Monday, December 18, 2006

Podcast - Blair's day of shame

Script of my Week in Politics Podcast, Episode 48, which went live today.


Several weeks ago, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens let it be known that he intended to publish his report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on December 14.

Political journalists who for weeks had been waiting to be told when the police would be interviewing Tony Blair over the cash-for-honours affairs immediately smelt a rat.

As one senior lobby hack wrote yesterday: “We all guessed weeks ago that this would be the perfect day for Mr Blair to invite the police in – the day the world would be transfixed by the [Diana] report.”

But it was more in the nature of bar-room gossip rather than informed speculation.
Somehow I doubt that, in their hearts, they really believed even Downing Street would be that brazened.

Well, to paraphrase a famous old saying, it seems no one ever went broke over-estimating the sheer bare-faced cheek of our present Prime Minister.

The police interview with was just the half of it. Thursday also saw the Government announce the closure of 2,500 post offices and call off a long-running Serious Fraud Office inquiry into arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

It also gave the go-ahead to a new round of airport expansion which though it will be welcomed by business leaders has dismayed environmentalists concerned at the impact on global warming.

“It looks like it’s take out the trash day today,” one Labour insider was quoted as saying.

Of course, it could all have been a coincidence. The Christmas Parliamentary recess began yesterday and, in my experience, there is always a godalmighty rush to get out announcements before MPs head off on their hols.

But Scotland Yard has moreorless confirmed that the timing of the cash-for-honours interview was determined not by them, but by Number 10.

This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that Downing Street did indeed request that the interview should take place on this particular day, with the Diana report in mind.

Should we be surprised? Given this Government’s well-deserved and hard-earned reputation for burying bad news, probably not.

Equally unsurprising was the role of the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman in denying that the interview had taken place at the very time Mr Plod was sitting down for his two-hour chat with Mr Blair.

When asked at Thursday’s 11am lobby briefing whether the PM would be interviewed by police today, Tom Kelly replied that “there has been no change in the position.”

This was later explained away by Kelly saying he had asked Mr Blair not to tell him he was being interviewed until it was all over so that he could not be accused of misleading people.

To which one can only say: how very, very convenient.

But Thursday’s rubbish disposal exercise was by no means the only breathtaking manoeuvre carried out by the Prime Minister in relation to the cash-for-honours affair this week.

A few days earlier, a plan came to light for Mr Blair to actually turn this most damaging of political scandals to his own advantage, by using it as an excuse to scrap Labour’s links with the unions.

Ten years ago in 1996, a young, up-and-coming MP by the name of Stephen Byers held a dinner with some sympathetic journalists on the eve of that year’s Labour Party Conference.

His revelation that the party was considering severing the union link was not actually a serious proposal, the aim being simply to position Mr Blair in the public’s mind as Not Jim Callaghan.

But a decade on, the idea has taken on a different context. It is now being seen as a way for Mr Blair to salvage some sort of “legacy” from the whole cash-for-honours fiasco.

Sir Hayden Philips, a retired civil servant who was asked to look at the party funding issue in the wake of the honours probe, has proposed a £50,000 cap on all party donations.

This will, of course, effectively end the big donations to Labour by trade unions which collect the “political levy” on behalf of their hundreds of thousands of individual members.

But such is the sheer scale of the opposition this has already aroused within the party that even some of the Prime Minister’s most loyal supporters have been moved to speak out against the idea.

Former Labour National Executive Committee chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham has always been one of Mr Blair’s most assiduous defenders.

But Sir Jeremy’s loyalty was finally provoked beyond endurance this week, as he publicly denounced the union funding proposals as “outrageous.”

In a similar vein, Durham MP Kevan Jones implied Mr Blair had finally taken leave of his senses saying: “The lights are on in Downing Street but no-one’s at home.”

To see these two old North-East rivals uniting against the Philips proposals ought to be sufficient warning to Mr Blair that the idea should be pursued thus far and no further.

Back in their days on Newcastle City Council days, the Beecham-Jones feud was so poisonous it permeated the entire city Labour Group and beyond, but that is not really the point.

The point is rather that, in party terms, Jones and Beecham are right-wingers, people who, far from being classed as “usual suspects,” would normally be viewed as Mr Blair’s natural supporters.

As it is, there are increasingly fewer of those to be found, as the man who promised to clean up politics continues to sully it beyond anything achieved by John Major’s administration.

And until the day he finally goes, his capacity to damage both the Labour Party and the reputation of British politics in general will remain unhindered.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Podcast - Brown yet to reveal his hand

Script for Paul Linford's Week in Politics, Episode 47, December 11 2006.


Over the years, as Gordon Brown has built himself up from a promising young Labour politician into a Prime Minister in waiting, we have become accustomed to seeing him pull rabbits out of hats.

The Chancellor is a past master in the art of conjuring up last-minute surprises that wrong-foot the opposition and leave his own side cheering.

In his Budget statements, he’s done it with the 10p starting rate of tax, direct payments to schools, and winter fuel payments for pensioners among other things.

Most memorably, perhaps, he did it on his fourth day in the job by announcing Bank of England independence, the single most important and far-reaching reform of his Chancellorship.

But if the aim of Mr Brown’s Budget and pre-Budget statements has normally been to procure a headline-grabbing announcement that seizes the political initiative, Wednesday’s pre-Budget report was different.

The Chancellor was under no pressure to produce a big surprise. He has moreorless cemented his position as the next Prime Minister, and only a political earthquake can now deprive him of it.

Far from producing a rabbit from the hat, the aim was to keep the rabbit firmly inside it – ready for the day when Brown finally moves next door to No 10.

So Wednesday’s statement was by and large a steady-as-she-goes package, with a few token announcements thrown in to keep the media wolves at bay.

One change that certainly falls into this category was the decision to double air tax to £10, no more than a cursory nod to the green lobby that will do little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

Potentially more significant was the extra £8.3bn for education, posing a difficult challenge for the Tories who have pledged to split the proceeds of future growth between new spending and tax cuts.

