Sunday, 31 May 2009

Grim Scots

May has been an astonishing month, as illustrated by the 86 times I was moved to write about it on this blog. Britain has been plunged into a genuine constitutional crisis and a succession of moody and truculent Scots - Gordon Brown, Michael Martin and Susan Boyle - have grabbed the headlines and in some cases become internet hits too. Brown's appearance on YouTube was of course considerably less popular than Boyle's but, at least to my mind, was every bit as entertaining. Indeed this could be a future career path for Mr Brown, his ability to juggle figures, gurn and smile in a manner that reminded me of the final scenes in Jaws is surely worthy of a place in Britain's Got Talent. I don't watch the show, even when 18 million of my compatriots chose to do so, because I find the whole process toe curling, nauseating and embarrassing. But surely that is an ideal place for our soon to be ex prime minister. He's a national embarrassment after all and, like Ms Boyle, is a spectacularly bad and graceless loser. It sounds like ideal fodder for ITV I would have thought.

Reform This

Given that Gordon Brown has now discovered a reforming zeal, here is another part of our constitution and legal system which has caused all kinds of problems and which Labour, despite its tinkering with the courts, jury system, creation of a new supreme court to replace the House of Lords and various other reforms, has left untouched. Our libel laws are being used by all kinds of shysters, from the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell, (who got away with what he did for so long thanks to his repeated threats to sue his critics), other gangsters and crooks (Maxwell would have sued me for that juxtaposition had he been alive), to interest groups wishing to silence those who disagree with them, to multinational corporations caught out behaving nefariously. Nick Cohen goes into the details here.

A Very Selective Conscience

Oh no! Gordon Brown's Presbyterian conscience has been offended. That would be the same conscience which allowed him to employ Damien McBride to smear colleagues and opponents; the same conscience which allows him to bully his subordinates by yelling at them and even throwing things at them; the same conscience which has allowed him to fiddle the figures in budgets since 1997; the same conscience which allows him to lie about all manner of subjects from calling elections to claiming to have taken the lead on MPs expenses; the same conscience which is offended by some of his MPs and ministers but not those he wants to protect. If he has a conscience, Presbyterian or otherwise, it is a remarkably selective one.

Gordon Brown has come out fighting today, albeit on the nice and easy going Andrew Marr show. Marr is a fine journalist and a likeable broadcaster, but he is not the most incisive of interviewers. Given that Brown has lately been losing his temper with interviewers who have the temerity to question his version of events, his choice of Marr this morning was telling.

Yet we have had confirmed what we already knew. Brown is not about to stand down. He is going to face down any attempts at rebellion and keep going, despite the growing feeling within his own party and even within the Cabinet. It will take a mass rebellion and probably mass resignations before this remarkably pig headed man will admit defeat. Indeed I have my doubts that anything short of a loss of a vote of confidence will force him out and that will just never happen. He is protected by the rules of his party, the pusillanimity of his colleagues and our faulty and broken constitution. He is going to hang on.

His proposed reforms of the system are more of his standard prescription of rules and committees and independent bodies. It just isn't necessary. More than that, it won't work. Most MPs have not broken the rules as we are constantly being reminded. That is how Brown is clinging on to the likes of Alistair Darling and why Jacqui Smith has got away with so much. A new code of conduct will be more of the same. All that is needed is transparency as this scandal has shown. If MPs publish what they are claiming they have to justify those claims to the media and the public. Brown claims that his conscience has been offended by all of this, yet that conscience was remarkably insouciant before we all got to know about it. Indeed they knew all of this was coming out and knew that people would probably have to resign. He still took no action. What a wonderfully flexible conscience it is.

And that conscience is now going to allow him to take all kinds of other suddenly vital measures, on the principle that this is a crisis that shouldn't be allowed to go to waste. Is he going to try to change the electoral rules before a general election? It is hard to see how he has the time to do this. He certainly doesn't have the mandate to do it, even if he concocts some kind of deal with the Lib Dems as is being speculated in some quarters. But that doesn't mean he won't try. Is this going to be the excuse to defer calling an election? Is his conscience telling him that he must rip up the constitution and create a new one in the few months left to him, so that he can deny the Tories a victory and create a pyrrhic one for himself? It's starting to look that way.

Impeccable Timing


Happy birthday to Big Ben, 150 years old today. Westminster may be in all kinds of trouble and our politicians loathed by the general populace, but they do once in a while get things right. It should be noted that, like so many great British infrastructure projects, the Houses of Parliament were hugely controversial in their time, provoked much rancour and went way over budget. Big Ben itself, or the Westminster Clock Tower as it ought properly to be known, was a controversial feature of the overall design; it was considered too ambitious by many and was criticised for many years once it became operational. Eventually though it found its place in peoples' hearts and that name, which really refers to the bell, became commonplace for the clock and tower as a whole. Now new year isn't new year if it isn't rung in by those famous bongs.

I remember when I first went to live in London, as I started at university, taking my new Polish girlfriend to see it. 'Wow,' she said, I think sincerely. It still has the same effect on me as these photos from February show. If only our politicians did the same.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Desperate and Underhand

The latest polling for a general election, rather than local and Euro elections, puts Labour in 3rd place, on 22%, behind the Lib Dems. Labour is heading for a leadership crisis. Surely they cannot allow this to continue.

The newspapers are increasingly calling for Gordon Brown to go, but the cabinet remains silent, perhaps waiting to see what he will do. Perhaps they hope that he will do what some of his backbenchers did this week and go off into retirement blaming ill health. Instead he is looking more and more like a gambler ready to make one last big and outrageous bet, risking everything to recover his losses.

Brown has noticeably been staying out of sight for most of this week, despite the local and European elections being a matter of days away. He is almost certainly making his party look back wistfully on the days of Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. But perhaps he is in his bunker, with the likes of Ed Balls, planning the fightback.

I read in some quarters that Brown is planning on getting together with the Lib Dems and introducing PR as a way of keeping out the Tories. If true this is scandalous, and yet one can easily imagine it of this prime minister. He is easily capable of such cynicism and monumental hypocrisy. Is he, an unelected prime minister in the last few months of his tenure, really proposing pushing through a fundamental change to the British constitution without a proper mandate? This would be gerrymandering on a national scale. We knew he would be incapable of accepting his defeat with anything like good grace. But even I didn't think him capable of this.

Whatever you think about the present electoral system, and I accept that it can lead to unfairness, anomalies and a sense that voting for large swathes of the electorate is pointless, it is simply unacceptable for a government staring defeat in the face to suddenly attempt to change the rules at the last moment. If they want change then they have had plenty of opportunity to introduce it. Their mandate for such change ran out some time ago. They are free to argue for it in alliance with the Lib Dems if they so wish and to start a debate that has not been had since the 80s. To move the goalposts at this late stage, under cover of a wholly unconnected expenses scandal, is dishonest, disreputable and antidemocratic. I find it breathtaking that they may even be considering such a course of action. The British people, as so often with Brown's most underhand tactics, will see through this straight away.

Heading for Disaster

The latest Populus opinion poll for The Times confirms that Labour is heading for disaster and humiliation on Thursday in those elections the British people are being allowed. The figures suggest that they will come third behind UKIP, a single issue minority party with a rather confused approach to these elections. UKIP seems to be the main beneficiary of the protest vote against MPs expenses, although it is probably also getting the benefit of the British people's growing antagonism to Europe in general.

David Cameron's impressive performance these last three weeks seems to have limited the damage to his party. Labour and even the Lib Dems are being hit far harder by flipgate. The public seems to have seen through Gordon Brown's various claims to be leading on this issue, although this hasn't stopped Ed Balls continuing to make this assertion over the last few days. Presumably they think that if they keep telling us how strong he has been on the issue we will ignore the evidence of our own eyes and ears.

The frustration for Labour is that David Cameron has not been consistent in his treatment of his MPs. The difference is however that he has come out, given interviews and conveyed the impression of leadership and toughness. Brown has run away from the issue, farmed it out to committees and used it as a means of getting back at his political enemies and rivals.

The big question this week will be are Labour ministers and MPs going to keep watching as their leader drives them towards disaster or are they going to insist on a change of captain to steer them away from the rocks? Brown will no doubt have a reshuffle and will come up with some ideas for constitutional change to bow to the prevailing mood. But it won't amount to much and it is questionable whether he has the authority to reshuffle key figures out of their posts without provoking a mass rebellion. If he sacks or demotes key figures will they go without kicking up a fuss or will we see a Geoffrey Howe moment in the coming days and weeks? If Brown manages to survive this he will almost certainly lead his party into the election. If he does he may well lead it into extinction. If they change leaders they will have to call an election, probably by the autumn and risk losing badly anyway. That is the calculation ministers and MPs will be making these next few days.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Don't Make Them Angry.

There's something deliciously comical about North Korea's week long tantrum in which they explode bombs on their own territory causing radiation and untold damage for them to clean up. They then ruthlessly and unapologetically fired half a dozen or more missiles into the sea.

I can't help but be reminded of that scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which a Judean crack suicide squad turns up to Brian's crucifixion in order to avenge these murders and then stab themselves in front of the bemused Romans. "That'll show them" says one of the crack suiciders as he breathes his last.

