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

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. 

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.