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October 31, 2006

Would an inquiry into Iraq endanger our troops?

The big news story of the day didn’t live up to its billing.

The government eventually won a vote in the House of Commons – which if they hadn’t – would have resulted in an inquiry being set up into the conduct of the Iraq War. The story was only interesting while the government were under pressure, and now they’re not. They won by a relatively comfortable 298 to 273 votes.

If it had gone the other way, it would have been embarrassing for everyone involved – especially Tony Blair.

But if you believed the government spinners, it would also have been difficult for the British armed forces operating in Iraq, harming morale and giving the insurgents greater resolve to break our army down.

But would our armed forces really have been put in danger by this inquiry?

Surely the most definitive answer comes from the armed forces themselves, on the forums of the British ARmy Rumour SErvice or ARRSE.

if you think soldiers will be in more danger becasue of an inquiry then we may as well all start smoking wacky backy (posted by “Ord_Sgt”)

No consequences. Bliar being a coward again and failing to face upto his responsibilities and the death of 120+ service pesonnel. (posted by “DodgerDog”)

If you honestly believe the terrorists in Iraq will receive succour from an inquiry in Iraq, you have a poor grasp of reality. Do you honestly think an inquiry makes it more obvious to them than it is already that many Brits have misgivings about Iraq? (posted by “Northern Monkey”)

It’s true that some of the comments say the inquiry should be held once our troops are mostly home.

But an underlying theme running throughout many of the posts is: We don’t know why we’re in Iraq, and have particularly good reason for wanting to find out!

It sounds to me like the government is playing a dangerous game – using the armed forces as a shield to protect them from political embarrassment.


October 18, 2006

How to plug a £7m hole

Cardiff Council will tomorrow vote on a radical proposal designed to plug a £7m deficit caused by poorly-managed social services in the city.

Put the cost of sandwiches up.

It’s true. Of all the proposals being heard by Cardiff County Council tomorrow, the proposal to increase the cost of sandwiches sold to Council staff from 60p to 95p is the most specific.

And the most barmy.


September 14, 2006

Clare Short: Martyr or Traitor?

Clare Short, the former Secretary for International Development and controversial Labour backbench MP, has announced she’s to stand down at the next General Election. But comments made to the Independent newspaper have got her into hot water, with the possibility that she could have the Labour whip withdrawn in Parliament.

In a newspaper article this morning, Short said that she wanted to campaign for a hung parliament, which in essence means that she wants Labour MPs to lose their seats. Always an iconoclastic figure, Short’s declaration will split the party. Some will privately congratulate her for taking a stand, but the majority will probably find her a traitor.

Saying that she had “reached a stage where I am profoundly ashamed of the government”, Short blames the electoral system for the lack of policy debate in the Labour party, and Parliament generally. She hopes that a hung parliament will bring about Proportional Representation, which isn’t exactly a guaranteed piece of logic.

Does she have a point?
In many respects, yes. Policy within the Labour Party is decided inside Number 10, and as she notes, decisions like Trident are made within a sentence that a speech Gordon Brown gives to businessmen. The definition of democracy needs to be reset to its default, rather than the sham we have at the moment. Individuals need to be re-engaged in politics, and Westminster needs to be more open.

But to follow Clare Short’s logic to its natural conclusion, her proposal of a PR-based electoral system would not increase policy discussions within the Labour Party, but would simply force the Leader of the party to discuss policy with leaders of other parties, in order to form a consensus.

Essentially, Clare Short’s wishes look set to bring about policy-making by a slightly wider clique than at present. Secret meetings between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would take Britain to war, decide policy and set the budget. It would result in ineffective governments where mandates would mean very little and the permanent state of governance would be one of compromise.

So while she has a point about the failures of New Labour, her hopes for the future are dangerously misguided and will simply recreate the current faux-democracy under a different guise.

Traitor or Martyr?
Now Short has admitted that she would like to see a hung parliament (where no one party holds a majority) she could easily find the Labour whip withdrawn. This would effectively banish her from the Parliamentary Labour Party. But more damaging is the potential for her to be banished from the Party as an ordinary member, leaving her as an independent.

