Sunday, December 30, 2012

2013 looks bad for the Tories, but not as bad as 2015.

The Tories will be in government until 2015, spats with the Lib Dems notwithstanding.  In 2015, all the available arithmetic suggests they will lose, as Paul Goodman shows in this admirably clear article.  It can't help that a segment of the Tory core vote, it's older and more right-wing element, are defecting in mind - and sometimes in body - to UKIP.  This would have been good news for the modernisation of the Tory brand if such a process were still going on, but it isn't, a strategically catastrophic mistake as Matthew D'Ancona writes here in a first class analysis of the Tories' public problem.

Goodman indicates that one demographic factor working against the Tories is their very low showing amongst ethnic minority voters, who are becoming a larger proportion of the voting population.  This would have been one area which modernisation sought to address.  The real issue for the Tories is that while voters continue to regard them with suspicion as an as yet unreformed party, its own hard-core supporters do not share that view and have headed to what they think is a revanchist Conservative Party in UKIP.  When he abandoned modernisation, David Cameron had not completed the process of de-toxifying the Tory brand in the eyes of the unaligned public.  But neither did he hunker back to the right and thus at least retain the surety of hard-core support.  This latter option would never be a winning strategy though; even with the added ex-Tory support UKIP will score marginally in any general election, in proportion to the broad popularity of unadulterated right-wing policies.

The real decision for Cameron is how and when to get his modernising agenda back on track while he is still able to make a difference in government.  He is man with shallow roots in Conservatism, possibly one of the reasons why his members have so signally failed to take him much to their hearts.  He arrived too slickly, too cleanly to the top, with too little of the mud of party activism gripping to his fingers, to be much appreciated by the hoary-handed sons and daughters of Tory toil.  He could have been forgiven for this if he had then done what Tories expect from their leaders - been supremely competent in his execution of government.  Alas, he hasn't.  He has too often seemed swept by the buffeting winds of political chaos with little idea of how to anchor himself down for a bit.  And the more he gets buffeted, the more it looks as if he is leaving a space for the return of the ideologues.  D'Anconca puts the issue of Toryism and ideology very neatly here:


In general, however, the global financial crisis has had a stultifying effect upon Conservative discourse. It has restored to respectability the myth that politics is really a branch of economics; the myth that confuses the complex, multi-faceted voter – who contains multitudes – with that predictable two-dimensional creature, homo economicus. The risk is one of “ideological creep”: when an entirely practical mission to improve the lot of Britons in 2012 and beyond starts to acquire a doctrinal veneer, and to look like the work of Tory Jacobites, ideological restorationists determined to continue the “unfinished revolution” of the 1980s.
There was a time when patrician responsibility animated the Conservative will to power. Its place has been taken by ideology: a simmering brew of Friedman, Hayek and a bit of Burke for old time’s sake. If modernisation has a central purpose, it is to remind the party that ideology is never enough. Those afflicted by doctrinal certainty are generally impervious to what people think of them.
As of the end of the year, David Cameron hasn't been able to articulate through words or actions what that classic Tory solution, D'Ancona's "patrician responsibility", can provide.  If he ends 2013 by having allowed the ideologues back, then he may still have a year or so left in government,  but with 2015 still to come he probably needs to get ready for electoral wipe-out.  Again.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Tidings

The Archbishop of Westminster attacks gay marriage in his Christmas message; the Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the damage the issue of women priests is doing to the Church of England; and the Prime Minister quotes from the gospel of John.  I don't make the rules up, but is the Church's condition any wonder when on their most high profile day they manage to stick with such negative messaging?

Happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Backpedalling Over Mitchell

The Police Federation can rarely have been in a worse place.  As the mysterious undercurrents of the Andrew Mitchell affair gradually gather pace, the Police Federation's execrable stance during the original incident has been coming under serious scutiny.  Its national chairman, Paul McKeever, can spot a noose tightening and has been busy backpedalling over his organisation's attitude towards Mr. Mitchell in those heady days.  Mr. McKeever says that the national leadership leadership took a very clear line not to call for Mr. Mitchell's resignation.  Really?  If so, it wasn't very clear at the time.  Mr. McKeever himself was quoted in a press release as questioning whether Mr. Mitchell should hold office: 
"It is hard to fathom how someone who holds the police in such contempt could be allowed to hold a public office."
Meanwhile his West Mercia division was opening calling for resignation. 

The Police Federation today looks a complete mess - deservedly so, given its behaviour.  But it's not the only organisation to be reviewing its stance.  the Daily Telegraph publishes an article by Charles Moore about the incident, in which Mr. Moore calls the Mitchell affair the police version of the BBC's McAlpine affair.  Mr. Moore's article is a cogent analysis of the build up of lies about Mr. Mitchell, and it is headlined "Andrew Mitchell: a lie gone round the world before the truth had its bicycle clips on".  He neglects to mention, perhaps for reasons of space, the crucial role played by his own newspaper in promulgating that lie when they published verbatim the transcript of a police log that now looks distinctly dodgy.  That the police log printed gleefully by the Telegraph should match so closely the email sent by the officer masquerading as a member of the public certainly raises serious questions about its truthfulness. 

Backpedalling, it seems, has become a bit of a sport in some quarters.




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Desperate Defences of The Sun and Telegraph

Both the Sun and Telegraph newspapers have launched vigorous defences of their reporting over the Mitchell affair and have sought to turn the limelight away from their own close relationship with the police informers who gave them the story originally.

The Sun casts aspersions on reporter Michael Crick's objectivity, describing him snidely as 'a pal' of Mr. Mitchell who was due to meet up with him on the day of the incident (shock Sun revelation - political reporter meets senior politician); the Telegraph tries to claim that this is a new chapter in a sinister gagging of press freedom.

Neither paper's desperate pleas carries much weight.  The Sun also says that un-named 'observers' (presumably a couple of journos and interns in the Sun news office?) point out that the CCTV footage shows Mr Michell had more than enough time to make the comments he was accused of making.  Er, maybe.  But if so, he says them in a remarkably calm and controlled manner and without ever looking at the police officer escorting him to the side gate.  The CCTV footage on the Channel 4 report certainly doesn't suggest a flare-up, and as Mr. Mitchell pointed out, his body language simply doesn't match the attitude he is alleged to have shown.  It is also clear from the footage from another camera shown on Channel 4 that there was indeed only one, less than interested member of the public outside the gate - not the several claimed in the police report.  The Sun's report here is veering into parody.

As for the Telegraph, it persists in the belief that Mr. Mitchell was the principal malefactor here, and that Bernard Hogan-Howe, Met Commissioner, was utterly wrong to arrest a police officer involved in this incident.  Quite how the Telegraph squares this with the allegations that said officer posed as a member of the public, lied in an email to an MP about the incident, and possibly colluded with other officers in the compilation of a log that now looks as thin as a piece of Sun investigative reporting, isn't made clear.

