Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Easter Perspective

The New Statesman's James MacIntyre at least has some perspective on politics as we head to the Easter weekend. He reprints the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter letter on his blog, a service to all of us who occasionally like to look to the far horizons of humanity. In the letter, Rowan Williams steers us to the plight of Christians suffering persecution and whole communities fending off fear and poverty in many parts of the world. The hope and joy that the Resurrection points to is usually better understood by those who are not viewing the world from the apathetic comforts of western armchairs. Perhaps more notably, if Williams is able to remind us of a larger world that demands our focus and compassion, we may become more graceful and tolerant in our own sphere too. I've also kept Nicholas Kristof's article link up in the 'Recommended Reading' section, since it serves as a reminder of what Christian action can aspire to at its best, and it is a salutary correction to the often over-judgemental attitudes perceived to come from the modern western (and African) church.

Incidentally, as Christians consider the message of grace that underpins the Passion, today brings the interesting news that ferocious gay rights campaigner, and frequent church critic, Peter Tatchell has condemned the fine levied against a homophobic preacher! Who would Jesus be talking to I wonder?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Darling's Reputation

Whatever you thought of the budget itself, Alistair Darling appeared to emerge from it with an enhanced reputation. Perhaps it's the contrast with his predecessor and boss. Perhaps it's the comparison with his Conservative opposite number. Whichever it is, the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley ponders the new-found potency of Labour's chancellor in his column here. He concludes:

Alistair Darling is one of the few politicians who can still command a degree of respect, not a negligible quality in an era when the political classes are held in such contempt by most of the public. Whether or not he is still chancellor in six weeks' time, his remarkable survival is a parable which other politicians might usefully ponder on. Especially the one who lives next door.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Daily Mail, the Deputy Head and a small matter of truth.

On its website today, the Daily Mail headlines the heart-warming triumph of a deputy head who was cleared of false charges of sexual relations with a 'deeply disturbed' teenager:

Deputy head teacher cleared of having 14-month affair with 'fantasist' special needs pupil

The report goes on to detail the trauma of the teacher's two-week trial as she sought to clear her name amidst significant publicity. What, of course, the Mail doesn't tell us - perhaps for reasons of space - is that her innocence was by no means assumed by all observers. One story that appeared during the trial was headlined:

Deputy Headmistress at Special School 'had sex with hyper-active pupil, 16, in disabled toilets of British Library'.

That particular story continued in the same vein for several paragraphs, detailing the accusations against the accused deputy as if they were in fact true. It begins:

A married woman teacher had secret sex sessions with her 16-year-old special needs pupil at the British Library and a luxury hotel, a court heard yesterday.

The story documents all of the lurid claims, and even publishes a box containing the alleged texts of her messages to her 'lover'. The casual reader (and are there any other kinds of Mail reader?) would be forgiven for thinking that this was a cut and dried case. How fortunate that, unlike the newspaper, the jury were able to think more rationally about all of the evidence, thus giving the verdict of complete acquittal reported by today's Mail. And the source of the original story? Er....the Daily Mail of course! Continuing to do its bit in the interests of lies and injustice - until a court rules otherwise of course!

As a postscript, the original story was by-lined with the name of reporter Liz Hull. Today's story about the Deputy being cleared contained only the 'Daily Mail Reporter' byline. Couldn't be embarrassing for Ms. Hull to be associated with a true story could it?

Clarke the Crowd Puller on New MPs

Philip Cowley's Election blog reports on a recent visit to Nottingham University by Ken Clarke. Not only was the lecture theatre crowded out (as is usual with Clarke visits, says Cowley) but Clarke also challenged the conventional wisdom that the new intake of MPs after the election will be a more independent minded bunch. He suggestst that they might actually be quite compliant, such is the nature and complexity of parliament for a newbie. Students should go and give the account a read - very useful for the parliamentary part of the AS in particular.

Did Osborne Fail to Nail the Budget on Today?

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson thinks he failed. He points out in his online post that Osborne failed to lift himself up from overly technical language, whereas his predecessors - especially Ken Clarke - would use everyday language to make their points; he was also stymied by being interviewed by Evan Davis, who knows his beans when it comes to economics and managed to show up the paucity of Osborne's promises. Nelson's main point, however, seems to be that Osborne failed in presentational terms, not that he doesn't know his stuff or doesn't have a good case. Much has been made in recent weeks, of course, of the apparent Tory strategy of keeping Osborne out of the public side of the campaign - could this be why?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dissecting Darling

Sky News' Joey Jones gives an entertaining explanation of some of Alistair Darling's budget performance today. How was his opening statement a dig at Gordon Brown? What's the hilarity behind his mention of "Dominica, Grenada and Belize"? And who on earth is Baldemort? Click the link above for the answers.

Budget Revival for Labour?

The budget may not in itself give cause for any significant increase in Labour's fortunes, but they might be taking comfort from the fact that its relatively anodyne content will do nothing to harm the apparent slow revival that is already evident. A Politics Home poll suggests that the public are becoming more willing to credit Labour with for its handling of the economy, at a time when a slowly increasing number of people also think we may have turned the corner on the economy.

