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UK politics, parliament, and the press

Updated: 2017-12-11T03:07:10.733+00:00


Sorry About This


I'm sorry about this- though regualr visitors will already have made the obvious conclusion- but I've stopped posting on my blog. I've been doing it since May 2005 which is not a bad stint and I've just found that I had become disengaged from regular blogging. I'm still as obsessed as ever by British politics but I find the itch sufficiently scratched via my teaching and academic writing not to mention occasional tweets- usually when very angry at something this awful governbment has done.

So thianks very much for reading my blog in the past, if that is your reason for logging on, but things move on and in my case I've decided to do so by ceasing to post on Skipper. Bye.

UKIP Surge Drops Back but Neitherr Labour or Tories Benefit


I've always compared UKIP with the SDP in terms of its support and we do perhaps see a suggestion that the 'party of protest' is witnessing one of the characteristics of such phenomena: fading success once the spotlight of attention moves elsewhere. It took two elections and half a decade for the SDP but after the excitement of the local elections it really does seem as if voters have had a longer term think and placed Farage's vehicle in a more realistic place: level with the Lib Dems at 12%- a 6% fall from last month, though a 1% increase for Clegg's party. Does this mean their bolt is shot? By no means. They can still influence the outcome of many contests at that level of support, but it does mean that Tory MPs who feared imminent disaster and meltdown, were overdoing it a bit.

Labour's lead at 7% is consistent but not what it should be if victory in 2015 is to appear even a strong possibility. It also illustrates that the big push by Balls and Miliband to appear tough on the deficit has not really been noticed yet by voters. Any elation at the Tories slumping from 45 to 29% approval on the economy is also negated by Labour's own fall from 29 to 19%. A twinge of elatioon might be justified however, on perceptions of party unity. Last month 65% felt Cameron had the backing of his party- this month, it's down to 29%. Labour meanwhile is seen as pretty united behind Ed Miliband.

On the 'empathy' axis- 'does he understand people like me'- Cameron sees a slide downhill with only 29% saying yes and 65% saying no. Ed usually scores well on this but also ends up with a 5% negative score: 41-46%. :Much too early to get much of a handle on 2015 but it seems neither big party is currently trusted by voters: Cameron seems to be floundering and his much vaunted leadership skills cast into doubt. Ed's position is even more desperate. As for Clegg, he might just end up holding the balance of power again, courtesy of UKIP and the nationalist parties.   

Sir Max Spouts Nonsense on Kenyan Victims


I'm a huge admirer of Max Hastings as a historian- his recent book on world war two was brilliant. But I've just heard him on World at One, burbling nonsense about the Kenyan victims of colonial torture. William Hague has announced the award of some £20m in compensation to over 5000 claimants against the terrible treatment; they will receive around £2500 each. Hastings lambasted the decision. Judges had lost their minds to make such awards. Which other ex imperial countries would do the same? We must be mad he raged. And all on the basis of dodgy verbal evidence regarding things which happened 60 years ago..

Martin Day, the claimants' lawyer was relatively gentle in his demolition of these staunch Telegraph- Mail views. There is vast amounts of written evidence- much of it in government archives. There is the book by Ian Cobian, Cruel Britannia, a carefully documented piece of research. There was the evidence of 'Naomi' on the programme who attested to how a bottle being thrust inside her when she was close to childbirth; how her husband was castrated and her children killed.

It seemed Max's only complaint was that it was so long ago and that other nations wouldn't have done it and many more claimants would now come forward to claim. Well, I think that any decent person would think we owed some kind of redress to people who had been so treated; the passage of time makes no real difference; and, as Day commented, several other nations have paid out similar compensation, including Germany to Israel. Max Hastings should hang his head in shame for perpetrating such disgraceful attitudes.      

Coalition Promises on Lobbying Shamefully Delayed


I can recall Cameron promising back in May 2010 to tighten up the rules on lobbying, predicting it was 'the next big scandal waiting to happen.' Since then we have seen lobbyists being hyperactive in seeking to hive off parts of the NHS and remove planning laws to make the work of developers much easier. If we look over the Atlantic we see a government operation which is so in the thrall of lobbyists that legislation to control the sale of firearms was derailed despite the fact that 90% of Americans were in favour of such measures.

The revelation that Sir Patrick Mercer, plus three peers were willing to take money in exchange for lobbying on behalf of an autocratic government, is disappointing and an indictment of promises made but unfulfilled. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, suggested it was the fault of Nick Clegg who is in charge of constitutional reform, and in theory the lead minister.

But my suspicion is that the Tories are not too unfriendly to the knock on the door from their friendly lobbyist and that this measure, so anticipated by the PM himself, has been nudged onto the back burner.  Now suddenly, when it's too late, the government are galvanised into promising something they should have done ages ago This is yet further evidence that this government has long ago lost its way and is desperately flailing to regain credibility.    

Coalition Spooked by Fears of 2015 Election


Nick Clegg's intervention earlier this week in which he attacked Tory rightwingers for bewing 'consumed by game playing' and aserted that the coalition would continue its vital work of reform and fixing the economy. My view is that Clegg's speech was caused by the rightwingers who are urgiung Cameron to end the partnership with the Lib Dems. But won't they be unable to pass any imprtant measures and therefore fail to continue their vital work?

Well, yes, but the Tory right have never quite accepted the need for those extra votes. Maybe they think that governing via a heroic minority will win extra support; most importantly it would enable Conservatives to be properly Conservaive instead of the milk and water version inflicted on them by the coalition agreement. Here we see possibly the real reason why those rightwingers want to to end the deal: scared for their seats, they want to win back the votes leeching away to that awful man with the broad grin, a pint in one hand and a fag in the other.

Sounds a daft plan doesn't it? It is daft but ideologically committed politicians are often led up cul de sacs because they are so sure they are right. Look at how Labour's leftwing behaved during the early 1980s? They were so sure that swinging to the left would presage a landlside as 'voters got what they wanted'. Except that they didn't, the left had miscalculated disastrously and the result was a huge landlside for Thatcher. Obsessed with the evils of the EU and convinced public expenditure should be slahed and not just trimmed as Osborne has so far done, they are drwn to the well springs of their Conservative beliefs.

