November 2008


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Two fairly spectacular stories are vying for attention on the Sunday papers’ front pages today. The Mail on Sunday claimed Tory frontbencher Damian Green was the victim of a government entrapment operation involving Whitehall whistleblower Christopher Galley. The Independent on Sunday suggested the shadow immigration minister’s Parliamentary office may have been bugged. The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph led with stories focusing on the Mumbai terrorist attacks and fraying relations between India and Pakistan.

Andrew Marr, often criticised for being too soft on top ranking politicians, gave Jacqui Smith a nightmare over the Damian Green affair this morning. My favourite excerpt from the interview:

ANDREW MARR: Damian Green clearly believes that he was bugged – that his BlackBerry was bugged, his phone was bugged. Now if that was the case, you would have had to have proved that, wouldn’t you?

JACQUI SMITH: If that were the case, I would have signed a warrant. jacqui-smith

ANDREW MARR: Did you sign any such warrant?

JACQUI SMITH: Andrew… No. Andrew…

ANDREW MARR: Sorry, I just… these are quite important questions.

JACQUI SMITH: Well because I’m sorry, Andrew, home secretaries don’t confirm or deny which warrants they have or have not signed. But, frankly, you know let me be clear about this, we are getting totally into conspiracy theory territory here.

ANDREW MARR: So you didn’t sign such a warrant?

JACQUI SMITH: Totally into conspiracy theory territory.

Hmmm. I think I side with William Hague when he described Smith’s responses as “inadequate”. As Marr rightly pointed out prior to the interview, leaking briefings has always been the bread and butter of political journalism, and no group of people has handed over more sensitive material to the press over the years than Gordon Brown and his comrades. Worrying times for whistleblowers everywhere.

One night a short time after New Labour swept to victory in 1997, the Chancellor hosted a party for a handful of close friends. As he put on his coat to leave, one guest remarked, “Great party, Gordon”.skull_tombstone1

Rumour has it that Brown turned to him with a grim smile. “The Labour Party,” he rumbled. “That was a great party, wasn’t it?”

The central tenet of Tony Blair’s project was the need to siphon off the colouring of Old Labour ideology. He was left with a translucent and electable party that promised not to raise taxes for the middle classes while pledging to pump money into the NHS and leave the financial markets to their own devices. Meanwhile, Blair went about wooing the powerful and wealthy like a hyperactive peacock. It was the first Labour government that could honestly say it was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

The Pre-Budget Report has been a game changing event. In what The Times briskly branded a “Robin Hood-style budget”, Alistair Darling has dug his fingernails into the upper middle classes and drawn blood. A new 45 per cent tax band for earnings above £150,000 and national insurance increases across the board go against every rule in the Labour electoral book since 1994.

Once again the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and more than ever before the pieces are in flux. Where they will land is anyone’s guess.

The Times’ leader today ran under the simple obituary headline: “New Labour 1994-2008.” George Osborne was keen to do some scythe swinging of his own, announcing: “Stability has gone out of the window, prudence is dead.”

This may be the death of New Labour, but it’s also a study in inevitability. Party politics have returned, breaking through the tarmac of the Blair era like the roots of an oak. In his private diary, Hugo Young once noted that Blair had “deeply alienated people more traditional than he is”, adding: “He has overlooked the degree to which one day he would need the party.” That day has come, although it’s Brown who faces the music.

The battle lines are drawn in a way not seen since 1992, and the tribal drums are banging.

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You can almost smell the cordite in the air. Mass briefings, new advertising campaigns and a striking Pre-Budget Report: an election is in the offing, and today the first salvos were fired.

Even the quickest flick through the Sunday headlines gets monotonous. The Observer went with “Darling to slash VAT and spark Xmas spree”, The Sunday Times said “Gordon brown to cut VAT as winter recession bites”, The Telegraph heralded the PBR as an ’emergency budget’, while The Independent said “Brown and Darling slash VAT in £18bn tax gamble”.

Last night’s Treasury phone bill must have been a whopper.

At the red-top end of the market, Gordon Brown wrote a piece in today’s News of the World declaring “I’ll give help when you need it”, and Alistair Darling similarly honoured The Mirror with an exclusive interview.