The polls are hardly ecstatic - the overall proportion of voters is still negative towards Labour on the economy - but they show a trend that Alistair Darling's financial legerdemain may well have given a little bit of a push to. Much depends on how the three parties spin the budget over the next couple of days, an operation which will show us just how good their respective communications directorates are. That's politics for you, after all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cameron's Tuesday Joy

The Guardian has called it Cameron's "triple happiness" day - Samantha is pregnant, Unite are still on strike in an unpopular action, and now three senior Labour ex-ministers are being excoriated throughout the media today for their lamentable lobbying miscalculations. The Guardian's politics blog went to Cameron's morning press conference to see how he would play it. He will undoubtedly be hoping to do something about that all too low Conservative lead - UK Polling Report comments on the latest YouGov poll bringing the Tories back down to a lead of just 4%. Cameron must be wishing for more days like today.


What a way to end a career. Human failings contain their own seeds of tragedy and pathos, even in relatively banal cases.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Feelgood Factor

This is one of those 'etc' bits, but SGS's production (with Sutton High) of the musical "The Wedding Singer" was excellent, and had a great feelgood factor. A review and video montage are here.

MPs for Hire - Again!

Back in the 1990s, when a tottering Conservative government under John Major was being hit by sleaze case after sleaze case, two backbench Conservative MPs were caught out by the Sunday Times. They were offered £1,000 to ask questions in the House of Commons by the reporter's 'front' company. They were only too happy to oblige, one of them describing himself as a bit like a "taxi for hire". They were duly excoriated, and doubtless had played their part in making John Major that little bit more unelectable. Well, what goes around comes around, as they say, and the Sunday Times, together with Channel 4's Dispatches team, has been up to it's old tricks. This time, the reporters targeted ex-Cabinet ministers, and with considerable success it would seem. Where the 1990s scandal required approaches to 20 MPs before 2 were venal enough to take the cash, this time most ex-cabinet ministers seem to have been only too willing to make up the financial deficit left by their inability to defraud any more expenses.

The Sunday Times website shows a part of the Dispatches video, where former minister Stephen Byers smoothly explains that he's a bit like a "cab for hire", and charges between £3,000 and £5,000 daily for his services. It's a breathtaking bit of filming, and hilarious if you're in the mood. Byers shows no shame whatsoever, and is happily hiring himself out like a high class prostitute. He even offers a bit of free advice (which he seems to regret by the end of the interview - there's a few quid missed, his expression clearly says) about how to exploit the election period to get a few laws changed.

Too often media reporting is trivial, sensationalist and demeaning. On this occasion, they've managed to uncover a fascinating glimpse into the vacuous morality of some of our former rulers. Democracy, and serving your constituents is for mugs; politics is about making money. As the ensnared ministers try and put out a justificatory spin on their actions (and, inevitably, they include the truly ludicrous Geoff Hoon, a man who doesn't seem to have put a foot right in politics - ever), we are not just reminded of their venality, but also their remarkable mediocrity. The Media Blog shows just how easy it was to snare the useless representatives. Even the reporter, Claire Newell, had apparently been involved in exposing last year's 'cash for influence' scandal in the Lords.

In the 1990s the two hapless victims were Tory MPs. Now the Tory Party can breathe a sigh of relief and watch the Labour lot squirm, while the rest of us wonder what on earth is in the water at Westminster that it produces such craven qualities in our governing class.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Anarchism's Idealism and Failure

The tutor2u blog has an excerpt from a recent book on Anarchism ("Anarchism: The World That Never Was"). For those A2 students still puzzling over what anarchism has to offer, and why we should be studying it at all, go and read the extract, and maybe even try the book!!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hannan on McMillan Scott

Daniel Hannan pens a 'more in sorrow than in anger' post on Edward McMillan Scott's defection from the Conservatives. He can afford a bit of magnanimity, since he won! Won some time ago, actually, but it's just taken Edward McMillan Scott a while to come to terms with it. Hannan suggests, inter alia, that EMS has become ever so slightly obsessed with him, mentioning him all the time in his speeches and articles. Clearly, the ex-Tory MEP blames the current Tory MEP and Telegraph columnist for all the ills that have befallen him. If any of it is true, it wouldn't be the first time that Mr. Hannan has been accused of ensuring a degree of 'purity' amongst elected Tory representatives. In his book, "Tory Wars", Mail on Sunday political editor Simon Walters passes on the accusation from several Tory parliamentary candidates that they thought Hannan might be behind some dirty tricks operations to stop them being selected. Hannan denied it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Tories' Europe Curse

Edward McMillan Scott was leader of the Tory MEPs. Before that, he had a long and distinguished career as a Conservative MEP. He vigorously opposed the decision to leave the centre-right European Parliament grouping, of the European People's Party, and certainly considered that the new leader under whom the Tories now grouped, Michal Kaminski, was too extreme for a moderate British party. Now, finally, after a long battle with the Tory hierarchy, McMillan Scott has thrown in the towel and joined the Liberals. Tory activists will be pleased at the defection of a pro-European, as witness this brief post on Conservative Home.

The problem for the Conservative Party, of course, is that Mr. McMillan Scott is no leftie. He was for years the perfectly acceptable face of Toryism in Europe. He was a part of the Tories' old leadership establishment. He was re-selected by the members in Yorkshire to stand again and again as one of their representatives. He is no long-term rebel. Which begs the question, what has happened to the Conservative Party?

