Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 4 April 2019

How to improve your poker game - use my software!

One of the reasons I haven't posted much political content on here in the last year or two is because I have been very busy head down on my latest software project which has been producing a piece of poker software called Kicker which helps people play Texas Holdem poker better.

I realise many of my readers who come for the incisive* political analysis may not play poker but for those of you who do please do go and have a look. There is a free trial and it helps you to work out what the best play to make in different spots against the opponents you play against. There is a lot of mathematics and data crunching going on under the bonnet but it's all presented in a user friendly way to allow you to navigate the decisions on the flop, turn and river.

I'd love to hear what you think about it so if you do try it out please let me know. There is a feedback section on the website.

Cheers and happy grinding**!

*Experience of incisiveness may vary

**That's a poker term, not what you were thinking.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Please support my sister-in-law running the London Marathon to raise money for North Devon Hospice

This time last year I was preparing to run the London Marathon in support of a charity very close to my heart. This year my sister-in-law Clare Campbell is running it to raise money for the excellent cause that is North Devon Hospice.

Almost a decade ago Clare's husband David was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He had an operation but the doctors have said his condition is life limiting. At first they thought he only had a couple of years but he is still with us and living life to the full.

North Devon Hospice have been supporting David, Clare and their son George ever since the original diagnosis.

Here are Clare's own words as to why she is doing this:

For those who know our family, North Devon Hospice is very special place for us...providing support, care and love since David was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2009. We help the Hospice where we can (the photo is from David and I marshalling the nightwalk earlier this year - we don't have matching coats - honest!) but this is the biggest thing that we can do to say Thank You to North Devon Hospice for the care that is provided to us and so many people in North Devon. I do believe this is a joint effort: I will be out pounding the lanes, but David will be at home with George and generally keeping me fed and watered. His contribution to this marathon is no less than mine.
The ironic thing about this whole brain tumour thing is that before David's diagnosis, David would have been the one doing the mad challenges and I would have been on the side-lines yelling encouragement (and keeping warm with a lovely hipflask - I am not a natural runner!) I don't underestimate how difficult that must be for David to watch and thank you David, for letting me do this and never getting upset about how our lives have changed xx
We are blessed to have a wonderful support team of friends and family who are there for us every step of the way; thank you for everything you do.

And here is a video recorded by the Hospice that was recently featured in the North Devon Gazette starring Clare and David:

Please donate what you can for Clare's run.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

The leaked Brexit report won't have any political effect

So an internal government report has been leaked that says whichever Brexit option the UK goes for there will be a detrimental effect on GDP. Depending on which form of Brexit we end up going for the range is from 2% of foregone GDP in 15 years up to as much as 8% of GDP in 15 years. Scary stuff.

Lots of people in the Remain camp seem to think that this is going to have an effect on the debate about Brexit now that the report is in the public domain. But I simply can't see how this will be the case.

For a minute let's just accept that what the report says is accurate. I know plenty of people will disbelieve it but I want to look at the effect on people who do believe it. Because if it does pan out the way the report says the effects of Brexit will be diffuse and spread out over many years.

Let's take the mid point. Let's say that in 15 years time GDP is 5% lower than it would otherwise have been. How are people going to know that it has happened and to quantify the effects on their lives?

Well what I am going to do here is a bit rough and ready but in 2016 (the last year we have relatively accurate figures for) UK GDP was 1,939 billion pounds. And in that year GDP growth was 1.8% on the previous year. So let's just hypothesise that for the next 15 years after 2016 growth ends up being 1.8% every year. That would mean by 2031 GDP would be:

1939 * 1.018^15 = 2534

That's 2,534 billion pounds in 15 years time. Or approximately 30.7% more than it is now.

Now let's factor in the 5% extra GDP that we won't get because of Brexit. So let's just say that growth instead across that period will actually only be 25.7%. Which means GDP will instead only be 2,437 billion pounds.

That is a big difference. It's nearly £100 billion that we will have foregone by 2031. That's roughly £1,500 for every person in the country.

However that is not how it will be felt. Let's reverse engineer this calculation to work out what the GDP growth figures would be on average in order to reach this lower number in 2031.

1939 * X^15 = 2437

Divide both sides by 1939

X^15 = 2437/1939 = 1.25683342

X = 15th Root of 1.256833419 = 1.01535641

In other words, instead of growth on average being 1.8% it will be 1.53%.

This is how it will be seen. In fact it is the only way it can be seen. In GDP figures.

The biggest hurdle is that there is no way of knowing for sure that growth would have been 1.8% without Brexit. That has to be taken on trust. But like I said even if you do accept it, what are people going to make of the fact that growth has been 0.3% lower than it would have been? You can't touch or taste it. It's just a hypothetical number in a spreadsheet. It will have almost no political cut-through for this reason.

If you doubt me, try this little experiment.

Find 5 people you know (who are not involved in politics or economics) and ask them what GDP growth was last year. I'd be very surprised if in the majority of cases the average margin of error from the answers was less than 0.3%.


Thursday 27 April 2017

I completed the London Marathon!

I ran the London Marathon this year to raise money for COSMIC (Children of St Mary's Intensive Care), a cause very close to my heart. You can still make a donation here.

So I did it. I completed the London Marathon!

It still feels odd to type those words. 5 months ago I had never done any running. Ever. Now I have completed one of the most prestigious marathons in the world.

As I wrote in my previous post though I had a very strong motivation. Without that I don't think I would have been able to find the resolve to stick with the training and ultimately follow through on it. But knowing I was raising money for COSMIC made the difference.

I have never experienced anything like the day of the marathon itself.

The starting area in Greenwich for those of us in the Red area (the slow people) was reminiscent of a music festival with music, large screens everywhere, stalls and toilets. There was a real sense of camaraderie as we all milled about and eventually started queuing up. After the 10am start time it actually took us 26 minutes to inch forward and so eventually I crossed the starting line at 10:26am.

