Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Will the Internet destroy Fleet St?

I was hoping to post on PMQs and watch Prezza standing in for Tony until I discovered it's the Whitsun Recess. So instead, I became intrigued by the Guardian's leader which addresses the subject of what the internet might do to the newspaper industry. Already, in 2006, we learn, the web takes a bigger share of advertising sales than the press. And the future trajectories of the percentages are likely to continue in opposite directions. To make the prognosis worse for Fleet St, newspaper sales have been in decline for the last couple of decades and young people are not gaining the habit: households containing people under 30, currently spend only 80p a week on papers: that's about one paper bought a week. No wonder political literacy is so low.

So are newspapers likely to be a thing of the past in a few decades time? Could be, but I wonder. Whenever a new medium emerges predictions of how it will clear the field are made and then somehow don't happen. For example:

a) that televsion would destroy the cinema whilst they both flourish and have even managed a simbiotic relationship.

b)In the nineties I once quoted in a textbook chapter on the media a prediction from a Sunday that newspapers written on paper would soon be replaced by a fine plastic reusable tissue which would be 'filled' each day via the internet. I deleted the quote for the next edition and I'm still waiting.

But let's suppose the number of titles decline and old fogies like myself, presumably by then in my nursing home, have to shell out a huge wedge of my pension just to sit in my bathchair and read my daily Guardian or Times? What impact will this decline have on the print media? I can only begin to speculate but:

i) so much of this will be conditional on what type of transmission vehicle emerges as dominant and here we're in the hands of technological advances. Maybe that refillable plastic will finally make its debut, or a super mobile phone or a smaller, cuter form of web accessing lap-top. Your scinece fiction guess is as good as mine.

ii) parties and politicians will all be creating easily accessible websites and super blogs with myriad features, many of them interactive. Maybe IT skills rather than televisual ones will be added to the must-have requirements for the aspiring politico.

iii) it might cool down the thrust to print scandal as looking at the pictures and reading Tracey Temple's diary onscreen, I'm guessing, would be less enticing than via the Street of Shame's traditional red-top scandal sheet; though eventually, if the taste for celebrity scandal continues, it's unlikely to make much difference.

iv) certainly political information will become more easily accessible; the key imponderable is whether voters, particularly young voters bother to do the accessing bit.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Max Hastings and his crush on 'Dave'

Fellow blogger Hughesey comments on two Guardian articles today. The first is by Polly Toynbee and the second by Max Hastings. Hughesey sees Polly's piece as a 'little counterbalance' to the the one by Hastings and I agree it's a very 'little' one- it shouldn't be the case but there aren't many votes in the arts. As for Max's piece I'm aware of the tribal reaction I have to his own tribal feelings. It's quite obvious that, despite voting for TB in 1997, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph has Conservatism written in his DNA: the way he looks, talks and thinks confirms this and I often find my hackles rising accordingly.

Having said that, he is a fine journalist and his article touches on some interesting points:

a) I too was 'dazzled' by Blair's 'rhetoric, political instinct and almost unassailable authority' during the nineties. I'm aware I've made a (very) reluctant journey from that position and feel not a little pain when people outside and inside the Labour Party chip in with their 'told you sos'.

b) 'The majority of 'haves' will always care more about what happens to them than about compassion for the less fortunate.' JK Galbraith, called this the 'Culture of Contentment', of course. It's cynical maybe, but accurate to say this is how things work. Nevertheless, I've always thought that while the Conservatives grimly follow through on this political reality, rewarding their acquisitive supporters, Labour does genuinely seek to spead the rewards more widely and fairly and has succeeded in doing that since 1997, Iraq notwithstanding. Millions of people are better off as a result of Tony Blair's dazzling political skills and I just wonder if the same will ever be sayable about this plausible Tory toff.

c)He admits-these public schoolboys are prone such crushes I suppose- to be 'starstruck' by Cameron, never thinking that a 'clutch of old Etonians would again prove acceptable to the British electorate.' While knowing full well that I'll soon be getting to hate this guy, (maybe as much as Heath, though never Thatcher-I never hated Major I now realise), I have to agree about the Etonians. It is evident that they've probably found their 'winner' who will eventually bring the fat cats' party back into Downing St, though if he's as close to being a clone of Blair as I think he is, then they have some heavy duty disillusion in store as well.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Has Prezza Run out of Rope?

Alastair Campbell once said that if a scandal continued to make headlines 12 days after it first broke, then the person at the heart of it should go. I think also of that wonderful sit-com In the Thick of It when Malcolm, the ferocious Campbell-alike character, drew the analogy on sacking a minister of that situation in Touching the Void when a roped montaineer falls over a precipice and the colleague to whom he is tied has to decide if and when to cut the rope. Has the time come for Tony to reach for his Swiss Army Knife?

There are plentiful grounds to suggest that he should and might well but this is not an easy one. Those of us not living in the Westminster village, often fail to realise how important are the perks of the job, especially to those MPs without office-hence the power of the whips over 'freebie' trips to conferences and study visits abroad. Following the affair with his diary secretary, Prezza was lucky to survive and Blair made a concession to party and public feeling by separating his deputy from his departmental resonsibilities. However, he retained his salary and his perks of office and this infuriated elements on the Labour back benches.

This issue has probably been simmering while Prezza has not been appearing on the front pages but yesterday we were treated to snaps of him playing croquet at the end of last week on the front lawn of his (retained) grace and favour residence, the 200 acre Dorneywood. Yes, not rugby league, but a limp wristed toff's game; and when he was supposed to be officially running the country while Tony was jetting to Washington. This proved more than enough to set off the chattering once again. The Financial Times reported the story as 'criticism' in the party; the Guardian's Michael Whitedid something similar but The Sun came right out and asked for his head, as did the Labour supportingDaily Mirror. The Mirror's Deputy Political Editor, Bob Roberts, claimed Blair canot sack Prezza as he was elected 'and it would start a contest about his own leadership'.

Michael White offered a more subtle and no doubt accurate explanation: Rule 4B 2e of the party constitution requires that the Deputy Leader 'is always a cabinet member'. He continues: 'Rules state that the cabinet could appoint a temporary deputy from its own ranks, but only until the next party conference staged a ballot.' So Blair, as I understand it, could sack him as deputy PM but not as Deputy Leader as this is an elected post not in his gift. It is hard to see Prescott staying on a deputy party leader if sacked as deputy PM but the Mirror has his camp saying that currently there is 'not a cat in hell's chance' of him resigning. Presumably the party could replace him but 'decapitation' would entail similar damage to the party as changing the leader himself and maybe hasten that eventuality. No wonder Blair('he has my absolute confidence') and Brown are rooting for him to stay and not just because of the 'official' unofficial reason that he is the only person trusted to mediate between the two.

If the only way he can go without unacceptable damage is for him to resign, this might explain why so many people are urging him to do so-Baroness Kennedy, Denis McShane, Christine Mc Caffery, Derek Wyatt and Martin Salter (key because he is a member of the committee which meets Blair regularly to discuss the PLP's worries), not to mention the insider Geoff Mulgan. Weighing in on his side have been Hilary Benn, his articulate PPS, Paul Clark and, more surprisingly another man well used to criticism, Ken Livingstone. So how about the man who is still rumoured to be close to Blair via regular phone calls, the former Prince of Darkness himself? I heard Peter Mandelson on Today this morning and his line was: 'John is a party man through and through and will always in the end act in the party's interest.' I think that delicately coded message means 'cut the rope now', don't you?

