Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Gordon Brown the Steve McClaren of British politics?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, November 24.

***

It’s a familiar enough story. Long-serving Number Two finally steps up to the top job after years of waiting for the boss to move on, only to see it all go to pot within a short space of time.

But am I talking about ex-England manager Steve McClaren – or Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

For all his achievements in getting Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup Final, McClaren’s best work was done as a deputy - to Jim Smith at Derby, Alex Ferguson at Man U and Sven Goran Eriksson with England.

Will the history books similarly say Brown was better cast in a supporting role to Tony Blair? If so, the past week may well come to be seen as a defining moment.

One of the truest old sayings in politics is Harold Macmillan’s famous dictum that the biggest problem facing any government is “events, dear boy, events”

What I think he meant was that it is often a government’s ability to deal with the unexpected which determines its success or failure.

Before the summer break, the Brown government could do no wrong in this regard.
The attempted terrorist attacks, the floods, foot and mouth, even the early days of the Northern Rock crisis were all seen to have been calmly and competently dealt with.

But since then, thanks to what is now being described as the curse of the cancelled election, very little has gone right.

Northern Rock is a case in point. Chancellor Alistair Darling was seen to have successfully defused the initial crisis by acting to guarantee peoples’ savings and stemming September’s run on the bank.

A couple of months on, he finds himself under fire for having loaned the bank billions of pounds of public money, although not all would echo those criticisms.

As one experienced observer of the North-East scene told me this week, the key issue in this part of the world at least is not the future of the loans but of the Rock’s 5,700-strong workforce.

“There is a North-South divide in the coverage of this story. In the South, it’s all about the money. In the North, it’s all about the jobs,” he said.

Far more damaging for the government is the scandal of the loss of 25m people’s computerised records - a story which also originated in the North-East.

It began on 18 October at HM Revenue and Customs office in Washington when a junior official sent two CDs containing the records unregistered via courier.

As everyone now knows, the package failed to arrive, and ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, were eventually told about it on 10 November.

But it was not until this Wednesday that the whole affair was finally made public in a Commons statement by Mr Darling that brought gasps of astonishment from even his own side.

In the short-term, the extent of the political fall-out will depend on two things. Firstly, whether ministers are seen to have in any way sought to conceal the truth about the debacle.

The Tories are already alleging that email records show the government’s original account to be incorrect, in that HMRC senior managers were aware of the breach of procedure.

It will also depend, of course, on whether the lost discs do indeed end up falling into the wrong hands.

Although that is an obvious risk, it is probably just as likely that they will end up being used as ersatz coasters or as bird-scarers hanging off a beanpole in some suburban garden.

In the longer-term, though, the real damage to the government lies in the impression of sheer incompetence at the top that this and other recent political developments have created.

When he cancelled the election, Mr Brown memorably said that while he could have fought an election on “competence,” he wanted also to set out his “vision.”

Well, while we’ve still seen precious little evidence of the great vision, what wouldn’t Labour MPs give now for a little bit of basic competence?

In the words of one commentator: “Mr Brown’s political persona for the past decade has been built on his perceived capability. If that goes, he does not have much else left.”

What Mr Brown should have realised is that most governments stand or fall on their reputation for competence rather than the brilliance of their “vision.” Ask John Major.

His own government’s reputation for competence disappeared down the plughole on 16 September 1992 – Black Wednesday - when he was forced effectively to devalue the pound.

It is still too early to call 21 November 2007 Brown’s Black Wednesday, but there are some obvious comparisons to be made.

One is that Mr Darling, like his predecessor-but-two Norman Lamont, does not possess the political authority to reassure either the public or the City in such troubled times.

There is, of course, a more charitable way of looking at all this – to say that it’s the kind of thing that could happen to any government at any time, and that Messrs Brown and Darling have just been unlucky.

You could say the same about Steve McClaren. It was not easy for him going into a crucial qualifier without his entire first-choice back four or two leading strikers.

But in the end, in politics as in football, you make your own luck, and it is no use governments relying on public sympathy to bail them out when they’ve clearly made a mess of things.

When it comes down to it, the electorate - like the FA - are a pretty unforgiving lot.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A fond farewell

It was a wreck when I bought it back in 1989, and it took me the best part of ten years to turn it into a comfortable place to live. But this little house in Belper became our home and although we have now had to move on in order to accommodate our growing family, it hurt to have to say goodbye. My only consolations are the memories of so many wonderful times spent here down the years, and the knowledge that this beloved house has now gone to two delightful people who will shortly be starting out on their married life together. I hope it will be as great a blessing to them as it has been for me.

Here are some pictures of the house looking at its best earlier this year after all the years of hard work and restoration had been completed. It's how I would like to remember it.

