Sunday, 30 May 2010

Telegraph targets Alexander

The Daily Telegraph has now targeted the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Alexander over allegations that he used a tax loophole to avoid paying capital gains tax on his second home in London: Danny

They claim it is part of their campaign on behalf of 'ordinary' second home owners and small investors. I am not sure what an 'ordinary' second home owner is. Some people, including politicians, need a second home for work related reasons. Others choose to have one for lifestyle reasons, but it's hardly something one can afford to do on a median income. As for small investors, I am one, but I wouldn't buy shares outside of an ISA or a SIPP as a tax efficient vehicle and I would expect to pay capital gains tax if I sold a substantial number.

The fact of the matter is that an anomaly has developed between the top rate of income tax and the top rate of capital gains tax. This opens the way for tax avoidance which is not acceptable in a period of fiscal consolidation. How one closes this gap is another matter: one does have to do it in one go or immediately and one could look at the exemption on relatively small gains.

The Telegraph should be careful what they wish for. Presumably they would prefer a Conservative majority government, but that is not a possibility. The alternative is a minority Conservative government which would be much weaker. The objective of the coalition was to establish 'strong and stable' government at a time of economic and financial crisis. Although phrases like the 'national interest' are used too readily, this is a period when we need to try and rise about cheap political point scoring to undermine one part of the Coalition Government.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Resignation of David Laws

The resignation of David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury is to be deeply regretted. I do not think it is good news for the political process or the country. That is not to say that he was wrong to resign. He did make a mistake and by going quickly he has headed off a media feeding frenzy which would have been damaging to the Coalition Government.

This affair has a number of dimensions:

The loss of a very able Chief Secretary

The post of Chief Secretary is a particularly important one in the Government in current circumstances. I am on the very fringe of the most peripheral decisions, but I can sense how challenging they are. As Vince Cable has just emphasised on television, what unites the coalition parties above all else is their understanding of the economic situation and the response it demands.

George Osborne has just said that it was as if David Laws had been put on earth to be Chief Secretary. He had a background in banking, an understanding of economics and a bone dry approach to policy. He had made a very positive impression in the role in the Commons.

Being a gay politician

As Vince Cable has just said, we all talk about being socially liberal, but what is the reality? Society is more tolerant of sexual diversity than in the past, but it is not easy for gay politicians to come out. I know of others who have not. David Laws wanted to keep his private and public life separate. Should this not be possible? In his statement he made a poignant reference to the fact that he had perhaps put his political career above those he loved.

The power of the media

Once again a newspaper has been able to bring down a politician. No doubt they would claim they were acting in the public interest. But has the national interest really been served by the departure of David Laws?

Danny Alexander

With his usual political bruiser instincts, Ed Balls has already piled in to say that Danny Alexander is not up to the job. Danny Alexander is clearly a very capable individual. He is close to Nick Clegg and fully signed up to the coalition agenda and in that sense more suitable as a replacement than Chris Huhne or Vince Cable. He had something of a non-job as Scottish Secetary. It is up to him to rise to the challenge he faces.

And finally

David Laws deserves credit for the dignity with which he has behaved under great personal strain. But the following politicians have also made dignified and measured responses: David Cameron; George Osborne; Nick Clegg; Vince Cable. That maturity says a great deal about the strength of the coalition, but there is no doubt that this is a setback and it is one for the country as well as the Government.

Rail privatisation

Dinner last night at Tom's Bar terrace at Somerset House. Perfectly acceptable nouvelle cuisine but a very noisy 'disco' background run by the prototypical middle aged bloke with designer shades, a shaved head and a trilby perched on top. No doubt he thinks he is very cool and a great hit with the young clientele.

Above the noise (we did get the nearest speaker turned off) I had an argument with an opinionated American (sometimes I ungraciously wonder if there is any other type) about rail privatisation. He said it was an unmitigated disaster: I thought it was more of a curate's egg.

As it happens the service to Leamington has greatly improved with the arrival of Chiltern Railways, now owned by Deutsche Bahn. There is, however, a less frequent alternative service run by the Wrexham & Shropshire company which I caught this morning.

They are using 1970s coaches which are slightly the worse for wear (despite a new external livery) and have seat numbers put up with paper and sellotape. I had forgotten that the arm rests don't move, but the seat was quite comfortable and there was a table. The train was moderately full. One of the nice features was a full service buffet where the train manager was serving behind the counter.

We went quite fast to Banbury, but then were diverted into a side platform. It seemed as if the timetable had a slot for the engine to take on water (Banbury is one of the few stations where it is available on the line) while in another platform we were overtaken by a Virgin Cross Country service.

It was all a bit retro, including having to lower the window to open the carriage door (health and safety?) but then I am up for that.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Hughes favourite in deputy leader race

Left-leaning Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes is emerging as the hot favourite in the contest for Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems, a potentially more significant post in current circumstances. The post became vacant after the resignation of Vince 'Mr Grumpy' Cable who is focusing on his role as Business Secretary.

Hughes has already asked an awkward question of 'The Governent' in the Commons and could become the focus of discontent among Liberal activists, particularly as Conservative backbenchers and the right-wing press are trying to water down an increase in capital gains tax.

Lib Dem starlet Jo Swinson disappointed her many fans when she tweeted: 'surprised & touched by lovely tweets & emails encouraging me to run for Lib Dem deputy leader - however I will not be standing'.

