Tuesday 30 October 2007

Further poll lead for Conservatives

Conservatives are now eight points ahead in the latest opinion poll, following increased support from young voters. The poll, carried out by ComRes for the Independent, places the Tories on 41% after a seven point rise in the past month, with support for Labour falling four points to 33%.

Commentators have blamed Labour’s slump on Gordon Brown’s handling of the election speculation, plus poor public performances (such as PMQs). In contrast, David Cameron’s surge in support from young voters, which now stands at 35% support among 18-24 year olds, has been attributed to policies such as the removal of stamp duty for first-time buyers.

While this is obviously good news for the Conservatives, it must be borne in mind that given the current electoral map, an eight point lead would translate into just a two-seat majority.

Still, Brown must be furious at his personal ratings taking such a public battering, and with no foreseeable Brown success on the horizon, the prospect of a 2008 election appears to be diminishing all the time.

Monday 29 October 2007

UK Minister "deeply disappointed" at US security search

It seems to have become an easy thing to do to criticise US immigration controls for supposed overenthusiasm in stopping and searching certain groups before granting the right to enter.

The latest individual to enter the debate is Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury and the UK’s first Muslim Minister of State. Whilst travelling to a conference on terrorism via Dulles airport in Washington DC, Mr Malik was detained and his hnad luggage searched by homeland security officials. Mr Malik spoke afterward of his “deep disappointment” at being searched, and that UK politicians should be treated with greater respect when travelling in the US.

"The abusive attitude I endured last November I forgot about and I forgave, but I really do believe that British ministers and parliamentarians should be afforded the same respect and dignity at USA airports that we would bestow upon our colleagues in the senate and congress. Obviously, there was no malice involved but it has to be said that the USA system does not inspire confidence".

It has to be said, respect for visiting dignitaries and officials should be a two-way street, and that our own politicians should of course be treated with the same respect as American guests during their visits (although maybe Mr Malik should cast his mind back to the less-than-gracious hospitality showed to President Bush during his state visit to the UK last year).

Obviously, if the security officials were being “abusive” as Mr Malik originally suggested, then he is entitled to an apology, and an investigation should ensue. However, given his acknowledgement that “there was no malice involved” it appears that Mr Malik is objecting to being searched at all – in which case, I have to say that my sympathy is limited.

Yes, it is a drag having to remain in an airport any longer than necessary, particularly after a twelve-hour flight. And yes, it does seem unusual for staff to feel it necessary to search a serving Minister of State. But for Mr Malik to pull out the “do you know who I am?” card seems either to be an exercise in victimhood played up for his own personal electoral reasons, or a waste of a great opportunity to demonstrate some of the tolerance that he himself appears to allude to.

Certainly, complaining about security controls taken by any country – and particularly one which receives the level of terrorist threats as those received by the US – seems odd when you remember that the reason Mr Malik was in the country at all was to attend a conference on reducing the likelihood of terrorist acts. And to talk of “confidence” in security systems, do we really need to put the question to New Yorkers and Washingtonians as to how they would prefer a security system to operate? Such controls may not appeal to soft-boiled liberals in the UK, but if these are deemed necessary by the US and are carried out in a respectful manner, then quite frankly it really is none of Mr Malik’s business.

Mr Malik is in the privileged position of being able to set an example to Muslim youths both here in the UK and in the US – no mean feat in itself. Perhaps a smile and a “good work, guys” comment could have gone a long way in breaking down barriers at a time of increased tensions. As it is, this unnecessary complaint only serves to build up resentment on all sides, and increasing the likelihood of such controls remaining in place for some time to come.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

Brown down at PMQs. Again.

Gordon Brown being destroyed by David Cameron in PMQs is no longer news. Its weekly occurrence has made it just another midday point in the Westminster week, serving only as a half-hour advertisement in Brown’s lack of either composure or oratorical skill.