It's nothing much to look at on the outside, I know, but there was treasure within.

The lounge area with the original fireplace I discovered while removing a partition. A local man born in the house later told me it had been covered up since the 40s.

The dining room area, scene of some great evenings and Christmas meals down the years.

All roads led to and from the kitchen, the hub of the house.

My downstairs study area was a real oasis of calm away from the rest of the family. In latter years, much blogging was done from this room!

A room which went through many owners, from a friend who stayed here for a few riotous months in the summer of 1990, to my son George who had it for the last three years.

The garden, constructed from a concrete wilderness, was my proudest achievement, and many of my happiest hours at the house were spent here.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Left in the slow lane

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday 17 November.

***

This week, as David Miliband set out his vision for the future of Europe, the South of England finally fufilled a part of its European destiny by gaining a high-speed rail connection to the continent for the first time.

Thanks to the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, travellers were able to get on a train in London mid-morning, and arrive at the Gare du Nord in Paris in time for a late-ish lunch before hitting the culture spots.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....yet another hard-hitting report warned that the North-East risked being left in the slow lane unless its transport connections were dramatically improved.

As the French might say: plus ca change.

It was always intended that the North-East would be linked with Eurostar. Back in the 1980s when the Channel Tunnel Bill first went through Parliament, it was a lively issue among MPs from the northern regions.

As a result of their protestations, it was made a requirement of the Act that the regions, as well as London, would benefit from the Tunnel project.

A number of "regional eurostars" were subsequently ordered and built, but they were never deployed and the rolling stock was eventually used elsewhere on the rail network.

By the late 1990s, ministers no longer made any pretence that the Channel link would help the North. It became, rather, yet another in the long list of major infrastructure projects designed to benefit the capital.

Making that continental link a reality now depends on the construction of a new high-speed link from the North of England that will link with the St Pancras terminal.

Despite a marked shift of emphasis towards new investment in transport, the Brown government has refused to make this scheme a priority and that seems unlikely to change within the next decade.

Carlisle MP Eric Martlew, a member of the Transport Select Committee, is among those who has continued to lobby strongly for the idea, but even if it happens it seems overwhelmingly likely that it will be built up the West Coast.

That will be okay for Mr Martlew's constituents, but it will still leave the North-East's major conurbations cut off from the rail map of Europe.

The region's roads are faring little better. This week's report by the Road Users’ Alliance became the latest to warn that the region risked economic isolation because of its low-grade road network.

It pointed out that the North-East has just 36 miles of motorway compared to 406 miles in the South-East and the most number of cars per kilometre of motorway in England - 17,343.

Then, of course, there is the interminable problem of the A1 dualling.

A few weeks' back, The Journal's Graeme Whitfield revealed on his newsroom blog that this newspaper had considered a novel proposal to try to kick start the long-delayed project.

"In recent weeks we have been discussing the possibility of throwing The Journal's support at the next General Election behind a political party - even the Conservatives - if they would pledge to dual the A1," he wrote.

Graeme added: "We hadn't made a decision on this, but today the Tories have come out and said that they won't upgrade the road for 10 years at least, so that's that."

Perhaps the Tories deserve some credit for simply being honest. We have, after all, been here before with pledges to dual the A1

In an interview with in 1996, Tony Blair said it would be "a priority" for a Labour government. What he didn't say was how much or more accurately how little of one it would be.

The fact that five of New Labour's seven transport secretaries have been Scots - Gavin Strang, John Reid, Helen Liddell, Gus Macdonald and Alistair Darling - only rubbed salt into the wound.

The Scottish section of the route has of course long since been upgraded as a result of their £1bn-plus annual funding advantage.

Why is it so low a priority for national government? Well, partly because it is trapped in something of a vicious circle regards the statistical case for the upgrade.

Its traffic levels do not currently justify the spending, say ministers, as a result of which the road remains unimproved, as a result of which fewer people use it than would otherwise be the case.

It is also partly because opposition parties dare not promise anything these days that resembles a spending commitment.

Had the Tories agreed to a deal in return for The Journal's backing, they would immediately have been besieged by similar requests from every other area of the country.

In more than ten years of writing for The Journal, there has been no bigger single recurring issue in the region than the question of its transport links.

The whole case for the elected regional assembly eventually foundered, in my view, on the fact that it wouldn't have had significant powers over transport funding - certainly not enough to dual the A1.

Yet for all the dominance the issue has exerted in the region's politics, it has seemed for most of that time as if the region has been talking to itself.

Will this week's report finally signal a change of direction? At the moment, it looks about as likely as Tunisia joining the EU.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bottler Brown must learn to build

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, 10 November.

