Thursday 20 December 2007

Another Lib Dem reshuffle

Following his wafer-thin victory in the Lib Dem leadership election, Nick Clegg today confirmed the make-up of the latest bunch to take up space on the Opposition front benches. Dividing his front bench into "teams", Clegg has claimed that this will enable the party to focus its messages on public services, inequality, families and decentralising power.

Appointments of note include his defeated rival Chris Huhne taking up Clegg’s former position in the Home Affairs brief. Vince Cable retains his positions as shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader following strong performances in the House of Commons, and Orange Book author Ed Davey has been promoted to the post of Foreign Affairs spokesman. Hornsey and Wood Green shrieker Lynne Featherstone gets Youth and Equality (insert own joke).

Wonder how happy Huhne is at getting Clegg’s sloppy seconds at Home Affairs? Several punters were guessing that Clegg would rather send his defeated rival off the media wilderness of Foreign Affairs, as opposed to the Department which currently causes so many Dim Lebs to squeal. The possibility of course is that Huhne would have refused all positions bar Home, which of course will give him the central role in providing the Yellow Streak’s opposition to ID cards, profiling and prolonged detention before trial.

In any case, Clegg will need his new Chief of Staff (European policy wonk Danny Alexander) to keep an close ear to the ground, since Huhne will be looking to make it third time lucky in the leadership stakes – and will be only too happy to pounce if Clegg proves half as calamitous as his election document suggested.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Clarke savages Brown: Be loyal and draw loyalty

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke MP has lifted the lid on some of the ruptions currently brewing in the Labour Party. It seems that poor performances at PMQs, ongoing blunders and the shifting of blame onto Ministers and advisers have combined to cause a sharp downturn in the level of parliamentary support for the Dear Leader.

Commenting in today’s Guardian, Clarke mentions that many MPs were “appalled” at the apparent jingoism of Brown's conference commitment to "British jobs for British workers", but have so far been too loyal to criticise publicly. Clarke also claims that senior Ministers are beginning to tire of Brown’s obsession and interference in their Departments - only for the Prime Minister to drop all responsibility in times of crisis.

"In David Miliband and Alistair Darling and [Jacqui] Smith he's got three strong people and good people who should be supported and to some extent they are not… Tony would always support his key people. Gordon should do that with his people."

This is the first recorded attack by a sitting Labour MP on the Prime Minister since his accession in June, following a private instruction by Tony Blair not to criticise his successor – an instruction Clarke finds “staggering, given his disloyalty to Tony”.

Of course, loyalty has never been the most dependable currency in politics, yet one of the key strengths of Blair as both Labour leader and Prime Minister was his ability to draw strong loyalty from his supporters, even after (as in the case of Clarke) he was forced to remove them from Ministerial posts. Blair’s skill was in demonstrating similar loyalty to others before calling it in himself – and as a result, potentially disgruntled former aides such as Mandelson, Byers, Morris, Milburn and Clarke himself remained supportive of Blair’s premiership right up to the end, refusing to criticise the outgoing Prime Minister.

Not for the first time, this appears to be an area in which Brown has been found wanting. With Labour slumping further in the opinion polls, Brown may yet need the support of both traditional allies and former adversaries, especially if the ants start to turn on the Queen.

As for Clarke himself, the Hairy One has recently been positioning himself for a key position in Europe (possibly replacing Peter Mandelson as UK representative on the European Commission), and several commentators have indicated that the recent thaw in relations between the two former Cabinet colleagues is possibly down to this opportunity of mutual convenience, i.e. Clarke’s silence to be rewarded with a prestigious job (abroad).

Fat chance now...

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Clegg wins Lib Dem leadership

So once more, the smoke from the eco-friendly guns has cleared, the most snoozeworthy leadership election in years has been concluded, and Nick Clegg has emerged as the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The margin of his victory, a matter of just 511 votes out of the total 41,465 votes cast by the party's members, will not be a source of comfort to the young leader, who is likely to do a lot of looking over his shoulder to check for knives bearing Chris Huhne’s fingerprints. Given that Clegg has previously indicated that he will reshuffle his front bench team as early as possible (ostensibly to promote new ‘talent’ to the Lib Dem front benches), expect big jobs to be offered to both Huhne and Deputy Leader Vince Cable, following the latter’s notable performances at Prime Minister’s Questions.

What may concern grassroots Lib Dems however is not the low mandate of Clegg to lead – barely 1% over Huhne's total – but the relatively limp campaign of the new leader, certainly in comparison with the vibrant and aggressive campaign of Chris Huhne. In particular, his inability to fight back from the ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing drafted by Huhne’s campaign team will not give cause for confidence to Yellow Streakers hoping for the new leader’s performances in the House to match those of caretaker leader Vince Cable. Given the high number of votes cast early on in the contest when Clegg was still an overwhelming favourite, the likelihood is that if there had been a bar on sending in votes prior to the contest getting properly under way, the party would be hailing a very different result.

