Sunday, February 28, 2010

Prescott is a "treacherous, hypocritical toad" - Rawnsley

After a week when he was briefly in the eye of the storm, instead of reporting it from its outer rings, Andrew Rawnsley's pen is in fine working order. He has particularly choice comments about John Prescott and Roy Hattersley, while his depiction of "the ferocity of the Labour machine" is vivid indeed. He also references a CGI re-enactment of some of Gordon Brown's less fine moments from appledaily in Hong Kong, which I've placed below.



Meanwhile, further to my previous post, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford are on the attack with a stinging condemnation of the Thatcher era.

The Right Wing Laager Is No Place For a National Party

With David Cameron gearing up for his speech to the Tories' Spring Conference today, the polling news from YouGov, that the Tories are a mere 2 points ahead of Labour, is causing severe jitters in the party. It is also creating an opportunity, according to the Independent on Sunday, for the right to become resurgent. David Cameron is under increasing pressure to adopt a tax-cutting, spending slashing policy regime that would appeal to the party's core voters. The pressure will only have been increased by the very successful launch of the British Tea Party movement by right-wing apologist Dan Hannan MEP.

David Cameron is a man of some mettle, and he has shown in the past that he has been prepared to resist the siren voices of the right-wing in his party. His reward has been to see himself vigorously lambasted by the rightist press - the Telegraph and the Spectator are amongst his severest critics - and on the conservative blogs. He should continue to resist. The Tories are not in trouble because they are not right-wing enough. They are in trouble because they have failed to spell out their distance from hobbling slash-and-burn economic policies strongly enough. They have allowed the internal debate to seep into the public sphere. They have failed to make bold, centrist policies count. David Cameron, and his key strategist Steve Hilton, were at their most successful when showing the country that the party was modernising.

It is the Tories' right-wing heritage that continues to hamper them. The legacy of its turn towards right-wing ideology in the 1980s was to remove their electoral presence from vast swathes of the country. Their almost total lack of representation in Scotland and Wales, their retreat from the cities and their evisceration in large areas of the north of England - especially the North East - were all the result of the polarisation of the Thatcherite polity. Only recently have they started to crawl slowly back into some of these areas, and that success has everything to do with the successful re-orienting of the Tory brand by David Cameron and Steve Hilton. That this might now be under threat from a resurgent right that sees re-election as its birthright, not that of the modernisers, is a dire problem for Mr. Cameron. Has he really managed to re-secure the party an electoral pact with so many disillusioned voters, only to see it snatched away again by the Thatcherite hard core who have never cared to see the party return to its once dominant centrist position?

Mr. Cameron apparently takes advice from William Hague. Hague is a natural right-winger, but as leader he saw his hopes dashed when he authorised an election campaign based on a core, ideological Tory message. The bitter reward of his leadership was to see his party endure one of its most catastrophic results after a term of New Labour. Michael Howard flirted with modernisation, but rode to electoral battle under the safe banner of right-wing values. I can remember even now the sheer disgust expressed by some former Tory voters for the unashamed Tory strategy of 2005. A centrist nation wants a centrist party of the right, but since the Thatcherite hijack of the party they haven't had it. Labour's current fightback has much to do with that residual problem of the Tories, and if - with a modernisers victory hanging temptingly in front of them - the Thatcherite wing once again manage to snatch defeat for the party this spring, they could well manage to consign a once genuinely national party to Trotsky's dustbin of history.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Harp Playing Angels On Clouds In Downing Street

We have, of course, got it all wrong about Gordon Brown's Downing Street, as Ed Balls, a deeply lovely man himself, with nothing but kind words for all about him, has corrected us. The BBC reports him thus -

Schools Secretary Ed Balls also told the BBC he did not "recognise this atmosphere" of alleged bullying at Number 10.

"Jeremy Heywood, who is the top civil servant, said the opposite was true - it was a friendly, caring, supportive environment. I think he is right," Mr Balls said.

