Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Poor John

Yesterday's Guardian had some gems.

From Decca Aitenhead's interview with Prescott:

  • "After failing his eleven-plus, he sent a love letter to a girl at grammar school, who returned it with all his spelling corrected".

  • An old tutor of Prescott's once said: "He has a mind like knitting the cat has played with..."

  • Prescott is still smarting over not being invited by Tony to Chequers. The guest list had "...Lady-Be-Good stamped all over it...Cherie...did all the lists..." Cherie obviously though John too common. I mean, Cherie ("supermarket dash") Blair thought that...

And this from Charlie Brooker: "Imagine a carefree game of frisbee with Gordon Brown at a summer barbeque. You can't. That's why the poor bastard is doomed..". Hmm. Imagine a carefree game of frisbee with Thatcher...

Monday, May 26, 2008

No, its not Harry Enfield. Honestly.

Spotted this on Recess Monkey (not sure what the blogger etiquette is, is it "hat tip"?). Anyway here we have an ordinary, down-to-earth, not-at-all-toff Tory wannabee. Presumably Cameron sounded like this when he was at Eton, before the PR men got to work.

Brown will not be going (soon)

The Tories are arguing that if Brown is replaced as Leader there should be a General Election because it would, as Tory front-bencher Chris Grayling puts it, be "quite absurd" to foist a second "unelected" Prime Minister on the country. But in this country the Prime Minister is not directly elected. It is not a Presidential system. There is certainly no constitutional requirement for an Election, and a new Leader could plausibly argue that he should be judged on his record after a period of governing. The Tories line of argument can be effectively countered by pointing out that this is just electoral opportunism on their part, they want an election because they are ahead in the polls. Of course they do. That's not a good enough reason to give them one.
But will there be a new Leader? The papers yesterday were full of speculation: a possible Leadership challenge by Alan Milburn or Charles Clarke (could either get 70 signatures?), positioning by David Miliband in case a vacancy arises (he is not apparently considering a challenge to Brown), a deputation from "men in suits" (Straw, Hoon, etc) to offer Brown a bottle of whiskey and a revolver (But if Brown declines? Is mass resignation likely?).
My feeling is that despite the storm of speculation, and likely defeat on the 42 days, Brown will survive. The two main reasons for this are the sheer difficulty of removing him should he be unwilling to go (and the damage it would do to the party) and the simple fact that a new Leader would inherit the same problems (credit crunch, falling house prices, rising fuel prices, rising food prices). Added to that none of the possible replacements are exactly inspiring. And, for that matter, if Blair were still PM where would Labour's poll ratings be?
How much is Brown's personality to do with Labour's troubles? Well, he hasn't changed his personality since becoming PM, and when he did become PM he was hardly an unknown quantity, and yet for the first few months Labour was riding high in the polls. The problem is not, I think, his moodiness and awkwardness in public. No one actually liked Margaret Thatcher, did they? But - to her supporters - she seemed decisive and strong and knew where she was going. That's the problem with Brown. He has acquired a reputation for indecisive dithering (starting with the election-that-never-was and reinforced by, for example, the emergency mini-budget) and for short-term opportunism (inheritance tax, the 10p tax band) which is going to be hard to shake off. In the Observer Gaby Hinsliff says that: "Brown's inner circle is spending the week-end discussing a fightback. He is being urged to turn the threat of defeat to his advantage with a "go for broke" strategy unleashing ideas he has previously considered too controversial to explore - modelled on the success of his bold defence last week of embryo research, late abortion and IVF treatment". In order words, taking clear positions, instead of always trying to have it both ways (and ending up getting shafted both ways). With that, and taking the fight to the Conservatives Labour still has a chance (The Tories are enjoying an amazingly easy ride in the media (For example, the Tories criticised the abolition of the 10p tax band but don't promise to reinstate it and don't say how, if it were reinstated, it would be paid for. Having criticised the abolition of the 10p tax band they also criticised Brown's attempt to undo the error with the emergency budget. Is any of this coherent? What exactly would they do? Silence).
I have just heard Anthony Seldon on radio 4 say that Labour should wait until six months before the next election and then choose a new Leader (probably Miliband). This seems right to me. Go for broke. If it doesn't work then a cabinet coup (surely even Brown would bow to the inevitable). But its not over yet.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cameron is a Tory Toff. Don't forget it.

