Saturday, March 29, 2008

The skids are under Barnett

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 29 March, 2008


Last November, I argued on these pages that New Labour had missed its best opportunity to reform the unfair funding rules that have penalised this and other English regions for the past 30 years.

The Barnett Formula, which awards Scotland an extra £1,500 a year in public spending per person, has long been a source of irritation south of the border, not least in the North-East.

The last time I looked at the issue, I said Gordon Brown’s best chance to address it had come in 1999 when the Labour-controlled Treasury Committee of MPs produced a report calling for the formula to be reassessed.

But it seems I was wrong. Quite unexpectedly, another window of opportunity has opened up over the last few months, and for the first time, the prospect of real change is finally in the air.

Of course, it is all officially denied. The Government has long held to the line “We have no current plans to reform the Barnett Formula” whenever asked about the issue, and that has not changed.

But of the fact that something is up, there can be no longer be any reasonable doubt.

Earlier this week, the three unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament – Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems – agreed to set up a Commission to look at the Parliament’s powers and funding.

In a Commons statement the following day, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the Commission would consider whether the Scottish executive should take more responsibility for the money it spends by devolving more taxes from the UK Treasury.

Although the government is keen not to pre-empt the Commission’s findings, no serious investigation into the Scottish funding system could fail to open up the whole issue of how the formula operates and whether it should continue.

In addition, the Treasury itself is due to publish what it calls a “factual paper” on the workings of the formula later this year which it says will be used to “inform public debate.”

The straws in the wind were sufficient to persuade BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson to comment on his blog that “the skids appear finally to be under the Barnett Formula.”

“Labour's Scottish leader has argued that the Scotland government needs to take more responsibility for what it spends - in other words, having to raise taxes when it wants to raise spending. This will inevitably raise questions about our old friend Barnett.”

There is also the evidence of a leaked Downing Street memo of a ministerial meeting on 28 January this year, which first saw the light of day in a Sunday newspaper a few weeks’ back.

It revealed that Mr Straw – who has replaced John Prescott as the formula’s leading Cabinet opponent - had urged the Prime Minister to look at it afresh in order to address growing concern within England.

He won the surprise backing of the Defence and Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, who said the Government had to be “proactive” on any review of the Scottish Parliament’s financial powers.

According to the memo, the Prime Minister then agreed that the funding issue “could not be ignored” but noted there had to be a “considerable period” of public debate on the matter.

So what brought about the apparent shift? Well, more than anything else, it is down to developments in Scottish politics.

Although the SNP-led Scottish Government in Edinburgh publicly protests about the potential loss of the Barnett billions, it is quite relaxed about the overall direction of policy on devolution.

First Minister Alex Salmond wants more tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament and the demise of Barnett could be seen as a small price to pay in pursuit of the greater goal of Scottish self-determination.

To put it another way, continued financial dependence on England is clearly incompatible with the greater financial devolution which the SNP, and increasingly Labour and the Lib Dems too, are seeking.

In terms of wider UK politics, ministers also appear to be increasingly concerned about the so-called “English Backlash,” even though the existence of this is nothing new.

Tory leader David Cameron has not thus far committed his party to abolishing the Barnett Formula any more than he actually committed to dualling the A1 in his Journal interview the week before last.

Nevertheless, ministers fear that the formula could be the subject of a vote-catching pre-election announcement by Shadow Chancellor George Osborne similar to his coup-de-theatre on Inheritance Tax last October.

Hence by laying the ground for the early phasing out of the formula, they are, to use the well-worn phrase, shooting the Tories’ fox.

The Journal has undoubtedly played its part in increasing awareness south of the border of the formula’s inherent absurdities.

Over the past ten years, it has been the only regional newspaper that has consistently taken the trouble to explain how this complex formula actually affects people’s services.

Earlier this year, it revealed that £1.6bn in transport funding would automatically be going to Scotland as a result of the £16bn Crossrail scheme – whether or not they actually have anything to spend it on.

For less than a fifth of that £1.6bn sum, the North-East could dual the entire length of the A1 between Newcastle and the border and reopen the Leamside line between Newcastle and Teesside.

Of course, whether the North-East will actually gain from the demise of the formula is still very much an open question.

If it is replaced by a “Barnett Mark 2” which recognises the needs of other regions besides Scotland and Wales, it will almost certainly do so, but if the system is scrapped altogether, it is unlikely the region will see much change.

In this context, it is worth remembering that the North East lost out twice over from Crossrail – once to the tune of £1.6bn to the Scots, but also to the tune of £16bn to London.

Barnett or no Barnett, the long battle for a fair funding deal for the North-East still has a way to go yet.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What's Left?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 22 March, 2008.


Oscar Wilde once famously said that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If he was right about that, then it is clear that we live in a very cynical age.

It was Dr Richard Beeching who started it. In 1963, he axed thousands of miles of “unprofitable” railways thus depriving hundreds of rural communities of their lifeline to the outside world.

In time, the extension of car ownership helped to mitigate the effects of the “Beeching Axe,” but 45 years on, this has brought its own problems in terms of the impact on the environment.

The cost of keeping those rural railway lines open was very clearly appreciated at the time. The value of doing so, both to present and future generations, was perhaps less so.

Two decades on, the destruction of the coal industry by the Thatcher government fell into a similar category.

Scores of pits were forced to close on the grounds that they were “uneconomic,” with little analysis of the value of maintaining an indigenous coal industry, or of the value of the communities which depended on the mining jobs.

Those communities never really found another role and today many of them are riddled by drugs, crime and long-term unemployment.

Once again, the economic cost of keeping the pits open was clearly appreciated by everyone – but what, if any, value was put on the lives and communities which were destroyed?

By the time the Iron Lady left office in 1990, the elimination of any consideration of non-monetary value from political decision-making in this country was all but complete.

From then on, when confronted with a new policy idea, people would tend to ask “what is it going to cost?” as opposed to “what value will it bring?”

Mrs Thatcher’s defenders would argue that it was precisely the imposition of such financial rigour that brought about the transformation of the country from an economic basket-case to an economic success story.

Her detractors, though, would say it exacerbated the divide between a country of haves and have nots and turned us into a nation of cynics, in the Wildean sense of the term.

So where is all this going, in terms of current-day political debates? Well, over the past ten days, we’ve seen a couple of examples of what can happen in a political culture which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing

In the Budget, Chancellor Alistair Darling slapped a 2p increase on the price of a pint of beer and 14p on a bottle of wine, ostensibly to tackle “binge drinking.”

As I noted last week, any sensible approach to this problem would have concentrated on more targeted measures such as curbing “happy hours,” and clamping down on supermarkets who sell booze at cheaper prices than bottled water.

In fact it was no more than a transparent tax grab on a “soft” target - drinkers – who are second only to smokers when it comes to providing the Treasury with a convenient cash-cow.

The main casualty of this of course is not the “binge drinking culture,” but the village pub, already under threat from the exodus of young people in favour of second-home owners.

As a result, the Budget has already spawned an internet campaign on the social networking site Facebook calling for Alistair Darling to be barred from every pub in Britain.

Okay, so this is the usual kind of frivolous nonsense you would expect from Facebook, but there is a serious political point here.

No-one is arguing that local pubs should be subsidised by the state in the way that the railways and the coal industry were, but the state should at least seek to create a tax environment which recognises their importance.

