Tuesday 29 April 2008

Kate Backs Boris

Following last week’s piece on Kate Hoey’s last minute withdrawal from a “Back Boris” event in her constituency of Vauxhall, Boris Johnson announced this morning on LBC Radio that Ms Hoey would join his mayoral administration as a non-executive Director with the responsibility for promoting competitive sport and monitoring preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

As a former Minister for Sport, this could be the perfect role for quintessential Londoner Ms Hoey, though the ramifications for her amongst Labour colleagues could be huge. Under usual circumstances, such collaboration with an Opposition candidate would immediately result in a withdrawal of the party whip. However, with Labour flagging in the polls, a Prime Minister out of touch even to his own MPs, and the only clear policy announcements being a stubborn persistence with the very policies which have alienated the party from its core vote, Labour might well need Ms Hoey more than she needs them.

Rumours have persisted that she has previously come close to crossing the Rubicon and joining the Conservatives, though has never quite made the full jump. But with Brown’s administration going into meltdown, Ms Hoey may well feel that now is the time to walk.

(Hat tip: Iain Dale)

Monday 21 April 2008

Hoey pulls out of Boris event

News reaches this author that Labour MP Kate Hoey has just pulled out of an event in her Vauxhall constituency, where she was due to appear alongside Conservative mayoral candidate, Boris Johnson.

It is unclear whether Ms Hoey – who has frequently been linked with rumours of a defection to the Tories – would have thrown her support behind Boris, but even appearing with him would hardly have helped her already fractious relationship with the Labour Whip’s office.

But I’m sure that this would have had nothing whatsoever to do with her sudden illness, which has struck on the first day back from Parliamentary recess…

Friday 18 April 2008

Angela Smith – who cares?

Am I the only one to really not care whether Angela Smith, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Yvette Cooper at the Treasury, resigns or not? Sure, Brown is in the, er…brown stuff, and he could certainly do without anyone drawing extra attention to the fury amongst Labour MPs at the abolition of the 10p tax rate for lower income workers.

But what are we really talking about here? PPSs by any stretch of the imagination are there to carry the books of their Ministerial masters, and not much else. Sure, some have used this as a springboard to a Ministerial post, but the exception tends to prove the rule.

The rather dithering Ms. Smith will no doubt use this episode to point to her “genuine concern” for the lower-paid employees in her constituency (and there are plenty in Sheffield), but neither her departure or lack of it is hardly likely to upset the workings of the Government.

I am reminded of Peter Mandelson’s contemptuous dismissal of the attempted ‘coup’ against Tony Blair, when Tom Watson resigned the day after a mysterious meeting with Gordon Brown, followed by a series of PPS departures:

“A junior Minister, five PPSs and a dog? Call that a coup?!”

Friday 11 April 2008

Educating Ed

Earlier this week, I suggested that one of the possible hatchet men to doom Gordon Brown to a half-term mediocrity as Prime Minister could be his most loyal lieutenant, the current Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls. While this opinion was dismissed by several social Politicos, it now seems that such speculation may not have been as absurd as some first thought, with several pieces emerging in the media highlighting current internal meanderings. Word is that Balls is already jockeying for position in a post-Brown administration, possibly even planning a run for leadership itself.

Oxford and Harvard educated, Balls has long been considered as Brown’s golden boy – a senior feature writer at the Financial Times at the age of 23, before being picked out by the then shadow Chancellor to become his senior economic adviser. Elected to the Labour stronghold of Normanton at the 2005 election and swiftly appointed to the Cabinet, he finally cemeted his place at the centre of Brown’s Government team by being tasked with the beefed-up Department of Children, Schools and Families upon Brown’s coronation last summer. Incidentally, while some were initially surprised that Balls was not elevated to the Chancellorship himself, Alistair Darling’s current difficulties would explain more clearly than any commentator the extent to which Brown has protected his protégé well in advance.

But what of a leadership bid? Educating Rita syndrome suggests that the pupil will always eventually outstrip the teacher, and Balls is nobody's fool - with tumbling polls suggesting a Conservative victory at the next election and precious few ideas or policies emerging from the Labour benches, Balls appears to be looking after No. 1.

His recent tacking to left on issues such as admissions policies, faith schools, examination reform and social exclusions have fanned rumours that he is toadying up to the left of the Labour party to present himself as a “more Brownite than Brown” candidate. But Balls may need to be more subtle than he has been of late. Such a swift rise to the top does not typically teach an aspiring Minister the importance of patience, and he has already made several notable enemies on the way. In particular, wresting the “respect agenda” from Jacqui Smith is hardly likely to earn him any bouquets from the Home Secretary.