For many years the post was held by veteran MP and former political scientist Alan Beith. Beith played a pivotal role in coalition discussions in the Lib Dem parliamentary party when he drew on his frustrating experience with the Lib-Lab pact to suggest that a full coalition was the only viable option.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Trouble on the backbenches?

Jo Swinson

While relations between ministers in the Coalition Government are generally going well (leaving aside some grumpiness on the part of Vince Cable who refused to do a foxtrot with Theresa May), it's a different story on the backbenches. Conservative backbenchers are disgruntled because some of them didn't get the jobs they hoped for and they also think that the Lib Dems have punched above their weight in terms of policy (which they probably have). David Cameron had to back down on his plan to neuter the 1922 Committee (itself the product of the collapse of a Con-Lib coalition) by allowing ministers to vote for the chairman.

However, there is also some disquiet among Liberal Democrats. Some of this again comes from people who have been passed over in the formation of the Government. But there are also policy concerns, particularly from those MPs who won their seats from Labour.

One of these is the feisty MP for East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson. Swinson is very intelligent and articulate, having achieved a first in Management from LSE (no mean feat), followed by a career in the media. In her late twenties, she is also very photogenic.

For a while Swinson was awarded the rather sexist accolade of 'Babe of the House'. But last year a younger Conservative woman won a by-election in Norwich and she has now gone straight into the government as an assistant whip. Some reports suggest that Swinson is far from happy which may explain the delay in her swearing/affirming to take her seat. She eventually did so yesterday, standing on tiptoe in the Lords to see the Queen and admiring all the 'bling'.

We may yet hear from Ms Swinson and not just about the concerns of her East Dunbartonshire constituents whom she cultivates very assiduously or the closure of Westminster Bridge for the state opening of which she tweeted a picture yesterday.

'I hope you don't think I wrote this rubbish'

Some years ago Private Eye published a brilliant front cover in which the Queen was reading the speech from the throne and the speech bubble contained those words. Of course, the Queen has to read the speech with an air of studied neutrality.

The Duke of Edinburgh seemed to be very interested in how Our Ken, dresssed up in his mediaeval clobber, would walk backwards down the steps from the throne, but in fact he executed it in an exemplary fashion, surely qualifying him from a grant from the Ministry of Silly Walks (oops, it became a quango under New Labour as the Pedestrian Locomotion Organisation or PLO and has become a victim of the first round of cuts).

I actually became aware that the speech was about to take place when I was having a coffee with a colleague (to discuss business) and a number of Chinese students started pointing excitedly at the television scheme. I therefore missed the appearance of the cap of maintenance which the political journalist Alan Watkins always used to talk up. One wonders how compatible the role of the cap in relation to the Established Church is with the Queen's reference to the welcome she would extend to Pope Benedict later in the year.

The speech was a relatively long one and contained a number of measures, although some of these were bills (the referendum on AV) and others were proposals, i.e., white or green papers (Lords reform). Overall, there were no big surprises, particularly given that the speech and its theme had been leaked (will this be the first 'leak enquiry' of the new Government)?

The Queen's list of forthcoming visits came after the domestic legislation proposals and it is interesting that the one reference to climate change came after this at the start of the 'international' section.

The one proposal that gives me most concern is the bill to make police authorities more accountable. This seems fine in principle, but mayoral elections have thrown up some unusual individuals, most notably in the case of Doncaster which has an English Democrat mayor. If was a professional police officer, I would have concerns about being accountable to an individual with no prior experience of public life or policing practice. It could well happen in a low turnout election.

Finally, I understand that 16 MPs have not yet sworn in (or affirmed). Five of these are Sinn Fein, but among them is Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire. More about Ms Swinson later.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Axeman uses the A-word

Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws is a former banker and as dry as they come in economic terms. He is in effect the Govermment's axeman and he makes it clear in the Financial Times this morning that he won't be afraid to use his axe, using the austerity word that was taboo in the election. He also made it clear that he will be sensitive in seeking to protect vital services.

The problem is that the Coalition Government doesn't have a lot of room for manoeuvre. They have said that NHS spending will increase in real times: in practice this means cutbacks given an ageing population and advances in medical technology. They are seeking to protect spending on schools.

Various perks for pensioners such as the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes will be retained, even though the recipients are often still in work or well off. What's more pensions in future will go up in terms of either inflation or earnings, whichever is greater, or by 2.5 per cent as a minimum. Transfer payments like this cost huge amounts of money and increasing the retirement age to reflect the fact that people live longer has been postponed well into the future.

So other aspects of public services will have to take a big hit. There will have to be a bonfire of quangos and some of the monitoring ones set up by New Labour will be no great loss. Others deliver important regulatory or scientific services, e.g., FERA which I visited on Thursday.

Higher education is likely to take a big hit, but the Lib Dems are reluctant to allow universities to raise the fees they charge to home students.

Some people I encounter don't seem to be facing up to the new reality. They are burying their heads in the sand or recognising that they will have to be made pure, but not just yet. Well, cuts are going to start impacting services near you before long. That's when we can expect political trouble. The structural budget deficit has to be reduced but it's difficult given the number of sacred cows there are.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

A steep learning curve

I have to admit that I am on a steep learning curve with the Coalition Government. I have a sense of the policy ground shifting beneath my feet even in areas I am very familiar with. The final outcome is very uncertain in many cases.