I was determined this time to stick to the sort of pace I thought I could actually sustain for 26.2 miles. When I had done the Taunton Half Marathon 3 weeks earlier I had gone off at a pace of 11 minute miles mistakenly thinking I could sustain that for 13.1 miles but I had been wrong and the last 5 miles of that half marathon had been hell. I had also felt ill for several days afterwards. So I chose a much slower pace for the marathon of 13.5 minute miles. And in fact I was quite happy to drift below that if it felt right.

This meant that I was running at a pace only maybe 30% faster than I could probably have walked it. But I was still running! I kept finding throughout the race that people who had gone past me earlier at a faster pace, I was then overtaking as they stopped to walk for a while. And then a few minutes later they would overtake me again. But I was happy with my steady plodding pace and I was able to sustain it for most of the race.

I did slow down to a walking pace a few times but only for 1 or 2 minutes at a time every time I came to a water station. This was at least partly to avoid tripping over the water bottles strewn over the road. There was also a point at mile 18 where there was a very steep hill and literally everyone slowed down to walking pace for about 5 minutes so I did that too.

All along the route were people. Tens of thousands of people. I heard my name shouted every few seconds thanks to the very large name badge I had pinned to my running vest (in Superman colours!) that my wife had kindly made for me. "Come on Mark!". "You can do it Mark!". "You've got this Mark!" (I heard that individual one about 50 times). There must have been well over a thousand people who I heard shouting encouragement directly at me.

What was happening en-route was akin to a 26.2 mile street party. There were DJs. Bands. People dressed up in costumes playing parts. For example at one point there was a man dressed as a paramilitary policeman with a sign that said "Run - It's the law!" shouting legal threats through a loudhailer. But there were countless other things like that all along the way.

Some of the signs were very amusing as I flashed by them trying to read them. "You think your legs are tired? My arms are killing me!", "Wave if you think this was a worse idea than Brexit", "Keep Calm and Don't Shit Yourself" complete with a cartoon picture of a turd - these were just few of the many that I saw.

People were giving out jelly babies, jelly beans, Haribo sweets, chocolate. All sorts. I had vowed not to take any of these pre-race as I had trained using a specific type of gel block that I had in my pouch. But by half way round my body was telling me it needed more than one of those tiny cubes of jelly every three miles. So I popped into a shop en-route and bought a Picnic bar which I wolfed down whilst running! That lasted me a few more miles. But my body was screaming out for more energy so I started taking jelly babies, jelly beans, kit-kats, other chocolate. Anything I could lay my hands on. I even grabbed a banana at one point. That was a good move as it really settled my metabolism down 10 minutes or so later.

My experience of the running was mixed. Sometimes it felt like hard work. Sometimes it felt like I was really in the zone and it didn't feel hard at all. And then there was another thing I experienced between about mile 14 and mile 18 which was a feeling that I was just in tune with my animal instincts. I didn't really think about anything. I had tuned everything else out. I was just running. left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Run. Run. Run. Run. There was nothing else but running.

I had never experienced that in any of my training. It only lasted for about an hour but it really helped me get through those few miles.

I played an interesting psychological game with myself once I got past about mile 19. My body was aching and sore. It was getting increasingly hard to keep going. But looking at my time I was around 4 and 3/4 hours. And when I got to mile 20 I knew that even if I were to completely stop running now and just walk I would almost certainly still complete the marathon within the 8 hour limit (the time within which you still get a medal and an official finishing time). But because I knew that I felt the pressure lift. I knew I was going to finish. I knew I was going to get a time. I knew I was going to have completed the London Marathon! And so every extra mile I did running beyond mile 20 was "voluntary". This really helped as I was choosing to keep running even though I didn't actually have to any more. At mile 21 I just told myself one more mile. I did the same at mile 22. It was getting very very hard. My body was screaming at me to stop running but at mile 23 I told myself just one more mile. At mile 24 my body was screaming even more loudly to stop and start walking. I kept going for a few hundred more yards. then I looked at the time. I was 5 hours and 50 minutes in. I thought about the less than 2 miles I had to go and I took a decision. If I carried on running there was a risk I might burn myself out before the end. We've all seen the footage of people whose legs turn to jelly (indeed there was an elite runner this year who did this a few hundred yards from the finish).

So I decided when I was around 1.8 miles from the finish to slow down and start walking. It felt like a relief. I was walking more slowly than I ordinarily would. My left knee was very, very sore (I had an injury that I had picked up during training). My right knee was also quite sore. My legs, neck and arms were aching. But I could walk. It was a pace of around 20 minute miles (3 miles per hour). And I was sustaining it no problem. In fact after 10 minutes or so of this I felt very good.

At this point I spotted my brother and his girlfriend in the crowd. I went over and chatted to them briefly but I needed to keep walking before I seized up. Then I saw my wife and son in the crowd just a bit further up. I went to them and held my 2 year old son Noah who had just woken up. I hugged him and my wife which was a real boost. But I had to keep going.

I got to around half a mile from the finish and I then decided the time had come to start running again. I was going to finish as I had started. I picked up the pace and before I knew it I was running round the corner into The Mall. The finish line was visible now. It got nearer and nearer. I had enough left in the tank to pick up the pace even further and I ended up overtaking a bunch of people who were on the home straight themselves.

I raised my arms as I charged over the finish line. I had done it. From never having run 5 months earlier I had completed the London Marathon in just under 6 hours and 25 minutes.

I had a medal put around my neck, had some photos taken and then went off to find my family.

That was 4 days ago. I am still sore and my left knee still has a niggle but it was all worth it.

I am not planning to do another marathon. I think once in a lifetime is enough for me. But I am planning to keep up with the running, for now at least. I'll try and do 5 or 6 miles a couple of times a week. Because the crazy thing is I can do that now without even really thinking about it. And it would be a real shame to squander that rather extraordinary (for me at least) level of fitness.

It is an experience I will never forget.