Before we get into the meat of it, there’s a telling contrast in the ads the two main parties are putting out. After so much chatter about the way Obama used web tools to sweep to US electoral victory, it’s refreshing to see Labour take a leaf from his script. Have a look at this electronic dig at David Cameron from the Labour website:

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Unusually for a political ad, it’s actually quite funny. On the other side of the divide, the Tories have dredged up the famous ‘tax bombshell’ ad John Major deployed against Neil Kinnock in 1992:

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It’s surprising to see the Conservatives harking back so clearly to Major’s beleaguered and recession-struck government, even if the poster did play a part in bashing down Kinnock’s 16-point poll lead at the time.

Darling’s PBR on Monday is expected to slash VAT to 15 per cent, increase the state pension by up to £5 a week and cancel tax hikes on car users and small businesses. It’s a festive swag-bag of goodies to woo that taxpayer that will cost the Treasury £18bn. So what next?

In April, Britain takes presidency of the G20 and world leaders – including Barack Obama – converge on London. This is the earliest point Gordon Brown could realistically call an election. This week a former Cabinet minister told The New Statesman that “Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election”.

Keen not to be seen cashing in on the economic crisis, the man himself told BBC One that “I am not thinking about that at all”. Cameron told Andrew Marr that “I am ready for an election at any time”. A great vignette from Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column:mandelson

Peter Mandelson was on fine form at a drinks party at Millbank last week. The Business Secretary made a few eyes pop out on stalks by openly declaring that the general election would be on 10 June next year, the same day as the local and Euro elections. After savouring the effect this had on his listeners, he then gave us a pantomime wink. “That was a joke,” he twinkled.

One thing is for sure – timing is everything, and if Brown fluffs it as he did last autumn he will certainly forefeit the premiership. The Independent’s Alan Watkins thinks a spring election is on the cards if the polls tighten a bit more. Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist Matthew D’Ancona thinks Tory ranks are rattled by the prospect of an election, but believes the Conservative top brass is expecting Brown to play long and go for autumn 2009 or spring 2010. In The Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson thinks Brown and Darling’s PBR is a huge error and calls on Jeremy Clarkson to save the country.

For me, the man of the moment has to be big beast and former Chancellor Ken Clarke. If I were George Osborne, I’d be looking over my shoulder with some concern.

Margaret Thatcher has become the Labour Party’s favourite economic garlic sprig to ward off preying Tories.

For the second time in a week, Gordon Brown invoked the Conservative matriarch’s name to cast George Osborne and his allies on the wrong side of the sterling debate.

With the Opposition benches licking their chops in anticipation of another week’s good hunting at PMQs, Conservative MP Philip Dunne drew first blood by quoting a Brown mantra from 1992, that “a weak currency arises from a weak economy which arises from a weak government”.

 

This is the kind of banter Brown relishes. “I would advise the Conservatives not to talk down the pound,” he pronounced lustily, instantly winning a roar from his side of the House. He carried on:

And I would advise Conservative members to take the advice of Lady Thatcher, who said that trying to help the speculators and talk sterling down is the most un-British way.

Raising the spectre of Thatcher always seems to have the desired effect. The jeers from backbench Tories took on a momentarily confused note at the mention of the Iron Lady, as if they were suddenly flummoxed by the ideological conundrum her legacy represents for Cameron’s centrist reinvention of the party. It’s a shortcut to a pressure point within the Conservative ranks.

Gordon and Dave’s exchanges started on a contrite note following last week’s slanging match over Baby P, but it wasn’t long before the mud started flying. Brown accused the Tories of being the “do nothing party”. Cameron said Brown had forgotten the difference between fiscal and monetary policy. Incredulously shaking his head, Brown leaned forwards to the dispatch box.

 Let me tell him the difference between monetary and fiscal policy.

 Jacqui Smith, usually a sober presence at Brown’s right hand, let out a giggle. Cameron is being daring in taking the fight to Brown’s doorstep, but he risks being outgunned. The Tories have had to wheel their economic battleship around significantly in a matter of weeks, and they need to be more careful and more consistent.

