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May 18, 2009

The Speaker will cling on

I think the Speaker of the House of Commons did enough today to cling onto his big green seat.

He was, of course, awful. Woeful. Abysmal. He needed a good showing, and he summarily proved he didn’t know House of Commons rules by getting confused over the technical arcania of substantive motions. I was momentarily transported back to student politics.

Shudder.

But he was nice to Gordon Prentice and Douglas Carswell who did their very best to rile him.

This was out of character, and was the one solitary thing he did today that was different from last week. Hidden in his measured, if stuttered tone was a smidgen of a whiff of a note of change.

The Speaker didn’t give the people (nor the media) what they wanted though. No retirement date. No immediate release of every MP’s expenses. And beyond that faint dram of forced friendliness, no sign of change.

He doesn’t want to go. The PM may want him to go politically, but electorally a by-election in the until-now safe Glasgow North East seat would be disastrous. And a contrived band of Scottish friends, led by the ridiculous Lord Foulkes, don’t want him to go.

All they have by way of weaponry is the sharp sword of convention.

Rarely do five or six people stand up to sixty million and win. In this battle, full of history and precedents, they just might.


February 12, 2009

How 12500 new British jobs is actually just 500.

Much of the media seemed to fall for the Department for Transport’s PR this morning.

‘Super express’ trains contract gives boost to British jobs said the Guardian.

The Daily Mail said: Government buys British for intercity train fleet

The Telegraph seemed to fall hook, line and sinker: Next generation of Intercity trains to be built in Britain they said.

The only trouble is, none of those headlines appear to be entirely accurate.

They all stemmed from the DfT’s confident announcement that ‘This will create or safeguard some 12,500 manufacturing jobs in these regions [of the UK].’

But as the day’s gone on, that number’s begun to look like a big ball of spin.

The 12,500 appears to include maintenance workers, who could hardly have found their jobs offshored! “Safeguarding”, here, seems like an exaggeration.

Hitachi, part of the winning consortium, issued a UK press release that goes along with the DfT’s version of events. But they also issued a global press release, which has a different version.

Rather than 12,500 manufacturing jobs, as stated by the DfT, Hitachi promise their shareholders the deal will “secure up to 12,500 direct and indirect jobs in the local supply and services industry and local supporting communities.” It doesn’t say create, and doesn’t say manufacturing. “Local supporting communities” could mean Joyce who works in the nearby corner shop.

What’s more, it appears the trains will be designed and, largely, constructed in Japan. Only the final assembly and some basic manufacturing will be done in Britain.

Transport Briefing says just 500 manufacturing jobs will be created here in Britain. I’ll repeat that again: Five Hundred.

It appears that of the Department for Transport’s headline figure, just 2.5% are new jobs.

Why does all of this matter? Well, there was another bid for the £7.5bn tender from Bombardier, who are based in Derby and would have designed and constructed the trains in Britain.

I’m not a protectionist, but the spin coming out of the DfT today has been particularly effective, and particularly deceitful. Slowly the media’s realising they’ve been had.

Edit: The BBC just beat me to it on the spin story.


December 17, 2008

Britain's broken back

As President-elect Obama promises to invest in the United States’ infrastructure during the recession, here there’s little sign of progress.

A depressing Friday-night journey from Nottingham to Southampton last week gave me plenty of time to ponder the uselessness of Britain’s transport network. In fact I only had to go about ten miles down the M1 before it became a car park.

We’re a long, relatively thin country with a large proportion of the population spread along a spine running from London to Liverpool/Manchester.

But the spine’s broken.

As of last weekend we’ve now got one medium-speed rail line running from North to South. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near enough. It’s also ludicrously expensive, hence why I was sat on the M1.

We’ve got two North-to-South motorways, the M1 and the M6. They are renowned, probably across most of Europe, for being over-stretched.

And then we’ve got internal flights, the use of which ought to be a national embarrassment.

No-one really knows how to solve the problem, and there certainly isn’t a consensus. We’re building Crossrail at the same time as considering putting the brakes on Heathrow’s expansion. We’re widening motorways at the same time as encouraging people to use public transport. It must be the least well-planned area of public policy in Britain. Nothing adds up.

One decision ought to be a no-brainer. We need new railways, stretching from the North to the South. They don’t necessarily need to be TGV-fast – in some ways making them as cheap as possible might be the most important priority.

And it actually makes more sense for them to be freight lines than passenger ones. Anyone who’s tried overtaking a lorry which is itself overtaking another lorry will tell you what causes most of the congestion on the roads.

