Tuesday, 3 March 2020

An effective demolition job, but not beyond criticism

The full version of Donald Sassoon's lacerating review of David Cameron's memoirs is now about to read free of charge online. It is a remarkable polemic: The worst prime minister ever

I am reluctant to criticise a fellow editor of Political Quarterly and he has produced a devastating and eloquent critique. I just make three simple points:

  • There clearly isn't a lot of point in comparing Cameron with 18th or 19th century prime ministers who were operating in a very different environment. But if we just confine ourselves to the 75-year period since the end of the Second World War, there is surely a case for Sir Anthony Eden who deceived the House of Commons about going to war. More recently, Theresa May has been criticised on a number of fronts.
  • Dave Cameron certainly had his flaws, and his memoirs are self-justificatory and tedious - but that could be said of many political memoirs. I do think he had an inability to think many moves ahead on the chess board of politics (as was evident from my one engagement with him), but that's never easy.
  • Much of the view you take of Dave depends on whether you are a hard core remainer. I voted remain and even campaigned for it in front of hostile audiences (I can recall being the warm up act for Ken Clarke). However, I have seen enough of the EU from close up to have some reservations about it, in particular about the strength of the 'reform from within' argument. I still think it was the wrong decision to leave, particularly with what looks like a very hard Brexit, but I don't think a referendum could or should have been avoided for ever (albeit that Dave was too confident about winning it).

Anyway, do read what Sassoon has to say.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Their Lordships House

House of Lords reform has suddenly become a hot topic again with some of the press complaining about an increase in expenses whilst overlooking the fact that the chamber sat more often after the 2017 election. Meg Russell is our leading expert on the House of Lords and it is good to see a review from her of the various ideas that have been put forward: Reform is back on the agenda

Some of the ideas put forward have been simply bonkers, although there was an interesting idea in a letter to The Times that when new government ministers are made lords they should cease to be voting members after their often short tenures.

It should also be remembered that there are advantages in having a second chamber that doesn't have too much legitimacy or power if we want to avoid legislative gridlock.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Javid's interesting statement

In a way I am a bit surprised that the former Chancellor's personal statement to the Commons did not receive more attention in the press today. I can see why Conservative papers might wish to downplay it as it made Boris Johnson squirm and raised some awkward questions about the conduct of the Government and the role of Dominic Cumming, but I was surprised that the FT didn't give it more coverage. Here its in full: Sajid Javid

I thought there were two particularly interesting aspects. First, the way in which he emphasised the traditional Conservative virtues of keeping a control of spending and aiming for low taxation. Fiscal constraints are clearly going to be abandoned, regardless of the economic and public health context.

Second, he set out a defence of the role of the Treasury. There are always arguments being made for splitting it up; for establishing a strong counter weight department; or, now, moving large parts of it to Teesside. However, there are actually good reasons for having a strong finance ministry (which is not to ignore evidence that austerity was overdone).

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Let us move on?

I am great Dido fan and I particularly like the track 'Let Us Move on': Lyrics video. It it is apposite to Brexit: 'Let us move on … and it will pass.' She is, of course, referring to a love affair, although the relationship of some people to the EU does seem rather emotional, whereas for others (and for successive UK governments) it is more transactional. Even so, I have not found it that easy to move on.

I voted remain and I campaigned for remain, the high point or low point being when I was the warm up act for Ken Clarke in front of a partially hostile audience in Skipton. The first question I got was 'Why are you a waffler?' and the second was 'How much does the EU pay you?' As Dido says, 'we've done all we can.'

Nevertheless, I do have some reservations about the EU having seen it close up for the whole span of our membership. I don't think that EU decision-making is necessarily undemocratic, indeed I think that the European Parliament is a more effective institution than some national legislatures. I do think that the decision-making process is overly complex. Perhaps that is unavoidable when you have 27 member states, but it does give a lot of scope for corporate business interests to exercise considerable influence.

As for the 'reform from within' argument, I would find this more convincing if a dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy did not still absorb not far short of 40 per cent of the EU budget.

Even so, I am not sure that I can 'let all that is lost be forgotten.' The economic benefits of membership are in my view considerable. Free trade pacts with countries like Australia carry hazards as well as opportunities: Dom's deal. There are also strong security arguments for membership, although there may be other ways of pursuing these as in President Macron's proposal for a European Security Council.

