Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 31 May 2012

Cameron cannot get away with this political sleight of hand on Hunt

Why is Jeremy Hunt not being investigated for breaching the ministerial code?

Let's just take a few steps back here and look at the chronology of events.

Firstly a mass of communications between Hunt's SpAd (Adam Smith) and News International were released into the public domain. From this it was abundantly clear that Smith had overstepped the mark in communicating privileged information to a commercial party with interests in the decision that his boss was going to have to make in a quasi-judicial role. Despite his initial protestations, Hunt eventually sacked Smith acknowledging that he had gone too far although denying any wrongdoing himself.

Then there were calls for Hunt to be sacked. Many, many people pointed out that the ministerial code makes a minister ultimately responsible for everything that their SpAds say and do. But Cameron declined even to refer Hunt to the ministerial code adviser for investigation claiming that Hunt should have his chance in from of the currently running Leveson inquiry.

Now, several weeks on, that has happened today. Hunt had his chance and despite it being a pretty ropey performance (where for example he seems to be admitting he didn't really understand what quasi-judicial actually meant until very recently) the PM clearly thinks he has done enough to hold onto his job as he has stated again that Hunt will not be referred for a ministerial inquiry.

The justification for this looking at the commentary in the media seems to be that there was no further "smoking gun" in the evidence today.

Let's just imagine that Leveson had not been running. When the Smith e-mails had broken, Smith would have been sacked but the political pressure would immediately have moved onto Hunt. With there being no way to dissipate this pressure Cameron would have had to refer him for a ministerial code inquiry I am certain of it. Instead he was able to deflect calls for that by effectively saying "Let him have his say at an inquiry that is already set up". Then the fact that it has taken several weeks, the media have had plenty of other things politically to get their teeth into (budget cock-ups, Euro crisis etc.) the pressure seeped away. Now that Hunt has "had his chance" the PM clearly thinks that he can get away with effectively saying "nothing new to see here, let's move on".

This is classic political sleight of hand. We already have the smoking gun. His special adviser was leaking privileged information to a potential bidder in a process worth billions of pounds. The ministerial code is clear about who has ultimate responsibility for SpAds.

Cameron should not be able to get away with using the time delay and Leveson as a smoke-screen to try and obfuscate the key issue here.

Leveson is a sideshow with respect to Hunt. He should be referred for a ministerial inquiry and given what we already know, I struggle to see how the ruling can be anything other than his position is untenable.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

So Cameron talks to Blair. I should bloody well hope so!

The "news" has been reported today that David Cameron has talked to Tony Blair on the phone about affairs of state and running the country on 8 occasions since becoming Prime Minister.

Why this is considered worth publishing in a newspaper is beyond me. There are very few people who understand what it is like to be PM. Cameron should consult widely and the expertise and experience of the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister who only stood down 5 years ago is very valuable to the current holder of the office.

Running the country is not a game. It's deadly serious and the more advice Cameron can solicit from those who appreciate what it is like to be in his position and having to take those decisions, the better as far as I am concerned no matter which party they are in.

Frankly I would say the bigger story here is that he has only spoken to him on average once every three months.

I would have expected it to be more often than that!

Monday 28 May 2012

What does this picture tell us about how modern politics works?

1992 and all that

This picture was taken on 16th September 1992. That is the day that subsequently became known as "Black Wednesday" when sterling came crashing out the Exchange Rate Mechanism. It features then Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont explaining to the massed ranks of the media what had just happened regarding sterling.

But the reason why this picture has become more historic in recent years is because of who is lurking in the background. It is a fresh faced, 25 year old David Cameron (the one who looks a bit like he doesn't know where to put himself).

He was a special adviser to Lamont at that time which is why he is hovering there like a ghost at the feast.

Ever since Cameron's rise to prominence as Tory leader in 2005 I have found this picture quite fascinating for what it tells us about how modern politics works. As it has turned out, on the worst day of his career, Lamont happened to be standing next to the man who would end up being the very next Conservative Prime Minister after John Major. And yet at that point, that man was not even a Member of Parliament. In fact he wouldn't become one for nearly another nine years.

Of course some of that coincidence is down to the fact that the Tories were out of power after 1997 for a long time. If they'd got back in in say 2002 it would have been a different story. But if we think about the odds against the very next Conservative PM happening to be with the Chancellor on the darkest economic day for at least a generation (at that point) we start to see how strange that is if our politics is properly meritocratic.