North Korea is telling the world that it will take additional defensive measures if the Security Council provokes them. Maybe they are going to stage one of those giant festivals in which hundreds of automaton dancers move in synch to lavish praise on their dear leader. This time however it will be a dance of defiance to the world. If we're not careful they'll stick their tongues out and use rude words.

If In Doubt: Make It Up

Newsflash from the International Bureau of Fantasy Figures: climate change is killing 300,000 people a year! This, predictably is being reported uncritically by our ever credulous media who like nothing better than a nice story delivered to their desks giving them gloom and doom headlines without the need to do any actual journalism.

Read further into this 'report' and it is actually just another computer model dressed up as fact. Those deaths are attributed to natural disasters like floods, heatwaves, storms and forest fires - so the weather in other words. How have they managed to link all of this to climate change? Well, they haven't. But they do it anyway. We have just gone through one of the coldest winters in decades - worldwide and not just locally and that goes largely unreported. Yet any storms, fires or flooding are immediately attributed to climate change. Evidence is not required.

So what are they claiming in this latest report?

  • If emissions are not brought under control in the next 25 years, we are told, 310 million people will suffer adverse health consequences. What the hell does that mean? What adverse consequences? And even if we managed to bring emissions 'under control' there would still be all of that carbon in the atmosphere. So bringing emissions under control would actually, if we accept their science, make no difference whatsoever to their predictions of doom and gloom. It doesn't disappear overnight just because we have all taken to holidaying at home and drive a Prius.
  • Economic losses 'due to climate change' today amount to $125 billion. How? What that is happening in the world that can be clearly and unambiguously linked to something as conveniently vague as 'climate change' is cumulatively costing that much money?
  • 20 million people will fall into poverty. How? How do they know? How does a slight increase in temperature force people into poverty?
  • 75 million people will be displaced by climate change. Again, in what way? How have they arrived at that figure? Read on and they do actually admit that this is total guesswork.
  • They even argue that civil unrest, due to weather related events may increase. So presumably thousands of people are going to take to the streets with their fists raised shouting 'we're hot and bothered and we're not going to put up with this anymore'. Perhaps they'll be demanding more power hungry airconditioning. What will our bearded friends have to say about that?

The ecomentalists and green meanies are ramping up their rhetoric and doom laden studies as we head towards the big meeting in Copenhagen in December. It is meaningless nonsense and may as well be written on the back of an envelope, recycled of course. But when it is reported uncritically and grabs headlines, it piles on the pressure on our hopeless and unquestioning politicians who will cobble together another deal and congratulate themselves for saving the planet. We should be thankful that politicians like Gordon Brown routinely fiddle the figures to make such deals look better. Unfortunately they will also raise our taxes, energy prices and price millions out of jobs in so doing. I wonder if that will make headlines.

Vote for Reform

As flipgate rumbles on and more and more MPs are forced out of their jobs, the focus is starting to shift to the very generous pay offs they will receive if they are allowed to stand down at the next general election rather than be forced out. The same MPs and government ministers who were recently so critical about the pension arrangements of disgraced bankers have been silent on this issue, content to keep their disgraced colleagues in the Commons rather than risk by-elections. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with this.

Thanks to the arcane procedures of the Commons, MPs are not allowed to resign in the usual way. They have to be disqualified from being members, either by being elevated to the peerage, dying (some would say these are much the same thing) or being disqualified by taking up an appointment which makes membership of the Commons constitutionally impossible. For those who want to leave voluntarily, the usual method is to apply for an office of the Crown, the ancient and meaningless role of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and the Manor of Northstead. Ridiculous but true.

Yet it is simply not true to say that MPs cannot be excluded. The House can vote to do this. It just never does so. Derek Conway, who was found guilty of the most appalling abuse of his staff expenses by employing his family for work they were not doing, continues to sit in the House, albeit having had the whip of the Conservative Party withdrawn. He was guilty of fraud but remains an honourable member. That is the closed shop mentality of our politicians, exposed in all its self serving venality.

Today we learn from The Guardian, that many Labour MPs, facing almost certain expulsion from the Commons at the hands of the electorate when we finally get a general election, are now applying to join the House of Lords. So, they'll be kicked out but will then nonchalantly swan their way back in again having also pocketed tens of thousands in compensation. No doubt this will include the likes of Jacqui Smith and any other errant ex ministers who are unable to persuade the people that they should be returned to Parliament in an elected capacity and so will bypass this inconvenient requirement completely.

The Conservatives are not blameless in this either. Yesterday, as David Cameron reluctantly accepted the resignation of Julie Kirkbride, he hinted that she might one day return. Will this be via the Lords too where she will also be able to sit alongside her errant husband? Don't bet against it.

It is abuses such as this which are going to make this story run and run. It is why public fury is unlikely to abate. The media are picking at the loose threads of our dysfunctional system and it is unravelling before our eyes. The parties are hinting at reforms but they are doing it in a self serving way with their talk of proportional representation, cuts in the number of MPs and so on. Yet for all their pious talk of unacceptable behaviour, the disciplining of MPs is going on behind closed doors and those MPs are still sitting in Parliament until the next election, an election which does not have to be called for nearly a year. It's not good enough.

There is talk about various reforms which will in future enable MPs to be recalled American style. This is a welcome reform. But it is not necessary for the present situation. If the party leaders were really as appalled by the behaviour of their errant MPs as they claim then they could do more than expel them from their parties. They could be expelled from the Commons. The fact that this rarely happens is immaterial. Parliament can do whatever it likes, as any first year law student knows. Surely the Conservatives in particular should be insisting that their resigning MPs should go now? They say they want a general election, well this is their chance to show some courage, dump those who have already said they are going and force by elections. This could even have the effect of shaming Gordon Brown into naming the day.

All the talk of reform is all well and good but the public has every right to be sceptical. This is why there is a strong chance there will be a good many independent MPs elected at the next election unless we get clear promises of reform and a change of behaviour. Yet even if such promises are included in manifestos past experience suggests this may not be enough to force these turkeys to vote for Christmas. The election of independent MPs may not be enough either. It may just create chaos and anarchy. Has the time come to create a reform movement to force change on our reluctant politicians? Unless they become a great deal more convincing about their new found zeal for reform, it will become the only option for a cynical and distrustful nation.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

ER

I'm just watching the last ever episode of ER. One forgets just how cutting edge and high quality this show was over the years. The sad thing is that, here in Britain, its audience has declined and so its last series was only shown on digital channels rather than on Channel 4 during its heyday. But that is the nature of TV.

I don't think it ever lost its quality. Its just that what made it seem so radical and cutting edge when it first hit our screens became standard across so much of the very best drama on television. Then of course the public is fickle. They always want what is new and exciting. ER managed to be that for a long time. This was a show which changed television and defined television. There had been hospital based shows before but this took new technology, top quality writing and a superb crew and cast and did something bold, innovative and dynamic to produce great drama. Eventually the opposition caught up.

Here in Britain we have our own hospital dramas including one based in the same setting. Yet Casualty, as it is still called, despite the fact that this is a name that was supplanted by Accident and Emergency years ago, has always been a poor copy. They did try to use a film type effect to make it look more like ER. But that wasn't what made ER so good. It was great characterisation, superb writing and acting and an energy our shows were never able to recreate. There were great moments that have made me cry rivers and laugh too. Great television should always leave you wanting more. ER ran for 15 seasons and won award after award. It leaves our screens at the right time before it outstays its welcome. But it will still leave a major gap and be fondly remembered.

Time Is Up

Julie Kirkbride has finally realised that the game is up, possibly after the intervention of David Cameron once again, and announced that she will stand down at the next election. This comes after an article in The Times in which she pleaded, somewhat unconvincingly, that she had to claim what she did for the sake of her family. She further claims that it never entered her mind that she was doing anything wrong by claiming money as she did to extend her home. That is the crux of the issue though isn't it. It should have entered her mind. Judgement, or the lack of it, is what flipgate is all about.

Margaret Moran has finally seen the light today too and is to stand down. Except she hasn't. In her resignation letter she claims that she is only standing down because the pressure is starting to affect her already poor health (maybe it was caused by the dry rot - there is a line of defence she might have tried). She claims to have done nothing wrong and to have acted in line with the advice of the always obliging Fees Office. So, since this broke, she has gone from claiming she needed to claim the money for her family life, to saying she will pay it back and then finally saying she will go but only because we are all being so beastly to her.

This is starting to become the theme for all MPs. The initial shock is now wearing off and now we are hearing the mealy mouthed pleading about how awfully they are being treated.

In some cases the media has been less than fair and is picking on some more than others. Many ministers have been let off the hook simply by laying low and refusing to engage with the allegations. Others have been pursued relentlessly and seem to have made matters worse when they actually came out and tried to defend themselves. Margaret Moran was one of the latter and her defence was so spectacularly inept that she sealed her fate. Andrew Mackay and Douglas Hogg fall into this category too. In Moran's case her claim was so clearly wrong and outside the letter and spirit of the rules it was verging on the criminal. Gordon Brown should have just told her to go immediately. That he is now relying on his secretive star chamber to decide these matters is just further dithering from this supremely weak and indecisive prime minister. He is doing the same with his errant ministers, probably because he knows that he is too weak to force them out. Brown is a bully who prefers to let others do his bullying for him.