'Don't fly it like a kite (Dido)'

What does concern me is that the Government is evidently intending to have a no deal Brexit because that is what an 'Australian solution' amounts to. Of course, this is a negotiating ploy and what the Government would really like is a basic Canada style agreement covering trade in goods (but not financial services). That might be possible, although there isn't much time and the issues of state aid and the emotive subject of fisheries are major stumbling blocks. A no deal exit would be economically damaging, although politically the blame could be put on the EU (again).

I might add that my view is that there was a window of opportunity for a softer Brexit, but hard core remainers persisted in their demand for a second referendum. It always puzzled me that they were so confident that they would win it on the basis that people would be 'better informed', although some might have felt that what they learnt was how obdurate the EU could be. Some leavers might have voted remain, but some remainers might have voted leave. The result would have probably been close.

My hope would be that the EU and the UK realise that a working relationship is in both their interests, although the UK has more to lose than the EU. I am not too hopeful.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Was Dave Cameron the worst prime minister ever?

Donald Sassoon does not sit on the fence in this scathing review of David Cameron's memoirs: The worst British prime minister ever.

I must admit I have not yet finished the rather long memoirs. I did go the launch event at the Barbican and was rewarded with a 'signed' copy of the book. It looked like a rubber stamp to me.

I think that one of Dave's biggest problems was that he never thought through the consequences of a particular course of action. He could never see more than a couple of moves ahead. On a personal level, I liked him, but one could dismiss that as smooth Etonian charm.

Like most memoirs, it is a rather self-serving book and he doesn't really explain some of his actions. However, 'the worst prime minister ever' is a competitive league, even if one restricted oneself to the period since the First World War. Sir Anthony Eden would surely merit consideration.

Of course, the real charge against Dave from hard core remainers is the Brexit referendum. Dave argues that it would have been inevitable sooner or later and I am inclined to agree.

I voted remain and I regret the decision that was taken. But I have seen enough of the EU close up to be 'sceptical' (in the original meaning of the word) about it as an institution. It's hardly impressive that it allowed a dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy to absorb so much of its budget. Unlike hard core remainers, I am ready to move on, albeit it with some misgivings.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Why is ministerial turnover so high?

The Institute for Government looks at the high rate of ministerial turnover in the UK which is now as high as for football managers. It cannot be conducive to good government: Keeping ministers in post

Martin Lewis was making the point at Radio 5 at lunchtime that he often found in his discussions with ministers on financial issues affecting consumers that the minister had not mastered their brief and he had to give them a 101 course on what the problem was.

I remember Richard Rose tackling this topic decades ago and pointing out that ministerial turnover was actually lower in countries like Italy that have frequent changes of government.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

What does FlyBe tell us about the Johnson government?

British Airways has now submitted a state aids complaint to the EU. I am no expert on the complexities of state aid policy, although in principle one is allowed to boost regional economies. The actual mechanism used by the Government in terms of airport passenger duty may, however, be open to challenge. In political terms the Government would probably welcome a row with the EU that saw it on the side of the regions against Brussels.

The writer on Sanday, Orkney: you can get there by plane, but I used the boat.

The intervention does, of course, raise questions about the Government's commitment to climate change policy. However, those in the south-west and the Scottish highands and islands would argue that the connectivity that Flybe provides is essential to their ability to do business and attract tourists. I must confess that I have a personal interest here as I use Flybe's Birmingham to Aberdeen flights (almost always nearly full) and then connect via Loganair to Grimsetter international airport, Kirwall, Orkney.

The flag of Orkney is based on that of Norway: you can fly direct to Norwegian destinations from Grimsetter.

A Greenpeace spokesman argued on Radio 5 that we should not be supporting unsustainable rural lifestyles. I don't think the growing number of people living in the Orkney Islands, with an economy in which innovation in renewables plays a key part, would see it that way. Island council officials have to fly to the centre of power in Edinburgh: it can't all be done by video links.

However, should one offer a general subsidy to all domestic flights in the UK by adjusting APD? Or should one subsidise particular services that serve a social need, as already happens with Newquay to Heathrow flights by Flybe? The policy objective may be desirable, but there may be more efficient means of achieving it.