If we start with an assumption that it is let's just look how unlikely what that picture tells us actually is. At any one time, there are around 40 million people in this country who are eligible to become Prime Minister. Let's say (being generous) that half of them have a conservative leaning and hence might at least agree with the party politically. If we had known on that day that the next Tory PM would be elected in 18 years time it could pretty much have been any of those people (or their demographic equivalents 18 years hence).

But it wasn't any of them. It was the man standing next to the Chancellor.

Our politics isn't very meritocratic. A fair few MPs get their seats because of who they know. Cameron followed a familiar path which was PPE at Oxbridge (or other high calibre university), special adviser, short period in private industry followed by selection for a safe seat for the 2001 election. From there he impressed his parliamentary colleagues (of course he knew the ropes well given his history) and by 2005 was Leader of the Opposition.

It is a well trodden route and once you understand how the political parties groom these bright young things and smooth the way for them into parliament and up the greasy pole, far from being surprising that Cameron ended up leader and PM it starts to look almost inevitable that him or one of his kind was quite likely to make it there. It is no coincidence that George Osborne also took a similar route to the top.

But the Tories have always been like this haven't they? Words in ears about "good chaps"? Funny handshakes etc.? We'd expect better from Labour wouldn't we?

1997 and all that

Uh oh....

Sunday 27 May 2012

This isn't just any "Council Tax Freeze". This is a Bracknell Forest "Council Tax Freeze"...

I don't often write about local issues on this blog but this one has really pissed me off.

Our local council (Bracknell Forest) has just started charging £30 per year for collecting garden waste. They introduced a garden waste collection scheme back in 2006 where the options were to purchase a sturdy paper bag for 50p a pop each time or spend £30 on a plastic bin which we were promised would be a one-off payment entitling us to have our garden waste collected every fortnight.

It turns out that these promises were worthless. According to the council's leaflet on this garden waste collection is "discretionary" and they don't have to provide the service, hence the charge. That seems very strange to me. Before the recycling scheme started, everything just went in the same bin. Now garden waste that must surely be produced by a large proportion of local residents is deemed not worthy of collection without an extra charge?

But what really gets my goat about this stealth tax increase is how it has been slipped under the radar whilst our local MP, Dr Phillip Lee writes in our local paper about how proud he is of the "fact" that his council has been able to "freeze" council tax this year.

It makes me wonder what other services we all thought we paid for are going to turn out to be  discretionary in future.

"Come on Mark" I hear you argue vituperatively. "Not everyone has a garden. It's only right that you pay your fair whack!".

And that is where this extra charge for us on our estate is adding insult to injury. Because we live on a new estate that was built in 2004 we have to pay an annual "estate management charge" to a private company which pays for things like upkeep of the grass in the communal areas and a play area. Those charges are around £300 per year. But for people who happen to live in older houses/estates in our constituency there is no such charge; those things are paid for out of the council tax. That I contribute to. It's a scam as far as I am concerned that new estates when they are built now often have these covenants put into the contract between the builders and the council to limit what the council has to pay for. But of course we get no discount on our council tax for this. So frankly that argument cuts very little ice with me.

Of course I totally understand that times are tough and councils need to save money, I don't have a particular problem with that in principle. I do however have a problem with our council introducing stealth charges on the quiet whilst loudly shouting about how they have "frozen" our council tax bills.

No they haven't. They've just increased it by around 2%.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Cameron and Fruit Ninja-gate

I think this story about how David Cameron has been spending "crazy" amounts of time on his iPad playing "Fruit Ninja" is wrong on two levels.

Firstly I simply don't believe that he spends very much of his time playing games (and what is the definition of "crazy" in this context?). No modern Prime Minister ever really has that much spare time.

But secondly and much more importantly, even if it was true, so bloody what? It is continually lamented that our politicians do not act like normal people. What could be more normal than a middle aged man getting a little bit too into a piece of new technology? I've done it, and if you asked you'd probably find millions of people in this country had got more diverted than they probably should have done by something like this.

This week a "story" was also reported that Cameron had gone out for a meal with his wife. And ate CAKE! You might be wondering why this is even newsworthy (it isn't) but it was juxtaposed with comments from William Hague about people having to rein in their spending. Even people economising will often find a bit of money to go out for a one-off celebration of something. Again, the PM is being castigated for something that normal people do all the time.

It makes me wonder what those who deem these pieces worthy of reporting on actually expect from a political leader. Because if they want an utter obsessive who spends every waking second on politics getting very little sleep and finding pretty much no time for anything else I believe the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is available for a comeback.

No, I thought not, so lay off Cameron for doing the normal stuff. There's plenty of other things he can be legitimately criticised for. This nonsense is a tabloidesque distraction from properly holding him to account.