Warms the cockles of your heart, doesn't it, to know what a caring, supportive, beautiful environment No. 10 is to work in? Don't know WHAT Alastair Darling can have been on about when he referred to the 'forces of hell' being unleashed. And remind me, why did former No.10 adviser Damian McBride have to resign? Was he just being too nice to people? Or was he caught out trying to plant some truly unpleasant, untrue and hurtful stories about his enemies on a website?

Are the Polls Really Bad News for the Tories?

Recent opinion polls have showed a lowering of the Tory lead to around 7 per cent. As everyone is increasingly aware, the current election system benefits Labour, which means that at 7% ahead, the Tories can only expect a roughly 3 seat lead over Labour - no majority, certainly, and possibly not enough to form any sort of government if Nick Clegg's Liberals side with Labour. At just 5% ahead, the Tories would see Labour emerge as the largest party in terms of seats. So it looks rather gloomy for the Tories. However, seasoned psephologist (poll watcher!) Peter Kellner - who heads up the YouGov polling organisation - has produced a slightly more optimistic forecast for the Conservative Party, based upon the variability factor in marginal seats.

Even if Kellner is right, however, and a 7% lead could bring the Tories a more meaningful 10/11 seat lead, the question must still be raging around Conservative Headquarters. At a time of severe economic recession, with all sorts of brickbats raging around an unloved prime minister, what do they really have to do to get elected with a majority?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cameron's Conservative Enemies

I've blogged before about the problems that David Cameron will encounter from his own party's right wing should he enter power. Cameron the liberal moderniser is in a minority within his own party. Now the Guardian's Michael White has written about the problem of Cameron's right-wing enemies, having been to a reception held by Stuart Wheeler (former Tory financier) and addressed by Norman Tebbit. I'm just wondering if they'll hold off even as far as the election - with the Tory lead narrowing poll by poll, there may be a renewed pressure on Cameron to radicalise his policy offerings.

Prescott's Form

I knew putting John Prescott up to defend Gordon Brown from the 'bullying' charges was a bad - if entertaining - idea. Mary Ann Seighart details her close encounter with a bullying Prescott in today's Times.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rawnsley v. Prescott

Newsnight saw Paxo give fellow journalist Andrew Rawnsley a robust interview, but the best part of the programme was a frenetically angry John Prescott. I love hearing John Prescott talk about bullying and losing your temper. He virtually spat out his hatred of Rawnsley, condemning him for writing a book to make money. Rawnsley had a nice comeback, of course, when he referenced Prescott's own memoirs and Mrs. Prescott's presumably financially viable serialisation rights for her book by the Daily Mail. Good job Prescott wasn't actually in the same studio otherwise I think Rawnsley would have felt the famous left hook.

How Spin Works - Part 2

Pity poor Christine Pratt. For whatever motive - irritation, perhaps, that she was hearing a story being denied by Downing Street which she knew to be true - she made the fateful decision to enter the political bear pit. She said that Downing Street was wrong to deny that there was any bullying at the heart of government, as her own charity, the National Bullying Helpline, had received complaints from No. 10 staff. At which point, Ms. Pratt became the target of a variety of spin efforts on the part of No.10, that might well qualify as a form of bullying in its own right. She was derided as a political operative, a stooge of the Conservatives, someone unfit to be running a national charity, a liar, an unreliable witness. She has also managed to lose all four of her national patrons as a result of the furore. So Ms. Pratt has seen at first hand just how aggressive the political world can be.

As for No. 10, it has pulled out all the stops to alleviate a damaging story. As I've already noted, they have managed to deny allegations that were not originally made. They have had the Dark Lord of Spin himself, Lord Mandelson, casting aspersions on anyone who has dared to suggest that Gordon Brown is anything other than merely 'driven' and 'passionate'. We've even seen John Prescott - yes, he of the flailing punch - step up to the cameras once again and assert, with his usual pugnacity, that of course there is no bullying at No. 10.