Likewise, the extension of child benefit payments to women in the later stages of pregnancy is a populist move set to come on stream just before the next election is due.

But these are mere hors d’oeuvres. The real meat will come next summer, once Mr Brown can unleash his own agenda without fear of it being purloined by Tony Blair or, worse, David Cameron.

The question on the lips of many Labour MPs at the moment is what the first 100 days of the Brown premiership are going to look like, but there are already plenty of clues.

We know, for instance, that Mr Brown is eager to complete the unfinished business of Mr Blair’s constitutional reforms, moving to an elected Lords and maybe even a fresh look at proportional representation.

There are also strong rumours that he has also decided to make major changes to the machinery of government, including the dismantling of his existing department.

The Department of Trade and Industry may be abolished and folded into the Treasury, which could itself then be demerged into a finance department and a ministry of economics and trade.

But I would anticipate something much more eye-catching as Mr Brown’s “Big Bang” announcement to define the start of his premiership and draw a line under the Blair years.

Here’s my prediction, for what it’s worth. He will repeat the trick he pulled with Bank of England independence – but this time with the National Health Service.

Mr Brown will remove the NHS from political control, establishing it as a standalone BBC-style trust at arms length from government and enshrining it as free at the point of delivery.

Although it will mean having to give up a certain degree of power, it will put the NHS permanently beyond the reach of Tory privatisers and cement Mr Brown’s long-term legacy.

In previous podcasts, I have also predicted that Prime Minister Brown would seek,
in some way, to draw a line under the Iraq War, perhaps by beginning a phased withdrawal of British troops.

As it has turned out, events have moved faster, and it is now entirely possible that such a withdrawal could commence under Mr Blair.

This week’s critical report by the Iraq Study Group, coupled with the admission of the new Secretary for Defence that the US is losing the war, shows how quickly the ground has shifted.

Mr Blair was himself forced to concede yesterday that a new approach is needed, thereby absolving his successor of the need to do so.

Either way, one thing of which I am very certain about Mr Brown’s first 100 days is that there will be plenty for people like me to write about.

Some even argue – though I don’t necessarily agree – that he will call a General Election, to secure his own mandate independent of Mr Blair and cut off the Tory revival in its tracks.

In the meantime, we will have to be patient, as Mr Blair tries to string out his premiership in the increasingly vain hope that something will come along that will enable him to leave on a high note.

It is hard to see what he has left to do, other than to achieve the milestone of ten years in office and, perhaps, to see off the “cash-for-honours” inquiry.

For now, British politics has entered a bizarre state of limbo, with Blair in office but not in power and Brown in power but not in office.

It’s Brown who is the man with the plan – but it’s the plan for his first few months as Premier, not his last few months as Chancellor, and the name of the game this week was to give as little of it away as possible.

To put it another way, we are now in a situation in which Mr Blair has almost no cards left to play, while Mr Brown is still playing his very close to his chest.

Until he is ready to put those cards on the table, all we can do is simply watch, and wait.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Podcast - Why Blair should ditch Trident

Script for Paul Linford's Week in Politics, Episode 46, December 4 2006.


OVER the course of his nine years in power, there have been many issues on which Prime Minister Tony Blair has found himself at odds with his party.

Cuts in benefits for lone parents and the disabled. Foundation hospitals. University tuition fees. And of course, the War in Iraq to name but a few.

But there is no issue that is as potentially more explosive within the Labour Party – if you will excuse the pun – as that of nuclear weapons.

The party may have abandoned unilateral nuclear disarmament long ago. But an instinctive hatred of “the bomb” still lingers in many a Labour breast.

Prime Minister-designate Gordon Brown has already lobbed a metaphorical hand grenade into the debate by pledging to renew the British nuclear deterrent if he makes it to No 10.

In a Commons statement next week, Mr Blair himself will endorse that position, although he will make clear there will be a whipped vote of MPs on the issue in the New Year.

The outcome is not in doubt. The Conservatives have already pledged their support, so it would take more than half of Labour MPs to rebel to threaten Mr Blair’s majority.

But a rebellion there will be, nonetheless, and, with heavyweights such as Charles Clarke in the camp, it could well become a very sizeable one.

Former Home Secretary Mr Clarke’s intervention in the debate this week is intriguing on more than one level, especially given the forthcoming leadership vacancy.

He said on Thursday he is "extremely sceptical" about the value of any replacement for Trident, which is due to become obsolete by around 2024.

“Trident was an expensive weapons system developed in the Cold War to meet the conditions of the Cold War, which ended 17 years ago, and it is still capable of functioning for about another 15 years,” he said.

“I think we have to take our security decisions on the basis of what are likely to be the main security threats in the future, rather than building weapons to fight the last war."

In the light of recent events in London, some might view Mr Clarke’s comments as rather naïve.

The Cold War may indeed have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko might lead some to suppose it is on its way back.

But whether or not the Kremlin was involved, there is a fairly crucial distinction to be drawn between the men in charge of Russia then and the ones running the show now.

It is that their aims are primarily defensive, to protect their regime from potential external threats, rather than engaging in an ideological struggle for world supremacy.

So Mr Clarke is right, in my view, to argue that the danger in the next few decades will come not from those countries that possess nuclear weapons, but from those that do not.

It is hard to dispute his claim that nuclear weapons will be no deterrent against the modern-day threats of terrorism, people-trafficking and organised crime.

It also, to my mind, changes the terms of the debate about what “multilateralism” and “unilateralism” actually mean in today’s world.

If “multilateral nuclear disarmament” now primarily means preventing rogue states from acquiring such weapons, why should we “unilaterally” exempt ourselves from that?

Earlier this year, North Korea shocked world opinion by testing a nuclear weapon underground, and Iran is known to want to follow suit.

What moral authority do we have in seeking to dissuade them from that potentially catastrophic course if we are planning to spend £20bn on ensuring we remain a member of the nuclear club?