David Cameron apparently had a friendly meeting with President Sarkozy yesterday. This should hardly be news - they are both leaders of right-wing parties, with Mr. Sarkozy, moreover, being rather more Anglo-phonic than his conservative predecessors. But it is news, because Mr. Cameron's decision to take the Tories out of the EPP (a grouping which includes Sarkozy's own party) angered his right-wing colleagues in Europe, none more so than Sarko. Whatever the warm words coming out of their meeting, Mr. Cameron's Tories look destined to play only a marginal role in Europe, and Mr. McMillan Scott's defection shows the continued toxicity of the European issue for the Conservative Party.

The Tories' Next Leader?

Is Liam Fox the Tories' next leader? Over on the Wintour and Watt blog at the Guardian, they explain how the right-wing shadow Defence Secretary has won a victory over the Cameroons by effectively helping to sideline the 'dream appointment' of Richard Dannatt as a minister in any future Conervative government. Fox is no great friend of the Cameron leadership, who had to reign him in once before. Now, however, the Guardian duo are punting him as a formidable force in any Cameron cabinet and, as an unalloyed servant of the right, a future leader. Should Cameron fail, Fox would have a relatively quick chance to try again for the prize; should Cameron succeed, he may have to wait a decade or so, but at 48 now, could still be a contender. God help the Tories!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Short Road to Infamy

I don't know what hopes and aspirations Messrs. Morley, Devine and Chaytor nurtured when they achieved the ambition denied to so many of being elected to the House of Commons. But whatever they were - and let us hope for their sakes that they did at least have some - they will now be eternally remembered, if at all, as the MPs who were criminally charged for abuse of their expenses. For defrauding the public who put them into the chamber. Watching the three of them walk through the barrage of hostility to Westminster Magistrates Court today, and seeing these humiliated figures persist in their cries of innocence, one couldn't help but reflect what a short walk it is for MPs to travel from aspiration to infamy.

Morley, Devine and Chaytor may have been the worst of the expense abusers, but of course they are, as we all know, fall guys to some extent for the much larger numbers of their colleagues who carried out similar, if only slightly less blatant, abuse. I don't know whether it is the greed and pettiness of the abuse, or the utter mediocrity of mentality and short-sightedness in thinking they would never have to answer for their actions, that appalls me more. This House of Commons will see the biggest exodus of MPs in modern times. It seems highly unlikely that a scandal on the scale of the expenses farrago will be repeated. But with ambitious men and women always determined to seize power for whatever originally honourable motives, perhaps the best lesson for us is that the corruption of power doesn't have to be seen in the large-scale wielding of authority over millions of citizens, but can just as easily be seen, if in a more banal way, in the minor actions of those who gain it.

The charges and trial are giving the media and public their pound of flesh, but as MPs begin to regulate themselves more rigorously, and put on their hair-shirts, perhaps attention will turn towards the other holders of power in our society - the owners, editors and producers of our all-seeing media?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Image Cameron Would Like To Project

Vanity Fair may not be the sort of magazine in which elections are won or lost, but it contains a profile of David Cameron this month which seems far more assured than current reality might have us think. Interestingly, Conservative Central Office appear to have been in a bit of a tiz about it because of a quote from Ed Vaizey, the shadow culture minister. Vaizey has been a bit too loquacious of late, suggesting that Samantha Cameron once voted Labour, and - in the Vanity Fair piece - that David Cameron may be hiding the real extent of his natural conservatism.

CCO should calm down. Vaizey is not exactly big news for any voter, while the profile, by Michael Wolff, is a pretty good one. You'd never think the last few weeks had occurred actually, and given the timescale for articles in Vanity Fair they probably hadn't when this was written. In consequence, the Wolff profile portrays a smooth, assured, albeit posh and upper class, political leader about to sweep all before him. There is a degree of admiration in the tone. If I were in Central Office now, I'd be reading this and wondering where it all went wrong! They might still pull it back, but it'll take a heck of a lot more blood and guts than has been invested so far. Meanwhile, they could always keep the Wolff profile on the wall, as a reminder of how successful the Cameron brand once was.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Reporting Lord Ashcroft

Rather different views from right-of-centre commentators about the reporting of Lord Ashcroft's affairs. The conservative blogosphere is tending to regard any media coverage of the Conservatives' most generous donor as a leftie plot. A classic example here is the piece by Marc Glendenning (director of the anti-EU Democracy Movement) on Conservative Home, which singles out the Guardian for particular criticism. They just keep reporting on Ashcroft, opines Glendening, clear evidence of their out and out determination to destroy the Conservatives. He finds the reason in the Guardian's fear of losing revenue from public service job adverts which a future Tory government are going to put online. Well, it's a theory I suppose.

Meanwhile, the more rigorously independent Bagehot in the Economist, takes the right-wing press to task (notably the Mail and Telegraph) for not making enough of the Ashcroft affair:

Here we have a secretive figure who wields enormous influence in the Conservative Party and thus in the country. He once kept the party afloat and has accompanied William Hague, the man who got him ennobled, on official business. There is no doubt that Lord Ashcroft is an important public figure, whose tax status and "clear and unequivocal" assurances are of legitimate public interest.

Lord Ashcroft divides opinion, it seems, even on the right.

