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.
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