Thanks again to all who sponsored and encouraged me to do this. My wife and I have been overwhelmed with the generosity of everyone who has given money to COSMIC in memory of our beautiful son Olly. To have been able to raise money for a charity who looked after us all in our time of need when Olly was in St Mary's hospital has been an privilege and a great way to honour his memory.

Thank you.

Thursday 23 March 2017

The Life of Olly

I am running the London Marathon on the 23rd of April 2017 to raise money for COSMIC (Children of St Mary's Intensive Care). You can make a donation here.

Here is why I am doing it.

Olly was born on 19th September 2011. He was our first child.

The mixture of emotions that I felt the day he was born was utterly overwhelming. The joy at having become a father and having brought life into the world. The surprise at our baby being a boy (we had chosen not to find out until the birth). The relief that the birth had gone well.

But also the worry that he seemed to be struggling to breathe a little bit on occasion. The confusion about why he seemed unable to make any noise when he tried to cry. The fear that, despite the reassurances from the doctors and nurses that he was probably fine and it was likely just to be a bit of mucus build-up, that in fact something was wrong. Perhaps very wrong.

At first I tried to dismiss my fears. He seemed OK when he was resting. They checked him over a few times and kept coming to the conclusion that he would be fine and we just needed to let him recover from the trauma of the birth. I even sent a “Mother and baby doing well” text to friends and family, trying to believe, hoping that they were right and I was worrying about nothing.

They were wrong.

Around 7 hours after he was born he had a serious respiratory collapse. By this time we were on the maternity ward but we were lucky to have a very switched-on trainee midwife who spotted there was a real problem and our son was whisked away from us into the special care baby unit.

And so it began. The days and weeks and months of tests. Paediatric consultants, respiratory consultants, cardiologists, nephrologists, gastro-enterologists, registrars, senior house officers, paediatric intensive care units.

Our lives were a blur as we followed our beautiful baby boy from hospital to hospital. The more they looked, the more they started to find all sorts of problems none of which had been picked up in any of the pre-natal scans.

We started to become familiar with all sorts of terms that most new parents never need to know. Supraglottic stenosis, Subglottic stenosis, submucosal cleft, bifid uvula, cryptorchidism, patent ductus arteriosus, pelvic kidney, reflux, tracheomalacia, bronchomalacia, laryngomalacia, nasogastric tube, echoing, intubation, extubation, BiPAP ventilation, CPAP ventilation, oscillation. The new terms came daily. Sometimes hourly.

The decision at 6 weeks of age to consent for him to have a tracheostomy in the end was not a difficult one. He had had to be kept on his front the whole time (“nursing prone” another term we got very used to) which was not sustainable in the long term. He had already suffered numerous respiratory attacks and the doctors were concerned that without a reliable patent airway he was at greater risk. I asked the question “What if this doesn’t fix the breathing problem?” I was told that given what they knew it was very likely to fix it.

At first we thought they were right. He was on room air and off oxygen support within a few days. For the first time since the day he was born we could sit him up and play with him in his bed. He could suddenly see the wonder of the world. He was particularly taken with a pink butterfly on his mobile with which he was totally mesmerised. We knew there were still lots of problems but it felt like a major milestone had been achieved.

Then they found the malrotation of the intestine. This is a potentially life threatening condition so they booked him in for an operation in another hospital. We were incredibly relieved when the highly skilled surgeon declared the operation a success.

Shortly afterwards we had some more good news. Olly’s swallow appeared to be safe after a test they had given him. But on review they noticed that this was actually not the case. He would need to be tube fed and there was no indication of when or even whether this would improve. Another huge blow.

By this stage too he was back on oxygen support. He had contracted bronchiolitis which even for children with no other problems can be very serious. In Olly’s case it left him struggling to breathe again even with the tracheostomy. Even when he recovered from the infection he still needed the oxygen.

But the doctors felt confident enough to allow us to transfer back to our local hospital with him a week and a half before Christmas when he was 3 months old. No longer being in a “tertiary centre” was worry for us but we knew if we were ever to get Olly home this was a necessary step. There were times when we knew that the people with the most knowledge on the ward about tracheostomies, their care and support were me and/or my wife. But the staff were wonderful in the main and did their best to help us in any way they could.

Christmas day itself was made as festive for us as possible. The DJ from the hospital radio station asked us if we wanted any dedications and we chose some songs for Olly and sang along with them for him when they came on. The nurses came in with several presents for our baby which we were grateful for but I was also somewhat confused. I wondered out loud if the nurses had gone out and bought the presents and someone told me that they had been donated to the hospital by charities. Despite everything we had been through in the previous 3 months I still didn’t think of Olly as a sick child in hospital. Of course people were going to donate presents to babies in Olly’s condition! I think it is a measure of just how quickly my perception of what was “normal” had changed.

In the January we started to prepare to take Olly home for the first time when he had another serious collapse which was diagnosed as pneumonia. After a scary few hours where they had to stabilise him he was rushed to another main hospital in London where he was put on the highest level of ventilation known as an oscillator.

For 3 weeks we lived in hospital provided accommodation again whilst spending most of each day in the ward with Olly as he recovered. Whilst we were there they ordered a specialist bespoke tracheostomy tube for him. They were very pleased with his progress and by early February we were back in our local hospital again.

Eventually we did get Olly home a couple of weeks later. It only lasted 22 hours however until he had another collapse and we had to call an ambulance. Luckily our community liaison nurse was with us at the time and took charge. It was an indication of just how fragile our situation was.

After another week we finally got Olly back home for a more prolonged period. He was 5 months old at this point. We were able at last to try and enjoy spending time in our home environment with our baby. Of course there was lots of equipment. Oxygen cylinders, feeding tubes, PH tester strips (to check the tube was in the right place each time before feeding), oxygen saturation monitors, nebuliser, tubing, wires, cables, suction machines, catheters etc. etc. Not to mention all the normal baby paraphernalia such as nappies, nappy bags, baby wipes, lotions, formula, clothes and the rest. But we had made it. At various points I had doubted whether the day would ever come.