But we’ve not built the country for rail freight. I spent much of the summer listening to people fight for or against a Tesco Megashed in Hampshire. It was to be bigger than T5 at Heathrow, and would have served most of their supermarkets in the South-East of England. It was right next to a railway line, but they had no intention of ever using it.

Personally I’m not a fan of expanding Heathrow, as it seems obvious to everyone that it was built in the wrong place. The more we expand it, the more we compound the problem. The Thames Estuary idea apparently favoured by Boris Johnson seems a good idea to me, and is worthy of investigation by the government.

Unfortunately it’s all a bit too late. A recession is the ideal time to do some of these things (it’s cheaper and employs people). But it’ll take decades for anything to be done.

We’re in real danger of becoming a country of motorway-bound I-Spy players.


December 09, 2008

How to fix Britain's parents

Ian McEwan’s book The Child In Time puts its protagonist on a Thatcherite Official Commission on Childcare, a body formed to write an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” on behalf of the government, and dripping in sinister, authoritarian intent.

Twenty-one years after the novel was published, is it time to ask whether the handbook is such a bad idea?

Ironically it’s New Labour who have moved towards that ground since 1997.

In 2000, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw said, in a speech given after the passing of the Human Rights Act that:

parenting is a public – as well as intensely private – act… We must recognise people’s right to act according to their own lights, and their right – it’s in the ECHR – to respect for their private and family life. But Government cannot duck its responsibilities to help people make a success of parenting. This is essential if we are to achieve our goal of a stronger civil society, offering people more opportunities in life. Parenting is hugely important to creating the kind of society we want to live in.

Three years later, Clem Henricson wrote a report (PDF) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggesting that a legalised parenting code is needed:

a code has the potential to influence attitudes to parenting, enhancing its social significance and creating an ethos where parents have a more fully recognisable role.

This is, after all, a problem where Britain is doing worse than many other countries. A 2006 report by the Institute for Public Policy and Research put the UK right at the bottom for teenage behaviour in Europe.

But the proof that a parenting code is needed comes not from reports, speeches and academia.

The failure of parenting is there to see on television and on the street.

Jeremy Kyle, Supernanny, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, even the grain of truth in Vicky Pollard on Little Britain, all point to there being something wrong. For every great parent, there seems to be another whose children will inherit all of their bad attitude and bad behaviour.

I was nearly pushed in front of a bus a few weeks ago, for instance (maybe the kids read my blog?). Every time I go to Tesco, I see a parent dragging their child around, screaming at them and showing little sign of affection towards them.

Gangs and knife crime are directly linked to inadequate parenting. But it’s not always the parents’ fault. The circle of bad parenting from one generation to another can only be broken by intervening.

Jo Frost, the Supernanny, who’s found fame on both sides of the Atlantic with her parenting classes, appears to have no problem finding parents who just don’t know how to control their children. But by the end of the episode, nine times out of ten, she’s taught mum and dad how to love their children.

How can we get every parent a supernanny? It doesn’t immediately seem like something that can be taught in schools – and teachers have got enough on their hands already.

Is an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” the answer? No, almost certainly not. Never mind the authoritarian undertones, parents would store it along with the government’s 2004 booklet Preparing for Emergencies. In the bin.

But maybe what we do need is an army of Supernannies. Such an army is supposed to exist – Tony Blair promised it in 2006 as part of his ‘Respect’ agenda. But a review carried out this year found ‘parenting practitioners’ are spread thinly and sporadically around the country.

And figures released by the DCSF after an FOI request show just 3500 families have received help from trained parenting advisers since 2006.

That’s supposed to be expanded to most local authorities over the next three years, but it feels like things aren’t moving fast enough.

We need cutbacks in government spending during the economic downturn, but we can’t afford to cut back on helping parents be parents. If we do, the next generation of children will be the same as the last.


July 22, 2007

Brown’s Bounce

Worn down by the British weather, bored of the bloody Beckhams and fed up with the falling dollar (okay, maybe not that last one), Britain seems to have become fond of the quiet life.

Lewis Hamilton isn’t the only quiet yet determined person to be enjoying a summer of popularity. Gordon Brown, too, is feeling groovy.

Today’s Sunday Times/YouGov poll puts the government on 40%, Labour’s best in nearly two years. David Cameron, meanwhile, is off to Rwanda, hoping things can’t get much worse while he’s gone. He’s staring at a seven-point abyss between him and the dour one.