This time next week Britain goes to the polls in the European and local elections. The country is in the mood to give this government a kicking. It remains to be seen how they treat the other main parties who have at least tried to address this issue in a more decisive and authoritative way.

Labour still shows every sign that they are trying to brazen out this scandal in the hope that it goes away. The secretive inquiries going on into the activities of their MPs proves this. It is Gordon Brown's default method, indeed it has been his first instinct all along since this first became news. This won't work. It hasn't worked. Brown has had to play catch up from day one because his first instinct is always to divert attention, call for inquiries and pretend he is taking action when he is in fact just playing for time. They have to get tough and make some people fall on their swords. No doubt we will see a reshuffle next week, once the electorate has given its verdict, in which he will offer up a few sacrificial sackings and then have yet another relaunch as he tries to limp on for a few more months while he waits, Micawber style, for something to turn up.

The country will vote next week and give this government and this prime minister a clear signal that it is time to go. The pressure will then become unrelenting for a general election. The case for one is now unanswerable and will only become more and more urgent. It is time for this disastrous prime minister to listen and take heed, just as Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran have reluctantly done today. If of course Brown is forced to go he will do so even less graciously than Margaret Moran. That is a given. Still, it will give those of us in the blogosphere plenty to write about.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Champions



Above you see me pictured with the European Cup. The picture was taken at the Noucamp, home of the team who have tonight won the same trophy again to become deserved champions of Europe. They were fantastic.

Now as a Liverpool supporter, I clearly wanted Barcelona to win. But I always have a soft spot for Barcelona anyway. It's a magnificent football club who play beautiful football in a fantastic stadium in a wonderful city. That they stuck it to Man Utd and totally outplayed them is just a bonus.

And one final word on United; all of the pundits have told us what a great team they are, yet look at the statistics and they have tended to come unstuck against the better teams this season whilst rolling over the lesser teams, particularly in England. This is how they won the Premier League. Nobody wins the championship by accident and they were the better team over the season. But head and shoulders above everyone else? I think not, and I'm confident that next season will prove otherwise. Early prediction: Liverpool to be champions.

Quack Medicine and the NHS

As we move into an era of enforced austerity due to the profligacy of this government, tough choices lie ahead. It is hard therefore not to react with incredulity to the announcement today that alternative therapies for lower back pain will soon be available on the NHS. As a sufferer myself I know how debilitating and miserable such pain can be. But lower back pain is, as a physiotherapist once told me, simply a case of evolution failing to keep up with human development. We do things with our backs they are simply not designed to do, walking upright for a start. It's also not the greatest piece of design. If the creationists are correct and we are the product of a designer, then he messed up. The agony I went through last year thanks to one of the discs he saw fit to put in our backs is testimony to that.

Amongst the so called natural remedies to be offered will be acupuncture. This is quackery pure and simple. I had a friend who studied for years to be an acupuncturist, learning all kinds of drivel about earth and fire and defining people's personalities in order to treat them. Acupuncture, if it works at all, is a placebo. Indeed there have been studies into back pain in which needles have been placed randomly or in the designated places according to this quack science. There was no material difference in outcomes.

The money the NHS is proposing to spend on this would be much better spent on improving physiotherapy facilities. Whilst I received excellent care from my surgeon and the nurses last year, the after care from physiotherapy was useless. It is particularly irritating to now read that money is to be wasted on acupuncture.

This is also a symptom of this government's reliance on quangos and other unaccountable bodies to make decisions which should be made by politicians. There are going to be hard choices to be made these next few years on health matters. It would be nice if those we elect could tell us why they are wasting money on voodoo medicine.

The Facts of Political Life

On the whole the Conservatives, and David Cameron in particular, are handling flipgate better than Labour. Gordon Brown's inconsistency over the claims of some of his ministers in particular is a subject that is going to continually haunt him until he stops dithering over it.

Yet Cameron is not immune to the charge of inconsistency. Last week he quite rightly told the likes of Viggers, Steen and Mackay that they had to go. Yet Andrew Mackay's wife, Julie Kirkbride, is hanging on. Why? She was part of the same expenses claims as her husband. They are equally to blame and should both pay the same price surely. If MPs are being forced out because of claims for a few thousand pounds on moats and duck houses, then surely having both of a family's homes paid for by the taxpayer is an open and shut case.

Julie Kirkbride and her supporters can complain about how unfair this all seems as much as they like, and they may have a point when it comes to her brother and sister's employment by the MP. But the central point is that her husband made claims which were, by his own admission, a grave error of judgement. She knew about it and thus approved it. QED.

Conservative Home has run a poll and it has come out overwhelmingly against Ms Kirkbride, and remember these are Conservative supporters. There is a petition running in her constituency which is attracting many signatures. The fact that this petition is being started by a rival political party is immaterial. The signatures on it are Ms Kirkbride's constituents and there are plenty of them. She has also been lying low and failing to defend herself which isn't helping either.

Whether or not Julie Kirkbride is being treated unfairly is immaterial. Public opinion is against her and thus she is unelectable, which is something of a job requirement for an MP. By clinging on she is just making matters worse. David Cameron should make another one of his early morning phone calls to her and point out the facts of political life. She has to go.

Get Real

I have to say I concur completely with Matthew Syed's piece in The Times about Alan Shearer and Newcastle United. No doubt Shearer will shortly be confimed as the latest through the revolving door of St James's Park. He will just make a disaster worse. Newcastle could easily turn into another Leeds United if they aren't careful.

What Newcastle need is a dose of reality. They are not a big club just because they have a huge and loyal following. They are the perpetual could bes and wannabes. They have a sense of entitlement that bears no relation to what they have achieved. In football you either need someone with vastly deep pockets, which Mike Ashley clearly does not have, or someone prepared to play the long game, invest wisely and be patient. Newcastle could and should be at the very least a club with the same aspirations as Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham. Instead they keep picking messiah figures and splurging cash on the likes of Michael Owen instead taking their time and building a team. They now find themselves in the Championship and about to appoint another manager who will take them to the promised land.

The Shearer appointment was always strange. He should, as Liverpool supporters cruelly told him a few weeks ago, have stayed on the tele. What are his qualifications for the job, other than his love for the club and his iconic status there? Presumably it was felt that, given he was powerless to bring in new players, he could inspire those who were available to him. This he singularly failed to do. Now he must slash the wage bill by despatching those players who are on Premier League salaries (more or less all of them) and recruit new players to cope with the different demands of the lower league. There is no indication that Shearer has any clue how to go about this.

Newcastle needs to start again, establish a proper business plan, clear out their wage bill and assume the worst, because getting out of the Championship will not be easy, even if Shearer turns out to be the managerial genius his legion of Geordie fans are assuming he will be. What they need is a Harry Redknapp type figure, someone who can wheel and deal, build a team and motivate players. They had the right idea when they approached Redknapp last year. Unfortunately he turned them down. But he or someone like him and a much needed bit of patience are all that can save this club now unless and until they find a Geordie billionaire willing to feed this mass delusion.

Protesting Too Much

It's all guesswork of course, but the increasingly desperate and bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea is looking more and more like a cover up for a political crisis there. We know Kim Jong Il is frail and ill and possibly gravely so. We know that their economy is a basket case. We know that the withdrawal of unconditional South Korean aid has irritated and angered them. But maybe they were more reliant on it than was supposed. This nasty, brutal and pathetic regime may be on the brink of a precipice of their own making and is resorting to threats in the hope of blackmailing its neighbours and the wider world.

This is a test for President Obama and the United Nations. It was always likely that Obama would face such a test early in his presidency. Can they hold their nerve? They should because there really isn't much to worry about. North Korea has nuclear weapons for certain but it is highly unlikely that they have the means to do anything with them other than rattle them belligerently in the hope of getting a reaction. Now they are throwing some other toys in the shape of missiles out of the pram for the same reason.

The best reaction from the world is to shake our heads sadly, like disappointed parents, and let them get on with it. Firing missiles into the sea just uses up more of their scarce resources and kills a few fish. Our reaction to such bizarre behaviour should be nothing worse than raised eyebrows and mocking laughter rather than the usual round of condemnations and new Security Council resolutions. In the past such behaviour has always won them concessions but now is the time for us to learn the error of our ways. Ignore them. Treat them with the contempt they deserve rather than appease them once more. Learn the lessons of history. Being ignored and regarded as irrelevant is what they fear most. They do not have the power, means or will to go through with their threats and the further they ratchet up those threats the greater will be their eventual humiliation when they have to back off.

This could be the beginning of the end for one of the strangest and most ridiculous regimes in history and we will have the luxury of watching it happen without firing a shot and without the need for cajoling China and Russia to behave responsibly for a change. It's a model for the future.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Not Far Enough

David Cameron's speech and essay for The Guardian this morning are welcome in so far as they go, but do they really go far enough? I would say not. It all seems rather vague to me, possibly deliberately so. Now it may well be that he is still feeling his way on this issue as are all politicians and is unwilling to be too specific given how many difficulties may present themselves, particularly on the vexed subject of Europe and human rights legislation. It's a lawyers minefield and he is probably wise to tread carefully.