The government did have some time to prepare its response, as Patrick Wintour at the Guardian (The Observer's sister paper) reports today. The Conservative blogger Iain Dale reminds his readers of John Prescott's record, and of Peter Mandelson's earlier views of Gordon Brown. All of which adds up to a political whirlwind that may claim poor, unwary victims like Ms. Pratt, but is unlikely to significantly change the electoral arithmetic. There is an issue of character with regards to Gordon Brown, and there has always been an issue of spin, with New Labour (Mandelson, Brown and Blair's creation) in particular. But voters will still be more interested in who gets them out of an economic crisis most effectively.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Prime Ministerial Practice

In amongst all of the headline grabbing stuff about Gordon Brown’s famously bad temper, there are some interesting glimpses about the nature of the office of prime minister, and in particular just how it is being performed by its present incumbent. No student going in to an AS exam paper on the Executive should be in ignorance of these fascinating insights.

Full article here.

Bad News For the Tories

It's not just been bad news for Labour. The Tories are facing some truly depressing polling evidence at the moment, which suggests they are far from an electoral breakthrough. Remember, Labour can still win in terms of seats even from 5 points behind the Tories. Meanwhile, former Deputy PM and Tory grandee Lord Heseltine has opined that the Tories are unlikely to win a majority, and is putting his not inconsiderable money on a hung parliament.

Spin and How It Works

Gordon Brown has denied ever hitting anyone. Excellent. Well done. But it wasn't one of the allegations made against him in any case.
No. 10 categorically deny that Sir Gus O'Donnell ever instituted an inquiry into Gordon Brown's behaviour. That's nice. But again, it wasn't one of the allegations made - all Rawnsley says is that O'Donnell heard informally about Brown's behaviour and gave a private warning to the Prime Minister.

So, when in doubt, just refute a few allegations that weren't actually made

Character Matters

The most reported aspects of Andrew Rawnsley's revelations - because the most vivid and extraordinary - are those which detail Gordon Brown's notoriously bad temper (or 'passion' as Lord Mandelson would have it). Some of these incidents have been whispered in Westminster and on blogs for some time, but Rawnsley gathers them all together in one place, and the effect is pretty devastating. Our prime minister is a man who will hurl abuse at aides, punch furniture, throw things, physically shift a secretary from her seat because she's not typing fast enough, pepper the back of his car seat with black marker pen marks stabbed out in anger, grab aides by the lapels and generate such tirades of abuse that people are afraid to work for him.

This is grist to the media mill, but the question arises as to whether, apart from the love of the sensational, all of this really matters? Well, Rawnsley rightly defends his publication of such material, which some may consider gossip, by referring to the issue of character. Gordon Brown is keen to talk about character. He once authored a book called "Profiles in Courage", testament to his admiration of particular character traits. Rawnsley says that Brown is hoist here by his own self-references:

Gordon Brown himself has made an issue of his character. He has repeatedly asked for votes as a personal endorsement on the grounds that he is the right leader for the hour. At the 2007 Labour conference, just before his early honeymoon imploded in the debacle of the phantom election, he was marketed under the slogan:
"Not flash – just Gordon." At the 2008 conference, held in the midst of the meltdown in the financial markets, he told the country that it was "no time for a novice", again making his own character the defining issue.

His recent appearance on ITV's Life Stories, where he made an uncomfortable attempt to engage in what he had previously disdained as "the politics of celebrity", was a conscious effort by Number 10 to project his personality in a way that might make it more appealing to voters.

"I know that I'm not perfect," he told a pre-election rally in Coventry yesterday. "But I know where I come from. I know what I stand for" – asking to be re-elected for his values. Having himself elevated character as an issue, the voters have the right to be acquainted with every dimension of that character.

So character matters, and yes we do have a right to know what sort of man is governing us. We can draw our own conclusions about its importance when we vote.

The Purnell Affair

James Purnell's decision to stand down from parliament has been a little overshadowed by the Rawnsley revelations, but that it has an impact on the future of the modernising left is clear. The Times' Danny Finkelstein comments on its importance here. Another comment I have heard is that it changes the dynamics of any future leadership election considerably. Purnell was both a possible contender, or at the very least a key putative ally of David Miliband's who could both bring in the right and extend the appeal of a Miliband bid to John Cruddas and his supporters on the soft left. My informant tells me this would have been effectively an 'encircling' manouevre against a Harman or Balls candidacy. Without Purnell, the Miliband team is without a 'big tent' champion of credibility.