Part of the problem is a lack of familiarity with the policies of the Liberal Democrats. Mea culpa, but many of us never anticipated they would be in government. I am reminded of an incident in the 2001 Parliament when I was attending a meeting at the House of Commons on higher education. A Liberal Democrat MP came and sat next to me. I knew he was and which constituency he represented. What I didn't know was that he was their spokesman on higher education which sent him into 'Do you know who I am?' mode.

In one policy area with which I am familiar, admittedly not a very high profile one, I have learnt that the Liberal Democrats have a policy which is diametrically opposite that of the Conservatives. It will be interesting to see what is said at a meeting on the subject I have to attend tomorrow.

I am not saying that it will not be possible to arrive at negotiated compromises or agreements to differ on these matters. But it is relatively uncharted territory politically and to some extent the rules of the game have to be learnt as we go along.

One area which is quite important is the role of the Treasury. I think it is no great secret that senior Treasury officials were indicating in the months before the election that they thought their department should continue to be an economics as well as a finance ministry.

George Osborne and his ultra dry Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary are clearly focused on its role as a finance ministry for understandable reasons. Quite a lot of the economic territory is being carved out by St. Vince of Cable. However, we have been here before. Challenges by the business department (in its many incarnations) have always ended up with the Treasury eventually establishing dominant control of the policy space.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Junior ministers

The atrium at Nobel House, Defra headquarters in London. The part facing Millbank was formerly the headquarters of ICI.
Photo credit: Quintin Lake. Blog Quintin Lake Blog

Junior ministers are significant figures in the day-to-day life of a government department and they do take decisions that have consequences, but they are largely ignored by the press unless they say something foolish or apparently critical of the party leadership or are implicated in some kind of scandal. Once that happens, the whole future of a government is alleged to hand by a thread - well for 24 hours of the news cycle anyway.

I'm not sure yet that all junior minister appointments have been made, certainly at Parliamentary Under Secetary of State ('Pussy') level. Private Parliamentary Secretaries, who provide a link between the minister and Parliament, will come later. These are unpaid appointments: the most high profile is PPS to the prime minister. They have been overtaken somewhat by the role of SPADs (special advisers).

I have a particular interest in Defra and I was able to find their appointments (so far) by going to a very makeshift temporary website established by Nobel House.

The productionist (big farm oriented) emphasis at the new Defra reflected in the appointment of Caroline Spelman as secretary of state continues with junior ministerial appointments: Jim Paice, the Minister of State, was substantially involved in the Young Farmers' movement and has been connected with farming all his life. The 'Pussy', Richard Benyon, is MP for Newbury and is stated to be a local farmer. (As it so happens, I had lunch in the constituency on Sunday and my enquiries suggest that he is more a country landowner than a farmer, not that there is anything wrong that: they often tend to have stronger conservationist instincts).

However, Lord Taylor of Holbeach has not become the Lords minister as expected, the post going to Lord Henley.

The ministerial team would thus be an all Conservative one. However, I am uncertain what is happening to the fisheries portfolio and there were rumours that this was destined to be occupied by the Lib Dem MP for the west of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, Andrew George.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Coalition tie

I never anticipated a Conservative-Liberal coalition government. In fact, I think I have only made two correct predictions over the last couple of weeks. I forecast that Chris White would win Warwick and Leamington for the Conservatives, but greatly underestimated his majority. Actually my original intuition was that his majority would be over 3,000, but I couldn't believe that the swing would be that big. If it had been across the country as a whole, the Conservatives would have a comfortable working majority.

Following Gordon Brown's resignation, my local BBC radio station rang up and asked me on air when David Cameron would arrive at Downing Street. I did a very rough calculation of the likely choreography, but it was an inspired guess that made me say 8.45 p.m. (it was 8.43).

Once the election results were known, I thought that the Lib Dems would limit themselves to a 'confidence and supply' agreement with the Conservatives and that another election would follow. Although the so-called 'progressive majority' is something of a myth and not all Lib Dem voters are natural Labour voters who have strayed, I though they would be reluctant to vacate their slightly left-of-centre political space and risk their identity.

When the National Government was formed in 1931, the Liberals split (as did Labour, although National Labour was a small faction). The National Liberals had a distinct identity into well in the post-war period with their own whips and space in the House of Commons. Some candidates stood as 'National Liberal and Conservative' or some such formulation. But they became a footnote to history.

I realised how much I changed when I saw the Lord President of the Council, Nick Clegg, leading his fellow cabinet ministers into Buckingham Palace to receive their seals of office. They must have thought they would never see the day. It is also good to see a talented young woman like Sarah Teather become a minister of state.

The personal chemistry in the coalition is so far good, with perhaps a hint of tension between Vince Cable and George Osborne. The coalition agreement, a much shorter agreement than is usual in continental Europe, needs to be fleshed out, although it was completed with commendable speed (it takes about three weeks in Germany). Mechanisms have been put in place to resolve disagreements. Some of the most difficult issues may arise because of EU directives or regulations, with decisions unfavourable to British interests on hedge funds scheduled to be taken in a week or two.

There has been some argument about the fixed term parliament proposals, with constitutional experts expressing different views. The legislation may get a rough ride in the House of Lords.

I had a look in my wardrobe this morning at my collection of ties. I don't wear a tie that often, although I have a lot. But I didn't have one that was predominantly blue with a subordinate yellow theme. So I went out and bought one.