I know its not the most pressing issue in the world but I am intrigued by the comments in the press on the "Toff Tactic" deployed by Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. It is widely percieved as a failure. I'm not so sure. It must come pretty low down the list of reasons why Labour lost Crewe. Jonathan Freedland, in an interesting article in The Guardian points to several hazards with the tactic:

(i) It can sound like the "four-Yorkshireman" style of inverted snobbery (on the Conservative side, David Davis, and on Labour's side, Alan Johnson, sometimes sound like the "four Yorkshiremen").

(ii) It can be a bit "retro" - by which I think Freedland means old-fashioned (cloth caps and whippets); an image from which Labour wants to distance itself.

(iii) And, Freedland suggests, the English quite like a toff: deference to those "born to rule" may still lurk "deep within the DNA of this society". Freedland observes that: "There was a hint of that in (Boris) Johnson's campaign trips to traditional white, working-class areas of London. Watch him with the butchers of Smithfield meat market or with the drivers of black cabs, and it could have been a royal visit to the Blitzed East End: all that was missing were the doffed caps and declarations that "You're a gentleman, sir, and make no mistake".

To this one might add that:

(iv) Labour has plenty of toffs of its own; not least the recently departed Tony Blair, now busily aquiring property like there is no tomorrow. And there are plenty of others.

(iv) The tactic was badly judged in Crewe and Nantwich. The Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, is certainly hugely privileged and vastly rich, but his family does seem to have practiced a kind of Cadbury/Rowntree philanthropy (I do not mean that sarcastically): they took in numerous foster-children, two of whom they adopted, and these included kids with Down’s Syndrome and behavioural problems. (The Telegraph muses that Timpsons public school, Uppingham, is “a school for the sons and daughters of Midlands manufacturers, not toffs”. Ah, the English class system..). On the other hand, I doubt that the Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey, has ever had to worry about where her next meal is coming from. Her mother and two grandparents were in the House of Lords. She too lives in a (not quite so) big house even if she doesn’t have any Llamas (neither does Timpson, it seems). True, this is the Labour aristocracy rather than the landed (or manufacturing, or retailing) aristocracy, but even so. Labour seems to have treated the constituency as if it were a family heirloom, "parachuting" in Tamsin for no other reason than to trade on her mother's name.

And yet. For all this I think there is mileage in the "toff tactic". The Tories are vulnerable on this front, and know it. Freedland quotes Stefan Stern, from the Financial Times: “If David Cameron is so proud of the “great school” he attended – it was Eton, by the way – why does he never mention it by name in public?”. For that matter, why does he bend over backwards to appear “ordinary” using phrases like “fessing up” on the Today programme (presumably to show that he’s “down with the kids”)? Why have they gone to such efforts to keep the notorious Bullingdon photograph out of the newspapers? I can't see any reason why Labour cannot continue to point out that Cameron is a filthy rich Eton-educated aristocrat, who at Cambridge choose to join a notorious gang of bullies who revelled in their privilege, and that neither he nor Osborne can have any idea what life is like for ordinary people. One of the more risible features of the by-election was the Tory exploitation of the 10p tax band question. As if they - or the average Tory voter - gives a flying whatsit about the impact upon those on low incomes. For goodness sake - these are Tories. Labour should not abandon the Toff tactic, just because Cameron/Osborne would like them too. And here's the photograph they don't want anyone to see.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is Brown "hopeless"?