Tebbit on Bercow

Norman Tebbit and John Bercow used to be close. Political allies, even. When Tebbit, as Conservative Party Chairman, was compelled to close down the party's rambunctious student wing, the Federation of Conservative Students, it was the then student chairman, John Bercow, who alienated many of his erstwhile libertarian allies by joining up with the old authoritarian bruiser Tebbit in easing the FCS out of the party's misery. How times have changed. Tebbit, from his perch as mischief-maker-in-chief to the Tories, is advocating that Tory voters in Bercow's constituency of Buckingham should be looking to cast their vote elsewhere. Bercow, says Tebbit, is no Tory. He doesn't specifically tell disillusioned Tories to vote for UKIP's Nigel Farage, but you get the impression it wouldn't upset him if they did.

Monday, March 08, 2010

"And Cathy Says" - Question Time in Sutton

If the candidate hustings at Sutton Grammar School didn’t quite set the political world alight, it wasn’t for want of sheer worthiness. The venture itself was a thoroughly worthy one, and all of the candidates appeared to be motivated by decent, worthy intentions. So worthy that they seemed to dislike disagreeing amongst each other too much lest it seem a little, well, unsporting. And yet, despite all this worthiness, there wasn’t much of consequence said either.

All of the candidates told us they would fight to preserve and improve St. Helier Hospital at a cost of £290 million or more. This is an essentially worthy aim and one that I suspect no self-respecting Sutton candidate would want to deny. But if these sorts of promises are being made across the country, you can begin to see why none of the major parties is keen to indicate what cuts they are going to make to solve the budget crisis. Promising money is a whole lot easier than telling hard truths about cuts.

It was, perhaps, hardly surprising that incumbent MP Paul Burstow and his Tory challenger, Philippa Stroud, were the most fluent. The Green candidate virtually gave up the ghost at the very start and never really recovered it, even if he did make one of the few memorable remarks of the evening when he admitted that the Green Party in Sutton was not particularly healthy. A refreshing burst of honesty. The UKIP candidate was also never going to win any prizes for public speaking, and seemed to be aiming for the disaffected Tory voter. If you like grammar schools, want to leave the European Union, dislike immigration (especially for ‘gay African immigrants’) and don’t trust America, then this guy’s your man. As for the Labour candidate – well, actually, she wasn’t there. Her name’s Cathy (I know this because her loquacious stand-in kept saying “And Cathy would say…” when he remembered that he wasn’t actually the candidate himself). She couldn’t come because, despite the invitation going out in January, she had a long-standing prior engagement with International Women’s Day. Her stand-in was her agent, who had only woken up to the need to have someone attend when he read about the event in the Sutton Guardian and realised it might be quite a well attended one. So he spent much of the day badgering the student organiser, Charlie Edwards, and railroaded his way onto the panel this evening. He was an engaging chap, and keen to tell us about his own past campaigns. But I’m pretty confident that if he hadn’t been on the panel we would have managed an extra ten questions minimum.

But to what end? These were all decent people, motivated enough to put themselves up for election, and trying to serve their community. Despite a question from the former local Conservative Chairman which seemed to accuse Paul Burstow of engaging in personal attacks in his literature, they all seemed to be thoroughly committed to being nice to each other on stage. Paul Burstow has been a well respected MP, and you get the impression Philippa Stroud would be as well if she gets the chance. And yet for all this, parliamentary though our system may be in theory, it is increasingly presidential in practise. Whatever the virtues of local candidates, it is the national leaders and their manifestoes which will decide this election, and on these issues there was little illumination tonight in Sutton.

NB - The event's organiser, Charlie Edwards, has also blogged on the evening, and includes more detail on the different candidates' policy positions than I have done here, in a full and fair account.

[Photos by Chris Schofield]

Sutton Hustings

We have a hustings for the parliamentary candidates here at SGS this evening. Paul Burstow, the sitting Lib Dem MP, and his Conservative challenger Philippa Stroud are both here, along with the Green and UKIP candidates. The Labour candidate, when asked in January, cried off in favour of an International Women's Day event, but today, apparently, her agent has been trying to get himself in to speak on her behalf. Student organiser Charlie Edwards turned down the request. Not surprisingly - it's entirely up to the candidate if she deems a non-constituency event to be more important, but they can't then go belly-aching about how unfair it all is!!

As for the evening itself, to be chaired by SGS Head Gordon Ironside, we'll see if it brings any illumination, or merely increases our weariness!

Superhero MP

I hadn't been particularly impressed with Jeremy Hunt's performance on First Time Voters' Question Time, thinking him rather bland and not nearly independent enough in his views (much too tied to the party line). A subsequent conversation with some sages in Bristol, however, reveal something more about the man. Turns out he's a bit of a 'superman' in disguise, having learnt Japanese during two years there, done the traditional management consultancy that everyone with a First in PPE from Oxford does, and then deciding to solve Africa's AIDS problem* and set up an educational publishing business along the way. A man this dynamic should surely have a more impressive presence?!

*He has set up a charity to help AIDS orphans in Africa.

Obama's West Wing Infighting

President Obama's combative chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is allegedly the real life role model for the character of Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff in the superlative 'West Wing' series. Like Lyman, Emanuel is congressional fixer and a man with one finger on the pulse of the Democratic Party. Unlike Lyman, however, Emanuel is a more earthy character, given to expletives, and now, apparently, a little at odds with the rest of the key West Wing team.

The Observer reports a growing controversy surrounding Emanuel's role, and cites some infuential reporting from the Washington Post. One of those reports, by Dana Milbank, defends Emanuel as the one man whose advice needs to be heeded rather more, as opposed to the other 'Obama loving' aides who are too awestruck by the president to be able to give him genuinely good counsel. This lead to suspicions that Emanuel might just be running his own press operation, instead of devoting himself completely to the president.