Whilst talk of the 'national interest' has been overdone in the last few days, the country's economic and financial circumstances are such that we need this coalition government to work.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Dave or David, Nick or Nicholas?

Given names often cause problems. I happen to have a Welsh one which gives people a lot of problems. I shortened it from 'Wynford' years ago. (There used to be a Welsh televison broadcaster called Wynford Vaughan Thomas who was a kind of sidekick to David Dimbleby on state occasions: I am not named after him!)

It is becoming increasingly common to call politicians by their first names as celebrity culture takes hold. It all started with the last London mayoral election when it was 'Ken' or 'Boris' or sometimes the affectionate 'Bozza'.

In private before the election David Cameron used to say 'Call me Dave!' But now he is prime minister, we must refer to him as David. But why is it Nick rather than Nicholas? I was talking with a colleague yesterday who specialises in culture and the media and she suggested that 'Nicholas' was a child's name.

Obviously it's 'Ken' Clarke as he is so blokeish. William Hague tried to be blokeish as opposition leader, but never shortened his name to 'Bill'. Just as well now that he is Foreign Secretary. George Osborne changed his first name from Gideon which was a smart move. I suppose one could shorten 'Theresa' to 'Tessa', but 'Theresa' sounds better for a Home Secretary. Incidentally, I have met her and I think that she is both very pleasant and very sharp. Choosing distinctive shoes is a smart branding device.

On the Labour benches, it's 'Ed' rather than 'Edward' Miliband. But David Miliband is not 'Dave'. I think he should become 'Dave' now to enhance his populist appeal. I knew their father slightly and I have to say that he is one of the few people I really disliked and not just because he was a Marxist. I actually find Ed a lot smarter and more likeable than Dave and it appears they are going to stand against each other for the leadership. Whether Yvette Cooper will stand against her husband remains to be seen, but she is smarter and more likeable.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Welcome, Caroline Spelman

Caroline Spelman, the MP for Meriden, is the new secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As it so happens, I was with some Defra civil servants yesterday and they were intrigued about what the outcome might be.

Nick Herbert was the shadow spokesperson, but I was not greatly impressed by some of his comments: indeed, I even thought of writing to him and offering some advice! There was speculation that a Lib Dem might get the post and it has been suggested that one of the junior posts in the department will go to the Lib Dems.

Caroline Spelman has a background with big sugar. She worked for the British Sugar Corporation and held the sugar commodities post at NFU. She also worked for the International Federation of Beet Growers in Paris. I have had some dealings with big sugar myself and I know they are serious players.

Her appointment will no doubt be welcomed by the barley barons in East Anglia and the NFU. Farmers felt that Defra until Labour had become the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Activity. I do think that there are some issues on which they have legitimate grievances, for example the failures of the Rural Payments Agency and policy paralysis on bovine TB.

Against a background of public expenditure restraint which will hit a department like Defra hard, the new ministerial term faces a challenging time. I wish the new team well. The excellent civil servants at Nobel House whom I had the privilege of working with last year are also in my thoughts. I am confident that they will respond to the challenge well, as the British civil service always does.

A fixed term Parliament?

The proposal for a fixed term Parliament is one way of underpinning the durability of the coalition government (the Liberal Conservative coalition as David Cameron significantly calls it). But is it constitutionally viable?

What the agreement says on this subject is: 'The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.'

First, I would question whether the House of Commons can 'bind' itself in this way. Second, how was the figure of 55 per cent arrived at? Is it because it would allow the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to call an election if they thought it was in their mutual interest?

One constitutional expert who happens to be a Conservative in the upper house has remarked: 'It is remarkable for claiming that there will be a "binding resolution". There can be a resolution but there is no provision for it to be binding. I wonder if the Queen has been told that her legal power to dissolve power is subject to a resolution of the House of Commons.' Indeed.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Cabinet making continues

There is some confusion about the future of Defra with speculation about machinery of government changes. Nick Herbert was the shadow minister but Caroline Spellman, who used to work for the NFU on sugar beet, has also been linked with the post.

Unconfirmed reports from the Scilly Isles suggest that the Liberal Democrat MP for the islands, Andrew George, might become transport secretary. There would be a certain irony in this given the close personal attention that Harold Wilson gave to transport links to his island holiday home. The Scillonian III, which Wilson secured for the islands, is about to be replaced.

However, Radio Scilly has been speculating that George will get the fisheries portfolio.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

New phase in British politics

Warwick University graduate Gus O'Donnell welcomes David and Samantha Cameron to 10 Downing Street as Cabinet Secretary. We always knew that Introduction to Government course would come in handy

Britain has its first new peacetime coalition government since 1931. Many details about policy and personnel remain to be made clear, but there are Liberals in government for the first time since 1945.

Gordon Brown was not much liked by the country. He lacked communication skills and had his flaws, as he admitted today. But he was a decent and honourable man who has lived his life in public service in accordance with core moral values. Hopefully, he can become the next head of the IMF.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have begun a bold experiment. There will be many tensions, not least over the EU. Britain faces difficult circumstances and some hard choices, as David Cameron made clear.

However, the Lib Dems have already moderated the least palatable Conservative policies on inheritance tax and marriage. They are, however, backing the additional £6bn cuts deemed necessary by the Conservatives.

For the first time we have a photograph of the monarch appointing her prime minister.
The old and the new thus come together. Now the hard work begins.

