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 clich├ęs 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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