However, the one point of interest this week was Ian Austin MP (Brown’s Parliamentary Private Secretary) being rebuked by the Speaker for shouting abuse at Cameron, usually when the latter was about to make a telling point against the Prime Minister. This is actually the second week in a row that Austin has had to be reproached for boorish behaviour during PMQs.

Unsurprisingly, David Cameron contemptuously brushed away such antics before laying once again into an increasingly fuming Brown. The Prime Minister hardly did himself any favours when he accused Cameron of misleading the House, following the latter quoting from the recent Gould report on the Scottish election debacle.

Considering the complaints with which Labour persistently piped up back in 1996-97 regarding Conservative MPs barracking Tony Blair at PMQs, Brown’s own hypocrisy serves only to highlight his own shortcomings throughout a parliamentary spectacle in which he is now universally held to be a regular loser.

I wonder what Blair makes of it all?

Monday 22 October 2007

Democracy costs less to the Liberal Democrats

Well surprise, surprise. The two Liberal Democrat leadership contenders have both opposed proposals in favour of a referendum on the EU Treaty – in direct contradiction of commitments at the previous General Election.

Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg (both former MEPs) claimed that the Treaty – which has been described as being near-identical to the proposed European Constitution which French and Danish voters voted down in referendums last year – was “one of the least radical” and accused Conservatives of avoiding the “big issue” of a vote on Britain’s ongoing EU membership.

Quite amazing for two reasons really: firstly, the majority of people in the UK support a referendum on the issue (over 70% according to the Daily Telegraph). Usually, the Limp Dums are the first to jump on such a bandwagon – have the most watered-down party in UK politics decided that they actually stand for something beyond dog taxes? Secondly, given that the Lib Dems have just dumped their previous leader Ming Campbell primarily due to his inability to oppose the Government effectively, their refusal to do the job they were voted 62 seats at the last election to do (i.e. oppose) shows the Yellow Streak in their most renowned light, i.e. ineffectual, and out of touch with the majority of the country.

So what marks either contender – or, in the absence of a leadership contender made of sterner stuff, the Liberal Democrat party – as any different from the same arrogant “Gordon Knows Best” approach of Labour? With the Yellow Streak still going cap in hand to Brown in the hope of one more meaningless “advisory” position to Gordon’s “Big Tent”, the most likely outcome is that the Treaty (of which only ten out of 250 proposals differ from the original proposed EU Constitution – i.e. 96% of the rejected Constitution remains in the Treaty) will be forced upon us, with the minimum of debate.

Still, things seem to be looking rosier for Gordon than last week. After all, with ‘opponents’ of the consistency of the Lib Dem leadership candidates, he hardly needs to worry about the Treaty vote when it reaches the Commons, even if Labour MPs such as Gisela Stuart do vote to hold the Government to their election promise to hold a referendum on the issue.

Let’s just hope that in addition to the hospital infection cover-ups, the disgraceful standard of combat equipment UK forces were forced to use in Iraq, stolen pensions, and a myriad of other broken promises, the electorate is reminded of this latest breach of an election commitment come 2009 – plus the level of duplicity on the part of the Lib Dems in forcing through a Treaty which transfers even more powers from Westminster to Brussels.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Healthcare Commission report to save Johnson's bacon?

The Healthcare Commission today released its annual report, giving its performance ratings for all NHS Trusts in England. This is the most comprehensive assessment of the NHS’s performance on a local level, and is the second such report following last year’s analysis.

The scale of analysis for the 394 local Trusts was on the basis of two ratings on a four point scale, first for quality of resources and the second on financial management. Out of the 394 local Trusts, 16% were rated as "excellent", with a further 30% awarded a "good" rating on the first quality of resources test. This higher-category total of 46% represents an increase of 5% following last year’s report which rated 41% as achieving this standard. On the negative side, 45% were rated as "fair" and a 8% were rated as "weak". However, the overall report showed that the combined numbers in both lower categories fell from 59 to 53%. In the second test for financial management, 14% of Trusts were rated as “Excellent”, 23% “Good”, 36% “Fair” and 26% “Weak”.