Mr Blair will get his way, of course, just as he did over all those other issues that I listed at the start of this column.

But it will not stop the debate raging until well after he, and possibly even Mr Brown, have left Downing Street.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Podcast - Can the Tories be the caring party?

Text version of podcast entitled "Can the Tories be the caring party?" which went live today.


LAST week, I wrote that Tory leader David Cameron’s lack of a clear policy agenda currently makes him a sitting target for Labour’s charge that he is all style and no substance.

Broadly speaking, the Cameron camp’s response to that charge has been to say “wait and see,” stressing that the provision of actual policies constitutes “Phase Two” of his plan to transform the party.

For the time being, the Tory leader is still in “Phase One,” which consists essentially of a repositioning exercise designed to convince the public that his party really has changed.

Sure enough, this week came possibly the biggest repositioning exercise so far – an attempt to persuade the voters that it is the Conservatives, not Labour, who care most about the least well-off.

In the broad sweep of history, this is not so outrageous as it may initially appear. It was, after all, Benjamin Disraeli who first drew attention to the “Two Nations” of rich and poor.

The term gave rise to the tradition of paternalistic or “One Nation” conservatism which has continued, in one guise or another, right up to the present day.

However that tradition became steadily marginalised after Margaret Thatcher seized control of the party in 1975, with the One Nation Tories witheringly dismissed by the Iron Lady as “wets.”

Concern for the poor as an aspect of Conservative thought more or less went out of window during the “Greedy 80s” as social and regional inequality re-emerged with a vengeance.

So Mr Cameron’s attempt to reverse all this represents perhaps the most decisive break so far with the party’s recent past.

In a headline-grabbing move, he adopted left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee’s image of society as a caravan moving across the desert in which the “stragglers” get left further and further behind.

In a sense, this is merely an artful piece of spin, a clever use of imagery designed to convey a positive impression rather than set out concrete policy objectives.

Judging by some of the reaction, you would think the Tories had signed up to Ms Toynbee’s entire redistributive taxation agenda, which is emphatically not the case.

Nevertheless, there is a serious point to all this, and that is to signify a change in the Tories’ definition of what poverty actually is.

The old image of welfare as a “safety net” ensuring that people did not fall below subsistence level assumed the idea of poverty as an absolute concept.

Ms Toynbee’s caravan image, by contrast, is about relative poverty, the idea that what matters is not whether you have enough to survive on but how far you are behind the rest of society.

It’s a crucially important distinction – not least because by accepting this new definition, the Tories are playing a pretty difficult ball into Labour’s court.

Why is that so? Well, quite simply, because throughout its period in power, New Labour has invariably adopted the old measure of absolute poverty.

When, for instance, the Government talks about having lifted 1m children “out of poverty,” it is claiming that it has lifted the incomes of those 1m children’s families above a certain, fixed level.

What the Government is not claiming, and could not claim, is that those 1m children are now less poor, in relation to the rest of society, than when it first came to power.

The same arguments could be applied to regional disparities, which are, after all, no more than a measure of the extent to which poverty is concentrated in particular regions.

In that context, a recent report by Cardiff academic Robert Huggins showing the North-South divide might actually have narrowed in the past year.

But what that report did not show was that the gap still remains considerably wider than it was when New Labour came to power in 1997.

If the Government has had a strategy for tackling the divide in recent years, it appeared to be based on the relocation of thousands of public sector jobs from London.

But this, too, has been laid bare by the revelation that any gains will be offset by the current civil service job losses, just as some of us had predicted all along.

What all this serves to highlight is that the Government has a lamentable record on the issue of equality, whether social or regional.

And if the Tories take their argument about relative poverty through to its logical conclusion, they will be able to ask some pretty hard questions of Labour come the next election.

Some will doubtless be repelled by this new move towards the centre ground, a tactic which Mrs Thatcher’s former PR guru Lord Saatchi this week claimed reduced politics to a “commodity market.”

“Voters always suspected that politicians would 'say anything to get elected'. Now they know it's true,” he said.

Perhaps. But other voters might well be impressed by the fact that the Tories now appear to be taking seriously an issue which New Labour has neglected for far too long.

I have posed the question before in this column whether Mr Cameron’s Tories might end up to the left of Labour, and this week’s events have again highlighted that possibility.

Could the next election really see the Tories as the party which pledges to do more for the poor while Labour defends its economic record on the basis of appealing to the better off?

That such a question could even be asked is a measure of what strange yet interesting political times we are living in.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Lost Enquirer Column

Or should that be last Enquirer column? Anyway, here in full is the column that won't be appearing in tomorrow's North West Enquirer because sadly the paper has gone into receivership.


This weekend, amid huge fanfare as well as unprecedented security, the Labour Party Conference will open in Manchester, the first time the event has been held in a non-seaside venue for more than a generation.

With Tony Blair having already announced that the gathering will be his last as leader, it is likely to assume something of a valedictory air, with a certain amount of focus on his Government’s “achievements.”

And doubtless there are some. The minimum wage, devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the huge increases in overseas aid are all things you could not have imagined a Conservative government doing, for instance.

But a dozen or so miles away, the fate of a local hospital casualty department tells a different story about the history of New Labour, a story of bright hopes that have turned to disillusionment.

Last Saturday, NHS North-West decided to downgrade the Accident and Emergency Department in Rochdale, one of a score of proposed hospital closures and cutbacks across England as a whole.

According to various reports, NHS managers in Lancashire are also considering axeing acute facilities at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal, and maternity services at Fairfield Hospital in Bury.

The proposals are part of a nationwide “reconfiguration” of the NHS, closing some small centres and expanding accident and emergency facilities in “regional centres,” including Salford, Great Manchester.

There couldn’t possibly be a connection, of course….but it doesn’t necessarily help Labour’s case that Salford is held by the Labour Party Chairman, Hazel Blears, while Rochdale is now a Lib Dem seat.

Either way, the prospect of hospital closures in the tenth year of a Labour Government – as Neil Kinnock might have put it – offer a stark illustration of the gulf between the hype and the reality of Mr Blair’s administration.