And just as pubs are at the heart of their communities, so too are post offices - 2,500 of which are due to close in the next year.

Leaving aside the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion – and I really have said all I want to say about that – the rebellion by 19 Labour MPs against the planned closures provided the major talking point of the week at Westminster.

What was notable about this rebellion was that it occurred in a debate initiated by the Tories – something which is almost unheard of for Labour MPs to do.

Yet 19 of them felt sufficiently strongly about the issue to overcome tribal hostility, including Easington’s John Cummings, who has never forgotten that his first duty is to his local community.

Does this debate actually mean anything in terms of party politics? Well, there was possibly more than an element of gesture politics about this week’s Commons vote.

For all their sound and fury, the Conservatives have not actually committed themselves to re-opening the threatened sub-post offices, and no-one seriously expects them to.

Indeed, given that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne this week pledged to stick to Labour spending plans for the first four years of a Tory administration, it is hard to see how they could find the money.

But the absence of a genuine debate on this and other issues does again pose the question of what politics, and government, is really for.

In the final analysis, we don’t need sub-post offices, or railways, or even local pubs. We can do all our banking online, all our drinking at home, and all our travelling in the car.

We can have a perfectly functional society that way, but it will be an increasingly atomised one.

The question is whether that is something we really want, or whether we should be doing more to protect those bits of our national life which cannot be measured in purely monetary terms.

It’s a question which no politician since Thatcher has seriously attempted to answer.

Friday, March 14, 2008

At our best when we are boring

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 15 March 2008


Having sat through every one of New Labour’s Budgets – latterly via the telly rather than live in the Commons Chamber - I have no hesitation in declaring this year’s the most boring of the lot.

We were told not to expect any surprises, and Wednesday’s 50-minute speech by Chancellor Alistair Darling certainly lived down to its billing.

But the fact that it was, by some distance, the most politically unexciting Budget for more than a decade does not necessarily make it a bad Budget.

Indeed, if Mr Darling is proved right in his central contention that Britain is well-placed to weather the global economic slowdown, it could even turn out to be an election-winning one.

From the opening minute, in which the word “stability” was mentioned no fewer than four times, the Chancellor’s message was clear: the British economy is safe in my hands.

And just as Mr Darling’s personal unflashiness is designed to present a reassuring front, so there was something rather comfortingly reassuring about the content of his speech.

It was a bit of a nostalgic throwback to the Budgets I was used to when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s – booze, fags and petrol up, and little else to write home about.

The lack of excitement was purely deliberate. As one commentator put it: “I suspect that the government will be quite pleased if this Budget is nothing more than a one-day story.”

Before looking in any further detail at Mr Darling’s package, let me make my now customary declaration of interest.

I will in fact be better off as a result of the forthcoming tax changes by around £331 a year, but most of that is down to the 2p reduction in income tax announced by Gordon Brown last year.

But as the driver of a Vauxhall Zafira who likes the odd drop of Scotch, the announcements made on Wednesday alone will actually leave me marginally worse off.

The increases in alcohol duties will set me back by approximately £28 a year, while the extra vehicle excise duty on my gas-guzzling but child-friendly people carrier will cost an additional fiver.

As a middle-income earner who nevertheless supports the principle of redistributive taxation, I would normally be quite content with this

Certainly, if I thought my £33 was going towards helping to take 250,000 children out of poverty, as was Mr Darling’s stated aspiration, I would be more than content – but that’s a big if.

The best that can be said is that the government’s heart is in the right place. “Where money can be spent, it goes on child poverty. This is simple, authentically Labour, and right,” said one left-leaning pundit.

But whatever the government’s good intentions in this area, its record is, to say the least, mixed – as for instance was shown by the widening health inequality figures published this week.

Similarly, if I thought my extra alcohol taxes were helping to curb the binge drinking culture that has blighted so many of our town and city centres, I would be satisfied.

But while I have no doubt that the price of alcohol does have some impact on consumption, this is an even bigger “if.”

The use of alcohol duties to curb binge drinking is really a very blunt instrument for tackling a complex problem which requires much subtler, more targeted measures.

If anything, the government should be clamping down on supermarkets who sell cheap booze, not putting more pubs out of business by raising prices across the board.

Neither did the Budget quite manage to live up to its advance hype as “greenest ever.”

On the plus side, the new higher rates of vehicle excise duty for gas guzzlers and the threat to force supermarkets to charge for plastic shopping bags will no doubt be
welcomed by environmental campaigners.

But against that, fear of fuelling inflation forced Mr Darling to compromise his green credentials somewhat by postponing the planned 2p increase on petrol.

And just as no government that is introducing ID cards can seriously claim to champion the cause of liberty, so no government so dedicated to airport expansion can seriously claim to be “green.”

What, though, of the macroeconomics? This is, in the end, the measure by which the 2008 Budget will be judged.

The argument is not really about what could be done in this year’s Budget to deal with the global “turbulence.” The truth is that Mr Darling had very little room for manoeuvre.

No, the real argument is about what the government – and specifically Gordon Brown as Chancellor – has done over the preceding decade, and what state it has left the economy in.

Specifically, it is about whether, as Mr Darling claims, Britain is now best-placed to weather the global crisis, or whether as Tory leader David Cameron argues, it is in fact worst-placed.

We won’t know who is right about this for at least 18 months to two years – but on the answer to this question will almost certainly hang the result of the next general election.

If Mr Darling turns out to be wrong, it will leave Labour’s reputation for economic competence shredded beyond recall, and Mr Cameron heading for a landslide.

But if it turns out that Mr Brown’s long stewardship of the Treasury did indeed leave Britain best-placed to weather the storm, then Labour will in all probability win an unprecedented fourth term in government.

In those circumstances, New Labour’s most boring Budget could also turn out to be one of its best.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Europe issue is not done with yet

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 8 March 2008.


THERE was a time when Britain’s relationship with Europe seemed to be a defining issue in domestic politics, one of the crucial dividing lines that differentiated the two main parties from eachother.

In the early 1970s, the Tories led by Edward Heath were in the main a pro-European party, taking Britain into the then Common Market in 1973 against considerable odds.

Labour, in those days, was the more Eurosceptic party, voting against EEC entry in 1973 and, ten years later, actually fighting its "suicide note" election on a policy of withdrawal from the community.

Then, during the Thatcher-Major years, the two parties gradually swapped positions, with the Tories becoming increasingly hostile to Brussels while New Labour appeared enthusiastically to embrace it.

Such an analysis, however, runs only skin deep. The truth is that the two parties were never really united in their approach to the European issue, and that holds as true today as it ever did.

It is a matter of historical fact, after all, that Mr Heath only managed to overcome his own anti-European rebels in '73 with the help of Labour's pro-European rebels led by Roy Jenkins.

That pro-European Labour faction eventually split off from the party to form the SDP, initially under Mr Jenkins' leadership, which in turn gave rise to the Liberal Democrats.

But, as this week's events have shown, there are even a few Eurosceptics in that party too, though they tend to be concentrated down in its South-Westerly fringes.

Europe, then, is less the crucial dividing line in British politics, more the issue on which every major political party itself is internally divided.

Or as they used to say about the economic disparities between the English regions, the differences within the parties over Europe are at least as great as the differences between them.