Will the colaition break up? Of course, it must some time before the election, but both Nick and Dave are convinced they have to stick togerther as long as possible: Dave because he wants to pass new measures; nick because he hopes his share in government will win the respect and support of voters. I very much dsoubt now if Dave can win and overall majority in 2015 and Nick has work to do to stop his support disappreaing before polling day comes around. Two years is a olong time in politics and the Lib Dems could go down the plughole of popuklar support or, as I think will happen, they could restore some of their old support and win enough seats to be king makers once again

Dave's Attempt to Recast his Party has Clearly Failed


From 1992 when the Lamont tumbkled the UK out of the ERM, Tory poll ratings bumped along at less than a third of the vote right up until David Cameron, with his noteless confference speech, won the chance to remake his party. Following Lord Ashcroft's, corruscating 'Smell the Coffee' report on the party's standing in the country, the Thatcherite Cameron had decided to place himself at the head of a 'modernising' campaign to make the Conservative Party, electable again. Assisted by a handpicked team, many of whom just happened to be old boys of Dave's old school, he plotted a makeover not so dissimilar to Blair's New Labour transformation of the Labour Party.

We saw the cultural distance bridged by extravagant photo shoots and stunts involving trips to the Arctic- strong on the environment; calls for us interpreted as encouragement to hug hoodies- strong on compassion; and an attempt to detoxify the Tory brand as homophobic and uncool. Of course the economic Thatcherism, small statism, low tax and euro-sceptisism were retained. The idea was to keep the core vote onside while extanding the party's appeal to wider expanses of the electorate. The problem was that the Coalition, while ending the party's 13 year power-drought, has also placed the party under immense pressure. The failure of the economy to recover and the cuts in public spending, have done much to alienate voters across the board, while the Tory brand has been retoxified to a worrying degree. Like many parties in a crisis, the Conservatives have fallen back onto their core beliefs and call for more economic austerity and more hostility to the EU. Inevitably party activists are more likiely to do this than MPs who have to be acutely sensitive to how people will vote in reality rather than in theory.

Having seen his modernisation attempt compromised by what he feels are the imperatrives of his austerity startegy, he has tried to maintain his claim to be a compassionate Conservive with his totemic gay marriage bill. The trrouble is Dave's stock has plummeted within his own party, who are beginning to tire of his leadership and are looking to alternatives with names like May or Gove or even Hague. With the additional threat of UKIP washing around the prospects of Tory MPs in marginal seats, Dave has essayed a major push to make his party eurosceptic friendly. The trouble is, making so many concessions to them has made him look weak and no longer in chasrge of his party, as Lord Howe, the slayer of the Leaderene in 1990, said at the weekend. I fear Cameron's great plan to recast his party in a form conguent with the changed society we now live in has foundered upon Osborne's failure to revive the economy and the evidence that, unlike Labour, which began its jounrey into the centre ground with Neil Kinnock after 1987, Cameron has tried to do things too quickly. His party is still locked into thinking that is decades out of date and his chnacesw of winning the next electioon have virtually disappeared.     

Tories Lie to Sustain 'Truth' of Scrounger-Striver Distinction


Much of the Tory case for reforming welfare rests on the contention that a substantial proportion of those on benefits are not there legitimately: that they are, in other words, 'cheats'. This idea, for which there must asssurendly some fondation in reality has been amplified a thousand fold by the likes of The Daily Mail and used by Osborne and Cameron as the Coalition's battering ram to bring down the walls of this particular bit of the welfare state. So we were told by delighted Tory cheerleaders that the mere mention that people on incapacity benefit were to be medically re-assassed, led to a third of them surrendering their claims.In the same way Iain Duncan Smith-IDS- claimed that his cap on benefits was working its magic even before it came into force:   "Already we have seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs."In other words, joy unconfined for Conservative MPs whose reason for living would receive such a crippling blow if the 'benefit scrounger' were to be undermined. IDS, the Thatcherite former leader -well, failed leader actually- who had undergone an emotional conversion to fight against povedrty while visiting the run down Easterhouse area of Glasgow, has based his strategy upon the assumption of the fecklessness of benefit claimants. In a withering article in yesterday's Observer, Nick Cohen destroyed the basis for this assumption. Cohen asserts that IDS's staff brief the press with 'unpublished figures' which are eagerly disseminated by the Mail, Telegraph and the like.    . "By the time the true figures appear on the DWP website , and informed commentators can see the falsity, the spin, the old saying applies: "A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on."Cohen reports how the UK Statistics Authority,whose job it is to oversees all official statistics, has shown there is no basis whatsoever in the figures to support the contention in relation to the benefits cap. Morever, Jonathan Portes, former chief economist at the Cabinet Office has shown that the claim about incapacity benefits is. according to Cohen, 'False and demonstarbly false'.Far from being a 'good Tory' as Michael Foot said of Disraeli, IDS seems to be just like all the other Tories, eagerly accepting falsehoods about the lower orders because such people have always had a vested interest in denigrating the poor and disadvantaged. And the public, always receptive to such knocking copy, just lap it up. Well said, Nick Cohen.  [...]

