front-pages-13

In a week dominated by the sad early death of Ivan Cameron, the eulogies have been plentiful. Gordon Brown for once managed to find the right words in his address to the Commons on Wednesday, when he said that “the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow no parents should have to endure”.

Among the shower of memorial articles produced since Wednesday morning, Matthew D’Ancona’s piece for the Spectator – written late on Tuesday night – has a special resonance. He pointed out, as others have, that Brown and Cameron are now bound by the tragic human bond of both having lost a child. He added:

In most cases, one finds that there is a formative event that moulds a political leader and acts as the fulcrum of his or her life. In Mr Cameron’s case, there is no doubt that the birth of Ivan, the challenges that followed, and the deep love he felt for his elder son had a tremendous impact upon his public as well as his private life.

Dominic Lawson’s piece in the Sunday Times today is also worth a read.

lindsay-duncan

Elsewhere, Lindsay Duncan’s portrayal of a magically slimmer, better looking and generally less insane Margaret Thatcher has sparked a raft of retrospectives.

The New Statesman dedicated this week’s issue to a ‘trial’ of Thatcher by recollection.

Among the memories the great and good have of her resignation – Paddy Ashdown recalls the entire departure lounge of Glasgow Airport erupting in euphoria – is this lovely vignette from former Labour MP Oona King years later:

On one occasion I was accompanying Gordon Brown after a meeting at Westminster with MPs. As we drove slowly through the House of Lords car park, we passed an old woman struggling to get out of a passenger seat. Gordon was nearest to her, but was rifling through papers for his next meeting. The old woman seemed to stand to attention at the sight of the car and waved almost bashfully towards us, evidently assuming we might stop and speak to her. When Gordon didn’t look up, her eyes slipped past his and, momentarily, locked on mine.

“Gordon,” I said, still surprised to have looked so closely into those eyes, “you’ve just blanked Margaret Thatcher.”

He seemed uncomfortable.

I bet he did. Also looking uncomfortable this week was Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, who took a seat opposite Andrew Marr after a long week of briefing and counter-briefing over whether or not she is manoeuvring to succeed Gordon Brown.

Harman gave dull scripted answers to questions on British complicity in the torture of terror suspects and the proposed part-privatisation of the Post Office. The interesting bit came when Marr pressed her outright on whether there was any truth to the rumour of her party leadership ambitions:

Absolutely not a shred, not an iota of truth in it. None whatsoever.

Brown’s allies have never seen Harman as a serious threat, despite the fact she snatched the deputy leadership election from stronger candidates. Compare the careful ostracisation of David Miliband last year with the outright thuggery of the whispering against Harman this week. Her on-the-record denial of ambition to Andrew Marr should mark a short, sharp end to the affair.

front-pages-12

The tedium of bankers’ bonuses dominated the front pages today: according to Politics Home, 75% of political stories were dominated by the theme in some way or another. The fact George Osborne and Alistair Darling managed to sound remarkably similar on the Andrew Marr Show – both pointing out banks like RBS would no longer exist without taxpayer support – just goes to show how little scope there is for real discussion on the question of bonuses, especially after Obama’s $500k salary cap for financiers.

I thought Osborne came across better than usual in a slightly chastened form, less the snarling aristocrat and more the balanced politican, although I wouldn’t go to the rhapsodising lengths of rightwing bloggers like Daily Referendum. Having just said there seems to be cross party agreement on taking actions against disproportionate City bonuses, Nick Clegg managed to take it a step further:

The government’s response has been pathetic. We do not need an inquiry to answer the question of whether bankers should receive bonuses – the right answer is no.

Anyone on the boards of the banks, the executives, should not take bonuses. In future they should not get cash bonuses at all.

The Telegraph and Independent both splashed on bonuses; the Sunday Times linked Glen Moreno, the private sector whizz tasked with overseeing the government’s £37bn banking stakes, to a Liechtenstein bank infamous for exploiting tax loopholes.

liechtenstein-slide-01

The Mail on Sunday raised some questions about Jacqui Smith’s parliamentary expenses, claiming she raked in £116,000 annually for a second home despite “effectively lodging with her sister”. Whoever said politics wasn’t glamorous?

Interestingly two rightwing pundits, Peter Oborne and Matthew D’Ancona, reckon sleaze could be the banana

skin on which either party slips at the next election. D’Ancona reckons there are increasing parallels between Brown and John Major. Although it’s been said many a time before, he argues Clarkson’s “One eyed Scottish idiot” jibe marks a new low in personal insults directed at the PM.

