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.