Queen's Speech Eloquent on Coalition's Electoral Fears


Some commentators, like Simon Hoggart and Polly Toynbee in The Guardian dwelt on the absurdity of the ceremonial. The Queen’s Speech, they wrote, is printed on goatskin vellum. the ink used, taking three days to dry properly, thus placing a time limit to measures proposed for inclusion. A handy piece of flummery with which to mock the arcane ceremonials which still comprise our political seasons. However, Nick Robinson managed to get there first yesterday on his blog and then had to perform an acute U turn:" I regret to have to report that the goat has fallen victim to the age of austerity. This year's speech will be written on plain - or, in truth, rather posh - paper."The key point of the event has little to do with goatskin or the Queen, of course, who is obliged to read out a mind numbing 7 minute speech, scripted by Number 10 detailing the measures scheduled to be discussed and then passed into law before May 2014. There were 15 bills included and some of them, dealing with pensions and social care were useful - more pension and reduced social care costs- and even liberal additions to our welfare provision. But the main theme running through the Speech, was not May next year, but in 2015. Fear of doing badly in the general election- catalysed by the rise and rise of UKIP- seems to have injected syringes full of fear into the coalition.Most political observers saw further immigration controls as the centre-piece of the programme. The proposed bill will restrict access of EU migrants to jobseekers allowance to six months, urges local authorities to give priority to local people when allocation social housing and reinforce the responsibilities of EU members to pay if their citizens take advantage while in the UK of the NHS. Not a world shaking measure, you might correctly think, but within the context of a new rampaging party howling about EU exploitation of British taxpayers’ money, it is makes a kind of sense. It is clearly designed to tell Tory voters thinking of voting UKIP that they are best advised to stick with David Cameron’s brand of measured euro-scepticism. Will Conservative voters stay within the fold? Well attempts to out UKIP Farage at the Eastleigh by election in February rather backfired and it will be interesting to see if UKIP’s surge is sustained over the next year or whether, rather like that other new party, the SDP in the early 1980s, it fades quickly from view.Writing elsewhere in The Guardian, Martin Kettle’s judgement of the speech was that it marks the ‘beginning of the end for the coalition.’ He argues that the coalition will soldier on, rather like, it seemed to me, the kind of soured old couples you sometimes see sitting miserable and silent in pubs and restaurants, unable to communicate let alone have anything like a good time. Like them Kettle thinks the original purpose of the coalition partnership has died:“… the larger animating purpose articulated by the coalition enthusiasts in 2010, the possibility that there was a sustainable liberal-conservative alternative to both Labour and to Thatcherite Conservatism, has failed. The apostles of this view, who certainly included David Cameron and Nick Clegg themselves, wanted to create a compassionate, internationalist, less intrusive, greener and more modern form of social and economic liberalism. True, they can point to some successes along the way, but in the main they have not done what they set out to do – and the new focus on immigration underscores their failure.”Further evidence is provided by the measures not included in the speech. It seems likely the Liberal Democrats vetoed the ‘snooper’s charter’ proposals to give the security services power to monitor our emails. It seems like Tories vetoed the proposal for minimum pricing for alcohol plus proposals that cigarettes be sold in plain wrappings and that overseas aid b[...]

Has Leveson Been Defeated Already?


Martin Kettle writes an astonishing article today in The Guardian. He argues that parliament, the proper and elected source of government authority has been defeated by the press. Just like the unions in 1969 and the tax evaders in the present day, they do not believe the laws of the country should apply to them and so they have decided not just to ignore but to flout them. The following section sums up his argument: "In the course of the post-Leveson debate, a great principle – the free press – has been shamelessly hijacked by vested interests. Freedom has been elided with press self-interest. Press opposition to reform has been brash, heavy-handed and single-minded. Even the extraordinaryall-party agreement in March to put significant parts of Leveson under the umbrella of a royal charter caused only momentary hesitation. In the end, not even the fact that no single MP voted against the agreement counted for anything. The press ignored parliament's verdict. It simply resumed its battle to stop it from coming into effect. And now, with its own counter-charter, it has seemingly succeeded".He predicts that the charter based regulator will be still-born, spurned by the majority of the press. Looking to the future he sees trhe Tories staying any action which might prejudice press support in the run-up to the election and Miliband, even if he becomes PM, holding back from tackling such a ferociious vested interest while trying to establish his period in power. A depressing judgment but he compares Leveson, who has struggled so mightly; his report has already become as impotent as In Place of Strife did 44 years ago. I fear he may well be right. [...]

UKIP's turn to soak up some punishment


Nigel Farage has a good line in attacking his opponents, offering no quarter as he knifes their reputations, with gleeful abandon. But today has seen the backlash: Tories leading the charge against a parvenue who threatens not just them but Labour and Lib-Dems too. So we see ther ST featuring a story, gleaned from Facebook, about a UKIP candidate, Chris Scotton  who has said he has been active with the far right EDL and sympathetic to this party's aims. The Observer manages to lead with a story about 'chaos' in UKIP policy-making, devoting two pages to the part's current p[rospects with local elections coming up on Thursday.

UKIP asre fielding 1700 candidates, a massive intervention in an area where they scarcely figured last year. As most of the seats contested will be Tory, there will be a good oppostunity to see how big a slice of Conservative votes UKIP are likely to take not just on Thursday but in 2015: a long time away still but still a focus of Tory high anxiety. UKIP stand at 11% in the ST's Yougov poll, equal to the Lib Dems, so whilst it is likely to poll better than ever before, it is unlikely to storm any citadels this time around. Thrasher ad Rallings, of Plymouth University, see UKIP's following as typically older than the average and less well educated and more likely to be male than female. They tend to be against gay marriage and favour the return of the death penatly.

By entering the fray so agressively UKIP have taken a gamble: if it fails it will be ridiculed and dsimissed by the mainstream parties. Hence the row over alleged Tory 'smear tactics'. UKIP's deputy leader has answered that,   "UKIP has been subject to a co-ordinated smear campaign." Ken Clarke, for the Tories has dismissed the party as hardly worth botherring about. But there can be no doubt Tories are worrying about the threat posed by Farages insurgent army,. A poll for The Sun today predicted Tories would lose 360 seats and control of 11 councils: a virtual meltdown. Ukip will aim to improve mightily on the 8 seats it  managed in 2009. Farage had better get used to the roasting he is receiving- it's a compliment really to how grave a threat he is perceived to pose..

Crime statistics spring 2013 Register further falls even when increases were expected


When the financial crisis arrived in 2007 many criminologists expected crime to soar, as it has in the pastduring tough financial times. What has happened however, is astonishingly counter-intuitive. Even with increased levels of young males aged 15-24, the most likely offenders, youth unemployment doubled since 2001; big cuts in police numbers and an economy mired in stagnation, crime rates continue to fall. Over the past two decades, it has halved in England and Wales, falling by 8% in a single year to 2011-12. The murder rate has fallen to its lowest point- 540 in 2012- since 1978; even anti-social behaviour fell from 4m incidents in 2007 to 2.4m in 2012. Why?
The Economist 20th April 2013 suggests that: people are buying less therefore there is less to steal, people are more home bound so deter break-ins; but most important people have less money to spend on alcohol- a 16% drop in consumption since 2004- so are less inclined to become involved in brawls. Moreover, car crime, often the gateway to more serious crimes, has been cut by better car security and the market for household goods, microwaves, televisions and the like, seems to have faded away. Criminals appear to have moved into such things as cloning credit cards or online crime, crimes which do not show up in crime reports. Crime might inch up again as further cuts bite even deeper but for the time being nothing seems to be slowing down the rate of criminal offending.  