Nick and Dave make up

Dave's friends still think that Nick treated him badly when he started flirting with Laura Labour. But at the end of the day, wealth and breeding counts and it looks as if the marriage of convenience is going to win through: Deal

I do not think that the so-called 'rainbow coalition' could have worked or if it had the price would have been special treatment for voters in the devolved regions. Clearly there will be recurrent tensions in any Conservative-Liberal arrangement, not least from the backbenches of both parties, and I think that this Parliament will fall far short of a full term.

The pace of events and the changing picture has been extraordinary. I wouldn't have been surprised to be told that Vince Cable had displaced Nick Clegg in a coup and was forming a coalition in the 'national interest' with the Official Monster Raving Loony Party and the Ultra Rockall is Unionist Party.

Trust in politics

An interesting workshop was held on this subject recently by the Political Studies Association in conjunction with the Hansard Society and Southampton University. More information and a downloadable briefing paper are available here: Trust

Waltzing the AV

I must admit that I find different election systems anorak territory, but here is a useful short guide to the impact of AV in Australia: Matilda

This guide is a bit dated, but it is brief. A more comprehensive and up to date account is to be found at: ABC

The ABC guide shows that the number of constituencies (or electorates as they are called down under) in which preferences have had to be counted is increasing. It should also be borne in mind that although Australia has third parties (setting aside the Country/National party which has generally been in alliance with the Liberals) they have not been as electorally strong as the Lib Dems in Britain - which is not to say that they could not be important in a close contest.

As a general rule, one can state that at maximum just over 10 per cent of outcomes have been changed by the redistribution of preferences, but the figure is often smaller.

Probably recent New Zealand experience is even more relevant as they switched to a mixed member system - and one gets, as one might expect, mixed reviews of its impact on Kiwi politics.

Monday, 10 May 2010

I can't keep up!

This such a fast-moving situation that I can't keep up with all the developments and I am going to stop trying. However, it appears that the Conservatives have now offered the Liberal Democrats a referendum on AV so that there is evidently a Dutch auction going on. Whether it dignifies the political process is another question.

Meanwhile tempers are fraying as in this extraordinary exchange: Boulton v Campbell I am not a great fan of Alastair Campbell, but he certainly comes out the better.

Underlying all this is the fact that it is very difficult to create a stable government out of the House of Commons as it stands so the voters may well be asked to decide again this year.

Gordon Brown steps down

In a day of fast-moving developments, Gordon Brown has announced that he is stepping down as Labour leader and hopes that a new leader can be in place by the party conference in September: Brown

The announcement removes one major impediment to a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, but it may also encourage the Conservatives to try and seal the deal with the Liberal Democrats. Any 'rainbow' or 'traffic light' coalition would have a very thin majority. The case for a further election in the autumn would be strengthened by the fact that there would be another 'unelected' prime minister - although the British system is not a presidential one but seeks to elect a party to govern.

We can now expect manoeuvring to begin among potential candidates. David Miliband is the obvious Blairite candidate, but some think more highly of his brother Ed. Harriet Harman may be tempted to stand, but will Alan Johnson put his hat in the ring?

So we shall have a lot of political manoeuvring which will do nothing to tackle the problems facing the economy.

An element of chaos creeps into coalition talks

The coalition negotiations have been conducted in a orderly and professional manner up to now, but an element of chaos crept in when David Laws made a statement over a mobile phone from inside the House of Commons to media crews outside. It was quite difficult to hear what he was saying and in particular to understand questions from the likes of Nick Robinson.

What it seemed to come down to was this. The talks with the Conservatives had been 'very good'. But further clarification was required on three issues:

1. Education and in particular the pupil premium, of particular concern to Laws as the putative Education Secretary.
2. Tax reform.
3. Voting reform.

On the last point, it appears that soundings have been taken within the Conservative Party on a referendum on the alternative vote, which some Lib Dems have said they might accept if there was a review after a few years.

Decision day

It increasingly looks like decision day in terms of the formation of a new government. Talks between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats appear to have gone well this morning. It also looks as if a coalition may be on the cards as the Conservatives consider that would give a more stable basis for government. In that case Nick Clegg could be deputy prime minister and Vince Cable might be business secretary.

Nick Clegg is currently explaining the deal to his 57 MPs in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons. This meeting was still going after 90 minutes and coffee and muffins were sent for. It is understood that the Tory proposals have had a 'mixed reception' which could mean a resumption of negotiations later today or tomorrow.

It is being reported that Gordon Brown will make a statement later and will offer to stand down as prime minister after a stipulated period.

Labour has been trying to sow dissent in Lib Dem ranks. There have been talks between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown this morning and there could be further discussions later today. Lord Mandelson has held secret talks with Lib Dems over the weekend in the context of a so-called 'spoiler' offer.

The choreography of Gordon Brown's departure remains uncertain. The Queen returned this morning from her home at Windsor Castle to her London office at Buck House.

Dave Cameron is meeting his MPs at 6 p.m., among them will be new Warwick and Leamington MP Chris White.

The Scottish dimension

One of the most remarkable aspects of this election has been the fact that no seats changed hands in Scotland. The West Lothian question - almost as intractable as the Schleswig-Holstein question - is also back on the political agenda. But have we done enough to learn from Scottish and Welsh experience of coalitions/minority governments?

