Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Blair's Speech

Politahoplic didn't see Blair's speech; but in cold print it looks dreadful. It's all in the perforance; at which Blair is indisputably a grandmaster. He got the business of praising Brown ("remarkable") over with as swiftly as possible. The only Cabinet Minister he name-checked was John Reid (is Alan Johnson's star waning so soon?). Bouyed-up by the reception he got he seems determined to stay-on until next summer. This morning's Guardian reports, however, that the parts of the speech denying any link between increased terrorism and the Iraqi war were recieved with stony silence.

McDonnell et al

There was a profile of John McDonnell in yesterday's Guardian. He is the left-wing MP who, if he can get the backing of 44 MP's, will run for the Labour Leadership. Of course, he has no chance, but I hope he is able to run and does reasonably well. He does after all represent a strand of grassroots opinion within the party which should not (as it has been over the last decade) completely ignored. Politaholic is impressed by his background: "...he worked in tenants associations and law centres...". That really is the front line. He was Livingstone's Deputy at the GLC, although there seems to have been a falling-out. He sounds like a pretty decent guy. Ronan Bennett, author of the profile, recalls meeting Mandelson at the time of the 1992 General Election, and telling him he intended to campaign for McDonnell in the Hayes and Harlington constituency in East London: "Mandelson's smile froze in an instant. "Don't waste your time", he said with evident distaste, before turning sharply away". Bennett was shocked that Mandelson would apparently prefer that the Tory won the constituency. But there is nothing surprising about that. Mandelson prefers millionaires to "community activists" and certainly hates the left more than the Tories. Bennettt also concludes by reflecting on: "A Labour government - a Labour government - in which sit both Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, former stalwarts of the National Council for Civil Liberties, proposing 90-day detention for terrorist suspects, restricting trial by jury, throwing asylum seekers into prison...". Again, he shouldn't be surprised. To anyone ho saw them back then Hewitt and Harman were rich kids enjoying their "radical five minutes"; it was wholly predictable that they would end up in middle-age as pillars of the establishment. I would have put money on it. Another of the sam ilk was Sue Slipman - who was "big" in the Communist Party (the old CPGB). A few years ago she turned up on TV as a spokesman for the Lottery people Camelot. Surprising? Not remotely.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"Well, that's a lie"

Cherie Blair denies saying "That's a lie" after she stropped out during Brown's speech. Downing Street claims she actually said: "Can I get by?" (Not: "Excuse me"? I suppose you can take the girl out of Liverpool, but...). No one believes a word of it. The Peter Foster/Bristol flats affair revealed Cherie to be a woman with a rather strained relationship with the truth. Politaholic, and so far as I can gather everyone else, believes the Bloomberg journalist who reported the incident. On another tack, Peter Snow on Channel 4 reported that "off-the-record" briefings by Blairites rubbishing Brown are continuing. Alistair Campbell challenged his demanding he name his sources. Odd that Campbell, a professional journalist, should apparently be unfamiliar with the "off-the-record" convention. This morning Mandelson is on Radio 4; and later there is Blair's speech.

Paxo Loses It

Paxman has lost his marbles. His new book on the royal family is being serialised in G2. Haven't read the book but on the basis of the first extract the poor man has fallen victim to the dread disease of royal worship. Here he is musing on the effect of Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg Gotha's presence: "...Then, suddenly, the Queen shot a look across at me...I wanted the ground to swallow me, anything to avoid something to say. And then, to my relief the gaze shifted...Why should one individual have this capacity to strike awe?". Beats me Paxo. But Paxo is not the first to be sucked down this plug-hole. In the 1970's Jonathan Dimbleby had a "radical five minutes" when, for example, he presented a programme on Nicaragua, critcising the US's foreign policy. But soon he became infamous for his lengthy sycophantic introductions of his guests on Radio 4's Any Questions. Then he became a royal hagiographer with his book on Prince Charles (Mind you, he comes from a family of sycophants: it's the family business). We saw the same thing after Di died (Of course it was quite sad that a young woman should die in a car crash. But it would have been just as sad if it had been the bar-maid in the Rose and Crown). In the insane frenzy after Di's death apparently rational individuals - e.g. Will Hutton and Clive James - went beserk: this was a turning point in history, Britain would never be the same, she shone a light on everyone she touched, walked on water, etc. (Only a few days earlier the dominant theme in the newspapers was that she was a slapper). Now Paxo - he who fearlessly confronted Michael Howard by asking the same question 14 times - has been infected. So far as I can see the Saxe-Coburg's are a bunch of useless parasites. All this fawning and forelock-tugging is incomprehensible to me. Poor Paxo. Get well soon.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Brown's Speech