The Channel 4 report by Michael Crick was pretty thorough and raised serious questions.  It is noticeable that the police have acted upon information in it rather than haul up their defences which they might have been expected to do.  The Police Federation has been busy back-tracking as fast as it can.  If there is anything sinister here, it is the possibility of a police fit-up of a man whose government they disagree with, and the unquestioning collusion of a couple of newspapers whose cosy relationship with the police force have rendered them eunuchs when it comes to serious investigative reporting.

It is, by the way, worth comparing the shrill defences of these two newspapers of their now questioned stories, to the way the BBC consistently places critical reports of its own organisation at the top of its news agenda - witness the appearance of the Savile investigation today.  Another plus for broadcast media?  

A Masterclass in Investigative Reporting

It really is worth watching Michael Crick's Dispatches report in full.  It is an admirable example of the grind and virtues of good investigative reporting.  What makes Crick such a good reporter - and often a very watchable one too - is his tenacity.  Most politicians dread being door-stepped by him because he will insist on asking them awkward questions, and then keep on asking them when they don't reply.  He also clearly values the truth.  Long after the print press had finished with the Mitchell story and determined that the former chief whip was guilty as charged, Crick goes back to the case and produces the less popular, but more damning case that Mitchell was stitched up.

Crick's report exposes potential lies in the police record of events, a witness who lied in an email about being present, and a Police Federation spokesman from West Mercia who was distinctly economical with the truth in his statements about a meeting with Mitchell.  More alarming from a government point of view, he exposes a No. 10 investigation that seems to have limped weakly on to conclude that the police were right, and failed to find any issue with the damning email sent to Deputy Chief Whip John Randall. Along the way, we have a supine print press all too keen to publish a police version of events that was never subjected to criticism or questioning, and to damn an unpopular minister.

It's a pretty wretched record all round.  You can't help but have sympathy for the wreckage faced by Andrew Mitchell built as it was on a car-crash of lies.  And you can't help but admire the way in which Mr. Crick pursued a case that had become distinctly 'non-sexy' in media terms.  It isn't the voluble and whinging print media who are guarding freedoms and asking the questions that others won't.  It's broadcast journalists like Mr. Crick, of whom there are too few in either media.

Police Conspiracy?

At the time of Andrew Mitchell's regrettable outburst of temper towards the police, I commented on the distinctly dubious behaviour of the police themselves.  My concerns were that - once again - police records had apparently been leaked to newspapers with impunity, and that the Police Federation was engaged in an unedifying witch-hunt against Mitchell.  It turns out that the affair may have been rather more sinister.

Channel 4's 'Dispatches' programme has reported that a key witness to the altercation had not in fact been present, and was, moreover, a serving police officer himself.  The fact that this ghost witness's version of events then matched the report contained in the police logs - which was fully leaked to the Daily Telegraph - implies a conspiracy between more than one officer.  The Police Federation's iniquitous involvement in this, and their own very partial account of a meeting held between Mitchell and West Midlands officers, has further added to the sense of deep conspiracy.

The Met are now conducting their own investigation into what looks like a thoroughly sordid affair.  It is worth remembering that some of the public and press sympathy for the police over Andrew Mitchell came because in the same week two police officers had been shot and killed in Manchester in the line of duty, reminding us of the perilous situation many dedicated policemen and women put themselves in on the public need.  It is also worth remembering that, but for the Manchester tragedy, we might have been a bit more focused on an earlier display of police cover-up and malicious leaking over the Hillsborough disaster.

The Police Federation launched an overtly political campaign to discredit a serving cabinet minister because they disagree with the policies being pursued by that minister's elected government.  The Metropolitan Police failed to investigate why a police log should have been leaked to two newspapers, even though the Leveson Inquiry had already established an undue cosiness in the relationship between police and press to the detriment of appropriate police confidentiality.

Channel 4's programme - produced, by the way, in a statutorily regulated broadcast media - has raised serious questions for both the Met and the Police Federation.  If it is true that members of the Diplomatic Protection Squad have engaged in a slanderous conspiracy to remove a cabinet minister, then heads absolutely need to roll.  Mr. Mitchell eventually resigned for his outburst, whilst denying consistently the reported content.  He appears to have been a much wronged and maligned man.  More than one police officer should now be under threat of dismissal, with likely court actions as well, if we are to regain any sense that police integrity might be able to be restored.  As for the Police Federation, its appalling behaviour should render it redundant altogether.  But there are questions too for the unregulated print media, who slavishly published the police version of events and gave little credence to Mr. Mitchell's.  Not much sense there that a free media is engaging in the fearless investigative reporting that we are so constantly hearing about from bleating editors.  Apparently, it takes the regulated broadcast media to do that job.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Baby Joy - Or Not!

En route to reading Steven Baxter's fantastically splenetic New Statesman post about the wretchedness of Christmas TV ads, I fell across another post by fellow NS blogger Laurie Penny, condemning the Royal Baby News.  Certainly, there is much to condemn in the vast hyperbole of reportage that has accompanied the news of a 12 week old pregnancy which has induced morning sickness.  But Ms. Penny was more interested in condemning the fact of the pregnancy itself - on class grounds, you understand.  While she certainly had some hard-luck stories to tell of other couples, less favoured by circumstance than the Waleses, it seemed like a rather unnecessary, slightly vindictive rant.  As ever, Norman Geras blogged much more articulately in response to Ms. Penny's piece, and the unashamed republican even wished the young couple good luck!

Autumn Statement Blues

I'm not sure the commentariat really knows what to make of George Osborne.  They used to regard him as a great strategist, until it turned out he wasn't.  They have sometimes regarded him as a fiscally tough Chancellor ready to reduce the budget, but his regular forays into spending - or at any rate not cutting enough - keep stymieing that one.  So is he in fact a spendthrift?  Er, not quite - still seems keen to reduce the deficit, even if he wants another three years to do it.  Possibly the real problem is that George Osborne doesn't quite know what he's for either, but he does have enough political talent to keep getting out of tight spots - temporarily at any rate.

There is no doubt that the government's own measurement for its success brands it a failure.  It is nowhere near providing the deficit reduction it claimed was at the heart of its being.  The economic and political arguments over this strategy are many, varied and passionate, although one might at least suggest that a substantial dose of pragmatism/populist cowardice (delete as appropriate) infects Mr. Osborne's decision making.  In fairness to him the Autumn Statement, which had all the potential of a journey into Hades, turned out to be rather more buoyant.  Admittedly, announcing that you're not actually going to place another rise on fuel duty doesn't really count as a cut, and cutting the tax-free allowance for pensions saving doesn't quite hold water as a smash and grab raid on the savings of the rich to fund the poor, but it was still a statement that seemed to be rather more positive than the circumstances deserve.  Mr. Osborne's ability to put silver lining around black holes still seems intact.

He benefits from having Ed Balls as his opponent.  Mr. Balls had a poor time of it in the Commons yesterday, illustrating the perils of preparing your address on the basis of one set of information, and not being able to alter it significantly when another set raises its head.  But even on a good day, Mr. Balls was never going to be a very plausible critic of the government's failure to meet its deficit reduction targets.  If he had his way, there would be no such targets.  Even so, it's a moot point as to how much longer Mr. Osborne's reputation can survive on the lonely acknowledgement that he's not Ed Balls.