A very interesting letter by Nick Matthews in yesterday's Guardian arguing that "the best stuff we implemented after the 1997 victory was nothing to do with Blair or Brown; it was the legacy of John Smith - minimum wage, trade union recognition, social chapter...", etc. He also argues that the real surprise is "how hopeless he (Brown) is as a politician". It is a surprise to me also, although perhaps it ought not to have been. Meanwhile poll ratings reach new depths - 27% in the Guardian ICM poll. Matthews wants Brown replaced quickly or "...we go into oblivion with Brown". I think it unlikely. Tomorrow is Crewe and Nantwich. Prepare for the worst.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Replacing Brown?

There is an awful lot of speculation about Brown resigning (very, very unlikely) or being challenged for the Leadership. I can't see it, for several reasons:
(i) There is no obvious alternative. Certainly there are plenty of names being bandied around: Jack Straw, David (or even Ed) Milliband, Ed Balls, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, Alan Johnson, James Purnell (God help us all...), David Burnham, Uncle Tom Cobley... But none of these is the obvious successor (the phrase "all chiefs and no Indians" comes to mind). This might make for: (a) a game of wait-and-see with each hoping one of the others will make the challenge (on the principle that "he who wields the dagger fails to win the crown", what one might call "the Heseltine principle") which will benefit Brown - if no one is actually first to step forward, and/or (ii) a messy battle for the succession.
(ii) Anyone replacing Brown inherits the same problems. A new Leader cannot "magic away" the credit crunch and falling house prices, and the increase in the price of oil and food. A new Leader will still face the problem of trying to lead the party to a fourth election victory (which has only been achieved once in the 20C, in 1992). Whoever it is will be someone who has been (even if he is not now) a Cabinet Minister, and can no more claim to be untainted by any percieved Labour failures than can Brown.
(iii) Who would want the job? With Labour trailing in the polls, cruising for election defeat, it could be a short-lived Leadership (although a new Leader could pin the blame for defeat on his predecessor). Most likely candidates will probably wait until after the next election (if Labour loses Brown will go, if there is a hung Parliament he will go, and if Labour wins with a much reduced majority - who can say?).
(iv) A party which changes Leader rather too often looks like it has lost its way. To lose one Leader might be a misfortune, but to lose two, one so soon after the other, and so close to an election, begins to look like carelessness...
(v) Even if Labour loses Crewe and Nantwich, which seems likely (although it will be very close) Brown has the blessing that the summer is almost upon us. Politics will be suspended for a couple of months. When everyone returns - from Cape Cod or Scotland or wherever - it will be, what, a year-and-a-half at most from the General Election? And leaving an election to the last minute makes the Government look "frit" and gives no room to recover if things go pear-shaped (not that they aren't already) in the last few months. It's a bit late to be changing Generals.
(vi) Some are arguing that it might be a good thing if Labour lost next time, rather than scrape through and suffer obliteration the time after that, and lose office for a generation. It will, the argument goes, give Labour time to regroup and redefine its goals - best done in Opposition. If Cameron proves a busted flush in office Labour can lose the next one, win after that, and perhaps secure a second or third term thereafter. This it seems to me is a very optimistic scenario, and if it were me I wouldn't bet the farm on it. If the Tories win next time they could be there for a very long time. True, they will inherit an economy in difficulty, but they can blame the previous Labour Government for that (after ten years Labour can't play this card so easily).
Politaholic is not optimistic, but I think Labour will have to soldier on with Brown, and try to use the summer to figure out what to do next...

Cherie Spart the sex goddess

Cherie ("supermarket dash") Blair - a socialist? Give me a break. Apparently Tony rolls his eyes when she says this, as well he might. Over the past week we have had her soliciting sympathy over the size of her mega-mortgages (poor dear, how she must struggle), whingeing about her alleged deprived background (I wonder...), and regaling us with the minutiae of her contraceptive regime and Tony's naked massages with Carol Caplin. I wonder how she squared her socialism with, a few years back, prosecuting a poll tax protestor for non-payment (if memory serves he got a custodial sentence). At the time we heard a lot about the "cab rank" principle...umm... Anyway, in today's Sunday Times she tells us that she when she first bonked Tony she already had two guys on the go: "..that left with me with three men in my life. Tony knew about John but not about David [Attwood]. John knew about David but not about Tony, and poor David fondly imagined I was living a quiet life of hard work in dreary London". Sorry, all this is a bit confusing for me. Anyway, not just a socialist, but a femme fatale. Blokes queueing round the block. I mean - Cherie Blair? ...