This may be just another Washington spat, but it is hardly good news for either Obama or Emanuel. The chief of staff is meant to be the ultimate manager and fixer, and certainly not someone who starts to become the story. In Britain, Alistair Campbell was doomed when he started to be the story instead of managing it. Emanuel is in danger of landing in the same boat. As for Obama, the story represents another post in his difficult presidency. The man with one of the boldest legislative plans in recent times continues to face problems over his agenda. Last week, the federal budget was suspended while a lone Republican senator held it up on the floor of the senate, thus preventing any federal payments being made at all. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, the president made it clear he now wants a simple majority vote on the healthcare plan.

Obama's election in 2008 was undoubtedly historic. His term of office has already shaped up to be one of the more controversial in recent American history, and the last thing he needs is for attention to be diverted to the group of key advisers who are shaping both his policy and his message. 'No drama' Obama is still maintaining his cool, but he has no intention of standing by to see his cherished domestic programme railroaded.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Bit of Reflection

Great post from the Wall Street Journal's Iain Martin, as he explains why he didn't want to 'live-blog' Gordon Brown at the Chilcot Inquiry:

I’m not sure this innovation — writing something a little reflective after a political event has finished — really stands much of a chance of catching on in the modern world of uninterrupted communication.

The New FCS - Could Tory Youth Be Back On The Fringe?

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's most committed supporters led the party's Federation of Conservative Students. They were even more committed than she was to some of her own ideological positions. They sent their leaders to fight with the Nicaraguan Contras against the left-wing Sandinista regime; they advocated the decriminalisation of drugs; they weren't the best behaved conference goers, often running riot at their own conferences, bashing down the doors of the nonbelievers with fire extinguishers. They were positively Maoist in their attitude to Tory 'olds', and it was a stinging attack on former Tory premier Harold MacMillan (he was denounced as a 'war crimina;' for his role in the despatch of Cossacks back to Russia after the Yalta Agreement) that ultimately brought them to their doom. Their libertarian chairman, an ambitious young right-winger called John Bercow, did a deal with that most Thatcherite of Party Chairmen, Norman Tebbit, and the FCS was closed down. No longer would it be allowed to embarrass the mother party.

Well, it looks as if their may be a proto-FCS on the rise once again. The Guardian carries a report on the activities of the Young Britons' Foundation, whose leadership appear to revel in extreme views. They seek to train young Tory activists, even taking them on a trip to a firing range in Virginia, which had leader Donal Blaney squealing with pleasure at the mix of hot brass and gunpowder. The Tory Party's high command are now visiting their conferences and their meetings, and some eleven parliamentary candidates have come from their ranks. Interestingly, Mr. Blaney, whose right wing views seem almost to be a caricature, and have been publicly available on his blog 'Blaney's Blarney' for ages, has decided that discretion has some value, and recently made his blog an invitation only one. For the Tory Party, history might be repeating itself. For David Cameron, a man against whom the rightists reserve their most vigorous ire, it might be wise to steer clear of the YBF.

Brown at War

To have one former head of the armed forces contradict your evidence to a committee may seem like carelessness, to have two is beginning to look habit forming. Thus it might be said about Gordon Brown today, as he faces the criticisms of both Lord Guthrie and Lord Boyce. Both of them have accused him of being disingenuous, and dissembling, in his evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday. Oh look, let's be honest, they're calling him a liar! He says the armed forces got everything they asked for to conduct the war that he and Tony Blair sent them on. They say they didn't, and Guthrie specifies helicopters as being unforthcoming despite requests.

They may both be right. The armed forces will almost certainly have requested everything they could. Their requests can be granted if the equipment is available to provide. The problem with helicopters is that they don't exactly have off the shelf availability. Complex decisions are involved when determining whether to place what might inevitably be long-term orders. It could take up to ten years to manufacture a new tranche of necessary helicopters. The real lesson here is the basis on which we send our armed services to war in the first place. The rightness of the cause will remain disputed, but what actually seems less debatable is the inadequacy of appropriate planning for a war that did not come unexpectedly, but as a result of the deliberate machinations of British and American leaders.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Peter Bingle's Despair

Channel 4's lobbyist was Peter Bingle from Bell Pottinger. Judging from his recent tweets, there really is nothing new about his despair, and nothing mysterious about his political motivation - he is a nostalgic Thatcherite.

Yesterday, he echoed Lord Tebbit's view that Ashcroft could be the ruination rather than the salvation of Tory hopes. He wants school vouchers (an idea beloved of the right) and misses the inspiring speeches of Margaret Thatcher. He muses that "Hilton [Cameron's key strategist] should spend more time in California". And, of course, he gives us the rightist mantra that all Cameron needs to do is give us "small government, low taxes and personal choice". The point is, his disillusion has been long-term, and it is less to do with the Ashcroft issue or the apparent lack of control of Tory strategy, and much more to do with his own nostalgia for a leader who isn't David Cameron.

Tory Tweets Against Channel 4

A few quick blasts into the web-o-sphere from irate Tory commentators about the Channel 4 lobbyist piece. Henry Macrory, Tim Montgomerie, and Iain Dale are all tweeting or blogging against it!

