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 na├»ve.

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.
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