Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Should Brown Say?

He's been given a bit of an act to follow with Peter Mandelson's speech yesterday. Mandelson combined humour, self-deprecation and passion to give us a fresh image of himself - one he's been working on ever since he came in from the cold to work with Brown a year ago. But what about the leader himself, what should he be saying?

It's difficult for a former Tory who has never been a Labour supporter to hazard particularly good guesses, but the key thing today is probably to appeal to his core audience, the Labour conference, and ignore the television one. If commentators and viewers see a Brown on form in front of his own people, and being warmly endorsed by them, that in itself will send a useful message from a party currently considered divided and demoralised. And what would enthuse the brothers and sisters in Brighton? Brown should certainly be playing up his crisis record, and he could couple it with some sharp attacks on the Tories.

Perhaps he should tell them he's happy to stand before them as the man who tried to protect jobs and keep the economy going in its darkest time. He could raise some Tory bogeymen at the same time - at least his government has never legislated against an entire section of the population on the grounds of their sexuality (Section 28); at least he's never sought economic recovery in the violent destruction of whole communities (miners; inner cities under Thatcher); he's tried to build schools ('Building Schools for the Future') not tear them down or hive them off to private enterprise (actually, this last is a bit of a white lie, but he can learn!). And he could engage in a bit of good old fashioned class war - use his personal back story. He knows about trying to survive on modest incomes in a small household. Do we really want to hand our country and our economy over to the wealthy public school elite now running the Tory party? And why not make a self-deprecating reference to the Andrew Marr question about prescription drugs, and maybe turn it on Cameron? Something along the lines of "If I were taking drugs, it would at least be the prescription type, not the illegal type!"

Then, of course, there's the vision thing. He does have to offer a positive reason to stay with Labour in the future. Forget about just tinkering with education - do something big and offer selective schools to all of the inner cities, to benefit the most deprived kids in the country, and lever whole areas out of the trap of poverty and aspirational immobility. What about political re-engagement - take the bull by the horns and offer a referendum on a new electoral system (see the Compass report from yesterday). He could do himself real favours by abandoning the wretched ID cards idea, and the National Safeguarding Council, and reinvest all that money in crime initiatives targeted at inner urban areas - more policemen out on the beat; more and better paid social workers out in the homes and flats; more leisure places for disaffected youngsters. He could even try and recover playing fields for schools, starting with the city schools.

The Tories have two Achilles Heels - the memories of their last time in government (and the sense that, Cameron aside, most of them would revert to cod-Thatcherism as soon as they could), and their lack of really interesting ideas. Brown could hammer them on both today if he chose.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Marr and The Art of Interviewing

Andrew Marr doesn't usually get hauled over the coals for his aggressive interviewing technique, mainly because he generally seems to prefer soft balls. but his weekend interview with the Prime Minister is causing real stirs at the Labour conference. Paul Waugh blogs about the original interview here, and updates with further outraged Labour reaction here. Perhaps the real issue is that he got a bit too close to the mark - rather like Jeremy Paxman asking Charles Kennedy whether he had a drink problem?

The Last Ever Labour Government?

As ever, I'm running behind with the news, but this report by the left-wing think tank Compass, which was publicised on Sunday, should be giving the Labour party pause for thought. They contend that should Labour lose the next election, they may well find themselves out of power for ever. They identify three key reasons:

1. David Cameron's promised cut of 10% in parliamentary seats will hit the Labour Party most of all, since they currently represent the lowest population density seats at present.
2. A new Conservative government might well prompt a sharp move towards full Scottish independence north of the border, forcing the removal of all of the Scottish Westminster seats, again to the detriment of Labour (they currently hold 45).
3. David Cameron's likely funding reforms could cut the union base off from the Labour party, destabilising a heavily indebted party even further.

This is a pretty dire prediction for Labour, and not without some credibility. Compass believe they can preserve something from the wreckage if they embrace PR electoral reform now, perhaps with a referendum on the subject on the day of the next General Election, designed to bind the hands of an incoming government. Whatever the likelihood of Compass' doomsday briefing, there can be little doubt that, whether on electoral reform or social issues, Gordon Brown might just preserve Labour's future, even if he doesn't save himself, with very radical policy proposals now. He still has power to use - will he overcome his innate caution??