In total, one in three trusts improved on their rating for clinical standards and a similar number did so for financial management, providing welcome news for the the Government following the hospital infection scandals in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and the Stoke Mandeville NHS Trusts. Referring to the recent hospital scandals, Health Secretary Alan Johnson has promised tough action on those trusts deemed to be failing patients.

Whilst Johnson will clearly attempt to use the report as a get-out-of-jail-free card to divert attention from the recent hospital infection scandals, frontline NHS staff will know the full extent to which other issues – such as hospital cleanliness – have been put aside in favour of balancing the books. For example, nurses writing on the blog Dr Rant (http://www.drrant.net/) have gone so far as to suggest that the 90 Maidstone patients whose deaths have been linked with the infection epidemic were sacrificed “to save Patricia Hewitt’s career”, following her assurance that she would balance the books or resign. One professional made the following points of how both patient care and hospital funds were cut back to meet the Government targets:

- Most days there isn't sufficient clean linen.
- There are nights when there is only one nurse for eight patients.
- There are nights when there is only 1 staff nurse and 1 Grade A nursing assistant, both male, for 18 patients, 2/3 female, a good percentage elderly.
- There are nights when there are 2 nurses 'specialling' and 1 A Grade nursing assistant for 18 patients.
- The buzzers ring for bedpans, commodes, general lavatory assistance all night. There aren't enough staff to meet the needs of the patients. Beds are soiled, and then, of course, need to be changed, providing there are clean sheets.

“All an unnecessary waste of resources, and an appalling loss of dignity to the patients. Managers kept their heads down and did nothing to resist. They knew what would the result of the cost cutting would be and went along with it to keep their jobs”.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of for Gordon Brown’s determination to retain centrally-imposed targets in the NHS – in the case of Maidstone, no wonder local MP Ann Widdecombe declared that she would be unwilling to send her own mother to Maidstone hospital, such was the level to which cleanliness had been ignored in favour of meeting these absurd non-sequiter goals.

Let’s hope that Andrew Lansley continues to put the punches in on Johnson and this disgraceful Government, who play numbers games with the health and livelihoods of patients.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Another one-sided PMQs

This is getting boring. Biting his nails and looking nervous before today’s PMQs, Gordon Brown must have hardly been looking forward a further public kicking from David Cameron.

And not much has changed since last week. Looking irritated right from the start after a question from Graham Brady on tax relief, Brown positively erupted at Cameron’s suggestion that Government targets had exacerbated the hospital infection crisis in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. Stammering over his words and clutching a dog-eared newspaper, Brown only seemed to dig himself deeper by quoting the “new Chief Exective of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust” as his defence - what a shame that no-one has informed the Prime Minister that the Trust has not yet appointed a new CEO.

Brown did his best to hit back by ridiculing Cameron’s likening himself to Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger over their respective climate change efforts, but the result was a one-sided contest in the Leader of the Opposition's favour. If it were a boxing match, the fight would have been stopped to save the Prime Minister any further punishment.

Of far greater interest was Vince Cable’s first PMQs as caretaker leader of the Liberal Democrats. Visibly more confidant than his predecessor, Cable dug back into greater “Liberal” territory (surely not an attempt to curry favour ahead of the upcoming leadership election?) by condemning the comments from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham supporting tax breaks for married couples. Hardly surprising from this Prime Minister that he glowingly endorsed the Lib Dem steward’s comments (see the post below for this author’s thoughts on this issue). What else would one expect from a Chancellor whose tax burdens have made it more cost-effective for families to live separately rather than stay together?

Still, a further resounding PMQs defeat must surely be piling further pressure upon Mr Brown for a success, in any form, to crow about. As an election can now safely be discounted, expect Brown’s focus to fall upon the negotiation of the EU Treaty. While Number Ten insiders have all but ruled out a referendum on the Treaty in spite of the enormous similarities – some might say identicalities – between it and the former EU Constitution, Brown simply cannot afford to hand the Conservatives another gift (even one in return for stolen policies) in the form of a weakly-negotiated Treaty. The jeers from Opposition MPs which are currently ringing in his ears will be infinitely louder if he returns from negotiations having handed over (further) crucial powers without securing major opt-outs on issues such as social security, justice and human rights.

