Friday, 27 June 2008

Bad Night for Bears

Harry Bear of the Fur Play party finished a humiliating 12th at the Henley by-election with 73 votes, behind Louise Cole of the Miss Great Britain Party who attracted 91 voters.

Gordon Brown saw his candidate finish behind the Greens and the British National Party in fifth place, although the latest YouGov poll shows a narrowing of the gap between Conservatives and Labour.

The Lib Dems will breathe a sigh of relief as, although their candidate came nowhere near winning the seat, he did increase his share of the poll by 1.84 per cent.

At Howden and Haltemprice, David Davis will face 25 candidates, 12 of whom are independents. One, the infamous David Icke, has no party listed. Pundits are forecasting a tight race for second place between David Bishop representing the Church of the Militant Elvis and Mad Cow-Girl standing for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Darling gets vote of confidence

Alastair Darling has received the vote of confidence from No.10 Downing Street after BBC speculation that he might be on his way out in a summer reshuffle.

In football the dreaded vote of confidence is usually followed in short order by the sack. However, although Darling has had a rough ride, Gordon Brown is well aware that any move to replace him might be seen as an attempt to shift the blame for the government's woes.

Prime ministers who have sacked their chancellors have often followed them out the door of No.10 not so long afterwards, Harold Macmillan and Selwyn Lloyd being a case in point, while Mrs Thatcher was weakened by losing Nigel Lawson.

I am starting to get media calls about Gordon Brown's first birthday yet. They think it's all over but it isn't yet comes to mind.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Big shortfall in stamp duty revenue

Advocates of a cut in fuel duties argue that the Government is reaping substantial increase revenue from VAT and North Sea oil taxes. This overlooks the loss of revenue elsewhere as a result of the economic slowdown.

The Liberal Democrats have suggested that there will be a big fall in stamp duty revenue and the Institute of Fiscal Studies have said that their figures are plausible. The 'best case' scenario put forward by the Lib Dems suggested that prices would fall by 10 per cent and transactions by 40 per cent, resulting in a £4.5bn shortfall from the March Budget projection of £9.5 billion. It includes the impact of declining prices taking properties into lower stamp duty bands.

The party's 'worst case' estimate, bassed on a 20 per cent fall in prices and a 60 per cent drop in transactions, would cost the Treasury £6.8bn. Its central forecast, assuming a 15 per cent fall in prices and a 50 per cent decline in transactions (both on the high side, especially the latter, in my view) would lead to a £5.7bn drop in revenues compared with the Treasury's forecast. Commercial property transactions, which account for a third of stamp duty revenue, had been hit harder than those on residential property.

North Sea oil revenue could be boosted by £5.5bn in 2008-9 compared to Budget predictions. However, high oil prices reduce other revenues, including corporate tax.

The wilder branches of the regulatory state

Large numbers of trees could be chopped down, damaging the appearance of cities and towns and reducing their contribution to absorbing carbon dioxide if the British Standards Institute have their way. They are developing new rules on tree safety which will require more frequent inspection of trees if those responsible for them are to ensure that they are covered by their insurance against negligence claims.

On average six people a year are killed by falling trees and individuals face a 1 in 10 million chance of becoming a victim. This rate is not increasing.

Rick Haythornthwaite, chair of the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, said that the tough standard was being driven by 'risk entrepreneurs'. He said, 'The draft standards have been put together by a rather narrow group led by arboriculturalists and tree surgeons who stand to gain from its adoption, while the potentially enormous costs would have to be met by tree owners.'

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Are Brits 'bloody miserable'?

Junior transport minister and Glasgow MP Tom Harris has raised a rumpus by causing his countrymen 'bloody miserable' on his blog. He said Britain had never had it so good, but that had not made Britons any less grumpy.

'There are more two-car homes in Britain today than there are homes without a car at all,' he said. 'We live longer, eat healthier (if we choose), have better access to forms of entertainment never imagined a generation ago (satellite TV, DVD, computer games), the majority of us have access to the worldwide web which we use to enable more spending and for entertainment. Crime is down.'

'So why is everyone so bloody miserable? What happened to that post-war optimism and commitment to common values? Are they gone forever and if so, why? If not, how can we bring them back?'

The Tories made quick use of the posting with shadow treasury chief secretary Philip Hammond saying, 'The short answer to Mr Harris's question asking why everyone is so miserable is "We've got Gordon Brown as our prime minister."'

There's no doubt that some people are finding times hard at the moment. And there are persistent poverty problems in many parts of Britain: Alexi Sayle was claiming on his programme about Liverpool last night that 41 per cent of the population of the city were below the poverty line. But I am old enough to remember the Age of Austerity and people were not more cheerful then, community values or not. Indeed, they could be downright miserable.