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brown in Brighton

The Labour strategists gathering in Brighton must be poring over the German election results this evening. A distinctly uncharismatic leader at the time of a deep economic recession has persuaded her countrymen to return her to power with an increased majority. How did Angela Merkel do it? And can Gordon Brown repeat the trick next May or June?

Admittedly, Merkel is a conservative whose main opposition happened to share government with her over the past four years. But if the recession is meant to make incumbents shaky the world over, she has magnificently bucked the trend. Germans feel reassured by her leadership and her solutions. Labour must be wishing they had a leader of even a quarter of that level of competence.

For as they gather for their pre-election conference, delegates are greeted by a desperate cry from a normally quiet Chancellor. Alistair Darling tells the Observer today that Labour has seemingly "lost the will to live". The damning thing about his assessment is that (a) it comes from a man not normally given to over-statement, and (b) it happens to be true.

The strange thing is that it really doesn't need to be like this. If Brown had any real leadership abilities at all, he should be able to devise not only a suitable defence of his own actions during the worst of the recession - after all, he was applauded by a Nobel prize-winning economist - but he should be able to handily expose the Tories' genuine policy vacuum. Fronted by the charming Mr. Cameron, there is still plenty of reason to be suspicious of the Tories' cut and slash tendencies, of their innate right-wing bunkerism, of the lasting presence in their party of so many activists who just, really, don't much like the human race. That Brown can't land his punches is a wider sign of his lamentable failure in the position he fought and plotted and schemed so hard for so long to get. He is politically tone deaf, he is a centraliser par excellence, and he is possessed of a caution so painful it's surprising he ever manages to cross the road on his own. Can he use the conference to stir things up and make a fight of the next few months? Somehow I doubt it, but stranger things can happen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Harman Again

The BBC's Question Time this evening yielded a few gems, but reminded us once again of just what an asset Harriet Harman is to any of the opposition parties. Two of her classics tonight - first, she wouldn't comment on the Scottish decision to release Libyan 'bomber' al-Megrahi ("You're a politician, you're meant to have opinions" almost screamed Michael Heseltine at her desperately); and she rejected utterly the idea from Digby Jones that the Attorney General's recent little error was a result of the government over-legislating, but said it was a natural mistake to forget to do all the photocopying that government legislation demanded. Genius. And apparently the Attorney General didn't break the law anyway - she committed an administrative error that was in conflict with the precise wording of the legislation.

Bercow the Backbench Champion

John Bercow gradually became a very maverick Tory MP, and that might be what now allows him to sound like a backbench-championing Speaker, if the evidence of his Hansard Society speech is anything to go by. In a packed room where only Sir George Young seemed able to find an extra chair, Bercow outlined some of his ideas for restoring dignity or respect to the role of the backbencher. He seemed early on to be critical, at least in passing, of two recent developments in the life of MPs. One was the excessive whipping that now made them lobby fodder in the same way that the soldiers of the Somme were cannon fodder (an uneasy analogy for several reasons); the other was in the increasing localism that forced MPs to become essentially super-councillors, working on constituency casework rather than engaging in debates on national issues. I have to say that in neither of these criticisms would I differ from our new Speaker.

But his firm focus was to outline no less than TEN proposals to strengthen the role of MPs as inquisitors and legislators. What he called a "Backbench Bill of Rights". I have to confess my attention did begin to wander as he outlined all of his ten points, but the principal sounded good. Well done Bercow, we might have cried had we been a less well ordered meeting, for accepting that the House of Commons needed better legislators and inquisitors. Indeed, Bercow's service, as a Speaker loathed by his own party and no longer in hock to the governing party, has been to feel free enough to say what surely every MP is thinking (those, at any rate, who have been gifted with the ability). That if the Commons is to recover some respect in the public mind, it can no longer continue to be the limp plaything of governments, and must start to assert some level of independence and even aggression.

The questions afterwards brought a comment from Mr. Bercow that he would like to see the long summer holiday that MPs enjoy reduced, but that was hardly the meat of his talk. All the more of a pity that it happens to be the BBC's main story from the lecture, but perhaps that's because the holiday questions was asked by a BBC journalist?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Press's Amazing Turnaround on Robson

As if we needed any further evidence, the First Post carries a timely piece about the press and Bobby Robson. Lauded after his death, and on the occasion of his recent memorial service, as a great man of football, the online paper goes back over the headlines that he had to endure when he was actually the England manager. Nothing, it seems, can exceed the ability of the English press to hurl abuse at the national game's manager - except, perhaps, its venom towards politicians. Perhaps it's just that sports journalists are frustrated footballers, and political journalists frustrated MPs?