But what about fixed term parliaments? What's complicated about that? That is something an incoming government could do immediately with a simple act of parliament. They could announce immediately, rather as Gordon Brown did when he immediately announced the independence of the Bank of England, that the next general election would be four years from the date of their taking power and that a bill would be passed as soon as possible to enact this. It would be a clear and unambiguous sign of change and of giving up an important power.

Now perhaps, looking at the matter legalistically, Cameron realises that there are complications to this issue. What if a national crisis arose? What if a hung parliament resulted and there was a need for elections within the four year time limit? Who would make that decision? These are all matters to be considered and included within the bill. The principle, however, is a simple one. Fixed term parliaments and removing the power of prime ministers to decide on the timing of elections would just bring us into line with the rest of the democratic world. Why not hand the matter over to the new beefed up Speaker they will shortly be electing? The Speaker rather than the prime minister would advise the Queen if necessary.

I welcome Cameron's commitment to more openness, abolition of the quangocracy, more power for Parliament and select committees and more power to local authorities. But he will need to go further on issues like a greater codification of our constitution or preferably a written one. The issue of the House of Lords also needs to be urgently addressed. This is an opportunity to be really radical and to surrender some real power to Parliament which this supposedly reforming government has consistently failed to do.

The government, of course, is struggling to know how to respond, other than to claim that they have already taken a lead on this, as Alan Johnson yesterday and Jack Straw today are ludicrously claiming. Gordon Brown has had nothing to say on the issue. If he is so keen on constitutional reform and more power for Parliament, why aren't we seeing it now when we had such a thin Queen's speech and MPs have little to do? And why is the Home Office, even now, ignoring the edicts of the European Court about DNA storage for those arrested but acquitted or not even charged? Why, instead of a vote in Parliament, is it trying to push this issue through on a statutory instrument? It's that kind of arrogance and disdain for Parliament which brings politics into disrepute.

One final thought on Alan Johnson's article yesterday, he is arguing that we need proportional representation. His method for bringing this about would be a referendum held at the same time as the next general election. In other words the current government, under an unelected prime minister, would be trying to force an irreversible reform on the next government for party political advantage. Unconstitutional?

Why Huff and Puff?



Why does the UN even bother talking about North Korea? China and Russia are never going to allow anything meaningful to be done about it through the Security Council for their own peculiar reasons, and so it all amounts to huffing and puffing without even a meaningful threat at the end of it. It's no wonder the North Koreans feel able to do as they please.

It's no use calling their actions unacceptable either, because we have no choice but to accept them. We cannot force them to behave in a civilised and responsible manner. We have even less leverage over this crazy, dysfunctional, tinpot regime than we do over Iran.

We have no clear idea why they are even doing what they are doing. Is it due to internal politics? Is it their usual infantile attention seeking? Is it brinksmanship? Is it their own peculiar way of negotiating for supplies and aid? Is it them attempting to look strong because they know they are hopelessly weak? Is it paranoia? Is it a combination of all of the above plus a few more besides?

Conventional diplomacy is never going to work with North Korea. Even if they can be bribed to the negotiating table they will inevitably renege the moment it suits them. The best guess is that the withdrawal of South Korean aid is hurting them and so they are reacting the only way they know - with bluster and threats. But it is just bluster. This is a poor and pathetic nation ruled over by a sly, dishonest, paranoid despot who is feeling the years and all of that good living that only his country's elite can ever experience catching up on him.

But I strongly suspect that we are overreacting to this situation because of the dreaded atomic weapons being tested and the memories it brings back of the cold war. It is by no means clear that DPRK has the means to even deliver such weapons just because they are able to test them. And just how strong is their army in a nation that cannot feed itself? That's why they feel the need to show the world that they have the ultimate deterrent. They also need, as all repressive regimes do, an enemy to unite against, especially when people are starving.

Our best hope is to wait for Kim Jong Il to finally either fall from power or to die. In the meantime ignore them as we would a cranky toddler. If they can afford to spend what little wealth they have on nuclear weapons and rockets then they clearly don't need our help and aid. President Obama has already promised them and others the hand of friendship if they will unclench their fists, an offer which seems to have caused confusion amongst many who need the great satan as an enemy. North Korea has not only clenched its fist but is now waving it aggressively at the world and the US in particular. If they won't play nice then we should refuse to play at all. There really isn't that much to worry about here. We should just condemn, tut a little and then continue to ignore them.

China is their one ally and the reason that the latest UN words remain just words. Let them deal with their bellicose and irritating neighbour since they persistently frustrate any other attempts to do so. And let them feed them if necessary. Ultimately that is the only way to bring this silly little nation to heel.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Nuns and Vertiginous Cheese

Whatever may be going wrong with our country's economy and politics, at least we still have the great British sense of humour. Today, Bank Holiday Monday, this has been proven again as 17 British men dressed as nuns were taken to court in Greece for offending the Catholic Church. That's the trouble with these foreigners, no sense of humour. Everyone knows that men dressed as nuns is damned funny. I'm sure in Crete this is taken most seriously. But here in Britain, where it has featured widely in newspapers and 24 hours news channels, it has prompted much hilarity.

Also today we had the annual spectacle of the Gloucestershire Cheese race in which several dozen men and women chase a large piece of cheese down a very steep hill cheered on by several thousand spectators who applaud, whoop, wince, call ambulances and cry out 'you silly sods' as the assembled hordes literally fall over themselves in pursuit of the milk based delicacy. Yet this is an example of cultures coming together rather than clashing, possibly due to the absence of the Catholic Church in the mix. Thanks to YouTube this annual event has now become international with several competitors flying thousands of miles to take part. It makes one rather proud.

Taxpayer Funded Silver Linings

Whilst flipgate has of course done immense damage to the reputation of politics in this country, it is possible to discern a very noticeable silver lining to the cartoon style cloud which has been hanging over the heads of so many of our honourable ladies and gentlemen.

This scandal may of course be the catalyst for much needed constitutional change. But, further than that, the fresh wind of transparency is blowing out some very hardy and obstinate cobwebs from the many dusty corners of Westminster. Not only have we now seen the back of the worst Speaker in decades, the scandal seems to be putting the final nails in the coffin of the worst and most disastrous prime minister in at least a couple of generations.

And the news just keeps getting better. Last week Steen and Viggers waved goodbye so as to spend more time with their envy inducing large houses and ducks; today Mr and Mrs Expenses themselves, Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton, are heading off to their lavishly appointed, tax payer funded retirements. David Cameron must be thinking that all of his birthdays have come at once, which coincidentally was how the Wintertons probably felt every time they made their way to the Commons Fees Office. Good riddance.

Changing the Subject

Alan Johnson, supposedly the great hope of the Labour Party according to some, has a solution to our present woes in an article for today's Times: Proportional Representation. What in god's name does that have to do with anything? Is this the answer to some great clarion call from the public? Are a substantial number of our MPs guilty of ripping off the taxpayer because of the way they were elected?

Mr Johnson now wishes to resurrect a PR system first proposed ten years ago but shelved owing to the fact that Labour were doing very nicely under the present system. A cynic might suggest that they would now like to introduce a system that would be fairer owing to the fact they are in grave danger of becoming a minority party themselves. Hilariously, he tells us that Labour is the only party to win under the present first past the post system and then explore a different system to that which got them into power. It's that kind of reinvention of history that sets apart our top politicians and makes them so admired by the public.

Warming to his theme of reinvention, Johnson informs us, loyally, that the prime minister is leading on the issue of constitutional change. I have to admit that this has entirely escaped my notice. But then Gordon Brown claims to have been leading on the issue of MPs expenses, and so no doubt he has convinced himself and others that he has been talking about the new buzz subject of constitutional reform all along. It's just that we have been paying insufficient attention.

Why PR now? Because it would adversely affect the Tories. It's another dividing line. It may as well be a flashing neon dividing line. It's desperate and irrelevant. Will these people never learn? By all means talk about reform of our constitution and spark a debate. But let's do so during an election campaign, not by pretending to have discovered new principles about a fair voting system to serve as a distraction. This government has no right to implement any reforms under present circumstances. What it does have the right to do is call an election and debate them as much as it likes. That is a measure we can all get behind.

Cheap

Goverment ministers have been using accountants to do their income tax returns for them. Fair enough you might say, given how fiendishly complicated the tax system has become under this government. The catch? They have been charging the cost of their accountants to the taxpayer. So, not only have they been flipping their homes to maximise their allowances and avoiding paying tax on the resultant gains, they have even had the cheek to get the taxpayer to pay for the advice enabling them to do so. That one of them is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, is beyond satire.

Oh, and Ed Balls, the man who hopes to be the next leader of the Labour Party, has reclaimed the cost of poppie wreaths for remembrance ceremonies. You have to be a special kind of cheap and petty shit to do that sort of thing. It's arguable I suppose that such expenses are fairly unique to our elected representatives, most of us would not incur such expenses after all. But to reclaim something like that is tasteless apart from anything else. How mean do you have to be to consider reclaiming that? To be an MP is supposed to be a privilege and an honour. For some, however, it just seems to be tax deductible.

