first pronouncements as President, just announced to the press corps, have been to freeze senior White House pay, insist on a new ethics standards, limit the access of lobbyists and commit to greater transparency and feredom of information. These are no small deals in the new administration's determination to be seen as a fresh start, one that can be trusted by the people.

Obama signed the first executive orders in front of the press, and his affable Vice-President then had to administer the oath of office to the new senior staffers. Joe Biden usually manages to make a slip up or two, and here he seemed to be casting a sly dig at the Chief Justice when he asked for a copy of the oath, saying "I don't have Justice Roberts' memory". The Chief Justice, of course, misquoted the presidential oath of office yesterday when administering it to Obama.

Inauguration Thoughts

For a few hours yesterday there was a collective belief that things will be better, a new era has started and the world will be set to rights. Two million crammed into Washington's Mall, and many millions more watched around the world, as an almost physical weight of expectation hung in the air over the shoulders of this man who seems to have become the mega-celebrity of his day.

As President Obama launched into his inauguration speech, the CCF parade here at SGS came to an end and the sixth formers started flowing into a classroom to watch it live. I can't think of many other politicians whose speech would be a must watch event for such a wide range of people. Usually it's only the minority of us who are political anoraks who watch these things all the way through, but yesterday it was different. As, perhaps, the Obama presidency will be different. He wanted a 'people's inauguration', and speaks to ordinary people in a way that few other politicians seem to be able to. Ignore for a moment the high chance that he will fall below the almost superhuman expectations everyone has of him, and reflect on the simple reach of his charisma and political personality. If nothing else, Americans, and other citizens of the world, at least believe they have a leader who they can respect and that must be healthy for the political process.

Of course, the critics and the sceptics are starting to emerge. Several 'commentators' in the newspapers and on the blogs have said how the speech failed to deliver, how it was uninspiring, and where was the key line that we can all remember. Yet it is only disappointing in the sense that Obama has already set the bar so high. Having been used to a president who can barely articulate the English language, we have become used already to the fact that Barack Obama is a master of the language, that he can employ it to reach great heights and impassion millions of people. He is both a writer and a speaker. His books read elegantly and easily. His speeches are masterful. And his inauguration speech was finely tailored to the occasion. He did reach some fine cadences, but he also sought to encompass the dark realism of the country he is about to govern, and the world he is about to engage in. Apart from the stumbling round the Oath of Office - more the fault of a nervous seeming Chief Justice than anything - Obama remained fully in control, and his speech gave voice to great aspirations as well as reflecting genuine difficulties. 'No Drama' Obama wore the expectations of millions as lightly as the coat he shed at the podium. This is a man emboldened rather than cowed by his many challenges. The phrase 'cometh the hour, cometh the man' never seemed to have more resonance than yesterday, in the cold, electric atmosphere of a January inauguration.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Politics of Opposition

A little hidden by the politics of another bank bailout, and certainly by the looming events in the USA, Cameron's reshuffle was hardly earth-shattering, but it was interesting. Apart from Ken Clarke's much heralded return, David Cameron has taken the opportunity to elevate Chris Grayling, Eric Pickles and Mark Francois. Grayling has had a pretty fast rise to this key post, and many party members will be looking to him to bring a bit of down-to-earth, right-wing common sense to the portfolio. He's been an impressive performer up to now - unshowy and effective in chasing down the government. He is not, I think, going to find Jacquie Smith a difficult adversary, but he may find it more challenging to generate credible Tory policies.

Pickles, many years ago, was a One Nation Chairman of the National Young Conservatives, and then a combative leader of Bradford City Council. The Conservative Home poll put him as the grassroots favourite for party chairman, the post he now holds, and he should be a lot less invisible than his troubled predecessor. Nick Robinson was very positive about him, but Nick and Eric go back a long way, to the dim past of National Young Conservative activities when they were leading lights of the then 'wet' leadership. Pickles was an eminence grise when Robinson was irritating the hell out of the right! As for Francois, he is a Bristol luminary who was at the heart of some of the Bristol controversies over Professor John Vincent. While then student union chairman Lembit Opik was sitting firmly on the fence and trying to be best friends with everyone, Francois was busily defending Vincent and the right of free expression. We've heard too little of him in the years since then, but his post in the shadow cabinet should give him a higher profile now.