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Blair's intervention policy right but has self destructed over Iraq

Two recent articles, one by Martin Kettle and the other by Andrew Rawnsley, address the subject of Blair's foreign policy. The speech delivered by Blair on Thursday morning was the third in series on this topic- the first in London earlier in the year and the second to the Australian parliament- which sought to rehabilitate the notion of the value based interventionist approach, first mooted in Chicago in 1999. Rawnsley argues that Blair was right to challenge the 'malign inactivity' of the 'realist' approach which denied the right of one state to interfere in the politics of another(though 'realist' theorists would argue with this analysis).

Blair's heightened sense of what is morally right led him to intervene in Sierra Leone to prevent more atrocities and he succeeded; led him to intervene in Kosovo to prevent more atrocities, and he succeeded; led him, after 9-11 to intervene in Afghanistan, where the jury is still very much out; and led him, in his curious solidarity with George Bush, to intervene in Iraq, where most of the juries sitting seem to have already reported not just a failure but one of cataclysmic proportions.

Kettle points out that much of what passes between the two politicians now will count for little: 'Two men with their backs to the wall and time running out.' Which is a pity from one point of view. Both have managed to deal their policy of benign intervention to alleviate or prevent suffering a near fatal blow by their Iraq adventure. We read and see so much of the strong trampling on the weak and feel impotent despair that they cannot be countered, through some external agency, with the force denied their victims.

Blair called in his speech for a reformed United Nations with the capacity to do just this. Ironically, it has been his own disastrous one -intervention- too- many which has probably forced American presidents for maybe the next decade into isolationist caution. The bloodstained streets of Baghdad are now paved with Blair's good intentions and the tragedy is that as a result, thousands more will suffer in the future, while we are forced to stand impotently by.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Happiness Conundrum solved?

Ever since yesterday, I've been trying to answer the question I posed in my post: given that we're so much better off than we were in myriad ways, why aren't we happier? I have thought for some time that maybe it's in the culture we've developed in which we are encouraged to aim constantly for more and for the best. We make a million- we feel only a tempoary buzz- we want many more millions and feel frustrated if we don't get them; we write a book, and we want to be bestsellers in our genre. Meanwhile bestselling authors want to be bestsellers and Nobel prizewinners. If we set the bar so high we are always going to be disappointed with our lives. We're never going to be happy because our culture encourages us to set ourselves too stern a set of tests.

There must have been some kind of cosmic timing going on for the Guardian to publish today an article on the thoughts of Tal Ben Shahar(pictured looking owlish), a Harvard academic who, like Richard Layard, has gone into the 'study of happiness' business. His analysis of why we're not happy seemed to chime in with my own thoughts. He was once a potentially world class squash player yet it never made him happy. His explanation is that pursuit of 'perfectionism' leads to disappointment and depression. Layard and others appear to have proved the unsurprising adage-essayed so recently by that exciting modern philosopher, Dave Cameron- that 'money can't buy you happiness'. It seems that as long as one receives something like the average income, becoming rich is no guarantee of happiness.

So how can we achieve more of this indefinable commodity? Ben Shahar suggests focusing on what has been achieved rather than on what has not. Every evening he writes down five things for which he feels grateful- it could be'that fantastiic sandwich I had'- he tells Oliver Burkeman, a trifle sadly I thought- or, I suspect, tonight, he might include the very positive article on his thinking which I have just quoted. I don't know many rich people, but those I do are not conspicuously happier than myself or those many others much poorer than they.

Maybe they -and we- should all keep up to date 'gratitude diaries' and see if the ploy works. So, am I happy with this explanation? Well, not really... it might become quite depressing if just about everyone transformed into happiness freaks, toting their diaries as they skip along, singing carefree songs.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Why Aren't we Happier?

Last Sunday's Observer carried an interesting piece by Andrew Rawnsley on what he calls the 'Age War'. In it he points out that the middle-aged generation, of which I am a member, is able to live it large on our wealth(we own 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth) and enjoy high disposable income, while our children’s generation is struggling to acquire the deposit for their first properties. In addition, in twenty years time, that fast diminishing proportion of society comprised by our hardworking children and grandchildren will be earning the money which will pay the generous pensions which we hope we’ll be enjoying. Rawnsley warns that, as we oldies vote like clockwork through a lifetime’s habit, our children need to acquire this ancient civic duty as well if they are even to stand a rat's arse of a chance of winning the opening engagements in the Age War. But the article for me prompted two further reflections.

Firstly, Rawnsley has misjudged the sheer scale of advantage which we enjoy. We are almost certainly the most favoured generation in the history of the world and members of my pub quiz team never tire of reciting the smug litany of self congratulation. We have benefited from: no major war of the kind which our parents were forced to fight; for anyone born after the war, no boring old national service(that was why we were so useless muttered our parents); unprecedented material plenty in terms of food and luxury goods; limitless cheap air travel(before it is restrained); good health based on healthy diet produced by post-war rationing; a cultural revolution which banished suffocating deference and ushered in the sexual freedom which Philip Larkin so wistfully envied; the inheritance of our parents’ property; and, to cap it all, life in a free liberal democracy.

Secondly, and this is almost obscenely perverse, we are no happier. Richard Layard in his 2003 Lionel Robbins lectures, pointed out that whilst we have become immensely richer, overall, we have not achieved commensurate happiness. Surveys in leading western countries show that our levels of happiness have remained about the same as they were some forty years ago. So Japanese people have become six times richer and yet are no happier. What in God’s name are we so miserable about? There is something profound about the human condition being revealed by such surveys but at the very least it suggests that with this degree of misanthropic grumpiness, we don’t deserve to win the Age War.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Opportunity Knocks for John Reid

It might appear that John Reid has been handed a poisoned chalice in the form of the Home Office and few would deny it's currently the most dysfunctional department in a not very impressive line-up of New Labour ministries. But for the ambitious politician this is a possible time of golden opportunity. It was exceeding the set target for housebuidling which launched housing minister Harold Macmillan into the stratosphere in the early fifties; it was securing Retail Price Maintenance and leading negotiations for entry into Europe which did the same for Edward Heath. With maybe 18 months before Blair bows out there is time for someone to achieve something big, to put his or her name up there with Gordon's stewardship of the economy as a potential alternative to the moody Chancellor as Blair's successor.

Looking at the others there does not seem to be much scope for high achievement. Straw can hardly reform parliament in any way which would haul up his name in lights; Margaret Beckett-already a bit past it at 63-can hardly exert any epoch changing influence as Foreign Secretary; and Peter Hain is stuck in the backwater of Ulster. David Miliband is often touted as the shape of Labour things to come but at Defra he has not a lot of scope to show his paces. John Hutton has just presided over a rare success, a coherent plan for the intractable problem of pensions but, while able, he lacks any observable charisma or leadership qualities. Alan Johnson at education might just manage to turn around a parlous situation and in my view might be a credible runner against Brown. But I think the man who has the most to gain from suceeding in his job is John Reid.

He is widely seen as Labour's 'hardman' or even 'political hoodie' in today's Guardian. There is a problem however: how can success in his new post be measured? His nine jobs in eight years have flattered him, in a way, in that he has never stayed long enough to have been seen to have cocked up. The problem with the Home Ofice is that success normally amounts to avoiding failure-not much of a headline grabbing formula. My suspicion is that a spot of internal administrative reorganisation plus stalwart failure avoidance might just become something which Reid, over the next few months will seek to spin as success. Alternatively, of course, the curse of the Home Office might strike again and he might end up alongside his two predecessors, languishing on the back benches. Such is politics but I'd venture a small punt at least, that he'll be sufficiently successful at avoiding failure to give Gordon some competition when the time comes.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Come back Paddy Ashdown

PMQs have attracted quite a bit of attention recently as the public forum where the party battle is most obviously and regularly joined. So another analysis of how it went today seemed appropriate-though the similarity of these clashes will soon rob them of interest I suspect.