Is this sort of thing completely unacceptable, Mr Brown? Are any of these miscreants ever going to come out and defend themselves or are they just keeping their heads down hoping that all of this will go away? Could we have an election now please?

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Digital Deficit

Is it me or is Iain Dale's blog becoming more and more about Iain Dale and less about politics? Lately he seems to be talking increasingly about his many and various appearances on TV and radio and about his new radio show. Clearly Mr Dale is a media wannabe and would secretly like to get a gig on 5 Live. He's certainly not being subtle about his aspiration. Tonight he's even asking for advice about setting up an ISDN Line. I think you're a bit late Iain. It's a technology that is being phased out and is now only used by real broadcasters as this article reveals.

Of course these are blogs and we are free to write about whatever comes to mind. At least Mr Dale has not yet begun referring to himself in the third person like another well known blogger. That, I suspect, may well be a sign of an ego out of control.

I recently made a media appearance commenting on the resignation of Michael Martin last week. It was not on the BBC or even on Sky News. I can report, however, that I may well be about to become very big in Australia.

Candidates for Change

In another very astute and clever move, David Cameron this morning announced that he is to reopen the Conservative candidate list. He is effectively inviting the sort of people galvanised by the expenses scandal to join with him rather than snipe from the sidelines or stand as independents or minority party candidates.

I have long thought that this crisis represents an opportunity for Cameron. He clearly wants to move the party away from its fusty image and flipgate has already enabled him to remove some of the older generation of MPs who detract from his rebranding. Now, with this new announcement, he could even bring in a different kind of candidate. Its an opportunity to bring in younger people, more women, more ethnic minorities, the reform minded, those who have previously had less interest in politics but have forged successful careers elsewhere - the sort of people who would go into politics to do public service, to apply their experience for the good of us all. That is what politics used to be about until it became professionalised. Cameron can replace the squirearchy currently occupying the Conservative backbenches with modern Conservatives and thus enhance and even accelerate his remaking of the party.

Cameron has played a blinder on this issue. He has left Gordon Brown trailing hopelessly in his wake. If he now makes a commitment to genuine reform of Parliament, politics and government he can cement his image and again leave Labour playing catch up. They are apparently considering all kinds of bold promises about reform but it is so much harder for them to do so convincingly when they have had twelve years in power and chose to maintain the status quo.

Cameron can capture the public mood and is increasingly doing so. I was already considering joining the party. Maybe I'll go even further now. Many will be thinking the same.

Facing The New Reality

The next time that the Prime Minister or any member of his government assert that, rather than demanding an immediate election, 'what the public wants is for us to get on with the business of government' they should be taken forcibly to Westminster Square and have rotten fruit chucked at them for five minutes.

What more do they need to convince them that the public is furious and wants, indeed demands, the right to make all politicians accountable? Politicians of all parties need to explain themselves, repay money where appropriate and if necessary retire. The best way of accomplishing this, of galvanising MPs who still don't get it is to call an election. We have had opinion polls, leading articles in newspapers, various celebrities threatening to stand against the worst offending MPs, vox pops on radio and tv, public meetings in which MPs have been heckled and looming local and Euro elections in which Labour in particular are going to get a kicking. Yet the government is even now talking about relaunches and reshuffles and is even playing politics over the election of a new Speaker. Will they never learn? Does this hopeless Prime Minister have a death wish?

When is Gordon Brown going to face reality? It is no longer up to you Mr Brown. If you insist on hanging on you will only be making matters worse. Like the Speaker last week you cannot cling on and hide behind the rules because the rules are changing. You have the legal right to hang on to power but you do not have the moral right. The world has changed these last two weeks. You must change with it or be destroyed by the fallout.

A Matter of Life and Death

Okay, let us for a moment move away from life and death issues, or at least whether the careers of British politicians live or die and on to something much more important - football.

Over the course of this week, the football season comes to a close in various ways and on various stages. Today there is the culmination of the Premier League season which will in many cases amount to just going through the motions of completing the fixture list before summer holidays. In other cases there will be a life and death struggle for teams, mostly from the north east this year, fighting relegation to the less gilded pastures of the Championship where life is uncertain, less glamorous and considerably less well remunerated.

Also this weekend we have the strange annual spectacle of the play off finals at Wembley. League tables do not lie we are constantly being told. The teams that finish at the top of their respective tables, after nine months and forty or more games of hard slog, deserve to be there on merit. This seems entirely reasonable and logical. Yet those who finish in positions 3 to 6 must raise their weary bodies for three more games and play off for the final promotion place. This spectacularly unfair system (especially to whoever finished 3rd) then contrives to create the most lucrative prize for the winner of a football match - Monday's play off final - in the entire world for teams that could not even finish first and second. Their reward for this is to play at Wembley and be handed the prize of entry into the Premier League along with £40 million. It's a system that has been in place for many years but it still to my mind seems odd.

It also rather overshadows the traditional setpiece finale to the football season, the FA Cup Final, which was once a day when the nation got to watch the one and only live football match on TV we ever got to see amidst the sort of razzmatazz and celebration that now surrounds the Superbowl. Well, sort of. Okay it was nothing like the Superbowl. But it was the best 1970s British approximation of razzmatazz. Now, with live football ten a penny, or actually considerably more expensive than that for a Sky subscription, we get to see live footie every weekend. The one good thing to come out of this downgrading of the final is that the finalists no longer feel the need to release a novelty pop record sung by 11 tuneless men to commemorate their achievement and wring more cash out of their presumably tone deaf fans.

The Premier League of course was won by Manchester United with Liverpool finishing close behind. It is simply not true to say, as some have, that United were far and away the best team and in saying this I am not echoing the rather churlish response of my club's manager, Rafa Benitez, to the triumph of his bete noire, Alex Ferguson. United have won more games and so they deserve to be called champions and worthy champions. Yet Liverpool ran them close and beat them twice when the two teams met. Liverpool will finish having lost fewer games and scored more goals. It was a close run thing. Next season we will be even closer. It is just to be hoped that next season Rafa forgets about his rivalry with Sir Alex and lets his team's football do the talking. They have been doing so with a great deal of eloquence, not least at Old Trafford in that 4-1 victory.

These days, apart from the Premier League itself, the biggie is the Champions League final, an occasion which has lately been dominated by English teams to the considerable chagrin of the rest of Europe and UEFA in particular. This year will not be an all English final, although it probably should have been had the Chelsea/Barcelona game been refereed by someone with eyes. What we will get is a purists final. Manchester United versus Barcelona ought to be a game to make fans salivate. It ought to be a fitting end to a great season.

And that's it. Three months of boredom follows slightly offset by the visit of the Aussies for the Ashes over the summer, something else for which we now have to pay Sky. We will have the constant speculation about which player is signing for which team and the annual scramble by players who have just been relegated and so presumably bear some responsibility for that relegation, moving, if they can possibly manage it, to where the grass is greener and lusher and subsidised by Sky's billions.

That's what we'll be missing once that last ball is kicked. Tears are going to be shed, probably by Newcastle United fans more than anyone, and for a few days all will seem hopeless until the hope engendered by a new season kicks in. That's football. I miss it already.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Purge Continues

The Spectator is reporting that Andrew Mackay, after a conversation with David Cameron, is to stand down. Good. About time.

This will be painful for Cameron but necessary. It was a step he had to take.

It was all very well and impressive that he stepped up straight away and ordered his top team to repay money and apologise. He has been impressively forthright in dealing with the Anthony Steens and Peter Viggers figures who have caused such embarrassment to themselves and their party. But Mackay was probably the most egregious case of Tory wrongdoing. His actions, whether deliberate or merely mistaken, were an example of something that looked suspiciously like fraud. If, as he claimed, they were just a grave misjudgement then someone capable of that level of misjudgement ought automatically to be disqualified from public life which is all about judgement.

David Cameron is quite rightly calling for an immediate election. But he has to be ready for that election by cleaning up his party and purging the worst offenders. Mackay was the worst Tory offender so far. He had to go.

Fresh Mandate Required

In order to govern Britain a Prime Minister and his government need a Commons majority and to do so within the time limits set by statute. As such Gordon Brown is within his rights to set his face against the clarion calls for an immediate election in the wake of Flipgate.

Yet it is not as simple as that. Brown has been compared by many to John Major who also clung on until the bitter end before facing the inevitable in an election in 1997. Major led an unpopular party facing meltdown. He had lost authority and was the subject of constant sniping from within his party and even his Cabinet. The same is true of Brown today. But his situation is even worse. Flipgate has affected dozens of MPs including members of his own government. There is huge and mounting anger against MPs whose arrogance still takes the breath away despite us now being in the third week of this crisis. This isn't just about a government that has lost the confidence of the people. That is not uncommon. This is about a whole Parliament that has lost that confidence.

In just over a week's time there will be elections that Labour are sure to do badly in. They will attempt to spin it as being typical of a mid term election and that all parties have been punished over the expenses scandal. This is patent nonsense. We are not in mid term. We are at the end. Previous parliaments under this government have been brought to an end after four years because they knew they would win. It also remains to be seen how badly the other parties are punished but it remains irrelevant. The public elects individual MPs and they are now demanding the right to do so again having lost faith in those they sent to Westminster in 2005.