Cameron has clearly decided to balance one left-wing bruiser with three right-wing ones.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Return of the Beast!

Well, well. It looks as if Ken Clarke is back after all. I have been sceptical about whether he should be brought back into a shadow cabinet role, but David Cameron has decided to emulate Gordon Brown and bring back a big hitter from the past with whom he has some notable disagreements. According to the reports up on the news sites and blogs this evening, Clarke will take on the shadow Business Secretary role, shadowing Brown's own returnee, Peter Mandelson.

This will be the biggest political story tomorrow. Clarke consistently makes headlines, and ones that usually give him a great deal of credibility. When he announced his candidacy in the last leadership election the publicity pushed all the other candidates into the twilight zone of the media, to the sniffy annoyance of one D. Cameron, whose team remarked that it wasn't really fair, since all Ken Clarke had to do was get up in the morning to generate headlines. It seems Cameron wants some of that positive PR to be used officially for the party now.

Clarke is the Tories' lost leader. That their fortunes would have been different over the past decade if he had won any of the three leadership elections he fought is undeniable. But how well he will perform in a subsidiary role now is another matter, to say nothing of his own business interests, notably on the board of British American Tobacco. The only time, in fact, that I've seen CLarke genuinely discomfited was during a student politics conference when he was challenged by a questioner about the activities of BAT. And, of course, the Conservative right-wingers don't like him. Conservative Home - the unofficial voice of Tory grassroots opinion - opposed his possible return, and the comments on their page this evening suggest a less than overwhelming response to his new posting. Commenters generally fall into the category of "this is a big mistake" or "we're suspicious of him but we acknowledge he's a big hitter".

For now, Cameron can guarantee some good headlines tomorrow, and he has at least put someone opposite Mandelson who is capable of challenging him. Clarke should add lustre to the front-bench team (and it was apparently George Osborne who pushed the idea, with the deal being sealed at Osborne's house over lunch on Saturday), but I would be surprised if there wasn't also considerable nervousness at Tory HQ about a man who is notoriously unspinnable, and impervious to the idea of a party line. Whatever else he's done, Cameron's just made British politics a mite more unpredictable and enjoyable.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Clarke - Outside the Tent, As Ever

David Cameron has apparently been wondering whether to bring Ken Clarke into the Big Tent of formal Opposition front-bench activity. Undaunted by the prospect of shadowing a post he once held in government, Clarke has ensured further wavering on the part of Dave by going public with his view that "Anybody who stands for election on a platform of tax cuts is asking for trouble." And, of course, he has chosen the Guardian, that well known repository of Tory values, to advertise his views. It is, of course, as well known as Clarke's once possible return that Cameron might be toying with the idea of promising tax cuts, and that George Osborne positively salivates over them!


If only it would, but the Third Runway debate is here to stay and so, I suspect, is the Third Runway itself, bringing peace and happiness to all those of us who live under its putative flight path. Regardless of the ins and outs of the runway debate itself (I don't really want it, suspect it's probably an economic boon, and believe it's inevitable), there is no doubt that the political wake thrown up by its proposition is casting an interesting light on both parliament and pressure groups. The antics of Plane Stupid have already been mentioned on this blog. Students might also want to examine the growing rebellion on the Labour benches over it. The Cabinet is alleged to be divided, and the number of Labour MPs apparently ready to vote against it in the Commons will cause real trouble for Gordon Brown, esepcially since the Tories have decided they are going to oppose it as well. Gordon Brown, for all his troubles in his brief tenure to date as PM, hasn't actually faced a proper Commons defeat (unlike his predecessor) yet. This may change.