A Couple of Thatcher Reflections- on her Legacy and her Sanity


I must apologize for a long period of no posting- the result of not being able to get into my site to do so; sems my browser would not let me buth I then found another which did. This post is a beat behind the news I know, but I'm still mulling over the post Thatcher mood as expressed in the media and elsewhere so wanted one more go at it.It took about two decades after t he last war for modern historians to decide we were living in time of a 'post war consensus'; maybe it's taken till now for us to realise we've been living in a 'post Thatcher' period of consensus. Mrs T claimed her most precious achievment was Tony Blair- who, with Gordon Brown, quarried New Labour's macro-economic policy from the Lady's legacy. Unlike her he applied social democratic values to the distribution of wealth. Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand are seeking to apply both economic and social wings of Thatcherism in a doomed attempt to pull off a Thatcher type 'rescue' of the UK economy, and, they like to think, its soul as well.What seems beyond a doubt, is that Dave and George both calculate that hijacking Maggie's demise for the party- effectively politicising her funeral- will pay a political dividend. Well initially the polls showed no movement though I see that today the polls show Labnour's lead pegged back by a few crucial points, so maybe it has worked to a degree. But as Jonathan Freedland pointed out, it could back fire."Cameron has seized upon Thatcher's passing as a chance to do himself some good, or at least avoid trouble, with the Tory right wing. Giving the warrior queen the works has proved an easy, cost-free way to throw some red meat in their direction. Short of a British veto in Brussels, there's nothing they'd want more."However, banging on about Thatcher might encourage even more of his colleagues to conclude that poor old Dave is but the most feeble imiotation of the great lady. Moreover, digging too deep into Thatcher and all her works, might exhume the toxic effects she was certainly felt to have in the mid to late 1990s. Whatever her achievements as a politician she in no way brought 'harmony where there was discord'. The final thing about Thatcher is offered by Simon Hoggart  Saturday 13th April when he concedes that she did well to reclaim the Falklands and to curb the unions but cannot hold up her deindustrialisation of vast tarcts of the country on the assumtion capitalism would as if by magic, move in and create more industry. It didn't and her callous disregard to the consequencs of her actions will forever out trump her achievements as far as I'm concerned. He goes on to suggest, on this occasion seriously, that Maggie towrds the end was virtually certifiable:"What seems to have been left out of all the obsequies is the fact that, by the end, she was going mad. I wrote as much while she was still prime minister and heard it from several of her colleagues. Neither the evil witch nor the saviour- of-our-great-nation brigades could cope with that because it challenged their certainties.But look at the evidence. The way she would grab a microphone from a TV reporter whose questions she didn't like. The predilection for tiny gestures at irrelevant times. (In his memoirs, Cold Cream, Ferdinand Mount recalls her breaking off an important and over-running meeting to fetch him painkillers he didn't need and had specifically said he didn't want. He also recalled her obsessive concern for "the mill girls of Bolton", even though, thanks to her policies, there were no mill girls left in Bolton.)"We are a grandmother." Bonkers! Her unbelievable rudeness to colleagues, including Geoffrey Howe, who later helped destroy her. The way she came to speak about the government as if it had nothing to do with her. ([...]

Thatcher's Legacy is Great but Very Mixed


So it’s happened. For anyone of my ‘baby boomer’ age cohort, I thought this would be a ‘stop all the clocks’ moment either of champagne cork popping celebration or dismal regret and thoughts of what might have been. Margaret Thatcher had such an enormous influence on the Britain in which I lived throughout the eighties and since. Her views and impact are still with us today and I expect the “Thatcher Effect” to extend into many future decades. Why did this grocer’s daughter from Grantham become the equivalent of our peacetime Churchill? Perhaps a little bit like Winston it was:: her courage, her clarity and her luck.When, in 1975, she won the leadership of a party shot through with sexism and misoginy, she had been the only challenger with the courage to stand up to the irascible and domineering Ted Heath. The huge vote she elicited in the first round of the contest, reflected her fellow MPs’- misogyny notwithstanding- appreciation of her raw courage. It established a momentum which carried her through to victory. Nervous opponents like Whitelaw, who thought Margaret would be a stalking horse for their later entry to the contest, were caught unawares.Her courage was always a feature and was the reverse side of her formidable combative personality. She was happy to take on all comers- union leaders, foreign generals, party grandees, and, yes, even her friend Ronald Reagan. Compare and contrast the pusillanimous way Tony Blair’s hero worship of George Bush caused him to ignore intelligence briefings and cave into George Bush at that infamous Crawford Ranch weekend meeting. Her clarity was evident every time she spoke. She managed to distil the thinking of Richard Cobden and Milton Friedman plus her own take on the Conservative tradition into a form everyone could understand almost immediately. That made her a divisive figure but in an age of political fudging a coalition of voters, including a big slice of the working class, thought she was worth giving a chance. Nobody could say they did not expect what happened and nobody, from the humblest MP to the most senior civil service mandarin could say they did not ‘get’ Thatcherism. Compare and contrast with the vague and waffly opportunism of her current successors. Thirdly she was very lucky to have encountered a party leader who was so grumpy and anti-social that he had few remaining friends left in 1975 when he was challenged. She was incredibly lucky to find the Callaghan government in 1979, foundering on rocks created by the union movement when her own prescription for the nation entailed taking them on an defeating them. And she was astonishingly lucky that, when her fortunes were falling fast and she was threatened by: a large section of her own party; an economy which displayed a shrinking GDP combined with soaring inflation; an emergent new centre-ground party in the form of the Social Democratic Party; and Galtieri’s invasion of the Falklands Without those challenges to overcome she would not have succeeded and historical analysis shows that just a couple more Exocets on target could have tipped the balance Argentina’s way. Once the victor of Falklands, she walked on water as far as her own party and much of the nation was concerned. Fatally though, as it turned out, she seemed to come to believe this myth herself as she later slid into reckless misjudgement over the Poll Tax and Europe.. All this is not to say her indefatigable energy and quick (though not profound) intellect, were not of enormous importance too, but that  she was greatly assisted by Lady Luck there is no doubt.She was also extraordinarily divisive, causing rational people to shriek in pain whenever they heard her flutingly bossy Home Countie[...]

