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

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.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Should Obama Worry About Romney Video?

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been on the back foot since the release of the video of his disparaging remarks about "the 47%" who apparently won't vote for him (and I guess he's hardly to be commended for a magnificent sell operation towards them either).  Conservative commentators in America have not been sympathetic, while the President has been able to make some capital from Romney's latest misadventure, commenting on David Letterman's Tonight show that the president "represents all the people", to inevitable wild applause in the studio.

But could the video incident yet come back to bite Obama too?  David Frum, over on the Daily Beast, speculates that should the currently anonymous recorder of the video turn out to be a Democrat activist or worse, campaign employee, Obama might be facing his very own Watergate.  A little extreme perhaps - there is a clear difference between bugging private offices and recording a fund-raising dinner - but it's an interesting speculation nonetheless.

Meanwhile the polls, taken before the video fall-out, seem to suggest that Obama was beginning to lose his convention bounce.  Gallup's swing state poll gave Obama a mere 2% lead over Romney, although some state polls are better - Fox News has Obama 7% ahead in Virginia and Ohio and, significantly 5% ahead in the key battleground state of Floridai.  Real Clear Politics has the polling round-up here

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Devil's Alliance

The film 'The Innocence of Muslims' is so laughably bad it is extraordinary that anyone should take it seriously at all (the trailer is on youtube, if you have a spare 13 minutes).  What is not, of course, remotely laughable is the reaction across several countries to this ludicrous film, which has seen a US ambassador and three of his staff killed by mobs, and riot scenes in Egypt, amongst other places.

It is difficult to know what conclusion to place upon all of this.  I certainly don't think that we should respect all other beliefs, given that there are plenty which are malicious, vile and wretched or with which we would at least have serious concerns.  Not all beliefs deserve respect, and neither do their holders, necessarily.  But I do believe in the liberal creed of tolerance and free speech.  There has been no more positive development in the relations between men than the western world's gradual acknowledgement of this creed.  The ability to think and speak freely not only releases men from a tyrannical oppression of thought but also, of course, sees the continued progression and development of ideas and inventions that bring a slow but welcome well-being and prosperity to more and more people.  It is flawed, uneven and far from perfect, but no-one would claim that a reversion to witch-hunts, or Inquisition like suppression, would be a good move for a free, liberal and progressive western world.  People are, by and large, free to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish, or none.  They are free to criticise and condemn others' beliefs if they see them as iniquitous or dangerous.  A strong and sincere belief, after all, requires no violence to withstand the criticism of others.

It looks, sadly, as if parts of the Muslim world are still a long way from this happy state of affairs.   There would be something faintly ridiculous, if it were not so murderously serious, in the ease with which bigoted anti-muslim rabble rousers in America and Europe can stir whole mobs to a death wishing fury.  The mobs that so act, and particularly their leaders, bring nothing but opprobrium on their own beliefs by the way in which they act.  They beg the question of why they are so sensitive, so apparently unsure of the foundations of their own beliefs, that they must act so disproportionately to the most pathetic of attacks - and the Innocence of Muslims film is pathetic beyond measure.

The irony is that there is much that links the makers and promoters of the film and the leaders of the vicious opposition to it.  Both groups thrive on religious inspired bigotry.  Both love nothing more than conflict and disorder.  Both bring shame and doubt upon their religious creeds.  If you were to take a spiritual view, you might suggest that the devil knows his own and doesn't care from which religious party they come before they set about doing his work!  The mob reaction to the film is a alarming expression of hysterical, seismic ignorance.  The work of men like the film's director, and the hate-filled American pastor who promoted it, is fulfilled by the reaction to it, and thus both parties feed off a conflict they will want to continue to maintain.  It is the role of the rational majority to resist both sides in the hope that liberal tolerance might yet triumph more widely.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hillsborough - Brought to Justice

David Cameron does have the ability to step up to the mark as a spokesman for the nation every so often.  His apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the events of Bloody Sunday, and his apology today for the injustices and cover-ups associated with the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, chime effectively with a public mood and offer a proper response to those affected by such events.  I used to find Tony Blair's many apologies for all sorts of historical events, be it the Holocaust or the Irish Famine, a little lacking in sincerity given  the distance between him and the events he was apologising for, especially given his inability to make any apology for events under his direct control (Iraq, anyone?).  Of course, you could make the same charge against Cameron - both of his official apologies have possibly been easier given that, as a relative newcomer to government, he had no role in either and probably no personal knowledge of any of the government members involved.  Nevertheless, both events are relatively recent, and as the current head and representative of a government that is discernibly the same institution that presided over these things, it is right and proper that he has made his apologies.  Since the political class as a whole hardly covered itself in glory over the Hillsborough response (then Sheffield Hallam MP, Tory Irvine Patnick, was one of the sources for the notorious Sun story)it has also been appropriate for Opposition Leader to show unity in the current political classes and add his apology to the Prime Minister's.  Ed Miliband, like Cameron, has shown that he is able to step up to the mark in this regard.