Is Sarah Palin Growing Up?

The former Republican vice-presidential candidate was famed for her many gaffes during the campaign, and her reputation has nose-dived - at any rate outside the true believers of the Republican Party - since then. But Palin might be making progress, if reports of her recent speech to Hong Kong financiers is anything to go by. The First Post reports that reactions to the speech were largely 'positive'. Maybe she will still be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

Who'd Be Nick Clegg?

Actually, since apparently one third of the British people don't know who he is, I could have asked "who IS Nick Clegg" and still hit a topical note. But the point of this post is simply to note the difficulty of being a Liberal Party leader. Like his predecessors, Clegg has some vague notion that, as leader, he determines policy and so on. Unfortunately, there's a group of some 29 volunteers, working under a catchy little name like "The Policy Council" who think they determine policy, and 18 of them have gone public with a letter that says Clegg's decision to keep tuition fees as a new Liberal commitment (thus scrapping the scrapping of tuition fees, so to speak) is, er, rubbish. the Liberals are still committed to scrapping them.

Add to that the fact that his deputy and Treasury spokesman, the saintly Vince Cable, has announced a policy to tax mansions which was challenged the following morning by the party's MPs, and you don't seem to have a very coherent Liberal party at all. Which doesn't really matter, since they are very far from looking like a Third Force ready to seize government. Their electoral efforts at present seem aimed at the Tories, who look as if they might be grabbing quite a few Liberal seats back at the next election (amongst the targets - Carshalton and Wallington, and Sutton and Cheam). This is a pity, since we desperately need a viable, fresh alternative to the main parties, who increasingly argue on the basis of a technocratic "who can run government better" rather than on any real ideas. Wonder how UKIP are doing?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Attorney General's Position

So let's just get this right - the Attorney General, the government's senior law officer, has broken the law, been found guilty and fined. But it's ok, she's still an absolutely correct person to continue to act as the government's attorney and prosecutor. Is there still some question as to why we the people have a low opinion of politicians generally and government ministers specifically?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A British Open Primary

The idea of open primaries - where all voters can come along and join in the selection of party candidates for particular posts - is gaining ground, especially in the Conservative Party. Their excellent parliamentary candidate in Battersea, Jane Ellison, for example, was selected in just such a manner. This could clearly be a regular feature of the British political scene, and blogger Iain Dale went along to chair the Bedford Conservatives' Open Primary for mayor. His account is well worth reading - including his sly dig to get the parliamentary candidacy if it comes up!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Government Health Care Equals Fascism, Communism etc.

Republican congressman Joe Wilson caused a stir last week when he interrupted President Obama's address on health care with the heckle, "You liar". Not, it has to be said, the most creative of heckles, but the key point about Wilson is the ideological gap that his stand illustrates between those who support Obama's proposals for state provided health care, and those who are opposed. Wilson, and many others like him, liken the idea of a government health system to fascism or communism - whichever suits the moment. This critical article on Wilson from the liberal Huffington Post blog exemplifies the depths of the ideological division, with its strident view of what it sees as Wilson's hypocrisy.

Mandelson Avoiding the 'C' Word

In the Today programme's Lord Mandelson interview mentioned in this morning's AS lesson, it is indeed fascinating to hear the lengths to which he goes to avoid using the word 'cuts' in response to interviewer James Naughtie's repeated encouragements. Lord M is a master spinner, but does he really think that the public at large don't understand what is meant by his rather euphemistic reference to "wise spending"?

Meanwhile, Nick Robinson, challenged by Mandelson to come up with the evidence that Gordon Brown ever used the phrase "Tory cuts versus Labour investment", does so with interest on his blog.

Harman's Innocent Questionnaire

Harriet Harman has been circulating Labour members with some key questions about, well, who is best at 'selling' the Labour party. The Evening Standard's Paul Waugh has the details, together with several updates from Labour activists and the Harman team. Could this possibly be another bit of leadership positioning? Or is it simply an innocent bit of keeping in touch dialogue with the Labour members......?