Thursday's debate on the issue saw some bad-tempered exchanges between Labour MPs and the droning Geoff Hoon, cast once again as the goverment's patsy in charge of an unpopular policy. John McDonnell went so far as to pick up the mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, although in a rather more delicate fashion than Michael Heseltine back in the 70s, who brandished it above his head, winning the sobriquet 'Tarzan' from then on. McDonnell was expelled for 7 days. The Bill, meanwhile, rolls on.

Freedom of Information? Not For MPs

Under cover of the Third Runway controversy, Harriet Harman on Thursday got Justice Secretary Jack Straw to issue a parliamentary order that forbids the publication of MPs' expenses. MPs, with a few honourable exceptions, have been desperate to get this sort of cover ever since the scrutiny of MPs expenses led to such unedifying stories as Tory Derek Conway's employment of his entire family, the existence of the so-called 'John Lewis List', and the willingness of MPs to claim for such essentials as window cleaning (Labour's Barbara Follett) and a pergola and plants for a constituency home (Margaret Beckett).

Harman's convoluted justification - that the expenses information needed to be provided in an "affordable and proportionate way" - is unlikely to convince sceptical campaigners that the government is genuinely interested in Freedom of Information when applied to itself. Libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes puts it thus:
"Jacqui Smith has (without reference to parliament) given herself the right to read Guido's email without a warrant, yet MPs in contrast are changing the Freedom of Information laws to allow them to obscure our view of their petty fiddles."

David Hencke of the Guardian also publishes a stringent attack on the government's lack of openness.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"War on Terror"

David Miliband regrets the use of the term "War on Terror". One conservative blogger, Iain Dale, takes Miliband to task for 'cowardice' and for only condemning the term days before George W. Bush, who coined it, leaves office. Nonetheless, Miliband's speech is an interesting one, encompassing as it does the sensitive issue of how governments define and represent their response to the terror threats that face their citizens. My own dislike of the term is based more around a cynicism about the reasons for using it. Call something a war, and you can justify a whole raft of state activity to prosecute it. The War on Terror has produced a whole new department in the USA devoted to internal security - the Department of Homeland Security - and to add to an apparatus that already includes the NRA, CIA and FBI. In Britain, it has been used as a justification for ID cards, for increasing the length of time you can hold prisoners without trial, and to provide iniquitous shows of strength like David Blunkett's sending of the tanks to Heathrow airport when there was no conceivable justification for doing so.

The currency of government dialogue is thoroughly devalued, and the use of the erroneous phrase "War on Terror" is one of the reasons, together with the persistent lying of the Blair administration about its reasons for going to war in Iraq. The regular justification of draconian domestic policies by the use of this phrase has continued to provoke scepticism and outright distrust of any government pronouncements. David Miliband is right to regret it. It would be more helpful if he also admitted the host of previous government falsehoods, and committed to a greater level of truth from government in future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Career? Wealth Creating or Public Parasite?

Two blog posts have generated a lot of vigorous debate. It started with an article by conservative journalist Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail, where he commented that no member of the present cabinet had ever occupied a wealth creating job. This was picked up by Spectator journalist James Forsyth on the Coffee House Blog, and then further picked up by Iain Dale on his blog. Cue a whole raft of pro and anti-comments.

So, students looking to your future employment prospects, where do you stand? Is the private, wealth creating sector the only one that generates value, or is the much demeaned public sector, with its emphasis on vocation, but its relative lack of material reward, the place for you?

Social Mobility

Newsnight had a debate between the Tories' Theresa May and Labour's Liam Byrne about the current vogue issue of social mobility. Kirsty Wark was as efficient in exposing the frailties of both as Paxman would have been. May, grammar school educated herself,  is nonetheless stuck with the useless Tory line that they will not look at the re-introduction of selection, while Byrne was hooked on the many hypocrisies of the Labour position, not least their ambiguous attitude towards private schools.