Apologies are one thing, future action is another.  There is a need for families of victims to feel that justice has been done by some form of accountability for those who were involved, and as well as the police and judicial services there is no doubt that a particular section of the media is also covered by this.  Amongst the most shameful actions in the wake of Hillsborough was the malicious and callous coverage given to it by the Sun newspaper under its then editor Kelvin MacKenzie.  Mr. MacKenzie has since spent many profitable years acting as a media pundit for various outlets, including the BBC, and has expressed no remorse for his original stance and actions.  Yet news hurts.  It hurts when it's wrong, and it hurts especially when it is targeted at grieving families.  It is easy enough for a newspaper editor, unaffected directly by the events he is covering, to try and be controversial to boost his sales and his profile.  If Leveson has shown us anything, however, it is that news stories have clear, telling effects on the people they concern, and this can have been no greater than at Hillsborough.  The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have done their bit on behalf of the political classes.  Mr. MacKenzie and his former employers certainly need to do theirs.  The pity of it is, for all the calls that they should, no-one seriously expects such an outcome. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Romney's Convention Bounce Down

One of the unofficial purposes of the US Convention season is to give the finally nominated candidate a bit of a bounce in the polls.  With his whole party united rapturously behind him, and the chance to make a prime time impacting keynote speech, there are few better, more unadulterated media opportunities for the presidential nominee.  Pity poor Mitt Romney then.  He entered the convention season neck and neck with a president who somehow has to explain why he deserves re-election while unemployment continues to rise.  And the first post-convention tracker poll?  The CNN-ORN poll puts President Obama some 6 points ahead now, with 59% of voters actually believing he will win, compared to a mere 37% for the hapless Republican.

Boris - The Unique Tory

So the last week or so was not terribly good news if you happened to be a senior cabinet minister who thought you could grab a bit of Olympic goodwill by presenting medals.  George Osborne was booed loudly; Theresa May had her turn the following day, booed just a little less loudly.  But what if you're the elected politician with the biggest personal mandate in the country (and the second biggest in Western Europe)?  The Tory who has the closest political link to the London Olympics?  Why then, you give a speech that puts the Prime Minister in the shade, reveals your remarkable crowd empathy and has the masses cheering and laughing.  Once again, addressing the Team/Paralympic GB Victory Parade in Trafalgar Square, Boris shows why he's the Unique Tory.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Post-Thatcherite Right

The Conservative Party's rising rightists do not represent a new form of politics, but they are certainly a reinvigorated and modified brand of the Thatcherite original.  That, at least, appears to be the conclusion of the IPPR's Nick Pearce in a perceptive piece on the reshuffle now up on the IPPR website.  Although using the Cameron modernisation project for their advancement, there is not a scintilla of traditional One Nation Toryism in their dry new bones, and Pearce concludes:

"So-called “Blue Collar Modernisation” does not address these fundamental weaknesses in the post-Thatcherite Conservative Party. It skates on the surface of politics, looking at polling evidence and personalities, without digging any deeper into the social, economic and cultural forces shaping Britain. It asks what policies might appeal to Northern and Scottish voters, without pausing to examine why almost all of the institutional embodiments of conservatism fall away the further North you go. Disdaining the post-war era, it has no grasp of the popular national appeal once achieved by Macmillan’s party.  Dismissive of the state, it has no champions of active government intervention like Michael Heseltine.  Lacking reach into the working class, it cannot trace a thread back to the Tory Radical traditions of Oastler and his ilk."

Sadly, Pearce is probably also right when he portrays Ken Clarke as the last of the old One Nation breed.  There are still a few flagbearers amongst younger MPs - Jane Ellison, Richard Fuller, Robert Buckland - but good as they are, they are not leading a movement at the moment.   Forward momentum within the Tory party remains with the reinvigorated Thatcherite right, whatever that brings to the party's fortunes nationally.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Cameron's Right-Wing Retreat

If you’re a One Nation Tory who believed David Cameron was committed to leading the party from the centre then you have cause to be thoroughly disappointed with his first reshuffle.  If you’re a One Nation Tory who is a little long in the tooth you might even have vague memories of an earlier party leader who briefly adopted the modernising mantle before ratcheting himself back into the right-wing hinterland.  It didn’t do William Hague much good, and I fear it won’t do David Cameron much good either.

The electoral reality that the Tory Party consistently refuses to acknowledge is that it will never win election as an unadulterated right-wing party.  After Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary win in 1979, gained in the face of a brutalistic display of over-mighty union power, the Conservatives have been haemorrhaging support.  The Conservative share of the vote has fallen in every election since 1979.  The Thatcher wins in 1983 and 1987 disguised the retreat from the Tories that was already in existence, the lady herself famously benefiting from a disastrously extreme Labour party which in turn split the opposition.  What was not so easily disguised was the increasing antipathy felt by large swathes of the electorate towards the Conservatives, as they espoused the classical liberal economic medicine that Thatcher had brought to the party. 