I was one of many who thought the popularity chasm created by Blair’s departure would cause a headache for Brown. But if anything, the workmanlike approach from the new Prime Minister is winning people over. The closest the government has had to a scandal has been the cannabis revelations this week. But this will be a non-issue for Labour while the opposition is led by a man with a (what’s the word…) colourful past.

As Rod Liddle hints in the Sunday Times this morning:

When I was at university – around the same time as Ruth Kelly, as it happens – habitual drug use was divided strictly on party lines. The lefties smoked dope… Coke was seen, back then, as an upwardly mobile, aspirational, Thatcherite drug. I think we need to hear a few more specific confessions from Conservative Central Office, don’t you?

This is not an issue on which the Tories can make much hay, and they were predictably quiet this week.

But if silence is a virtue, it is one Labour have grasped more effectively. While David Cameron practically carpet-bombed Ealing Southall with his presence, Gordon Brown left the by-election to local lieutenants. The result – third for the Tories, a modestly reduced majority for Labour – says it all.

He might be boring, but so far he’s been effective (to use one of his buzzwords, ‘resolute’).

The test will come in the Autumn, when election fever reaches a crescendo. How well can he do rabble-rousing?


June 28, 2007

Further rumblings through the Cabinet

A couple of points.

Newsnight have just used a picture of Tessa Jowell to represent Harriet Harman. I admit it’s hard to tell the difference, but they could have done better than that.

And Shaun Woodward has the worst job in the new Cabinet. Not only does he have the minefield of Northern Ireland to deal with, he won’t even get paid for it. Not that he needs the cash anyway.


Gordon's First Cabinet

My view on Gordon’s Cabinet members, as they’re announced.

Job Person Thoughts
Chancellor Alistair Darling A shoo-in for the role, he’ll be a safe pair of hands, friendly to the Chancellor.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband A bit of a surprise. It’ll be spun as giving the rising star one of the great ‘offices of state’, but you only have to look at the low profile of Margaret Beckett in the past year to see he’s being slightly sidelined from Gordon’s priorities.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith The big surprise. The former Chief Whip gets a massive promotion. The first female Home Secretary and her gender may have played a big part in the decision. She’s not run a department before, so not sure what Brown’s up to here.
Health Secretary Alan Johnson A poisoned chalice, but at least he’ll be more popular with the public – and probably health professionals – than Patricia Hewitt
Education Secretary Ed Balls Gordon Brown’s “representative on Earth”. Not a great surprise, but presumably a step on the ladder to Chancellor.
Universities, Skills and Innovation John Denham A return for the able former minister who resigned over Iraq. I’m not convinced that splitting Universities from the Education Department was a good idea.
Environment Hilary Benn He might have hoped for something better than this if he’d done better in the Deputy Leadership campaign. Well-liked, but should have done better.
Business and Enterprise John Hutton Essentially the Department of Trade and Industry. A safe, but ultimately quite dull, pair of hands.
Communities Hazel Blears The ‘chipmunk’ is popular in Conservative circles, simply because she’s such a liability. Personally, I can’t stand her, so this fairly insignificant role is fine by me.
Transport Ruth Kelly The Opus Dei member can’t cause much damage from here. Low-key.
Treasury Andy Burnham A second Treasury role in the Cabinet. Another rising star.
Work and Pensions & Wales Peter Hain Lucky to still be in the Cabinet after a poor performance in the Deputy Leadership campaign, and a general sense of incompetence whenever he’s on TV.
Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward A major surprise. A big jump to go from Minister for Digital Switchover to Secretary of State for N.I. A chequered past – there’ll be plenty of headlines about the former Tory.
Culture, Media and Sport James Purnell No surprise at all, really. He’s worked in the department before and is a rising star.
International Development Douglas Alexander Good friends with David Miliband, who he’ll have to work with at the Foreign Office. Perhaps he could have claimed a bigger department, but he’s also the party’s general election coordinator (in his spare time!)
Defence & Scotland Des Browne Perhaps the only bit of continuity in Gordon’s cabinet. Not sure if the armed forces will be pleased or not!
Justice Jack Straw Jack loves his constitutional reform, and he’ll get to manage it from here.
Chief Whip Geoff Hoon An interesting return for Geoff Buffoon. An important enforcer role within government – he probably won’t be turning up on the chat shows.
Commons Leader Harriet Harman Giving her three jobs is a strange decision, but it means that her salary will come from the Government, not the Labour Party, which might be significant given their financial woes. I assume she won’t be trusted with House of Lords reform (you can bet she’d cock it up) so Jack Straw will probably take this bit of the role with him.
Cabinet Office Ed Miliband Well-regarded Brownite, likely to take charge of Gordon’s special cross-government projects.
Lords Leader Baroness Ashton Never heard of her.
Attorney General Baroness Scotland Or her.