Welcome to Ruritania

A minor royal - Peter Phillips (the son of Anne Phillips nee Windsor) - has just married a Canadian management consultant, Autumn Kelly. He is 11th in line to the throne, and, in order not to lose his place in the pecking order, she had to renounce her religion (Roman Catholicism) since the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibits Catholics or those who marry Catholics from "ascending" to the throne "for ever". (Okay, perhaps she has genuinely converted to Anglicanism - after all, people do convert, as Blair has, in the opposite direction - but Politaholic is sceptical). Of course, none of this makes any difference to the price of fish. No one with any sense really cares. But nowadays we think of the UK as a liberal and multi-cultural country and it is an insight into that antiquated artefact("the British Constitution") that an heir to the throne can, in law (if not in practice), marry a Muslim, a Hindu, or indeed a Satanist, but not a Roman Catholic. Then again, having an hereditary head of state in the first place is even more absurd.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Scottish Wendyrendum

"Wee Wendy" Alexander appears to have declared independence for Scottish Labour. She has called for an early referendum (or "Wendyrendum" as it is being called) on the calculation that it more likely to produce a "No" vote. Gordon was reduced at PMQ's to denying that Wendy said what she patently did say ("bring it on" is hardly ambiguous). Presumably he felt compelled to do this because the only alternative is to admit that he has lost control of his party. (Cameron taunted him with just that). But it made Gordon look like a moron (And it seems that no one has yet told him to look straight ahead at PMQ's inside of sideways. How can he get such a simple thing wrong?). Alex Salmond prefers a later referendum (2010 or 2011); he thinks that, if the Tories win the election, the Scots are more likely to opt for independence (if the alternative is to be governed by a lot of Eton toffs). Both Wendy and Alex are probably right; but the Wendy strategy is - for Labour - a bit risky. Voters have a reputation for not always voting on what they should e.g. using local elections to deliver a verdict on national goverment (odd, isn't it, that after all these years of enmity between Gordon and Ken, that Gordon finally finished off Ken by supporting him?) and they may use a referendum to do the same. In any case, it now seems clear that, sooner or later, there will be a Scottish referendum on independence. Labour is, of course, terrified of this: if Scotland becomes independent they would lose around 40 MP's at Westminster. The poor bloody English would end up with near-permanent Tory government.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Why has it all gone wrong for Gordon?

Why has it all gone wrong for Gordon?

Politaholic thinks there are 5 key reasons:

1 “It’s the economy, stupid”. Following on the Northern Rock fiasco, the credit crunch, and stalling/falling house prices, Middle England is feeling the pinch. It could be argued that it is a tad unfair to blame the government for all of this (Gordon is hardly to blame for the “US sub-prime market”), but then again, uncontrolled borrowing and runaway house price inflation (the latter the God-given right of the middle-classes to get something for nothing) have been as much a feature of the UK as the US economy (this did not begin when Gordon became PM but he was, after all, Chancellor). What’s more, Gordon seems to have bottomless pockets when it comes to bailing out Northern Crock executives (whose belief in market forces seems to have evaporated) and that hardly sits well with hitting the lowest paid by removing the 10p tax band. In any case, what has fairness to do with politics? When the economy goes arse-over-tit it is the government that (usually) gets the blame (unless they can convince the voters to “hold onto nurse for fear of something worse”). The Tories are benefiting from this even although it is obvious they have no magic solution.