Two days before the 1997 General Election, Labour produced a Party Political Broadcast under the theme of “24 hours to save the NHS.”

The general aim of this masterly yet wholly disingenuous piece of spin was to convince the public that if the Tories won again, the NHS would be privatized, ignoring the fact that even Mrs Thatcher had fought shy of such a course of action.

But no matter. For its first few years in power, Labour was as good as its word, pumping billions of new money into the service from 1999 onwards, once the initial decision to stick to Tory spending plans had been lifted.

The trend continued after the 2001 election. Mr Blair committed the Government to reaching the EU average of 8.7pc of national income spent on health, and national insurance went up 1p specifically to fund the rise.

It was to be allied to “reform” in the form of greater use of Private Finance Initiative schemes for hospital building, and the creation of “foundation hospitals” which were allowed to borrow on the open market.

This so-called “marketisation” of health care led to much soul-searching among Labour MPs and supporters, but that is not really the issue at stake in relation to the current closure plans.

The point is this. That if your local hospital is forced to close, all the sparkling new “regional” facilities in the world will not alter the impression that the Government has broken its promises when it comes to health.

And of course, it is not the only area where hope has turned to disillusionment. For some the advent of the Blair Government signalled a new, cleaner style of politics following the “sleaze” of the John Major years.

In another PR masterstroke, orchestrated by Alastair Campbell, Labour’s candidate stood aside in Tatton, allowing “white knight” Martin Bell to take on and beat that symbol of Tory decadence, Neil Hamilton.

But in truth, Hamilton was no more than a bit part player in the Major years, a maverick junior minister whose influence in the party counted for less than zero.

The sleaze that has since engulfed Labour, by contrast, has gone right to the top of the Government, with Downing Street itself now under police investigation for the sale of honours.

So is there anything Labour can do as it gathers for what seems certain to be a seminal conference? Can the party successfully renew itself in office – or has the New Labour brand been irretrievably sullied?

Well, it is clear that it is no longer just about having a new leader. There was once a time, when the main issue was very much trust in Mr Blair personally, when that might have done the trick, but not now.

Tory leader David Cameron’s positioning of his party in the political centre ground coupled with the evident drift of Labour’s third term has asked much more fundamental questions of the party.
There is now a growing realization, even among Gordon Brown’s supporters, that the debate about a new leader has to be accompanied by a debate about the direction of the party, post-Blair.

But this brings its own difficulties. For instance, former Health Secretary Alan Milburn made a speech last week which was bursting with ideas about how to devolve power to local communities, although this sits oddly with the policy of closing local hospitals.

Mr Brown could probably use a few of those ideas, but because Mr Milburn is identified with the uber-Blairite, anyone-but-Gordon wing of the party, the speech was inevitably seen as divisive.

Similarly, Mr Blair’s desire to hold the debate now, and settle some of the “big questions” ahead of his departure from office, is seen as an attempt to tie the hands of his successor.

There is no easy way in which Labour can resolve these tensions without tearing itself apart - and as they know only too well, divided parties lose elections.

And in the electoral context, there is a further lesson for the party, one that is specifically related to the hospital closures issue.

Back in 2001, the sitting Labour MP in the West Midlands constituency of Wyre Forest was ousted by an independent candidate campaigning on the single issue of saving his local hospital from the axe.

Set against Labour’s huge victory that year, Dr Richard Taylor’s triumph was no more than a little local difficulty, but in a tight contest overall - and everyone expects the next election to be tight – a few Wyre Forests could make all the difference.

There are few more emotive issues to a local community than the future of their local hospital. The Government would be well advised to tread carefully.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Blog on hold

I created this blog earlier this year as a means of linking out from my main blog to some of my newspaper columns that did not have a web presence at the time. This issue has now been resolved so this blog is on hold for the time being. I am thinking about possible new uses for it, and any suggestions are of course welcome.

Main bloggage as ever will continue to be at my main blog, Paul Linford.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Labour slowly sinking in sea of sleaze

Published in Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, Saturday July 22, 2006.


Prime Minister’s Questions is always a rumbustious affair, and the end-of-season duel between the two main party leaders before MPs head-off for the long summer recess is always doubly so.

It is, after all, their last chance to score a morale-boosting victory, send the troops away happy, and slip a defining soundbite into the public consciousness before the holiday season begins in earnest.

On Wednesday, Tory leader David Cameron managed it, interrupting one of Tony Blair’s frequent diversions into Conservative policy with a killer intervention.

“These sessions are for me to ask him questions,” he reminded the House. “I know the Prime Minister doesn't like being interrogated, but if he's going to be interviewed by Scotland Yard he'd better get used to it.”

Routine political knockabout? Or just a measure of the humiliation of a once “whiter-than-white” Prime Minster who first came to power in 1997 on the backwash of a tide of Tory sleaze?

“Remember, you are not here to enjoy the trappings of power, but to do a job and to uphold the highest standards in public life,” Mr Blair told his MPs at their first gathering in the wake of that landslide.

“I think that most people who have dealt with me think that I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am,” he said in November 1997, when the first hint of Labour sleaze in the shape of the Bernie Ecclestone affair threatened to end his political honeymoon.

How hollow those proud boasts now sound, as nemesis in the form of the police investigation into “cash for honours” makes it way inexorably to the steps of Number 10 Downing Street.

Why does this scandal pose such a potentially terminal threat to a Prime Minister who has surely survived worse crises, not least the suicide of Dr David Kelly three years ago this week after his exposure by the government?

Well, quite simply, because this is one story for which the buck really will have to stop at No 10.

The award of peerages is something that is in the gift of the Prime Minister alone, while the apparent linkage between this and donations for his flagship city academies scheme only adds to the air of suspicion.

Partly, it’s the fault of a system of patronage which concentrates power in the Prime Minister’s hands, but it’s also in part down to Mr Blair’s own personal style and apparent contempt for the House of Lords as an institution.