Clearly, Brown must arrive in Portugal tomorrow morning prepared to play hardball with other EU leaders if he doesn’t get what he wants, nee needs. But on the evidence of today’s showing, that may be a step too far for Gordon the Timid.

Monday 15 October 2007


It has just been reported that Sir Menzies Campbell is due to make a statement concerning his ongoing leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

Wonder what this will be about, eh?

Why marriage is best

I was having a discussion with a friend of a friend during a long car journey last weekend, and our conversation fell upon the recent discussions around the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham’s suggestion to incentivise marriage (yet another proposal made by the Conservatives some weeks before the Hon. Minister was able to think the idea up all by himself). My acquaintance made the point that marriage is a social choice and as such, should be subject to the same tax breaks as single individuals and non-married couples, whether cohabiting or otherwise. My counter-claim was that as marriage is generally good for society, the policy discussion is more about a quid pro quo exchange between Government and society than rewarding one set of individuals whose behaviour is somehow deemed to be more socially approved of than anothers.

The arguments that, generally speaking, children brought up within a marital home have better life outcomes is supported by a series of sociological research. Most recently, Patricia Morgan (Senior Research Fellow at the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs) has attracted the attention of both sides of the debate, with her excellent studies: “Farewell to the Family: Public Policy and Family Breakdown in Britain and the USA” and “Marriage Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and its Consequences”. Whilst many of the points meticulously analysed by Dr. Morgan will be familiar to the majority of pro-marriage, pro-children apologists, the major point that struck this author was the alarmingly high rate of relationship breakdown among cohabitees following the birth of children and the associated mental and emotional turbulence, often manifesting itself later in life – i.e. when parents may think that the child has “come through it”.

Lets look at the cold, hard facts. Children from homes with both parents are statistically more likely to achieve academically in school, with the associated benefits of greater chances of attending university, than children from broken homes. They are statistically less likely to suffer from depression, self-harm or engage in drug or alcohol abuse. They are statistically less likely to commit crime or serve prison time. In short, marriage offers a priceless emotional stability during a child’s formative years, with varied societal benefits.

Of course, as my acquaintance pointed out, there are the exceptions – “my mother was a single mother, and we’ve done all right!”. No doubt, but equally not relevant. No one is suggesting that every child growing up in a single-parent home will inevitably emerge as a wife-beating terrorist, any more than children born into a married and stable home will automatically be immune to damaging influences. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. But the clear and indisputable facts point to the maxim that marriage is best, not only for the members of the family themsleves, but for wider society. Such policies incentivising marriage are not about penalising single or unmarried parents, but providing recognition and support for an institution that offers such unrivalled and tangible benefits. Polly Toynbee may scowl and grimace, but all the typical hot-air hyperbole does not change that fact.

I could go further in this article – and indeed, have a feeling that this will not be the last time I blog in defence of the oldest social institution – but will restrict myself to one further, somewhat less tangible observation, namely that what is often most frustrating to children of single parents is that the pseudo-liberal commentators decrying the benefits of marriage seem inevitably to have come from comfortable middle-class (married!) backgrounds. In other words, they retain the financial resources to adapt themselves to divorce or separation with the minimum of social upheaval. They are typically insulated from the hard and violent street culture which has claimed so many fatherless young men from deprived backgrounds so alien to their own privileged roots.

Their dismissive attitude towards one of the few lines of defence for working class women and children is not only highly insulting, but downright hypocritical given the fact that they themselves have enjoyed the benefits of a stable, dual-parental upbringing. Or as another commentator puts it, it is so much easier to have a rose-tinted view of single parenthood in the leafy squares of Notting Hill and Islington than in the crumbling high rises of Tower Hamlets and Peckham.