Plenty of comment in papers and on the web today.  Peter Oborne in the Telegraph is trenchant in his criticism of Mr. Osborne for his failure to meet his original aims, although he does provide some balance; Jonathan Freedland gives the alternative left-of-centre critique in the Guardian; Paul Goodman responds to Mr. Freedland's characterisation of the Conservative Home website;  on that same website Andrew Lilico provides one of the more positive assessments of the Chancellor's performance, although even that has a sting in the tail; and Nik Darlington gives the moderate TRG view of the Statement here, with a nice overview of the whole Osborne-Balls duel.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

Press Power and Leveson

The fightback began some time ago.  Throughout Leveson plaintiff columns about free speech could be read in newspapers and heard across the airwaves.  A few days ago the Mail revealed the astonishing political left nexus at the heart of Leveson (er, someone connected with the Leveson Inquiry also knew some left-wingers was about the strength of it) and today the Sun screeches about the importance of not having any regulation.

Because lack of regulation has worked really well so far.  The Sun yesterday was forced to pay out 500,000 euros to Louis Walsh for publishing lies about him.  The Mail a few days ago had to apologise to a Brazilian TV presenter for describing her as a soft porn actress.  And over the years countless people have had to contend with lies, half truths and innuendos being published about them, to say nothing of the harassment that a certain breed of journalism develops.

Statutory regulation hardly means political control of the press, but you wouldn't guess that from the newspapers.  The BBC is subject to statutory regulation, but no-one regards it as a dangerous political mouthpiece for elected politicians.  The issue is whether the press should continue to have the freedom to damage people's lives because the penalties for doing so are so minimal.  The issue is whether, after the failure of the press to regulate itself, it really deserves another chance.  The issue is about whether the most powerful institution in this country should be allowed to continue to abuse its power and be the only unregulated body in the country.  The issue is about many abuses committed by the press, but whatever Lord Leveson proposes, it is unlikely to involve shackling journalists' ability - and duty - to carry out proper investigative reporting, or the right of newspapers to hold whatever opinions they wish.  Protests to the contrary are hysterical hot air designed to cover up a multitude of sins.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chris Patten's Masterclass

Lord Patten has been at the heart of the BBC storm over the past few weeks, but that doesn't mean he has somehow lost his touch to defend a difficult position, or that he is  running scared when having to face a committee of limelight-hungry MPs.  As he showed in a bravura performance yesterday when being questioned by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Chris Patten is a Tory of the old school.  A now unfashionable One Nation Tory of centrist outlook.  He was, as he reminded the committee, the last Tory Chairman to preside over a Conservative election victory, back in 1992 (when the party fielded some frankly outstanding candidates in far flung constituencies like Warley East).  He clearly wasn't going to allow himself to be boxed into a corner by such a political novice as the snappy Philip Davies.  Mr. Davies doesn't much like the BBC, nor Lord Patten, whom he almost certainly regards as the sort of Tory the party is well rid of.  But Mr. Davies, for all his persistent questioning, found he still had much to learn from his elders when it came to scoring points in a committee hearing.

Lord Patten maintained a deadpan, deliberate demeanor throughout, but that hardly took the acid out of many of his scathing responses to Mr. Davies' questioning.  Possibly his best retort was to demand whether Mr. Davies wanted to know his toilet habits, after that forward MP had asked the BBC Chairman to provide a diary of his work for the BBC.  But there were other gems from a seasoned politico still able to deliver an elegant, velvet gloved punch to an upstart tike.  You can hear highlights - and they are definitely worthwhile - from the BBC's 'Today' programme here (scroll to 44.10 minutes in for the report).  The Tories, meanwhile, should mourn the fact that they have too few politicians of Lord Patten's calibre, and too many of Mr. Davies's.

The full hearing with Lord Patten is here.

It's Not About Press Freedom Any More, But About Press Responsibility

80 MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.  In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech.  They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet.  But the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech.  It is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry's exhaustive hearings heard example after example of an astonishing abuse of press power.  This wasn't simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information.  It was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.  Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jeffries, but they were hardly the first.  There have been many more low-profile examples of consistent press abuse.  The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail's tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn't a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.    The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so strong is the current system of press regulation.  There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people's reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong.  The intrusion of the press into people's private lives continues unabated.  The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, and it makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interets without fear or favour should be unhindered.  Absolutely.  The problem is that it so often doesn't.  It isn't MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control.  It is the little people, the small people's interests, who urgently require this support.  The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering.  It is in some ways astonishing that the 80 signatories of today's letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.  But then, many MPs and ministers mix freely with the owners, editors and reporters of the press.  David Cameron's friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Michael Gove's one-time employment with Rupert Murdoch's Times, Boris Johnson's current employment with the Black twins' Telegraph, Jeremy Hunt's cringe-inducingly cosy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all of these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press system.

It is notable that the Guardian - a paper which has impeccable investigative credentials when reporting on the powerful and the wealthy - has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79% of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press.  It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people's lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that the letter signatories don't realise this.  It was Stanley Baldwin years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press "have great power without any responsibility.  The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."  Too much of the British print media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves.  It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nadine's Forced Return To Work

Like many Britons, I failed to tune in to the latest series of "I'm A Celebrity...." and so was unable to see at first hand whether MP Nadine Dorries really was able to use the programme to further her political ideas.  Since she's been quickly voted off the programme - the first one in this series - I guess I can see that her desire to be a major-league celebrity has clearly failed.  One verdict on Ms. Dorries' sorry little foray into the jungle is from Radio Times' Tim Glanfield, whose damning verdict is that actually, Ms. Dorries simply proved how apathetic towards politicians most people are. 

Nadine Dorries has been a figure of ridicule - a just consequence of foolishly thinking that being an MP was simply a halfway house to becoming a celebrity.  Only one politician has achieved genuine celebrity status, and Boris Johnson had done that before becoming an MP.  It still remains to be seen whether he has a parliamentary future of consequence, despite his role as London's chief humourist.  Ms. Dorries, on the other hand, probably has very little political future of any consequence at all.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Defending the Beeb

David Dimbleby did a good job on 'Today' this morning in trying to get to the heart of the crisis, as I've noted earlier, but it's hard to disagree with the judgements on the Media Blog either.  Author Will Sturgeon might not quite be a candidate for Director General, but he seems to have got the crisis pretty well right and, what's more, firmly in perspective.  He notes:

Disgraced tabloid editors have had their knives out. Piers Morgan has waded into a debate about journalistic ethics and honourable resignations. Rupert Murdoch has taken issue with an editor-in-chief pleading ignorance. All done seemingly without irony.

Meanwhile, ITV News bemoaned the fact the BBC Director General only did interviews with the BBC. But ITV is yet to carry an interview with its own chief executive or programme bosses at This Morning over a widely criticised stunt involving a list of alleged paedophiles Phillip Schofield had harvested from the internet.