It is clear that Cameron has located Blair's range and offers an infinitely tougher opponent than the PM has so far faced since coming to power. His opening gambit of comparing Blair's claim that the Immigration service had ben 'transformed' some years ago with John Reid's offering of an 'open goal' by his admission yesterday that the Home Office was 'not fit for purpose', was a powerful one and Blair had difficulty making himself heard in a rambling response. Later Dave cashed in on his support for the Education Bill, which Blair would have lost without it.

Under Cameron's leadership the Conservatives are focused on pointing out the divisions in Labour ranks and exploiting the series of cock-ups which Simon Jenkins today witheringly dissects. It is hard not to resist the impression, similar to that gained in the seventies when Blair faced Major, that, despite his shortcomings, Cameron is the shape of things to come.

He had to struggle against noise in the chamber until Mr Speaker, in his best schoolmasterly voice, threatened to suspend the sitting. After taking a hit from Cameron first up he fought back, insisting on regaling the house with the improved record of the Home Office(how he must wish Reid had done the same yesterday instead of conceding his department was a turkey)and then with his government's record on he economy and health. I noticed once again, how questions from his own side, on knives and pensions for example had probably been planted to protect the embattled leader. The finest example of this- though I suspect the whips did not have much to do with it-was provided by the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner. Standing squarely between the two sets of benches, he immediately commanded the attention of a rowdy House. His rasping, gravelly voice cut through the hub-bub as he elaborated his question but it proved so amusing to the House that laughter drowned it out before it was properly put. Blair didn't seem to object. But how Ming needs such presence in the same context.

I thought of Ming an hour before noon as I was walking to the shops. Telling off Simon Hughes for criticising him is one thing; removing the source of the criticism is another. Ming's voice seemed strangled with nervousness and his follow up question on the Home Office merely replicated Cameron's. He had not shown the ability to think on his feet which PMQs demand. Paddy Ashdown would have walked it. Come to think of it- Paddy, are you short of a part-time job for the next couple of years?

And the result? A close fought contest with Dave narrowly shading it I thought.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


A Step too far for Dave?

Monitoring the evolution of Dave Cameron from Lamont -advising author of a rightwing manifesto in 2005 to non tie wearing, tree hugging, bike riding, audience schmoozing prime minister in waiting, continues to be quite fascinating. He has shed so many skins in the last few months one wonders what will be left of the original Tory when he finally exposes himself to the electorate. Embracing the disadvantaged is one thing, backing off from tax cuts another, but suggesting making money is less important than spending time with one's family or otherwise achieving 'general well-being' could just be a step too far.

If there is one thing the Conservative Party and its supporters revere more than anything, it's money-something of which the BBC's dramatisation of The Line of Beauty vividly reminds us. And whilst they tolerate his foray into greenery(everyone is in favour of this stuff in theory), long suffering Tories have been grievously worried about the non tax cuts... and now this. Writing in the Daily Mail, that gospel of right of centre Middle England, Stephen Glover delivers a reminding blast: 'Funnily enough, Dave, most of us don't ENJOY working all hours. We do it to survive after you politicians have taken half our earnings.' [I tried to add a link to the article but discovered the Mail, true to the philosophy they suspect Dave is betraying, charges for access to columnists' effusions.]

Meanwhile, from the organ which used to cheerlead the Conservative supporting working classes-and we learn from the polls that their lead once again stretches out among the C1s and C2s- Jon Gaunt in The Sun delivers a deliciously well crafted raspberry variations on which will be much reprised in the run up to the next election:

"There may be 'more to life than money',and money might not be everything when you were born with two silver spoons in your mouth, educated at Eton and Oxford, own two £1million+ houses and have never done a real job of work in your life. But to the rest of us Dave, it's pretty vital, you upper class twerp."

Monday, May 22, 2006


Iraq: when will the 'fantasy' of occupation be abandoned?

A rash of news on Iraq plus comment on our role therein leads me to address the topic for today's post. First a few preliminary points.

1. If a nation is going to go to war in the teeth of divided opinion at home and abroad, it had better go on to win said war both swiftly and conclusively.
2. Sticking to one's task, however bleak the prospects, on the grounds that one's cause is right might have worked for Churchill in 1940 but cannot be embraced as a universal principle. How much more apalling would Vietnam have been if Nixon had not finally accepted political reality and sued for peace, albeit a pretty humiliating one in the end?
3. The civil rights arguments for regime change were powerful but the false WMD rationale was hugely undermining of US-UK legitimacy.
4. The US seemed to have no thorough plan for occupancy and has subsequently failed to get hold of the situation.

So, should we stick it out indefinitely, as our government argues, 'until ther job is done' or accept we've failed and make plans to withdraw?

Blair flies to Washington today to discuss the viability of Mr Maliki's new national unity government. He has expressed bullish views about the ability of the new set-up to overcome the insurgency by the end of the year; Mr Maliki himself has promised 'maximum force' to effect this. However, last March, following the spring elections which established similar momentum, Gen Abizard, in charge of US forces in the region, predicted an optimistic outcome which has has by no means materialised.

Madeleine Bunting, in today's Guardian has no doubts that the 'war on terror' has been the 'most catastrophic blunder in half a century of British and American foreign policy', proving wholly counter-productive in terms of terror whilst alientating most of the rest of the world. Instead we have a daily death toll of some 35 in March- mostly victims of the most horrifically brutal militia killings whereby Shias and Sunnis seek to out terrorize the other(picture is of restaurant where three dozen were killed by suicide bombers). She notes that the likes of Andrew Sullivan and David Aaronovitch have now recanted but that the rest of the original pro-war 'cheerleaders'- presumably the likes of Nick Cohen and Norman Geras- have yet to do so.

Others have long ago decided the game was up and that we ought to withdraw. Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times argues that: we should accept that the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds will accept nothing short of partition; that we should abandon our 'fantasy'of occupation; and get out now. Such expedition might seem a bit too hasty but the stage must surely be approaching when a 'Nixonian' end to the conflict is deemed less harmful than continuing with what has become a murderous charade.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


The Politics of the Eurovision Song Contest

Let me apologize in advance for my post having nothing to do with British politics and only tenuously with politics at all except for the small 'p' variety, but I am going to vent some Victor Meldrew like bile about the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest. My partner Kate and I last night thought we'd indulge in some retro kitch nostalgia and watch the much lampooned contest, something which neither of us has done for some years.

The experience was even more deeply depressing than we feared it might be. There were several moans which we had-listed below- but they boiled down to the total mismatch between voting and anything like musical quality. Part of this is explained by the determination of tranches of Europe's telephone voters to plump for the efforts of their neighbours, musical considerations notwithstanding.

1. We saw blatant 'neighbourism' in the Nordic countries, East Mediterranean, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It was so predictable that in the end it became farcical: Ukraine giving their 12 points to Russia who responded with their own 10 points to Ukraine. Similarily with Moldova, Croatia and Rumania and with the Baltic States and Finland who went on to win the competition. What also surprises me is how nations who suffered under the political hegemony of Russis for so many decades can now sign up to a cultural equivalent.