Brown's Chilcott Evidence

Neither Gordon Brown nor his predecessor have added greatly to the sum total of our knowledge of the Iraq War in their evidence to the Chilcott Inquiry. It is amazing how little a seasoned performer can actually say, no matter how many hours he sits before an eminent committee. We now know that Gordon Brown thinks the war was right (could he have ever really got away with saying he disagreed with it, as the second most powerful man in the government at the time?) and that he absolutely would never have kept funds from the army that they needed. He stuck with his story, although it does contradict the views of other people, including former chief of staff Lord Guthrie, that Brown did in fact do precisely that.

I don't envy the Inquiry members, charged with trying to find a straight route through all this material. The Iraq War has become such a controversial, byzantine cause that finding its origins will take years, at the very least. I'm inclined to agree with the SNP's Angus Robertson - "Sadly, for all of those who opposed the Iraq invasion and for the thousands who lost their lives to it, the truth of the Iraq invasion may have been forever lost to the New Labour spin machine."

More Ashcroft News

The Ashcroft row shows few signs of running out just yet, although the one crumb of comfort David Cameron's team can probably take is that it will likely be a dead issue by the time of any election. Best to get it out of the way now I suppose. Channel 4 News today had got hold of a hitherto unheard of 'top Tory lobbyist' who despairs of the Tory Party. And well he might, although much of the problem seems to lie within a party that has taken leave of its discipline. There is certainly a serious issue regarding Lord Ashcroft, a man who appears to have back-tracked on an agreement made with then party leader William Hague. It is the broken agreement, rather than his non-dom status (significant though that is) which is souring the news agenda, and you can sense the Tory frustration that Labour non-doms are getting virtually nil publicity - but then, they didn't give any undertakings to become permanent UK residents.

Bad though all this is, though, there has been some serious breaching of the once infamous discipline of the Tory Party, and one can't help but wonder whether Cameron's party critics have leaped onto the Ashcroft story to publicise their own discontent with the leader's agenda. Lord Ashcroft is himself a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, and thus no great ally of the party's committed right. The newspapers have been carrying a lot of similar material about a 'division' within the leader's circle, suggesting a bit of co-ordinated spinning from somewhere. The old rottweiler, Norman Tebbit, who to Cameron's eternal regret has discovered the joys of blogging (for the Telegraph), has produced an acid-laden piece about Ashcroft today. Channel 4's obscure lobbyist ("and one time Tory councillor in London" they breathlessly informed us) is another bit of internal Tory sniping. If David Cameron does manage to win election, whatever programme he has in mind, he might also feel he has a few internal scores to settle as well.

Dimbleby in the Bullingdon?

Did Boris Johnson really out David Dimbleby as a Bullingdon Club member on last night's Question Time? Paul Waugh caught it, and you can hear Johnson's irate comment on the playback - go to 54.45 in on the video and you'll hear Boris say that "we Bullingdon men stick together" and then "he was in the Bullingdon you know!" And again, much more clearly, at 56.45!! Dimbleby didn't deny it!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tories - Modernise or Die?

The FT's Jeane Eaglesham gets the current Cameron dilemma:

"...the modernising ideology crafted by Mr Cameron’s inner circle appears to elicit little enthusiasm from many of his backbenchers, who want to fight on a platform of tax cuts and immigration controls, rather than localism and protecting the NHS."

The question facing the Tory Party is, which path leads to electoral success? The modernising path, or the tax cut and immigration control path? Recent electoral history suggests it is the former, but as David Cameron's lead falls even in the much vaunted marginal seats, one wonders whether the fratricidal strife that has characterised the Tories since the political assassination of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 will once again deny it victory at the polls.

David Cameron leads the Tories at the equivalent point in its opposition history to Neil Kinnock, when he was leader of the Labour Party in 1992. In that year, the derided new Tory Prime Minister, John Major, pulled off a surprise victory, gaining a small governing majority. It wouldn't be much of a leap for Labour hopes today to go from a hung parliament, to a small Labour victory, especially given the electoral system's in-built bias towards them. In such an event, it is quite possible that David Cameron might decide to depart the scene, much as Kinnock did after his (admittedly second by then) election defeat. But the lesson from history - should it decide to be a little repetitive - is not encouraging for the Tory Party. Though Kinnock stood down, his party did not by then seriously doubt the need for continued modernising - the eventual morphing into New Labour. Should David Cameron stand down, he will almost certainly be succeeded by a neo-Thatcherite who will appease the party with the mantra that modernism failed them the election. Such a flawed assessment could doom the one-time 'party of government' to decades of opposition.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Pandering to the Young - First Time Voters' Question Time

I suppose there is a case for finding out the specific views of first time voters, although I'm not sure it's a strong one. Politicians and the media spend rather a lot of time pandering to young people, and certainly the most frustrating part of the First Time Voters' Question Time that BBC 3 broadcast this evening was the debate about why young people weren't fully engaged in politics. Young people are disengaged from traditional politics for a variety of reasons, not least their own unwillingness to spend time considering often complex issues, and their preference for trivial, personality led media. But that doesn't mark them out especially from the rest of the population. We live in a democracy, and if you don't like the people running it you have the absolute right, perhaps even duty, to put your head above the parapet and get involved. And the politicians who have done that, who have stood before an electorate, who have tried to pursue public service and been elected in the process, whatever their manifold flaws, need to be a lot less defensive about what they are doing and start being a bit more aggressive.