Sunday 13 May 2012

The day I was sort of Nick Robinson for a few minutes

One of the highlights of blogging for me has been the opportunity to appear on the radio. It's not something I've really covered on here much. Most other bloggers seem to take it in their stride and most "normal" (i.e. non-political) people I know are a bit nonplussed as to what it's all about.

But I have really enjoyed the times that I have been asked to go onto various radio stations and debate politics. Sometimes it has been over the phone but often it has been in the studio which has been a particularly fascinating aspect of it for me. I have always been very interested in broadcasting and although I never pursued it academically or career-wise (I always assumed it would be too difficult to break into and I'd be far better off following a safer bet - in my case software development) to have been able to see behind the scenes and be involved in radio shows has been a real privilege. It still happens a little bit nowadays. Only last week I was on with Jacqui Smith on LBC discussing the local election results (down the line). It's more infrequent nowadays though. Partly because I get less offers and partly because I am less able to get to studios these days and have to turn more offers down.

Through this process I have met and debated with some of the most interesting people involved in politics and political commentary including James Forsyth, Mehdi Hasan, Shane Greer (many, many times!), Lance Price, Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie, Steve Webb, Olly Grender, Alex Hilton, Harry Cole and Kate Hoey (who is one of the nicest people I have ever met in politics) amongst dozens of others.

Some of the highlights for me of this rather unexpected facet of my political commentator life have been:

  • The chance to meet and (slightly) get to know Ken Livingstone. He used to present a show on LBC (sometimes with David Mellor) and I was invited on several times around the time of the 2010 General Election. I got the feeling that both Ken and David quite liked me - indeed David even said as much on air, the old flatterer! Ken Livingstone is a political hero of some in my family who are of a bit more of a socialist bent than me. I told him so after the first time I was on (thinking it might be my last) and he had a big grin on his face. My scariest moment on air with Ken was when I was doing a paper review with him and we were talking about sects. He mentioned how the Scientologists once tried to recruit him and he referred to them as a "cult". I said "They don't like to be called a cult Ken" and for the rest of the show I was paranoid that I had tripped over my words and "done a Naughtie"! I think it was OK though...
  • Being part of 5 Live's coverage following the final leader's debate during the 2010 election. Tony Livesey was the presenter and I was on the panel with Iain Dale and Will Straw. That was tremendous fun, especially the part where we were asked to answer questions as if we were our respective leaders. I mimicked one of the things Clegg had done during the debate (making out I couldn't see the questioner) which got a big laugh from the assembled audience. I also saw the way Will was able to handle a very hostile question with charm and skill which certainly made me think he will be an MP some day and could well go far.
  • Being asked a few months ago to go into BBC TV Centre and be on about 15 different BBC local radio stations over the course of two hours discussing the "Cameron veto" and the Lib Dem response to it. It was fascinating being a part of how so many different local breakfast shows were being made. Some were pre-recorded but many of them were live. They all had the same introductory script for the piece but it was also interesting to see which ones stuck to it, which ones paraphrased and which ones just leapt straight in. It showed me there are all sorts of different ways to cover the same story and certainly kept me on my toes. I pretty much used all the notes I had prepared for that day.

But perhaps my most surreal moment occurred the day after the 2010 General Election. I had been up all night in the National Liberal Club with Mark Valladares and our then party president Ros Scott (which in itself was a turn up for the books) watching the results roll in. I had had no sleep and had been on 5 Live from College Green in the morning. Then at 1:00pm I went over to Bush House (a remarkable building by the way) to be on the BBC World Service Newshour programme. I turned up and was on at first with Mehdi talking to Claire Balderson about the results and what we thought might happen next. Half way through the hour Mehdi had to go and his seat was taken by John Kampfner. Then just as we restarted the debate we suddenly got interrupted by a statement from No 10 Downing Street. Gordon Brown came out and announced to the assembled media that he would also like to make an offer to the Lib Dems. This was following Cameron's "open and generous" offer to the party in the morning. After the short statement Claire came straight back into the studio. She spoke briefly to John and then said something like "Mark Thompson, would you like to interpret what just happened for us?"

I am a software engineer who 18 months earlier had started dabbling with a bit of blogging in my bedroom as and when I could find the time. Now I was being asked to interpret fast-moving political events on one of the most important political days in the UK this century on a live radio show being broadcast to millions of people around the world. Surreal is probably an understatement for the situation I found myself in.