We need the BBC. Not least because it has not pulled a single punch in holding itself accountable. 

He went on to publish an awesomely cringe inducing video of a Fox News anchor questioning Rupert Murdoch (addressed oleaginously as "Mr. Chairman" and "Sir"  throughout) and being batted away when he dared to mention the News of the World as a useful contrast with the John Humphreys grilling that led to George Entwhistle's resignation.  Sturgeon concludes with a call for proper perspective.  The BBC has done a lot of public flagellating recently.  It needs to move o:

Angry tweets from Match Of The Day viewers tuning in for the programme on Saturday night only to find a special bulletin about Entwistle's departure, served as a timely reminder that many people just want the BBC to get back to doing what it does well. Barring two recent terrible editorial decisions, that includes producing exceptional current affairs programming and investigative journalism.

The Annoying Chairmanship of Margaret Hodge

I don't feel terribly positive about Starbucks for their UK tax avoidance, nor Google and Amazon for that matter.  A small personal boycott of Starbucks coffee is my own response - I'm sure they'll be devastated - but I very nearly thought I should immediately reinstate it, and buy a load of books from Amazon, after watching the lamentable performance of Margaret Hodge at today's Public Accounts Committee meeting which saw chief officers from all three companies being summoned.

Hodge has a less than stellar record as a former Islington Council leader when the council was plagued with child abuse issues in its care homes that it seeemed unable or unwilling to get to grips with, but she is certainly capable of grand-standing and today was her moment in the sun.  She dominated proceedings like some exceptionally annoying grande dame performing to the gallery and relished trying to put high powered chief executives on the spot.  Her regular shrill interruptions and constant state of indignation meant that her interlocutors had few opportunities to say very much, but that didn't really matter since this was the Margaret Hodge Show.  She clearly wasn't going to waste a rare opportunity of public show so the aim wasn't so much to question as to simply leap from one statement to another.  Irritating to watch or hear, and certainly not conducive to gaining any sort of constructive information about the companies called to defend themselves.  It was tempting to see if we could phone in and send her to join Nadine Dorries in a bushtucker trial. 

As for Hodge, it is a matter of public record that the family company in which she has shares currently pays only 0.01% tax on a 2011 turnover of £2.1bn.  Clearly the best person to investigate other corporate tax dodgers.

Dimbleby on BBC Crisis

Lots to be said about the self-inflicted wounds hurting the BBC at the moment, but David Dimbleby gave a particularly coherent and forthright performance on this morning's 'Today' programme.  His criticism of George Entwhistle was that his failure to 'fight' (for instance in the Saturday interview with John Humphreys) in itself suggested he wasn't up to the job.  A man who resigns in these circumstances has made a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dimbleby was once a contender for the job of DG and also Chairman; wonder if he's still interested?  On the basis of this morning's interview, he'd be a pretty good bet, and a reassuringly vigorous figure for the BBC.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Explaining Away Bad Punditry

Dick Morris, the American pollster, and Fox News contributor, made a few waves before the election with his extraordinary prediction that it would be a landslide for Romney.  Like all commentators, pollsters and pundits, Dick makes a hefty living by commenting on, rather than participating in, politics.  He is one of the many armchair critics who apparently know so much and can comment so vigorously for substantial rewards, but who actually don't really want to put their heads above the parapet in the real world of electoral and governmental politics.  Thus, Dick fortunately has no responsibilities whatsoever - unlike the men and women he takes to task.

This is lucky, because Dick's Romney prediction was so far out of the ball park it was laughable.  Should he be taken seriously ever again?  Almost certainly not, and his mea culpa on the Fox News site does little to add to our confidence.  He admits getting an entire segment of the voting population wrong - the voting ambitions of black, latino and young voters - but still manages to sound off about where we should go from here.

It's a helpful reminder that while pundits may be part of our need for conversation, their usefulness and reliability pales into insignificance compared to the men and women who are concerned enough to do, and not just say.  When you next hear Dick Morris rail against Obama or another politician, remind yourself that the man can't even get his own chosen art of punditry right. 

NB The Guido Fawkes blog has a piece on Morris and other profoundly incorrect pundits here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Four More Years, So Now What?

A few thoughts after Barack Obama's re-election victory.

First, it is a triumph.  Obama is one of those rare incumbents able to transcend the difficulties of his time, notably the recession, and persuade a small majority of voters that his medicine is the right one and that he remains best placed to steward America through the bad times.  FDR was the notable other, and he was a reformer too.

Second, Obama's victory speech.  Having secured his second term, he then resurrected the soaring eloquence we associate with his earlier victory and which had been sorely absent from too much of his own campaigning this time round.

Third, the congressional races.  Although the composition of the two chambers hasn't much altered - the Democrats remain in control of the Senate while the Republicans have kept control of the House - there is food for thought for the Republicans from some of the seats they have lost or only just held on to.  With only 10 Republican held seats to defend this time round, they have had a poor night, losing Massachusetts and Indiana and failing to take Virginia, as well as losing Olympia Snowe's Maine seat to independent Angus King who is likely to caucus with the Democrats.  The Republicans might want to reflect on whether the Tea Party has done them much good, and what the long term future is for them if they continue to hunker down behind a wall of non-co-operation.  The Republicans in Congress are as ideological as they have ever been, but now they face a president with no more elections to fight.

Which brings us to the fourth issue.  What will President Obama's strategy be with regards to the House?  The last two years have been one of Congress's least productive ever.  If the president cannot find a way to break the partisan impasse between Democrats and Republicans, then he does at least have to hone his political communication skills to the extent that his agenda and actions are properly explained to the American people.  His and his party's aim would be to regain control of the House in 2014, but they can only do this if they display a much more canny approach than they have over the past couple of years.  It might be time for new leadership in the House to help with this.  Nancy Pelosi is a combative and abrasive Minority Leader; possibly not the person to try new strategies in a divided capital.

Obama has avoided the stigma of one-termism, but his next four years show no sign of being any easier than the four behind him.  If he wants to leave a substantive and positive legacy, he needs to hit the ground running for his final term.

The BBC's Transatlantic Struggle

So far, with polls yet to close in Ohio, Virginia....well pretty well everywhere, the highlight of election evening has been the BBC's finest struggling to produce a sensible line between them.  From Emily Maitlis announcing that a familiarly shaped map is actually America, to the reporter in the Ohio bar solemnly telling us that we should not assume everyone in Ohio would be voting for Obama (on the strength of a couple of interviews he'd just conducted), we've been subjected to statements of the blindingly obvious.  Jon Sopel reported from Virginia that turnout had been high, but neglected to mention that the hotly contested senate race between two former governors might have something to do with that.  Of course, this is still rather dead time.  3 states have so far been 'called' by the networks (which doesn't mean they've finished actually counting) giving Romney a healthy lead [Kentucky and Indiana to him, Vermont to Obama].  But the real battles are yet to come.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why Obama?