"Calm Down Everyone" Says New Vetting Chief

Sir Roger Singleton is the elevated bureaucrat who will be heading the government's new Orwellian Independent Safeguards Agency. His response to the recent outcry over the Agency's ill-defined powers has been to suggest that everyone calms down. He may or may not be seeking to take over Michael Winner's advertising role, but he has certainly revealed how unsuited he is to heading up such a sensitive body. If he really cannot understand why there is such concern at the ludicrous and offensive new vetting proposals, and the accompanying powers of the ISA that will be in charge of them, then he absolutely shouldn't be the man running it. The concern is the extraordinary latitude that is apparently being given to the ISA, and the ill-defined nature of precisely who should be referred to it. This is, of course, coupled with an all too understandable suspicion of any government body that wants to control aspects of our lives, order up information about us, and make judgements about our suitabilities.

Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph the other day admirably summed up the real lunacy behind the ISA's modus operandi, as reported on the Spectator's Coffee House blog. However, such is the nature of this government's "joined-up thinking" that on the day Singleton issues his "calm down" injunction, his political boss, Education Secretary Ed Balls, has started to indicate that the government may be going to have a re-think. This is a start at any rate, but the really good news would be the abandonment of the whole ill-conceived scheme, and the recognition that poorly-prepared, centralising legislation in response to a specific - albeit tragic - high profile murder is no way to pursue either decent government, or the safety of the nation's children. Soham was an exceptional case, and it's time we stopped acting as if it was somehow typical of the dangers faced by children today.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When Sorry is the Easiest Word

Tony Blair began the propensity for saying sorry for things he couldn't possibly have had anything to do with (the Holocaust, for example, or slavery) but steering clear of such expressions of sorrow for more recent disasters (the Iraq war, say). Gordon Brown seems to be following the same path, with his apology for the persecution of gay Bletchley code breaker Alan Turing - who died in 1954. Janet Street-Porter in the Independent on Sunday sums it up excellently:

It's become fashionable for politicians to say sorry – generally for events they have no control over. It's easier to demonstrate humility for a social injustice that happened more than half a century ago than to admit responsibility for handing Rover cars to a bunch of avaricious buffoons who presided over its demise, resulting in thousands of workers losing their jobs.

Paedos Everywhere?

It got little more than a passing mention at the Bourne Hall meeting on liberties last week, but the government's draconian new Criminal Records checks, and its establishment of an agency purely to deal with the alleged rising tide of paedophilia against nearly everyone who has contact with children, has provoked a slew of hostile comment over the past couple of days (two examples - Minnette Marrin in the Times today, and headmaster and author Anthony Seldon in the Independent yesterday).

The new Independent Safeguarding Authority, an Orwellian sounding beast if ever there was one, is being established to provide Certificates of Innocence to anyone working, or just volunteering, with children. The assumption of guilt that has been dogging teachers - via the CRB - for some years, now threatens to engulf all manner of children's workers, volunteers, children's authors who visit schools, even parents doing each other a good turn on the school run. In such an easy bureaucratic manner has the government surreptitiously overturned the whole basis of English law - an assumption of innocence prior to any conviction of guilt.

This nonsense is defended as the natural response to the outrage caused over the Soham Murders - when 2 schoolgirls were killed by the school caretaker - a few years ago. That the murderer in question could have been identified by local police with a bit of basic co-operation between agencies is now conveniently forgotten. The government has to be seen to do something, and so long as that something doesn't require any real thought, or any understanding of individual liberties, well then they'll go ahead and do it. After all, we have had in power since 1997 a government that has been legislating ferociously on a continuous basis. There is nothing too small for this government not to believe it must be subject to legislative remedy. Henry Porter in today's Observer launches one of his regular and articulate broadsides at the government for its over-legislative mania, and anyone who is concerned about civil liberties should be reacting with horror at their latest iniquitous menaces. ID cards are merely the icing on the cake.

But will the Tories remove this raft of perniciousness? They make the right libertarian noises in public - although Tom Brake MP was anxious to point out that Chris Grayling's commitment to liberty was a relatively recent development. But Grayling hasn't committed to removing the ISA and its malicious undermining of all youth work in the country. He has been vague in saying how, exactly, he would roll back the government's authoritarian legislation. He might stop ID cards, but what else will he let pass as he succumbs to the illness of all those who hold power - their determination to have and control as much information as possible? In short, when do we get a truly libertarian government, genuinely committed to divesting itself of more powers than it gains? There would be a revolutionary movement indeed.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Another Foreign Policy Blunder?