Only Europe could see Dennis Skinner making common cause with Bill Cash – or to use a more local example, Ronnie Campbell in the same voting lobby as Peter Atkinson.

And only Europe could see Ken Clarke defying his party to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Brown – a man he despises for having taken the credit for his work as Chancellor in the 1990s.

The point at issue this week was whether we should hold a referendum on the infamous EU Reform Treaty – regarded by its opponents as the European Constitution by another name.

Some have tried to dress it up as an argument about “democracy” and whether people, rather than politicians, should ultimately take these sorts of decisions - but don’t be fooled.

With very few exceptions, the people who wanted a referendum were those who think the EU already has too much power and don’t want to see its tentacles extending further into our national life.

By contrast, the people who didn’t want one were by and large those who are comfortable with the European project and happy for the EU to have its own president and foreign minister.

Does any of it actually matter any more? Wasn’t the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU settled irrevocably with the original referendum back in 1975?

And with joining the Euro now ruled out for the foreseeable future, haven’t other issues such as health, education, tax, crime and climate change risen to the top of the political agenda instead?

Well, yes. But there are, to my mind, two sets of circumstances which could see Britain’s relationship with Europe plunged firmly back in the spotlight.

While the first of these is merely a personality issue, the other concerns one of the most difficult challenges facing Britain as a nation and goes to the heart of our self-identity.

The first of these scenarios is one in which Tony Blair becomes the EU’s first executive president, a post being specifically created by the Reform Treaty approved by the Commons this week.

Unless the Irish block the Treaty in their own referendum, it will now almost certainly come into being – but will the former Prime Minister and Sedgefield MP get the job?

French leader Nicolas Sarkozy is enthusiastically in favour, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be against – and Gordon Brown isn’t saying.

I suspect, however, that his private view of the prospect of his old rival making a dramatic return to the European political stage roughly approximates to “over my dead body.”

It is easy to see why. If Mr Blair is appointed, every subsequent clash between Britain and Brussels will be seen through the prism of the convoluted Blair-Brown relationship.

The Europe “story” will be back on the front pages – but this time reborn as pure political soap opera rather than dry-as-dust debates about qualified majority voting.

But even if Mr Blair is passed over, there is a second, more troubling scenario under which the European issue could flare up again, although it is not a particularly comfortable one for those of us of a generally pro-European liberal bent.

It is the question of how we reconcile our finite national resources with the continued influx of Eastern European immigrants who now have complete freedom of movement within the EU.

Last month, the government announced a strict new points system for those coming into the country from outside the EU including the need to sit an English test.

But as the Tories have pointed out, it will have virtually zero net effect on immigration because economic migration from within the EU is set to carry on increasing.

Ultimately, there are only two ways to resolve this conundrum – to get the EU to change its own rules, or, if it will not do so, to withdraw from the EU.

Somehow, I sense that the debate over Europe which has ebbed and flowed through British politics for the past 40 years is not quite done with yet.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Cameron and Clegg aim to beat the system

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 1 March 2008.


A common phenomenon in US presidential elections is the emergence of candidates who are running not so much against an individual opponent, but against the whole political system.

Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who went from obscurity to the White House in 1976 on the back of the Watergate scandal, is perhaps the best example of an outsider who successfully ran “against Washington.”

In the current contest, both Barack Obama and to a lesser extent John McCain are attempting the same trick, positioning themselves against rather tired and discredited party establishments.

It’s the kind of thing that’s never really caught on over here. But as the reputation of Parliament continues to plummet in public esteem, it may not be very long before it does.

Over the past week, the ongoing repercussions of the Derek Conway affair have continued to cast a shadow over Westminster, with the Speaker Michael Martin being dragged into the controversy over MPs expenses.

It emerged that he had claimed £17,000 a year for a home in Scotland on which the mortgage had already been paid off, while his wife claimed more than £4,000 in taxi expenses since May 2004.

The eventual fate of Mr Martin – and the jockeying for position going on among the potential candidates to succeed him – will doubtless be another column for another day.

For now, the main interest for me lies in how the main opposition parties have been seeking to exploit the growing public unease about MPs’ conduct, and how this might influence the next election.

Some commentators were surprised that Tory leader David Cameron took internal House of Commons issues as his theme for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

He kicked off by asking MPs’ pay, followed-up on the government’s refusal to grant referendum on the EU reform treaty, and finally called on Gordon Brown to agree to a televised debate at election time.

For once, Mr Brown was thought to have got the better of the exchange, but the more perceptive observers of the Westminster scene recognised the logic behind what Mr Cameron was up to.

It is this. Like Mr Obama across the pond, he is positioning himself to run at the next election not just against Mr Brown, but against the whole sleazy old establishment.

Said one commentator: “Cameron was trying to suggest he is on the side of those with their noses pressed up against the Westminster window who dislike what they see going on inside.

“Did it work for the Tories? A Westminster insider would answer no. I suspect, however, that if it was shown to a focus group of civilians they would understand it much more easily.”

This is potentially a rich seam for Mr Cameron up against a rather shop-soiled government that, by the time of the next election, will have been in power for half a generation.

If a public head of steam starts to get up in favour of major reform of our parliamentary institutions, the Tory leader is well-placed to ensure that he is in the vanguard.

But so, too, of course, is Nick Clegg, whose party has always led the way in championing political reform and who is also clearly seeking to “run against Westminster.”

This week, the Lib Dem leader launched an outspoken attack on what he called “clapped out 19th century practices” after Mr Martin refused to select his amendment in the debate over the EU reform treaty.

Mr Martin, as is his wont, seemed to take it rather personally, warning Mr Clegg to “be careful where you go with that,” but I don’t think he was attacking the Speaker so much as the system.

Later, his foreign affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, underlined the point by appearing to deliberately get himself thrown out of the Chamber for angrily querying Mr Martin’s ruling.

So what will the public make of it all? Well, one question that immediately springs to mind about the two opposition party leaders is whether either of them are actually convincing “outsiders.”

Both are in fact consummate insiders, both fully paid-up members of what the author and commentator Peter Oborne calls the “political class.”

Mr Cameron’s role as an adviser to Chancellor Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday is well-known. His only job outside politics was as a PR man at Carlton Television.

Mr Clegg has even less experience of life outside the “bubble.” After completing his MA, he worked for the then European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan, before becoming an MEP in 1999 and finally an MP in 2005.

A more particular challenge for Mr Cameron is whether he can overcome the memories of the Tory sleaze of the 1990s - not least with reminders such as Mr Conway still hanging around like a bad smell.

He certainly intends to try. A flavour of the Tories’ new approach came in a letter this week from the 2005 intake of Tory MPs, almost certainly written with the leadership’s encouragement.

It calls for consideration to be given to a US-style “recall mechanism” which would enable constituents to vote on whether a misbehaving MP could be removed during the course of a Parliament.

It’s the kind of thing that not only demonstrates radical thinking, but ensures that the Tories are seen as being on the side of the people – vital for any opposition party serious about winning power.

The real sadness about all this for Labour supporters is that Mr Brown could conceivably have claimed the reform mantle for himself had he been bolder last summer.

Long before the “dodgy donations” affair, he planned to restore trust in politics by handing key powers back to Parliament – but the proposals turned out to be a damp squib.