It wasn't a great speech, but it was probably good enough. It must have pained him to say that "it has been a privilege for me to work with, and for, the most successful Labour Prime Minister.."; at which point, apparently, Cherie Blair walked out, remarking "Well, that's a lie". He sort of half-apologised for the events of the last weeks ("...I regret it and I know Tony does too..."). There was, I noticed, a sly dig at Alan Johnson (speaking of his own background Brown mused, "...I don't romanticise my upbringing"). There was also an indication that he will try to make his own mark on Government ("because the challenges are different the programme for Government will be different"). There was a concession to the centre-left (he said it is necessary to recognize "both the limits of markets and the limits of the state", but coming from Brown the PFI enthusiast this probably doesn't mean much). He seems to recognize that the attempts to make him more "touchy-feely" are foolish (he referred to himself as "a quite private person" and said government needed "something more substantial" than "celebrity" and "image"). He name-checked Johnson and Hutton among others. He said he was proud to be "Scottish and British". And there was a lot about Labour values and helping the disadvantaged, which is the sort of thing conference likes. But it Cherie's strop that reveals the true state of affairs. Behind the smiles and handshakes the "war of the Labour succession" is set to continue. Yet I can't see any of the likely Blairite challengers stopping Brown.

Young Cameron's liking for fags

In the Lunz piece Johnson is seen making a joke about David Cameron: “I was coming on these (TV) programmes when David Cameron was having a fag behind the bike shed at Eton”. I think Cameron’s adolescent sexual preferences should be left out of this.

Gordon and the Polls

A Guardian ICM poll reinforces what Politaholic has argued in several earlier posts. Brown should not try to present himself as an all-singing-all-dancing nice guy but should play to his strengths. One voter said: “They should stop trying to jazz him up…and let him be dour”. The poll backed Brown as “the strongest, if not the most likeable” leader. Alan Johnson, by contrast, is seen as a lightweight. One voter said he is the sort of person who is likely to be seen “ at a drink after work” but who would “leave early” (Oh dear). Reid is seen as a “hard man” and a potential “strong leader”. However Frank Lunz’s research (in this morning’s Times and tonight on Newsnight) reveals Brown has three problems: he is not a fresh face; he is Scottish; and there is a perception that he “knifed his own leader”. One could add, I suppose, that he is not seen as especially likeable. Johnson and Milburn are pretty much damp squibs, according to Lunz. Reid emerges as the favoured candidate; seen as “tough” and “strong” and admired for his populist views vis-à-vis the detention of terrorist suspects. What are we to make of the fact that Brown comes out on top in the ICM poll but Reid comes out on top in Lunz’s research? I suspect a lot depends on the questions asked and the methods used. Interesting that in both Johnson does not, and that Reid does, rate highly. Perhaps that is because Johnson is less well-known to the wider public; if he became a Leadership candidate that might change. On the other hand maybe the advantages of likeability are over-estimated (was Thatcher - even to those deluded individuals who admired her - actually likeable?).

