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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter
Template Designed by Douglas Bowman - Updated to New Blogger by: Blogger Team
Modified for 3-Column Layout by Hoctro