Young people today are apparently less socially mobile than they were in the 1950s. Now let's see - what started to be abolished on a wide scale in the 1950s?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Select Committee Reform

Interesting article by Tory MP Peter Luff on Conservative Home about the need for reform of the Select Committee system. Very useful reading for AS students covering Unit 2, Parliament.

How to Make a Story Out of Nothing

1. Someone tells you that the Prince of Wales calls an Asian polo colleague 'Sooty'.
2. You find out that said colleague is not remotely offended.
3. Everyone says the Prince of Wales is not at all racist.
4. Hey presto, you have another racism story to fill all those blank spaces with! Licence Fee money well spent.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Plane Stupid? Perhaps Not.

More Pressure Group news from the lovely people at Plane Stupid. Newsnight featured a debate between a 'Plane Stupid' spokesman and a spokesman for the opposing group, 'Heathrow Future'. If you can acces the programme either on BBC iplayer or on the Newsnight website, try and watch the segment dealing with the great runway issue (it's about 25 minutes in). It's also been revealed that 'Plane Stupid' have been the beneficiaries of a Greenpeace campaign to buy up land where the Heathrow runway is to be built - amongst those doing the buying are actress Emma Thompson. Publicity stunt? Genuinely creative attempt to thwart the planners? To say nothing of the allied action of two pressure groups - plenty of grist to the mill for those looking for up to date material on the topic.

Just Another Normal School Day....

"It is 9am, the start of the school day, and already an English teacher has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from a 15-year-old boy. Outside on the playing field, the PE teacher has stopped a lesson to deal with teenage pupils who are swearing and not doing as they are told.
Later that afternoon, three more members of staff will report being verbally abused by their charges, and the day will end with a pupil vandalising the library."

Not, happily, an average day at SGS, but it is an average day at another secondary school, Northfields Technology College in Bedfordshire. The Sunday Telegraph obtained behaviour and lesson logs for a number of schools, many of which were not considered to be failing by Ofsted. Most of them did, however, have a higher proportion than average of students on free school meals, one of the indicators of social deprivation. Many of the pupils cited in the logs for poor behaviour came from broken homes, and had behavioural or emotional difficulties. But they were still in mainstream education, and the schools were finding it increasingly difficult to expel them. The paper reported the case of a 12 year old boy who nearly strangled his IT teacher (colleagues looking on were apparently afraid to intervene in case they were accused of assault); the teacher eventually received £250,000 in a court settlement. The boy had already punched two fellow students on the day, and notched up 27 serious incidents in the previous few weeks, before he got round to strangling a teacher by the way. Fortunately, he hadn't been expelled so could continue his exciting learning journey.

It isn't, however, the extreme cases that best illustrate the problem in so many of our secondary schools. The example of Cheshire Oaks School is much more typical of the near impossible task confronting those of my colleagues who sought their vocational fulfilment in the standard secondary sector:

"At Cheshire Oaks School in Ellesmere Port, the behaviour log for one week shows 73 cases of pupils talking, shouting and disturbing lessons, 61 refusing to obey the teacher, including more than 20 incidents of children simply walking out of the lesson, 65 incidents of poor behaviour, 32 refusing to work when asked, 39 cases of rudeness, 20 cases of verbal aggression towards staff, 10 incidents of children wandering around the classroom or using mobile phones, 14 incidents of lateness, 15 cases of pupils throwing things in lessons and four physical assaults."

The grammar schools are in an elite group that do not need to worry about such attritionally bad behaviour, but the fact that they are an elite is down to the ratcheting effect of the politics of envy over the past few decades. If anyone needed persuading that the idea of educating all children, regardless of their ability or motivation, in the same institution was morally and educationally bankrupt, they should read and re-read the lesson logs of schools where the daily battle to control pupil behaviour takes priority over the need to educate the motivated few. Until government - and the education profession at large - gets to grips with the idea that you cannot treat all students the same, except to the detriment of those who want to learn, then there will be no progress. Until governments and authorities are prepared to admit that poor behaviour cannot be contained in schools that are given no recourse to any firm action by staff, too much of the secondary education world will remain broken and under-achieving.