Gordon Brown has lost all authority. We are told that he will have yet another relaunch after the elections next week and reshuffle his cabinet. Yet will he be able to move key figures or will they openly revolt. There are already signs that many are digging their heels in and refusing to be moved or to countenance others being moved. A prime minister unable to shuffle his ministers has lost one of his most important powers.

Brown claims that we cannot call an election now because we are in the midst of an economic crisis as well as a constitutional one. Yet this is nonsense too. Not only have other leading countries held elections (America held an election when banks were still in grave danger of collapse) but a strong and freshly elected government with a clear mandate is what is needed in such crises as President Obama has shown. Is a prime minister unable to reshuffle his cabinet the man to lead us out of a recession? Does he have the authority to make any major decisions which will quell market anxiety?

The case for an election is unanswerable. We need one to purge our Parliament and renew it. We need one to give a prime minister (whoever he is) the authority to deal with our constitutional and economic crisis. Only an election can give that authority and deal with these twin crises. Do we have to march on Westminster to get it?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Good Intentions

It has been pointed out to me that Labour have been responsible for more constitutional reform than I have given them credit for: devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the new mayoralty and assembly in London and other mayoralties elsewhere. I concede the point. I did point out that they had introduced Freedom of Information and of course human rights legislation as adjuncts to our constitution.

Yet at the same time this is the government that has centralised so much, further sidelined Parliament, handed over yet more power to Europe, created hundreds of unaccountable quangos spending billions of our money and politicised the civil service in a way that has been unprecedented.

I accept that this is a government that came to power with many worthy intentions but, as so often, once in power they often had second thoughts and found the principles of opposition rather more cumbersome once in government. Devolution was enacted early on. It's most unlikely the government that so steadfastly refused us the referendum we were promised on Lisbon would now voluntarily transfer power away.

This is why this crisis is such an historic opportunity for change. Public anger demands action and we can demand change to quell that anger through promises written into party manifestos. Many of the changes being proposed will in fact make strong government more difficult. That is the price of democracy. Too much power has been transferred from Parliament to the executive. It is time to demand some rebalancing.

Just Go

Andrew Mackay has tonight had a meeting in his constituency to try and explain himself and his frankly fraudulent second and third home claims. This was a good move. Unfortunately for him but not for democracy he then came out and claimed that he was given mostly support by those present only to be contradicted by many who had been present. His attempt to spin this just makes him look worse and indeed foolish.

David Cameron has largely reacted well to this crisis but Mackay and wife have to go. What they did was indefensible whether or not they pay back the money. They should be told that they must withdraw their candidacy at the next election. Mackay is close to Cameron and no doubt this will be a wrench. But he has behaved dishonourably and arguably criminally. He has no place in a purged House of Commons.

Vision for the Future

First there was denial, then there was defiance, then there was faux contrition and now comes the anger and whingeing. Our MPs, they tell us, are the victims of a terrible conspiracy. These selfless public servants, forced to survive on such pitifully low salaries, are the subject of a McCarthyite witchhunt.

The likes of Anthony (big house) Steen, Sir Peter (duckhouse) Viggers and Ben (no mortgage) Chapman are heading off into the political sunset complaining piteously that they have done nothing wrong, that their claims were approved or that they are victims of jealousy. What right does the public have to pry into their private lives Mr Steen asked yesterday. None whatsoever chum provided we don't pay for it. You are free to spend your salary on whatever legal activity you wish and have a house of whatever size you choose surrounded by as many floating duck houses as you think reasonable. What you are not entitled to do is fund your sybaritic lifestyle via an allowance system which is supposed to facilitate your duties as an MP.

The fact of the matter is that few had ever heard of Anthony Steen or Peter Viggers until his fowl claims became public. I suspect that this included many who live in their constituencies. Mr Steen is a symptom of a broken and corrupt system full of MPs whose role is to turn up, do as they are told and not get in the way of the government or the leaders of their party. It is the Anthony Steens of this political world who are responsible for the cynicism with which such a vast section of our population view that political world. I always vote. I watch the political coverage. I sit up on election nights and pore over the resuls. Most don't see the point. What changes? they ask. Sadly, as things stand, they are quite correct and I am utterly wrong.

Last night, on the BBC's This Week, the historian David Starkey argued that real and radical reform was needed to fix a system that has evolved over time to suit the establishment. We need, he said, a proper separation of powers, a directly elected Prime Minister with ministers appointed directly by him or her and who do not sit in Parliament. Parliament should have two elected houses with far fewer members but beefed up powers including committees with real power to hold governments to account. It should be purely a legislature. In other words we should follow the American model, a model which, for all its flaws, has proper checks and balances and is truly democratic.

I agree with everything that Starkey said. It is that kind of reform and that alone that can fix this mess we are in. It is that kind of reform which will see Parliament reassert itself. It is that kind of reform which will galvanise the electorate and see the kind of enthusiasm for politics as was seen when Barack Obama became president. It is that kind of reform which would prevent someone like Gordon Brown plotting and smearing his way into power without ever having to face election even in his own party.

Such reforms could of course see the end of the monarchy but this crisis has illustrated just how useless that institution is. Buckingham Palace has had no role because it has no legitimacy. It should be consigned to history in the same way that our entire broken system should be consigned to history.

Will the parties be willing to be this bold? It's too late for Labour now to have such a damascene conversion. They had their chance and huge majorities which would have enabled them to do as they wished. Instead they chose to embrace the convenience of our present system and even made it worse. They abolished most of the hereditary peers but then stalled on further reform of the House of Lords for fear of curtailing their own power. They tinkered at the edges of the constitution but left most of it intact for the same reason. They further emasculated Parliament, handed power to unelected quangos and to Europe and ignored demands for a referendum to prevent them from doing so. Any promises for constitutional reform from Labour should be met with a hollow laugh.

Now is the time for the other parties, especially the Conservatives who may need to change their name, to show that not only do they 'get it' but that they are prepared to lead rather than merely follow public opinion. This is the opportunity for the mother of all rebrandings starting with the despatching of the likes of Anthony Steen. By embracing the need for urgent constitutional reform they could show at a stroke that they truly are no longer the nasty party or the rich man's party but a modern centre right party prepared to do things that are good for the country. Such reforms would make the business of government more difficult and complicated. But in so doing they would go down in history as being true visionaries, men and women of principle prepared to make changes not for short term electoral advantage but to the advantage of succeeding generations.

In America the founding fathers are still venerated for their vision and foresight. Wouldn't it be nice if our politicians who sit in what is supposed to be the mother of parliaments could show a similar kind of vision and selflessness rather than feathering their duck houses.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Elbow Win

Congratulations to Elbow, my current favourite band. They have today won two Ivor Novello awards for the singles Grounds for Divorce and the anthemic One Day Like This. Very well deserved. I heartily recommend their multi award winning album The Seldom Seen Kid from which these songs came. It deserves all the praise it has been getting.

Getting Queasy Over Queasing

Yesterday Gordon Brown told us that he could not in good conscience call an election now because chaos would result. Tory spending cuts, he claimed, would lead to disaster. Today chaos has started and he is directly to blame.

Standard & Poors, the ratings agency, has downgraded Britain's credit status from stable to negative. This is essentially a warning that they are unconvinced by last month's Budget. They are watching and ready to take the unprecedented step of removing our AAA rating unless government, probably another government, takes more convincing and realistic steps to deal with the debt in the medium term. We're not there yet. But this is a clear shot across the bows.

At the moment the government is still managing to sell all of our gilts. But that is because they are selling them to themselves via the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme. This cannot go on forever. As I warned when this policy was started and again when it was extended earlier this month, there is a real danger that turning off that tap will create another crisis just when the economy is beginning to stabilise. It was and is a dangerous and foolhardy policy which is storing up enormous problems for the future and it is by no means the distant future.

There is another danger: two weeks today the country goes to the polls in local and European elections. Gordon Brown and his government are sure to get a kicking. His response to this will be to reshuffle his Cabinet. Will he move the Chancellor and install someone like Ed Balls who will be more willing to splurge cash in a desperate attempt to cling to power? Nothing would surprise me.

Even if we are willing to wait for an election while Gordon Brown deals in his confused and contradictory way with his MPs' and ministers' expenses claims, we should be demanding he calls one immediately before he inflicts further damage on our public finances. His increasing desperation risks creating a crisis of confidence in our country's creditworthiness. In a bygone and more honourable age that would have led to the fall of a government. With Gordon Brown it may just lead to one more desperate throw of the dice that we can ill afford. We need an election. Now.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Macavity Was There

Hilariously the Labour Chief Whip, Nick Brown, is blaming the establishment for bringing down the Speaker. So who are the establishment if not the party that has been in government for the last 12 years and who fixed it for Martin to be Speaker when it should really have been the turn of a Conservative MP? Is not the Speaker of the House of Commons the establishment too? After all this is a position hundreds of years older than that of Prime Minister.