Luck is one of the most valuable commodities in politics, and it has certainly deserted Gordon Brown's government - if indeed, it was ever there in the first place. The latest contretemps over the British Afghan raid to rescue a kidnapped New York Times journalist is a classic example. The go-ahead for the exercise represented rapid political decision making, and the raid itself was a daring and ambitious one. The primary aim - the rescue of the kidnapped journalist - was achieved, but at a terrible cost. One Afghan journalist, a British soldier, and several civilians were all killed. Now the talk is all about how on earth such an action could have been given the go-ahead at all. Once again, a foreign policy action gone wrong is haunting the government when it is desperately trying to regain the initiative in the domestic debate.


The heckling wasn't up to much last night at Bourne Hall, although it was moderately entertaining. However, in honour of the more auspicious heckling given to President Obama, the Times' Daniel Finkelstein offers his list of the ten best heckling moments.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

No 2 ID - And Much Else.

Am just recovering from the excitement of the Bourne Hall "No2ID" public meeting, which managed about three elderly hecklers and and a disgruntled school parent. We might have expected a bit more action at a meeting called to debate and challenge an unpopular government's increasing attack on our liberties - to say nothing of their determination to make us pay through the nose for the privilege - but that's just not the way the British do politics. If you want action, go to a West Ham game. If you want polite and occasionally bizarre questioning and a little half hearted heckling (usually followed by someone else saying "let him speak"), a political meeting on a controversial issue is the way to go. Let's face it, even when the rest of Europe were revolting and chasing their leaders out of office with bloody intent, the British largely stood around signing petitions with false names and asking if they couldn't have a little more democracy please, providing no-one in charge objected.

All the same, the pressure group 'No2ID' should be commended for having the commitment to put this well attended meeting on at all, and they did at least persuade shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, local Lib Dem Tom Brake, and junior government minister Michael Wills to attend. Michael Wills was a bit of a sacrificial lamb as the only person probably in the entire room who was still prepared to say ID cards were a good idea. The chairman's introduction did him no favours, recounting that Wills voted "strongly" in favour of the war with Iraq, "strongly" in favour of the 90 day detention Bill, and "strongly" in favour of the ID cards he is now responsible for implementing. Wills' cunning tactic, however, was to be so boring that no-one could really sustain the interest needed to properly challenge him, although a few sprightly audience members had a jolly good try.

Grayling and Brake simply needed to proclaim their opposition to the "surveillance state" in ringing tones to get some easy applause, otherwise they were largely unilluminating. In fact, one of the most dramatic and controversial moments of the evening came when a parent in the front row used the opportunity of questions about the "international dimension" of civil liberties to complain that his child was at a school which had recently forced its students to surrender their biometric details to the canteen service in order to purchase food by fingerprint. A relieved minister asked for details of the school to be given to him after the meeting. Wonder which one it is?!

Alan Duncan's Demotion

I've been meaning to do a quick post following the news of Alan Duncan's demotion within the shadow ministerial team, to a role outside the shadow cabinet. I know he's not to everyone's taste, and has been becoming the punchball for those with a gripe against the Tories. Duncan, however, is pleasant, friendly, charming politician, who always gives the impression of being happy to give you time. After all, how many leading politicians would have bothered to give the time of day to a protestor who cut up their lawn? Duncan did, only to be paid back with more opprobrium. And while he may come out with comments that hit the headlines and views that don't chime in with the majority, at least he has a mind and an individual attitude. In the days of identikit politicians, we should be treasuring the Alan Duncans of that grey world all the more. For all his wealth, he also remains identifiably human - still the only Tory MP to actually come out and acknowledge, unapologetically, his homosexuality, without it becoming his whole defining character; and a man who seemed as happy to mix with a group of deprived teenagers from Liverpool as with a claret quaffing collection of businessmen.

Alan Duncan's demotion has been taken in good part by the man himself - David Cameron must wish that more people were as willing to put party before self. Let's hope it's not long before he's back in front line politics, even if not on Have I Got For News For You, one of the few places where he does not, alas, shine!

