Thursday, 31 July 2008

David Miliband

If I was a senior member of the Labour Party, I would be very annoyed with David Miliband for giving fresh legs to the leadership story. He may wish to present it as a challenge to David Cameron, but at the very least it is setting out his stall for a future leadership contest.

Labour MPs should be careful about what they wish for. A messy leadership contest would be followed by strong moral pressure for a general election which they would almost certainly lose, providing the shortest prime ministerial tenure in modern history.

There is, of course, no constitutional reason for an election as we elect a party not a person to govern. However, having changed leaders twice, the pressure would be on to seek a fresh mandate.

I am still doubtful about an autumn leadership election. The real danger point for Gordon Brown will be next May if there is a poor performance in the council and European Parliament elections. An authoritative report suggesting that the housing market will not recover for three years does not bode well for the government giving that house prices play such a large role in the 'feel good' factor.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Dave's got his bike back

The good news this sunny Sunday morning is that Conservative leader Dave Cameron has been reunited with his beloved bicycle:

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Theft of Dave's bike obscures political development

No longer on his bike

The theft of Dave Cameron's trusty bike from outside Tesco's in the Portobello Road attracted plenty of media attention. Apparently Dave was seen plaintively walking along the road asking if anyone had seen his trusty mount. The BBC reported the important news that the Conservative leader had been 'picking up a few bits of salad' when the theft occurred.

All this obscured the more important news of a new alliance between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists which it is hoped will be finalised before the autumn. Before the Northern Ireland crisis, the two parties acted as one with selected Ulster Unionists getting junior ministerial jobs. Now the plan is that they will take the Tory whip again and that Lord Trimble, who already takes the Conservative whip in the Lords, will join the Shadow Cabinet.

Although the Ulster Unionists only have one MP, even that could be important in the event of a hung Parliament - still not impossible despite 'reading off' of the next general election outcome from by-election results. Linking up with the Tories might give an electoral boost to the Ulster Unionists as a party that transcended the sectarian divide.

There are some downside risks for the Conservatives who might be associated, whether fairly or not, with old fashioned sectarian politics. But against that it makes them look less of a purely English party.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Glasgow East

Not splashed by the media quite as much as some earlier by-election defeats, although I had my first media call shortly after 7.30 a.m.

The FT yesterday was saying that Labour would hang on and this seemed to be the general media view. However, clearly something happened on the day. By the time of the BBC 10 o'clock news the word was that there would be a few hundred votes in it but it looked as if Labour would be out. So it proved to be.

A journo told me that vox pops on the day were showing solid Labour voters shifting to the SNP. Quite why there was this late swing is not clear as there were no negative news events.

It's another blow for Gordon Brown and will make his Warwick 2 negotiations this weekend more difficult. One can expect the unions to argue that they have a package of policies that will shore up the core Labour vote.

I still do not see Brown being removed any time soon. There is no agreed alternative candidate so one is not going to get the required number of Labour MPs nominating a successor. The notion that a group of Cabinet ministers will call on Brown and tell him to go falls apart if he calls their bluff and says he is staying on. Any who resign can be portrayed as disloyal.

What this does increase is the chances of quite a significant September reshuffle with Margaret Beckett brought back in to the Cabinets to steady the troops and provide a media response to any bad news.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Fiscal rules to be modified

New Labour's fiscal rules are likely to be modified as the consequences of the economic slowdown hit home. Public sector borrowing was 50 per cent higher in the first two months of the financial year. Public borrowing rose by £9.2 billion last month, well above City forecasts of £7 billion. Borrowing of £4.4 billion between April and July as a postwar quarterly record.

Tax revenues, particularly VAT and stamp duty, are being hit by the economic downturn. In June, national insurance payments fell 8.3 per cent compared with a year earlier, VAT payments fell by 4.6 per cent and corporate tax payments were flat. In an interview with The Times Chancellir Alastair Darling admitted that taxpayers are at the limit of what they are willing to pay to fund public services. He revealed that he told Cabinet ministers this week that there would be no more money for schools, hospitals, defence, transport or policing.

Economists agree that if today's tight public finances are the legacy of past profligacy, it would be unwise to clamp down at the start of a downturn. One of the simplest options would be to raise the arbitrary ceiling on net debt, say to 45 per cent of national income.

The key issue is not the exact figure that is adopted, but whether any changes are introduced in the monitoring of the constraint. At present the Treasury is judge and jury of whether it is abiding by its own rules. Many analysts believe that there should be an independent monitoring body with an obligation on the Treasury to explain its policy if that body thought the rules were being broken - just as the Bank of England has to explain itself if inflation goes outside the target range.

New Labour shifted towards constrained discretion in economic policy rather than a more pure rules based stance. Because fiscal policy is about 'getting and spending' it is more difficult to effectively constrain than monetary policy.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Simple as

I'm not an expert on knife crime, but I do not have much time for the 'simple as' solition of locking more youngsters up for longer periods enabling more of them to be criminalised.

What is interesting is what this discussion reveals about the structure of contemporary politics. Although there have been some tragic incidents, and one death of this kind is one too many, it is by no means clear that deaths from stabbing have increased over the last five to six years.

However, the media has focused on this issue with demands that 'something must be done.' As a consequence, the Government is forced into a series of short-term gimmicks which are not properly thought through like the hospital visits proposal. What problems of this kind require is long-term, multi-faceted solutions not quick fixes which inevitably disappoint. But modern politics does not lead us in that direction.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Didn't he do well?

David Davis is back as the MP for Howden and Haltemprice with a majority of over 15,000 on a turnout of 34 per cent. The Green Party came second. Two of the independents got only eight votes each which must be a record low for a parliamentary election.