Blairite Strategy and Brown's Response

Jackie Ashley in the Guardian says that: “The truth is, in his heart, Blair would love to see Brown beaten and humiliated”. Too true. The elements of the Blairite strategy are now clear:
· Prolong the succession crisis in the hope that a credible stop-Brown candidate can emerge.
· Depict Brown as “Old Labour”, or weak on “reform”.
· Emphasise the need for a “fresh face”.
· Depict Brown as over-ambitious, disloyal to the Leader, and therefore untrustworthy.
· Argue that Brown is not “good box office”, and won’t appeal to the voters (this was Mandelson’s theme last night).
The tactics? Unofficial briefings; speeches and interviews attacking Brown by “outriders” (Milburn, Byers, Hutton, Mandelson); the mobilisation of “friends in the media”.
Browns counter-move seems to be:
· Praise Blair (through gritted teeth) and say that he must be allowed “to make his own decision”.
· Emphasise his New Labour credentials and say that there can be no going back to Old Labour (tricky one this: the unions want to hear something about setting some limit to marketisation).
· Talk a lot about an inclusive “government of all the talents” (a hint that Johnson, Reid and perhaps Clarke will be given Cabinet posts: but Hutton, I think, is toast).
· Emphasise the need for party unity.
· Emphasise the “economic achievements” of the last 10 years (throw in something about “social justice” to try to assuage centre-left critics).
· Talk about “combating world poverty” and the like to try to give a “moral vision” to the “Brown project”.
Brown is disadvantaged in so far as the succession crisis damages him more than the Blairites. Knowing this, Brown has tried to restrain his supporters. In the Marr interview Blair stuck to the “vow of silence” line and tried to present himself as “above the fray”. But Blairites such as Hutton and Mandelson are not adhering to the “vow of silence” position. Expect more of the same.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Runners and Riders

The bookies William Hill are offering odds of 7/2 on Blair backing Brown (but they haven't taken a single bet of £10 or more). They have Peter Hain as 2/1 favourite to be Deputy Leader, with Alan Johnson on 3/1 and Hilary Benn on 4/1. Harriet Harman is 7/1. Brown is favourite to be Leader on 4/11, with Alan Johnson at 3/1. They are offering 12/5 on Blair being out of office before the end of the year. The Tories are 4/7 favourites to win the next election. The odds on a hung parliament are 7/4. The bookies can get it wrong, of course. The Daily (see Links) reports that the odds on Jon Cruddas winning the Deputy Leadership have gone from 100/1 to 8/1 in barely over a week - and William Hill is no longer taking bets. Anyone who backed him at 100/1 has a good outside bet. But Politaholic thinks William Hill has got it broadly right so far as the Leadership/Deputy Leadership is concerned: Brown as Leader, Hain as Deputy Leader.

Blair on Marr

Blair has just been on the Andrew Marr programme. He refused point blank to endorse Brown, but says he will make his views known when the time comes. Much of what he says was sensible: that it is harder to win a fourth term than a first term ("you're not the new kids on the block don't have the euphoria.. (instead there is) the wear and tear of government"); that the leadership battle is damaging Labour and that the party needs to "reconnect with the public". Yet it is disingenuous: one would think the succession crisis had nothing whatever to do with him. He refused to answer questions about Cash-for-Peerages. He clearly supports further marketisation of the NHS. He seems to have no regrets (or none he can admit to himself) about Iraq.

US Intelligence Report on Iraq

The New York Times reports that the US National Security Estimate reflecting the views of 16 US intelligence agencies concludes that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism and helped spread Islamic radicalism world-wide. As Homer Simpson would say: "Doh!". (And yet on the Andrew Marr programme, asked about this, Blair said he doesn't think terrorism has increased as a result of the war in Iraq. I think psychiatrists call this being "in denial").

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Where did the jaffa cake go?