We had had to be trained in resuscitation techniques and it was scary to know that at any time he could have another attack. We had nurses helping us out overnight every night which gave us a chance to (try to) get a good night’s sleep. The beeping of the monitors and the whirr of the tracheostomy suction machine from one floor down became normal and almost comforting knowing that a highly trained nurse was taking care of our boy.

And he was such a happy little baby. Despite everything he smiled a lot. And I mean a lot. I would say half of the photos we have of him when he was conscious show him with a cheeky grin on his face. He seemed to love life and I am sure he never knew that he was ill.

Something that I found hard to fathom at first was, despite the fact that we understandably wanted to treat him like he was made of porcelain he actually loved to be lifted up and jiggled about. Although he couldn’t make a normal laughing noise we knew when he was laughing from his face and his “goose honk” sound which was so distinctive we could hear it from the other side of the house! We got more and more used to his cares and started to integrate as much normality into his life as possible.

I lost count of the number of times I sat with him on the sofa watching Octonauts, Chuggington and Olly’s (my wife claimed secretly my) favourite, The Lingo Show. He was always fascinated with the colours and noises from the television. He loved the snooker, tennis and even the way the counter ticked down on Pointless. We also played with him on his play mat frequently and latterly sat him in his ball pool. He was particularly impressed with my juggling skills. Well perhaps bemused is a better word!

We started learning Makaton (baby sign language) as we could not be sure if he was ever going to be able to learn to speak and we wanted to give him as many potential communication channels as possible. We became more and more attuned to when he was doing OK and when he was struggling. In the end I could sense immediately when his tracheostomy tube needed suctioning and just by looking at his facial expression I could tell when an incipient nappy change was going to be in order.

The normal baby stuff became so mixed up with the extraordinary care we were providing that they all merged into one.

I would put him to bed at night in advance of the nurse arriving and the routine would consist of changing his clothes and his nappy, switching the oxygen monitor to his other foot, testing the PH of his tube, setting up and starting the feeding machine. Drawing up all the different medications that he needed in the correct doses and administering them down the tube. And of course singing to him, reading him stories like Room on the Broom, Winnie The Pooh, The Mr Men and his and my favourite The Gruffalo, complete with all the different voices.

Olly was never happier than when me or my wife were being silly with him making funny noises, singing, jumping around and especially playing peek-a-boo. He loved that game and showed a good deal of intelligence in predicting, often correctly, where we would be popping up from next.

I would watch closely for signs of how his intelligence was developing as there was always in the pit of my stomach that lurching feeling that they hadn’t yet got to the bottom of all his problems and perhaps there was something wrong with his brain. A doctor thought he had spotted “ventricular dilation” in his brain after the bowel operation but further checks suggested this was incorrect and his brain structure was OK. But we always worried and so the signs that he was a very bright and curious boy exploring with his hands and mouth as well as starting to learn how to bang things together and examine objects close up was a joy to behold and gave us hope that perhaps his development would progress well.

From the age of 5 months to 9 months Olly spent a fair bit of time at home with us. But there were more incidents that led to further periods of hospitalisation. On one occasion we took him to a new tertiary centre where his long term cares had been transferred to for a quick examination and he ended up staying in for a month as they performed more and more extensive tests and tried different treatments for his various conditions. The sort of thing had become completely normal for us.

Every time he had a collapse we would call an ambulance, rush him to hospital and sometimes he would spontaneously recover. Sometimes he would need ventilation and there was another occasion when he required time on an oscillator again. But each time he would end up back home with us.

The doctors could not find a label to put on his condition. Various things like cystic fibrosis had been tested for and dismissed. There is a syndrome known as Opitz-G which for a while I thought he had but when we finally saw a geneticist with Olly she did not think it was likely to be that (and tests have subsequently proven she was correct). In the end they were simply treating all the different symptoms of his illness. The hope and expectation of some of the best doctors in the country was that as he got bigger the floppiness in his airways would firm up, the narrowness would be less of an issue, his swallow would hopefully become safer and generally he would have a good chance at a relatively normal life. He would probably need some operations to bring his testicles down (although one dropped naturally when he was about 7 months old – a wonderful day), to correct his cleft palate and to allow him to feed through his stomach rather than down his nose. But the prognosis was felt to generally be quite good.

However they could not explain why he kept having respiratory collapses. There were various theories, mucus plugging, sudden collapse of airway, perhaps something a bit further down in his lungs which was hard to see as they were floppy and the bronchioles had a strange arrangement. There was never a definitive answer as to why it kept happening. The tracheostomy was supposed to have bypassed the main problem with a hole in his neck that he breathed through but this clearly had not solved it.

On the morning of 10th July 2012 at 9:30am Olly had another collapse. As usual there was not much warning. He seemed fine one minute; I had been bouncing him on my knee, he had been laughing and then suddenly his oxygen levels dropped. We always knew what his levels were because of the monitor. We did what we always did in these situations which was to turn his oxygen up to maximum, manually “bag” him and watch him very closely. He seemed to recover quite quickly and we started to ween the oxygen back down over the next few minutes. But we could not get him below 5 litres per minute which was about 10 times as much as he normally needed. This indicated a serious problem and we called the ambulance.

At first I had thought this was going to be another one of these collapses that he recovered from as usual. We had been in this situation numerous times and he always had previously. We spent most of the day in our local hospital with him but over the course of those hours his oxygen requirements kept going up. By late afternoon we were up to the maximum 15 litres per minute and even this wasn’t enough. The paediatric intensive care unit at his tertiary hospital had been contacted and they were on their way. He was taken into the recovery area with a number of senior consultants including anaesthetists who manually ventilated him using the “bagging” technique. They tried to stabilise him until the paediatric consultant and specialist nurse arrived in the ambulance from the PICU.