Now just off to Bourne Hall for a No2ID debate featuring Chris Grayling and Tom Brake.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Smears Behind Joyce's Resignation

As if Labour hadn't had enough trouble with smear allegations after the Damian McBride affair, two newspapers - neither admittedly friends of Labour - have published stories suggesting that Eric Joyce had other reasons for resigning as a parliamentary aide to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. Those reasons, according to the Times and the Mail on Sunday, were to do with smear campaigns being proposed against the outgoing and incoming heads of the Army. General Sir Richard Dannatt has angered Labour's high command with his very public criticisms of their provision for forces in the field, and it is clear that government ministers are worried that his successor, General Sir David Richards, might be similarly awkward. His daughter apparently works for David Cameron, thus fueling their suspicion.

Black propaganda is, unfortunately, part of the warp and weft of politics, and you can usually spot a government on the way out when its black ops start to spring back into its face becauase no-one wants to play their game any more. The Whitehall bunker seems ever more out of control at the moment.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Readiness of David Cameron

Headmaster and political writer Anthony Seldon deals with this very point in his Telegraph article today. A generally informative historical assessment, his conclusion is not massively controversial - essentially, he says, Cameron has the opportunity to be like the obscure leaders of Toryism's past, or like the game-changers. Hmmm. Like lots of novelists, Seldon needs to work on his endings.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Another Resignation

Gordon Brown must be getting used to dealing with contentious ministerial resignations by now, and actually, Eric Joyce's departure is not in itself particularly significant - he was only a PPS after all, on the lowest rung of the government ladder, even if it was PPS to the Defence Secretary. No, Gordon Brown's real issue is the continued aspersions cast on his abilities to lead Britain's war effort effectively. Nick Robinson considers this in one of his posts today, contending that Brown is scared of losing the support of the military, and of proving incapable of making a convincing argument for staying in Afghanistan.

A failure to make the case for al-Megrahi's release, a failure to defend his government's provision of defence equipment to his troops, a failure to make the case for continued involvement in Afghanistan. So lacking across all these issues is Gordon Brown that we could be forgiven for wondering whether he really believes in them himself.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Progressive Conservatives

The video below was produced as part of the Conservative Party's History Week, but it's obviously much more immediate aim is to use history to clearly indicate where David Cameron wants to take his party.

There is no doubt that it is an encouraging video for anyone of a progressive persuasion. What it doesn't reveal, of course, is just how fiercely opposed nearly all the 'progressive' measures highlighted on the video were, by the majority of Tory members. Peel split the party with his Corn Laws repeal, angering the reactionary tendency to such an extent that they were exiled from government for nearly three decades. Disraeli has been a bogey figure to most Tory members for years, and they can barely speak of Heath without suffering splenetic heart attacks. The video was also, of course, necessarily thin on the 'progressive' credentials of the leaders between John Major and David Cameron.

It's a great video for progressives with selective memory. It's an unashamed defence of his brand of conservatism by a leader who is prepared to face down his reactionary members. But for anyone who knows their party history, it's also a fantastic rogue's gallery of just what the average party member hates about their leaders. Lily-livered liberals - except for William Hague, of course, whose main porgressive contribution, apparently, was to "save the pound". Watch and enjoy!

Paxo v. Salmond

Jeremy Paxman remains one of the best, if also most irritable, political interviewers on television. He gets annoyed, and aggressive, because politicians cannot help themselves trying to avoid answering his questions. His interview with Alex Salmond last night was a classic example. The waffling Scot soon incurred the ire of a Paxman whose holiday has done nothing to calm his mood!

A Brown Silence

The release of Libyan bomber al-Megrahi was certainly unpopular, but a credible case can be made for it on several grounds. The judicial case - compassionate release - has been given by the Scots. A less palatable, but still realistic, case would be political, and that has been referred to in frequent press comments. The real problem for the prime minister is his unwillingness to make any case at all. His initial silence, subsequent curt and uninformative comment, and the late, reluctant release of correspondence all speaks of a man who has no idea how to seize the initiative on this issue.

Gordon Brown is an intelligent man and a political animal, but his tenure as prime minister has been awkward - some would say disastrous - because he lacks the emotional empathy necessary to be an effective political communicator, and he is painfully slow to advocate his own convictions because he doesn't know how it will play. I doubt whether he can change his spots so far into a lengthy political career, but if he could just find it within himself to articulate his convictions with confidence, regardless of how he thinks it would play to the public, and to drive rather than hide from controversial issues, he might be able to recover some of his own political standing regardless of what happens in the election.