***

Whatever else is said about Gordon Brown, one thing on which his opponents and supporters alike have usually been able to agree is that he is a master strategist, a consummate politician.

They may well have a point. One does not manage to remain heir-apparent to the Labour leadership for 13 years, and then succeed to the top job unchallenged, without being something of a canny operator.

But there has been precious little evidence of Gordon’s legendary political skills in relation to his handling of this year’s Queen’s Speech, which was unveiled to MPs on Tuesday.

Since becoming Prime Minister, he has managed to hoist himself by his own petard not once, but twice over an event which should have been a great opportunity for him to set out his plans for Britain.

First, he revealed most of the contents of the package four months early in his pre-Queen’s Speech statement in July, thereby diluting the impact of most of the announcements made this week.

Second, he has talked far too much over recent weeks about needing to set out his “vision,” setting the bar for this workmanlike but distinctly un-visionary package unrealistically high.

So it was inevitable that, as Queen’s Speeches go, the programme announced on Tuesday would be a damper squib than some of recent vintage.

Sure, it contained some genuinely new and progressive ideas. But if the country was waiting for Gordon to unveil the “Big Idea” or connecting narrative that will define his government, it is still waiting.

Does it matter in the bigger scheme of things? Is it not more important that Mr Brown simply gets on with the job of providing competent, low-key government than setting out highfaluting “visions?”

Well, if you had asked me that question a few months back, I would have said yes. After ten years of Tony Blair, the country was not necessarily looking for more of that style of government.

But Mr Brown’s not-the-general-election announcement changed all that. By justifying the delay on the grounds that he needed to set out his vision, he thereby obliged himself to come up with one.

As the commentator Jonathan Freedland pointed out this week, it was the wrong word. What he should have said was programme – “something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list."

But if there was no single Big Idea in the Speech, there were at least an interesting collection of small or medium-sizes ones.

Of these, the one that seems likely to have the biggest impact in the longer-term is the plan to allow all parents, not just those of children under six, to request flexible working arrangements from their employers.

There is some evidence that Mr Brown’s people were trying to spin this as the real headline-grabber from the Speech, perhaps trying to take some of the inevitable focus off the plan to increase 28-day detention.

But the problem with trying to sell addressing the work-life balance as Labour’s new “Big Idea” is that it’s yet another policy that David Cameron’s Tories actually thought of first.

Of the other more overtly “progressive” proposals in the package, all raise potentially difficult choices for Labour.

The pledge to build 3m more new homes by 2020, for instance, will doubtless make it easier for some people on lower incomes to get onto the housing ladder – but only slightly.

One recent report claimed that raising the target from 2.6m to 3m will mean that average house prices are just seven times’ average earnings by 2020 as opposed to eight times’.

Set against that marginal benefit is the potentially huge cost to the environment, and the impact on regional economies of concentrating yet more development in the South East.

Then there’s the plan to ensure people stay on in some form of education to the age of 18, hailed by some as potentially the biggest boost to equality of opportunity in a generation.

Well, maybe, although at the end of the day there’s only so many people who can be chiefs, but to my mind it shows a bit of a lack of joined-up thinking.

We already allow 16-year-olds to marry, own property, and pay taxes, while this government also wants to give them the right to help decide who should run the country.

But at the same time, they are now telling 16-year-olds that they are not capable of making their own decisions about whether or not they should stay in full-time education.

So much for what was in the Speech – what should have been in it? Well, there seems to be a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the biggest statement of intent Mr Brown could have made would have been to scrap ID cards.

As well have saving him £5.6bn, it could have enabled him to make some headway with the so-called “liberty” agenda he outlined a couple of weeks ago.

He should also have been bolder in his proposed constitutional innovations, perhaps by announcing a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of the non-election debacle.

Such initiatives would certainly have grabbed the headlines. Whether they would have amounted to a “vision” though is another question.

If Mr Brown is still looking for that big idea, that connecting narrative that would neatly sum up what his government is about, he could do a lot worse in my view than the word “building.”

He could start with housing, and go on from there. Building homes. Building trust. Building equality of opportunity. Building the future.

It’s not an airy-fairy vision, not the kind of thing Mr Blair would have come out with, but it’s solid, workmanlike, and sounds authentically Mr Brown’s.

From bottler Brown to builder Brown. It’s not a bad route-map to election victory.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Brown's Barnett Blunders

Weekly column published in the Newcastle Journal this morning.

***

Over the past 18 months or so, there is one particular subject on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made more speeches, public comments and general pronouncements than on any other issue.

Is it the economy, you might very well ask? Or education, once New Labour’s number one priority? No, in fact, it is “Britishness.”