I said something along the lines of "Gordon Brown clearly doesn't want to be left as a political wallflower and is showing a bit of ankle to Nick Clegg and fluttering his eyelashes." and tried to put that into a bit more context regarding Brown's mention of PR.

At least I now know how it feels to be Nick Robinson.

Well, a sort of Z-list Nick Robinson.

From Runcorn.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

The government thrashed the opposition on Thursday

What a strange title for a blog post you are thinking (yes, I am arrogant enough to assume I know your thoughts by the way). Surely it was a triumphant day for the Labour opposition in the local elections last Thursday and the Conservative and Lib Dem parties are licking their wounds?

Well that depends how you look at it. Yes, the Conservative party's share of the vote was only 31%. And the Lib Dems did as poorly as last year during the local elections and only ended up with 16% of the vote. Labour got 38% and are very pleased with their performance.

But let's take a couple of steps back here. For the last 2 years, Labour have done all they can to paint "the government" as being regressive and ideologically driven to implement the cuts agenda. They have berated "the government" as unfair to the poor and out of touch with ordinary people's lives.

That's right I hear you say (I'm doing it again), Labour have done that and they've done a good job hence your extremely poor showing last week you Lib Dem loser (I'm still doing you talking to me in case you're losing track).

But it strikes me that two different yardsticks are being used here. When Labour want to attack the government they attack it collectively. No quarter is given. No dispensation for the possibility for example that the Lib Dems might have to compromise in any way. No, they are fully complicit in every decision and hence fully culpable. And yet when it comes to the elections, Labour suddenly separate out the Tory and Lib Dem vote. But if we apply the same criteria as Labour normally do, lumping the governing parties together then suddenly the story is very different. In the middle of a parliament, with the government implementing the biggest cuts in several generations and having just tipped back into a recession the governing parties between them got 47% of the vote. The Labour opposition got just 38% of the vote.

Now just hang on a minute you say sharply (a bit too sharply for my liking to be honest), the Lib Dems are always going on about how they are a separate party. Yes indeed we are always going on about that and we are a separate party. But Labour never seem to make that distinction themselves. They are claiming that these local elections are a terrible verdict on the government*. If that was truly the case and the public agreed and enthusiastically wanted the alternative on offer from Labour wouldn't we have expected to see their share of the vote dwarf the combined share for the governing parties?

That didn't happen. Therefore it is hugely stretching credulity to claim that the elections last week prove that the coalition is on the ropes. It might be and there are doubtless lots of problems but the narrative that is being spun is just that, spin.

The reality is that using the criteria Labour usually use when it suits them, the government thrashed the opposition last week.

*I am well aware by the way that they were local elections and I get as annoyed as anyone that the results are automatically extrapolated into a picture of national reflection but hey ho, that's how everyone else interprets them and it would be like urinating into a hurricane to attempt to counter this.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Coalition Negotiations 2015. A Play.

Scene opens on a nondescript room somewhere in Whitehall, 9th May 2015.

Labour Lead Coalition Negotiator: "Well, thank you all for coming today. Obviously it's been a fairly gruelling election campaign but the fact that no party managed to achieve an overall majority has led us to this point. If we can come to some agreement over the next few days then we have a chance to form a majority coalition."

Lib Dem Lead Coalition Negotiator: "Absolutely. We very much hope that we can reach such an agreement between our parties. I have with me a document which forms our red lines if that would help."

LLCN: "OK, thanks. That might help speed things along a little bit!"


(LDLCN hands over a document to LLCN)

LLCN: "Er, this is your manifesto."

LDLCN: "That's right."

LLCN: "I don't understand."

LDLCN: "They are our red lines. We insist on having every single thing in our manifesto implemented in full."

LLCN: "But surely you must understand that is not possible?"

LDLCN: "On the contrary. We thought you would actually insist that this be the case."

LLCN: "Er, I really do not understand what you are saying here. Why would we want that?"

LDLCN: "Well, for the last 5 years you and your Labour colleagues have taken every opportunity to tell the public that we have renaged on various parts of our 2010 manifesto. You have attacked us for not blocking tuition fee rises, for the NHS reforms, for allowing the Conservatives to reduce the top rate of tax and for putting up VAT amongst many other things. We have taken a big political hit for having compromised previously and as our chief critics for having done so we assumed you would totally understand how we are not able to budge an iota on our manifesto for fear of being accused of the same again."

LLCN: "Er...."

LDLCN: "We'll leave you to decide whether you want a coalition on these terms. It is a take it or leave it offer. Good day!"

(The Lib Dem contingent exit)

(Confused faces, swanee whistle, curtain)