The fact of the matter is that Martin would still be in position had it not been for the government. They saw the writing on the wall and made their calculation that he had to go. They were right. That they are now trying to spin it the other way is ridiculous. They tried to save Martin but ultimately had to bow to pressure, that is what is sticking in their craw. Brown hates that.

Gordon Brown was seen going into the Speaker's residence on Monday night, the night before the resignation. There is no record of what was said between the two men but we can pretty easily imagine a great deal of it. He is now trying once again to rewrite history and do his Macavity act. But this time Macavity was there, we know damn well he was.

Caveat for Cable

One small caveat to my earlier declaration for Frank Field to be the next Speaker. I assume that the estimable Mr Field is willing to let his name go forward. Others who would be equally well qualified have ruled themselves out. Among them is one outstanding candidate, Vince Cable, who today has the backing of The Times. If he were willing he would be difficult to beat. It would also be a signal to the public that the Commons is determined to remake itself.

Cable is a respected, nay venerated figure. He is also a Lib Dem. Would it not be a noble gesture and a sign of sincerity in tackling the Commons' malaise for Tory and Labour MPs to set aside their tribalism and give the job to a member of a third party? It was such tribalism that foisted Michael Martin on us. That's as compelling an argument for real change as can be imagined.

If Vince is willing then the Commons should show itself able to set aside its traditional rivalries and do the right thing.

Efficiency Costs

President Obama yesterday set America on a path to more fuel efficient vehicles that do at least 35mpg. This is a sensible move whether or not you agree in the theory of man made global warming. America has long been worried about its dependence on foreign oil and the resultant consequences on its foreign policy. More fuel efficient cars and a determination to wean the country off traditional gas guzzlers is a pragmatic response.

It does present further problems for the American auto industry however. It is an industry which has long been geared to give the customers what they wanted - giant SUVs and the like, powered by unsophisticated and inefficient engines. Now the government is demanding a sea change. This suggests further trouble ahead. It isn't as if the technology doesn't exist. It does and in abundance throughout the rest of the world. Other manufacturers in Europe and Japan have long been squeezing greater efficiency and power out of the internal combustion engine. 35 mpg is by no means uncommon in the majority of cars on British roads. Those manufacturers will consequently have an enormous competitive advantage when exporting cars to America without the need for vast R & D costs loaded on to the consumer. The one saving grace for American manufacturers is that their European operations have had to compete with such technology and so some is available off the shelf. Perhaps GM shouldn't be selling off their European operation after all. They might need it.

The Election Question

PMQs today and, as expected, Cameron went big on the need for an election. Gordon Brown has no real answer to this and it showed. He tried to paint himself as the leader getting on with the business of government and ready to talk about the real issues but it was pretty feeble stuff. He told GMTV this morning (notably he is unwilling to put himself up for interview against one of the more robust inquisitors like Jon Snow, John Humphries or Jeremy Paxman) that an election now would result in chaos - that is a scandalous thing for a Prime Minister to say. Is this a democracy or not?

The fact of the matter is that we are living through an unprecedented crisis, Brown is an unelected prime minister with only a few months to go before he has to call an election. The public are furious with a large percentage of MPs on both sides of the house and want an election to clean the place up. By holding out against this purely for reasons of self preservation Brown is frustrating the clear will of the British people and is only making matters worse. As I recommended the other day, if he had any sense at all he would set out plans to clean up the Commons and signal that he would go to the country in September. Now Cameron has called for an election and his knee jerk response is to refuse anything that his opposite number calls for.

With the local and European elections just a fortnight away Brown and Labour are heading for disaster. He has again missed the opportunity to look statesmanlike and principled. Brown is heading inexorably towards disaster.

Update:

According to Guido Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, may have given the game away that an election is planned for the late summer or autumn. If this is the case then why don't they say so? They could get some credit for doing so. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that they need to sort out the mess over MPs expenses first, deselect those who need to be deselected and find replacements. This would make an autumn (probably October) election the first viable date. The public and media would probably accept that. Maybe this is the current thinking but they want to keep their options open. The risk to that strategy is that demands for an election will become more and more strident and they may be forced into that course without being able to take credit for doing the right thing. Bow to the inevitable Mr Brown. The country needs an election. You might get a little credit for doing the right thing for the country rather than your party if you just call it now or soon.

No Quango Required

Yesterday, in what he considered a radical reform, the Prime Minister proposed that MPs expenses be contracted out to an outside body. Today the backlash is beginning and I am inclined to agree with the dissenters like Iain Dale and Dan Hannan. Why is such a body necessary? This scandal has proven that all is actually needed is not yet another layer of bureaucracy but openness and accountability. The rules were never enough on their own. The recommendation was always that MPs should consider how their expenses claims would look if they got into the hands of their local paper (if such a thing still exists). If a cast iron commitment is given, as it has been by the Tories, to publish all expenses claims online as they are made then MPs will think twice before submitting claims. Brown's standard response to everything is inquiries, quangos and committees. It's seldom the answer except from a narrow political perspective to take the heat off. It's certainly not the answer here. If a deal has been done with the other parties they should think again.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Systemic Abuse

Gordon Brown is giving his press conference. He has agreed with his fellow party leaders, we are told, to set up an independent body to regulate MPs expenses.

He has followed David Cameron again by advising MPs to go before their constituents and explain themselves. He had a me me moment later on in a forlorn attempt to persuade us that he is taking a lead on this issue but it's wholly unconvincing and just makes him look rather desperate - his default state now since this scandal broke.

I think he has also inadvertently answered the question of what 'defying the rules' means. He tried to avoid it by trying to push it away to the NEC but, when asked about Hazel Blears, he specifically said that she had paid the money back and that her actions were within the rules and that the system is to blame. So there is your answer. Gordon Brown is clearly not about to sack any ministers.

Asked about an election he tried to claim that this was not the solution and that the system needed change not the personnel. It's not the system, Prime Minister. If it was the system then all 646 MPs would have flipped addresses, claimed for bathrobes and giant television sets and dry rot. But they didn't. Some could see that this was wrong. Other leaders have gone beyond the rules and drawn a line in the sand. The Prime Minister will not do this. His answer to everything is committees, inquiries and new bureaucracy. That is not taking a lead however often he tries to persuade us of his radicalism on this issue. This is why we need an election. He is sure to be pressed on this at PMQs tomorrow.

Soundbite History

History in 35 seconds for our soundbite age. The Speaker has told us he is standing down on 21st June and added nothing. He was probably wise to do so especially given his proven inability these last couple of weeks to deliver anything longer. It now means that the jockeying for position begins to be the next Speaker. There are some suggestions that an interim figure such as Anne Widdecombe should be appointed, although she was someone who voted to maintain the status quo and so how appropriate that would be is questionable. I don't see why we need an interim figure. We need a fearless reformer who can be a powerful figure for reform and the restoration of public confidence.

For the record I think it should go to a major and respected figure regardless of party affiliation. My choice would be Frank Field.

Historic Opportunity

On the whole I think David Cameron has played a blinder over flipgate. He has turned what could have been a disastrous reminder of the 90s sleaze into a demonstration of his leadership abilities.

One area in which he did slip up however was over the role of the Speaker. From a constitutional perspective he was quite right to avoid calling for Martin's head. But, as Nick Clegg pointed out when he took the brave step to call for Martin's departure, this is the kind of arcane, antediluvian consideration which party leaders ought to be consigning to history. This is history in the making that we are seeing here. It is an opportunity to change our political system and sweep away these ancient and often meaningless conventions. The status quo is what created this mess.

On the whole the Speaker should be above the political fray. But Michael Martin had become part of the problem and Cameron should have said so.

I'm not going to repeat my post from yesterday but the point remains the same. We have here an opportunity. The next election is going to be fought to an unprecedented extent on the issue of reform of British politics. Labour came to power promising that reform and have tinkered at the edges, although to be fair they did introduce Freedom of Information legislation even if they then tried to exempt themselves from it. Now the parties are going to have to promise real reform and proper accountability. This may be an election in which we talk about the constitution, reform of the House of Lords, reform of the electoral process itself and so much more that would normally make the public yawn and change channels. This could be one of those moments that will define and shape our nation for decades to come. It's a time for vision and bravery. It is not a time to observe outdated conventions.

Speaker Out

So, Michael Martin is to resign as Speaker. Quite right too. Dependent upon what he says this afternoon to the Commons, he can still come out of this with some dignity. He should just say that he recognises that a new broom is required to win back the confidence of Parliament and the public as a new and more transparent system is created. A new Speaker will be required to preside over a new look system. He is therefore stepping aside for the good of the House. It's spin of course but it would be churlish and ungenerous to criticise him any more now that he is doing the right thing.

Some Labour MPs are however reacting with their usual chippiness. Martin is not being made a scapegoat. But he was in charge of this system. His should be the first head to roll over what is an unprecedented scandal and crisis. But it should be one of many.

Gordon Brown has today come out and said that his MPs will not be allowed to stand again if they have defied the rules. Yet what does that mean? Weasel words again? Most have not defied the rules. What they have done is exploited them and bent them in a wholly disreputable way. This includes ministers and senior Cabinet Ministers. Is he going to punish the likes of Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty, Geoff Hoon, Alistair Darling? They have not 'defied the rules' but they have clearly and egregiously bent them in a way that few outside politics could get away with.