Now, just as there was in the United States after Watergate, there appears to be a growing desire among the public for a more far-reaching spring-clean of our political system.

Mr Brown may well sympathise with that desire, but it seems certain that his two opponents will be the ones who reap the benefit.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Not Labour's Black Wednesday - yet

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on February 23.


A week ago, in the context of a general discussion about Alistair Darling’s performance as Chancellor, I said that the jury was still out on his handling of Northern Rock.

“I’ll be generous to Mr Darling and say that, thus far, the Rock crisis represents a no-score draw for the government,” were my exact words.

Well, a week is a long time in politics. Since those words appeared, a Bill taking the Rock into public ownership has become law, amid Tory cries of “Back to the 70s” and “Labour’s Black Wednesday.”

But for all the sound and fury of the past seven days, my essential verdict remains unchanged. This is a crisis that, in terms of its impact on domestic politics, could still go either way.

What is already clear from the public reaction that this is not, at the present time, being viewed as anything like “Labour’s Black Wednesday” by the wider electorate.

Sure, it has the capacity to become that if things don’t go to plan, but the Brown government has not yet been forced to rip up the central plank of its economic policy as John Major’s was in 1992.

Hence when the BBC’s Question Time came to Newcastle on Thursday evening, there was no great wave of hostility towards Labour, no baying for Chancellor Alistair Darling’s blood.

Perhaps significantly, the biggest cheer of the evening came when the union boss Derek Simpson said he “has trouble understanding Conservative policies.” He is not alone.

There was a similar reaction at Westminster. The prevailing view there was that Tory leader David Cameron and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne had missed an opportunity.

Wrote one senior political commentator: “The consensus was that Dave’s call to sack Darling was misjudged, and that Osborne over-egged things by claiming we’ve gone back to the 70s.”

The Tories’ big problem since the start of this whole affair has been their apparent inability to arrive at a settled policy. At the last count, they have had six.

As a result, they have been unable to construct a clear alternative narrative to Labour’s, leaving the public with the impression that no such alternative actually exists.

As it is, my view for what it’s worth is that Mr Darling is almost certainly telling the truth when he says that nationalisation represents the best deal for the taxpayer.

Why? Because if that were not the case, I don’t believe anything else would have persuaded a New Labour government in the year 2008 to take a bank into public ownership.

The truth of the matter is that Messrs Brown and Darling were desperate to avoid this moment, desperate to find a viable private sector solution to the whole problem.

Only when it became clear that the private sector proposals on offer would result in a multi-billion pound loss to the taxpayer did they manage to overcome their irrational dread of the n-word.

They need not have worried. Unlike New Labour, and for that matter the Tories, the British public are not still caught up in the ideological battles of the 1970s and 80s.

What Mr Brown should have realised is that the nationalisation of Northern Rock was actually an application of the New Labour mantra “traditional values in a modern setting.”

While wholesale nationalisation has been rejected as a means of economic management, there are occasionally circumstances in which nationalising individual companies is the right thing to do.

If New Labour is essentially the politics of pragmatism, unbound by ideology, then nationalising Northern Rock was actually the correct New Labour option all along.

Furthermore, if it was the right option for the taxpayer, so it also appears to have been the least worst option in terms of protecting the jobs of the Rock’s 6,000 employees in Newcastle.

No-one is under any illusions that all of those jobs can be saved. As the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable said on Question Time: “It is very clear that the bank has to be shrunk.”

The fact is, though, it would have had to be shrunk a good deal further had the bank been allowed to go into administration, as the Tories appeared to be advocating at one time.

Neither would the two private sector bidders have been able to maintain anything like the current level of operations had they been successful.

Labour is not out of the woods yet. As I said at the outset, it could still go either way.

The most obvious thing could go wrong is that a sizeable chunk of the taxpayer’s £110bn exposure to Northern Rock is not recouped, although this is unlikely to happen so long as the housing market recovers.

The other major area of uncertainty concerns the still-privately-owned offshore vehicle Granite into which Northern Rock has transferred some of its assets.

Some claim that the relationship between the two is such that if Northern Rock stops taking on new business, Granite itself will collapse.

But the deeper ramifications of the Northern Rock affair may not in fact lie in its impact on narrow party politics, but on the wider political consensus surrounding the role of the state.

For the past two decades, we have been in thrall to the view that the economy performs best when financial institutions are allowed to operate in lightly-regulated markets.

What the Northern Rock crisis and the wider credit crunch have demonstrated, though, is the limits of this approach when the free market is allowed to run out of control.

This week’s decision to nationalise may not be Labour’s Black Wednesday. But it may nevertheless still come to be seen as a watershed in 21st century political history.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Darling faces Budget date with destiny

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 16 February 2008.


Early on in the lifetime of the Labour government – in the days when it could make such boasts without inviting ridicule – Gordon Brown once referred to himself as “the Guardian of the People’s Money.”

Indeed, such was the rigour with which Mr Brown managed the public finances in his “Iron Chancellor” phase, that there was a time when such a lofty claim could be taken semi-seriously.

A decade on, however, the administration he now heads cannot even ensure that £2.8m worth of the People’s Money ends up going to the right Newcastle.

Was this simply an administrative cock-up of the kind that happens to all governments from time to time? Or is it emblematic of a wider malaise at the heart of this particular one?

Either way, the past week has seen the mounting discontent about the performance of the Brown administration converging around his successor at the Treasury, Alistair Darling.

Every so often, a negative buzz goes round a particular politician. At the moment, it’s happening to the Chancellor.

On the face of it, the reasons for this are not hard to fathom – his handling of the Northern Rock crisis coupled with the double U-turn over the taxing of “non-doms” and the reforms to capital gains tax.

But allied to this is a growing feeling at Westminster that the Brown-Darling partnership is not doing the business for Labour, and that one or other of them will, at some stage, have to make way.

We’ll leave Northern Rock to one side for now. Suffice to say that while Mr Darling’s initial handling of last autumn’s run on the bank was praised, the continuing uncertainty over its future has not shown him in his best light.

I’ll be generous to Mr Darling and say that, thus far, the Rock crisis represents a no-score draw for the government. It could yet go either way.

The decisions to backtrack on two of the key elements of his October pre-Budget report in response to pressure from the business world are, however, less easy to gloss over.

Over the past fortnight, Mr Darling has caved in to demands to water-down his plans to standardise capital gains tax at 18pc, and also to close tax loopholes for wealthy “non-domiciled” businessmen whose earnings are held offshore.

The moves are all the more embarrassing because when Mr Darling first unveiled his pre-Budget report last October it was widely criticised as having been put together on the hoof.

It came days after the Tories had rocked the government with the announcement of their plan to slash inheritance tax for all estates over £1m.

The proposed introduction of a flat rate annual tax levied on all 650,000 “non-doms,” which had also been advocated by the Tories, was conceived as a means of paying for the tax cut.

But if such wholesale purloining of the opposition’s ideas seemed politically inept at the time, the fact that Mr Darling has now had to think again makes it look doubly so.

Indeed, as things stand, the Tories will be going into the next election pledged to tax “non-doms” at five times the rate now proposed by Labour – although there has to be a question mark over whether their plans are any more workable than Mr Darling’s.

Once again, it poses the question whether voters of a leftish inclination are now better off supporting a right-wing party that leans to the left over a centrist one that leans increasingly to the right - but that is a question for another day.