What then followed were the worst five hours of my life.

Dozens of doctors and nurses tried desperately to keep my baby boy alive. He required constant bagging on full oxygen the entire time. They had to give him heart massage so many times that I lost count but it was certainly in the dozens. His blood pressure kept dropping and they had to give him numerous doses of adrenaline and noradrenaline to correct this.

Eventually the main consultant turned to me and said two sentences that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

“You do know we’re not winning here don’t you?” he said.

I asked him what he meant. He responded:

“Well he’s dying and I don’t know why.”

The sight of my darling baby boy who only a few hours earlier was so full of life and so happy, lying unconscious on a hospital bed soaked in his own blood looking so pale was too much to bear. I kept having to walk away to compose myself.

In the end they got him stable enough to transfer him by ambulance to the main hospital where the PICU was located. All the other times Olly had been transferred by ambulance I had followed in the car while my wife went in the ambulance but this time I insisted I was to go with them. I knew there was a chance he wouldn’t make the journey and I needed to be with him and my wife.

We did make it to the PICU together. They put him on the oscillator which had worked wonders for him on two most serious previous occasions but this time it did not work. His oxygen saturation levels came up on the monitor and they were below 40. I just knew instinctively that he had been saturating at that low level for a long time. In the other hospital they had turned the monitors away from us and in the ambulance they hadn’t monitored it at all. I knew that had been a bad sign and now I knew the truth. At those sort of levels for a prolonged period brain damage is certain. The only question is how extensive. I knew that already.

The doctor asked me and my wife into a side room and told us in plain and honest terms that Olly was unlikely to survive this and if his levels kept dropping as they had been doing the thing that would be in his best interests was to not intervene. He had been an incredibly brave boy who had fought his condition for more than 9 and a half months but his body was telling us he had had enough. He used the word “progressive” to describe his Olly’s condition. He still could not put a name to it but it was clear from reviewing the notes and the way he had and hadn’t responded to the treatment this time that his condition was actually getting worse, not better as they had previously thought.

We thanked the doctor for his honesty and went back through to sit by the beside of our beautiful boy. My wife asked for the hospital chaplain to come and christen him which he did. I found it very hard when during the ceremony the chaplain referred to how the christening is for the rest of his life. I knew the rest of Olly’s life was only going to be another few hours. My wife read him a chapter from Winnie the Pooh, the same book we had read to him on the many occasions he had been on life support machines previously.

In the end it was incredibly peaceful and in some ways beautiful. My wife requested for us to hold Olly in our arms. She sat and cradled him whilst I sat next to them and put my arms around him too. The nurse continued to bag him until we said we were ready and then she stopped. We kissed our baby and told him how much we were going to miss him but that it was time for him to let go. Over the course of the next few minutes he passed away. He lived until 5:00am on July 11th 2012.

The aftermath was a blur.

We had to organise the funeral. We wouldn’t have been being true to Olly’s memory if we had not included so many of the happy memories we had had with our boy in the eulogy. My wife’s uncle read out our words and afterwards people told me that they had been amazed to be laughing at the funeral of a baby but we felt that was appropriate. I also did a reading of The Gruffalo and yes, I included the voices exactly as I did when he was alive. Olly was always at his happiest when we were happy and laughing and we had wanted to reflect that. There was of course lots of sadness too during the service but we also wanted to say thank you to everyone who had provided unfailing help and support to us in particular the NHS.

Afterwards we went away for a couple of days but of course we had to come back and start rebuilding our lives. Having all the equipment taken away was hard. We put all of Olly’s toys and other stuff in his room but we would always have the door open.

I still find it very difficult to look at photographs and film footage of him. I had hoped that would get easier with time but it has been several years since he passed away and I still struggle with this.

I am very glad to have known my baby boy and to have been a father to him. I would not change that. I’m just so sad that I will not see him grow up into a toddler, a boy and eventually a man. I am certain he would have had a great personality. In his short life he showed us what potential he had and it is so tragic it will never be realised.

And so nearly five years since our first beautiful baby boy died our circumstances have changed. We have another son, Noah who was born in April 2014 and happily he seems to be perfectly healthy. We also moved to a completely different part of the country to be in a more rural area. We had planned to do this shortly after Olly had been born but that had proved impossible.

On 23rd April this year I am going to run the London Marathon. I am running it on behalf of COSMIC, a charity linked to the paediatric intensive care unit at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. It was where Olly spent those three weeks in early January 2012 after his suspected pneumonia. We know how important these charities are in providing facilities for the children and their families. Until 4 months ago I had never done any running in my entire life and when I tried to run 200 yards I had to stop with my lungs burning. But I have been training hard and last week I ran 16 miles. It has been hard work but compared to what Olly had to go through it is nothing and it is a privilege to raise money for them. Please follow the link and give what you can.

I dedicate this post to my beautiful baby boy Oliver Seamus Eric Thompson.

I will never, ever forget the joy you brought into our lives although it was so unbearably brief.

Sleep well baby boy.

Daddy x

Friday 9 September 2016

Were the Lib Dems "useful idiots" in coalition?

Polly Toynbee seems to think so.

She wrote a piece yesterday using this exact phrase expressing her disgust with Nick Clegg and the legacy that she perceives he and his party have left behind following the coalition of 2010 - 2015. Some of her points are reasonable but amongst it all are many unfair claims and some of what she says is absolutely ridiculous.

I thought it was time for a good old fashioned fisking:

Can you forgive him? That depends on whether you think Nick Clegg venal or just a political idiot. Seeking power was no sin, as that’s the purpose of politics: he is to be judged by how he used it. In a rich crop of self-justifying politicians’ books this autumn, Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is first to invite an assessment of how he did.
He might have been wiser to keep his head down and hope the country has a short memory. But that would be out of character, as his own account reminds us of one grave political misjudgment after another. Almost everything he colluded with in the Cameron government was an error, while almost all he achieved was piffling in comparison. His role now is as a warning beacon of what not to do in future coalitions.