Also interestingly, James Purnell's decision, at just 39, to leave parliament is a further reflection on the parlous state of that institution's reputation. That such a one-time high-flier, who has dedicated his life to politics, should now see a better chance of achieving political aims outside of parliament is a sad comment on the state of MPs, their efficacy and their morale, at the moment. The major challenge of the new parliament, whatever its composition, comprised as it will be of a virtually unprecedented number of new MPs, will be to act to restore integrity and commitment to its undertakings. It will not be on things like expenses - which have now, anyway, been the subject of such severe restrictions that they are unlikely to be a problem for the foreseeable future - but on the way in which these MPs utilise their legislative roles in the scrutinising and passing of better, meaningful laws. Once they begin to show that they have vision and teeth, it will be time to reconsider the relatively meagre remunerations they currently receive. There is no value to a democracy in failing to entice able people from all sectors of life into its legislatures by suitable remunerative packages, and for all the fuss about expenses, this will have to be addressed at some point. We need a positive, effective parliament, and continualy belittling our MPs will never be the way to achieving that.

The Mandelson Factor

Andrew Rawnsley's book "The End of the Party" is causing a minor sensation with its extraordinary stories of a prime minister virtually out of control at times. The Observer has published substantial extracts today, and I'll comment more shortly. If you get the chance, you should certainly take the time to read at least some of it. However, I have to commend that old Labour fox Lord Mandelson for a silkily superlative performance on Andrew Marr's show this morning. Gordon Brown's outbursts aren't evidence of lack of control - they're about 'passion'. This is all making good headlines because Andrew Rawnsley is such a good writer. No wonder Gordon Brown was keen to patch things up with the old fixer and have him back in government - whatever else the Rawnsley files reveal, there's little doubt about the continuing crucial role of Peter Mandelson in maintaining stability in a genuinely weird government.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mock The Tories

Mock the Week carried a 2 minute segment on the new Tory poster campaign. I'm just wondering whether the Tories still take the view that any publicity is good publicity? The left wing blogs are lapping it up (see Political Scrapbook, who quickly rushed out this clip, for instance).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

First Class Twit

Here's one MP David Cameron won't be sorry to see stand down at the next election. Nick Winterton has never been renowned for his political astuteness. Today he has caused widespread hilarity with his criticism of the removal of MPs' first class travel allowances. The thing is, he says, you really can't expect MPs to sit with the oiks in second class.....I thought figures like Winterton had died out in the 1950s.

UPDATE: This spoof poster has recently been spotted on the web, by Paul Waugh amongst others.


Attacking the Tory Vanguard

Neither Daniel Hannan MEP nor Boris Johnson are particularly representative of the Cameron leadership. If anything, they provide Mr. Cameron with a degree of embarrassment. But they are hugely popular, for different reasons, amongst the Tory grassroots. Mr. Hannan's speech attacking Gordon Brown in the European Parliament received a huge number of hits - for a political speech - on youtube, and he has become something of a darling of the eurosceptic majority within the Conservative Party. Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, is a Tory favourite for simply being Boris Johnson, and having ousted Ken Livingstone from City Hall. Both are therefore fair game for left-wing opponents, and have both received a bit of a pasting for recent pronouncements.

Mr. Hannan wrote on the Daily Telegraph blog about the Georgian economic experience, claiming - in the headline no less - that "Libertarianism has made Georgia rich and free". A stirring article, no doubt, but comprehensively demolished by the Georgian opposition on their website. Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, comes in for attack from a Labour blogger who claims, in two posts here and here, that his attitude as Mayor of London has simply resulted in greater isolationism for Britain's capital city. Interesting reads all round.