It was ever thus. Long before it was alleged that Mr Blair had handed out peerages in return for Labour loans or help in establishing academies, the cynicism with which he was prepared to use the honours system was already apparent.

As North-East voters are perfectly well aware, the business of becoming a Labour peer under Mr Blair has often had more to do with whether you have a safe Commons seat available for one of his favourites.

For instance, in 2001, he needed a way of getting the head of his policy unit, David Miliband, into the Commons, as a necessary precursor to bringing him into the Cabinet.

Eventually the former South Shields MP Dr David Clark duly agreed to fall on his sword, being rewarded with the title Lord Clark of Windermere and the chairmanship of the Forestry Commission.

Neither is “cash for honours” exactly a new development. Back in 2001, the entrepreneur Paul Drayson gave a £50,000 donation to the Labour Party at the very time the Government was deciding whether to award his company, Powderject, a £32m contract.

The contract, to supply vaccines in the event of a biological attack by terrorists, was duly awarded and Drayson, by now rather flush with the £20m profits from the deal, gave the party a further £500,000.

An incredible six weeks later, he was made a life peer by Mr Blair in what now stands as a startling illustration of the Prime Minister’s nerve on the one hand and the supine nature of much political reporting at that time on the other.

The ennobled Lord Drayson completed his voyage to the centre of the British establishment in 2005 when he was appointed Minister for Defence Procurement.

Where will it all end? Well, even if no charges are eventually brought, the feeling of “no smoke without fire” will persist, and Mr Blair will have to live with the accusation that his is as decadent a government as its despised Tory predecessor.

I have written previously that the leadership issue will have to be resolved by the end of this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, and nothing that has happened since suggests anything to the contrary.

Furthermore, it’s going to get worse before it gets better for Labour. Mr Blair is off on his holidays on August 2, meaning John Prescott will then be left in charge.

The Prime Minister really ought to have made sure that Mr Prescott took his holidays at the same time as him this year, enabling him to leave Margaret Beckett, John Reid or even Gordon Brown himself minding the shop.

The tragedy for Labour is that much of the current political damage to the party, as opposed to that attaching Mr Blair individually, could all have been avoided had he stuck to his original instinct to stand down in 2004.

Had he done so, Prime Minister Brown would now be dealing with a scandal which was essentially a matter of past history rather than anything of current relevance to his government or its standing with the electorate.

As it is, Mr Brown – or whoever else takes over - will be very hard-pressed to distance himself sufficiently from this affair to regain the public’s trust in time for the next election.

The danger for him – and for Labour – is that, just as in 1997, cleansing the Augean stable of the stench of sleaze might now require an entirely new government.

England demands a voice

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph on Saturday, July 8, 2006.


A few weeks back, in the wake of the revelations about his affair with diary secretary Tracey Temple, I posed the question whether Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott should remain in office.

My conclusion was that he had outlived his usefulness as a minister, and that his sole case for staying was that it would be better for the Labour Party to resolve the leadership and deputy leadership issues at the same time.

I added that this was not an argument for Mr Prescott to cling on till Mr Blair goes, but rather, an argument that they should both go now.

Well, the pressure was back on Mr Prescott again this week – but nothing I have seen or heard since I wrote those words has altered my view that it is high time for a clean sweep at the top.

Some claim Mr Prescott is the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by politically-motivated Tory “bloggers” – individuals who run their own personal websites for those not familiar with the term.

In fact, all that is happening is that journalists who can’t get their stories past the lawyers are leaking them to internet sites which, being part of the “world wide web,” aren’t covered by the UK libel laws.

The latest speculation is that all this will end in Mr Prescott relinquishing the role of Deputy Prime Minister and retaining only the meaningless title of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

If so, it can only be a short-term fix to get the government through to the Labour Party conference in Manchester, when the leadership issue will surely have to be settled once and for all.

In my earlier piece, I argued that the real reason Mr Prescott should quit was not because he had an extra-marital affair, but because all the major political projects with which he has been associated have ended in failure.

Chief among those of course, was elected regional government – but I won’t go there again just yet as that was the subject of last week’s column.

What, though, of the Government’s wider devolution agenda? Well, when the Tories weren’t queueing up to bash Mr Prescott this week, they were queueing up to bash the real enemy – Gordon Brown.

Their weapon? The Chancellor’s standing as a Scottish MP with a say over English health, education and transport policies which, thanks to devolution, he is now denied in respect of his own constituency.

Labour have only themselves to blame for the fact that the Conservatives are now determined to make the so-called “West Lothian Question” an election issue.

They embarked on an ambitious programme of devolution for Scotland and Wales while completely neglecting to deal with either the English dimension of that, or where it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs.

It has left Tories who want to question the legitimacy of Mr Brown’s claims to the premiership with a completely open goal.

Hence their renewed interest in the concept of “English-only votes for English-only laws” as trailed earlier this week.

Faced with this likely line of attack, it is equally unsurprising that Mr Brown has been seeking to pre-empt it in recent weeks by wrapping himself in the Flag of St George.

Mr Brown will need more than stunts to head off this threat, though He will need to come up with a credible intellectual rebuttal of the Tories’ proposals.

The big difficulty with “English votes for English laws” is that it will create a Parliament within a Parliament, and effectively a different government for England as for the UK as a whole.

But if that is the inevitable end result, the question then arises: why not go the whole hog and create a separate English Parliament?

When Mr Blair leaves office, he will leave behind a series of reforms that are, at best, half-finished, and at worst, a bodge job.

His successor, though, will have at least an opportunity to put this right, and if he wants to see off the Cameron threat he will need to grab it.

The way in which Mr Brown – or whoever else takes over as Labour leader – chooses to tackle this issue will, in my view, have very far-reaching political repercussions.

Much more far-reaching, in fact, than the future of John Prescott.

Monday, July 03, 2006

London model is the Government's way forward on the regions

Published in the Newcastle Journal 1 July June 2006. Different versions were also published in the North West Enquirer, Derby Evening Telegraph and Lincolnshire Echo.