It's not fair to say that almost everything Clegg did in government was an error although of course there were some big ones. But I would certainly agree with Polly that there is a lot that the Lib Dems did in government and the way they approached it that should be lessons for future putative junior coaltion partners. (For further reading on these lessons by the way I recommend this excellent piece by Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth).

How Icarus-like was his fall from the dizzy days of Cleggmania. Back in 2010 “I agree with Nick” was mirrored by opinion polling. For the record, this paper backed the Lib Dems in 2010, though its political columnists – myself included – wrote supporting Labour.
It took decades of local pavement-pounding for the Liberals to grow from a taxi-full of MPs into a 57-strong coach-load at Westminster. But after Clegg led them to a thrashing last year, they are now back in an eight-MP people carrier (with probably only four MPs after boundary changes) – and have few local councillors. They have deserved it.
Start back in that 2010 sunlit No 10 rose garden, with toe-curling smiles that look yet worse in retrospect. Clegg and his party had to make one big call: was the country indeed on the verge of Greek-style bankruptcy and in need of David Cameron and George Osborne’s emetic austerity medicine? They fell for the bait and called it wrong, as even the likes of Mervyn King, Bank of England governor at the time, now agree.

It's easy to forget now just how much turmoil the political and economic world was in in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election. The country hadn't had a peacetime coalition since before the Second World War and the financial crisis was still rumbling on. I agree with Polly that the Lib Dems were a bit too hasty to accept the need for the level of austerity that Osborne wanted but to pretend that this was somehow an easy and obvious call that they should have avoided is to play the game of hindsight. The press was going ballistic. The markets were all over the place. Had the politicians carried on much beyond the Tuesday with their coalition discussions God knows what would have happened.

Now I happen to think that this is ridiculous. There are countries all round the world that wait weeks or months for new governments to form and give their politicians plenty of time to thrash out the agreements needed to govern in coalition. But that is not what was happening here. Our body politic and the Fourth Estate are not used to this way of doing things. They expect the removal vans to be round the back of Downing Street the morning after an election result. The press were pushing very hard the narrative that Gordon Brown was "The Squatter in Downing Street" which was preposterous given that all he was doing was fulfilling his constitutional duty*. We needed a Prime Minister and a functioning government whilst the coalition talks were going on. But our press were unwilling to acknowledge that and hence there was massive pressure on the Lib Dems to cut a deal, any deal to get a "legitimate" government in place.

The Lib Dems swallowed the story that the country needed a boiling down of every function of the state to its bare bones. They were useful idiots for what was always an ideological project: Cameron and Osborne said within a short time that even once the deficit was down, there would be no restoring of cut-down public services.

I hear this "ideological" claim about the Tories and austerity all the time. I'll just say that up until the financial crisis of 2007 Cameron and Osborne were not contemplating anything like this. Their mantra was in fact "sharing the proceeds of growth". But of course by the time they came to power there was very little if any growth to share and the economy was in the toilet.

In accepting extreme cuts as an economic remedy, Clegg abandoned his party’s greatest thinker, Keynes, who would have gone for growth through government investment. But even if Clegg has been right on austerity, why did he let the axe fall on the most vulnerable? In policy after policy, the bottom half bore the brunt as VAT rose, while the top had an income tax cut and kept their many benefits: tax reliefs, and cuts to capital gains and corporation tax.

And here I would (at least partially) agree with Polly. The VAT rise, the cuts to capital gains and corporation tax as well as the reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% in the pound were all largely regressive and unwelcome measures.

The rightwing thinktank, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, showed how Osborne raised the lifetime tax-take from the bottom 20%, while tax for the top 20% fell. Even Clegg’s flagship raising of the income tax threshold was soon revealed by the Resolution Foundation to direct most of its huge £10bn cost to the benefit of the upper half while low earners gained little.

I would quibble with this point though. I remember seeing these analyses at the time. What they did was highlight that the very poorest did not earn enough to benefit from the tax cut. But that ignores or at least misunderstands what the point of the raising of the threshold was meant to do. It was supposed to allow people who were previously earning not very much but still paying tax keep more of the money they had earned. Polly's is an argument for never raising the tax threshold at all as this will never benefit the very poorest, most of whom do not work. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this would be fair.

Guardian readers need no reminding of the extreme severity of the benefit cuts – hitting children, mothers and people with disabilities hardest. Clegg had no need to fall in with the vindictive spirit of the bedroom tax, the sale of swaths more social housing, or the ever-tightening screw of work capability tests, as food banks opened everywhere. Labour supporters seeing the Lib Dems sitting on their hands and saying nothing may never forget. But then social justice was never the Lib Dems’ strong point: good on human rights and the environment, social equality is not in their DNA.

This is bullshit. I was a Lib Dem from 2008-2013. Many of my closest political friends are still in the party and I struggle to think of any of them who would wish for anything other than social equality and justice. In most cases they have spent decades fighting for just that. That their parliamentary representatives in government may have fallen short of this ideal is not a reason to besmirch the DNA of the entire party in this way.

In 2012 Andrew Lansley’s health and social care bill was stumbling in parliament, as it dawned on the Lords that this was a project to blow the NHS into fragments by setting up a market tendering every shard out to any bidder. “No top-down NHS reorganisation,” said the coalition agreement, and the Lib Dem grass roots rebelled. But they were soothed by Shirley Williams, and Clegg voted it through.
Why? Cameron was astonished not to lose the bill. So disastrously unworkable has it proved that it’s now being dismantled again, but deep, lasting damage was done to the NHS that Clegg could easily have stopped.

I keep hearing this. That the coalition "destroyed" the NHS. I have no idea what Polly and the people who say this are on about. I can still see my GP in exactly the same way as I could when Labour were in office for 13 years. I have also had cause to use hospitals numerous times in the last few years and again they are as accessible and free at the point of use as they always were. There is literally no difference at all in that respect. The changes were very complicated but essentially were attempting to allow the NHS to use facilities and services whether private or public where appropriate without dogma getting in the way. It is simply a small extension of what Labour had already done.