Politaholic got a nasty shock this morning when he turned on Radio 4 and heard John Humphries mention "lunchbox standards". Thankfully it is school dinners he was talking about (Phew!). The School Food Trust has set standards for these. Humphreys interviewed Julie Hardagon, the SFT Chief Executive, and brought up the case of the mother who packed a lunch for her child made up of a tuna sandwich and all the "healthy stuff" but who wantonly included a jaffa cake. Apparently the school - which presumably inspects these lunches for hidden contraband - removed the jaffa cake (What became of it?). Humphreys thought this outrageous; Hardagon explained it was because of a rule that there should be no confectionary during school hours. Meanwhile at Rawmarsh Comprehensive in Rotherham a revolt is under way. The school does not allow pupils to leave the premises during lunch hour and has banned junk food. As a result parents are passing sausages to their kids through a gap in the school fence (hence the case of the "Rotherham Sausage"). The revolt has grown. Parents are now delivering 50-60 meals a day: pies, fish-and-chips, burgers, and fizzy drinks. Their kids, they say, don't like "rabbit food". Of course, what the SFT and Rawmarsh School is trying to do is commendable, but their methods - policing lunchboxes and coralling children - are unutterably foolish. There is no easy solution to the problem of children's unhealthy eating (and which of us would want to cast the first stone?) but this kind of thing calls for persuasion and education, not compulsion. It also appears that price is a factor: the school meals are not cheap. There is no question that eating healthy is easier if you have a good income. I also suspect that class resentment is a factor; that working-class parents don't like "being talked down-to by holier-than-thou middle-class do-gooders". Perhaps this is a tad unfair, but on the basis of this interview there was nothing about Hardagon's elevated manner which suggested that she had the vaguest comprehension of this aspect of the matter.

Cameron: Where's The Beef?

The ICM poll in Friday’s Guardian shows the Conservatives retaining their lead. The Conservatives are on 36%, Labour on 32% and the Lib-Dems on 22%. The Conservative lead increases to 37%-31% when voters are asked how they would vote if Brown were Labour Leader. Cameron outpolls Brown on “honesty”, “enthusiasm”, “pleasant personality”, etc. However, as Polling Report (see Links) points out: “The choice of questions probably doesn’t flatter Brown - we know from previous polls that he outscores Cameron on things like competence and strong leadership…” Nevertheless: “overall Brown’s image obviously is damaging him”. Significantly, support for Cameron is stronger among women and younger voters. The Labour Government is also seen as having “run out of steam” by 64% and 70% think it is “time for a change”. Of course, these are mid-term polls and Brown is not PM (and it could be a different story were he to become PM). But:
(1) These polls are bound to damage Brown’s chances of becoming Leader. The theme of “change” is difficult for someone who has been Chancellor since 1997. He is hardly a fresh face. It is bound to lead to Alan Johnson’s chances of becoming Leader being talked-up; but I still think a Brown succession is what is most likely.
(2) The polls show how damaging the long-drawn out battle for the succession is to Labour (and to Brown). Yet there is no sign of the struggle abating. Thursday’s Cabinet apparently urged a cease-fire, and Ministers vowed a pledge of silence. But this morning I hear on Radio 4 that John Hutton has said that Brown should face a Leadership challenge (“we don’t do coronations”). So that cease-fire lasted all of two days. If it goes on like this until May/June next year the cumulative damage to Labour could cost them the election.
(3) The polls underline the threat Cameron poses. Presentation and packaging are very important in modern politics, and Cameron is clearly a very adept media operator. He is truly Blair’s heir in that respect. Yet the “Cameron bubble” could burst. The trouble is that Cameron is enjoying a free ride at the moment because Labour’s succession crisis is providing sufficient entertainment. Close to an election, with Labour’s new Leader in place, things could change.