Some see this preoccupation with our national identity as phoney, a desperate attempt by a politician embarrassed about his Scottishness to convince the voters he’s really just like the rest of us.

Others see it as an attempt to smooth over the old rivalries between the UK’s constituent parts - such as when he talked about “the whole country” getting behind England’s Rugby World Cup Final bid.

Either way, Gordon Brown is clearly a great believer in the Union – or so at least he keeps telling us.

So is it merely a supreme political irony that the Prime Minister finds himself presiding over the gradual disintegration of that very Union – or is it down to supreme political ineptitude on his part?

This week, David Cameron did what some of us have been expecting for a very long time, and propelled the future constitutional arrangements between England and Scotland into the political frontline.

There is actually nothing very new in what the Tories are saying. But in politics, timing is all, and suddenly, Mr Cameron’s plans for English-only laws have struck a chord with the electorate.

To some extent, the current upsurge of interest in the “English Question” is the inevitable consequence of the accession to the British premiership of the MP for Dunfermline East.

But it is also being fuelled by growing discontent south of the border about the advantageous funding arrangements enjoyed by the Scots under the infamous “Barnett Formula.”

That is something, of course, that people in the North-East region have known about for a very long time, not least from the interminable wrangle over the state of the A1.

While the Scottish Executive has long since used the Barnett billions to upgrade its bit of the road, Ruth Kelly has recently become the latest in a long line of Labour Transport Secretaries to reject calls to dual the North-East section of the route.

That’s not all. Since the Scottish Parliament was established, it has also abolished university tuition fees, introduced free eye care and dental check ups, handed out extra central heating grants and brought in free personal care for the elderly.

In addition, it has also been able to fund the free bus travel for pensioners which, in England, is having to be paid for out of hard-pressed local authority coffers.

Over the course of recent weeks, Alex Salmond’s new SNP government in Edinburgh has brought the issue into fresh focus by announcing the wholesale scrapping of prescription charges as well.

As a result, people are beginning to realise what some of us have been saying for a decade – that the Scots’ inbuilt spending advantage under the Barnett Formula is neither justified nor politically sustainable.

But of all the leading figures in UK politics, it is Mr Brown who more than anyone else cannot say he wasn’t warned about this.

Back in 1999, the Treasury Select Committee under the then Durham North MP Giles Radice carried out an inquiry into the Barnett Formula which called on the government to carry out a new “assessment of regional need.”

Everyone knew this was tantamount to saying that the then 20-year-old formula no longer reflected the needs of the UK’s nations and regions and should be superseded by something new.

It was an incredibly brave move by Mr Radice, but although he resisted attempts to nobble him, he was unable to resist attempts to ennoble him, and he left the Commons at the 2001 election.

His replacement as Treasury Committee chair was a very different animal – the Brownite loyalist, and MP for West Dumbartonshire John McFall, who proceeded to bury the issue, despite valiant attempts by Newcastle Central MP Jim Cousins to keep it alive.

Yet in retrospect, Mr Brown might be wishing he had paid more attention to the Committee’s original 1999 report. Politically and economically, it was exactly the right time for Labour to reform the infamous formula.

The politics of the situation were that, having succeeded in setting up the Scottish Parliament, Labour’s support was riding high north of the border and the SNP reduced almost to irrelevance.

Even more compelling, though, were the economics. It was a time when public expenditure was rising sharply, and as Mr Cousins pointed out, a change to Scotland’s funding share could effectively have been “hidden” within the context of increased spending overall.

But because of his stubborn and shortsighted refusal to countenance change back then, Mr Brown now finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

While any departure from the status quo would hand a huge propaganda gift to Mr Salmond, doing nothing simply aids the Tories’ attempts to exploit the growing English discontent.

Significantly, Mr Cameron has not yet himself gone as far as pledging to scrap the formula. His proposal for an “English Grand Committee” is effectively a repackaged version of the policy of “English votes for English laws” on which they fought the last election.

There are huge flaws in the proposal – not least the fact that it would be up to Speaker Michael Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, to determine what is an “English” bill – but at least the Tory leader is being seen to be doing something.

New Labour’s refusal to reform the Barnett Formula when it was in a position to do so is a metaphor for its entire performance in government.

It had two majorities of 160 plus. It was faced by an opposition which wasn’t capable of running a whelk stall. It had a chance to do difficult but necessary things for the long-term benefit of the country. And it didn’t do them.

If Labour tries to do reform the formula now, it will boost Mr Salmond’s campaign for a fully independent Scotland. If he does not, the resentment in England may well build to the point where people would be quite happy to see the Scots break away.

What price the poor old Union then, Mr Brown?

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