Cameron’s election performance in 2010 therefore needs to be seen in the light of this gradual Tory decline.  He didn’t win outright, but he brought the party nearer to victory than it could have dared hope for after the previous thirteen years of dearth.  And he managed it by emphasising a Tory moderation, based in part on traditional One Nation values that reject the selfish individualism of classical liberalism and prefer to emphasise the collective responsibilities of everyone in society.  Cameron’s Big Society may have been poorly articulated, but it sprang from the same roots, while his commitment to the NHS and to ‘green’ policies were classically Tory in inspiration.  Cameron and his inner circle had correctly diagnosed the Conservative malaise, sought to correct it in part, and saw an electoral benefit that had eluded four previous leaders.  Even the coalition with the Liberal Democrats could be seen as part of the narrative of taming the Tory right, building a centrist governing majority and returning the Conservative Party to its lost position as a natural party of government.

The problem for Cameron is that his own party never bought into the analysis.  Not only are most of his grassroots members unforgiving in their classical liberal outlook, but the majority of his MPs represent an electorally fatal mix of die-hard authoritarians and hard nosed individualists.  No One Nation brand will survive there.  And so it has proved.

After delivering a bloody nose to Cameron’s coalition hopes with their rejection of House of Lords reform, and maintaining an ever more prominent critique of the Cameron project through sympathetic media outlets, the right-wing majority in the Conservative parliamentary party has now achieved its desired control of the government.  It has been ceded to them by David Cameron’s reshuffle.  It is as if the modernisation project never existed.  There are no promotions for the small band of One Nation Tories, while good, earthy, die-hard Toryism has been sated with the arrival of Chris Grayling at Justice and Owen Paterson at Environment.  David Davis’ former campaign chief, Andrew Mitchell, becomes chief whip and the Tories’ most notable moderate has been firmly side-lined.  Jeremy Hunt’s arrival at Health – a surely undeserved promotion for someone who so badly mishandled one of the key elements of his previous brief – will give no comfort to those who thought Cameron meant it when he said the NHS was a key part of his political make-up.  Hunt co-authored a book that described the NHS as a “60 year mistake”, openly questioned why Danny Boyle put the NHS at the centre of his British celebration that opened the Olympics, and even signed an early day motion promoting homeopathic medicine in 2007.  Oh dear.  The man who thought it was ok to chummy up to Murdoch whilst deciding on that gentleman’s take-over bid has much the same level of judgement on health issues.  A bizarre promotion certainly.

David Cameron has abandoned government to his backbench banshees in order to drown out the sound of their wailing.  It won’t even buy him much peace on the backbenches – wailing is what they do best.  It certainly won’t bring him any more electoral success.  Whichever Tories have temporary smiles on their faces today as a result of the reshuffle, the biggest smile of all must surely be on the face of Ed Milliband. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Reshuffle Fever

You might think that reshuffling ministers was all about getting the best people in the best jobs.  But that, of course, is hardly ever the case with these eminently political events. 

David Cameron has been something of a rarity amongst modern prime ministers, in not compulsively reshuffling his pack every few months.  The few changes he has made so far have been forced upon him by events.  His clear commitment – made at the outset of his prime ministerial tenure and reinforced by his steady practise – was to keep ministers in place in order to afford much needed stability in their departments, and to allow for experience to develop.  Experience doesn’t always provide for ever more effective ministers of course – Andrew Lansley has shadowed or executed the health portfolio for nine years, but you would be hard put to suggest he had become a successful and flawless operator.  Nevertheless, good governance is more likely than not to be served by the retention of ministers in their portfolios. 

And there’s the rub.  Because reshuffles are not about good governance.  They are about appeasing the political pack.  A pack that includes journalists and commentators every bit as much as the MPs themselves. 

The Westminster media pack operates more than most journalists on rumour and gossip.  Amidst the reams of political commentary available online and in print there is precious little that is genuinely fresh or revelatory or the product of hard investigative graft.  Much of it compares more on the strength of its eloquence than the usefulness of its insight.  Happily for journalists, reshuffles as events provide, for a brief shining moment, a glorious opportunity for the regurgitation of all sorts of variously informed and uninformed views that have been gleaned over drinks or at the meal table.  Nearly anyone who has a basic grasp of politics can probably be wheeled on as an expert and not have to provide the remotest piece of expertise.  These are such grand journalistic dump fests that you can almost hear the panting relief with which the forthcoming one is being greeted.  Cameron has deprived the Westminster media of the great tradition of clueless speculation.  At last, it’s back.

As for the MPs, a reshuffle represents an all too brief moment when they can once again dream that they might be asked to mount the governmental tree.  Hopes can rise and dreams can live again for just a few days.  Most will once again be disappointed but who would deny them these precious days of expectation? 

So when David Cameron announces his reshuffle tomorrow, as far as the country at large is concerned he will have simply replaced one set of indistinguishable but passably able ministers for another.  There may be an uncut diamond hidden somewhere amongst the newcomers, but on present form – and despite the fawning nonsense that has been heaped upon the all too uninteresting band of 2010 Tory MPs – it seems unlikely.  Governance in reshuffled departments will just have to find its feet again, with little obvious gain to show.

The retreat of liberalism goes on

As communism seemingly disappeared from view at the end of the 1980s, in a sudden and unexpected blow-out, there was plenty of triumphal...