I think in fact what this episode tells us is that whatever the Tories do with the NHS when they're in office, however bland or minor it may be they will always, always be described as having "privatised" and "destroyed" it as well as trying to flog off its constituent parts to their mates. Especially by people like Polly Toynbee.

The charge list is long. The value of his pupil premium remains disputed, and he has suffered enough for his tuition fees debacle. He boasts of pushing through 5p plastic bag charges, but he should have stopped the banning of land-based wind turbines. He was treated as a minor irritant in the great Tory project – and that’s all he was.
In his book, Clegg observes Tory savagery on benefits and housing as if he were a non-participant; yet he had the power to stop or soften much of this. What makes him more of an idiot than a villain is his weak understanding of the power he had.
Take his failure to seize the one great prize his party sought for decades – proportional representation that would make such coalitions a fixture. His party would justify a pact with the devil to secure electoral reform. But out of sheer incompetence, Clegg blew that chance. He got his referendum, but only on AV: the weak “alternative vote” even his own side didn’t want. Fatally, he failed to force Cameron to pledge his party’s support. The same team of Tory liars who swung the Brexit vote ran the anti-AV campaign, preposterously claiming the tiny cost would deprive babies of NHS incubators and our boys in Afghanistan of kit. How Cameron’s crew laughed when Clegg lost.
Had he secured PR, the political landscape would be changed for the better, beyond all recognition. The Tory party would have split between pro- and anti-EU wings. Labour would split between Corbynites and social democrats. Ukip and the Greens would have their fair share of seats.
Above all, citizens could vote for a party closest to their views. At a time of turmoil and alienation, it’s never been more urgent to restore a closer link between what people want and what they get in Westminster. I can never forgive Clegg for bungling that once-in-a-generation mission so badly.

This is the part of Toynbee's piece that I most profoundly disagree with.

I am not happy with the legacy that the Lib Dems left behind. Indeed I left the party part way through their time in office disillusioned with what had been achieved and more specifically the lack of a difference in their approach to politics (I highlighted Clegg's very disappointing approach to PMQs when he deputised as an example of this). I myself wrote a pretty scathing piece late last year about Nick Clegg and how he hasn't been held properly accountable for his failings in government.

But the idea that Clegg somehow bungled the chance for PR is to misread reality so badly that I wonder just how well Polly even understands the dynamics of politics in this country.

The Tories are opposed to any change at all to the electoral system for the Commons. That is almost all of them. Certainly almost all of them in parliament. I could write a very long piece on the reasons for this but it is a bald fact.

Furthermore the Tories are absolutely implacably opposed to any change to a proportional system for the Commons.

These two facts conspired to make it impossible to get a proportional system during the 2010 coalition agreement. It was difficult enough for Cameron to get them to agree to a referendum on a pretty minor change to the electoral system (AV) that wouldn't have been proportional. The idea that Cameron could ever, ever, ever have got his party to vote for a referendum on a proportional system for the Commons is laughable.

With AV, the Tories would have been looking at maybe losing 10 or 20 seats that they would ordinarily win in an election. With a properly proportional system they'd lose 100 or more seats that they consider "rightly" theirs. I of course utterly disagree with them about this but that is what they think. They would consider it electoral suicide. Even a referendum on such a system would have been (and would still be) way, way beyond the pale for them because of the risk they might lose it.

They just about accepted the AV referendum thinking that they'd have a pretty good chance of winning it as it's difficult for those opposing the status quo in referenda and AV is a system that nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. But a fully proportional system whose benefits would be much easier to coherently argue for in a referendum? Over their cold dead bodies.

I am 100% certain that had Cameron tried to force this through we would have seen one of two things. Most likely the coalition agreement would have failed. The Tories would have governed alone for a few months doing all the easy things. There would have been no austerity during this time and they would have spent it spreading poison about how the Lib Dems had eschewed their chance at governing because they "selfishly" wanted to change the electoral system "massively in their favour" and away from our "stable" system that had "served us well" for "hundreds of years". And then gone to the country again in the autumn of 2010 and got a majority.

The second possibility is what happened with Lords reform. Which is that the Tories might have said they would do it but in practise when it came to a vote in the Commons loads of backbench MPs would have voted against it. And Labour would almost certainly have found a pretext to oppose it too in order to dish the Lib Dems (in exactly the same way they did when they had the same chance with Lords reform) and hence the referendum would not have got through. And that would have caused the government to fall with the same outcome as the previous paragraph, "selfish Lib Dems" etc. etc. etc. followed by a Tory majority.

To suggest that Clegg somehow fumbled an historic opportunity on PR is so far from the truth and what was possible that it actually makes me angry. Angry that Polly Toynbee would write it and angry that so many people in my country seem to also believe it.

Clegg did lots of things wrong in government but messing up his One Big Chance for PR was not one of them. Such a change at that time was simply politically impossible.

History may remember him as no worse than clueless. But one tragedy is that the country needs a strong unequivocal pro-European party, as the Lib Dems once were. Clegg’s miscalculation of everything has left behind only a tiny rump with too little heft to influence the battle ahead.

I would certainly agree that Clegg's miscalculations have left the Lib Dems as a small rump but to characterise this as "everything" he did in government is manifestly unfair and does not give him credit for the things he did manage to achieve in his five years as Deputy Prime Minister of this country.

It's worth mentioning as well that throughout the piece Toynbee falls into the trap that many people seem to of overestimating the leverage that the Lib Dems had in office. They had 57 MPs so despite the fact that they had 23% of the vote vs the Tories 37% (i.e. roughly 4 voters for every 6 the Tories had) they only had 1 MP for every 6 the Tories had. That put them in a fairly weak position in terms of being across issues in the government and certainly in terms of parliamentary firepower. A junior partner with a seventh of the MPs of a government simply cannot dictate terms on every single policy as her piece suggests they should have done.