Here are some interesting comments from leading Scottish politics expert Dr Paul Cairney of Aberdeen University:

The UK general election result has, for the first time in over three decades, produced a hung or balanced parliament. Since the UK has limited post-war experience of this outcome it is natural that commentators have begun to look elsewhere for lessons on the practicalities of minority and coalition government. Yet, there has been a notable absence of lesson-drawing from the Scottish Parliament (and the Welsh Assembly). This seems odd given that the Liberal Democrats have eight years’ experience of coalition government and the Conservatives have three year’s experience of supporting a minority government (suggesting that the parties involved might look to learn from their Scottish counterparts).

It is understandable that lessons should be sought from the most relevant political systems but no-one has established a definitive list that excludes Scotland (the Constitution Unit and Institute for Government’s Making Minority Government Work includes Canada, New Zealand and Scotland). I outline two points of comparison based on the two most prized qualities of government highlighted by David Cameron and Gordon Brown: strength and stability. From 1999-2007 the Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition government provided both. Its command of parliamentary seats (57% of the 129 seats in 1999 and 52% in 2003) was reflected not only in plenary but also in its majority of all committees (see Cairney .

This provided particular strength for the government which, to all intents and purposes, acted as a majoritarian government in the UK mould, passing an extensive programme of legislation (including annual budget bills) with virtually no effective opposition. Its impressive party whip and the high degree of voting cooperation within the coalition also ensured stability (if anything, Labour party dissent and in-fighting was more worrying than disagreements between the parties). Overall, the experience was heartening for a Scottish Labour party that prized above all else a ‘settled programme’ and feared the prospect of political embarrassment from political ambushes led by the SNP that they loathed so much.

This was followed from 2007 by an SNP minority government (36% of seats) which, although less stable, has still been able to last well beyond the international average (14 months compared to 18 for coalitions and 30 for single party majorities) and should complete a full 4-year term. Its minority status has also made it relatively ‘weak’ although there have been surprisingly few instances of real problems. It loses many non-binding motions, has had to forego some legislation that it does not have parliamentary support for (including the referendum on independence bill and a bill to introduce local income tax), came under sustained pressure on the Lockerbie issue and had an annual budget bill voted down (a new, but virtually the same, bill was passed soon after), but no event has affected its status.

Overall, the approach taken by the other parties is that the SNP may often be doing the wrong thing but it has the right to try. Of course there are qualifications to each tale which make direct comparisons difficult – e.g. the Scottish Parliament already uses PR and there is an assumption that coalition or minority will always occur, the Liberal Democrats are closer ideologically to Labour, The Scottish Liberal Democrats appeared less constrained by their membership (and the ‘triple lock’ in particular), the SNP is popular and no-one wants another election, the rules on dissolving governments are different – but such reservations apply to all comparisons of two things that are not identical.

The Scottish case is also important because there is a tendency to assume that its politicians still operate in the ‘Westminster mould’ despite their access to new institutions and the symbolism of their non-adversarial chamber. As such, perhaps the most telling lesson comes from the unwillingness of politicians or parties in Scotland to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of being blamed for an extra election during a time of economic crisis. Ironically, economic instability may provide the platform for a significant period of political stability".

Sunday, 9 May 2010

What is the progressive majority?

Union charm merchant Jack Dromey, now elected as a MP and clear fulfilling the attack dog role, has said on television that Britain is not a Conservative country. Well, if he looks at the figures, England clearly is and the West Lothian question looms large again.

There is now a lot of talk about a progressive majority in the country. This assumes that all Lib Dems are to the left of the centre, whereas those in the rural peripheries where the party is strong are often small 'c' conservatives. One also has to be careful of this sort of logic: on that basis Tony Blair had no majority in 1997.

There is no doubt that the argument over PR has gained some momentum. However, whilst it is preoccupying the political chattering classes, I don't think it's the main topic of conversation among voters.

What we need now is a government that can take decisions and even some people in the Labour Party are recognising that the arithmetic favours the Conservatives. It's poisoned chalice anyway so one would think they would be content to see the Conservatives in power while they regroup.

This is not going to be anything like a five year Parliament and a referendum on PR is not off the agenda. However, if we did have PR we would have to expect events of this kind to be a regular occurrence. With a slightly different outcome, very small parties would have a disproportionate weight and those who argue from fairness should bear that in mind.

A rainbow coalition?

Some interesting information here about potential coalition combinations: Coalitions

My view is that we are going to need another election sooner rather than later to see if the electorate can make their collective minds up. A rainbow coalition would be very unstable, but there could be tensions in a Conservative-Liberal arrangement which could increase over time. However, the Lib Dems have a clear interest in avoiding an early election.

This article on the splut between metropolitan Britain and the rest of the country in the context of globalisation is worth reading: Globalisation

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Nick and Dave meet

Ann Arbor, Mi: Nick Clegg and David Cameron met this evening (UK time) at Admiralty House and apparently the two leaders, who come from very similar social backgrounds, had a constructive and amicable discussion. Nick appears to be receiving some logistical support from the civil service. The negotiating teams will meet again at 11 a.m. BST. This all suggests a good atmosphere and discussions on areas of agreement and disagreement.

Nick appears to have kept his party on side for now and Dave has attempted to reassure supporters through an E mail. Some concern has been expressed among senior Conservative backbenchers about a lack of consultation, but the only way the Conservatives will get into Downing Street is by doing a deal with the Liberals. There's no certainty of that happening, but the prospects look reasonably good. However, Dave has made it clear that action will have to be taken to deal with the deficit.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Can the Lib Dems step up to the plate?