Waiting nervously to hear their fate…
Yvette Cooper, John Denham, Tessa Jowell

12:20 Blair steals the limelight after all
Tony’s been busy. As well as resigning as an MP, he’s found time to talk to the police again about the Cash for Honours inquiry.

11:54 The winner takes it all little
An anonymous contributor to Iain Dale’s blog makes a good point: “It strikes me that it may be better to lose a labour deputy leadership campaign than it is to win it.”

11:37 Lords-a-Leaping
Traditionally there’s a couple of Lords in the Cabinet. Who will they be? I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them wasn’t a Labour card-carrier. Incidentally, Peter Hain apparently keeps the Wales brief. Lucky them. Not.

11:34 Tessa
Tessa Jowell will – according to the BBC – remain in government, but not in the cabinet. Will Gordon give her a role managing the Olympics or casinos, or move her elsewhere?

11:30 Jobs for the Boys?
As a footnote, does Gordon Brown’s cabinet send out a message about his relationship with women? He seems to have put his male friends (and potential rivals) in some of the big jobs very easily, and the women (with the possible exception of Home Sec) seem to be filling in the gaps a bit.


June 27, 2007

B–Day: Live Blog

It’s truly the end of a political era today. Perhaps knowing about it for over a year has taken the fizz out of it, but the departure of Tony Blair – and the arrival of Gordon Brown – is still a major shift in British politics. Throughout the day I’ll let you know what’s going on and offer my own analysis on the news that comes out about the country’s political future.

Approximate timetable:
12pm Prime Minister’s Questions
1.30pm Tony Blair goes to the Queen
1.45pm Gordon Brown goes to the Queen
2.15pm Gordon Brown enters Number 10
4.30pm Details emerge of PM Brown’s first cabinet members
5.00pm Tony Blair goes to his constituency, Sedgefield

19:27 Margaret Beckett and Baroness Amos are both out. Iain Dale says the rumour mill has (Tory) Chris Patten as Foreign Secretary. I doubt it very much.

16:54 Bush and Sarkozy have apparently been in touch. There’s a lobby briefing in Westminster at 5pm, so we might hear some more gossip after that.

16:48 Only 18mins out on my prediction (above). Patricia Hewitt is stepping down as Health Secretary. I don’t know why she didn’t announce this herself weeks ago.

15:02 Nick Robinson’s latest rumour: David Miliband to the Home Office or Foreign Office?

14:56 His wife, Sarah, looks pretty uncomfortable in the camera’s glare. I suspect she’ll be extremely nervous if she’s had any advice from Mrs Blair.

14:53 Brown walks up Downing Street and over the noise of the helicopters and the anti-war protesters, announces he has accepted the invitation to become Prime Minister. His voice is slightly strained, his manner more Chancellor-like than Prime Ministerial, to be honest. There’s the ‘c’-word: Change. He repeats his school motto: I will try my utmost.

14:47 Britain’s new Prime Minister leaves Buckingham Palace for his new home, Number 10.

A New PM

14:18 Gordon’s new car doesn’t look as smart as Tony’s old one. Has he requested something a little more low-key?

14:11 Latest rumours: The BBC will be told the name of the new chancellor by 6pm tonight (I could tell them now, if they asked). And John Bercow is rumoured to be the defecting Tory MP. The Times has a rumour that he’ll be Secretary of State for International Development. I doubt it.

14:05 The BBC’s Robert Peston seems to have been one of the first to be briefed about departmental changes. That, or he’s speculating. Apparently the DTI will be refocused on deregulation and competitiveness, while a new ministry of skills and innovation will take on some of the DTI’s former role. Here’s a name for you: Lord Digby Jones?

13:58 Oh dear, oh dear. It looks like 7pm in Downing Street – dark clouds are overhead and it’s about to pour with rain. Not a great start!

13:55 Assuming all is well, Gordon Brown is now Prime Minister. He’s inside the Palace and will be having a quick chat with the monarch about his future plans. If there’s any policy shocks coming, the Queen’s probably the first outsider to hear them.

13:50 Who will be the first foreign leader to congratulate Britain’s new Prime Minister? George Bush would be likely, although I wonder if he will symbolically answer the call of Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel first.