2. Talking of cultural hegemony, we were also disappointed by the move out of native languages and into English. The assumption seems to be that English is the language of rock and roll and that such songs have a better chance of winning. The result was crass and a mockery of the supposed cultural exchange the contest represents. What made it worse, much worse for this Meldrew clone, was the American accents used by some contestants and by the absurdly bland presenters whose constant use of the word 'amazing' was rightly ridiculed by Wogan. I was delighted when the French song and voting rapporteur communicated exclusively in their own tongue.

3. I know that musical judgements are essentially personal but we were astonished at how rubbish songs did well while the better ones languished. Foremost was the 'song' which won, of course-of which more below-and I am not bleating about the UK song's fate-19th out of 24- as it was the feeblest kind of dreck we've ever offered-but others like the Russian or the Armenian efforts while the only genuine songs like the French entry, or even more so the Irish one, received scant support. Is all Europe tone deaf?

4. As the years have gone by, it seems the musical element has gradually receded in importance. Many of the entries dispensed with aiming for good song and good performance and opted instead for gimmicky presentation-costumes and gymnastic dance displays. The worst offender under this heading was the Finnish entry,Lordi (see picture), a rubbish 'death-metal' feeble copy of 'Slipknot' version of 'monster glam-rock'(see, I do know a tiny bit about this...). So of course, we now know, yet again, how mediocrity of the highest order wins this absurd farrago, year after sodding year.

My son groaned when I told him of my viewing plans- no doubt he could see this rant coming-and subsequently contradicted my judgement by enthusing about the Finns as a welcome breath of fresh air in a competition which young people have reckoned to have been on life support ever since it was invented. My final point is that I am quite pleased, and yes, maybe a little proud, that in a Europe where the contest is perceived as mainstream entertainment, British coverage concentrates on ridiculing this richly risible use of prime viewing time. It'll be an aeon before I watch it again.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Blair's plan to reform Lords suggests later rather than sooner departure

We read that Jack Cunnigham, one of Tony's most reliable fixers, is to be brought back, one assumes briefly, into the limelight to 'fix' the House of Lords (picture shows statue of Richard the Lionheart by the entrance to the Lords). Labour, of course does not command an overall majority in the second chamber so the passing into law of prized 'legacy' items on terrorism and ID Cards might face substantial impediment. David Hencke reports that an all party comittee will be set up next Monday, chaired by Lord Cunnigham, with the purpose of ending the Lords' ability to 'throw out bills'. The timescale, it seems, is to curb their lordships by 2007 so time is left to push bills through unhindered before the next election (which must take place before May 2010).

The ability of the Lords to delay legislation by a year from the second reading of a bill in the Commons, is often minimised as a feeble residual power from the chamber's halcyon days in the 19th century. But as time runs out for a government and the next election approaches, a delay of a year becomes an effective veto. So it's understandable Blair should wish to emasculate further the unelected part of our legislature. But, given his lack of 'political capital' in terms of trust and support, both in his party and the country at large, I suspect he will find this no easy task. Another thought which might worry Gordon Brown is that this initiative suggests a Blair who is planning to keep on legislating rather later than the summer 2007, the time which, says a large segment of the current received wisdom, when he is likely to vacate Number 10.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Prince Charles: Is He a Good Thing?

We learn today that Prince Charles has told diminutive Geordies, Ant and Dec, that he is a big fan of Leonard Cohen: 'I mean the orchestration is fantastic, the words and lyrics and everything, he's a remarkable man.' As someone around the same age as myself, I feel I've grown up with Charles. News snippets about him in our daily family newspaper- the News Chronicle and then (the shame) the Daily Mail- abounded; I recall one being that at some public event Charles had asked her for a sweet and that she had given him one(who says she has been a cold, uncaring mother?). I have also been a fan of the groaning Canadian high priest of lovelorn angst since the late sixties so, superficially at least, I have quite a bit in common with the heir to the throne, which has led me to review my feelings towards him.

I remember Charles's first broadcast interview from the palace with Jack De Manio on the Today programme in the mid seventies. His first question won me over: 'Did you manage to find the place alright Mr De Manio?' He seemed to have a passably good wit and an agenda with which I could sympathise: socially concerned, especially about disadvantaged youngsters as well as about the environment. He was a good thing, or so I thought. Then came the Diana saga and the evidence that he carried on an affair throughout without an apparent care. In his defence it has been said-including by himself I understand- that male heirs to the British throne have generally taken lovers, the implication being 'whatever did the silly girl expect?'. I'm far from being a puritan on such matters, but I did begin to find my estimation of him was beginning to sink quite rapidly.

The clinching piece of evidence to me that Charles is in fact silly and insufferable was that, when asked by a friend at a dinner party Charles had thrown, how his guests should address him, he replied 'Oh, just call me "sir"'. A small thing, I know, but one which reveals the character of the man; despite his often painful attempts to demonstrate ordinariness and warmth for his subjects to be, he is constantly consumed by thoughts on his own position and how his superior status should be recognised. I fear that anyone who insists his friends call him 'sir' must be a snob and a fool.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Rowbathan's Revenge

Estelle(now Lady) Morris once gave an interview in which she reported the view of a colleague already in the Cabinet on fellow members: 'The good news is, they're just like us and the bad news is, they're just like us.' I love the humour of this observation and, with some qualificactions, would agree with its central message. I thought of it while reading the detail, in Simon Hoggart's column, on Prescott's return to the Commons yesterday.

First, just like any of us, after the mauling his life has recently taken, he wants things to get back to normal and play a role in governing. He claimed, combatively that he 'is doing far more than,Lord Heseltine did' He listed the dozen or so Cabinet committees he chairs across government as well as little extras like relations with China and climate change. This 'elder statesman' role of chairing committees, a delicate and crucial task to be sure, has in the past been undertaken by ministers without portfolio like the Lord Privy Seal or Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, rather than the Deputy Prime Minister but presumably Blair did not have the heart or the stomach to demote his wounded ally given the circumstances.

Second, like most of us, he has his friends in the House. Swindon MP, Anne Snelgrove, from his own side,(pictured above) spoke of the 'pride' the country felt at the role he was playing. It's hard to guess whether she was doing this out of obedience to whips' instructions, very, very naive ambition or, and perhaps this can be quickly discarded, because she fancied a quick cuddle behind the door.

Third, like most of us again, Prezza has his enemies- and given his aggressive nature, no doubt more than most. Andrew Robathan, a Conservative front bencher, slid in the stiletto when he asked whether any world leaders he might meet would treat him with 'the same contempt as this House.' Ouch indeed. Hoggart tells us that behind this lies a furious row some time back in the tea-room over (presumably the use of) a mobile phone. This spat must have taken place several years ago, given that he was biting Prescott's ankles over his paid for accommodation as long ago as July 2000. Mr Rowbathan's remarkable longevity of spite puts one in mind of good old Joe Stalin who confided to mates Kamenev and Derzhinsky that: 'To choose one's victim, to prepare one's plans minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance and then go to bed...there's nothing sweeter in the world.' You see why I have reservations about them all being 'just like us'?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Reading the Clues at PMQs

Watching PMQs today provided a few pointers, I thought on the current state of our politics:

1. Blair
A much happier day today than last week. His body language was more positive and he was sufficiently combative against Cameron to rally his troops; unlike last week when they remained silent, he received some vocal support. Perhaps his enemies in the party have called a tacit truce. But my feeling was that he is still, as Cameron claimed, 'rattled.'