There have been plenty of UK endorsements of Obama from predictable sources.  I doubt, for instance, that Romney will be losing much sleep over the decision of the Guardian and Observer newspapers to plump for the president.  But it's not British liberals so much as ex-pat US based libertarians whose views interest me, and in this regard Andrew Sullivan has been consistently and eloquently pro-Obama.  Here's his case again.

Human Contact - Still An Electoral Imperative

Paul Waugh has produced an excellent analysis of the campaign, and concludes that an Obama win will be down to the superior organisation of his on the ground workers.  It's a reassuring thought that as we keep debating the impact of online technologies and social media, the one thing that still really works is actual people contact.  Commenting on a field study of the 2008 campaign conducted by Obama's then Ohio, now National, Campaign Director, Waugh writes:

The main conclusion was that the single most effective medium in reaching a potential Obama voter was not TV ads or glossy leaflets - it was contact from an enthusiastic human being.

There you go.  Keep tweeting, facebooking and emailing; but don't give up on making human contact.  The decimated parties of the UK might want to take note, and start building up their grassroots operations again.

Meanwhile, thanks to politics student Michael Kynaston for this heads up about Simon Tisdall's Guardian piece on all the factors that could still make for an Obama defeat.  Happy reading indeed.....

Decision Time

It could be really close, this 2012 US presidential election, or it could be a greater majority for one or other of the candidates than we know.  The closeness of the polls and the important distinction between national and state polls has allowed for pretty well any and every interpretation to be given.

Given that the state-wide polls seem to favour an electoral college win for Obama, there has of course been a late rush of contrarian commentators to predict Romney wins.  Dick Morris has gone so far as to predict a 60% chance of a landslide Romney win, while George Will was the only member of the ABC News panel to go for a Romney win.  British political blog "The Political Reader" is also going with a Romney win, while the right-wing Spectator reluctantly concludes that actually there is really no way Obama could possibly lose.  There is also the prospect of a bit of legal action - keep your eyes peeled on Florida again, and even the much fought over Ohio may still have its place in the courts.

We're in for an unpredictable night, that much is certain.  The game of predictions is an addictive one, but ultimately of no use whatsoever.  Tomorrow, all predictions wither away in the light of the actual result.

Obviously, I offer my own.  I think Obama will win, with a decent, but not landslide, majority in the electoral college, taking Ohio and Florida with him.  I think Hurricane Sandy has helped him, and I notice that the BBC's Mark Mardell, who has spent much of the campaign talking up Romney's prospects, has commented on how genuinely relaxed Obama's key advisers - Axelrod and Gibbs - are.  They clearly believe the polls and their own ground organisation will deliver a second term to their man.  And, of course, there are those wise old birds, the betting houses.  Obama's odds have been far better than Romney's over the past couple of weeks.  Obviously he'll win!

I did place a small bet on Romney just in case, and I do believe that if elected he would govern as the centrist he was when Governor of Massachusets, but tonight's election is, I suspect, Obama's after all.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Star Wars And The Curse of Lucas

Did you know that one of the people on whom George Lucas based his evil emperor was the former American president Richard Nixon?  It's a little nugget of information I've always enjoyed as both a fan of the original Star Wars films and someone fascinated by the career of Nixon.  The late president, of course, was a rather more complex figure than Lucas's straight-forwardly evil emperor, but nonetheless it represents a little bit of linkage between fantasy and reality.  I mention this simply because in the wake of Disney's purchase of the Lucasfilm franchise, I re-watched the execrable "Phantom Menace" to check that a change of ownership was a good thing, and then wrote a blog post about it, here.   Too much time on a Sunday, clearly. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tom Watson and the Paedophile Ring

The Labour MP Tom Watson doesn't tend to say or do much that isn't calculated to bring him maximum publicity, but even in these times of Savile-hysteria it is difficult to see quite what persuaded the honourable gentleman to raise some old allegations of a paedophile ring in PMQs today.  Watson claimed to have heard something about a 1992 convicted paedophile who then made claims about yet more senior figures, including a prime-ministerial aide, being involved.  Presumably Watson is aware of the wild allegations surrounding former Tory PM Edward Heath, but this dated and outlandish allusion goes beyond even his well known capacity for shit stirring.

Watch the video on the BBC news site here, and you'll see Cameron's incredulous expression as Watson seeks to gain more publicity for himself with his tortuous question.

UPDATE:  Should have gone to the Guido Fawkes blog before writing this after all!  Turns out Watson was referring to the well known allegations against former Thatcher aide Peter Morrison.  These, to be fair, are quite well documented as the Guido blog points out.  I remember one friend, whose mother was a paediatrician in Cheshire at the time, mentioning how her mother had had to deal professionally with one of Morrison's victims.  Unpleasant stuff indeed, and arguably even more disquieting than the Savile row.  Morrison went on to manage Thatcher's last, failed leadership campaign, reassuring her that Heseltine would never have the votes to force a second round in 1990.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Theresa May's Reputation

The only Tory to have had a good few weeks is Home Secretary Theresa May.  Former MP and blogger Paul Goodman comments on her virtues - and prospects as a future party leader - in the Telegraph today.

But he is a bit behind the curve.  Because there was a pretty positive piece about May back in June, when few people were noticing, by a little regarded blogger here - occasionally gems emerge from the political flotsam!

Looking for Scapegoats and Rescuers

The Tories have had such a dreadful week, and on some of the thinnest stories, that the search for who to blame and, more importantly, who their white knight in shining armour might be, are on apace.

Don't imagine that this is a search amongst the elected representatives.  They are now so poorly perceived that they merely perform the role of stooges.  The search is seeking to root out those favourite villains of the political piece across the ages - the adviser!  And it just happens to be where the white knight lies too.

The history of punishing the adviser for doing the will of the master has had some prominent victims over the years.

Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIIIs most effective minister, enforcing his master's will and authority with exemplary talent and success.  Obviously he made enemies, and went to the block in 1540 while the bloated Henry carried on with his capricious reign.

No-one is suggesting current villainous advisers will head to the block, but they are certainly the recipients of similar invective as dogged the late Thomas Cromwell.  The Sun has helpfully identified the masters of menace behind the Tories' succession of disasters as Press Officers Craig Oliver and Andrew Cooper, with a particularly sinister walk-on part for Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, who received more than just a mention in a recent piece for the Telegraph by James Kirkup which sported the headline "The evil counsel of Sir Jeremy Heywood......".  It's as if these Westminster hacks share targets with each other!

And where's the White Knight?  He emerges in the shape of the man many Tories are slavering over the prospect of returning to run the next election campaign, feisty Australian Lynton Crosby.  The Spectator's James Forsyth is principal cheerleader, but there are plenty who agree that in Crosby lies electoral salvation.  And why?  Because he was Boris's mayoral campaign manager and used to do pretty well for the Australian Liberal Party (don't worry - that's the rightists down there).