You get the feeling the next few months are going to be crucial for the Conservatives. A recent poll by Politics Home shows public confidence in Osborne has plummeted, and Cameron’s ratings are beginning to drop off too.

An election at some point in the second half of 2009 is a safe bet. As Cameron told the Commons on Wednesday: “On this side of the House we’ve made our choice. It’s called spending restraint.”

The challenge Cameron faces between now and autumn 2009 is convincing the British electorate this is the right thing to do, not just another short-term political tactic.

 

taperecorder1Today The Guardian published some tasty titbits from Hugo Young’s forthcoming compendium of off-the-record briefings.

Every time he unofficially interviewed a political mover or shaker, Young noted down his impressions and the highlights of the conversation. A couple of morsels:

He is a man who is lightweight as a butterfly, skimming along the surface… He does lack gravitas, terribly so.

That was his rather damning verdict on Tony Blair. And:

I have seldom seen a less healthy-looking man. But he also has the sharpest mind, deeply engaged by the whole spectrum of issues… He just does not know how to distract himself from the problems of state and come down to the level of humanity.

Recognise him?

Funnily enough, because Young died in 2003 and no-one was quite sure whether he intended his background notes to be printed or not, every person mentioned in the book had to consent to their publication.

I often wonder whether politicians read their bad press, but in this case they must have had to. It must have made for a few dreary afternoons.

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Since the London bombings of July 7, 2005, Britain has become a more troubled, less confident and harmonious country.britishjihad

So begins the introduction to this autumn’s Granta Magazine. In a comprehensive article entitled ‘The Rise of The British Jihad’, BBC journalist Richard Watson says Western democracies have been “disastrously slow” to realise where the battle lines are drawn in the fight against internal networks of extremists:

M15’s warning about the dangers posed by extremist ideology has come too late… [But] few within the security services [now] doubt there will be another murderous attack in Britain before too long.

Transatlantic rumblings are beginning to suggest Barack Obama could face an early test from Islamic terrorists in his vulnerable ‘transition period’ into the White House. Following an article in The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, yesterday’s Times warned of a “huge threat” to the president elect in his first days:

Security officials say that there is genuine concern that al-Qaeda will attempt a ‘spectacular”’in the transition period… Many Muslim [extremists] are intrigued by Mr Obama’s arrival in the White House.

In the Los Angeles Times, Sebastian Rotella says Obama will face a third war against stateless terrorist cells which should engage his administration’s attention as much as Iraq and Afghanistan.

An early strike would certainly test the new president’s mettle in the harshest way. So far, 31 of Obama’s 47 appointments have been drawn from the ranks of Clintonites. While Bill Clinton’s administration was a formidable election winning machine, it’s rarely remembered for its foreign policy achievements.

spectatorawardsAnother man facing down a threat from within this week is George Osborne.

After presenting Peter Mandelson with Best Newcomer at the Spectator Awards earlier in the week – what a delicious moment that was – Osborne took to the Andrew Marr Show this morning for what turned out to be a very defensive interview about his job prospects and his sterling doom-mongering in The Times.

Blinking rampantly and looking a bit like a puppy who’s been on the receiving end of a hearty slapping, Osborne repeatedly dodged Marr’s question as to whether he thought his role as Shadow Chancellor was tenable.

You get the feeling his answer was tilted towards the older guard in the Tory ranks who apparently harbour some pretty venomous feelings for him:

David Cameron and I work the whole time on economic policy, not for the next few weeks but in the run up to a general election. We are working as a team but it is not the David and George show, that’s a misunderstanding of the way we work. We have a very strong team in the shadow cabinet.

The lady doth protest too much, I think. There’s a good news article covering the interview on Politics Home.

At the most cynical end of the commentariat, News of the World man Fraser Nelson gives Osborne eight days to reedem himself:

I hear he was even thinking of writing a book recently. I wonder what the title was: “How to lose a 20-point poll lead in four weeks?”

I now know at least THREE Shadow Cabinet members who are openly talking about a new Shadow Chancellor.