13:47 I’d just point out that my timetable (above) has been far more accurate than either the BBC’s or Sky. I doubt he’ll be in No 10 by 2.15pm though.

13:46 Calm down, Harriet. Gordon’s got the call and is on his way.

13:44 All eyes are on the Treasury, as we wait for the Queen to call on Gordon Brown. Assuming she thinks he’s the most suitable person to call… Harriet Harman’s the only one actually elected by her party’s members, after all!

13:40 Plain, old Mr Blair has left the palace. No longer Prime Minister, although for some reason he’s still in the PM’s car. I hope Gordon has a moped.

13:33 Don’t panic – Mr Blair’s not the only person with the keys to the nuclear button. But then we should be worried if the other person needs to use it!

Britain is without a Government

Blair and family outside Number 1013:30 The BBC aren’t the only people choosing a silly day to make a big announcement. Plaid Cymru and Labour are going into coalition in Cardiff. Certain Plaid AMs won’t be happy at all.

13:16 The handover begins and we see Tony Blair for the last time as Prime Minister as he enters Buckingham Palace.

13:12 And in an echo of 1997, Mr Blair and family (with an additional member) stand on the doorstep of Number 10 as Tony and Cherie head off to Buckingham Palace. Cherie Blair: (to the press) “Bye! I don’t think we’ll miss you!”

13:11 John Prescott’s just had a good old poke at Rupert Murdoch. I doubt we’ve heard the last of him on the relationship between the media barons and the government.

12:59 And the rain’s started pouring in Downing Street. Nothing like the sunny day that Blair arrived on in 1997.

12:58 Tony’s having a quick reception at No 10, and seeing as I didn’t get an invite, I’ve helped myself to some lunch while blogging. Seeing the replay of PMQs, David Cameron led the opposition benches’ standing ovation, although not everyone on the opposite side of the house was clapping.

12:35 So what’s next? Blair will return to Number 10 and pay an emotional farewell to his staff, and in around half an hour will head to Buckingham Palace to ‘kiss hands’ with the Queen. Unlike the film, the ‘kissing of hands’ doesn’t actually take place, and is just figurative.

Prime Minister’s Questions

12:32 Nope, the final question goes to Alan Williams, the longest-serving member of the House of Commons, who thanks him for his Premiership. Blair: “I’ve never pretended to be the greatest House of Commons man, but I can say I always feared it.” Mr Blair sounds slightly choked. A pat on the back from Gordon Brown, a standing ovation and Tony Blair is gone.

12:30 And the last question goes to… Ian Paisley, who feels the exasperation Mr Blair felt whenever he visited him! “Perhaps he even lost his temper…but we faced our difficulties and I’m glad I can stand here and say to the PM the people of Northern Ireland felt the same way as he did”. The Commons is silent. A very good ending to Tony Blair’s ten years in power.

12:29 And more local rubbish: “What message do you have for the people of Sheffield?” You’d think their local MP could have asked something constructive about the flooding, wouldn’t you?

12:28 It’s Blair’s 319th PMQs. It makes you realise how little Parliament is in session: That’s only 32 per year!

12:27 The Conservative member for Banbury manages to use this occasion to waffle on about local politics. Yawn…

12:25 David Blunkett’s stood up to ask a question which sounds an awful lot like his way of saying “Wasn’t I a good education minister and Home Secretary, Tony?” Go away, David.

12:24 An unsurprising question from Sir Nicholas Winterton about the expense of the European Union. What a pompous old fool! He thinks he’s Churchill and the Speaker’s told him to shut up. Blair says “Au revoir, Auf Wiedersehen and Arrivederci!”. Very funny.

12:23 A joke from a LWLMP about the Terminator who visited yesterday: “If my Rt Hon friend came back from the future, what would he do to save the planet?”

12:22 Blair’s telling a joke about picking up his P45 yesterday. Not up to his Catherine Tate cameo. Followed by a bizarre question about the Church of England. Blair’s brilliant reply: “I think I’m really not bothered about that one!” He’s back on form!

12:20 According to Sky, Gordon Brown was considering doubling PMQs’ length. I can see why. No-one would watch! It would show more accountability to Parliament, but you can bet BBC Two wouldn’t show the whole thing.

12:18 Nick Robinson is pondering whether Mr Blair will know how to use the telephone. Virtually every call he’s made in the last ten years will have gone through the Number 10 switchboard, and as Nick points out, he might not know about the ‘new’ area codes!