Ever since the people of the North-East voted by a margin of 4-1 to reject its proposals for an elected assembly, the Government has been unsure where to go next with the regional devolution agenda.

Some have argued that pressure for regional government will eventually revive, given that the undemocratic structure of regional quangos remains in place and unreformed.

There is, to my mind, a certain intellectual logic to this, but politically speaking it is inconceivable that the issue could recur within the next decade or so.

Even the Liberal Democrats have now abandoned their long-standing support for elected regional assemblies, and it would take a brave – or foolhardy – government to resurrect the plan.

Which is where the whole concept of “City Regions” comes in. Ministers recognise that there is a need to devolve power, and in a way that encourages indigenous economic development - but how?

Last Monday, new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly gave us the first glimpses of her, or more properly Tony Blair’s thinking on the issue.

It would be too easy to mock the multiple press releases which accompanied Ms Kelly’s speech to the Core Cities conference in Bristol in which she set out her ideas.

Newcastle is apparently to become the “Turin of the North,” Manchester is likened to “Barcelona,” while poor old Liverpool has to make do with becoming the “Rotterdam of the North-West.”

But the important thing about Monday’s speech was not the rather inane parallels drawn with European cities but those drawn with another British city – London.

For Ms Kelly made clear that the model for the future of English regional devolution will be that of London, in which a directly elected Mayor sits atop a single-tier local government structure comprising 32 boroughs.

She said: “Getting governance over the right spatial area is essential. Many of these challenges cut across local authority areas, suggesting that some key decisions need to be taken across the city-region.”

And, citing the London example she added: “Strong leadership is vital to this success. Few doubt that these successes depended in no small part on the Mayor, and with leadership comes clear accountability so citizens know who to praise and who to blame.”

The clear implication of this is that Newcastle should have an elected Mayor covering not just the area of Newcastle City Council, but also that of the other local authorities on Tyneside – and possibly even Wearside too.

Ms Kelly was keen to stress in her speech that there will be no single model imposed from above, but also made clear that the greater the powers vested in them, the greater would be the need for a directly elected, locally accountable leader.

So what to make of it? Well, I have said before that the introduction of city regions would raise profound democratic issues, and so it would.

For starters, there is absolutely no evidence thus far that the concept is any more popular with the people of the North-East than an elected assembly was.

Two issues arise in particular. First, the question of whether people living in the local authority areas affected would actually want to be part of a city region, and second, whether they would want an elected mayor with the power to override their own local councils.

Attitudes to elected mayors have varied in the North-East. North Tyneside, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough voted to have one, but there was much less support for the idea in Sunderland and practically none in Newcastle.

A Newcastle city region would, at least in part, be a reincarnation of the old Tyne and Wear County Council abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

It did some useful work, but its demise was largely unlamented and did not lead to the sort of popular campaign for the restoration of conurbation-wide governance that London witnessed.

That said, there appears to be more backing for the city region concept among local authority leaders on in Tyne and Wear than might generally be expected.

Sunderland’s assistant chief executive Peter Chapman has said, for instance: “I we push ourselves as a Tyne and Wear city region, we're going to go a lot further than if we're Newcastle or Gateshead or Sunderland.”

Newcastle council leader John Shipley agrees, saying: “The concept of the city region is the direction we should now be pursuing.”

But their backing appears to go only as far as joint working arrangements on issues such as transport and regeneration, not the introduction of mayoral or other new local governmental structures.

Ultimately the case for city regions rests on two arguments. First, that they streamline local decision-making and accountability. Second, that they can be far more effective than local councils in the role of economic drivers.

City regions, in other words, can not only correct the imbalances between local and national democracy but the imbalances between regional economies.

From New Labour’s point of view, its great merit as a strategy for tackling the North-South divide is that it would rely on indigenous growth,

This would absolve the Government of the need to make the sort of politically controversial spending transfers from London that it has already made clear it will not contemplate.

But the biggest difficulty with any reorganization of local government structures is that they take years to implement.

As one political blogger commented this week: “So time consuming is the process of changing the rules of the game that it could be Ruth Kelly is not the minister managing such changes, nor even Labour the party initiating them.”

Such is the current state of British politics that, in any case, the result of any referendum is likely to be distorted by the Government’s growing unpopularity – as indeed the regional assembly vote was.

City regions may be Mr Blair’s baby – but it will be almost certainly be down to Labour’s next leader to decide whether they really are a vote winner.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Brown's nuclear bombshell

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, Saturday June 24, 2006.

Clare Short, once tipped as Gordon Brown’s deputy, says she will not now back him. Moderate-left MPs like Gordon Prentice who might have formed the solid core of his support castigate him for pre-empting a vital decision about the nation’s future.

Thus, by announcing he will support the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system, Gordon Brown ensured that there will be a contest for the Labour leadership when Tony Blair finally stands down.

But is the Chancellor sorry? Does he believe he has committed some huge political faux pas? Not a bit of it.

The Chancellor’s Mansion House Speech on Wednesday may have made a leadership challenge to him from the Labour left inevitable – but that is exactly the impact he intended it to have.

Ever since Labour’s leaders started talking about an “orderly transition,” there have been two underlying assumptions about the succession.

The first was that Mr Brown would be the only candidate. The second was that he himself would not welcome the emergence of a rival challenger.

The first of these assumptions was probably always wrong. Politics abhors a vacuum, and it is always likely that when a Prime Minister’s job comes up for grabs, more than one person will fancy a pop at it.

But what has changed in recent weeks is that it has become clear to Mr Brown himself that a leadership challenge is not only to be expected, but that it should be welcomed.

Partly this is a response to the leadership contests that have taken place in the other two parties over the past 12 months.

David Cameron’s emphatic victory in the Tory leadership contest in particular enabled him to claim a clear mandate for his reformist brand of conservatism and strengthened his position both inside and outside the party.