What this week’s moves by Mr Darling really demonstrate is a catastrophic loss of confidence by the government in their own values of social justice and fairness.

As one left-leaning commentator put it: “The entire Cabinet should have been barnstorming through the studios denouncing the sheer naked greed of the rich, rallying support for fair taxes paid fairly by all.”

Set against that backdrop, it is not surprising that even though Parliament has been in recess this week, a whispering campaign has begun against the Chancellor.

It was kicked off by an unnamed Labour MP who was quoted in a Sunday newspaper as saying that the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, would do a better job at the Treasury.

Actually, there are some MPs who think this anonymous colleague was in fact Mr Balls himself, but I can’t believe he would be that daft.

Neither, frankly, can I believe there are many Labour MPs who see him as the answer, given that he suffers from the same unfortunate tendency to spout economic facts at us that afflicts the Prime Minister.

What Mr Brown really needs at the Treasury is someone who complements his style rather than duplicates it.

Charles Clarke could have been a contender – but he has this week ruled himself out of any future reshuffle equations with yet another intemperate attack on Mr Brown that just gives the Tories more ammunition.

It seems clear to me that had Mr Brown appointed Jack Straw or David Miliband to the Chancellorship last June, his government would now look stronger.

But to make those changes now would not only seem like a panic measure, it would be an admission that the Prime Minister got the most crucial appointment of his premiership wrong.

In any case, there comes a point in the lifetime of any government where reshuffles become no more than a meaningless game of musical chairs, and, for New Labour, this point has probably long since passed.

The challenge for Mr Darling now is less to keep his job than to get through to Budget Day on March 12 without having to dismantle any more of his pre-Budget proposals.

Next in the business lobby’s firing line is the proposed 2p increase in petrol duty – something for which there is a clear environmental as well as an economic case.

Whether ministers are now prepared to make that case will show if this bruised and battered administration retains any shred of self-belief.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Clegg finds his voice

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday 9 February.


THEY say managing England is the toughest job in the country – and doubtless it will soon get a whole lot tougher for new boss Fabio Capello than overcoming Switzerland 2-1 at home in a friendly.

But even so, it can’t be quite as hard a job as leading Britain’s third political party in what is still essentially a two-party system.

The biggest difficulty facing any leader of the Liberal Democrats is making themselves heard above the din – and since being elected to the job at the start of December, Nick Clegg has found himself being largely drowned out.

Indeed, the only headlines he has managed to make up until now have been for saying he didn’t believe in God – leading some to applaud his honesty while others chided him for jeopardising his party’s sizeable religious vote.

This week, however, Mr Clegg finally appeared to find his voice, and with it a compelling soundbite - “the surveillance society.”

Thus far, attention at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons has been on the duel between Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, with Mr Cameron generally seen as getting the better of it.

This Wednesday, though, it was Mr Clegg who was asking the difficult questions, putting the Prime Minister on the spot over civil liberties and in so doing, mining a potentially rich seam for the Lib Dems.

Timing is everything in politics, and after last autumn’s serial losses of personal data followed by this week’s revelations about the bugging of MP Sadiq Khan, this is a message the public might just be ready to hear.

Mr Clegg’s specific question was, in fact, about the "scandalous fingerprinting" of children at schools and the presence of more than a million innocent people on the national DNA database.

“It is this government that has turned the British public into the most spied upon the planet….you are creating a surveillance state,” he told the Prime Minister.

It was stirring stuff – but this is more than mere rhetoric from Mr Clegg. It is also smart politics.

For one thing, it taps into the general unease in the country about the erosion of individual liberties. For another, it provides a convincing narrative for a party which is nothing if it is not about defending those liberties.

Mr Brown is particularly vulnerable on the issue because this is another area where his government has markedly failed to live up to the high expectations of its early days.

In a keynote speech last autumn, the Prime Minister spoke of writing “a new chapter in our country's story of liberty.”

“I believe that to each generation falls the task of expanding the idea of British liberty and to each generation also the task of rediscovering liberty's central importance as a founding value of our country and its animating force,” he said.

“The character of our country will be defined by how we write the next chapter of British liberty - by whether we do so responsibly and in a way that progressively adds to and enlarges rather then reduces the sphere of freedom.”

I was one of those who applauded the speech at the time, partly because it also included a pledge not to increase fees for administering freedom of information requests – a cause fairly dear to my own profession.

More broadly, the “liberty agenda” also had the potential to be Mr Brown’s “big idea” – so long as the rhetoric was backed up by concrete policy initiatives, of course.

But looking back, the speech now seems to contain a number of hostages to fortune, such as the Prime Minister’s promise of “new rights to protect your private information in a world of new technology.”

Rights to protect your private information are all very well – but they are of little use if the private information in question keeps being lost by the government.

The big story looming in the background to all this – the elephant in the living room, to use the contemporary phrase - is of course ID cards.

Mr Brown has taken the same sort of facing-both-ways approach to this as he has towards casinos – scrapping plans for the “supercasino” in Manchester while allowing 16 smaller ones across the regions.

So on ID cards, while he has delayed their implementation until 2012, far enough away to take the short-term political sting out of issue, he nevertheless remains committed to their introduction.

If Mr Brown does decide to go the distance and delay the General Election until 2010, it is impossible to believe that it won’t flare up again as a big issue.

As with a host of other matters from electoral reform to doing something about social mobility, this has to go down as a missed opportunity for Mr Brown.

One of his biggest difficulties since becoming Prime Minister has been in seeking to differentiate himself from his predecessor without being accused of a “lurch to the left.”

With ID cards, Mr Brown had the chance to ditch a very unpopular aspect of the Blair legacy without inviting that accusation – for the simple reason that both other parties were against them too.

After all, it was not as if Mr Brown was exactly shy of stealing the Tories’ clothes during his honeymoon period last year.

Furthermore, if Mr Brown’s talk of extending liberty is unconvincing so long as ID cards remain on the agenda, another part of the problem is the public perception of the Prime Minister himself.

Rightly or wrongly, people see him less as the man who will let a thousand flowers bloom, and more as the man sat in a darkened room monitoring our every move on a set of CCTV monitors.

It may be unfair, but the control freakery that has been associated with the New Labour project from its earliest days does sit easily with a commitment to defending individual freedoms.

Making personal liberty a Labour issue was always going to be a tough one for Mr Brown. Mr Clegg may just find it easier.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Conway takes the heat off Brown

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 2 February 2008.


One of the most oft-repeated, and in my view most justified, complaints against New Labour that has been heard in the North-East over the past decade is that it has taken the region for granted.

Its reward for supplying the country with one Prime Minister and ten Cabinet ministers since 1997 was to have its demands for a fairer share of the UK funding cake routinely ignored.

Over the course of last autumn, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that the region was taking some sort of poetic revenge on the government that had treated it so unjustly for so long.

It spawned a trio of crises in close succession – from Northern Rock, to “discgate,” to the dodgy donations affair, which between them came close to destroying the credibility of the Gordon Brown administration.

This week, however, it was almost as if the North-East was trying to display its undying loyalty to Labour after all by cooking-up an almighty great big scandal for the Tories instead.

Newcastle-born MP Derek Conway’s career has hit the buffers after it emerged that he paid his Newcastle University student son Freddie £25,970 a year for being a very part-time researcher.