That he is talented is undeniable, but reports increasingly emerge that he is less than popular among his peers, possessing an impatient and abrasive air when dealing with fellow Ministers and civil servants (a foible shared with his benefactor) – hardly a formula for leadership. Also sharing with the current ex-PM-to-be, he has been described as arrogant and patronising (not unlike many of the anti-faith school brigade, who incessantly seem to know what is best for the children of working class families, particularly those from an immigrant background). The Daily Mail even reported this week that mild-mannered Jack Straw was so irked by the overbearing manner of the Schools Minister following a disagreement over youth justice policy that he threatened to punch him – can you imagine anyone within Cabinet making a similar threat to Tony Blair? (Gordon Brown being the obvious exception...)

Most unpredictable all is of course the current Prime Minister. While Brown himself has been a wounded beast of late, he is still the man to be pulling the levers for some time yet. Colleagues past and present have paid testament to the loyalty of the former Chancellor but even loyalty has its limits, and Brown is notorious for bitter lifelong vendettas against anyone he feels has crossed him. Brown’s burning enmity of Tony Blair following the latter’s election as Labour leader in 1995 is legendary – how would Brown react to the possibility of a similar betrayal by his closest aide?

It seems to this author that building relationships with some of the big beasts within Cabinet could well grease the way to a realistic leadership bid, or at least, Cabinet survival under the next leader. Building ridges with the likes of Smith is a must – just look at the extent to which Anne Widdecombe managed to savage Michael Howard's 1997 bid - and while Blairites such as David Miliband and Alan Johnson may once have sat on the other side of the fences during Labour’s decade-long civil war, demonstrating unifying abilities could yet prove the key to securing the prize.

So, a bit of keeping friends close but your enemies closer could be due. That, and don’t wake the baby…

Wednesday 9 April 2008

A Fair Deal for Nurses

Following weeks of wrangling, the Department of Health have announced an agreement with the Royal College of Nursing, Unison and NHS Employers for a three-year pay package for staff working on the NHS Agenda for Change.

The package averages out at an almost 8% pay increase over the three years, including a full acceptance of the 2008-09 NHS pay review body’s recommendation for a 2.75% pay increase for nurses, midwives and other healthcare professionals from April 1 2008, followed by a 2.4% increase in 2009, and a further 2.25% increase in 2010.

While this author welcomes the agreement, it seems incredible that things got to the extent where even the Royal College of Nurses – usually the most placid of bodies – felt forced to ballot their members for a possible strike over the previous pay deal. The previous pay offer, it must be remembered, was to be staggered, effectively reducing the pay increase to 1.9% (unlike nurses in Scotland, whose pay increase was unstaggered). A fair deal for nurses should be an absolute minimum requirement for any Government claiming to be addressing investment issues in the NHS – the nurses really are the Service’s most valuable and cherished resource.

In regards to the pay deal, it appears that he legendary negotiation skills of Alan Johnson have won the day, managing to overcome even the financial hardballers at the Treasury. However, the success of the Health Secretary is unlikely to prove balm to Prime Minister Gordon Brown – not exactly known for being Johnson’s biggest fan.

The Prime Minister’s difficult few weeks are likely to be exacerbated by the strong showing of a possible successor in the light of Labour falling even further back in the polls, and even the Brown’s most loyal lieutenant Ed Balls has reportedly been exploring his own various career trajectories.

With backbench MPs increasingly wondering whether they should have stuck with Tony Blair after all, the only questions are whether Brown can hang on to the next election, or whether a senior figure such as Johnson, Miliband or even Balls, will be prepared to wield the knife.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Brown downed again - this time by his own MPs

Dear oh dear, Mr Bean just can’t seem to catch a break, can he? Brown’s meeting with the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night, initially called to calm nerves over the Labour’s flatlining in the polls, apparently turned into open rebellion with several MPs genuinely furious over the Primie Minister’s answers during the Q&A session.

While the session opened with Brown urging MPs to “go out and tell voters that the Government 'is on your side”, the increase of taxation on lower paid workers and the closure of post offices – both legacies of Brown’s last Budget as Chancellor, in which he scrapped the lower 10p rate of tax – left MPs fuming.

One Minister was quoted as saying that "People were queuing up to complain to me about it – if Boris Johnson wins the mayoral election, it will be open warfare, like it was in the 1980s".

Boris is currently running ten points ahead of Red Ken, whose “private” distancing of himself from Labour was recently published to the media, furthering widespread speculation that Team Brown is coming apart at the seams.

Then just when things couldn’t look bleaker for Brown, who should step into his shoes at PMQs while the PM attends a NATO conference in Romania? Harriet bloody Harman. Fresh from the drubbing at the hands of the media over her stab-proof vest gaffe at the weekend, Harperson was given a masterclass in PMQ performance by shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, who delighted in quoting Health Minister Ivan Lewis’ recent article, claiming that the Government have become out of touch with ordinary voters.

Brown needs a PR success sharpish, or the knives could be sharpened quicker than he anticipated. New policies are called for, new ideas, possibly new people – and it wouldn’t surprise this author if a reshuffle is brought forward to pacify potential troublemakers (what’s that nice Mr. Alan Johnson been doing lately?).

I know I’ve said it before, but what must Blair be thinking?