Blair told Saddam had no WMD by Intelligence before meeting Bush


I still feel angry and let down by this story, even though it's it's over a decade old. I fully confess that after 18 years of dismal and selfish Tory rule, I was delighted Blair had somehow been parachuted into Downing St to, as I saw it, undo some of wrongs committed by Thatcher and her pals. When Iraq came along I think we all mostly still trusted the party leader not to draw us into any foolish foreign adventures. We had acquiesced at Kosovo as justified, Sierra Leone too, but they had both been short in duration and delivered the huge advantage of being successful.I was appalled by Saddam and thought he should be toppled if it were possible but invasion with all guns blazing was not something with which I was in any way comfortable.

We now find that just before Blair went to see Bush in Texas, intelligence told him that Iraq's stock of WMD was 'trivial' and that Libya was the greater danger in nuclear terms. Today's Independent on Sunday takes up the story:
     "Intelligence officers have disclosed that just the day before Mr Blair went to visit president George Bush in April 2002, he appeared to accept this but returned a "changed man" and subsequently ordered the production of dossiers to "find the intelligence" that he wanted to use to justify going to war.
 This and other secret evidence (given in camera) to the inquiry will, The Independent on Sunday understands, be used as the basis for severe criticism of the former prime minister when the Chilcot report is published."

Despite the fact that he had been told Iraq's WMD would fit 'into the back of a petrol truck, Blair returned from meeting George Bush at his Taxas ranch gung ho for an invasion. Why was this? Well, he'd clearly been won over by a man whom he admits he admires. So many theories have been offered as to how his mind was changed but my bet is that it was pure and simple star struck hero worship. If you look at the picture above you can almost read Tony's mind: 'Gosh, I'm being driven in his truck by the US president- isn't this just great! .

Jack Straw and Weasel Words


This story initially provokes two sentiments, both species of disillusion. The story is about .the seizure of Abdel Hakim Belhaj in Malaysia and their virtual abduction to Libya on a CIA jet. Rumours at the time were that this was part of deal made with Gadaffi; there was another example of such a trade:

"A second Libyan dissident, Sami el-Saadi has accepted £2.2m from the British government after he and his wife and four children, the youngest a girl aged six, were abducted in Hong Kong and flown to Tripoli, three days after Tony Blair made his first visit to Libya, embraced Gaddafi for the cameras and announced that they planned to make "common cause" in counter-terrorism operations."

It was suspected that the Blair-Gadaffi deal involved a number of concessions by the latter plus a possible business element in exchange for neutralisation of the colonel's opposition abroad.

My first sense of dismay related to the belief that the UK does not use torture or facilitate torture in the interrogation of suspects. In my naivety I had kind of assumed we were just too... civilised for such things. After all that's why we fought Nazism: to make sure such things were eradicated. However, Ian Cobain's excellent Cruel Britannia, removed the veils from my eyes; his research showed that Britain has always used torture when it suited, especially as the empire was headed for the buffers.

My second was that Jack Straw, whom I'd always respected as a relatively honest and very articulate politician. I was not surprised Sir Mark Allen, former senior MI6 officer hid behind the official secrets act on this sensitive issue in which allegedly individuals and their families were handed over to a ruthless dictator, known to use the full panoply of despicable methods we associate with such leaders. But I was disappointed that Straw did the same.

Little by little one's faith that 'our' side is more principled and scrupulous than the 'other' side, is eroded away by such revelations. And little by little one comes around to the dismal conclusion that Blair and Straw, in pursuit of 'deals' thought little of their cost in terms of individual casualties and their human rights.  El-Belhaj has offered to settle for just £1 from each of the defendants as long as they apologise to his wife and himself. 

Boris: Both a 'Nasty Piece of Work' and Endlessly Charming Chameleon


Boris Johnson is certainly a phenomenon in British politics. Ian Hislop says he's 'our Berlusconi' only funnier'Maybe, I think he's a tiny bit like Chauncey Gardener, the Peter sellers character in Being There who fooled everyone into thinking he was wise when his head was empty.Yet Boris is clearly a very clever chap so is it all a pose in a fiendish plot to capture the towering heights of the nation? I saw the BBC interview on Sunday and unlike the Guardian did not think Boris's interview was a 'cycle crash': I thought he handled it as usual, rolling with the punches, smirking and shrugging away accusations which would have sunk a lesser man. I also saw the BBC profile last night and thought it a (transparently) collective effort by his family, using the rugby playing analogy favoured by Boris, to hoist him in the line-out to catch that ball he years for to snaffle and carry over the line into Number 10.Boris is astonishing in his ability to elicit smiles of recognition and of pleasure: he cheers us up. 'What the fuck are you doing her Boris?' is a line used by a drug dealer, pleased notwithstanding, during an early morning police bust which included the publicity hungry old Etonian. He reaches outside the tie-wearing, blue rinsed confines of the Tory tribe and makes everyone smile. Me too? Me too. So much chutzpah, you've got to warm to it, even if he is a ruthless, egotistical unreconstructed bed-hopping old fashioned Tory.I was surprised Sonia Purnell, his unflattering biographer, was not included in Cockerell's piece. She got her say in the press:Yet there are other reasons for Johnson to want to "get on with it" – not least the danger that his gilded reputation, which has won him two victories in London, may be about to lose its shine. A recent public meeting in Catford, south-east London, saw an embattled mayor branded a "coward" for failing to stand up for a hospital facing closure. Looking uncharacteristically uneasy, he endured a barrage of heckling and boos from the crowd over other subjects too, from police and fire cuts to wasting public money on vanity projects like his underused cable car. There is always a moment when a politician's actions (or lack of them) finally catch up with him, and this was the first major indication Johnson's may not be far off.But it did included Max Hastings, Boris's former boss at the Telegraph, Hastings was clear, like Conrad Black (so he's persona grata again is he?) that Boris was a lovable rogue and no reference made to his view expressed in the ST some time ago that he would emigrate to Canada if Boris ever became PM. Michael White today in The Guardian however, thought he had spotted the guy's achilles heel:  "...between them Cockerell and Eddie Mair have exposed the mayor's achilles heel. It is that he needs to be liked. Thus Johnson handled Cockerell's awkward but civil questions competently enough, yet fell apart haplessly when Mair asked similar questions with scorn on Sunday. He crumpled when facing hostile crowds after the London riots. To Livingstone's amazement, Johnson felt the need to placate him too after their campaign spat. "A breathtaking weakness," Livingstone called it. Plenty of Tories sense weakness beneath the bravura. They will take comfort from the past 24 hours. The heir apparent is not yet world king.-  [...]