Tories Go For the Gay Vote

The Tory Party's high command have come a long way since the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Now, one of their front bench spokesmen, Nick Herbert, has delivered a speech on gay equality in Washington DC. Herbert, gay and married thus, notes that the Tories may have more openly gay MPs on their benches after the next election than Labour, and posits the view that "The Left don't own the gay vote". Conservative Home give full coverage to his speech, although the comments suggest a more mixed view from Tory supporters and members. Nonetheless, Herbert's approach fits in with Cameron's social liberalism, and challenges the authoritarian morality of earlier Conservative leaderships.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday and the Ethics of Christian Charity

Andrew Sullivan has posted a thought provoking comment on his blog this Ash Wednesday, from Reinhold Niebuhr's "An Interpretation of Christian Ethics". It acts as a refreshing splash of cold water on the faces of anyone who is wondering whether the mainstream churches are beginning to make themselves look a little foolish over some of their moral campaigns. Go and have a mull over the comment, and to whet your appetite here's the opener:

"There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Hard At Work Commons


Best pic of the day comes from the BBC's Parliament channel, courtesy of the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh. A busy afternoon in the chamber......

Party Games

The Conservatives have had a rather tawdry 48 hours or so in their Westminster North constituency. Their bright, A-listed, media friendly Cameron insider candidate Joanne Cash resigned on Monday night, only to return on Tuesday evening. The dispute was essentially a clash of personalities between two alpha females - Cash herself, and the local Association Chairman. The resolution - Cash's re-instatement as a candidate and the complete removal of the Association Chairman - was a leadership operation, and the whole affair sheds only a little light on the politics of the Conservative Party. There have been suggestions that it represents a widening gulf between Cameron's leadership clique and the party grassroots, although this would hardly be the first local association to present problems to its national leadership. In reality, the Westminster cat fight was an odd diversion, but it probably reinforced the desire on the part of the leadership to have a more complete central control of its wayward constituency organisations. It won't have done Cash any favours either, as she seeks to overturn Labour MP Karen Buck's 3,000 odd majority.

The Evening Standard's Paul Waugh has probably the most thorough and accurate account of the 'evening of mayhem' that led to Cash's resignation.

A New Voting System?

Well, MPs did in the end vote to hold a referendum on introducing a new voting system - the Alternative Vote - to Westminster elections, but it is hardly a game changer. It will only happen if Labour win the next election outright (a coalition with the Liberals would presumably produce a more proportional suggestion), and then it is only a commitment to hold a referendum. But it has at least focused attention back onto the thorny issue of what voting system is best for parliamentary elections. The Liberals must be kicking their historical ancestors for ever having rejected the Tory suggestion of a PR system back in the first decade of the twentieth century, but the Liberals then thought they did quite nicely under FPTP thank-you very much, and had no idea they were on the brink of being relegated to eternal third party status.

The BBC have done an interesting projection on likely outcomes of AV using previous election results. The principal losers seem to be the Tories, who would benefit far more from a properly proportional system or even a hybrid of the type that runs in Scotland. Labour benefit to a small degree - explaining Gordon Brown's preference for this particular alternative - while the Liberals do not exactly break through their electoral barrier. If the only alternative is AV, we may as well stick with First Past the Post!

The Obama Problem

I have posted a piece on the tutor2u blog about Obama's presidency, and why it has failed to live up to expectations. The main reference is an excellent article in the Financial Times by Edward Luce, which I would commend to all students as essential reading about the presidency. West Wing addicts might identify the four insiders identified by Luce with some of Bartlett's people. In Obama's case, though, there might not be a need to "let Obama be Obama"!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Iran's "Punch" to the West

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that Iran is set to deliver a "punch" that will stun world powers during this week's 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

A rather dramatic item from breitbart.com, but what could the threatened 'punch' be? February 11th is the date in question - the anniversary of the Shah's overthrow in 1979, but a day that, in Iran, might be dominated by renewed opposition protests at the apparent illegality of President Ahmadinejad's re-election. Perhaps the ayatollah is hoping to draw attention away from domestic difficulties with the launch of a nuclear missile?