Had the Lib Dems pushed it too far, eventually the coalition would have broken down. I used to talk about this and used to predict that were that to happen, all those Labour supporters cheering for the end of the coalition would be very sorry when we saw a majority Tory government. I was derided for talking such "nonsense" but of course in 2015 when the parliament ran out that's exactly what we saw. It's now pretty obvious in hindsight that that would have been the result had the election been earlier.

So in actual fact the Lib Dems ameliorated the worst Tory excesses, did some good things and some not so good things (as every party in government does) and staved off majority Tory rule for five years. In a just world they'd be thanked for "taking one for the team" instead of being pilloried and castigated by left wing columnists who don't appear to understand how politics actually even works.

*Indeed the depth of the lie of this "squatter" narrative is exposed by the fact that Brown actually wanted to resign and was persuaded not to by Clegg who begged for more time. In the end Brown resigned before the coalition agreement had been finalised and hence Cameron went to see The Queen unsure if the deal would be formally reached and if instead he would have to lead a minority government. That's just how wrong the narrative is and yet it still persists. Even now people talk about how Brown "squatted" in Downing Street. We truly live in a post-truth world now.

Friday 1 July 2016

We are now seeing how the Tories prize loyalty above all else

Yesterday's manoeuvrings within the Tory party are some of the most bizarre I have ever witnessed in all my time following politics.

For Michael Gove who had been seen as one of Boris Johnson's key allies and a likely future Chancellor under a Johnson premiership to suddenly abandon his colleague, denounce him and announce he would be standing himself was extraordinary to watch. Then Boris, showman to the end made a speech peppered with references to Julius Caesar's Brutus and where in its denouement he withdrew from the leadership race using the carefully calculated phrase we have seen repeated on all media outlets: " view of the circumstances in parliament that person cannot be me.".*

It is becoming clear that Gove is now himself a busted flush having first brought down David Cameron's premiership (along with Johnson) and then latterly turned on Johnson and brought down his leadership ambitions too. There are lots of Tory MPs shocked by this behaviour and although politics is a dirty business I think there are now simply too many who will not want to be seen to reward this sort of behaviour. It's possible now that Gove doesn't even make it to the final ballot of members. He may even, if reports today are accurate withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind Theresa May who is now the clear front-runner and very likely to be the next Prime Minister.

Nothing is certain but May is 4/11 with Betfair with Gove at 19/2. For the rest of this post I am going to assume that Theresa May will now win.

Because in reality that fits the pattern of almost all the Tory leadership campaigns that I have witnessed as an adult. Right through from the one that followed the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

In 1990 Geoffrey Howe dropped his bombshell as he resigned from Thatcher's cabinet and Michael Heseltine responded to his clarion call that "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long." by challenging Thatcher for the leadership directly. As we all know his bid failed and instead the hitherto ultra-loyal John Major who had rapidly risen through the ranks to have recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer won the crown**. Heseltine was widely seen as having been punished for his disloyalty. This is despite the fact that the majority of Tory MPs knew that Thatcher was finished anyway, they did not want to reward Heseltine for having been the one to actually bring her down.

In 1997 after the Tories lost the general election the subsequent winner was William Hague. He had been very loyal to John Major all throughout his travails in the 1990s and was appointed to the cabinet after John Redwood had quit in 1995 order to challenge Major. He was seen as a trustworthy pair of hands to guide the Conservative Party through a difficult time. Redwood was eliminated in the second ballot, another victim of the Tory Party's dislike of disloyalty.

In 2001 the story was a little bit different and deviated from the norm in that the winner in the end was Iain Duncan Smith who himself had been a serial rebel in the 1990s against John Major's government. Duncan Smith was actually the beneficiary of the fact that he ended up in the final ballot against Ken Clarke who as a Europhile was wildly out of touch with the Tory membership who by now had the final say when the MPs had whittled the field down to two. This aberration however was short lived as the party rapidly realised they had made a mistake selecting Duncan Smith not least because it was very difficult for him to credibly demand loyalty from his parliamentary party after all the times he had failed to do the same thing himself under Major. So in 2003 without even a leadership election the Tories got rid of Duncan Smith through some back-room shenanigans and replaced him with Michael Howard the former Home Secretary who himself had been (publicly) loyal to Major in government thus ending the experiment of allowing a former rebel to lead them.

2005 saw another loyalist David Cameron push through the field to emerge victorious. Cameron in fact is the epitome of a loyal party member having devoted much of his life to working in the engine room of the Tory Party before he became an MP first in Central Office and then as a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Indeed he and George Osborne used to help out prepping John Major for PMQs during the 1990s.

And so to the current leadership contest 11 years on. Given the history of how the Tory party selects its leaders and the disaster that befell it the one time it deviated from this norm and selected someone who was widely seen as disloyal it is looking like once again that rather than the showboating politicians and/or the ones who have been willing to publicly betray the party leadership it will be the quiet, unassuming but publicly loyal Theresa May who will win the ultimate prize.

There is almost certainly a lesson in here for future aspirant Tory leaders. Keep your head down, get on with the job and no matter what you might really think, always, always swear absolute loyalty to your leader.

It's the Tory way.

*As an aside this debacle shows how wrong I was when I wrote the other day that it was most likely to be Boris Johnson who won the leadership. I should have adhered more closely to what history tells us myself! I'll be more careful in future for sure.

**It's worth noting that Major was able to "have his cake and eat it" when it came to Thatcher's nomination for the first round of the leadership ballot. Thatcher's team had wanted Major's signature on her nomination papers as he was Chancellor and that would add weight to her bid. But Major did not sign her papers as at the time he was under anaesthetic having dental surgery. Hence he was able to both profess loyalty and simultaneously not dirty his hands by directly backing her. This contributed to his success in the second round and will perhaps go down as the luckiest dental problem in political history.