Andrew Rawnsley thinks for Cameron to dismiss Osborne would be “madness”. “He [Osborne] is trying to see 18 months ahead,” Rawnsley argues. “That makes the Shadow Chancellor smarter than those Tories who want to toss him overboard.”

 In The Sunday Times, Martin Ivens is as mystified as the rest of us by Gordon Brown’s Jekyll and Hyde transmutations on the economy and Baby P.

 Against the flow of news and opinion, The Independent’s Alan Watkins still reckons Good Ship Cameron is cruising to an easy electoral victory:

Mr Brown has been revived temporarily by a shot of bad news in the arm. The Tories are still favourites.

That should set Dave’s mind at rest.

 Finally, there’s a book coming out this week that promises tantalising material a-plenty for anyone hugo_younginterested in politics.

The Hugo Young Papers: 30 years of British politics off the record is a compilation of the legendary journalist’s off-the-record chats with some of the biggest players in the establishment, up until his death in 2003.

Alan Rusbridger wrote an affectionate portrait of the man in yesterday’s Guardian along with some snippets of what to expect. Apparently, Young’s conversations with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson circa 1994 are all going to be aired for the first time.

 

 

Even the best PR is a fickle potion.

 

A few months ago a coven of elite spin-doctors assembled in Number 10, chucking every newt’s eye and bat’s tail in sight into the mix to revitalise the Prime Minister. Sure enough it was a new Gordon Brown who strode out into the midst of the financial storm, resplendent in his finest economic battle dress, proud and upright in the dispatch box and – for the first time in his premiership – striking something like fear into the Tory front benches.

 

It all started so well on Wednesday. An early Conservative question on unemployment played into the Prime Minister’s hands, and when Labour backbencher Phil Wilson handed him a peach by recounting a compliment from Paul Krugman, who recently won the Nobel prize for economics, Brown’s fiscal armour positively gleamed.

 

 

“Let me congratulate Mr Krugman on his Nobel prize,” the premier quipped. In the context of what was to follow, Brown’s grin was a disastrous misjudgement.

 

The ghost of Baby P, the 17-month-old boy brutally beaten to death by his family, has haunted this week’s news coverage. It is a tragic story that falls naturally to David Cameron’s strengths as an empathetic communicator and an advocator of social responsibility. He wasted no time in pinning Brown down.

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“Yet again, nobody is taking responsibility, and no-one has resigned,” Cameron told a roaring House. “Is it not unacceptable that the person who runs the children’s services department is responsible for looking into what her own department did?”

 

 

At that point, the alchemic magic that has gilded Brown’s return to confident form seemed to evaporate. As Cameron hammered home point after point, channelling his party’s righteous anger into sharp jabs, the Prime Minister looked like a marionette whose strings had suddenly been cut.

 

With his head down and eyes averted, Brown rumbled his way through a scripted response to Cameron’s demand for an independent inquiry into Haringey Council’s children’s services department.

 

“We already have the executive summary that was published yesterday and which identified weaknesses in the system,” the PM droned as jeers filled the chamber. “A decision will be made about what to do in relation to Haringey and what procedures need to be followed.”

 

It was back to the bad old days. Brown got the tone wrong, and when the time came to keep his shoulders square and make his delivery crisp, he did exactly the opposite. Back in Number 10 the cauldron must have been boiling over.

 

Cameron, on the other hand, looked like a man filled with real passion. As the temperature rose and speaker Michael Martin intervened ever more desperately, Brown accused his opposite number of playing party politics with Baby P. For a moment Cameron swaggered forward and glared at the Prime Minister like a squaddie who had just heard his mother colourfully insulted in a pub joke.

 

“I think that what the Prime Minister said just now was, frankly, cheap,” he said hotly. “I would ask the Prime Minister to withdraw the attack that that was about party politics.”

 

Withdraw he would not, despite the catcalls from the Conservative benches. When a dull question finally came from Labour MP Lynne Jones about the future of the Post Office card account, Brown drank it down like a tonic on a sweltering day.

 

“I am grateful for what my honourable friend says,” he gasped, and by God he was. On the basis of this performance, Brown must be hoping the credit crunch runs deep and long. On the other side of the House, Cameron has shown for the first time in weeks why he was elected leader.

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