Tory Candidate Trouble

Joanne Cash is one of David Cameron's A-list candidates. She is glamorous looking and also, apparently, a top media barrister whose progressive instincts and interest in libel reform would make her a valuable addition to the Conservatives' parliamentary benches. So her sudden resignation last night from being a candidate for the Tory winnable seat of Westminster North has come as an unwelcome surprise. Conservative Home reported the meeting in a brief couple of lines. Apparently Tory Chairman Eric Pickles was there, as was the party's Lords leader, Lord Strathclyde.

But has Cash really resigned? Party headquarters may prefer to avoid a potentially divisive new selection meeting, and according to Paul Waugh, Cash appears to be tweeting as if she is still the candidate. Curiouser and curiouser.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Question Time's Irritating Audience

If you've ever found yourself thinking that the most annoying thing about the BBC's "Question time" is its opinionated and uninteresting audience, then you are not alone. Janet Daly has a pop at it in her Telegraph column:

The increased role of the studio audience in the Question Time programme itself has rendered its discussions infuriatingly pointless and almost inevitably trivial. No serious point of debate can ever be pursued to a satisfactory conclusion and every attempt at substantive argument is interrupted and plunged into incoherence by wildly irrelevant random points from the audience.

Bloggers v. Newspapers

The blogosphere - or at any rate the very tiny bit of it I manage to read - is in a lather over whether it is beginning to overtake newspapers in influence and impact. A meeting of Westminster Skeptics tonight will hear from four renowned bloggers of left and right, and one dead tree press journo (the excellent Nick Cohen) on this very question. To add to the debate, prominent Tory website, the independent Conservative Home, is parading a poll that shows it now has more influence than the Daily Telegraph. 96% of its survey read Conservative Home compared to just 56% for the apparently ailing Torygraph. Impressive, until you consider that the survey was just 155 people, all Tory candidates in the most 'winnable' seats. So Conservative Home's influence is pretty good with a select group of people polled by the website itself.

Of course the rise of the political blogs has had an impact - albeit a fairly marginal one at the moment - on politics. The problem for most bloggers is that their material is scanned more than read. The average reader may visit their favourite couple of blogs for a few minutes during the course of a bit of web searching. For the blogs to maintain any sort of position, their posts are necessarily short and opinionated. Most blogs are one-person operations lacking the resources of a media organisation*. There is a democratic element to blogging - it is a healthy and egalitarian exercise in a pluralist democracy, and the internet generally has absolutely impacted on the nation's political conversation, giving access to a wider array of unmediated voices, and instant communication possibilities by a huge variety of pressure groups. But the overall influence remains significantly limited, as illustrated by the fact that the single most important, most explosive, most game-changing political story of the year was of course broken by a mainstream newspaper with substantial resources to buy it. The Telegraph's exposure of MPs' expenses. The blogs have a long way to go before they're playing at that level.

* One interesting exception is Conservative Home, and its aggregating sister site, Politics Home. They are funded primarily by two wealthy sponsors - Stephan Shakespeare and Lord Ashcroft - and carry no advertising. Financially unviable, they are very much the tools of their owners, who have a life or death power over them not matched even by the most authoritarian newspaper magnate, who does at least still need to sell both copies and advertising.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Westminster's Culture of Deference

The Legg Report on MPs' expenses says that some 400 MPs have to pay back a total of £1.1million, which gives an idea of the extraordinary scale of expense abuses taking place. The Director of Public Prosecutions is due to announce whether or not he will be prosecuting any MPs later today. One thing that perhaps indicates why MPs were able to get away with such abuse, unchecked, for so long, is the sheer level of ridiculous deference shown them in the isolated bubble of Westminster Palace. This piece on Iain Dale's blog is very illuminating in this regard.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