On the Today programme this morning, there was a brief discussion on social mobility (Alan Milburn is heading up a commission on it on the principle, presumably, that a commission is cheaper than action), with Barnardo's chief executive Martin Nary virtually admitting that the education system, in its present form, was failing. And it's failing those who need it most - the working class poor who are most subject to government whim and have little redress.

Sutton Grammar offers a privileged education on the state - the scandal is that it has become available to so few in Britain today.

[And credit for the original tip for the article - from the eye-opening blog by teacher Frank Chalk.]

Labour List

Left-wingers have been infuriated for ages now about the apparent dominance of right-wing blogs. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way in which the independent (of the party), but Conservative site Conservative Home often leads news items and now acts as a standard reference point for Conservatives and others. Where the traditional Tory news source used to be the "Daily Telegraph", it is now increasingly becoming Conservative Home (especially given the Telegraph's current editorial and personnel problems).

Now, by way of competition, former Mandelson adviser Derek Draper has set up a Labour rival - Labour List - in the hope that this might turn the corner for the beleagured left-wing blogosphere. It is still in its formative stages, but my initial reaction to it is that it lacks the sort of variety that powers Conservative Home, and editorially seems far too tied to the Labour line. One of Con home's strengths is that it represents a clearly right-wing view that is nonetheless ready and willing to challenge the Tory party - usually when it thinks said party has not been right-wing enough. Reading through some of the Labour List posts at the moment is a bit like reading the 'Times' as edited by Winston Smith in 1984 - one cheerleading article after another (Ed Balls, "as interesting as ever", "Gordon is right" etc.).

The blogosphere would certainly benefit from a clear, left-wing voice - or several (of other dominant blogs, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are, of course, right-wingers) that acted as a friendly critic to the Labour Party and gave activists a sense of online empowerment. On the plus side, if they keep it going, there is little doubt that Labour List should start to find a clearer voice, will benefit from a variety of contributors, and will be a regular updater of news and views during the day. We'll see.

The Battle Lines

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have both been keen to draw the battle lines over the economic debate today. David Cameron launched his party's new ad campaign in London this morning, concentrating the message on the debt that Brown's government is ratcheting up. Every child born today is born owing £17,000 in debt, runs the tagline. (Part of the poster is shown left, as taken from the Conservative Home site - click on the image to go to their page.)

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has been keen to allay fears about unemployment. Hosting a jobs "summit" - and he is very keen on summits - Brown announced government plans to ensure that all long-term unemployed people are given a boost into work. The government have also been keen to align the Brown plans with those of Barack Obama, perhaps hoping that the lustre of the new president will rub off on them. The Tories are certainly pretty lonely in not proposing fiscal stimulus policies, but there are times when a bit of political courage pays off.

And click here for a conservative commentator's view of the Obama-Brown parallels.

Too Young to be an MP?

Conservative Home have been listing the Tory MPs who are over the age of 60, by way of indicating which safe Tory seats might still be up for grabs by candidates on the grounds of the incumbent's retirement. there is no necessity, of course, for MPs to retire at 60 or 65 and interestingly, this has given rise, in the message thread, to a debate about whether there shouldn't be a minimum age for MPs. Last year, the grand-daughter of Labour veteran Tony Benn made the newspapers when she was selected for a seat aged just 19. Is it ridiculous to elect younger people to be a candidate? It's certainly true that a 19 year old can hardly have developed much perspective or maturity in their understanding of national and world affairs, but listening to some of our MPs one is tempted to wonder whether age brings any sort of advantage at all. And, of course, one of Britain's greatest prime ministers - Pitt the Younger - was a mere 24 when he became PM. As with the debate about what experience a putative US president should have, the issue is surely more to do with judgement than age. And there is nothing to say younger candidates can't possess sound judgement.

A Sense of Proportion?