12:15 And here’s another left-wing Labour MP, or LWLMP as I’ll refer to them from now. “When will troops be withdrawn from Iraq?” The answer should be “Ask the next guy!” Blair’s getting a roasting from his own backbenchers and an easy ride by the front benches!

12:14 Ming’s in a bright red tie, incidentally. He’s extending his best wishes to Blair and his family.

12:12 Time for Ming, who’s doing very poorly in the polls. He’s asking about the mental health of armed forces coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

12:10 Another left-wing Labour MP. Who calls Brown ‘his predecessor’.

12:09 Fifth question is a congratulation on serving for ten years. A heartfelt statement with no jokes, and no question! Blair says he can’t wish Cameron well politically, but does so personally.

12:08 Fourth question – “Will the PM agree that the Palestinians’ interest is best served if Alan Johnston is freed immediately?” It’s taken many weeks for Cameron to raise this at PMQs.

12:07 Third question – “Can the PM tell us what his first priority is in his new Middle East envoy role?”

12:06 Cameron’s second question – “Can military resources be deployed regarding the flooding, if need be?”. Er, yes, but it won’t be Blair’s job to send them in!

12:04 Today’s all-important tie-choice sees Blair in red, Brown in light blue and David Cameron in a burgundy. Talking of which, he’s just stood up. He’s asking about the floods and the Middle East. A very easy first question. He’s playing nice for now.

12:03 The first question comes from a Tory who asked the public for a question. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very good, and wasn’t very well delivered either. The second question comes from a left-wing Labour backbencher.

12:02 He usually tells the House what business he has later today. His answer today? “I’ll have no such meetings later today, or on any other day”.

12:00 Blair is giving quite a poignant thought on the British armed forces. He says: “Sorry for the dangers troops face in Afghanistan and Iraq”. That’s the closest we’re getting to an apology then.

11:59 The House of Commons is packed. Not a spare seat in the house. And for the first time PMQs starts early.

The morning in Westminster

11:57 Oh dear – that music choice is even worse than Doctor Who’s use of Voodoo Child last weekend. BBC News 24 is playing Justin Timberlake over an entirely pointless montage of shots from today.

11:56 Tonight could be a bit of a nightmare for BBC TV schedulers. Do they go with special news programmes about the new PM, or do they focus on Tim Henman’s primetime match at Wimbledon?

11:55 Just minutes until his last PMQs. Will it be a funny occasion, or will some choose today to stick the boot in one last time?

11:32 Ooh yes. My book comes out today. The Big Red Book of New Labour Sleaze is written by lots of bloggers political commentators and it’s in all good bookshops from today for the very reasonably price of £9.99.

11:28 As D:Ream said in 1997, “Things Can Only Get Better”. “Iain Dale”: thinks another Tory MP might defect tomorrow, based on remarks made by Ed Balls.

11:16 The Prime Minister leaves Number 10 for the penultimate time. I hope he’s not too attached to that nice car he’s traveling in.

11:13 Blair has got the job of Middle East envoy that he wanted. That means he’ll almost certainly head to Sedgefield tonight and announce he’s stepping down as an MP.

11:10 Ironic, don’t you think, that Tony Blair’s last public words as PM will be in the House of Commons. He’s never shown such devotion to the place before.

10:15 What do the newspapers have to say about Blair’s legacy? The Guardian: “Tony Blair’s habit of cherry-picking ideas from across the political spectrum was brilliantly effective as a strategy for holding on to power, but it has seriously disrupted the old system of party politics.” The Times: “There is the risk that Mr Blair could become something of an embarrassment for his successor. Every word that he utters (or fails to utter) will be scrutinised for additional evidence that the titanic feud of old with Gordon Brown has continued after Mr Blair’s exit from Downing Street.” Daily Telegraph: “It ends today as it began, stage-managed to the last detail. From the “new dawn” he spoke of just as the sun rose on that May morning a decade ago through to today’s meticulously choreographed exit, Tony Blair has not had a spontaneous public moment.”

10.07 Personally, I prefer packing to unpacking. But while Tony Blair’s belongings are paraded in front of the world’s press, Gordon Brown won’t have to do any moving at all. He already lives above Number 10 after a house-swap with Tony Blair since 1997. Blair’s big family needed the extra space that Number 11 afforded them.

10:00 If I was an MP, what would I ask at Prime Minister’s Questions this lunchtime? “With Channel Five having recently bought the rights to a certain Australian soap opera, could the Prime Minister advise them on whether good neighbours really do become good friends?”