Finally, it’s worth comparing d’Ancona’s piece with Andrew Rawnsley. The Spectator man argues that David Miliband was fundamentally right to withhold publication of certain details of Binyam Mohamed’s trial; Rawnsley thinks it’s an extension of Blair’s “great moral failure”.

front-pages-11

I was speaking to an old Labour communications maestro this week, who said something to the effect that the Tory party under David Cameron still hasn’t managed to modernise itself properly. I generally disagree – I’m fairly sure Dave and George Facebook and Twitter each other at ever opportunity – but William Hague certainly let the side down a bit on today’s Andrew Marr Show.

He had a distinctly uncomfortable moment. Scheduled to meet the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao after appearing on the show, Hague was asked whether it was tough raising the question of human rights in Tibet with Chinese leaders as well as working with them on economic and nuclear issues. He said consistency was the key, adding:

Eastern leaders, if I can lump them all together in one bracket, appreciate consistency.

As opposed to Etonian leaders, who prefer vacillation and indecision? I hope Wen hasn’t been reading any Edward Said recently. A slight look of panic crossed Hague’s face as he seemed to realise he’d made some of the world’s most powerful leaders sound like kids with behavioural problems, and he looked glad when Marr moved the chat on. Incidentally, anti-Tibet protestors clashed violently with police ahead of Wen Jiabao’s visist at the Chinese Embassy in London, but they appeared to be miffed about human rights rather than Hague’s moment of Orientalist madness.

riots

Civil strife seems to be the theme of the week. The most incisive comment reaction to the wildcat strikes that have erupted around the country over contracts for foreign workers at Total’s Lindsey refinery came from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. In autumn 2000, truckers and farmers enraged at soaring oil prices blockaded refineries around the UK. At first, Blair’s government treated the situation as a bit of a joke – but it ended up bringing the country to the verge of disaster. Underestimating the strikers this time around could come at a high price. Left-wing Labour MP Frank Field was worried enough to write in today’s Mail:

Labour risks a wipeout at the next General Election unless it gets a real grip of its immigration policy. Failure to do so allows fingers to be wrongly pointed at foreign workers who have added much to our country. Anger should be solely directed at the Government.

Make no mistake. The men and women on the picket lines are not just fighting for their jobs, they are also asserting their national identity.

protest

Field misses the point that Brown’s original pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, made at last year’s party conference, was an artless grab for the jingo vote and an unrealistic promise. Commentators across the spectrum, from Carol Thatcher on today’s Andrew Marr Show to Andrew Grice in the Independent, pointed out that Brown has given quite a few hostages to fortune over the years, most of whom have been bloodily executed over the past 12 months.

Finally, to the House of Lords scandal, which has already earned itself the tedious tag of “Ermingate”. In today’s Sunday Times Jack Straw promised an overhaul, although given the Commons vetoed a partially elected chamber last year it’s going to be slow progress. Amidst the mudslinging – apparently Conrad Black and Jeffrey Archer will be booted out alongside the Sunday Times Four under emergency rules – one person has come out of it all looking rather good.

PD*26474423

Baroness Royall is, according to The Sunday Times:

The foxy Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who swept in to read the riot act. Flame-haired, cool-eyed, with sexy long black boots, the Labour leader of the disgraced upper house looks more likely to crack a whip than pass the port.

front-pages-10

Not since Corfugate in October has a Sunday paper’s front page detonated so spectacularly. Baroness Royall, leader of the House of Lords, was forced to abandon her morning tea and crumpets today to remind Andrew Marr that Labour Lords Truscott, Taylor, Moonie and Snape are all denying any wrongdoing despite allegations they offered to table amendments to legislation in exchange for cash retainers from undercover Sunday Times reporters.

Amidst the uncomfortable Sunday evenings the four peers in question must be having, Ulster Unionist Lord Rogan has to be revelling in squeaky clean feel-good factor. When approached by the Insight team he apparently gave the short shrift:

If your direct proposal is as stark as for me… to help put down an amendment, that’s a non-runner. A, it’s not right and B, my personal integrity wouldn’t let me do it.

Maybe he was just the only Lord smart enough to realise that one of the Insight reporters was the same guy who caught out Tory MPs Graham Riddick and David Treddinick by offering them £1,000 apiece to table questions in the Commons in the early ’90s, in the original cash-for-questions scandal.

ken-clarke

Meanwhile, things are certainly going to get scrappy in the Commons midfield battle. Plump tough-talker Ken Clarke weighed into the debate with his first sally as Shadow Business Secretary by calling for an independent inquiry into the Lords’ conduct:

The Commissioner on Standards has got to carry out an investigation pretty rapidly. If the allegations are true then this one is very serious. Some people would call that corruption so I hope they clear themselves.