Given Short’s career trajectory, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted to be an independent. But she won’t want to make that decision on her own: she will want to go as a martyr, slain by Blair and Brown, and subsequently given sympathy by those on the Left of the Labour Party who’ve gritted their teeth through 12 years of New Labour.

The real danger for her is that members of the Labour Party could be less fickle than she imagines. It’s more than possible that they will consider a traitor, no longer welcome in the Party. This is not what she will want, but given her unpredictable behaviour and tendency to go against the grain, may be what happens.


September 13, 2006

NHS closures will 'improve care'

Today’s Guardian reports that the NHS is planning to “reconfigure” a number of health services in the UK in order to make further cost savings. A&E Departments and Maternity wards are likely to be worst hit.

David Nicholson, the man leading the reforms told the newspaper:

[changes] will be aimed at redesigning the NHS to improve care by concentrating key services in fewer hospitals

When will the NHS realise that in many cases, fewer hospitals means anything but “improved care”? In rural hospitals, many find that treatment is simply unavailable because they cannot travel to the ‘nearest’ hospital department, which thanks to these kind of NHS reforms will be further away than ever before.

Fewer departments might mean ‘cheaper’ care, but I have no idea how it will be ‘improved’ care.


About bleeding time

It’s more than a little bit late, but Lord Falconer is due to call Guantanamo Bay ‘a shocking affront to the principles of democracy’ in a speech tomorrow.

Perhaps it’s important to note the speech is being made in Sydney – well away from pesky British journalists – and comes at a time when the U.S. is starting to give a little ground on the detention of suspected terrorists.

But it’s a sad indictment of New Labour that it’s taken four years for someone in the British cabinet to express their disgust for Guantanamo so openly. Previously the Attorney General has called the site “unacceptable” while Tony Blair has only called it “an anomaly” – which is perhaps the greatest indication that he may be a poodle to Bush.


September 06, 2006

What the political journalists aren't telling you…

It’s clear that things are shifting pretty quickly in Westminster. Today seven members of the government have resigned because – essentially – Tony Blair won’t resign.

But we’re not quite getting the whole story, because we never do. The way these things work in Westminster are a bit complicated and full of as much conspiracy as you can probably imagine. I’m afraid I am speculating, but here’s what’s probably going on at the moment:

  1. The Labour backbenchers are furious that Tony Blair has announced a date for his departure, without actually saying so himself. Instead you had David Miliband explain the “conventional wisdom”, Hilary Armstrong tell us of the “perceived wisdom” and poor Hilary Benn speak of the “growing consensus”. It was pretty clear they were all singing from the same hymn-sheet, written by No 10. What’s more, the Sun were more specific in naming a date, which anyone who knows Westminster knows it will have come from No 10 too. Interestingly the leaked memo saying how Blair would enjoy a ‘farewell tour’ of the country is rumoured to have come from Gordon Brown’s allies. It may even have been written by them to embarrass Blair.
  2. The seven Labour backbenchers who have resigned their positions will have been getting a) a lot of stick from the Labour whips, who work for Blair and b) a lot of love from Gordon Brown’s allies, who have probably promised them jobs in his government. Expect more to sign-up for the Brown revolution as soon as his henchmen can convince them of their future opportunities for employment.
  3. While 17 Labour MPs signed a letter yesterday, calling for him to go, another 49 signed one declaring their undying love for the leader (practically). What’s interesting isn’t that the Blair-lovers trumped the Blair-haters, but that they could only drum up support from 13% of the party. The rest are conspicuous by their absence.
  4. May 31st is an interesting date for Blair to choose to leave. Notably because it’s after the local, Scottish and Welsh elections next year. Blair is pretty unliked in Scotland and Wales, as he is seen (not surprisingly) as a stupid Englishman. So staying in power during their elections will piss them off no-end.
  5. News organisations like the BBC and Sky are having real difficulties in finding ministers who will stand up and support Blair. Hilary Benn did so last night because he was told to, but few others are coming out of the woodwork voluntarily. Note that the 1 o’clock news on BBC One could only drum up a Welsh Lord, whose praise for Blair was extremely conditional on him going before May 31st. High praise indeed.
  6. While Labour backbench MPs want Blair out, they’re not entirely sure how to do it. There’s no formal mechanism for removing the leader (for some reason Blair decided not to create one!!!), and their best bet seems to be for the Cabinet to turn on him. As soon as you see a single member of the Cabinet say that they think it would be best for Blair to step down, he’s finished. They wouldn’t say so openly unless they thought they had support from others.
  7. Some of the Labour MPs who have resigned were slavishly Blairite before today. It suggests that their political career was built upon brown-nosing (no pun intended) whoever appears to be in charge. Now that Brown is in the driving seat, people are switching vehicles.