Perhaps fortunately for the region, Mr Conway left these parts in search of national political glory more than a quarter of a century ago after a stint on Tyne and Wear Council and two failed attempts at Parliament.

Ironically, his great rival in the Conservative politics of the region in those days was Piers Merchant, who did manage to become a Newcastle MP but whose career similarly ended in disgrace.

So why is the story of how Derek Conway became Derek Gone-Away such a grade A embarrassment for the Tories and their leader David Cameron? Well, primarily, because of its timing.

A week ago, following the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, the Tories appeared to have Mr Brown’s government on the run over the issue of “sleaze.”

Not only was Mr Hain facing a police investigation over his failure to declare deputy leadership campaign donations, there were also question marks against several other senior Labour politicians.

Leader of the Commons Harriet Harman and Labour’s Scottish leader Wendy Alexander were already in the frame, and over the weekend, Health Secretary Alan Johnson found himself facing similar allegations.

Mr Conway’s misdemeanours have not only taken the focus of all of that, but they have also put the events surrounding Mr Hain’s Cabinet demise in their proper perspective.

For whereas Mr Hain was certainly guilty of incompetence – or, rather, “ain incompetence” as Mr Brown put it – there was no proof of any impropriety.

Mr Conway, on the other hand, was guilty of what the Standards and Privileges Committee called “at the least, an improper use of parliamentary allowances; at worst, a serious diversion of public funds".

In almost any other walk of life they would have had another word for it, one beginning with f.

Another very good reason why Mr Cameron could have done without all this right now is that it has reminded the voters that “sleaze” was once a Tory rather than Labour speciality.

Memories of Jonathan Aitken’s infamous “sword of truth” and Neil Hamilton’s brown envelopes from Mohammed al Fayed had started to fade after a dozen years, but now they are very much alive again.

Finally, the affair temporarily made Mr Cameron look like a ditherer – the very accusation he has been throwing at Mr Brown.

Although he eventually did withdraw the whip from Mr Conway, it was only after the extent of the public outcry – notably on conservative blogs – rendered his position untenable.

Indeed, such has been the level of outrage that there are now apparently serious calls for a ban on MPs employing family members at all.

Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, acknowledged it would be a “rather harsh” answer to the problem, but added that it "could be the right thing to do."

One senior North-East parliamentarian who would be affected by that is Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland. His wife, Brenda, is his parliamentary assistant, and indeed has been so since before she became Mrs Clelland.

There has however never been the slightest suggestion that she is anything other than a hard-working member of staff. Indeed having dealt with her on numerous occasions I can vouch for as much.

A much more high profile example is Margaret Beckett, who has formed an enduring political partnership with her husband and secretary Leo ever since they first got together in the mid-70s.

During Mrs Beckett’s stint as Foreign Secretary, during which he accompanied her on overseas trips, Leo was characterised by the right-wing press as a drain on public funds.

It was all grotesquely unfair. I have known the Becketts for more than 20 years and Leo has played an absolutely vital supporting role in the course of his wife’s long career.

Now, as a result of Mr Conway’s stupidity, they, too, may now find themselves having to make alternative arrangements.

But the really damage of the Conway affair is not so much to individual parties or MPs but to the political system as a whole, in that it encourages the widespread and mistaken view that all politicians are corrupt.

It may have given Mr Brown a temporary respite from his troubles this week, but ultimately episodes such as this only serve to damage the whole lot of them.

As for the fate of Mr Conway himself, well, the last time he was out of the Commons between 1997 and 2001, he found himself a job as chief executive of the Cats Protection League.

It was an unlikely role for someone whose reputation as a bruiser goes back to his Tyne and Wear Council days – but perhaps he has a softer side after all.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Brown bottles it again

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 26 January 2008.


When the history of New Labour’s long period in government finally comes to be written, it is unlikely that January 24 will go down as one of the more auspicious dates in its calendar.

It was on that day in 2001 that the then Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson resigned from Tony Blair’s Cabinet for the second and last time over claims that he helped procure a passport for an Indian businessman.

Although the allegations later turned out to be false, Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell acted swiftly and ruthlessly to despatch their close friend and ally into the outer political darkness.

Seven years on, by one of those bizarre coincidences that add to the spice of political life, Thursday January 24 saw the final demise of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain – although his treatment at the hands of premier Gordon Brown could not have been more different.

As I wrote last week, it has been clear for some time that Mr Hain’s position is untenable, yet Mr Brown, like John Major before him, appeared unable or unwilling to bite the bullet.

You can criticise Mr Blair’s behaviour towards Mr Mandelson – and I did at the time – but by acting decisively, he did at least limit the damage to the government.

Mr Brown, by contrast, tried to hang on to his colleague, while at the same time appearing to undermine him.

It has not, to be fair, been one of his more distinguished episodes, and has served only to enhance the image of him in the public mind as a ditherer.

The Prime Minister did a little better in his handling of the subsequent reshuffle, even if he failed to do either of the things I was urging in these pages a week ago.

He didn’t decide to bring back a heavyweight figure from the Blair years to bolster his flagging administration, and neither did he take the opportunity to scrap the pointless part-time posts of Scottish and Welsh Secretary.

What he did do, though, was to underline one of the key themes that marked his first attempt at Cabinet-making last July – the transition from one Labour generation to the next.

James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the three main beneficiaries of Thuesday's changes, are all in their 30s. To paraphrase Mr Blair, they are the future now.

Certainly, Mr Brown had a golden opportunity to restore Darlington MP Alan Milburn or another senior Blairite such as Charles Clarke had he wanted to.
The fact that he passed up that opportunity means they are almost certainly not now returning to the Cabinet table – at least not under Mr Brown – and it will be interesting to see if they stand again at the next election.

The choice of 59-year-old retread Paul Murphy to head the Welsh Office appears to fly in the face of the accent on youth, but this may just turn out to be a relatively short-term appointment.

I still believe that a restructuring of the territorial posts into a "Department for Devolution" is on the cards at some point.

But there was something else that happened on Thursday that, amid the excitement of the Hain resignation, passed almost unnoticed, and it is to this that I want to devote the remainder of this week’s column.

It was an announcement from the Justice Minister Michael Wills of the results of a review of the different voting systems currently in use across the UK.

I doubt if it was a case of “burying bad news,” since the announcement had been scheduled for some time previously and Mr Hain’s resignation on that day was unplanned.

Either way, it concluded that voters in Scotland and Wales had been “confused” by the use of proportional representation for devolved elections, and ruled out its introduction for Westminster.

So what, you might think? Well, there is no region in the UK where this actually matters more than in the North East of England.

Almost half of people in the region who actually bother to vote do not support Labour, yet for the past three elections, the region has ended up with 28 Labour MPs, one Conservative, and one Liberal Democrat.

What this means is that, in 2005, it took 20,730 people in the North-East to elect one Labour MP, 214,414 to elect one Conservative, and 256,295 to send one Liberal Democrat to the Commons.

Or to put it another way, it took more than 12 times as many people to elect one Lib Dem MP in the region than it took to elect one Labour MP.

It is little wonder, then, that voter turnout in the region has continued to lag well behind the national average, at a time when wider political engagement is in any case at an all-time low.

The years of New Labour spin, culminating in the dodgy dossier which sent British soldiers to war on a false prospectus, have well-nigh destroyed the bond of trust between politicians and the public.