David Cameron's Woes

Tonight, at the London School of Economics, Sussex politics lecturer Tim Bale will be launching his new book on "The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron" with a talk entitled "Doldrums to Downing Street? The Conservative Party's long Journey from Opposition to the Brink of Office". It is meant to be an upbeat sounding title, charting the Tory Party's doldrum years when it looked like a near permanent opposition, to its revitalisation under David Cameron. It couldn't, however, come at a more unsettling time for Mr. Cameron. Not only has he made some mis-steps recently, but his party's poll showing looks ever more fragile. And as the polling numbers go down, so the heat from his right-wing critics is being turned up. As Tim Bale prepares to tell his audience why David Cameron has come nearest since Margaret Thatcher to getting the Tories elected, Simon Heffer in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Adam Smith Institute, are all busy laying into the very same Mr. Cameron for his less than radical economic policies. Even Tim Bale himself, in a piece for the Guardian, opined that Mr. Cameron might be reverting to a bit of populism to shore up the Tories' traditional media base, and thus alienate the liberal middle classes. Who would be a Conservative leader?

Read the whole article.

Clare Short's Evidence

The Chilcot Inquiry continues to provide some fascinating insights into how the Blair government operated, although those insights have come less from some of the principals (both Blair and Alastair Campbell were eminently controlled and unrevelatory throughout their long hearings) and more from less well known players. Like Lord Walker the other day, confirming that Gordon Brown's (as Chancellor) determination to cut army spending nearly provoked mass resignations. His successor as chief of staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, suggested that defence chiefs simply didn't have the time to source everything they wanted, although last week Tony Blair claimed he had been told the military were war-ready. Claim and counter-claim will provide the members of the Inquiry with a real challenge when it comes to writing their final report.

Meanwhile, Clare Short bounded back into the political limelight yesterday with her evidence. She was hardly going to play a meek role discussing a war she herself had such split feelings over, and she let fly quite a few blunt remarks about her former political colleagues. It's not so much her characterisation of Blair and Campbell as a couple of con-men - an expected tribute - but her picture of the whole cabinet jeering her when she tried to question the war's legality. Finally, we have it. This was not a cabinet of cautious, independent thinkers, as Straw and Hoon have tried so hard to suggest. They were a bunch of unthinking mediocrities who fell quickly in behind their leader's obvious desire for war. Whatever else it shows us, Chilcot has exposed the absence of proper cabinet government under Blair, and not just because of prime ministerial fiat, but because the cabinet itself abandoned such a pretense. Well done, Clare.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Electoral Reform for Westminster?

Gordon Brown is apparently going to suggest a referendum on voting reform to MPs this week, making electoral reform a thoroughly live issue. He is not offering PR apparently, but the Alternative Vote, in order to ensure that MPs get at least 50% of the constituency vote to be elected. Could be that he's genuinely apprised of the need for electoral reform. Could be that this is the opening salvo in a bid to pre-empt the discussions after a hung parliament. Everyone knows that one Liberal price for support will be movement on the voting reform they have for so long demanded. The Conservatives remain clearly against - this report on Conservative Home shows 86% of Tory supporters opposed, although the poll will have been focused amongst Tory die-hards; the Cameron leadership may be more open, although they have given little sign of it so far.

Interestingly, the experience of partial PR in Scotland and Wales has actually been to benefit the Tories, and diminish the Labour Party's hitherto firm stranglehold. While the Conservatives win seats in the PR list that they can't get through FPTP, the Labour Party has seen its monopoly, based on its ability to win the seats, significantly reduced by the rise of the SNP and Plaid, both beneficiaries of the list system. The Liberal Democrats, too, have fallen behind the Conservatives in the Scottish parliament in terms of seat numbers; they are the fourth party in Scotland, but the third party in terms of Scottish seats at Westminster. A real devolution problem for any incoming Conservative government will be the fact that, whether or not they have a majority at Westminster, they are likely to have only one or two MPs from Scotland. This could augur further calls for greater Scottish independence, which could potentially, of course, benefit the Tories at Westminster as they start to take the knife to all those safe Labour seats. So, Gordon Brown's late reform proposal may also be about the basic survival of the Labour Party.

The Conservative attitude to electoral reform remains a little bizarre - they are not natural winners under FPTP at the moment - but then, anyone who looks to the Tories to do anything other than hunker down when it comes to political reform is living in dreamland. They opposed devolution, have never held referendums, and opposed further reform of the House of Lords. On all these issues, circumstances forced them to shift their position slowly and reluctantly - it may also happen with the voting system, but surely just once they would prefer to be in the driving seat?