Friday 12 October 2007

It all gets worse and worse for Ming

Another day, and the pressure is growing ever more intense on beleaguered Lib Dem Leader Sir Menzies Campbell. Now that the hot air of the election that never was has now evaporated, a piece in this morning’s Guardian (http://politics.guardian.co.uk/libdems/story/0,,2189705,00.html) reports that with the yellow vote limping along on 11% (behind the Conservatives on 41% and Labour on 38%) in the recent Ipsos-Mori opinion poll published in the Sun, the knives are now being sharpened for the ageing leader.

Several whispers in the Commons have indicated that senior Lib Dem MPs (if the phrase is not oxymoronic) have already approached Ming demanding his resignation, or face a leadership challenge. The Telegraph also quotes an unnamed source, who commented: “Time is up. We have had a life-threatening experience. The whole dynamic changes now that there is no election for 18 months. We will get him. There is no support for him in the grassroots”.

Frankly, this author wonders what the Lib Dems expected when they overlooked their younger candidates in favour of an OAP with a resemblance to Albert Steptoe. Then again, given some of the lurid details published at the time – not to mention those that escaped the headlines – perhaps its no surprise that the Yellow Tendency plumped for third choice (some things never change).

With no election expected for at least the next twelve to eighteen months, any short-term dip in the party’s fortunes are likely to be overcome under a new leadership of either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne, assuming that they don’t destroy one another in the ensuing contest.

Still, who isn’t looking forward to the spectacle of the so-called nice party exposing their true colours, with various betrayals, backstabbings and outings taking place in the full public glare?

Thursday 11 October 2007

PMQs postscript

Interesting piece posted by Guido this morning (http://www.order-order.com/2007/10/libdems-game-is-very-definitely-on.html), following the post yesterday regarding Brown’s easing off on Ming during yesterday’s PMQs.

Was it really sheer oraratorical incompetence on the part of Brown, or does he know something we don’t – and doesn’t want to come across as the bad guy to floating voters who may be sympathetic to an old man cut adrift?

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Another wet performance by Brown at PMQs

As predicted, the Conservative focus at today's Prime Ministers Questions were on the key issues of Brown’s loss of nerve in calling the election, the refusal to allow a referendum on the EU Treaty, and Labour’s blatant stealing of Conservative policies at yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Evading the question as to whether he and the Chancellor had incorporated the increase in the threshold before inheritance tax is paid and the tax on non-domestic citizens prior to the Conservative conference last week, Brown continued to look rattled when put under pressure by Opposition MPs. I’ve said it before, but he just doesn’t have the zing of his predecessor.

Cameron’s accusations of the Prime Minister having “no conviction, just calculation; no vision just a vacuum” appeared to particularly needle, with Brown stammering out a weak response.

On the plus side, Brown probably wasn’t the worst performer – I actually thought that he gave the squeaking Ming Campbell a fairly easy ride, considering the fact that it has been the latter’s weak leadership that has led to the haemorrhaging of support from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. The House of Commons has always needed a resident runt, and that is one job for which Ming seems eminently qualified.

With the sharks already circling in both parties, Brown really needs a success to emphasise his own authority and put the young pretenders in their place. Conservatives, you have been warned.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Dim-Leb watch:

Which former police chief was heard recently at a parliamentary function, pouring cold water on the aspirations of Lib Dem mayoral hopeful Brian Paddick?

The unnamed individual commented that:

“Brian Paddick is a pleasant enough guy, but it often became frustrating trying to deal with his constant demand for the spotlight.

“I promoted him twice (in the Met), but wouldn’t have done so a third time… His colleagues both senior and junior were tearing their hair out trying to accommodate him. His endless showboating just became too much”.

Paddick, formerly Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, is most remembered for his scheme in Lambeth to avoid arresting people for smoking cannabis. He later resigned from his post after claiming that he was sidelined by Sir Ian Blair, "because I spoke the truth", also branding the Met “authoritarian”.

He has refused to offer any further details regarding either charge, as this may jeopardise the six-figure deal he struck last month with publishing firm Simon & Schuster for his autobiography.