Crosby's services apparently come at a hefty price, and might require all of the Cabinet's millionaires to mortgage their properties.  But would he really be worth it?  Almost certainly not.  Crosby was fine marketing an amusing political buffoon against a tired, disliked old has been.  But his record in getting Tories returned to government in the UK is rather less secure.  He was, after all, the man who famously made Michael Howard's campaign one of the nastiest in recent memory, but signally failed to get the man himself anywhere near Number 10 (one of his pitches was "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration".  Perhaps not for some, but when the BNP use the issue to whip up support it's pretty well as good as, and they're hardly the fellow travellers you want to be alongside).  And this in an election year that was arguably Blair's weakest (2005) following the disaster of the Iraq war.

Many Tories like Crosby because he goes pretty well as negative as you want, and he swings heftily rightwards.  He'd certainly bring focus to any election campaign, but whether it is the right sort of focus, and whether it leads to any sort of national electoral success - those are two serious questions that his career leaves hanging. 






Saturday, October 13, 2012

Police Keep Hounding Mitchell

How he must regret that burst of bad temper.  Never has a case of serious, arrogant hubris come back to haunt someone so quickly, and in oh so drawn out a manner than it has with Andrew Mitchell.

Even the Daily Telegraph has called for his resignation, and he was notably absent from his own party conference.  If nothing else, the sense of siege around him is going to make his chief whip's job a seriously difficult one.

And yet there is also a sense of discomfort about the police federation's tactics.  If Mr. Mitchell acted like his old school's famous fictional bully Flashman for a few ill chosen minutes, it's certainly the case that the police union has given back as much as it can, and more, in much the same vein.  It has hardly been edifying to those of us who would like to maintain a sense of respect for the professionalism and impartiality of the police force to see serving officers walking round like the worst type of union loon wearing 'pleb' T-shirts. The force charged with guarding the security of the prime minister has been happily handing over its police logs to the press while many of its members are giving us serious pause for thought about its maturity after all.  This is not exactly a police force that is commanding universal respect either, as it comes under pressure over Hillsborough, the painfully slow and inconclusive investigation of the French Alps case, and a serious case of institutional sexism as the Metropolitan police's sex crimes unit faces major re-structuring.

Mitchell behaved poorly, no doubt about that.  But has the police force's behaviour since really been much better?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cameron In Brief

David Cameron had a good line about Labour being a 'One Notion' party (see what he did there? - hilarious) and was genuinely moving when he talked about his own disabled son and how he saw the paralympics as a triumph in moving attitudes about disability forwards.  He turned the Eton issue on its head and had some good points about spreading good education, spreading privilege and being the party of the people who want to be better off.  He was prepared to be personal - talking about his son or his father.  But there was no big vision, and he got probably his biggest cheer in defending tax cuts via a simple lesson-like response to Ed Miliband. 

And that remains the Cameron problem.  His speech suggested there are still vestiges of that compassionate conservatism that made him at least a moderniser, if not a full blown One Nation Tory.  But his reshuffle showed just how much a prisoner he is of a party that simply isn't interested in One Nation values, and his speech received just the level of warmth necessary for a party leader, especially since he didn't commit the assembled Tories to anything approaching One Nation policies.  For real rapture, he either needed to sport a blond wig and spout some bumbly comic lines, or commit the Tories to a referendum on Europe. 

Boris Unbound

David Cameron may have finally managed to grab the headlines today with a decent enough speech, but it's the first time he has shifted the usual occupant of those large letters and front pages, Britain's Favourite Politician, Boris Johnson.

Boris Mania gripped the Tories in Birmingham all right, but it also seems to have infected most Conservative commentators too.  Spectator editor Fraser Nelson or the folks at Conservative Home were positively swooning in print at the very idea of Boris, an unusual level of adoration for even a Tory politician from those Conservative quarters.  Ken Clarke sounded a less than sycophantic note, but the joy of Boris even found it's way into a slightly more considered column by the Telegraph's Harry Mount, who begun with a Latin quote from one of Boris's old classics tutors (translated as "He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor") and then dissected some of Boris's best lines as having a clear descent from the language of that master of written humour, P.G.Wodehouse.

Nevertheless, it is surely a sign of both the desperation of the Conservatives and the relative dearth of talent in their ranks that they so readily attach themselves to a man who is essentially a celebrity comic.  Johnson is lucky in holding a prominent political position that carries relatively little power and which, for all its profile, only affects one part of British society.  He is undoubtedly amusing, naturally funny, someone who can wow an audience.  He did well as a chairman of "Have I Got News For You?".  Long before he became mayor I can remember the rapturous receptions he would get from student audiences at conferences where every other politician was greeted with apathy or hostility.  Of course, Boris was careful enough avoid any obvious partisanship at such conferences - he didn't want to alienate his public after all.

But Boris the politician is a man of dubious political judgement, and Boris the man an individual of suspect morality.  Seizing planning powers to himself again, the mayor endured a rather different reception at City Hall this evening when he ruled once again in favour of developers who wanted to redevelop an historic site in Spitalfields, in the face of local opposition.  This marks the fifth time he has used his powers to favour developers over local interests.  As a magazine editor, of course, he made a notorious mis-step when he published an editorial condemning Liverpudlians as exulting in a victim culture.  And there remains the whiff of unpleasant criminality in his apparent agreement to help his ne-er-do-well friend Darius Guppy attack a hostile journalist (the incident for which Ian Hislop gave him grief on his first HIGNFY appearance).

Max Hastings departs from the usual chorus of Boris worship in the right-wing press with an illuminating piece in the Mail.  I don't think Boris will actually get near being Prime Minister.  He triumphs as mayor - an essentially personality based post - but would trip up numerous times in a parliamentary environment (he never shone as an MP in his earlier incarnation after all).  But the telling argument against being too drawn to the idea of  Boris as PM comes in Hastings' excoriating conclusion:

I knew quite a few of the generation of British politicians who started their careers in 1945 — the likes of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Edward Heath, Enoch Powell, Iain Macleod.

The common denominator among them all, whatever their party, was that they entered politics passionately believing they could change things. They were serious people.  It does not matter whether they were wrong or right — almost all of them had real beliefs.

Today, most aspirant politicians of every party have not a personal conviction between them. They merely want to sit at the top table, enjoy power, bask in the red boxes and chauffeur-driven cars, then quit to get as rich as Tony Blair.  Boris Johnson was at the Tory conference yesterday for one purpose only — the exaltation of himself.

This does not much matter when he is only Mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister.

He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.

Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still.


Slugger Clinton

If Obama is a bit cerebral at times, his Democratic predecessor still has some knock-out instincts.  Bill Clinton's address to the Democrat Convention was commonly reckoned to be the best advocacy of Obama's presidency that had been given.  He looks a bit older - though not in Clint Eastwood territory - but he can still deal it out.  Romney must be happy he didn't face this in the first presidential debate:



[Hat-tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Did Obama Throw Away An Election In A Single Debate?