On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that Clegg is a smooth operator, and will have noted the amount of damage which the aformentioned briefing did to Huhne’s own campaign, with many Lib Dems privately expressing indignation at such an open attack on a potential party leader and talisman. His charm and appeal to centre-left thinkers is undeniable, and he will be anxious to win back the numbers who have haemmorhaged away to the Conservative fold.

Whether the Lib Dems have elected themselves someone who can even come close to matching Cable at PMQs and give Brown and Cameron a run for their money, we’ll all just have to watch this space…

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The Police and the Nurses deserve better than Brown

Ah, another day, another kicking for Brown at PMQs, and it seems another public service workforce is up in arms at the latest insult on pay from the Government. Bulldog-faced Home Secretary Jacqui Smith may have held the course of Labour’s sinking ship so far, but even she will find it difficult to stem the growing fury among policemen and women at the Government’s latest backtrack on pay deals for the police, previously agreed by the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal.

Instead of the 2.5% pay rise being backdated from September 1st, the Government has now decided to implement the new pay arrangements as from December 1st. As this reduces the pay increase to 1.9% (hence below the rate of inflation), Police Officers have argued that this effectively amounts to a pay cut, moods were blackened further by the announcement that Scottish PCs will receive their pay increases backdated from the agreed date. Following this decision, the Police Federation are now considering action – including campaigning against the Police Act of 1919 which bars them from striking – in order to lobby their cause.

This of course is hardly dissimilar from the Government’s equally two-faced decision for nurses in England and Wales – a 2.5% pay-rise being staggered (once again, reducing this to 1.9%), while nurses in Scotland received their pay increases unstaggered. In that situation, it was to the Government’s extreme good fortune that a combination of the legendary abilities of Health Secretary Alan Johnson in pouring oil over troubled waters, and the equally legendary calmness and professionalism of the nurses, averted an all-out strike.

Given the fact that it was this Government’s own incompetent handling of the economy that has led in no small part to this financial quagmire (who was head of the Treasury when these decisions were made, hm?), I find it difficult to sympathise with the Prime Minister’s growing list of concerns, particularly following his typically hyperbolous statement to the Association of Chief Police Officers' 2007 conference in June that "there is no greater obligation for us in government than to support you in discharging your duty".

Once again, this Government has failed to live up to its word, and many will have nothing but contempt for the way Brown has effectively treated the emergency services as financial whipping boys. The 1919 legislation was put in place to protect the public, not to give the likes of Brown and his cronies an opportunity to withhold from hard-working emergency service workers their due – and believe me, both the police and the nurses are due a reward given their consistently sterling service, too often without recognition.

Whilst no-one would welcome strike action, sympathy is likely to run deep in the minds of a public still appreciative of the commitment and professionalism demonstrated by the emergency services on 7/7, plus before and since. Given the tumbling approval ratings for both the Government and Brown himself, he neglects the emergency services at his peril.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Progress and Policy Exchange trade blows on David Cameron's leadership

Last night, St. Thomas’ Hospital played host to an eagerly anticipated debate organised jointly by the left and right think-tanks Progress and Policy Exchange, with the motion “Has David Cameron Changed the Conservative Party for Good?” On the panel, Policy Exchange co-founder Michael Gove and Fraser Nelson (political editor of the Spectator) to put the case for the motion, while Immigration Minister Liam Byrne partnered Times columnist David Aaronovitch in opposing.

While the debate provided more than a few sparks for gathered politico crowd, I couldn’t help but feel that too great a focus was placed on the recent strong Conservative showings in opinion polls (not that I object to this renewed popularity, mind you) and that this represented a far greater opportunity than was taken to highlight the growing list of policies emanating from CCHQ. While Michael Gove briefly mentioned the party’s recently published Green Paper on Education, this seemed an all-too brief interlude to an ongoing discussion on the reliability of polls. Am I the only one (clearly not, given the outcome of the debate) to believe that the Conservative party’s journey since Blackpool 2005 has been so much more formative than a simple change in public opinion - albeit one bolstered by Labour’s shambolic performance over the past year?

Quite simply, under David Cameron there has been a change in the outlook of Conservative thinking, which has both preceded and influenced the development of party policy. This process is evident in the a new sense of priority in supporting the public services (especially the NHS), a renewed vigour in foreign policy, and a new responsible attitude towards the environment. Of course, these positions supplement not substitute the existing Conservative outlook on a low tax/small state, typified by policies unveiled at October’s conference to increase the threshold inheritance tax to £1 million, and the abolition of stamp-duty for first-time buyers for properties over £250,000. As one Labour party friend of mine said following these announcements: “It’s enough to make you turn Tory”.

As Michael Gove illustrated, David Cameron has had a transformational effect on the Conservative party, whereas Gordon Brown has given no assurance at all that his stewardship is anything more than a transitional one, before a younger leader emerges with the ideas to drive his party forward to government.

Personally, I felt that this could have been a good opportunity to re-layer Conservative policies before an audience of people in a position to test the practical strength of such proposals. Still, the straw poll taken at the end as to whether anyone had changed their mind since the beginning of the debate (one person out of a crowd of around a hundred) possibly indicating the level of surety in the opinions of professional politicos could possibly explain the superficial nature of the debate.