Mr Brown said at the start of his premiership that he wanted to restore that lost trust, yet the ongoing controversy over Labour funding and campaign donations have only compounded the situation.

Doing something to make people think their votes were actually worth something would, in my view, have been a good to way to start addressing it.

But there is another reason why Mr Brown should have had a fresh look at the voting system, not so much for reasons of principle as for reasons of realpolitik.

The next election is shaping up to be a bit like 1992 – a contest between a government that has been in a bit too long, and an opposition that hasn’t really yet earned the right to govern. In short, it has hung Parliament written all over it.

If Labour are going to need the Liberal Democrats in order to remain in power, they are also going to need to look again at electoral reform.

Mr Brown had a chance to prepare the ground for that this week. Just as with his failure to sack Mr Hain, he bottled it.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hain's departure could strengthen Brown

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 19 January, 2007.


Anyone who has followed this column for any length of time will know by now that I take the view that very little of what happens in politics is historically inevitable.

Contrary to those who would have us believe that everything is pre-ordained, the world is full of “what ifs?” which could have caused everything to turn out differently.

Margaret Thatcher may have come to dominate her era – but had it not been for Jim Callaghan’s tactical blundering in the autumn of 1978, the Iron Lady might never even have made it to Number 10.

Later, Tony Blair would be Prime Minister for almost as long – but had John Smith not dropped dead one morning in May 1994, New Labour might have forever remained just a twinkle in Peter Mandelson’s eye.

So to begin with this week, here’s a slice of counterfactual history. It is 2003, and former Leader of the Commons Robin Cook has just stood up to make a personal statement in the House following his resignation over the plans to invade Iraq.

Mr Cook is just getting into his formidable stride when, suddenly, journalists and MPs alike are startled to see the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, slip onto the backbenches alongside him.

Outside the Chamber afterwards, Mr Hain confirms to camera crews in Central Lobby that he, too, has resigned from the Cabinet in protest at Mr Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion.

The twin resignation rocks the government to its foundations, and although Mr Blair narrowly survives, Messrs Cook and Hain increasingly come to be seen as the moral conscience of the Labour movement.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005, and Mr Cook’s sudden death while out walking in the Scottish Highlands leaves Mr Hain as the undisputed leader of Labour’s anti-war left.

His principled opposition to the disastrous conflict, coupled with his brave stance against apartheid in the 70s, has made him a hero for many, and he is increasingly spoken of as a potential challenger for the leadership when Mr Blair stands down.

Sure enough, in June 2007, the 56-year-old Neath MP announces to rapturous applause from party activists that he will take on Gordon Brown for the Labour crown.

After a titanic struggle for the soul of the party, Mr Brown prevails. But Mr Hain has too much support in the party to be sidelined, and is rewarded with the plum job of Foreign Secretary and effective Cabinet Number Two.

Far-fetched? Well, perhaps no more so than a minister spending £200,000 of someone else’s money pursuing the most worthless job in British politics only to come fifth behind Harriet Harman.

But what this little story hopefully illustrates is that, for Mr Hain, his problems began long before it emerged that he had failed to fill in his campaign returns properly.

What finished him was not so much that, as the realisation that this one-time radical idealist had ended up compromising every radical ideal he ever held in order to keep his backside on a ministerial chair.

The upshot was a loss of credibility within the party, the extent of which only finally became clear following his dismal performance in last summer’s deputy leadership contest.

In the light of that result, it was a rather magnanimous gesture on Mr Brown’s part to keep Mr Hain in the Cabinet at all, albeit in the middle-ranking post of Work and Pensions Secretary.

To be fair, he has since gone on to win one small but important victory in that role, overcoming Treasury objections to secure a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust.

But the truth is that ever since the deputy leadership debacle, Mr Hain has been living on borrowed political time.

Even if the row over his campaign funding not occurred, he was already seen as a likely casualty of the next reshuffle, and this appears now to have escalated into a racing certainty.

If anyone is in any doubt about this, he or she should make a careful study of the Prime Minister’s words on the subject in a week in which he has twice effectively hung Mr Hain out to dry.

On Monday, he gave an interview in which he said that while he had full confidence in his Cabinet colleague, his future was “out of his hands.”

Later in the week, he said that while Mr Hain had done a good job overall, he had been guilty of “an incompetence” in failing to file his campaign returns – a careful distinction likely to remain lost on Labour’s opponents.

If this is what passes for a vote of confidence in Mr Brown’s eyes, remind me never to go tiger-shooting with him.

The Prime Minister would have done better, in my view, to have acted more decisively and used the departure of Mr Hain as an opportunity to strengthen his beleaguered administration.

Firstly, it would have freed up a Cabinet berth for Darlington MP Alan Milburn, bringing much-needed fresh thinking into the government and enabling Mr Brown to stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites.

Secondly, it would have created an opening for a long-overdue structural reshuffle, combining the territorial Cabinet posts under a single Department for Devolved Affairs.

Why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still need a Cabinet minister each when they all now have their own elected First Ministers is not just beyond me but many other observers besides.

What of the bigger picture? Has the ongoing controversy over Mr Hain blown Gordon’s much-vaunted New Year “relaunch” off-course?

Well, maybe - although the looming question of whether or not to nationalise Northern Rock is probably giving the Prime Minister many more sleepless nights.

But that said, Mr Brown seemed at last this week to be finding his feet at Prime Minister’s Questions, putting David Cameron on the defensive over his own shifts in policy towards the Rock.

Maybe he’s starting to like the job a bit more. Or maybe he was just enjoying the fact that, for once, the focus of attention was elsewhere.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gordon the grinder digs in the for the long haul

Saturday column published in the Newcastle Journal, 12 January 2008


Before going any further, I would like to make one thing clear. Unlike some fellow commentators, I am not going to spend the ten months between now and the US presidential election in November attempting to draw spurious analogies between that contest and the current state of UK politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying American politics doesn’t affect what happens over here. Any cursory look at the history of the past decade and a half clearly shows that it does.

It certainly did in the 1990s when Bill Clinton’s victory helped lay the ground for the success of Tony Blair and New Labour a few years later.

And it certainly did in the current decade when a Labour Prime Minister found himself dragged into a disastrous military adventure by a neo-conservative US president – an entanglement that eventually cost him his premiership.

But much as I’d like to, I’m afraid I just don’t buy the idea that Hillary Clinton’s dramatic comeback to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday provides some kind of get-out-of-jail card for Gordon Brown.

Certain well-known pundits have spent the past few days trying to construct a “narrative” in which, because one serious, experienced politician has bounced back from adversity, the other will invariably do the same.

Even more ludicrous was the earlier suggestion that victory for the youthful Barack Obama victory in Tuesday’s primary would have provided a boost for the almost equally youthful Tory leader David Cameron.

I look forward to the spectacle of Cameron attempting to remain aboard the Obama bandwagon if the latter wins in November and orders an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But that said, one thing that Mrs Clinton and Mr Brown do have in common, besides experience and seriousness, is resilience.

What we have seen from both of them this week is that, whatever the outcome, they are in it for the long-term.

It may not guarantee either ultimate success, and it certainly does not mean their destinies are somehow joined at the hip as some commentators have sought to suggest.