There's been a real sense of overkill in the reactions to the first US presidential debate.  In a single debate Obama has thrown away the election and Romney is close to becoming the zaniest president they've ever had.  That's according to the commentators anyway.  Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan, normally quite level headed about these matters, went into extreme despair the-world-is-breaking-up mode in a post here; the UK Telegraph's Tim Stanley, whilst mocking Sullivan, nonetheless saw hope for his hitherto useless candidate in a post here.

I didn't watch the whole debate.  Even for a politicophile like myself a 4am start time was just not very attractive; I really didn't want to break into the marking that I normally reserve for that slot just to watch television.  But I did watch some of the highlights and, well, Obama didn't sparkle, but he didn't strike me as a disaster either.  Romney appeared human and avuncular - something of an achievement - but I didn't feel he scored some major league debating success either.  They both got on agreeably enough, and Obama even ended with a self deprecating comment about having kept a promise that he wouldn't be a perfect president.

I began to wonder whether I'd somehow tuned into a debate from a parallel universe, when I started to realise that it is the stock in trade of 24 hour political commentators, bloggers and tweeters to raise the stakes in as brisk and superficial fashion as possible of any event.  And debates too have an impact of course - look at Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.  But is it an election winning or losing one?  It may please the media types to think so, but I wonder if most of the time presidential debates don't just colour in the picture that voters already have.

There was a small voice of common sense appearing today on the Daily Beast; Richard Just considers how the over-the-top reaction is really a sign of the 'twitterisation' of political coverage, and not a reflection of mature consideration.

Whatever - we still have two more to go.  If Obama tries his usual tactic of thinking about what he's saying, and thus slows up the quick fire debating repartee, then he might as well head into exile now.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Power of One Nation

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Of course Ed Miliband is not a One Nation leader.  There is too much of the class warrior about him for that, even in his slightly snide reference to his own comprehensive schooling.  But his high-profile use of the ‘One Nation’ idea teaches us something important about both the Labour party that he leads, and the Conservative Party that used to be the home of One Nation-ism – if I can use such a clumsy suffix. 

Telegraph
First, the Labour Party.  The reason Mr. Miliband has grasped so enthusiastically at the One Nation philosophy is that there is simply nothing left for him to plunder from Labour’s own stock of ideology.  In its prime, Labour promoted a form of democratic socialism that was red-blooded in tooth and claw.  It served a purpose, certainly, but gradually even the modest western form of socialism stuttered into obsolescence as its doctrines failed to really grasp the nature of liberal capitalism.  Labour’s most successful leader – Tony Blair – was never much hamstrung by ideology, but did seek to find a replacement brand through such woolly concepts as the ‘Third Way’, and the naming of his party as ‘New Labour’.  Miliband is on the same search, and has currently found a home in a tortured version of a famous Tory brand.  There can be no greater evidence of the ideological failure of social democracy than that it seeks to find shelter under the principles of one of the great Tory leaders of the past.  The Labour leader’s speech was an accomplished one, but it was built on political sands that shifted even as he spoke.

Whatever his own party’s failings, Mr. Miliband has nonetheless gifted the Conservatives an insight into our own condition.  It has come to a pretty dismal pass when we have managed to so forget our roots that we have left it to another party to take up what should be the core element of our own principles.  Mr. Miliband seized on One Nation with such alacrity because he noticed that the Conservatives appear to have abandoned it, and he believed it would embarrass Mr. Cameron to be reminded of the failure of his moderating project. 

It might be useful to remind ourselves why One Nation Toryism is the most successful incarnation of Conservative politics to have been presented to the electorate, and why we abandon it at our peril.

One Nation was about recognising the need for any political party to apply itself to the needs of all the diverse people and needs of a country, and not to simply let one part of the nation – usually the wretchedly downtrodden non-copers stuck in their visceral cycle of decline  - wither into neglect.  This was especially the case for Disraeli’s own Conservative Party as it faced the challenges of a widening franchise and a perception that it simply represented the interests of the ruling class.

One Nation was a useful, and very non-specific, idea.  It is no surprise that it actually surfaced in one of the great man’s novels.  Nevertheless, when Disraeli finally achieved office for longer than a few months, his own idea of a unifying form of Conservatism, caring as much for the poor and dispossessed as it did for the wealthy and successful, did achieve practical form.  That this was under the aegis of an energetic Home Secretary called Richard Cross rather than Disraeli himself – by then rather more interested in lording it in Europe – matters not a bit.  Cross enacted a whole raft of activist social legislation – such as improving labourers’ dwellings, making public health reforms and protecting workers’ rights in factories – that advanced the practical cause of One Nation Toryism considerably.  His precedent would be followed in the twentieth century by such luminaries as Neville Chamberlain, one of the most reformist health ministers to hold office, and Harold Macmillan, with his commitment to a stupendous house building programme financed by the government. 

The sad thing is that such legislation would be anathema to most of today’s Tories.  So strong has become the hold of the classical liberals within the Conservative Party that we have forgotten how to promote a concern for those who cannot make their way simply by their own actions and efforts.  The Conservatives today represent the interest of the self-helpers more than anything.  This is the root of so much Tory hostility towards public services, or to government aid to various groups, or protective legislation.  This is the Tory vacuum that Mr. Miliband is seeking to capitalise on.

David Cameron often cites Disraeli as his favourite politician, and came to power as a leader apparently committed to reviving Tory One Nationism.  The Big Society was one outworking of that idea, although denuded of much practical consequence by its separation from any form of government funding or support.  The sad thing for Mr. Cameron is that his roots in the Conservative Party have been too shallow to allow him to gain much strength, with the result that he has quickly become buffeted by the prevailing winds which, in the modern Conservative Party, are predominantly rightist – or classical liberal, to use their ideological heritage.  As such, he can appeal happily to the relatively small proportion of the electorate who want government to retreat from their affairs, stop providing too much welfare, and reform public services in a downwards direction.  His appeal to the majority is correspondingly weaker.

It may be that Mr. Cameron does revive his rhetorical commitment to One Nation Conservatism at the party conference.  He’s good at that.  He remains an accomplished speaker who set the template that Ed Miliband emulated.  But unless he deals more effectively with the gulf that is opening up between himself and the legions of voters who depend upon a One Nation concept of government; unless he starts to promote the few remaining One Nation Tories still in Parliament; and unless he starts standing up to the narrowing strictures of his powerful classical liberal wing, he will leave Mr. Miliband an open goal.  And on present form, Ed Miliband may just end up scoring.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Who Is Mitchellgate's Deep Throat?

Mitchellgate has provided us with our current pantomime villain, in the hilariously ridiculous figure of the Chief Whip demanding that the plebs let him through his customary gate, but it hasn't actually been a great reflection on the police either.  There is a certain irony in the fact that a senior detective was arrested yesterday for passing information to the News of the World.  Who, I wonder, has been passing full transcripts of presumably confidential police logs to the Daily Telegraph?  To say nothing of breaching any notion of police confidentiality with what has been a pretty steady stream of information to the Sun newspaper?