Even Sir Menzies Campbell – whom some people wanted to assume the Lib Dem leadership without a contest – ultimately benefited from Chris Huhne’s unexpected and spirited challenge.

Mr Brown knows that elections clear the air, and give the winner a legitimacy and authority that they would otherwise lack.

But for the Chancellor, it’s not just about having any election, but a particular sort of election – one in which he can position himself as the impeccably New Labour “heir to Blair”

In one sense, given the poisonous hatred in some sections of the Labour Party towards the Prime Minister and all his works, it is surprising that he should want to do this.

But Mr Brown knows, firstly, that the Tories’ main line of attack against him will be that he is the “roadblock to reform,” and secondly, that the Blairites are looking for any excuse to run one of their own against him.

Hence his first moves in the run-up to the leadership election will be to protect his more vulnerable right flank against the charge that he is really more Old Labour than New.

It is in this context that the Trident announcement has to be seen. It is the perfect issue on which to provoke the left-wing challenge that Mr Brown now wants.

It is perfect not only because, given the left’s feelings about the issue, they are bound to rise to the bait, but also because it will portray Mr Brown as in touch with mainstream public opinion, which still favours the retention of the nuclear deterrent.

Ms Short, who led the hissing against the Chancellor on Thursday, is also a fairly convenient bogey-woman, in that her behaviour over the Iraq War destroyed her own credibility.

Indeed, it would complete a rather dream scenario for Mr Brown if she herself ended up as the left’s candidate.

One reaction to Mr Brown’s comments on Trident this week was that he had “led his supporters into the desert and left them there.”

My hunch, though, is he won’t leave them there for long, and that key to this will be an attempt to draw some sort of line under Iraq.

Because Mr Brown voted for the war, and did not resign over it, the option of disowning it now is not open to him.

What he can do, however, is to admit that appalling mistakes were made both in the run-up to the war and the aftermath, and that nothing like it will ever be allowed to happen again.

I would also anticipate from Mr Brown a series of moves in the constitutional arena, mainly modeled on his 1997 announcement of Bank of England independence.

Then, he divested himself as the incoming Chancellor of the ability to set interest rates, knowing that the public – and more importantly the markets – would rather see this entrusted to an independent panel.

This time round, as the incoming Prime Minister, he will seek to divest himself of the power to confer honours and appoint bishops, both of which will similarly be devolved to independent bodies.

He may also give up his power to make war, handing this to Parliament in another symbolic move which would help heal the post-Iraq wounds.

But in the final analysis, Mr Brown knows he cannot be beaten in a leadership election from the left, only from the right - which is why some of these things may have to wait until he is actually in Number 10.

Alan Johnson remains overwhelmingly the most likely challenger from this quarter, although he purports to be more interested in the deputy leadership.

One leading Blair ally recently warned the Chancellor that he would need to present an “absolutely modern, Blairite New Labour face” if he wanted to retain their support.

In risking the wrath of the left over Trident, no-one can deny that Brown has fulfilled his side of the bargain.

Monday, June 19, 2006

We need honesty in politics as well as honesty in sentencing

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, 17 June, 2006.


Every time the World Cup comes round, I am sorely tempted to dispense with the politics and devote this space to pontificating about football. It is, after all, what most of the rest of the nation is doing.

The fate of Prime Minister Tony Blair has, temporarily at least, been put on the back burner, as the country frets about the fate of Sven Goran Eriksson and his men.

For what it’s worth, my overall assessment of the first full week of World Cup action is that none of the real contenders for the trophy – including England – have yet shown us their true colours.

Sure, we aren’t currently playing like World Cup winners, but neither are many of the teams tipped to do well, not least hosts Germany and five-time winners Brazil.

We have, at least, qualified for the second phase, and that is doubtless as good a piece of news for Mr Blair as it is for the rest of us.

After all, the longer England remain in the competition, the more chance Downing Street will have of keeping the next Home Office-related debacle off the front pages. But if this week is anything to go by, they have will have a hard job.

It has always been said that the England football manager’s job is the worst in Britain, although I myself have argued that Leader of the Opposition is the worst.

Well, at the moment both those assumptions are wrong. The worst job in Britain, by far, is Home Secretary John Reid’s.

Four weeks ago, after Dr Reid was appointed, I wrote that while the job represented his toughest political challenge thus far, by the same token, it also presented him with his greatest opportunity.

Well, I wasn’t wrong. His appointment came in the midst of the debacle over the deportation of foreign prisoners and although heads have now rolled over that, it will only take another serious crime to come to light to revive the issue.

Hard of the heels of that, we had the disarmingly frank admission by the head of immigration removals that he “did not have the faintest idea” how many illegal immigrants were in the country.

Now Dr Reid is embroiled in a fresh crisis over what to do about the early release of offenders convicted of crimes so serious that the public expects them to stay behind bars for a very long time.

Of course, responsibility for the short sentence handed out to repeat paedophile Craig Sweeney last week lies not with the Home Office but the courts.

But it is the Home Office which devises the system under which the courts have to operate, so in that sense, Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer was correct to say that it is not the fault of the judges.

The Home Office appears to have a bad case of legislative diarrhoea over recent years when it comes to sentencing issues.

Successive Criminal Justice Acts, most recently in 2003, have in fact tied the judges’ hands to such an extent that even if the judge in the Sweeney case had wanted to impose a longer tariff, he would have been unable to do so.

But at a deeper level, this is not really about a dysfunctional department that its own political head accepts is “not fit for purpose.”

Neither is it, in essence, about a Labour Government that has, repeatedly sought to restrict the discretion of judges in an attempt to demonstrate that it can out-tough the Tories on crime.

No, the roots of the problem lie in a widening gulf between what the public expects of the criminal justice system and what the political establishment is prepared to deliver.

In other words, the problem is that sentencing policy does not do what it says on the tin.

Partly, this is an issue of simple terminology, in that a “life sentence” as imposed by the courts and reported in the media does not mean life except in a very small number of high profile cases.