But reading between the lines, the message from his colleagues seems to be that the current Lib Dem mayoral frontrunner is a petulant and egotistical poser, who alienates colleagues when he feels he is not given enough credit for his contributions to group projects.

How utterly unlike the Lib Dems…

Monday 8 October 2007

Brown must fight for the right to rule

So as predicted by this author, an autumn election is looking increasingly unlikely to take place following Brown’s announcement. A combination of a strong showing by the Conservatives at their party conference in Blackpool and some fairly transparent “announcements” by Gordon Brown (brilliantly exposed by Brown-basher-in-Chief, Dr Liam Fox) have led to the Conservatives pulling back an eleven-point lead in the polls, with even the Guardian now suggesting a dead-heat between the two major parties, at 38 points each.

The monumental extent of Labour’s crying wolf on a possible election was highlighted by a spluttering Jack Straw on this morning’s Today programme, who endeavoured to assure listeners that an election was merely being considered, but quickly ruled out due to the “lack of public appetite” for a poll. Ha. It has not escaped the attention of the author that Brown strategists Ed Balls and Doug Alexander were seen throughout Labour’s own conference – often in the presence of Brown himself – openly suggesting that the election could be sooner than people think. No wonder that the Tories and the Lib Dems have labelled the somewhat misnomerous author of “Courage”: “Bottler Brown” and “the Great Clucking Fist”.

All of which has left Gordon Brown with some thinking to do – which inevitably means that there is hard work ahead for the Conservatives.

Yes, the Tories had a great conference – certainly the most exciting and enjoyable this author has ever attended (and in Blackpool, too – some feat). In particular, Osborne’s proposal to increase of the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, and the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers of properties under £250,000 have been greeted with support from middle-England, a key battleground for any future election. Some seriously good policy proposals from the likes of Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Pauline Neville-Jones, plus David Cameron’s 68-minute speech without notes will also have Brown getting nervous before Wednesday’s PMQs (never an area in which Brown has excelled).

But this is exactly the point where Brown will HAVE to come out fighting.

In his (sycophantic) interview with Andrew Marr earlier today, Brown insisted he would have won a snap election. Some might jeer at such protestations – but it was accurate. While this morning’s Daily Mail poll put the Tories ahead by three points (for the first time since Brown’s accession), history shows us that for a change in Government, Oppositions need to be ahead by a good six to eight points to have a fighting chance.

So why hasn’t Brown called the election, with the likelihood of a Labour victory even in the face of a Cameron bounce? It seems to this author that Brown’s legendary timidity in the face of adversity, plus insecurity as to his own position have caused a re-think. A reduced majority would be disastrous for Brown, who will need a bigger majority than Blair’s (who even in the post-Iraq tarnishment of 2005 still commanded a majority of 68) just to protect his own mandate within the Labour party – despite all the “no more Blairites, no more Brownites” hocus pocus of the Deputy Leadership election from Labour insiders, it is clear from the make-up of the current Cabinet that Blair’s young pretenders have not simply shrunk into the shadows of the Labour jungle.

It will also not have escaped Brown’s attention that the primary source of the Conservative upswing has not been Labour, but from the Liberal Democrats. For this reason, don’t be surprised if the Brown guns are trained on Ming Campbell in the hope that a few more disastrous performances will encourage either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne to wield the knife in order to save the party’s chances at the next election.

My expectation is that Brown will focus on the areas in which he does best, and push for a major policy programme in the next Parliament. In any case, Conservatives must take nothing for granted, and continue the progress of the conference. We now have the bones of a superb manifesto in place, with some exceptionally good policies before the voting public (assuming Brown doesn’t attempt to steal these and pass them off as his own). For this reason, we need to ensure that these policies are seen and heard by possible floating voters. With the LGA elections coming up next year and increasing demand for a referendum on the EU Treaty/constitution, there are plenty of opportunities to force Brown out on the issues if we hold our nerve.

And the author’s tip on the election? Place your bets for Spring 2009!