2 Cameron
As eager and aggressive as ever but the 'force' was not quite as with him this week as last. He ought to tone down the volume a little as a shrill tone tends not to catch the mood. Maybe could have chosen better topics too. The hopeless performance by the senior Home Ofice official in front of yesterday's Public Administration Committee, not to mention the Cabinet secretary's admission no-one had been disciplined for the foreign prisoners debacle, offered something of an open goal which I felt Cameron rather miffed.

3. Ming
Derided last week, he had something, a lot perhaps, to prove today. But I'm afraid he didn't regain any lost ground, even though he played conspicuously safe-clear evidence of his travails- by asking short questions and staying on the familiar ground of foreign affairs. But his questions on withdrawal from Iraq and Guntanamo had no real bite and rather than bounce off the PM, they barely crawled their way across the House to reach him. Blair did, however, in his answer, say explicitly that the camp should be closed, which I think is a first, so maybe Ming can claim a crumb of comfort from that.

4. Too much Noise
One thing I noted from today's and recent PMQs, is that the background hubbub is far too loud. Blair had to lean back straining to hear Paisley through the back of seat microphone. Why doesn't Mr Speaker intervene with more force one asks? Oh, and John Prescott made his first utterence in the house since the embarrassments of recent weeks. I had anticpated he would be laughed to scorn, but it is unwise to underestimate the resilience of the self constructed carapace behind which senior politicians shelter.

He's back, and like Blair, will hope for some error-up free weeks or months to settle the ship and restore an impression of normality. But the atmosphere is still febrile and it would only need another cock-up to put Blair's back right back against the wall.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


New Labour's Fatal Flaws

Two articles in The Guardian today, one by Max Hastings and the other by Polly Toynbee, seem to epitomize the emerging-and generally negative- consensus regarding New Labour. As a Labour supporter it pains me deeply to have to admit it but both articles reinforce what I have long concluded to be the case.

Hastings focuses on Blair's 'sofa government', as he sees it, the deliberate eschewing of traditional civil service systematic gradualism for a loose, somewhat casual approach. Rather as Cameron has (slightly ominously from this viewpoint) displayed, it is an open- necked approach to making decisions which the traditionalist and tie wearing Max thinks should be smartened up. Certainly Lord Butler, former Cabinet Secretary, who coined the pejorative 'sofa' term, thinks it has been a 'disaster', eroding discipline and fostering incompetence. Moreover, says Hastings, Blair has sought to circumvent the civil service, which he thinks opposed to change, by using hugely expensive consultants; and by employing special advisers who know nothing about government and can only advise on how to manipulate the media and brief against fellow ministers.

Hastings concludes New Labour's politics have been 'supremely professional' but 'amateur' in execution of policy. I'm not sure even this faint compliment is earned. When Blair reacted to the foreign criminals revelations by declaring that in future such people would be 'automatically' deported, I thought he had sunk to his lowest nadir yet. According to this knee-jerk reaction foreigners guilty of minor shoplifting would be packed off to their home countries, possibly to be met by the torturing regimes from which they had fled.

Polly T. focuses more on Blair's political style with a problem, his tendency to attack a topic with fervour, promising unrealistic objectives which win temporary silence from a critical media before the failure to meet the 'unreasonable expectations' his rhetoric has aroused, earns him an even worse press than he faced in the first place. This combination of self defeating media manipulation plus an inability to drive the government machine has proved fatal in initiating the haemorrhaging of Labour support and it is still continuing.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Big Brother Viewers quizzed on politics

It has been one of the damning indictments of the British electorate, that more people vote for Big Brother contestants than vote in general elections. Now a report produced by Professor Stephen Coleman for the Hansard Society, is based upon the attitudes of 200 such viewers and offers some clues as to why young people think voting is a waste of time. Writing in the Observer Peter Bazalgette from Endemol, who make BB, offered his analysis of Coleman's survey.

Bazalgette thought exposing the personality of George Galloway was of key importance but, the summary of findings, do not offer any revelatory discoveries. I fear we are still pretty much in the dark as to why the civic duty of voting seems to have fallen into such chronic disrepair. We discover that the participation rate of the sample was not especially low and that two thirds thought voting in general elections was more important than voting in BB. So far so not unusual,but it is very clear that a large majority are very disenchanted with parliamentary politics: 50% say they found the campaign boring; 69% that they had heard nothing to change their minds about anything; 27% that voting would make no difference to the country; 41% that the government did not listen; and 55% they felt they had no influence over how the country is run.

I find myself agreeing to some extent with all these points of view exept the one about voting making no difference. Of course voting makes a difference! It got rid of an exhausted Labour government in 1979; an exhausted, disgraced Conservative one in 1997 which had allowed the public services to atrophy to the point of collapse; and it will pass judgement on Blair's New Labour in 2008-9. If these young people want to make a difference, then why do they not do what my generation did and still does- support a party, even when it seems down and out, and work(in some mininal way at least) to get it elected? It's not that bloody difficult. O.K., one vote doesn't make that much difference but how much say does one voter want or expect? Tell practicing politicians your vote doesn't count and they'll work surprisingly hard to convince you theyreally care about the way you cast it.

If you become an activist you become a member of the 'selectorate' helping to choose candidates for local parties; you have the option also of standing as a candidate yourself. You will be listened to and will make some kind of a difference. And by voting you exercise a right people fought over for centuries- some died- to establish.[Oh dear, I'm sounding like Victor Meldrew again, but he's not always wrong] Making voting easier by putting it online or whatever is irrelevant really: it's getting up-coming generations to believe they should vote that's the problem and we seem to no nearer whatsoever to solving that really quite serious crisis in our democratic system.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Brown's Vendetta Threatens his own Legacy

Despite the best efforts of that resilient and most resouceful of politicians, and clearly against his own instincts, Blair's fingers are being prized off the Number 10 tiller. In the Economist Bagehot points out that, unlike Thatcher, when her time was running out, 'Mr Blair is still quite liked by his senior colleagues.' The one big exception is a certain glowering Scot, who, it seems, has now donned his armour and is openly fighting to maximise his time in charge before the next election. I had not quite realised, until reading Martin Kettle, yesterday, how deeply personal this has become. For example, there have been regular meetings- some 15 of them- since the start of the year, between 'lieuftenants' from both camps to 'prepare the handover strategy' but they had been abandoned as 'Brown would not trust Blair'.

In the Observer today Andrew Rawnsley advances the argument a few stages further. He points out that, by publicly reminding Blair, very recently, of Mrs Thatcher's lachrymose exit in 1990, he was suggesting darkly to his rival that unless TB accepted GB's version of what the party needs, gentlemen with baseball bats would soon be knocking on the door of Number 10 to administer their own version of Labour justice. It's true things could get rougher still for Blair if the Conservatives decide not to support Blair over the Education Bill when it returns to the Commons in a week's time for its second reading.

But the really big priority now for Labour, is for the feuding to end. Local activists have been forced to stand impotently by as chaotic behaviour by party leaders has decimated ranks on local councils the length and breadth of the land. Now the seats at issue are Labour MPs at the next general election and their prospects of being returned are fast gurgling down the plughole. As Rawnsley emphasises, the argument is not really about policy- Blair sees Gordon as 'absolutely New Labour to his fingertips'- nor is it anymore about giving decent time before the election; Blair probably accepts he should go by 2008.