Of the panellists, I never thought I'd see the day where I thought David Lammy was moderately impressive, but he was both the most genuine and the most passionate of the political guests, even if he still suffers from a peculiar difficulty of articulation. He scores highly when he takes time to think about what he is saying, and departs from the government line to give a more personal view. The Tories' Jeremy Hunt was a bit of a nonentity, failing to make any real impression, and making the cardinal error in his first answer of descending quickly to a bit of tedious party politicking, which should go down badly with any audience. As for Julia Goldsworthy, her desperate efforts to come across as the 'anti-politician', the breath of Liberal fresh air who's down wiv it amongst the yoof, well she was frankly painful to watch. Her humourless stridency and self-righteousness were enough to turn anyone away from the Lib Dems. Amongst the non-politicians, Apprentice winner Tim Campbell was surprisingly good, Jamelia was a bit pointless, and Rory Bremner was simply embarrassing. His extraordinary belief that vast numbers of young people in this country are politicised over such issues as climate change and poverty in Africa beg the question as to which planet he's actually visiting from. Most young people are not remotely politicised, and their interests range to their social lives and what sort of jobs they might get. Pretty well the not unreasonable interests of most people in Britain. Dermot O'Leary was an engaging host, even if he did get a little too involved in a dialogue with a lamentably uninteresting member of the audience who seemed to want to blame anyone but herself for her lack of knowledge about politics.

On the day when a genuine political giant - Michael Foot - has died, this programme sadly showed us how limited our current politicians really are. The Question Time format is a great one, but only if the politicians can confidently articulate a clear vision of what they stand for, and have the integrity not to pander to the audience but to persuade them and even argue with them. David Lammy nearly did this at points, to his credit, but even he is too prone to a bit of craven pandering. Audiences are not some form of holy writ and politics is about proper debate, not weak posturing. Let's hope the leaders' debates show us a bit of quality - at this rate I'll be rooting for Gordon Brown, so long as he gives us a bit of passion and puts his celebrity lapse behind him!

The London Effect Benefits Cameron

The Evening Standard's YouGov poll has the Tories doing better in London than nationally. Although it reflects the cutting of the Tory lead seen in national polls, there could be some London upsets. The Standard's projection would even have Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow losing to Philippa Stroud in Sutton and Cheam, and Tom Brake losing Carshalton and Wallington. However, as Mike Smithson points out over on Political Betting, the poll doesn't give us a break down of what is happening in the key marginals, and in London as anywhere else, seat specific considerations could defy what is a polling result that is still too close for comfort from the Tories' point of view. Lib Dem MPs work their seats hard, and Burstow in particular is well regarded in Sutton. Meanwhile, Richmond MP Susan Kramer may benefit from the alienation that some voters are feeling against Tory Zac Goldsmith - his non-dom status has not gone down well there.

Locally, then, the Monday debate between Burstow and Stroud could be significant for floating voters. 7pm, at Sutton Grammar School.

Murdoch's Tory Minions

I've only just read Jonathan Freedland's piece in the Guardian about the BBC Strategy Review, but it admirably, and far more eloquently, captures my own view of the criticism being levelled against the Beeb by the Tories:

So why has Mark Thompson done it? Because he feared that if he didn't jump from the second storey window, an incoming Conservative government would push him off the roof. He is right to be anxious. The Tories have indeed signalled a hostility to the BBC that is rare, if not unprecedented, in an opposition. Why might that be? Two words: Rupert Murdoch.
People often speak of the unique influence of the media magnate, with his combination of economic and political muscle, but "influence" doesn't quite capture it. Instead David Cameron has simply allowed News Corp to write the Conservative party's media policy.

Start with the BBC. Murdoch, with son James, can't stand it – regarding it, a senior figure in broadcasting tells me, as "like the Ebola virus: they can't destroy it, so they try to contain it". They dress up their opposition in pseudo-intellectual free market blather, but the reality is much earthier than that: the BBC is a rival, and therefore an obstacle to their commercial ambitions. The smaller and weaker the BBC becomes, the more money News Corp can make.

The Importance of the Leaders

The announcement of the television debate has focused more attention than ever on the party leaders, and Mike Smithson at Political Betting comments on the difference between the leader polls and the party polls. He is right to a large extent - attitudes amongst voters to specific leaders can be crucial, and is even, for many voters, their principal reason for casting their vote in a particular way. Smithson cites the Major/Kinnock comparison of 1992 as being a better guide than the horrendously inaccurate polls that had been predicting a Labour victory. In 1979, however, Jim Callaghan scored consistently higher than Margaret Thatcher for like-ability, but still lost.

Michael Foot Dies

Michael Foot was the Labour leader who presided over a significant leftward shift in the Labour Party in the 1980s, arguably helping to keep Mrs. Thatcher's Conservatives in power, by both making Labour unelectable to the wider public, and provoking a party split that led to the formation of a new political party, the Social Democratic Party. Nonetheless, for all his failings as a leader, Foot was a highly regarded left-wing politician with, in his heyday, a powerful rhetorical gift for articulating his causes. He was 96. The BBC's coverage and obituary are here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Leaders' TV Beauty Contests Agreed

So there are to be three television debates between the three party leaders in the run-up to the election. Thus, politics becomes even more of a television beauty contest, for better or worse. Sky's Glen O'Glaza tried to suggest that the debates would not simply be a boost for the best television performer, but that is nonsense of course. All three party leaders will now be focusing their attention on how they will indeed come across as the best television performer.