David Dimbleby was being less than generous about the new media on the BBC yesterday (but he had an incredibly long shift, I would like some of what he is on). One group that has been formed on Facebook and has attracted over 5,000 members urges us to 'Cool it. We don't want our government linked to a 24 hour news agenda.'

Of course, the real pressure to take a decision comes from the perceived need to placate the financial markets which could reactly badly if no progess towards a government is being made by early next week. Despite some predictions, there has been no panic sell off of gilts yet. Trends in international stock markets, including an unexplained record plunge on Wall Street, have been hitting the Footsie. Sterling has lost ground against the dollar.

One of the questions in my mind is whether the Lib Dems can ever be persuaded to accept the responsibilities of government with all the difficult choices that entails? In practice their leader's freedom of manoeuvre is limited by the arcane and challenging provisions of their constitution as far as any formal arragement is concerned.

Remember also that this is a party that split (fatally) in the First World War, formed a government after it reliant on Conservative support and then split again in 1931 over the formation of a National Government, coming close to disappearing altogether. Already dissidents have been appearing in the ranks with Simon Hughes raising the bar for an agreement with the Conservatives.

Talks have started with the Conservatives. If the real deal breaker is proportional representation, David Cameron could offer a timetable for any enquiry, culminating in a referendum in which the Conservatives would be free to campaign against electoral reform. But that might be a deal too far for some of his supporters.

Talks would then have to be held with Labour about a so-called 'losers' coalition'. If the price was Gordon Brown's head, that would cause further complications and possibly lead to another 'unelected' prime minister. What all this suggests is that, having failed to deliver a clear verdict, the voters might be asked to try again in the autumn. Quite how far the absence of Gordon Brown would then help Labour is an interesting question: sometimes I think the negative effect he has had on Labour performance is overstated.

Why did the Conservatives fail to win an overall majority? I think their supported to slip when they started to talk about austerity last autumn. They changed tack, but voters' concerns about public services had been re-awakened. What is really worrying about this is that it shows a resistance to public expenditure cuts that will be needed to bring down the budget deficit whichever combination of parties is in office.

Come on down says Dave

Ann Arbor, Mi: David Cameron has made his opening offer to the Liberal Democrats, emphasising the areas of agreement but also drawing lines in the sand on immigration and further extensions of the powers of the EU. Dave did not use the 'C' word, but he did not rule it out either and indicated that a closer arrangement might be preferable to a 'confidence and supply' arrangement. Lib Dem sources are indicating that they regard what Dave has had to say as 'significant'/

On electoral reform, he offered an all party inquiry on all aspects of political reform. The key question for the Lib Dems is what would the timetable be and would it lead it anywhere before a second election which could follow within twelve months.

Above all, Dave stressed the importance of tackling the budget deficit right away and that might face the Lib Dems with some unpalatable choices.

As he was trying (with some success) to look like a prime minister, perhaps the time has come to stop calling him 'Dave'.

Chris White wins

Chris White has won Warwick and Leamington with a majority of 3,500, a massive 8.8 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative. His majority is much bigger than I forecast. It reflects all the hard work he has put in since losing in 2005. Now that the result is out, I can also say that some time ago I picked up a sense that James Plaskitt had given up.

The turnout was a massive 84 per cent.

I have just seen David Butler on the BBC election progamme talking about electoral systems on which he wrote his PhD and his first book.

Pound and shares slump

The pound and shares have slumped as fears grow that the election results have not produced an outcome that will sustain a government that can take decisive measure to deal with the budget deficit. The UK could face a worsening crisis.

Many of the remaining seats are Conservative ones, but Dave will probably fall short of an overall majority. The Clegg bubble has burst, yet Nick Clegg could still be kingmaker. One thing that he has to bear in mind is that he could lose even more seats in an early election.

The contest in Warwick and Leamington, which we have been following and is yet to declare, assumes an even greater importance.

I think that Dave will eventually be able to form a minority government, but it will be constrained in what it can done. It may make for interesting politics, but I am not sure it is what we need in an economic crisis.

The rewards of good incumbency

Ann Arbor, Mi: Well liked incumbents got their reward in the general eletion and less popular ones were ejected by electors. In Gedling, a key Conservative target seat, Warwick politics graduate and minister Vernon Coker retained his seat. An American colleague visited his campaign and noted that his posters said 'Vote Vern Coker' in big letters and 'Labour' in much smaller type.

An asteroid hit Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik when he lost his Montgomery seat to na popular local farmer and former Welsh Assembly member. The Lib Dems lost Harrogate where a popular local MP stood down, but they took Redcar where feeling was running high over the closure of the steel works.

For all the talk of a wave of independents, the incumbents in Blaenau Gwent and Wyre Forest lost their seats and Esther Rantzen polled less than 5 per cent of the votes in Luton South. 'Celebrity' politics has not arrived and the much heralded death of the two party system appears to have been overstated, although the Green victory in Brighton Pavilion will add a distinctive voice to the Commons. The BNP polled badly in their target seats in Barking and Stoke.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Tories could do deal with Democratic Unionists

All the focus in 'hung Parliament' discussions has been about the Liberal Democrats and occasionally the Nationalists, but the Democratic Unionists have been relatively ignored. However, if the Conservatives fall just short of an overall majority, they could provide enough support to keep them in office, bearing in mind also that the likely five Sinn Fein MPs will not turn up in Westminster.

