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I was listening to Ed Balls on the Today programme on Wednesday and was immediately struck by his unconvincing attempts to distance himself from Damian McBride, and to portray Smeargate as “an issue for all parties”. He didn’t sound as if he believed it himself.

That anodyne interview seems to have been the basis for the Sunday Times’ explosive front page story today. A whistleblower took exception to Balls’ obfuscation and spoke out on what plenty of people have already tacitly suggested – that Balls is at the centre of the Brownite culture of thuggery that sustained McBride.

It was a brave article at the end of a week that has seen Guido Fawkes – and even Alice Miles in the Times – bemoan the subservience of the Westminster lobby to political interests. Judging by the hysterical tone of Balls’ press officer, who described the allegations as “completeley fabricated and malevolent nonsense without any foundation in fact”, the story was a nasty little bolt out of the blue.

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The malaise clearly goes deeper than the immediate scandal. The Telegraph carried a damning front page headline, “Now Brown pays the price”, with poll figures showing a haemorrhaging of Labour support over the last week. Peter Oborne wrote an interesting piece in the Observer calling for an end to the all-powerful celebrity Prime Minister. Earlier in the week Simon Heffer wrote an excoriating piece calling for Jacqui Smith’s head.

As Paddy Ashdown candidly remarked on this morning’s Andrew Marr show, no betting man would plump for Labour at the next election. Smeargate is the culmination of years of dirty briefing, and now it’s open season on the Government.

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The Mail on Sunday took the unusual step of sharing its front page story with other Sunday papers today, ensuring Geoff Hoon’s ‘three homes’ scandal was splashed around generously. Hoon was outed for living rent-free in Admiralty House for three and a half years – apparently due to security reasons as he was defence minister at the time – while claiming expenses on his home in Derby and renting out his London townhouse.

The general impression of MPs rolling around in public money like pigs in litter isn’t helped by the shabby excuses they put out when Paul Dacre and friends inevitably track them down. Hoon told the Mail:

I only claimed whatever the rules allowed for. The [Commons] fees office was aware what was happening. Indeed, I was told to move to Admiralty House on security advice. I was told unless I went into secure premises I would have to have round-the-clock police protection at my home in London and that would cost the taxpayer a great deal more.

As more revelations showed Jacqui Smith claimed £304 for a barbecue – they must have been pretty amazing burgers – the home secretary took the the blue airwaves of the Telegraph to defend herself. “I thought that was the wrong thing to do [to claim for her husband’s porn films] and that’s why what we immediately did was apologise and pay the money back,” Smith told the newspaper, using that cunning New Labour formulation that looks like an admission of error but is actually just an excuse.

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Amid all the expense hounding, one story in the Telegraph made me laugh. Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, is loathe to claw back expenses from the taxpayer and is apparently keen to get his annual claim even lower. “I’ve got a board [with my name and contact details on it] at Kettering Town football club and that’s £15,” he told the paper. “I could stop that.” I think we can all allow him that little bit of hedonism.

harrietharmanqofhearts-703443 What an awful week it’s been for the women once dubbed Blair’s Babes. Now grown up, they’re taking a battering from all sides. Since the Mail on Sunday ‘outed’ Jacqui Smith over expenses for a second home two weeks ago, she’s had to face the embarassing prospect of an investigation led by John Lyons.

Tessa Jowell’s estranged husband, meanwhile,  has managed to clock up a four and a half year spell in an Italian clink for accepting the modest ‘gift’ of $600,000 from Silvio Berlusconi.

And then the Daily Telegraph heaped more bile on the female cast of the cabinet today with an excoriating assault on Harriet Harman.

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Headlined ‘Britain’s most deluded woman?’, Andrew Pierce’s piece quoted some off-the-record Brownite heavies who rubbished Harman’s ambition to lead Labour and described her as as a “deluded woman” who “has really lost it”.

Pierce went on to quote one of these aides making a “typically icy observation” about Harman’s plans for a women’s conference in the run-up to the G8 summit in April:

I expect she thinks Michelle Obama will pop in for a girlie cup of tea and a photoshoot.

The tone of the piece was remarkably savage. It was also another example of the thuggery of Brown’s confidantes, who have to have won ‘bitchiest briefing of the year’ with this little effort.

Thanks to Alex Hughes for the playing card images.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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.