But Brown should not try to out-Cameron Cameron by blubbing on television, talking about pop music, or kissing babies. Austere is OK if voters think it goes with competence and seriousness. That Cameron is an Old Etonian media-friendly “light-weight” is a theme Labour should emphasise. They should pose the “Where’s the Beef?” question. Politaholic would also like to see a change of direction under the new Leader: away from Blair’s foreign policy adventurism and determination to privatise everything in sight. Sadly, Brown is complicit in the former and an enthusiast for the latter.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Ratzinger's Lecture

The Pope's lecture to Regensburg University was mostly a rather tedious discourse on the relationhip between "reason" and "faith" (I didn't know there was any). There is no doubt that in one part of the speech he does suggest that Christianity is superior to Islam in two respects: first, he says that Christianity (or Roman Catholicism) holds that "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature" whereas Islam holds that God is "absolutely transcendent" and - I guess - doesn't have to be reasonable if he doesn't want to; secondly, he says Christianity does not believe in "violent conversion". It is in this context that he quotes Manuel II Paleologus who (during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1404) wrote a dialogue based on conversations with an "educated Persian". Manuel II is quoted as saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". I have no idea whether this is a reasonable interpretaion of Islam or not. I suspect both Christianity and Islam are capable of being interpreted in an intolerant hellfire-and-damnation fashion, or in a more liberal and tolerant fashion. Certainly Christianity has its own history of intolerance, of crusades, of the enthusiastic burning of heretics and atheists, and so on. Odd that the Pope didn't mention any of that. Yet the appropriate response is for moderate Muslim scholars who dispute the Pope's interpretation to polemicise against him and to point out how he has got Muslim teaching wrong (if he has). Instead a bunch of nutters have taken to the streets howling for an apology (now conceded) and in the West Bank two churches have been fire-bombed by a group calling itself the "lions of Monotheism". This simply reinforces the worse kind of sterotypes of Muslims; and if I were a moderate Muslim I would be more distresssed by this reaction than by the Pope's remarks. The paradox is that the fire-bombers probably do hold the views Razinger ascribes to them: they are unlikely to be the most enlightened of Muslims. On the other hand, I suspect Ratzinger meant what he said and intended to say it. He is well-known to be a reactionary and I suspect he is a Catholic bigot. Already the right-wing blogs are leaping to his defence. As between Ratzinger on the one hand, and the nutters on the streets on the other (who I do not believe speak for Muslims as a whole), Politaholic says: a plague on both your houses.

A "touchy-feely" Brown?

Saturday's Guardian has an article on the recent efforts to make Brown more "touchy-feely". Last week, he apparently wept during an interview on Sky News when recalling the death of his baby daughter. Earlier this year in an interview with the New Woman magazine he said he watched Pop Idol and Fame Academy on TV and woke up to the Arctic Monkeys on his IPod. There is a pattern. Decca Aitkenhead says it is part of a "calculated PR offensive" guided by his wife (Sarah nee Macauley - is she related to the Macauley?) who used to run a PR company, and his adviser, Sue Nye. It is a dreadful mistake. When I have seen Brown trying to be "touchy-feely" it has always looked cringingly embarrassing. It isn't that you can't fake sincerity. Blair does it very well (think of that dreadful "People's Princess" speech and his little choke of emotion); and Cameron (who is quite ruthless in exploiting his disabled child) also does it well. Everyone says that in private Brown is more laid-back; but in public charm is not his forte. It is probable that he does not possess the insincerity needed to convincingly fake sincerity. But so what? Brown should play to his own strengths. After Blair voters may be tired of public school charm and affected estuary English. They may want - and respect - something more substantial. They might value competence over charm. In any case, this is not a field in which Brown is able to compete successfully: it looks to me that he is getting some very bad advice indeed.