Cameron’s reshuffle this week must have placed considerable strain on the woodwork of the Tory front bench, pretty much doubling the body mass as it did of the entire cabinet. Clarke’s move to the business brief has been the most talked-about, for obvious reasons, but Eric Pickles – another bluff heavyweight with a waistline to match – was promoted to party chairman, not something to be taken lightly. He’s seen as a no-nonsense talker with the same tactical intelligence as Clarke who could cause Labour trouble in its heartlands. Thirdly, the slender Dominic Grieve’s surprise demotion from Home Secretary just six months after replacing David Davis has heralded the rise of Chris Grayling, another porker with a sharp tongue.

Not to be outdone, former Labour deputy PM John Prescott is in the process of launching a website so he can “talk to people individually”:

I have a Facebook, there is a new audience that we need to connect to. I’m 70 years of age saying I’m trying to communicate with those of 18.

It’s not just giving out statements of Ministers, which I’ve done enough of, now it’s about talking to people individually.

Note the use of article before “Facebook”. Down with the kids.

Over at The Observer, Andrew Rawnsley reckons the reshuffle is a sign of nervousness on Cameron’s part; he points out, fairly enough, that Blair didn’t feel the need to bring back Denis Healey before the 1997 election. More tellingly, Martin Ivens at The Sunday Times – whose commentators incidentally gave Labour no quarter this week – thinks Osborne’s graceful acceptance of someone who clearly knows more than him about almost everything “speaks well for his political maturity”.

cash

In The Independent, John Rentoul thinks Brown’s attempt to block disclosure of MPs’ expenses will turn out to be a costly mistake:

The Prime Minister did not seem to realise that the expenses issue is part of dealing with the economic crisis. He will gain no credit for trying to protect people from the effects of the recession if

 he is also trying to protect MPs with their snouts in the trough.

A fair point. To round off the round-up, The Mail on Sunday splashed on a story about Treasury civil servants having a Burns Night knees-up, complete with pictures of rosy cheeked bureaucrats emerging from their revels with kilts on, while The Express urged banks to “Lend! Lend! Lend!”. Although if the likes of Fred the Shred still lucky enough to have jobs aren’t listening to cross-party consensus and transatlantic precedent, they’re pretty unlikely to stop in their tracks and listen to the Express.

rootsgrowdeep

 Someone once remarked that if John Smith was Labour’s old oak when he died in 1994, Tony Blair was its cucumber.

A lower middle class Scotsman by birth he was an Islingtonian by ambition, and a Tory in all but name.

His political apprenticeship was brief, his rise to power swift, and his roots in the Labour movement at best shallow.

Blair turned his amorphous appeal into an election-winning machine.

It’s become fashionable for commentators to talk about the resurgent tribalism of Labour politics lately. Alastair Campbell is a war-painted believer who will stick with the party through hell and high water, G2 tells us today. The Times’ Rachel Sylvester compares Labour to a dysfunctional family muddling its way through an awkward reunion.

Maybe tribalism is an epithet better suited to Labour than Conservatism, with the party’s heritage sunk in memories of miners’ marches and the grit of industrial Manchester. But the question of roots is just as telling.

david-cameron-interviewed-0011

On Sunday Dave invited Andrew Marr, and millions of prying eyes across the nation, into his living room. Inevitably within a few days the Guardian had zoomed in on his bookshelf and produced a reading list for aspiring Tory leaders. Among a spattering of modern political tomes and novels – Campbell’s diaries made the cut, as did David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 was the only pre-1990 book on Cameron’s shelves.

A mind uncluttered by the fripperies of culture clearly has its advantages – look at Tony Blair’s ascent to office – but a few roots and a bit of historical context aren’t to be sniffed at either – look at Tony Blair’s subdued exit 10 years on.

Dave was special adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday, an experience he doesn’t like to bring up too often. His rise through the Tory ranks since then has been smooth and accomplished. It’s unfortunate for him he’s not fighting the 1997 election, when that and the gift of the gab was all anyone really needed to win.

I saw him shoot a televised Q&A at the offices of the Manchester Evening News last week. His performance was decent, but it struck me he’s been in opposition for almost four years now – longer than Blair had to wait. The problem is that even good PR is time limited. There’s only so long a campaign can run without any really substance behind it. ‘Change’ is a great abstract noun, but the days when the public would indiscriminately plump for that are gone, as John McCain’s vapid incantations in the US proved.

Cameron could do with bringing some roots into the shadow cabinet. The question on everyone’s lips has clearly been whether he will bring in Kenneth Clarke and shift out George Osborne, although Cameron insists Osborne is essential to the next election campaign and a lot of Tory pundits worry Clarke would reopen the European question that’s scarred the party so deeply in the past.

Cameron faces some tough decisions in the next few months. In the meantime, he could do with a trip to Waterstones.

front-pages-7

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.

front-pages-6

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:

cameronschoolboy

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:

bombshell1

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.