Certainly Dave Cameron thinks he can seal the deal: Deal (Sam Cam fans should note that this report contains a picture of her with her hair in considerable disarray). The price would be safeguarding public expenditure in Northern Ireland which he had previously implied he intended to cut back. However at £200m the price is not that steep for relative security in office.

Dave has made it clear that he would rather head a minority government than do a deal with Nick Clegg. This perhaps explains why Clegg has now said that electoral reform is now not a precondition of agreement, whereas one might think it was the key demand for the Lib Dems. There are increasing signs from the polls that the Clegg bubble is bursting as Lib Dem policies come under close scrutiny in the polls.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Who will win in Warwick and Leamington?

The visit of Gordon Brown today emphasises the importance of this ultra marginal. A recent MORI poll of 57 Labour-Conservative marginals shows the two parties tied at 36 per cent with the Lib Dems on 20 per cent.

There aren't that many special local factors in the constituency, even though local issues have featured in the campaign. The incumbent MP, James Plaskitt, has been an assiduous enough constituency MP, but is not a political high flyer. Any incumbency factor may have been offset by the vigorous and long-term campaign mounted by Chris White for the Conservatives.

Given their lack of presence in the constituency, and the fact that it is a Conservative-Labour marginal means that the Liberal Democrats are likely to poll below their national vote share.

The Labour majority was 266 in 2005, but the transfer of three predominantly Conservative wards to the new Kenilworth and Southam constituency gives a notional Labour majority of 4,393. There would need to be a swing to the Conservatives from Labour of over 5 per cent for them to win the seat. If they did, it would mean a slender Conservative overall majority, but because there will not be uniform national swing, they could win the seat and not have an overall majority.

I will be on the plane to the States on Thursday and my vote has already been cast. Will Chris White be on a Chiltern Railways train to London on Friday afternoon with a piece of his election literature to prove that he is the new member for Warwick and Leamington? Or will James Plaskitt resume his duties? I am genuinely uncertain, but the local Conservatives appear to be quietly confident. So my guess is a majority of 828 for Chris White.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Chris White, Conservative

In the last of the candidate profiles for Warwick and Leamington, we look at the Conservative candidate, Chris White, who fought the seat unsuccessfully in 2005.

If one wanted a carcicature of a totally unsuitable Conservative candidate for Warwick and Leamington it would be someone in a union jack waistcoat who was obsessed with the Common Fisheries Policy (Leamington is about as far as you can get from the sea in England).

I have had the opportunity to have a number of long conversations with Chris White over the past year and he is the opposite of such a person. He is a cerebal, thoughtful person who is prepared to listen to alternative views, although, of course, he is a genuine Conservative in his values and principles. He is also a very dynamic and energetic individual with an interesting background.

He was educated at a comprehensive school and took a MBA after his first degree in engineering. He then went to work in the motor industry with MG Rover so he is one of those relatively rare candidates who has a manufacturing industry background.

Chris White has embedded itself him in the local community. Living in Warwick, he has served as a local councillor and school governor and involved himself in local charitable and voluntary activities. In the months leading up to the campaign, he has been talking to groups such as teachers and health care professionals. He has also campaigned against local fire station closures, although ironically this plan was put forward by the Conservative controlled county council.

While highighting the 'jobs tax' and safeguarding the NHS, his campaign literature contains quite a lot of emphasis on local issues such as protecting allotments and preventing over development.

The person he most admires is President Obama and the person he would like least to be stuck in a lift with is Nick Griffin. What makes him most angry is discrimination of any kind.

Dave Cameron said the other day that he is a 'one nation' Conservative and Chris White comes across as such a person. He would be an effective constituency MP with the potential for ministerial office and would not be a supporter of extremist policies or reducing front line public service.

This is a general election and voters are choosing a government as well as a MP. But the Conservatives have chosen an effective candidate who is well in tune with the constituency he seeks to represent.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Minor party votes could be important

In what is still a tight contest in Warwick and Leamington, the votes attracted by minor parties could be decisive. Last time they attracted 5.1 per cent of the votes.

My sense of the campaign as a whole, in England at any rate, is that the rise of the Liberal Democrats has blotted out some of the attention that might otherwise have been given to minor parries.

The internal contradictions of BNP policies were exposed when their leader was interviewed on the Campaign Show last night. It doesn't look as if they will win in Barking. The anti-BNP organisation Searchlight thinks their best chance is in Stoke where there has been a local Labour Party split in one of the seats.

I think that the Speaker will hold off Nigel Farrage's challenge for UKIP in Buckingham. I am sceptical whether the Greens will take Brighton (Pavilion).

In Warwick and Leamington, Ian Davison is standing again for the Greens. He has polled respectably in county council elections and some students may support him. I have had two pieces of campaign literature from him which strike a more moderate and reasonable note than some of the statements of the national party. I would forecast a low four figure vote. The interesting question is whether will come ahead of UKIP whose candidate has been parachuted in from Staffordshire.

An independent living in Warwick, Jim Cullinane, is on the ballot paper. Holding a masters' degree in third world politics, he appears to be an anti-politics candidate who states 'This is your opportunity to say "none of the above" without spoiling your ballot paper.' He takes a relatively libertarian line with opposition to excessive regulation. I would expect him to get no more than a few hundred votes.