There are billions of human stories in the world each day. Gaza is aflame, a new administration is making itself ready to take power in America, Russia continues to keep the gas shut off, poverty stalks the western world as much as the rest, Zimbabwe remains in a state of what was the lead item this weekend? Prince Harry used the term 'paki' in a three year old video of his army mates. It speaks volumes about the British media's utter uselessness, and inability to use any sort of journalistic discernment that this deeply uninteresting, not terribly important story should have been their main item.

The blogger "Cranmer" has this response to it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Tory Taste

I remember when the more right wing of the Tory youth movement used to head out to the fascist regime in Nicaragua and go on manouevres with the Contras. Now, it seems, lacking political principle, but still wanting to shock, they simply dress up as Madeleine McCann for a New Year party, boast about it on facebook, and then grovellingly apologise for their lapse of taste when the game's up. And they're called Conservative us all!

Obama Time Gets Closer

As the president-elect gets ready for his inauguration on January 20th., he has been laying out his comprehensive economic stimulus plan to Congress. Two right-wing commentators concur - in this post from the Spectator - that Obama certainly doesn't lack imagination or the desire to take big decisions. By the end of they year, it's argued, Obama will either be a great president or a broken one.

Another Paxman Moment

Paxman gave a seemingly unprepared Employment Minister, Tony McNulty, a hard time on Newsnight last night. Conservative Home's Jonathan Isaby - himself a former BBC researcher - reviews the encounter and shows the video here. What's interesting is to read the Comments below - along with the usual range of Tory commenters determined to show that the BBC is a hard-nosed left-wing organisation, there are several who are sympathetic to McNulty and derisive of the great Paxo.

"The Best Front-Bench Team in British Politics"

Er, well, it may not be up against particularly strong competition, but even his closest supporters might find Nick Clegg's boast about his new front-bench team a little over the top. The Lib Dem reshuffle keeps the party's one bona fide star - Vince Cable - in place to continue leading the charge on the economy, but as for the others, it's a moot point as to what their impact is, and how much anyone really cares. So Susan Kramer, who has a higher profile than most, is actually stepping down from the Lib Dem front bench to lead the campaign against the expansion of Heathrow. She's replaced by Jenny Willott. Meanwhile, in news that is rocking the UK, David Heath, who dramatically quit the front bench last year, is now back again, shadowing the leader of the Commons. And David Howarth has just become the Justice Spokesman. You see? Not exactly household names. If I told you that Rodney Rogers had taken on the social affairs portfolio, and Juliette Sandelshoe was the new education spokesman, you might be quite happy to accept the news without demur, until you were told that they were just made-up names. Nick Clegg's problem is that he lacks a range of well-known supporting acts, other than Vince, and anyway we don't really care because we know the Lib Dems won't be anywhere near government after the next election.

Of course, it could be argued that David Cameron has a similar problem, and it is far more serious in his case because he is at least meant to be leading the official Opposition, and they are meant to be getting ready for government. He is concerned - as are his strategists - that he is looking too much like a one man band himself. Hence the talk earlier this week about bringing Ken Clarke back to the front bench. They want a big hitter, and with William Hague's profile increasingly compromised by his outside interests some of Team Cameron think Clarke might be a good idea. He isn't in fact. His own outside interests would be a nightmare, and it really is an admission of failure to bring back someone who first came into government in 1974, left it in 1997, and would be unlikely to want to shadow a post (Chancellor) that he has already held in government. No, Cameron needs to try and lift the profile of some of his current shadow cabinet, but who to pick? Alan Duncan is liked and has a good media presence, but is coming under attack from such Tory sources as the Telegraph; George Osborne is regarded with deep suspicion by the wider public and is probably too public-school; Dominic Grieve is very effective but lacks charisma; Caroline Spelman is a busted flush whatever the report says about her use of taxpayers' money to fund her children's nanny; Liam Fox has virtually disappeared beneath the radar. Interestingly, two down to earth, work-horse front benchers, Chris Grayling and Eric Pickles, have topped the Conservative Home poll this month of popular shadow cabinet ministers amongst Tory activists. Perhaps that's who Cameron should be pushing?