But partly it’s because politicians are not being straight with the public about the limitations within which the criminal justice system operates.

The roots of the problem go back many years, possibly to the furore which attended the death of James Bolger in the early 1990s

Ever since, political debate over crime has been characterized by a “get tough” attitude, beginning with Michael Howard’s “prison works” speech to the 1993 Tory Conference and continuing under New Labour.

At the last count, there were 77,642 prisoners in England and Wales, half as many again as was the case 13 years ago.

But because this increase has not been matched by an increase in prison building, the only way if managing it has been through a variety of early-release schemes.

Usually, these are relatively uncontroversial, but when paedophiles, rapists and murderers are having their “life” sentences reduced to just a few years, the public consensus starts to break down.

It may mean we need to build more prisons. But in the shorter-term, we need to have a proper national debate about whether that is a price the public would be prepared to pay.

Likewise, if you get rid of automatic discounts for guilty pleas, as Lord Falconer was suggesting this week, you would have to hugely increase the number of courtrooms in the country.

If offenders have no incentive to plead guilty, they may as well get the satisfaction of clogging up the court system for a week or two while their cases are dealt with.

So if Dr Reid really wants to earn some Brownie points, he should stop pretending the Government is “getting tough” on crime and start addressing some these underlying constraints.

In the end, it’s not about being tough or soft on crime. It’s about being honest with the public.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Will David Cameron end up to the left of Tony Blair?

Published in: Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, Saturday June 10, 2006. A slightly different version was also published in The Journal, Newcastle.


We have become used in British politics to the spectacle of one party trying to steal the other one’s clothes, but rarely have we seen them both attempting to steal eachother’s at the same time.

Such was the case this week, though, as the new trend for political cross-dressing took hold.

In a speech on Tuesday, Tory leader David Cameron said the Tories had to stop making “knee jerk” attacks on public service workers, and recognize that private firms could learn from the public sector.

“Sometimes we have sounded a little hostile, as if our approach is: there are too many of you and you are not working hard enough,” he added.

Meanwhile, back at the Downing Street ranch….Tony Blair was busy warning public sector workers that investment in public services was at risk unless unless performance improved.

And in a rare outbreak of unanimity between Nos 10 and 11, Chancellor Gordon Brown weighed in by making clear that public sector pay rises would be limited to 2pc over the next three years to fight inflation.

All this came hard on the heels of the scapegoating of Home Office officials for the debacle over the deportation of foreign prisoners.

It provided an open goal for Mr Cameron who said: “When I hear ministers declaring that their departments are not fit for purpose, I wish they’d have the decency to admit that very often it’s their policies that are at fault.”

Furthermore, being nice to public sector workers was not all Mr Cameron was doing this week by way of demonstrating that his party has changed its spots.

In an interview with the New Statesman this week, he also outlined his desire for equality and stressed his commitment to a system of redistributive taxation.

In a sense, this is no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious, in that a progressive taxation system has operated under Tory and Labour governments alike for the past 100 years or more.

But the fact that Mr Cameron can utter the dreaded R-word when Mr Blair cannot bring himself to do so says a great deal about where we are in British politics today.

All of which begs a question that has been buzzing round in my head for some time but which I originally intended to wait until much nearer the next General Election before posing.

It is this. Is Britain better off being governed by a centre-right party that seeks to adopt an inclusive approach to voters of a left persuasion, than a centre-left party forever fretting about whether it can also appeal to the right?

In other words, could a David Cameron government, in practice, turn out to be further to the left than Tony Blair’s?

I don’t yet know the answer, but I suspect this may well become a defining issue for many existing Labour and Lib Dem voters as they consider where to place their support next time.

One political blogger made the interesting observation this week that Mr Cameron, if not his party, “seems to have double-thought his way into triangulating his policies to the left of Blair.”

Despite the somewhat mangled syntax, there is something in this.

Triangulation was the technique that New Labour used to position itself on the political centre ground between Old Labour and the New Right, and Mr Cameron now appears to be using the same approach,

In an overcrowded centre ground, it is perfectly possible that a Tory Party seeking to win over floating Labour voters will end up to the left of a Labour Party still seeking to hang onto Thatcher’s Children.

For my part, I still hope that the next election will offer a much clearer choice, and that Gordon Brown will succeed in leading the left in a new and less intellectually sterile direction than Blairism.

But as I have said before, my view as a commentator is that he is going to find that much harder to do now that the Tories have rejoined the real world.

It is very likely that Mr Brown or whoever else becomes leader will be forced to fight a “safety first” election, trotting out all the tired old Blairite clichés for fear that anything else will frighten the horses.

And if that is the choice on offer, then I think David Cameron may well turn out to be someone worth voting for.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Another new political blog....?

Well, not exactly. I won't be using this blog as a distinct alternative to the main Paul Linford blog which I have been running for a year or so now, and which has built up a small but very loyal readership, but rather as a sort of companion volume.

This blog's URL is and that pretty well sums it up really. Not all of my newspaper columns and other writings are displayed on the web, so this is a place where I will not just be linking to them, but reproducing them in full for the benefit of anyone out there who is sufficiently interested to read my views.

I've called this blog In the name of God, go! after a column I wrote in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph earlier this year in which I quoted Oliver Cromwell's dismissal of the Rump Parliament in relation to Tony Blair.

"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

This desire to see the back of Blair has been the main theme of my political commentaries for the past three years. It seems to me self-evident that he should have gone in 2003, after the shameful death of Dr David Kelly for which his government was directly responsible.

Had he done so, I believe Gordon Brown would have led Labour to a much bigger victory in 2005, and would thereby have had the mandate to renew the party in office and lead the left in a new and less intellectually sterile direction.

But he hung on, and in so doing he has poisoned Brown's inheritance to the point that, if and when he does take over, he will be fighting a rearguard action against a resurgent Conservative Party which is seeking, with some success, to take politics into a new era based around the "happiness agenda."

If there is a change of Prime Minister, I might change the title of this blog. But until then....
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