Press Regulation: Dog's Breakfast or a 'Better Democracy'?


Four points about our Press  1. Supposedly we've had no press regulation by the government for 300 years. But surely our legal system offers a form of press regulation? In terms of libel laws this can be pretty strict too.2. Surely the people who own the media- Murdoch, Rothermeres et. al- exert more than a little control over what is allowed to appear in the press and other outlets? In other words, it's never been exactly 'free'?3. Has it not been proved beyond all doubt by Leveson that voluntary press regulation has not worked satisfactorily in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future?4. Other countries like Germany, France and Sweden have laws regulating their presses without worldwide condemnation or accusations that they have abandoned  Having partly laid out my stall on the topic I'm aware of the vigorous debate on the issue. Opinion has veered wildly on this issue ever since Leveson began to interrogate his witnesses. Initially, shocked by the revelations, a consensus seemed to emerge that the press needed to be brought to heel. Hacked Off were promised Leveson's recommendations by Cameron and we kind of expected an easy route to a new world of regulation. Then Dave called a halt to the consensus and would not hear of any statutory control to sully Britain's shining record as freer and free media country. Then voices in the press itself were raised praising Dave's principled stand, while Miliband and Clegg agreed the full Leveson rather than half of him was essential.Deadlock ensured until the three party leaders got together and sought to find a solution based around the idea of a Royal Charter, an ancient device which, it was hoped, would deliver the benefits of statute without any of the costs.. Nearly there, or so we are told, Dave called them off, claiming the distance between the three parties was too great to be bridged. Deadlock again! Then Monday morning 18th March, we are told they've been up all night eating kit-kats and reaching an agreement. It seems Dave has conceded on several key points. Hooray! we cry that the divisive vote has been superseded by an agreement which seems to satisfy everyone. The honeymoon lasted about five minutes.The Economist sketched in the essence of the measure: To deter future political meddling, the charter specifies that it cannot be altered without a two-thirds majority in both the Commons and the Lords. A short clause added to an unrelated bill gives that supermajority requirement the force of law  This seemed like a canny compromise. It enabled Mr Cameron to claim he was not creating a press statute while allowing Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband, who favour much tougher regulation, to assert they had done precisely that. Bar a few Tory rebels, MPs also welcomed another measure, which would impose punitive damages on any misbehaving newspaper that elected not to join the new system of regulation. But the efficacy of the new scheme depends on how many publications sign up and already we see The Telegraph, and Mail groups plus news International, not to mention The Spectator and Private Eye, reject the package. The Economist notes the collaboration between Clegg and Miliband and wonders if it presages the shape of a coalition after 2015.  It concludes on a pessimistic note however:  . Mr Cameron has been bruised by being forced to accept a plan he had sought to avoid. Rumbling arguments between press and politicians looks like the result, perhaps with Labour backing a full-blown press law if recalcitrant newspapers refuse to budge. Conservatives are likely to resist this, bringing the row back to Parliament[...]

Cameron and Leveson: Beware Lib-Lab Alliances


When meeting the victims of phone hacking Cameron promised he would accept and implement its recommendations, 'as long as they weren't bonkers'. Well, nobody serious has even begun to accuse them of attaining that state, so one might have expected a tripartite political agreement as to the business of replacing the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) with a more powerful successor. But, of course, this didn't happen as Cameron suddenly discovered he was a campaigning Tom Paine type radical who will defy the world for untrammeled freedom of expression. On no account would he accept any legislative grounding for any new regulator. Leveson felt the press had proved so ungovernable that any regulator had to be grounded in law or the press would find ways around any restrictions. 

Or was it more to do with the fact that the Conservatives, and Cameron in particular, has always perceived a vested interest in supporting the consensus in the generally right-wing supporting press? Hmmm. By all accounts the three party talks on establishing the regulator via a Royal Charter- the same authority that underlies the BBC and which does not need any statutory underpinning- were close to agreement on Thursday when Cameron declared the parties were too far apart and that he was going to allow a vote on the two rival versions of a Royal Charter- the government's and the agreed Labour-Liberal Democrat version-which entails {some 'necessary' statutory grounding)  on Monday 18th March.

Cameron says he wants to break the deadlock and move on- but if Miliband and Clegg unite he'll lose so what's he really up to? I'm not sure but suspect he's acting from weakness rather than strength. If the smaller parties vote against the 'statute version' does he have a chance of prevailing with his non statute version? It must be unclear as George Eustace, is one Tory MP likely to support the rival version and he claims up to a score fellow Tories might follow suit.     

My bet is Cameron will lose his gamble and see his noble stand revealed as a cheap attempt to kowtow to vested interests. But more important than that is the collaboration Leveson has encouraged between Labour and the Lib-Dems. Always ideologically close, this temporary alliance might presage a more regular tendency which might eventually derail the whole coalition project.

Huhne Affair Tragedy for Both of Them


Today's article by Barbara Ellen in The Observer, excoriates the 'shameless, arrogant chump', Chris Huhne for being, well, shameless and arrogant, while praising Vicky Pryce for 'not going quietly'. It's odd how this drama has seized the nation's interest; everyone has a view about it. I suppose that is because: everyone relishes a bit of schadenfreude when a powerful person suffers such a monumental fall and because we all have relationships and the affair forces us to reach judgements on how people, including ourselves, treat those closest to them.

Huhne's certainly deserves criticism for his casual attitude towards his wife- telling her of his affair while watching a football match on the telly, not to mention assuming she would take the speeding points hit for him-and he has manifested too many symptoms of arrogance let alone blind and ruthless ambition, for us to acquit him of those faults as well. It might seem crass to defend Huhne but I genuinely feel sorry for the guy: he's lost his job, his career, his wife and, temporarily at least, the regard of his children(if he loves his son, as he clearly does, this relationship will probably be repaired). OK, you might say, it's substantially his own fault but a friend of mine always insists 'wounds are no less painful for being self inflicted'. To observe such wanton self destruction is a deeply saddening thing, whether it's addiction, loss of control or, as in this case, just foolishness..