But it does mean that seeing off either of them will be a somewhat tougher task for their opponents than some recent polls might have suggested.

Mr Brown’s New Year message certainly gave no indication of a politician who is about to throw in the towel. Rather, he is selling himself as the proven economic helmsman who can steer the ship of state through the troubled times ahead.
As I have previously mentioned, the prospect of a serious economic downturn poses some risk to Mr Brown, in that he has been in charge of the economy for the past decade.

Furthermore, while nearly everyone currently regards him as a successful economic manager, a Prime Minister is expected to be more than that.

But if, in 12 months’ time, Mr Brown can indeed claim to have guided us safely through the choppy economic waters, we may well see his reputation recovering to its former levels.

Journalists covering his monthly press conference on Monday may have mocked the Prime Minister’s repeated talk of “difficult decisions” and “long-term choices,” but at least its authentic Gordon.

After the serial debacles of last autumn, he is committing himself to what one commentator called “a long unglamorous campaign of hard graft” to rescue his fortunes.

His hard line on public sector pay is a case in point. Because of the nature of the jobs they do, there will always be a certain amount of public sympathy for the police and the nurses.

But if by putting the battle against inflation once again at the top of his priorities Mr Brown can ensure a soft economic landing for the UK, his stance will have been more than vindicated.

Thursday’s announcement of a new generation of nuclear power stations is another example of a decision which, while potentially unpopular in itself, may yield wider political benefits.

Memories of Chernobyl may have faded, and worries about the industry’s safety record given way to concerns about the effect of burning fossil fuels, but most people still see nuclear energy as, at best, a necessary evil.

But what it does do, once again, is send out a wider message about the government’s long-termism and seriousness of intent.

Even Mr Brown’s opponents may have to admit to a certain grudging admiration for him for taking a decision that the Labour Party would once almost certainly have sought to fudge.

What is clear is that, having decided there will not be an election this year or maybe even next, the Prime Minister is now digging in for the long haul.

There is a clear political logic to this. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and as things stand, Mr Brown does not have to give up the lease on 10 Downing Street until May 2010.

Even if he were to go on until then and lose, he will still have had nearly three years as Prime Minister in which to lay down some kind of long-term legacy, in the hope that history might judge him rather better than his contemporaries.

And of course, there is always just a chance that he might win, if he can govern competently and sensibly enough for the public to change their mind about him again.

Earlier this week Mr Brown was asked – by an experienced radio interviewer who should have known better – whether he was “enjoying” the job.

Much was made of his refusal to give a straight answer, but I suspect that the reason was that, for a puritanical Son of the Manse like Gordon, the question was simply irrelevant.

The truth is almost certainly that he is neither enjoying the job nor hating it. He is just getting on with it.

Indeed, in the circumstances, it is the only thing he can do.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Brown should accept the Blairite olive-branch

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 5 January 2008.


Earlier this week, I came across a list of “Wishes for 2008” which concluded with the words: “For Bush and Bin Laden to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to Pluto so the rest of us can kiss and make up.”

Joking aside, what it showed was that for most of us, Christmas and New Year is seen as a time of peace and goodwill, an opportunity for the burying of hatchets and the making of fresh starts.

Sadly, not everyone in the world sees it that way. Ever since the Russian tanks rolled into Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve, 1978, overseas conflicts have become almost a regular occurrence at this time of year.

The past week has been no exception, with the tribal warfare in Kenya following on from the terrible events in Pakistan surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

But in one small corner of the political world, though, peace did break out over the course of this festive season – in the British Labour Party, no less.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown having experienced such a dreadful couple of months that there was even talk of another change of leadership, his old rivals on the uber-Blairite wing of the party suddenly decided to sue for peace.

North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers led the way with a dramatic declaration that Tony Blair was “history” and a call for the party to get solidly behind Mr Brown.

It also emerged that his friend and fellow North-East MP Alan Milburn has been “quietly” helping Downing Street, at a time when some might have urged him to distance himself.

Mr Byers wrote last Sunday: “With Tony Blair gone from domestic politics, the task of leading Labour to victory falls to Gordon Brown. It is the responsibility of all of us who want to see a fourth election victory to give him our support.

"Tony Blair is history. He is the political past and will not be part of the future of domestic politics in our country."

The message was unmistakeable. The Blair-Brown feud is finally over, and will not be carried on at one remove by the former Prime Minister’s closest remaining allies.

Mr Blair, who has no intention of becoming a “back-seat driver” like Lady Thatcher, is himself reported to have demanded a show of loyalty to Mr Brown in the tumultuous weeks following the cancellation of the general election last autumn.

Now the first thing to say about all this, from a purely North-East perspective, is that it might make the regional Labour Party slightly less of a beargarden than has been the case for the past decade.

For many years, the tribal Blairite-Brownite split has cut through the politics of the region like a knife.

Here were to be found some of Mr Blair’s strongest and most influential supporters – Mr Byers, Mr Milburn, Peter Mandelson, Hilary Armstrong, and latterly David Miliband.

But at the same time, the North-East was also home to many of Mr Brown’s key lieutenants - Nick Brown, Doug Henderson, Kevan Jones and, before his retirement from the Commons in 2005, Derek Foster.

Too much bad blood has been spilt between these two camps down the years to expect them all to kiss and make up overnight, but of course the implications of Mr Byers’ olive-branch go far wider.

So what was it all about? Well, one thing it was not was an attempt to suck-up to Mr Brown in the hope of making a ministerial comeback.

The former Transport Secretary has no ambitions to return to government, and appears content with his role as a thoughtful, and by no means uninfluential, backbench voice.

Neither was it, in my view, simply a call for unity brought on by the desperate circumstances in which the government and Mr Brown currently find themselves.

No, I think Mr Byers’ intervention was part of a more complex picture that will become clearer over the next few weeks as other former Blairites dip their toes into the waters of internal party debate.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, for instance, is shortly expected to make a major speech on social mobility, an issue over which the government was heavily criticised in a report last month.

Mr Milburn himself will also be returning to the fray, majoring on public sector reform and the “choice” agenda – still the key issue for many ex-Blairites.

What Mr Byers’ article has done is prepared the ground for this policy debate to take place in a context where it is interpreted not as a challenge to Mr Brown’s leadership, but as helpful and constructive advice.

So how should Mr Brown respond? Well, as one commentator wrote last week, his initial temptation will probably be to “pick up this olive branch and use it to give the Blairites a thrashing.”

But he does not have that luxury. Such is the Prime Minister’s current plight that he needs to be able to swallow his pride and accept help wherever it is offered.

Mr Brown was badly let down last year by his closest allies who allowed the autumn election fever to get so out of control, openly speculating about whether “the gamble” lay in going or not going to the polls.

He clearly needs to widen the circle of those he listens to, and there is now no reason why it should not include experienced former ministers such as Messrs Byers, Blunkett and Milburn.

Amid all his current difficulties, Mr Brown has two crucial advantages compared to the position John Major was in during the mid-1990s.

First, as I pointed out last week, there has been no great upsurge of enthusiasm for David Cameron as there was then for Mr Blair. Second, he leads a moreorless united party.

But it is not so much mere unity which is now on offer from his former rivals, as fresh thinking and new ideas.

And with his government in danger of looking like an exhausted volcano, that, surely, is what Mr Brown now needs most of all.

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