But by pressing Blair to go earlier than he wants, Gordon is risking the future of his party for a decade or more and indeed his own putative career as PM. The almost total lack of vocal support from behind when Blair when being savaged by Cameron at PMQs last Wednesday, reinforces the impression that his party is prepared-no doubt relectantly- to dump him. Gordon knows he holds the trump cards but, curiously, if he plays them, he wins the trick, yet he loses the game.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Labour has helped reduce inequality

It really annoys me when critics of Labour claim inequality is greater currently under Blair, than at any other time. The easily missed piece in today's Guardian proves this jibe incorrect as inquality now is less than in 2000 when Labour's tax and spending plans had not changed from those of John Major. Since then, inequality has decreased substantially largely through increased benefits to the lower paid, pensioners and families with children. So whatever the shortcomings of Blair's government, it has pursued a redistributive economic policy and millions have benefited. I for one hope the trend continues apace and helps shore up Labour's core vote in 2009-10.

But this is not to say there is not a severe problem. The richest 20% of British families earned 16 times that of the poorest 20%, a relationship which narows to four times after taxes and benefits are taken into account. Inequality is only just back to the level inherited by Blair when he came to power in 1996-7. Steady economic growth worldwide has provided the dynamic for large accretions of wealth by the already wealthy; as capitalism has inherent tendencies to produce inequality Labour have done pretty well in inhibiting such forces. But we don't need the INS statistics; our eyes(at least up here in the north) provide daily proof that far too many families and children suffer the miserable depredations of poverty.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Oh Dear! Was Ming a Mistake?

I found myself supporting Ming Campbell as leader of the Lib Dems, during their recent contest, as the steady, decent, authoritative figure who could boost their efficacy as the Blair era stumbles to a close. But now his feeble performances at PMQs seems to have caused the whispering to start up all over again. It would be foolish to leap into anything like another leadership contest and Ming, seems set fair to lead his party into the next election. But the question does arise of whether a mistake has been made. On Thursday a very infuential blog poured some trademark scorn on his attempts to land a punch on Blair and, I had to say, the video-clip evidence did seem quite damning.

Ming on foreign policy was clipped, to the point and his voice resonant with attack and passion. At PMQs he seems diffident, wholly lacking in gravitas and, frankly, a bit doddery. Even Blair turned away in contempt at the end of Ming's question last Wednesday. A judicious editorial in the Indie today sheds some balanced common sense on the matter. It recognizes the improvements being made to the party's organization but points out that there are no votes in such changes, vital as they may be. Hague brushed up party organisation but did not dent Blair's electoral appeal or garnish his own.

Performances in the House are also not noticed by most voters but the opinion of lobby jornalists and political editors is disseminated quite widely and it is vital not to appear a duffer on this important stage. Moreover, says the Indie, Ming has not advanced his party's 'distinctive agenda' losing ground to Cameron's colourful initiatives and is not leading the debate on civil liberties. It seems big speech is bruited next month and, I for one, hope Ming is in front of the mirror practising it at this very moment. With Labour fading the Lib Dems could become, with the right leadership, the recipient of substantial diverted progressive support.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Voices: their importance in politics

I always feel a bit winded after a 'passage of play' in politics which has involved lots of events and shocks; beginnings of ends and ends of beginnings. So, to get my breath back, I'm posting on something apparently trivial but actually quite important to politicians' chances of success: the quality of their voices. Some research quoted in Brendan Bruce's 1992 book, Images of Power, suggested that 38 per cent of the impact politicians make via the media, is through their way of speaking. Admittedly, the very emergence onto the national scene indicates some kind of acceptable voice but to make it to the very top with a poor voice suggests compensating talents of some rare order. I've had a go at making two short lists- this time five each (as I can't run to the usual ten); the first of those I don't like; the second those I do.

Voices I hate
I debated whether to include quite a few here, like John Prescott's surly growl or Nigel Lawson's superior drone but ended up with the following as my top five hates.

5. Clement Attlee
How he got to be PM sounding as he did I'll never know-though he is lauded as Labour's best ever prime minister. He spoke in short clipped sentences like a small town accountant or an infuriating minor bureaucrat. Arthur Lowe, Capt Mainwairing in Dad's Army, was an inspired choice for the role as he echoed so well that apalling forties style type diction.

4. Gordon Brown
Gordon has a severe problem with his rumbly old bear of a voice which communicates no joy, wit or interest but only, when raised in the Commons, loud didactic Scottish 'truths'- very boring and he'll bore us a lot more by the time he's through.

3. David Cameron
I know this is prejudiced by my dislike of Tories in general, but that sharp, piping public school voice I find really irritating already. Recently I heard him haranguing Blair at PMQs and thought at first I was listening to the carrot topped Chris Evans- yes, that bad.

2. Ted Heath
Truly awful to listen to. It was the combination of below stairs vowels desperately seeking to sound posh which made him sound so embarrassingly naff. I reckon it was the voice, not the Three Day Week which lost him the election in February 1974.

1. Margaret Thatcher
You've guessed it and I'm sorry to be so predictable. But she suffered a bit from the Ted Heath syndrome of wanting to sound several rungs up the social ladder. But in addition there was that self righteous lecturing, hectoring shout with which she sought to admonish, encourage or persuade. How Dennis put up with it I will never know. I still wake up having had nightmares in which she has been making speeches.

Voices I do like
Quite a few nearly made it,like Churchill's aristocratic lisp and, as I'd decided to borrow from the USA, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. But Winston was a true one off and the others not British so I ended up with the following.

Robin Cook
I never shared the prejudice that he was incoherently Scottish as I found his voice clear, lively and arresting; it was one which demanded to be heard and succeded in being so.

4. Bill Clinton
Well, OK, so I did choose one American; the old charmer was so persuasive. It was/is an intelligent, informative voice which soothed and flattered: no wonder he took the knickers off the American elctorate more than once. [Damn, I should have put George Bush in the 'Hate' list too...]

3. Willaim Waldergrave
Yes, I know he's a toff and all that, but he addressed us as if we were as intelligent as he is in a voice which would have come over very well as a professional broadcaster. Have to confess Michael Portillo nearly made the list too for similar reasons and he has gone into that medium.

2. Cecil Parkinson
Another smoothiechops who flattered and cooed, especially into Maggie's shell like as well as a few other ladies I'm sure. but his voice was pefectly modulated and easy on the ear, making him an effective frontman for Thatcher's indefensible regime.

1. Shirley Williams
Some say she is one of the greatest underachievers of postwar politics while others rubbish her as terminally indecisive and muddle headed. I always liked her enormously and still stop to listen when that full, warm, caring understanding voice issues forth. No wonder her staff in the Education Department would work all night just to hear her say 'thank you'.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Blairism's last gasp and the need for a new design

Perhaps it's a sign of these 'end of an era' times that Jonathan Freedland today suggests that Blair is going partly because 'Blairism' has gone as far as it can. The end of ther seventies, he says, saw the end of the post 1945 consensus with Callaghan's government presaging the neo-liberalism which Margaret Thatcher made her own. By the mid- nineties New Labour had also accepted the primacy of markets but had moved to correct the Thatcherism's imbalance by reasserting the importance of the public sphere- a consideration which had lain fallow since the demise of Sunny Jim- and adding a degree of regulation e.g. the minimum wage and the Social Charter.

Freedland suggests the limits of Blairism have now been reached: it has become clear that pouring money into moribund structures does not work and that trying to run government departments like business, with the aid of McKinsey style target driven consultancy does not work either. Blair's obsession with internal markets and the mantras of the private sector are being rejected to a large extent in both education and health. But this is where the article disappoints. Freedland suggests the way forward is a decentralised "looser, more diffuse 'organic' network of services that fit the people who use them. Citizens won't be passive recipients, but direct particpants".