Johnson - the media favourite

The Observer has a profile of Alan Johnson, who is clearly shaping up to be the stop-Brown candidate for the Leadership. As Skipper has pointed out Johnson does have a compelling "narrative": ophaned at 12, brought up by his sister, worked as a postman, background in the trade union movement. (Then again, he is a grammar school boy, although he left at 15 with no qualifications). And he is English. He also appears to have an affable media-friendly persona. But many trade unionists distrust him and the big unions are likely to advise their members not to vote for him. There seems to be a feeling abroad that, after Blair, Labour should steer just a little to the left. (I suspect that many Labour members think that the privatisation mania and the consultancy scam has gone too far). Johnson's problem is that he is seen as too close to Blair. Johnson is aware of this. In the Observer article he tries to present a "left face"; tapping into an emotive Labour issue: school selection. He says: "I'm against selection, full stop", recalling that his daughter failed the 11-plus. But then he adds: "I think the Prime Minister is as well". If Johnson thinks Blair is against selection he is as dim as a forty watt bulb. Since he is plainly a shrewd , smart and ambitious political operator (despite his risible claim that he just "drifts along") he cannot believe this. Indeed, in the article he tells us of his support for faith schools (which clearly practice selection) and city academies. He also says - despite the evidence to the contrary - that the debt-burden created by university tuition fees will not deter working-class students from going to university (He thinks that is "patronising". No it isn't, its true). Johnson will run as a Blairite trying not to sound too much of a Blairite (he will probably enjoy Blair's unofficial support). It won't wash. Despite the acres of favourable newspaper coverage (one assumes this is at least partly orchestrated by the Blair camp) an affable manner and an English pedigree will not be sufficient to win him the Leadership. It is possible he could win the Deputy Leadership; but I think on balance that is unlikely also.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Buff" Hoon shafts Blair

Geoff ("Buff") Hoon has suggested that Blair should not lead the Labour Party in next May's elections. Since the Labour Party takes a couple of months to elect a new Leader, this would mean a resignation within the next few months. Hoon has also declared for Brown. According to the Number 10 web-site the lobby has been told that Blair has "full confidence" in Hoon. That an apparatchik like Hoon should feel free to muse aloud about this without fear of reprisal from Blair speaks volumes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hain throws his hat into the ring.

Unsurprisingly, Peter Hain has launched his bid for the Deputy Leadership with a pledge of loyalty to Brown; but the Guardian report today suggests Brown would probably prefer someone else. Michael White does not rate Hain's chances highly. I think he is wrong. Hain not so long ago suggested increasing the top rate of income tax and was slapped down by Blair and Brown. He says " is legitimate that we debate where the limits of the private sector involvement might be and where the limits on markets are", and says that the "...Labour Government is there to deliver social justice and individual liberty". He has also been making emollient noises about trade unions, who he has also been assiduously courting for months. None of this will do him any harm with the trade union and constituency sections of the electoral college. Alan Johnson, by contrast, although a former trade unionist, is a bit of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper (he has suggested, for example, that the union vote at the party conference be cut from 50% to 15%). Today's Guardian also reports that John Reid is pushing ahead with the "reform agenda" ("reform" means "privatisation"): he seems to want the probation service to be run by private contractors. Harriet Harman's claim rests upon her being a woman; the trouble is that she so obviously hails from the planet "privilege". Hain's problems are his past as a Young Liberal, his South African provenance, and his reputation as an unprincipled "shape-shifter". I still thinks this puts him ahead on points by comparison with Reid and Harman. With Johnson it is harder to say, but my money is on Hain.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mandelson in town

According to yesterday's Observer Peter Mandelson recently paid a brief visit to London. He met-up with his old mate Robert Harris, who yesterday rubbished Brown in the Sunday Times, calling him "autistic". I wonder who else Mandelson met with? (Who was it who said, when asked why he had taken an instant dislike to Mandelson, that "It saved time"?).

Gordon and Pat

It gets better. When Watson visited Brown they played with the babies and, according to this morning's Guardian, "watched Postman Pat on a DVD".

