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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 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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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The Sunday Times definitely trumped the rest this week. Grace Mugabe showed it’s not just D-list celebrities who can lose their temper with photographers after apparently lashing out at a Sunday Times snapper; Margaret Beckett found herself in hot water, echoing Baroness Vadera’s strife earlier in the week by saying she could see signs of recovery in the housing market; and Roman Abramovich has reportedly been getting bored with the giant train set that is Chelsea, and is trying to offload the club to Gulf investors.

The Observer went with the fragile Gazan ceasefire and a story about the ‘rise of mixed-race Britain’ which claims, among other things, that “some distinct ethnic groups – starting with Caribbean – will virtually disappear” according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Essex University.

The Telegraph’s front page follows the twists and turns of a financial week that saw 25 per cent wiped off the value of Barclays shares in an hour with news that the government could put up to £200bn of toxic debt on public books. The Mirror and the News of the World plumped for the joys of Boy George and Jade Goody respectively, while the Mail on Sunday had a similar £200bn toxic debt story to The Telegraph and suggestions that naughty Tesco staff have been posting rude comments about customers on the net.

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Clearly the mother of all stories lurking behind the small fry is Obama’s ascension to the White House, commanding double page spreads a-plenty and dominating the comment pages. Andrew Rawnsley notes the hubristic nods to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in Obama’s pre-inauguration whirlwind but points out that if ever there was a time to set pessimism aside, it’s now. On the Independent’s newly reworked blogspot John Rentoul amusingly points out that the communist Weekly Worker magazine has already branded Obama the world’s number one terrorist. There’s also chat about the Tories’ resurgence in the polls – they’re up nine points to 42 per cent, according to ComRes – and Andrew Grice rounds off last week’s political coverage with a mention of the Commons’ attempts to censor TV footage of a heated exchange involving John McDonnell MP.

Martin Ivens is taken up with the (quickly becoming interminable) topic of Ken Clarke and his possible return to the shadow cabinet. He aptly compares the prospect of a fourth Labour term as another series of an increasingly dreary sitcom.

My personal pick of the week goes to Ruth Sutherland in the Observer for a piece suggesting the credit crunch was the result of testosterone driven patriarchs high in the glittering towers of Canary Wharf and Wall Street, and looking at the effects of the downturn on women – who she argues will be hardest hit. Just when you thought every possible angle had been taken on the recession, up pops the old gender divide.

Finally, Frost/Nixon is out at the end of January and promises to be a timely look at the only president whose calamitous exit from the White House can rival Dubya’s shambolic departure.