The analysis of the problem, as one might expect of such a good columnist is acute, but for the remedy, this vague stuff about decentralising power is about as useful as a David Cameron speech. Whilst this may well be the direction in which government might develop, it would have been useful to draw on experience elsewhere- Sweden for instance where dramatic devolution of power has occurred- to reinforce the case.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Tectonic Plates Now Shifting Rapidly

Some time ago I opined that the current situation was not comparable with the end of the Major years and that TB could still stay on close to the full term should he choose. The first piece of my analysis is still correct but the second, I fear, has been superseded by events. The appalling battering his government took in the run-up to the local elections followed by the poor results, the reshuffle which changed everybody and nothing, not to mention the crucial emergence of a credible alternative in the form of Cameron, has moved the situation from critical to highly dangerous for Blair and for Labour.

Only an extended period of calm reinforced by a series of positive news stories can extract Blair from the hole which he occupies. When Polly Toynbee effectively advises a ‘quick assassination’, and the Guardian editorial judges Blair’s show ‘has reached the end of its run’, then the time for Blair to go must be close. Jackie Ashley’s excellent piece yesterday analyzed the forces ranged against him- the Campaign Group, Compass(the group which denies its 'Old Labour'tag) and, crucially, the growing band of disaffected mainstream Labour MPs like John Denham and Nick Raynsford- and observed that while the reshuffle had moved the cabinet in his direction, the party has moved sharply in the other way. In email correspondence with me today, she doubts if he will remain in post ‘by the autumn conference’. That is questionable but what is not is that Tony Blair, despite his spirited rearguard action, is soon to defer to the inevitable and do what honour dictated after Hutton: stand down as prime minister.

The poll in the Times today provides worrying evidence of how far the rot has gone. The Tories are up to 38% while Labour has slumped to 30- the lowest they have been since 1992.Over a third now want him to go now; 72% thought the reshuffle a 'distraction'; and 82% were dissatisfied/disappointed with the government. However, even more worryingly, if Brown were leader Cameron's lead stretches to 41-31. 'The Tories have moved from being unelectable to potentially electable but power is still some way away.' says Peter Riddell.

In a vigorous defence of TB, novelist Robert Harris, suggests Blair should sack Brown and serve his full term- arguing that the latter-who stood no chance of winning in 1994- has been 'chronically disloyal' and should now pay the price. Persuasive as his article is, it whistles in the wind: things have gone too far for that. If anyone is going to be shown the door soon, it's not Gordon Brown. The real worry, for Labour supporters, is that after all his impatinet waiting, there will be precious little to inherit except a ruined political landscape. In such a situation Labour's credibility as a party of government will take much more than the 'ample', 'proper' and 'adequate' time Blair says he'll give his successor to 'establish' himself and prepare for the next election.

Monday, May 08, 2006


'Limpet' Tony not anywhere near ready to go

Watching Blair's news conference today on the telly a number of things stood out.

a)TB repeated he was not going to contest the next election and made it clear he was, as promised going to provide a 'stable and orderly transition'. Nothing especially new here but some doubt had entered some minds about the latter, particularly the allowing of some 'establishment' time for his successor. At least he did say he would allow such time- not much of a concession but a straw for Gordon to clutch at. If one assumes a year's grace is normally thought wise and at least a year is required for a successor to 'establish' himself, that should put exit time at around spring 2008- later than most critics would wish but earlier than some- i.e. me- have feared.

b) He rejected the 'timetable' proposal so close to the heart of Blair's opponents on the grounds that it would 'paralyse' government if other parties knew the current PM was going. He could not be taken seriously if it were known he was going soon and suspected that his successor might do something else. There is something in this but to an extent, having said he's not standing next time has done this anyway, so a timetable would not change things dramatically, but might help Labour recover its position in time for the next election.

c) TB pointed out that he was only elected a year ago and feels he was given a personal mandate to govern which he would betray if he were to cut and run.

d)He refused to accept the analogy with Maggie and Major as the former had invested in a killer policy while the latter had run out of ideas and energy. His government, on the contrary, had loads of energy and things to do in the public services, energy and nuclear policy and so on.

e)He was also opposed to sections of the 'Blair must go' crowd as they had their own(Old Labour?) agenda which he believed was dangerous to the country and therefore must be resisted.

f) He airily dismissed those who said his policies were unpopular insisting that government was always controversial, citing the tuition fees row which at the time some had likened to to 'Tony's Poll Tax' but which had since been fully accepted even by other parties.

g) His line on Prezza was interesting. No mention of that 'private' matter but an enconium on the fat man's ability to chair difficult meetings and 'cut deals' across the field of government which stood comparision with Willie Whitelaw. Praise indeed.

All in all an energetic performance but I'm not sure he looked as confident as his words sounded: his eyes looked unsure I thought and his face gleamed with perspiration which only just managed to stay within. One emailer to the BBC's Daily Politics described him as looking 'desperate'. I note that one blog is accusing Brown of cowardice in not taking the fight more openly to Blair but this is a silly point: he has to preserve some kind of unity over which he can preside himself and seek to win a fourth term.

And already as Jackie Ashley says today: 'Labour is already well into a bitter Machiavellian, relentless and increasingly disorderly power struggle, which is now likely to get worse, not better.' This is good news for political junkies but bad news for those who support the Labour Party. Oh, and on that last point, our local candidate, Tom McGee, bucked the trend by beating the incumbent Tory councillor and providing Stockport Labour with its only gain of the last Thursday night. Well done Tom.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Blair to go 'on and on' and to stop Gordon's succession

As the fog of electoral war disperses two things are now clearly emerging.
Firstly Tony Blair intends to stay-God knows, it's bitter enough already- to the bitter end. He will ignore any calls to go early. Gordon can go stuff himself. Secondly, and related to this sentiment, is the intention of Blair to frustrate Brown's sucession if he possibly can. The elevation of John Reid to Home Secretary is evidence that he intends to back the combative excommunist Scot as his chosen successor. Those who say there is real emnity between the two men appear to be right: as far as Tony is concerned, Gordon can go stuff himself.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Election Results and the Reshuffle

Blair is certainly putting up a fight for his political life.
First the local election results. Well, they were between 'bad' and 'very bad' but did not qualify as the 'disaster', I for one had feared. Losing 250 seats and 18 councils was seriously wounding for Labour but at 26% of the poll, their vote was no lower than their 2004 performance. The Tories did very well in London and overall won about as much as Labour lost. 40% of the vote shows Cameron can win votes but still the northern cities like Newcastle, Liverpool(where they came 4th to the Greens)and Manchester remained unbreached fortresses. Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems must have been disappointed with only 27% of the poll and minimal gains[later note: recalculations put the figure below Labour at 25%]. Nick Robinson summed it up as a 'bloody nose for Blair, but nowhere near a knock-out blow'. The BNP surge is a worry but let's hope it will be only temporary, like its brief periods in the sun during the seventies and mid nineties. I was pleased to see the Greens progressing on their long march into what may soon become the political manistream.

Next, the reshuffle, or as much as I know at the time of writing. This really is surprising and involves the moving of most of the major portfolios except for the Chancellorship. Clarke is sacked, and is not especially pleased- this move surprised me as Blair had offered such solid support last week and emphasised that the man to solve the problems was the man in post. This volte face arguably makes him look a bit foolish. Prezza loses his department but retains his elected office of Deputy Leader and Deputy Prime Minister. I assume it's not possible to detach the former role from him, won, after all, in open competition via the three wings of the party, but the second must be in the PM's gift and Blair will come to regret the fact that this walking embarrassment is still barging around Westminister. Kelly goes to take over the wreckage from Prezza's political demise. Straw steps down to become Leader of the House; maybe punishment for spreading the rumour that he sees himself as Deputy Leader under a Brown premiership.