[This BBC video, by the way, gives a good 2 minute overview of the current Scottish situation as a result of the Additional Member system]

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Little Rumour Goes A Long Way

What do you do if you're a Liberal MP in a vulnerable seat threatened by a well-funded and personable Tory candidate? Why, quickly come up with a rumour about a local hospital closing of course. That, at least, is what Susan Kramer, Richmond's MP, has come up with, according to blogger Guido Fawkes. Apparently, what was merely a London wide review of all hospitals has generated into a "Kingston Hospital is Under Threat" scare from the scared Liberals. So much so, that they have managed to set up a website, and a facebook group called "Save Kingston Hospital" has garnered over 10,000 gullible members. So when Kingston Hospital doesn't close because, er, there are no plans for it to do so, I wonder how many might start to tell us that facebook is really powerful. Honestly.

David Cameron's New Pledge

The day in politics has seen a flurry of attacks related to David Cameron's apparent change to his proposed spending plans. He has now said that he would wait a year before implementing the significant cuts that the party has already said are necessary (but hasn't yet defined). As such, he brings his party into line with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in not wanting to choke off a perceived recovery in its first year. This may seem to be a sensible political tack on Cameron's part, but it is hardly going to convince the electorate of his consistency, and it will once again store up trouble with his hardline spending cutters. That diminishing poll lead may be panicking him a little.

The Spectator Supports Cameron

But on just one issue. The editor Fraser Nelson, says there is one good reason to vote for the Tories - turns out it's their education strategy. Useful knowledge, which might just push a few more people towards the Spectator's own Education Conference, a snip at just £233.82. There's certainly never any shortage of people willing to talk about what's wrong with education and how they have the holy grail to its improvement. Just can't seem to get many of them to make that awful leap into the classroom, that's all. But then actually doing the educating doesn't really pay as well as talking about it. 'Twas always thus!

An Eye For the Banal

Earlier this evening, Charles Clarke, Chris Mullin and one other person were busy 'plotting' together outside the Adjourment debate. Three hours before that, Simon Hughes had apparently buttonholed David Miliband in Portcullis House, an encounter in which Miliband looked thoroughly bored. How do I know all this rather petty, banal information? Because a host of parliamentary underlings are busy updating a twitter site called EyespyMP with precisely this sort of trivia. MPs can't eat a sandwich without someone twittering the contents of it to the site. I am really not sure whether this is a great blow for transparent politics, or a complete waste of anybody's time. Go and visit and make up your own mind.

Salisbury's New Tory Candidate

Salisbury used the 'open primary' method that has become de rigeur for Tory associations to select their new candidate. The lucky person gets to try and succeed Robert Key MP in what must be considered a relatively safe Tory seat, albeit subject to possible Lib Dem predations. Anyway, one John Glen won the nomination - a clean-cut seeming guy with a track record of professional work within the Tory Party, so hardly a game-changer. He was a research assistant to an MP, adviser to William Hague, head of the Conservative Research Department - here's someone who certainly hasn't bothered to move outside the Tory Party's plentiful employment possibilities. More interestingly, however, is the set of broad beliefs he offered - low tax, tough on crime, tough on immigration, Eurosceptic. You'd have to look hard to find the softer brand of Cameron Toryism here. Even more interestingly, Glen's vocal supporter, the editor of Conservative Home, who was at the selection meeting, observed that politically the candidates offered broadly the same mix:

It was striking how conservative all of the candidates were. They all, for example, made very Eurosceptic pledges, all backed grammar schools, all committed to much stricter control of immigration.

I remember a time when all prospective Conservative candidates were expected to show support for the death penalty. Now, it seems, you have to make sure you sign up to the full raft of Thatcherite beliefs, whatever the party leadership may be saying. Continued evidence, it seems, of the gulf between David Cameron's leadership echelon, and the grassroots party.