09:54 What will Gordon leak to the newspapers tonight? It’s almost inevitable that his agenda for the rest of this Parliament will start to be revealed once he’s got his slippers under the Number 10 desk. So what will he announce? It’s highly likely he’ll have a ‘Bank of England’ idea – a major proposal which is easy to carry out and can be announced ASAP. Rumours include splitting the Treasury in two or a promise of electoral reform. I’m not convinced by either. I think Gordon will pull a surprise rabbit out of a hat.

09:42 How much will we hear about Gordon’s cabinet today? Not much. I think we’ll hear that Alistair Darling is the new Chancellor and Jack Straw is the new Home/Foreign Secretary later today, but that’s probably about it. The rest of the jobs will be announced tomorrow. Expect a Cabinet job for Lord Neil Kinnock – he’s been very visible in recent weeks.

09:37 The world’s most careful removal men are taking the Blair’s belongings from Number 10. As there are several entrances to No 10, you have to wonder if the removal van in Downing Street is entirely necessary or whether it’s mostly for effect. I wonder how much of the government crockery is being quietly sneaked out by Cherie?

Spot the deliberate pun in the blog’s title. And yes, my anti-spam question will remain correct all day.


June 07, 2007

An important question

Yvette Cooper... with hornsIs the Housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, the most boring woman ever to set foot on the planet?

She makes Ruth Kelly look like a children’s TV presenter.


March 01, 2007

Tick tock… Tick tock…

Tony Blair - Time to go?I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The longer Tony Blair stays in power, the worse things will get for the Labour Party.

But it’s becoming more and more important that he goes sooner rather than later. Poll results predicting a Conservative lead of 11-13% perpetrate the view that a Conservative government in 2009 is almost inevitable.

That’s a perception that Gordon Brown needs to change. Back in 1995/6, it was obvious the Conservatives were on their last legs. There was little they could do to change the perceived wisdom that the Tories were sleazy, old and without fresh ideas.

Well skip forward to 2007, and it’s becoming hard to disassociate Labour from the same problems. The Cash for Honours inquiry is an unfortunate mirror of the Cash for Questions row – albeit with the threat of jail sentences for added flavour – and there’s only so many tweaks the government can make to the NHS and the education system before running out of ideas.

We’re about halfway through a Labour government. The bristles on a new broom are being weakened every day Mr Blair stays in charge.


February 20, 2007

An English Parliament? No–one cares.

At the time of writing, 1,128 people had signed a petition of the Number 10 website for the creation of an English Parliament. It’s a popular idea with a few Tories, who know they’d probably get a permanent majority in such an assembly.

But it doesn’t seem the public care…

21,445 people want census data to be made available earlier
10,984 people want St David’s Day to be a Welsh national holiday
5,649 people want Ruth Kelly to give up her job
4,228 people want to replace the national anthem with ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet
2,033 people want to ban the sale of “puppy farms”
1,781 people want to “save Suffolk middle schools”
1,214 people want to prohibit the sale of fireworks
1,148 people want the government to give Blackpool the super-casino

In the light of which, it seems that people really aren’t fussed about England getting its own Parliament. Unless, of course, their wages are likely to come out of it.


February 08, 2007

Sillyband

David Miliband - a five-star wally Er… whoops. David Miliband’s made a bit of a cock-up on Question Time, suggesting that Gordon Brown will be less popular than Tony Blair…

“I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months or a year’s time, people will be saying ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that Blair back because we can’t stand that Gordon Brown’.”

It’s a shame, because he’s a pretty decent politician and incredibly clever. He’d be a good foil to the Dour One.

But the odds on Miliband ever becoming Labour leader will have just taken a big knock. Silly billy.


January 03, 2007

Fixing politics, and journalism at the same time

In the leafy autumn of 2004, Boris Johnson found himself at the eye of a storm. The Conservative Vice-Chairman was sacked for lying about his personal life. Now in recent years it has not been an unusual story for politicians to be caught with their trousers down. But Johnson had a safety net in the form of the profession that had brought him down. As Editor of the Spectator magazine, he was both victim and potential attacker.

Boris JohnsonMr Johnson is, thankfully, a special case in British politics. But the relationship between predator and prey is a timelessly complex one, often involving a little subterfuge, deception, and a politics all of its own. The press spit scorn at those who are supposed to run the country, and the politicians fight back with a flurry of spin and bluster. And while sometimes fun for those involved, many argue it has turned off people who aren’t in on the joke.