2. Gordon himself:

(i) He is a Scot (and the English don’t like it: the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula play well in the suburbs and send the Tory Bloggers into paroxysms of rage, poor dears).
(ii) He simply does not have Blair’s communication skills and the middle-class English just don’t like him. For all that we hear he is warm and humorous in private, put him in front of a camera and he comes across as if he has just landed from another planet. He is at his worst when he tries to appear ordinary: talking about his “young children” and his “love of sport”. In an age of celebocracy, he just can’t cut it. A sad comment on our times, really.
(iii) His style of leadership: government by cabal, intolerance – indeed, incomprehension - of any criticism, a lack of ease: all of which leaks out and tends to repel voters. There he is: powerful, at the top of the greasy pole, a hugely successful politician (Chancellor for 10 years and now PM) and the overwhelming impression one gets is of a lack of self-confidence disguised by a blustering style.

3. “Too clever by half”: Brown seems addicted to seemingly clever political positioning which routinely backfires: inheritance tax (looked opportunist), election-that-never-was (looked indecisive, opportunist, and duplicitous); removing 10p tax band to fund 1p tax cut (looked like a blatant attempt to bribe Middle England); 42 days (pathetic attempt to look tough); Northern Rock (delayed nationalisation to avoid looking like Old Labour, then eventually bailed them out); did-and-didn’t go to the launch of the European Reform Treaty (looked ridiculous) and on and on. Even the “Government of all the talents” which worked well in the press was a gimmick. The “Not Flash, Just Gordon” was a sound PR strategy – it could have worked – but it requires an appearance of straight dealing, and Brown has blown it with his inability to avoid short-term gimmickry. All tactics, no strategy.

4: “Time for a change”. Every government runs out of steam, becomes tired, loses direction, begins to look jaded. Voters think it is time to “give the others a chance”. Brown’s task was always going to be more difficult than Blair’s: winning a fourth term. When a government has been in office for ten years or so it cannot plausibly blame its predecessor when things go wrong. Brown – as Chancellor for 10 years – cannot claim to be a “fresh face”. At the same time he faces a Conservative Party which has been given a new coat of paint (still the same thing underneath of course but looking different, with a crowd-pleasing PR man at the helm).

5: No sense of direction. Blair at least knew what he wanted to do: placate Middle England, privatise everything in sight, triangulate to avoid ever being outflanked on the right by the Tories, cold shoulder trades unions and Labour core voters. Brown can’t make up his mind: does he think “Best when we are Labour” or is it “New Labour Redux”? He can’t decide: it is neither one thing nor the other, neither this nor that, no theme, no “narrative”, no bloody idea of what he wants to do. As several commentators have observed, here is a guy who spent decades plotting to become PM who hasn’t a clue what to do now he is PM.

What can be done?
Nothing probably. I can’t see a change of Leader happening. If Gordon were Tory Leader they would cut his throat and throw him in the nearest canal alongside the rotting carcass of Iain Duncan-Smith, but Labour lacks such ruthlessness (it is too deferential). In any case, changing Leader will not suddenly reverse Labour’s fortunes. It might make things worse: it would certainly look panicky. And who would take his place? David-the-Geek? Postman-Alan? Is either really going to sweep all before him? No, it’s Gordon until the next election, for better or worse.

What will happen?
Well, a week is a long time in politics. But the tide is running against Labour and it looks bad. Tony must be smirking; and Cherie must be in seventh heaven.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

"The Jackal" Triumphs

Politaholic has not been able to post much recently: I had to go into hospital for an operation on my arm and it is my busiest time of year at work. But the triumph of Boris "The Jackal" merits some comment. I could never really quite believe the opinion polls. Surely no one would actually vote for this clown? But, yes, they have and the Tories are cock-a-hoop (this morning Boris's sister was crowing on Radio 4, apparently fresh from a champagne, oysters and caviar party). The local election results are, for Labour, truly dreadful. Gordon Brown seems completely out of his depth (who would have thought the "great clunking fist" could be so irresolute?). I suppose it could be worse: in Rome they have just elected a Nazi as Mayor (and Blair's buddy Berlusconi has proclaimed "We are the new Falange"). Politaholic is going to drink beer today; lots of it.