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Scottish Independence

A YouGov poll in The Sunday Times shows 62% of Scots favour more powers for the Scottish Parliament, and 42% favour independence (with 42% against). Alec Salmond is a more popular choice for First Minister than Jack McConnell, and the SNP's poll rating would give them 38 of the 129 MSP's (to Labour's 42) - this would enable the SNP to form a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens. That, however, is very unlikely, since the Liberal-Democrats (like Labour) are a unionist party. The fact is that the electoral system used in Scotland (AMS) was devised to prevent the SNP gaining an overall majority of MSP's; in return Labour sacificed any hope of one-party Labour government and settled for coalition with the Liberal-Democrats. It would need a much bigger shift towards the SNP to give them any hope of getting the Scottish Parliament to agree to a referendum.

The Brown Interview

Gordon Brown, in his interview with Andrew Marr, said that Blair should be given “discretion” to make the decision about his departure “in his own way”. This seems to imply that Brown has settled for the timetable Blair has set out: resignation in May next year, in time for a new Leader to be in place for the autumn conference. I suspect however that this is dependent on the Blairites observing a ceasefire, and that is unlikely. Brown added the rider that he is confident that Blair will make the decision “in the interests of the party and the country”, which leaves the option of an earlier departure open. Brown’s denial of involvement in a plot, and ignorance of any knowledge of the various letters calling for Blair to go (he claims that if he had known he would have called it “ill-advised”), and his claim that when he met Blair last week there was “no argument at all”, are plainly nonsense. But what else could he say? The rules of political discourse do not permit a politician of Brown’s seniority to be candid about such things. He fell short of promising Reid, Miliband and Clarke Cabinet positions, but he did say they “should be considered for high office”. He seemed to be offering a deal to Blairite’s who accept his succession: he spoke a lot about "team-work" and said he wants an “inclusive party of all the talents”. He also said that he would “welcome” a Leadership election (he is confident, I think, that he can easily beat Milburn or Reid). Marr took up the theme of how a Brown premiership would differ from a Blair premiership. On what Marr called the “endless march to privatisation” Brown’s response was to remind him that “I introduced PFI…”, and to add that “reform will continue” and “in some cases it has to intensify”. Not much difference there then. Asked if we could expect “ultra-Blairism with a Scottish accent” Brown collapsed into what sounded like a lot of “third way” rhetoric (he favours a “new individualism” together with a “sense of civil duty”. Yeah, sure). There was little evidence of a change of direction on Iraq or the relationship with the USA, although he sounded a little cooler about Bush. He referred to child poverty (“every child should have the best start in life”) but at a level of generality which left it wholly unclear what he proposes to do about it. In the studio William Hague and Chris Patten were very effective in putting the boot in. Patten said he could detect no deviations from Blairism (“he hasn’t made clear any difference at all”) and threw in a wonderful jibe at Blair’s “Walter Mitty tour of the Middle East”. Patten also raised the “Scottish question” which is a serious problem for Brown (and Reid) and one which the Tories are determined to exploit at the next election, if Brown becomes Leader. On Radio 5 it is reported that Tom Watson visited Brown on the evening before the letter was circulated. Both – risibly - say they didn’t discuss it. On their account Watson brought a present for Brown’s baby, and then they both spent an hour playing with the baby (I suspect we are going to hear and see a lot more of this baby, who featured in the Brown interview several times). Overall: Brown hopes to quieten things down, but now we know that Blair is going soon the uber-Blairites will be searching for a candidate to stop Brown and will do what they can to undermine him; although others will jump ship. Finally, Patten raised an interesting question: what is Mandelson up to? I think we can expect a “dirty tricks” campaign designed to damage Brown over the next few months. The Brownites will retaliate with pressure for an earlier departure. It won't go away.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Blair Clings On: for the moment