John Reid, that all-purpose, utility minister takes over at the Home Office which he will no doubt lead with that mixture of competence, agression and cunning he brings to all his many Cabinet jobs of which this is the ninth. Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary can be seen as reward for long-serving and loyal competence at DEFRA. Patricia Hewitt stays, again surprisingly, together with Hilary Benn, many peoples' tip for eventual higher things.

So what does it all mean? Blair has refashioned his Cabinet in the biggest ever reshuffle of his nine years. It is wholly in his own image and seems not to have involved consultation with his Chancellor; I don't see any Brownite disciples moved up or in but maybe there will be places allocated at the junior levels. One can only conclude from all this that Blair is rejecting any suggestions he should go early and is utilising the formidable powers of an incumbent PM to buttress his position. Will it work? Probably not. Macmillan's 'Night of the Long Knives' was an expression of his weakness rather than strength and merely presaged his standing down as PM a year later. This reshuffle rather does remind one of that hoary old metaphor about the Titanic and the deckchairs. He might have bought a little time but that iceberg cannot be so far away.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Of Blair and Reshuffles

I see the Guardian today predicts losses of 400 but places the bar higher than I did in my last post, at 550 for the 'disaster scenario'. Fact is, we're just guessing. But it looks bad. I doubt even the reshuffle will do much to lighten the Stygian gloom either. Defenders of Clarke have asked why make such a fuss? these guys had paid their dues, done their time, so, like any released convict, should be encouraged to play a construcive role in society.

There is something in that line of argument but not much. The problem with foreign criminals is that they are foreign and touch on a range of highly sensitive issues including the racism which is inherent in our country as it is in most others. Moreover, I would argue that we have enough criminals of our own without importing any more. It follows that if we have good reason to think someone seeking entry to UK is likely to commit crimes, we have the right to deny them entry.

But it strikes me, on the reshuffle, Clarke cannot really be sacked now; by standing by him Blair has to keep him or look foolish for investing his support. Hewitt, who has benefitted from the shelter created by the gaffes of her Cabinet colleagues, might well be moved and Kelly too. But the big imponderable is Prescott. It seems to me his political career is now over. His authority- always a delicate thing for such an indelicate man- is shot to bits. His record- failed at Tranport, not really done much since at his new portmanteau department- is unexpcetional to poor.

He is personna non grata with Labour activists who have experienced voter disgust with him on the doorstep; he is non grata with Labour's feminati and if he ever stands up in the house again, the noise will drown out what he might try to be saying. I suspect the reason why he has been keeping such a low profile is that he is planning to resign, possibly in advance of the reshuffle.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


350 Council Losses Could Presage Meltdown

That superb reader of the political game, Peter Riddell in The Times, scans tomorrow's political horizons to identify possible outcomes. Local government elections are confusing. There are 4361 seats contested. The probably most important are all those in London boroughs; next are one third of metropolitan district seats plus the 20 unitary councils. Riddell thinks 150 losses would be acceptable; 200 would be the biggest losses since Blair came to power; and 350 could cause the meltdown to begin

As I've essayed before, Blair knows Labour MPs have as much to lose as him if they wield the knife and Brown's legacy would be despoiled. They would need to show unequivocally that a clear majority of the PLP wish him to go early- maybe 350 losses would provide the momentum for them to do just that. However, Blair is a resourceful and bold political fighter. He will offer a reshuffle and try to change the political weather as Major did in 1995 when he held an re-election of himself as leader to re-inforce his sinking position. It worked, for about five days then problems redoubled. If Blair does reshuffle I wonder what he'll do with Clarke and Prezza? Whatever, it'll only postpone the inevitable for a short while longer.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Local Elections: the current political front line

I know that delivering leaflets is the most humble of political activities and my recent couple of hours exercise doing just this was pretty unremarkable. But somehow, during it, I experienced the kind of pariah feeling which Conservatives must have felt throughout the nineties (or maybe it's always been like that for them, right from when Robert Peel founded them way back in the 1830s?).

It seemed to me I could everywhere see shadowy figures glinting meanly at me from behind lace curtains; I felt the shame of being John Prescott's representative on their doorstep; I half expected to be blamed personally for his lardy arsed transgressions and chased down garden paths by grey haired matrons screaming at me to eff off and calling me a 'lecherous Labour lackey'.

Fortunately none of this happened but the fact that I feared it might, says quite a bit about the plight of Tony Blair's party; alternatively, you might be thinking, it says quite a bit about me. I freely admit it could just be me being paranoid about voter attitudes and insufficiently up for the struggle. I'm pretty sure the latter hypothesis is about right but for the proof of the former, we'll have to await Friday morning.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Blair will find Local Government elections can make for an even worse week

Local elections now head the list of events I'm interested in. Not just because of the last-minute pile of Labour Party leaflets I've been asked to deliver-at least I don't have to defend the government on the doorstep like some fellow party activists-but because they threaten to dig even the deeper the political hole which Tony Blair occupies. The reasons why he is in the hole are depressing and several:

1. The incompetence of Charles Clarke in neglecting to act on deporting foreign criminals despite being warned of the problem. Blair-keen to retain a truly Blairite Cabinet ally- has now qualified his support by saying his retention depends on what happens i.e. on how embarrassing the subsequent crimes of the 'deportees' prove to be. Clarke must find it hard to sleep easily right now.

2. The absurdity of his Deputy, John Prescott. Alright, affairs at work are part of life, we shouldn't rush to moral judgement and he didn't put the nation's security at risk or even say disloyal things about his colleagues, but he behaved with singular lack of grace and in a fashion which has rightly made him the nation's number one laughing stock- probably for quite a while. And if you think it's all over check out Guido. Come back David Mellor, all is now forgiven.

3. The deficit in NHS spending boggles the mind in view of the huge cascade of money poured into it since 2002. Voters must think it's either appaling financial control, ancient structures or too many administrators. Moreover, why are so many doctors and nurses being angry with the source of such beneficent largesse?

4.Education: In 1997 Labour promised primary school classes would not be bigger than 30- recent figures suggest this figure is now being breached regularly.

And there are other political spades which have thrown yet more soil out of the deepening hole, like the mess over legal aid, rapidly rising levels of council tax and the constant, ongoing crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only the relative strength of the economy and the possibility of a new settlement in Northern Ireland provide any solace to the beleagured Blair and, sadly, Ulster has always been a bore to voters who have also come to accept low inflation growth as a normal-taken-as-read constant instead of the rare act of longterm political brilliance it actually is.

Maybe the polls are not as bad as they might be? Sorry, Tony, they are. Yougov in the Sunday Times put Labour three points behind Conservatives at 32; ICM had the same gap but with smaller shares at 27% Labour and 29% Tories; while a MoS survey had the latter on 35% and Labour on a disastrous 26%. Moreover 57% agreed with the statement that Labour was 'sleazy and incompetent'; 56% thought the foreign criminals gaffe was 'very damaging'; and 67% thought the same about NHS staff layoffs. Redcived wisdom seems to be that, if in defending some 1750 council seats on Thursday, Labour lose 2-300, then the screw will tighten on Blair possibly to the point of the process leading to his demise.

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