For the Conservatives, Douglas Hogg has today announced that he will not stand at the next election. This is welcome and sets a kind of precedent. His claim for the dredging of his moat has captured the imagination not because of the sum involved necessarily but because it is so clearly and definitively an abuse of the spirit of the rules. Hogg is also very much an old school Tory grandee, an uncomfortable reminder of the Tory past. David Cameron will be secretly or perhaps not so secretly delighted to see the back of him. He ought however to be saying goodbye to one or two others a little closer to him including Andrew Mackay and his wife.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Demanding an Election

Prior to the debacle in the Commons, David Cameron launched his party's European election campaign and again addressed flipgate. He continues to make the running on this issue.

He made some announcements that move things on substantially:

First he detailed the procedures that Conservative members can invoke to deselect MPs guilty of abusing the expenses system. He then recommended a path of openness by holding meetings in constituencies to enable MPs to explain and justify themselves to their constituents who could then choose, if they were unconvinced, to begin that deselection process. He promised that MEPs would sign a pledge committing to be open and accountable about their expenses claims. It is to be hoped that this is in future extended to MPs and indeed peers.

Most notably of all though he called for an immediate general election as recommended here and elsewhere this last week or so. As Cameron pointed out, many will say he would say that wouldn't he, but it is the only real way to detox this scandal. It would concentrate minds as I wrote earlier by forcing MPs and their constituency associations to consider how electable they are in the wake of their expenses claims.

The Conservatives are to start a petition calling for an election. It is a good and sensible move and once more puts Labour on the back foot. What will be their line in the face of perfectly justifiable demands for an election? How can they really argue against this given the level of public anger and loss of confidence in this Parliament? A fresh electoral mandate is the only cure for this. I imagine that this will come up on Wednesday during PMQs. Gordon Brown's response will be fascinating.

In essence then this was a speech that echoed much of what I have been writing. The Conservative Party is talking about change and it is to be hoped they talk seriously about real change and reform of our broken political system as recommended here. I may have to consider joining the party at this rate.

Procedural Impasse

Just like the Prime Minister, Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, is hiding behind procedure. He won't allow the debate and vote on his own future and is just making this crisis worse. Perhaps it is significant that Martin apparently met up with Gordon Brown over the weekend. This has the Prime Minister's imprimatur all over it. It also mirrors the government's prime modus operandi. The Speaker under pressure is behaving as do ministers under pressure. He is trying, by announcing meetings and inquiries, to take the pressure off and resist pressure for him to go. If he had any integrity whatsoever he would just resign. Instead he is hiding behind those same arcane procedures I wrote about earlier.

The hand of this government is very much in evidence here. They are talking in public of this being a matter purely for Parliament and yet they have a role. It is the government that can allow for that substantive motion which will allow a debate and a vote. If they choose not to do so then they are effectively standing behind the Speaker probably for fear of a resultant by election. Then there is an element of Labour tribalism in this too. They still don't get it.

The speaker is traditionally dragged reluctantly to take up his post, although these days it is very much a ceremonial thing. It seems that to get him out he will have to be literally dragged from his chair.

Update:

Apparently, the moment the Speaker finished his statement, Brown did his Macavity act and left the chamber. The whole thing is a farce and Brown is showing his usual resolve and leadership. Labour MPs are dividing between those with principles who can see that this cannot go on and care about the reputation of Parliament and those who are lining up behind Martin claiming that he is being made a scapegoat and that this is all about class. This latter point is nonsense. He is not being made a scapegoat. He was and is in charge of the system they have all been blaming. As such he should resign honourably. Nobody is saying he is solely to blame. But he has to take his share. That means an honourable resignation. There is still chance for him to do that. But if he doesn't do that soon he may be forced out and that only makes matters worse.

The Glorious 21st Century Revolution

Over the weekend, the second weekend dominated by Flipgate, there has been a rash of articles in various newspapers concerning what has gone wrong with British politics and what needs to be done to fix it. This has ranged from fixing the allowances system which has been so egregiously abused to more far reaching reforms.

Yet nothing suggested is anything like enough. What has happened these last ten days was the inevitable consequence of a broken and dysfyunctional system which has evolved over time and which is simply unfit for purpose in a modern democracy. The British political system and our system of government has evolved over centuries as a consequence of various piecemeal remedies to problems and occasional crises, sometimes the demands of those in power and even sometimes the people. It is a collection of precedent and statute of tradition and custom. The modern British constitution is a series of sticking plasters appended to a creaking and cumbersome structure which occasionally, as we are seeing now, wobbles and totters and looks ready to collapse around our ears. I love British history as much as the next man, it's a subject that fascinates me. But do we really have to live it?

The reason that the House of Commons is now in crisis is thanks to that history. Parliament gradually evolved from a meeting for the nation's great and good. Then it became a place where they demanded to at least be consulted. Then it became a place to raise taxes. Then, after a civil war and a glorious but bloodless revolution, it finally became the seat of the nation's power and sovereignty. Finally, after a long struggle and much reluctance, it became a place that exercised power on behalf of the people who were actually given a say about who sat on those green benches. It then slowly and incrementally lost its power to the executive branch which turned it into a rubber stamp and is now in the process of handing a great deal of what is left to Europe whilst avoiding asking the permission of the electorate for it to do so.

All of this happened slowly and often by accident. Nobody sat down and designed a system. Nobody wrote a constitution or a set of rules. MPs and Lords collectively held the sovereignty of parliament in their hands and could do with it as they pleased. The irony is that this whole crisis only came about as a consequence of a freedom of information law introduced years ago and appended to that unwritten constitution. This has had all kinds of unexpected implications for the government that introduced it so piously when it first came to power and then tried to exempt themselves when those implications became clear.

Our nation has evolved from a feudal monarchy to a Parliamentary democracy chaotically. Power has been transferred for sure but in an ad hoc, lumpen and disorganised way. Ministers are still ministers of the crown and nominally serve the queen. The Prime Minister is theoretically first amongst equals and yet he has the power of a president with a good deal more besides.

There are no checks and balances. Governments are elective dictatorships. They have been allowed to bypass parliament and have kept it compliant by a mixture of threats and inducements as we have discovered this week.

Our current crisis exemplifies just how dysfunctional the system has become. We have an unelected Prime Minister who knows that he is going to lose the next election but who can choose when to call that election any time up to next June according to his whim and what suits him and his party best. To hell with the country. We have a head of state who can in theory dissolve Parliament but in practice has to do so when the Prime Minister decrees. That same head of state appoints the Prime Minister but has no choice about the matter. She cannot sack the Prime Minister or insist he call an election even if he is presiding over a constitutional crisis and there are increasing demands for him to go. She cannot dissolve Parliament of her own volition even if it has brought itself into disrepute and is at the centre of a growing scandal and demands from the public for its dissolution. The Speaker of the House of Commons who is at least in part responsible for the debacle is also very difficult to remove from power and is protected by all kinds of arcane and archaic traditions meaning that he can cling on if he wants to.

If we had a head of state with any real power she could resolve this crisis almost instantly. She would call in the leaders of the parties and inform them that she intended to dissolve Parliament in the autumn as it has lost the confidence of the electorate. This would then concentrate minds. The most venal and corrupt MPs would be deselected and replaced. A new Parliament, purged of its worst excesses, would then assemble in November and would be able to get on with what it should be doing. Public anger would be assuaged.

Can we do this? Who knows? In theory the Queen has the authority to do this and indeed would probably have a great deal of public support if she did as I argued last week. But it would create another crisis, not least because it would throw her first minister into an almighty, phone throwing rage. Yet it would be the right and proper thing to do. Brown would be well advised to request such a course of action. This is actually something he could just announce without consultation as it is his right. He would finally be taking a lead. He would finally be showing some courage and resolve. He would finally be able to say convincingly that this is the right thing to do.

But it is not just Parliament that needs purging. Our whole system is in need of a radical overhaul. We need a written constitution. We need fixed term Parliaments. We need a better definition of what the head of state can do in such situations and we need to give the head of state proper legitimacy to do so through the ballot box. It could be a simple referendum asking the British public whether they want to continue with the monarchy. If that question were asked every few years then she or her successors would then have the legitimate right to use her position to intervene in situations such as this and Prince Charles would have more right to air his various opinions and letter writing campaigns.

The reason that none of this has happened is because it has suited our politicians to maintain the status quo. They like having a powerless head of state who cannot question them or hold them to account and they like having a constitution that is vague and open to interpretation. They like having only one elected house in parliament and another that they can fill with cronies and useful idiots without bothering to consult the rest of us. They like being able to call elections when it suits them and they like using the excuse and enduring fiction of parliamentary sovereignty to excuse them from holding a promised referendum.

But this crisis has shown we cannot leave it to them to decide anymore. Politicians are fond of imposing rules on the rest of us, we should take this opportunity to impose a few well drafted and enduring rules on them. Unless they promise such reforms and voluntarily rein in their power and privileges it may even become necessary to create a whole new reform movement or party and force them to do the right thing through the ballot box.