Maybe one cannot forgive Huhne but one can understand him a bit more by recognising that politicians to succeed do become narrowly fixated on career progress.Politicians though, are not so different from the rest of  us, epitomising our strengths as well as weaknesses. We can't expect, in a democracy, to be governed by people free of personal failings.  Huhne is a very resourceful and able man who was a very effective minister as well as one who had the backbone to stand up to Cameron and Osborne in Cabinet His party, not to mention his country as well, will feel keenly the absence of his contributions to public life. .   

As for Vicky, of course I feel sorry for her too- she was treated dreadfully. But revenge is not an especially noble sentiment; we all experience a decidedly guilty pleasure when indulging it. She has destroyed her husband's career and destroyed much of his life; but so has she laid waste her own.. That Chinese who coined the aphorism -'He who seeks revenge should dig two graves' clearly knew that wherof he spoke.  

West Should Intervene in Syria


The Economist recently offered a gloomy assessment of the Syrian Civil War.  "Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs—a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant."
 It goes on to comment:

 "If that happens, millions of lives will be ruined. A fragmented Syria would also feed global jihad and stoke the Middle East’s violent rivalries. Mr Assad’s chemical weapons, still secure for now, would always be at risk of falling into dangerous hands. This catastrophe would make itself felt across the Middle East and beyond. And yet the outside world, including America, is doing almost nothing to help."

With 75000 already killed and Assad still much more powerful than the rebels, something just has to be done by the west. Some of my students this week sadly shook their heads when I asked them if the west should intervene. They cited the cases of such intervention going wrong: Vietnam, of course, Afghanistan and the awful case of Iraq.But what about the times when intervention has worked? The Safe Haven in the 1990s Iraq situation to curb Saddam, Sierra Leone in 1998 and Kosovo around the same time, not to mention he more recent case of Libya. Not all those interventions solved the problems of the nations involved but they did stop the worst of the killings and one feels, this is now what the benighted Syrians are facing.

In his Chicago Speech in 1998, Blair laid down five conditions for humanitarian intervention:
Are we sure of our case? Answer yes, Assad has proved he is capable of anything to save his miserable life and position.

i) Have we exhausted diplomatic options? Yes, clearly, Assad refuses to sit down with the rebels.
ii) Have we the power to help? Sure, we can let them have the arms which will match Assad's forces.
iii) Are we prepared for the long term? After the debacle of Iraq I'm sure Syria would be handled very differently and, like libya, the Syrians would be doing the fighting.
iv) Finally, do we have any national interests involved? Well, tricky one, cos we don't. But we all have an indivisible interest in preventing dictators from slaughtering innocent people,  
I would hate to think Dictators in the present time and in the future could go to bed secure in the knowledge western powers had given up any moral responsibility for preventing evil to be committed by evil people. Obama should sod Russia and China and supply arms to the rebels, so should Hague- he really wants to anyway- and so should other EU countries.  

Eastleigh Spells Doom for Tory 2015 Hopes


 The results of this contest have been long anticipated as hugely important-‘pivotal’ said Martin Kettle in The Guardian eight days ago and few disagreed. The actual result does indeed have significance for all four mainstream parties (and that bracket now hasto include UKIP). Labour was not expected to feature in a constituency which ranks nearly 300th on its hit-list and, indeed, it did not exceed this low expectation. At just under 10% of the vote it managed a whisker more-0.22%- than the last time it contested this seat. Its jaunty candidate, John O’Farrel, acquitted himself well and enhanced his reputation as a witty, effective and committed Labour activist- if he wants a seat in 2015 I’m sure he’d find a constituency to give him a chance. On the other hand Labour’s ‘one-nation’ message was not embraced by voters and the party’s lack of appeal in the southeast continues to be one of its main worries.The Liberal Democrats must be ecstatic at their victory. True, their majority sunk by 14%  but given the disadvantages they have overcome, they can afford to regard the future with some optimism. Their national poll ratings, from 24% of the poll May 2010, have plumbed the depths in recent months of single figures; their leader, Nick Clegg had been turned into something approaching a national figure of fun. Chris Huhne’s reputation had been trashed by his admission of having lied about his transfer to his former wife of licence speeding points. Moreover, as a party of government Lib Dems were denied their traditional ‘protest’ by-election vote; on the contrary, they had to accept the same brickbats as their coalition partner for the gloomy economic stasis. On top of all that the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard added an extra layer of scandal to their party’s image.But the through job the [arty has done in securing all levels of local politics in Eastleigh, stood them in good stead, as did the bus loads of activists who flooded in to reinforce the campaign  of the competent councillor candidate, Mike Thornton. Doubts about Lib Dem ability to attract votes as a separate party have been substantially removed: they do have an identity which voters recognise and can now view with respect. Around half Lib Dem seats are threatened by Conservative second places; this result will have delivered huge relief to the embattled junior coalition partner.Ukip too must be cock-a-hoop- to come second in Eastleigh is an astonishing achievement and evidence that Tories must seriously worry about the votes Farage will take on its right flank. All that positioning regarding an in-out referendum seems to have been in vain: voters still fear immigration is excessive and that the EU is poor value for our annual contribution. Grant Schapps, the Conservatives chairman, however, must be sunk in gloom today as must Cameron and Osborne. Their chances of winning an overall majority in 2015  look distant indeed from the wreckage of their Eastleigh effort. Nothing has gone right with the economy as far back as summer 2010 and the first real test of popularity involving the coalition partners has resulted in a heavy defeat in a seat the party just had to win. Intimations of defeat were present at the very first press conference held by candidate Maria Hutchings and things just got worse from there on. To conclude, UKIP can contemplate the future with ever increasing optimism; Liberal Democrats can celebrate their first political success after so many disasters; Labo[...]