Personally it’s very frustrating I can’t sit in on the Lobby briefings that take place at Number 10. The tension must be incredible. Maybe they’d like to invite me? Ha ha! You can get some idea of what’s been said here, but you really have to read between the lines to figure out what sort of body language the PM’s official spokesman would have been using! I rather suspect he was trying hard to hide his dejection.

P.S. I notice from the PMOS briefing this morning: “As he had already said… David Miliband had decided to go on the Today Programme himself.” The question is whether he decided what to say himself…

P.P.S. The seven members of the government who’ve resigned all have one thing in common: their seats are in danger at the next election. They’re all from the Birmingham area (where Labour reckons it’s going to get wiped out) or Wales (see above for explanation). So it’s not about Tony going – they’re worried that if he doesn’t go soon, they’ll be following him shortly!


September 01, 2006

Tony Blair's lost the plot

Cherie and the QueenEvery September, the Prime Minister joins the Queen on her late summer holiday to Balmoral in Scotland. It’s a trip that Cherie Blair clearly enjoys (see right), and it was assumed that this year would probably be her last.

But last night Tony Blair came back from Barbados with a bombshell for the Labour Party: he’s not about to announce his resignation at the party conference, and people should stop talking about when it’ll happen.

He’s stark-raving bonkers then.

More and more Tony Blair is acting as if he’s completely lost touch with reality and the wishes of those who put him in power in the first place. The country is tired of him, his party is tired of him, and every day he spends in power is another that the Conservatives seem to be gaining ground on Labour (in fact recent polls have put them several % ahead).

What exactly is there left for Blair to achieve that no-one else can manage? His most recent idea seems to be an increase in the use and power of ASBOs – an arrangement met with derision wherever it is mentioned, and irrelevant to the majority of people who find anti-social behaviour taking place on their doorstep.

Meanwhile David Cameron launches a campaign with Friends of the Earth in order to beat climate change, with tough targets that rival Arnie’s measures in California. It makes Blair’s visit there last month seem very hollow, and shows him to be far more in touch with the public’s concerns (and how to meet them) than Blair’s strange priorities.

But if Blair and Brown were the joint co-authors of New Labour and the ‘third way’ (which they weren’t), then surely Brown would be equally capable of taking over the reins and finishing what Blair started? Blair’s raison d’etre diminishes every time he comes on camera: his time is running out, there are plenty of people who could do the job as well as him, and they probably wouldn’t shed support from the public on a daily basis.

Ultimately, whatever he and his successor may do, it appears to be increasingly in vain. The ‘New Conservatives’ have taken a completely different approach to winning people over, not necessarily announcing policies, but certainly sending the right signals about where Britain should be heading. Labour, on the other hand, seems to be incapable of creating similar new ideas (or at least packaging them in a fresh way). It’s as if they’ve become so entwined with the bureaucracy that they run that the party machine has got stuck and is getting rusty.

There’s a statistic which might help to explain this: the number of government press officers has trebled since 1997. Why? Are we three times better informed? No.

The former editor of the (left-wing) New Statesman, Peter Wilby, seems to have got it right when he said that Labour will almost certainly lose the next election. But I’m not entirely sure it’ll be a good thing, as he suggests. If Labour can renew itself – and do so quickly – then they might be able to become a force for good again. But at the moment the war of attrition between Blair and the rest of the party is preventing Labour from making Britain better.


May 05, 2006

A Good Day For Burying Bad News?