Received wisdom has it that Nick Clegg is the winner here. Clegg, though, if his public speaking so far is anything to go by, is a stilted, humourless and unconvincing performer who may well end up simply reminding everyone why the Liberals aren't making nearly enough headway. Without Piers Morgan to pump up the emotional level, Gordon Brown is unlikely to show the necessary empathy to really triumph in the televisual forum, which probably leaves David Cameron as the likely victor of this new stage in political campaigning. These debates could be worth a good few polling points for him.

The BBC's Rock and a Hard Place

The BBC has come out fighting against its many critics with a strategic review designed to show that it can reign itself in. There are some positive aspects to the review, including some clear attempts to cut down what can sometimes be seen as a rather bloated operation, and a commitment to reinvest money in new drama and other, British developed programming.

All of which is doubtless very good, but whatever the BBC is hoping, its review won't silence its critics. It won't silence them because for the most part they have political and/or commercial motives for wanting to see a drastically reduced - if not completely emasculated - BBC. The political critics are headed by the Tory Party, which is in danger of simply becoming a Murdoch mouthpiece on the issue of public service broadcasting. They may have a genuine point to make about the way in which the BBC should be run (although despite their criticisms they have not come up with an alternative model to the BBC Trust) but their overall criticism is sheer political rock throwing. That it is ill thought out was demonstrated by Culture Spokesman Jeremy Hunt's back-tracking today ("It's a great national institution" he admitted) and his deputy Ed Vaizey's sudden conversion to the cause of saving 6 Music, now he's discovered it is in fact quite popular. This is the BBC's rock and a hard place - it's damned for not making any cuts, and damned when it does, since any cuts will affect someone's favourite broadcast outlet, such is the BBC's success.

The commercial critics, of course, headed by the Murdoch clan, simply resent the huge market share held by the BBC. If the BBC were to disappear, as the Murdochs want, there is virtually no chance that the quality and diversity of the public service broadcaster's output would suddenly be picked up by Sky and others. We need a public service remit because the commercial broadcasters would have no intention of doing anything other than dumbing down to the lowest common denominator in search of ratings. Look at the demise of ITV's one-time flagship arts programme, the South Bank Show. Look at the dominance of imported US products on Sky, with no genuinely imaginative or niche broadcasting at all. And just consider whether or not, really, any commercial radio broadcaster is really going to replicate the sort of music broadcast by the now threatened 6 Music. The Murdochs detest the BBC simply because without it, they would be able to assume the role of choking market supremacy instead. And if you think that's a good idea, just take another look at Fox News in America. Frankly, I'd rather have the BBC's dominance any day over that of the wretched Australian/American clan.

Oh, and at least the BBC's senior managers come out of the bunker to be interviewed, both on their own services and by others, as demonstrated by Director-General Mark Thompson's appearance on both Sky's Jeff Randall and Newsnight, as well as countless other places. Have you ever seen Rupe or his top executives subjected to a properly interrogative interview on their own channels?

UPDATE: As if to emphasise the independence of BBC news programmes, Jeremy Paxman gave his own boss, Thompson, a merciless grilling, whilst treading lightly in front of ferocious BBC critics like the ludicrous Kelvin MacKenzie, the epitome of knee-jerk triviality if ever there was one.

Insights from Westminster

The Westminster visit for the Lower Sixth politics students arguably proved even more useful this year than on previous occasions. The official guides are all great, lovely people, of course, with a fund of good stories, but there is always the sense that they are showing you round a merely historic palace and not a living, evolving hub of democracy. That the Palace of Westminster is both, of course, simply mirrors the confusion inherent in much of Britain's political set-up, but having MP (and Liberal Chief Whip) Paul Burstow conduct the tour this time, along with one of his researchers, breathed a bit of fresh air into the tour. Here, at least, were people who understood the place as an animated political institution, and their insights and comments were more attuned to a group of politics students than some of the official tours.

As we moved through the Lords, Mr. Burstow spoke of its self-governing nature during debates (the Lords Speaker not being a presiding officer in the way the Commons Speaker is). Whatever his views on future reform of that awkward chamber, he certainly thought that its legislative process was often tighter and produced better scrutiny than that of his own chamber, the Commons. A few choice comments about the statues in the Members' Lobby also provided some entertainment.

It was a good tour, and the Question and Answer session in the Jubilee Cafe at the end produced some interesting elaborations of Lib Dem policy, especially when Sutton's MP was pressed by Lib Dem activist Max Daly on the subject of grammar schools! The momentum behind the discussion was, however, rather limited to just one or two people, which was a shame. Former student and current political aide Pier Barrett managed to produce some more lively responses, although the deafening silence that greeted the question "What current political issues would you want to ask a minister about?" spoke volumes about the political engagement of some of this group of, er, politics students!! Voting at 16? Having some interest at 16 wouldn't be a bad start!

Mr. Burstow will, of course, be at the Charlie Edwards organised Question Time debate at SGS on Monday evening, along with his Conservative rival Phillipa Stroud, and the UKIP candidate for Sutton and Cheam as well. That really should be a must attend event for politics students!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Lord Ashcroft the Non-Dom

The Tory Party's major financier, Lord Ashcroft, has acknowledged that he does not pay UK tax on his non-UK earnings - i.e. he is a 'non-dom'. Nick Robinson explains why this is significant.

Westminster Visit

L6th politics students are visiting Westminster tomorrow, so go here to check on the instructions.