The 2004 Phillis Report was supposed to provide cures to politics’ ills. It recommended the end of the closed lobby system and drew a line under the years of ‘spin’. But three years after its publication, the report seems to have had little effect. Its critics say it underestimated the usefulness of the system’s faults.

The former Political Editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Reiss, contributed to the report. But he believes the existing system served the purposes of both politicians and journalists, and so was unlikely to change.

“Off-the-record information is a part of journalism in every country you care to name. It’s certainly true in America. Although [American journalism] is praised in some respects, you will often find sensitive stories attributed to a ‘senior Administration official’.”

Reiss agrees with the report’s findings: that ‘nasty’ politics has brought about atrocious levels of public trust in both politics and the media. Research for the report suggests that Members of Parliament are trusted by just 19% of the public, while Journalists are trusted by 13%.

But he disagrees with its recommendations. While Phillis proposed changes to systems – such as the closed lobby – Reiss thinks a change in culture is the only way to improve things. The Andrew Neil school of “why is this bastard lying to me” journalism isn’t sufficient for painting a true picture of government, he says.

When it was released, others rounded on the report’s proposals. David Miller of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom said it “sounded the death knell for government information as a public service”. He said the report was full of praise for “PR-speak”, ripped page-for-page from the corporate world.

The former BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones said it “presented a lifeline” to the beleaguered Prime Minister and put upon him no real pressure to treat the media fairly.

Nicholas JonesThere have been changes. Even the online political rebel, Guido Fawkes, can now attend the briefings given by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman. And Tony Blair himself gives a televised briefing once a month, laying himself open to Westminster’s finest.

And yet the levels of trust in the process have remained low. According to MORI, who monitor trust in public institutions on an annual basis, politicians are trusted by the same number of people now as during the darkest days of Tony Blair’s government. Journalists’ ratings have also stayed the same.

The amount of trust in British politics is almost identical to that in every other major country. But the 2005 Harris Interactive poll showed journalists were much less respected here than they are elsewhere. In Spain and France, three in five people trust reporters. In Germany, the figure is two in five. In Britain however, it is just one in five. So perhaps the breakdown of trust is the result of bad journalism?

The Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, thinks so.

“Journalists are driven by deadline dynamics, by getting things out on time. If you’re turning out a fast-paced, attractive newspaper, there’s going to be hyperbole and exaggeration, and I’m afraid people are quite properly going to say ‘this is very amusing, but I don’t believe a word of it’.”

Charles Reiss admits that journalists work on a “razor’s edge”. Stories have to be taken as far as they can legitimately go without crossing the line and entering into speculation and guesswork. Clearly it doesn’t always work and mistakes are made. But it seems the razor isn’t sharp enough to tempt journalists back from the edge.

So while Phillis has – with limited success – addressed how politicians can earn the public’s trust again, a similar investigation may be required in order to foster better reporting by political journalists.

Perhaps the uniquely-qualified Boris Johnson should chair it.


December 01, 2006

Friday a good day for daft ideas?

The government’s been working like a smoothly-run machine this week (makes a change) and have announced several controversial things all at once. This morning we have:

  • Rod Eddington’s transport report which suggests road charging rather than high-speed rail links
  • England’s smoking ban will start on July 1st 2007
  • Sex-offenders will face compulsory lie-detector tests
  • Trials are to being of genetically-modified potatoes in Britain

and yesterday they proposed sending Britons to the moon, keeping life peers, building more City Academies, and Wales’ First Minister Rhodri Morgan stuck the boot in by declaring the end of New Labour.

Given the above, I think this may be wishful thinking on Rhodri’s part.


November 28, 2006

You are an arse and a wife–beater…

...and not only do you smell, you also beat your children.

What ya gonna do about it???

Well, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, Tim Toulmin, says you should be able to go to a Blogs Complaints Commission which acts as a regulator over libelous and nasty comment on the internet.

Like the PCC, it would be self-regulating and have no real bite behind its bark. You’d have to apologise publicly on your blog, retract the original comment and look very very sorry.

But it’s a non-starter. There are far too many blogs for any independent body to be able to oversee them. Even if done in the style of Wikipedia – so the job of regulating blogs was shared between many people – I can’t imagine that a body of work so huge could be adjudicated fairly. Mr Toulmin also seems to ignore the widely-held view that the PCC doesn’t work, so why would a blogging equivalent?

It might work as a voluntary scheme, adding greater credibility to the creme de la creme of blogs. But who would sit on a Blogs Complaints Commission?

I applaud Tim Toulmin for rejecting the idea of strict regulation, governed by law. But I challenge him to come up with a way of making this work.


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