Loss of Triple A and Rennard allegations Won't Stop Lib Dem win ihn Eastleigh


My picture reflects just a little of the bemusement Cameron must be feeling, alongside his turkey of a candidate, as Thursday approaches. The Rennard allegations are ugly and it's hard to believe Clegg knew nothing about something which apparently was common knowledge in senior Lib Dem circles. But it seems not to be affecting the chances of candidate Mike Thornton: the latest Populous poll for The Times shows Lib Dems flourishing, (with their previous poll shown in brackets):

Lib Dems 33% (+2%)
Conservatives 28% (-6%)
UKIP 21% (+8%)
Labour 11% (-8%)

We see Clegg's party climbing by 2% but the Tories plunging by 6%- very possibly reflecting voter dismay at Osborne's embarrassing loss of his much prized triple A rating. This event, comparable to the Tory's 1992 'Black Wednesday', blows a huge hole in the Cameron-Osborne's credibility. After Black Wednesday their ratings collapsed and stayed collapsed until 2005; it won't happen this time but it is, to a degree, as significant as Eastleigh. Martin Kettle, in his splendid piece on Friday argued the by-election's importance is pivotal.

Mansion Tax Seems Unecessary


Sorry not to have posted for over a week but I have been to Paris for a long weekend to celebrate my wife, Carolyn's 60th birthday. Looking at the occasional estate agent's window it was obvious Paris is full of top value real estate.  Which brings up the issue of the 'Mansion Tax'.. Originally the brainchild of Vince Cable it was dismissed by Osborne as likely to infuriate the Conservative constituency of rich or wannabe rich homeowners.  Ed Balls however said he liked it in September 2012 and this month the other Ed has suggested it might get into Labour's manifesto for 2015.

Simon Jenkins, always a bit of an unusual columnist, writes a clear and sensible critique of the proposal in The Guardian. He points out that there are only 74,000 houses worth over £2m and that the tax would yield only £1.7bn a year. A much better approach would be to increase the number of Council tax bands for houses worth between £1m and £2m: likely to produce more revenue and preclude the need for more legislation and political fights with those admittedly rich home owners who would have to find unreasonably large annual sums to meet the tax's requirements.

"If politicians really want a more progressive local property tax, there is no problem. They should use the one they already have: council tax. The Welsh introduced an upper I band in 2005, with no revolution of the rich. England could be given half a dozen extra bands above the H-band threshold of £1m, capped at 0.5% of value. It would be less penal on the lower bands than mansion tax, would spread the burden and raise far more money."

What's wrong with that alternative? Nothing that I can see. But I'm very doubtful anything like a 'mansion tax' is ever likely to happen in this country: Osborne hates it, Tory voters hate it and it would mark a shift into a completely new way of taxing the British: a wealth tax. 

Humdinger of a Contest Hotting up in Eastleigh


Take a good look at this picture- it's of Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate for Chris Huhne's old seat in the by-election to be held 28th of this month. One reason for looking carefully is that it doesn't look much like the Ms Hutchings we see on the telly as it's clearly a picture when the candidate was some years younger. The second reason is that she could prove the weak link in Cameron's assault on this Lib Dem seat. She is almost UKIP on the EU and therefore not a fan of her party leader. She also is out of step on abortion and is against gay marriage. Very definitely then, she is not one to express the modernizing zeitgeist. I just wonder if her candidacy will deny Cameron a contest he desperately want to win.This contest has all the ingredients of a classic. It's the first head to head of the coalition partners and as such anticipates many of the key 2015 contests where the Tories hope to win a couple of dozen at least seats off the Lib Dems.Andrew Rawnsley reckons Labour might spring a surprise, according to Andrew Rawnsley. "At the general elections of 1955 and 1966, Labour came within fewer than 1,000 votes of winning Eastleigh. Admittedly, the shape of the seat and its demographics have changed considerably since then, but more recent elections also suggest that Labour should not entirely write off its chances. The last time there was a byelection in the seat, in 1994, Labour came second, ahead of the Tories, with more than 27% of the vote. At the 1997 general election, Labour achieved a similar score."Eastleigh moreover, is prime 'squeezed middle territory and Miliband should be able to improve on his party's record. That is, if he doesn't think his supporters should vote tactically for the Lib Dem candidate. But, given the coalition this line of argument makes much less sense than before the partnership was forged. Is it impossible to imagine a Labour victory? "Ukip nibbles away at the Tory vote from the right flank. Labour gains some switchers from the Conservatives and more from the Lib Dems. It is then just about possible to envisage Labour winning the seat. I have heard Labour frontbenchers talk about "the Brighton scenario". Caroline Lucas won the Brighton Pavilion seat for the Greens with just over 31% of the vote because of the way in which the rest of the electorate split between the other parties. .The first poll out, produced my Michael Ashcroft, gave Conservatives a 3% lead but the one reporteed in The Guardian today gave the Lib Dems a slight lead: 36% to Tories' 33% with UKIP on 16% and Labour on 13%. The Brighton scenario' might come about but it seems a long shot, even for volatile by-election contests.  Gaby Hinscliff in The Guardian today offers a number of new angles on the contest. She quotes my colleague Phil Cowley, Professor at Nottingham University who points out the Lib Dems have never lost a by-election.What strikes me about this by-election is that Labour are, unusually, in the potential recipient of protest votes against the coalition. They can rouse the low earning voters of Eastleigh to cast a vote against the government which has so signally failed to sustain, let alone improve, their quality of life.They have to fight the contest hard- it will be interesting to see who their candidate is- and things might just go their way. Lib Dems lead slightly in the polls, have the constituency sewn up in terms of elected local government on the ground and have [...]

Gay Marriage Strategy Backfires as Nasty Element Strikes Again


Oh Lor! Poor old Dave's ongoing 'moderisation' process took a turn for the worse last night as, whilst the second reading of the bill was passed 400-175 some 136 Tory MPs rebelled against his wishes while the 129 who voted as he wished proved to be substantially made up of the 'payroll' vote of ministers, junior ministers and the like. Given that 40 others abstained, well over half the Conservatives' 307 MPs refused to back their leader. That explains why the news stories on this issue ignored Dave's advancement of a liberal agenda and focused on the fact his leadership had been made to look weak and his party to be desperately divided.

The size of the revolt is explained firstly by the fact that his aprty is not happy with Cameron- he is seen as haughty, detached and apart from the rank and file of his MPs, many ofd whose names he does not even know, so unlike his heroine, the Lady, who knew not only their names but their spouses and chiuldrens' names as well. On top of that Dave is seen by many on his party's right-wing as too close to the Lib Dems and believe he uses them as a reason not to pursue genuine true blue Tory policies.

The second reason, alas! is that the Tory Party's 'modernisation' has only gone so far; there is a substantial chunk of it which remains unreconstructed and, well, nasty