An arrogant cabinet minister swearing at the police didn't really merit the level of leaking worthy of a Watergate Deep Throat, especially not at a time when the cosy police links with the media are already under investigation.  Perhaps in the interests of full disclosure, the police members responsible for leaking all this information should join Mr. Mitchell in a mass resignation.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Looking Back at Clinton

When former president Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic convention this summer, his speech reminded people of just why he was such a formidable politician.  Clearly thought out, cogent and focused, Clinton provided a useful political heft for the convention organisers, and no-one doubted that his position in Barack Obama's corner remained immensely valuable to the Democratic incumbent.  Obama is of course seeking to ensure that Clinton is no longer the only Democrat to have served two full terms as president since the war.

Meanwhile, the BBC are currently running a documentary series on Clinton which is well worth catching up on.  His campaigning skills are legendary and he has managed more comebacks from apparent disasters than pretty well any other modern politician.  Clinton represented a fresh hope - much as his political idol JFK did in the 1960 - but entered the White House so little prepared that too much of that hope dissipated in the chaos of his leadership.  Clinton presided over a period that was, for the most part, a feelgood time for his country, but I was struck at just how little he seeemed to be able to push any sort of liberal agenda in his first two years, the only time when his own party controlled Congress.  Clinton is an intriguing study as politician and president, but Obama will be the one who stands comparison against great liberal reformers who pushed changes through a Washington system such as LBJ.  Meanwhile, as Obama continues the fight to continue his own presidency, a look back at the last Democrat in the White House is a fascinating interlude.

Teachers' Working Habits

The National Union of Teachers really is committed to being the worst possible public face of the teaching profession.  The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has commented - many would argue uncontroversially - that teachers who put in longer hours and produce excellent lessons are the ones who should be rewarded.  He was fairly dismissive of teachers who are out of the school gate pretty well as soon as the last bell has gone.  Given that the school day finishes, in most schools, around 3.30, it might not seem unreasonable to expect us to stay a little longer!  Cue the most dinosaur of unions, the NUT, taking issue with Sir Michael's challenging idea that we could just work a little longer. As many already do. 

According to the NUT, Sir Michael is 'waging war' on teachers. They really do need to calm down, or he'll start talking about those 13 weeks of holiday that we get.

Free Speech

Norman Geras of normblog takes issue with Deborah Orr's attempts in the Guardian today to work out the 'limits' of free speech.  Geras' response produces, as ever, some clear thinking on the subject which was not, it appears, evident in Orr's article.  Else why would he need to take it to task?

Mitchell's Misery

I'm not sure that Andrew Mitchell will survive much longer as Chief Whip.  The Prime Minister likes to hang on to people as long as possible, and that worked with Jeremy Hunt, but if the media pack keep this issue burning then I suspect Mitchell's position will become untenable.  If it isn't already.  Can you really be the disciplinarian of the Tory Parliamentary Party when you've been so publicly rinsed for that very discipline?  All the maverick Tory MP, hauled before the Chief Whip, now needs to say is "Going to call me a pleb are you?" and Mitchell will have to visibly deflate.  Angus Deayton couldn't continue as host of Have I Got News For You when it became impossible for him to pass satirical judgement on others without the huge whiff of hypocrisy hanging in the air; Mitchell could well find himself in the same boat.

I blame Tony Blair anyway.  If he hadn't moved the Chief Whip's residence from No. 12 Downing Street in order to make way for his increased media operation, Andrew Mitchell wouldn't have had to cycle out of Downing Street at all.

As far as the various Mitchell articles go, Tim Montgomerie reminds us on Conservative Home that the Police Federation - right out there calling for Mitchell's resignation - are hardly an unpolitical animal; Lucy Kinder in the Telegraph tells us how she was on the receiving end of a Mitchell vendetta (and she was apparently a family friend!); and Matthew Norman, also in the Telegraph, has a brilliant piece excoriating Mitchell's retoxification of the Tory brand.  There's plenty more today - not bad going for a few minutes thoughtless ranting.

Oh, and just in case he was thinking of staying on, it can't be good news that Harry Cole is tweeting his intention to compile an article for Guido Fawkes detailing all Mitchell's former bust-ups.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mr. Mitchell's Moment of Madness and Mr. Cameron's Deeper Problem

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Andrew Mitchell is an arrogant fool who should have kept his mouth shut, adopted a bit of humility and did what he was told when he left Downing Street on Wednesday night.  He might thus have saved himself and his government a good deal of trouble, but the fuss that has been generated by his apparent outburst at a police officer who dared to tell him which gate he could use is indicative of much deeper, serious problems for this government.

First, there has been an extraordinary sea change – yet to be fully remarked on I think – between the Tories and the police.  From the time of their formation by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, there has been an almost symbiotic relationship between the police and the Conservative Party.  It reached its apogee under Margaret Thatcher, but in the mere two years of the Coalition government it seems to have all but collapsed.  Home Secretary Theresa May was booed at the Police Federation conference, and the Met’s Police Federation Chairman, John Tully, has wasted no time in taking every media opportunity possible to condemn Mr. Mitchell and call for his resignation.  Mr. Tully even suggested that the Prime Minister’s words in Manchester, where he was paying respects to the two murdered policewomen, were “hollow” words, during his interview on Newsnight.  Dark times indeed, when even a Tory Prime Minister’s sympathy is thrown back in his face.

Now Mr. Tully is a very politicised individual, and the issue at stake is not so much to do with the way in which policing is conducted and far more to do with perceived threats to police pay and conditions.  Nevertheless, whatever the cause, the Tories have opened up a front in their war on public servants that even their most pugilistic leader never dared open. 

And the police are only the start of the problem.  There is virtually no area of public service where the government is regarded with anything other than suspicion and even loathing.  David Cameron’s fine words about school sports during the euphoria of the Olympics were – for teachers – an earlier example of hollow sentiments expressed by a man who had presided over the denuding of school sport with apparent complacency.  Jeremy Hunt is going to have to be closer to the health service professionals than he was even to the Murdochs if he is to have any chance of winning some of them back.

The “public school snob” is the unwelcome description being ascribed to Andrew Mitchell, and there is a real danger for the government that this becomes more generally applied to them all.  Despite the fact that Michael Gove was educated in the state comprehensive sector, or that Mr. Cameron himself relied gratefully on the NHS during the years of his first son’s health difficulties, the perception persists that this is a government which regards public services as being only for the poor and non-coping.  It is a disastrous perception.  It widens the gap between the governors and the governed to an unacceptable level.  Mr. Mitchell’s outburst, meanwhile, suggests a sense of entitlement and superiority hardly merited by actions.

The furore over the Chief Whip’s unfortunate loss of temper – and some might say of mind – will subside soon enough, with or without his resignation.  What is less likely to go away is the lack of empathy between Mr. Cameron’s government and the people he governs.  His recent cabinet reshuffle unfortunately lurched him further in his alienation from the centrist majority.  If he wants to have any chance of recovering the political narrative and being re-elected in 2015, he should return to the modernising roots that served him so well in opposition, and hang the rightists.  Battles with his own right-wingers are infinitely preferable to battles with the wider British public.