It may be that there is something in the Australian caricature of 'whingeing Poms'. Sometimes it seems that Brits are never as happy as when they are complaining. A typical comment one hears when there is some disruption on the railways is 'It's like a third world country.' One wonders if any of these people have ever been to a third world country or used the trains in Bombay or Calcutta.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

GMB cuts funding to Labour

A third of 108 Labour MPs backed by GMB, Britain's third largest union, are to have their sponsorship withdrawn. This is because they are perceived not to have done enough to support union policies. Those picked include a junior minister (Meg Munn at the Foreign Office), several ministerial aides and a vice-chairman of the Labour Party.

The move, which may be followed by other unions, is designed to increase pressure on Labour to support more union-friendly policies without triggering the nuclear option on disaffiliating from the party altogeher. However, the GMB is going to contact its 600,000 members to see if they want to cut the £1.2m in affiliation fees paid annually by the GMB to the Labour Party. The union provides another £400,000 in donations to local Labour constituency parties.

Labour has become increasingly reliant on unions for funds as donations from individuals have dried up after the cash-for-honours row and falling opinion poll ratings. It is facing a backlash over its failure to pay more heed to union demands on issues such as public sector pay and privatisation of public services. The Communication Workers Union has threatened to demand a fresh commitment from Gordon Brown not to privatise the Royal Mail in return for its continued financial support.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The odd resignation of David Davis

Relatively few events in politics surprise me, but the resignation of David Davis to fight a by-election on the 42-day rule does. The decision can hardly please Dave Cameron and indeed Davis will fight the election 'without the full resources of the Conservative Party.'

The 42-day rule is supported by something like sixty to seventy per cent of the electorate and voters do not welcome unnecessary by-elections. It could be an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats who have had designs on the seat in the past. In any event, it will be a useful distraction for Gordon Brown and an unwelcome one for the Conservatives.

A full statement from Dave Cameron is awaited, but he is reported to have described the decision as 'courageous' which is a coded way of saying 'foolhardy'.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The 'what would you do' question

Philip Stephens has some interesting comments in his column in the Financial Times. He notes, in relation to Dave Cameron, 'Hit and run politics is fine if you expect to stay in opposition. A government-in-waiting has to come up with a few answers.' As Norman Tebbit commented, the Conservatives cannot indefinitely avoid the 'what-would-you-do' question.

Stephens takes the example of the depreciation of the pound against the euro for which the Conservative Treasury team has been castigating Mr Brown. Would a Conservative government be telling the Bank of England to use its foreign currency reserves to push up the value of the pound? The last time this was attempted in 1992 hardly offers a good example.

I have just been handling a media call about tonight's vote on the 42-day rule. The indications are that Gordon Brown will win, just about. That would certainly give him a boost, although it wouldn't solve his problems.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

More bad poll news for Labour

I was recently reading Dominic Sandbrook's excellent history of the 1964-70 period, White Heat. It is a successor to the equally good Never Had It So Good which covered the 1956-63 period. Sandbrook's basic thesis is that Britain is a more conservative country than more superficial commentaries on the
1960s would suggest and there is certainly something in that, although he overdoes it at times.

A chapter 'Wilson Must Go' records the travails of Labour in the late 1960s. Only one person in five said they would support the party at the next election. Only 19 per cent of those polled said that they were satisfied with the Government's record and 69 per cent pronounced themselves dissatisfied. Sandbrook notes, 'No government had been so widely disliked and despised since polling began.'

Yet at one time it looked as if they would win the 1970 election and only after some bad news had punctured Wilson's search for a 'doctor's mandate' in the summer sunshine did a late swing put Ted Heath into Downing Street.

Incidentally, to show how political campaigning has changed, I was a PhD student at Exeter University at the time and I got word that Wilson was going to visit the marginal constituency. I went down to the station where large numbers of rural Tories were sounding hunting horns. I got a platform ticket, Wilson got off the train and I walked alongside him down the platform.

The latest poll figures make bad reading for Labour, although the Telegraph does note that at a comparable time in the 1960s the Conservatives led by the wooden Ted Heath rather than cuddly Dave Cameron were attracting 50 per cent of the vote:
Latest Poll

Friday, 6 June 2008

Dave takes no chances at Henley

Dave Cameron is pouring plenty of resources into defending Boris Johnson's old seat at Henley on Thames (before Bozza it was held by Hezza). This might all seem a bit unnecessary with a safe seat and a local councillor as candidate. However, Dave is influenced by the example of Bromley in 2006 when the Conservative majority plummeted to under 700 in the face of a strong Liberal Democrat challenge.

I am sceptical about whether the Lib Dems can mount that strong a challenge in Henley, while Labour are already reconciled to losing their deposit.

The outcome of next week's crucial vote on the 42-week detention rule could well depend on the nine Democratic Unionists. The Home Secretary seems to have done a good job of calming the fears of some Labour MPs earlier in the week.

The Government seems to have followed a strategy of putting their heads down and getting on with the business of governing which is probably the best course to follow in the circumstances. Dave's performance at question time this week was somewhat undermined by hilarity over his new haircut.