Having a reshuffle the day after the government lost loads of seats in the local elections seems like a clever way of burying bad news. But let's see what else they buried today…

  • The number of people being declared insolvent (or bankrupt) is up 73.4% on last year for individuals!
  • The number of houses that have been repossessed by mortgage companies has also risen significantly.

Both these figures suggest that the credit boom is causing big problems for consumers, many of whom appear to be getting into more debt than they can handle.

So while the government is playing musical chairs, will any of them try to do anything about this, such as much–needed regulation of the credit industry to prevent them from taking advantage of people in huge amounts of debt.

  • The government also announced the final go–ahead for a wind–farm on moorland in Lancashire today, which will see 26 turbines go up on a big hill. Will be highly controversial if the campaign against the wind–farm is anything to go by.

  • Also, according to the Guardian the government has announced a climb–down over the Regulatory Reform Bill.

Cabinet Reshuffle

The cabinet reshuffle which is under way looks set to be far more sweeping than many would have guessed.

The number of people going into Number 10 to hear news of a job has been very high, and includes a few surprises: Lord Falconer, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon…

Iain Dale has made a few predictions which sound about right. I've already said that David Miliband will probably get Education, but beyond that it seems quite open.

Unfortunately Hazel "the smirk" Blears (who I can't stand) has just gone into Number 10. I hope she gets offered something really insignificant.

EDIT (10:29): Gordon Brown looks to be the only sacred cow in the Cabinet. There's now going to be two Foreign Secretaries (one for Europe, one for the rest). Jack Straw is out of a job. Charles Clarke has definately gone. Ruth Kelly is almost certainly moving. John Prescott's been sat in Downing Street for over three hours (maybe a sit–in protest against his sacking?)

EDIT (10:32): Charles Clarke has been completely sacked, and is going to the back–benches. It's clear who Blair's scapegoat is.

EDIT (10.44): Fantastic news: Margaret Beckett is the new Foreign Secretary. A complete shock, but very well deserved. Her role in trying to get agreement on climate change in 2005 was fundamental, and she seems to be a very good minister. It was speculated she might be moving on from the Cabinet, but to give her such a prominent role is a stroke of genius. Also, John Reid is apparently the new Home Secretary. Not such a good move, in my opinion.

EDIT (10.54): No sign of Patricia Hewitt yet – I think my previous prediction that she'd be safe might be correct. Ruth Kelly still seems to be in No 10 (or has gone out the back–door). Speculation that Alan Johnson might get her job, I still favour Miliband, although he's in the middle of a policy review where he is at the moment. Sky saying Ruth Kelly might get Margaret Beckett's old job at Environment.

EDIT (11.00): Loads of jobs being announced now:

  • Des Browne (Defence Secretary)
  • Hazel Blears (Party Chair)
  • Alan Johnson (Education Secretary)
  • Jacqui Smith (Chief Whip)
  • Alistair Darling (Trade and Industry)
  • Jack Straw (Leader of the Commons)

EDIT (12.15): Reports that David Miliband has the poisoned chalice of rural affairs to deal with (not sure what he did to deserve that), while Ruth Kelly is moving to John Prescott's old department and Douglas Alexander is getting Transport.


April 06, 2006

Time for renationalization?

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4885426.stm

BAE Systems is about to sell its 20% stake in Airbus, the commercial airline manufacturer which is 80% owned by EADS, a French-German consortium.

This sounds like nothing but bad news for Britain. I wouldn't normally be a great advocate of nationalised industries, but given the lack of other aerospace businesses in the UK, who else would buy the 20% stake?

The danger with letting Airbus move entirely to the continent is that it'll become practically impossible for our aerospace industry to attract contracts in commercial airline-building. Given the level of protectionism being exercised by Mr Chirac, won't the new Franco-German Airbus give almost all of its work to homegrown industries?

The industry in the UK creates between 13,000 – 135,000 jobs, and high-paying ones which we can't afford to do without. The British stake in Airbus is vital to those jobs.

It sounds unpalatable after the 70s, but is the case of Airbus one where nationalization might actually be appropriate?


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