It has been a rather hectic political week, to say the least. Beginning with Blair’s article in The Times announcing he would not set a resignation date we have seen, inter alia: the leaking of the memo detailing the truly astonishing proposal for Blair’s vainglorious “farewell tour”; the “revolt of the Blairite lickspittles” (Chris Bryant, Sion Simon, et al) and the resignation of Tom Watson and a bunch of Blairite PPS’s (followed by Blair’s petulant response saying he would have sacked Watson anyway); all against the background of the open warfare between Blairites and Brownites. Now a reluctant Blair has conceded that he will resign before next year’s conference season; and Charles Clarke has attacked Brown and talked-up Milburn as a leadership candidate (and someone – probably John Reid – told Nick Robinson that Brown would make a “fucking awful” PM). Today Blair says that Labour will lose the next election unless the in-fighting stops (as if it had nothing whatever to do with him, although it is reported that Byers’s “out-riding” on inheritance tax followed “orders from on high”). Brown is to give an interview to Andrew Marr tomorrow morning and it will be interesting to see if Brown says that next May is soon enough. If he does it will not end the war. The uber-Blairites will be looking for a challenger to Brown (Milburn? Reid? Johnson?), and will do whatever they can to undermine Brown. They have nothing to lose, since they will secure no preferment under Brown (I doubt if Bryant and Simon will be rewarded for their disloyalty to Blair. Brown is likely to think that if they can betray one patron, they can betray another). I think Blair will not endorse Brown as his successor: he will say it is up to the party to chose, and will opt for public agnosticism, while his troops organise against Brown. Everyone knows that the electorate dislikes divided parties, and that Labour will be punished for this at he polls. The most astute comment was Denis Healey’s: that Labour’s civil war is (for him) depressing because it involves no great issue of principle. This is absolutely correct: it is not left versus right, and there is no great ideological rift between the rival camps, it is chiefly about personal hatred, ambition, and vanity. The feeling I get from the people “on the Clapham Omnibus” that I talk to is that (unlike us politaholics) they are fed-up with the whole thing and think that “there are more important things going on the world”. It did cross my mind that Blair might surprise us all and announce in Manchester in a few weeks time that he going immediately (or as soon as a new Leader is elected): but on reflection I think not. He is too arrogant, has too careless a regard for the party’s future (as distinct from his own reputation), and nothing would please him more than shafting Brown one more time. There could be a Cabinet revolt: but surely the opportunity for that was this week?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The long arm of the state

Further to my (somewhat inebriated) post on Blair’s proposal to identify “problem children” before they are born, there is an article by Lee Glendinning in Friday’s Guardian. According to this Blair has put forward plans “for state intervention” to prevent babies born into “high risk families” becoming “problem teenagers”. Blair said: “If you’ve got someone who is a teenage mum, not married, not in a stable relationship…here is the support we are prepared to offer you, but we do need to keep a careful watch on you and how your situation is developing because all indicators are that your type of situation can lead to problems in the future…”. Young parents who are “vulnerable” are apparently to be offered a compulsory 12-week programme to improve their skills in bringing up children; if they refuse there could be “sanctions” (It's an "offer you can't refuse"). Blair does not seem to understand the difference between “offering help” and coercion. That a person can face “sanctions” not because they have done something, but because the “indicators” - the "social profile" - shows that they (or, rather, their children) might do something in the future, strikes me as absolutely outrageous and I am surprised there appears to have been no public outcry (Apparently Blair is to give a speech on this next Tuesday. We will see what happens then). Apart from the question of principle involved (that someone should only be punished by the state when they have broken the law) there are pragmatic considerations. What on earth makes anyone think that state-enforced training in child-rearing will actually improve anything? What are the likely reactions of the young women coerced into taking part in this training by fear of suffering “sanctions”? Which is more likely: effusive gratitude or sullen resentment? Blair thinks you can coerce someone to do something and they will be grateful for the help you have “offered”. What sanctions are we talking about anyway? Loss of benefit? Yeah, that’s sure to help. Or what? I assume he is not contemplating custodial sentences; but with Blair one never knows. The authoritarian instinct of this government is well-attested: from ASBO’s, to ID cards, the use of the Terrorism Act to detain and strip-search peaceful protestors, the Brian Haw affair, and so on. This is another to add to the list. Blair trained as a lawyer: he seems to have absolutely no comprehension of the meaning of individual rights.