As far as the 42-day rule is concerned, I have never seen any convincing evidence that the lack of it has frustrated an investigation, but we are told it might in the future. So is this just the government trying to look tough on terrorists?

The intervention by the former head of M15 in the House of Lords was far more damaging to the government's case than anything that David Davis has done.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Wobbling Heights

Gordon Brown's capacity to shoot himself in the foot seems unending and now he has given a gift to the cartoonists by comparing himself to Heathcliff - the broodsing, romantic anti-hero of Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights. I suppose it's an improvement on Mr Bean.

In a New Statesman interview, the PM was told 'Some women say you remind them of Heathcliff.' He replied, 'Maybe an older Heathcliffe, a wiser Heathcliff.' He also said that, unlike Heathcliff, he did not 'generally' lose his temper.

Note the 'generally'. According to a recent Financial Times feature which portrayed a somewhat terrifying picture of life inside Downing Street, the Prime Minister is prone to 'stapler rage', allegedly throwing the offending machine across the room on one occasion.

In something of an understatement Ann Dinsdale from the Bronte Parsonage Museum said that Heathcliff wass 'not an ideal role model'. In the book the character is an embittered figure who treats others with cruelty and contempt. Indeed, he may have been so psychologically flawed that he killed someone.

Ms Dinsdale commented, 'The thing about Heathcliff is he turned to domestic abuse, possibly committed murder and certainly dug up the remains of his dead lover. Is this the role model we want for our own prime minister?'

Apparently a new film version is on the way, so perhaps Brown could take the part if he leaves Downing Street?

Why does the prime minister give answers of this kind? One theory is that he is very uncomfortable with personal questions.

What literary character does Dave Cameron represent? I would suggest a grown up version of one of Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five'.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Smart money goes on Harman

Harriet Harman is being seriously considered as a potential prime minister should Gordon Brown be forced out of office:

I don't have too high an opinion of Harman, but one could visualise a set of circumstances in which she could win an election. She would appeal more to traditional Labour supporters than David Miliband. One has also had to admire the way she has recovered from a number of setbacks in her political career.

However, the underlying state of the economy would not change with her or any other leader in charge.

Monday, 7 July 2008

What do we do about the alien lizard problem?

According to David Icke who is standing in the Howden and Haltemprice by-election, the world is ruled by alien lizards who are inhabiting human bodies, the Queen and George W. Bush being among their number. It certainly makes you look at Dave Cameron in a new light.

It's all part of a world fascist conspiracy apparently. One of the conspirators is the Royal Institute of International Affairs or Chatham House as the foreign policy think tank is better known.

One of the more serious candidates in the by-election is rape victim Jill Saward who is articulating the case that civil liberties are not an absolute good.

Eat Up Your Greens!

I don't think that Gordon Brown's advice to people to make better use of leftovers will go down very well. It smacks of the nanny state at its worst and many people will feel that the blame for food inflation is being shifted on to them.

There is a tremendous amount of waste in the food chain. A lot of it occurs when supermarkets reject produce that does not meet their exacting quality standards, although Waitrose started an interesting 'ugly fruit' initiative not so long ago.

Much of the waste that does occur in the home is through people throwing food away before it is eaten rather than cleaning up their plates. The fact that food is past its 'sell by' date does not mean that it is unsafe to eat. It is as much to protect supermarkets against litigation as anything. However, our youngest daughter regularly throws out anything past its sell by date she finds in our fridge and no doubt does the same in her own household.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Rewriting history

A standard piece of conventional political wisdom is that Black (or Golden) Wednesday when Britain was forced out of the ERM destroyed the Conservative Party's chances of re-election for some fifteen years. This view has been challenged in a new book by former Tory chairman Norman Fowler.

He believes that the Conservative party could have recovered from the ERM debacle just as Labour recovered from devaluation of the pound in 1967. He argues that it was what followed - the endless infighting and the 'back to basics' sleaze scandals that finally did for the Conservatives.

I'm not sure that I buy into the Fowler thesis. The three post-war devaluations did see the Government that undertook them voted out of office (even though Labour struggled on from 1950 to 1951). The events of 1992 cost the Conservatives one of their ace cards, a superior reputation for economic competence which had endured until then.

The analogy with the current situation is undermined by the fact that the Conservatives were defeated in 1997 when the economy was recovering. It now looks increasingly likely if the current downturn is going to be over by the time of the next election.

The relentless rise of commodity prices, above all oil, is hitting the electorate hard in the pockets. Just as in the 1970s, stagflation - higher inflation and faltering growth - seems to have set in, albeit on a lower scale. The oil price seems to factor in any bad news and discount any good tidings. The housing market has taken a big knock and negative equity is back.

What this does suggest that Labour's woes are deeper than a failure of leadership by Gordon Brown. No new leader is going to be able to turn back the tide in the global economy.

I don't think that the news that Boris Johnson has had to get rid of his deputy mayor, the second aide to go, will hurt the Conservatives that much. It doesn't inspire much confidence in his abilities as mayor, but the electorate may well see Bozza as separate from the Conservative Party.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Quick by-election in Glasgow East

Labour has opted for a quick by-election in Glasgow East during Glasgow Fairs week, putting forward a local councillor as their candidate. Their hope is that the SNP will not have enough time to get their campaign off the ground. Given the holiday period, the turnout will certainly slump from the 48 per cent recorded at the general election. Labour's challenge may be to mobilise a sufficient vote.

Glasgow East is one of the most deprived constituencies in the country and includes the Easterhouse 'scheme'. Apparently a panel of experts mobilised by The Times have proclaimed it a SNP gain. This seems a bit premature, although it fits in with the prevalent 'narrative of defeat'.