Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tory sleaze?

There's been a little controversy beginning to bloom with regard to Conservative use of Flying Lion flights. It's probably time to calm some of the more excitable among us down rather. I'll try and do this by looking at the allegations as they've come up. Warning, this might not be especially interesting to, well, anyone.

1. Flying Lion are registered overseas. They're not permissible donors!

Well, they are registered overseas, and the relevant Act (Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) does give a list (s.54(2)) of who is a permissible donor - broadly a UK registered entity, whether an actual person or a legal person. BUT s.55(3)(a) [sorry] has this to say:
3) Any donation received by a registered party shall (if it would not otherwise fall to be so regarded) be regarded as a donation received by the party from a permissible donor if and to the extent that—

(a) the purpose of the donation is to meet qualifying costs incurred or to be incurred in connection with a visit by any member or officer of the party to a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, and

(b) the amount of the donation does not exceed a reasonable amount in respect of such costs.
Which is pretty clear. Even if a donor would not normally be permissible (by being registered overseas for example) he will be considered permissible if the donations are for the purposes of international travel - provided the costs are not wholly disproportionate. Unity seems to think that the reasonableness is related to the purpose of the travel - Is it reasonable to be swanning around Africa in a private jet? Well morally he may well have a point. Legally I don't think he does. The insertion of a requirement that the costs be reasonable looks very like a way of ensuring that the travel bit's not a front for a general donation - or for a political party to leach off money to a friend. It's not a requirement that the travel be reasonable - only that the costs be so.
2. The costs of flights look way too low - there must be something fishy going on!
There might be an argument here - people have dug around and provided comparative flights that are more expensive than those registered by Tory MPs for Flying Lion. It's not a smoking gun though - for one thing 'market value' isn't defined, and for a second thing I suspect that the price of commercially hired planes is rather more flexible than suggested. All of which is rendered moot by the Electoral Commission Guidance that states:
In cases where MPs do not receive a cash donation to meet the cost of a visit because the costs are met by the host organisation or individual, MPs should calculate the notional value of the trip, based on the equivalent commercial travel and accommodation costs.
So, does this apply here? Arguably yes - Flying Lion aren't invoicing MPs and then covering the invoice, but providing a service as a donation. The closest rule to this approach is the one above. So MPs should calculate 'equivalent commercial travel costs' and declare those. I get an increasing feeling that there's very much less to this than meets the eye.
If anyone has any more allegations about this, please add them and I'll try and update...

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Deconstructing Gordon Brown

Michael Gove has delivered an extremely effective deconstruction of Gordon Brown's failings and flaws to the Bow Group today. Delivered in a 'more in sorrow than in anger' style, I suspect this will have Brown gnashing his teeth and swearing vengeance, but the truth is that in Gove the Conservatives possess a brain the match of anything on the Labour benches, plus considerably more talent at delivery than was ever held by David Willetts or Oliver Letwin - equally bright though they be.
The section that I suspect will irritate Brown the most is the following one:
The Prime Minister's position, in one sense, recalls the historic position of other leaders who have come to the top job, often after a long apprenticeship, and, tragically, just as the circumstances and ideas which brought their party to power are becoming obsolete.
In that sense, the Prime Minister is like Balfour, a man of great academic talent, fated to become premier at the end of a long period of one-party rule and to disappoint all those who thought him the ablest man of his generation, or like Roseberry, the obvious successor to a liberal interventionist premier, with a reputedly dazzling intellect, yet who crucially lacks the ability to take his party forward into a new world of changed circumstances.
In our own century there have been a number of these leaders who have been fated, like film sequels, to have none of the success of the blockbuster which first brought lustre to their brand.Whether it's been Neville Chamberlain after Baldwin, Eden after Churchill or Bush senior after Reagan, the successor model has never quite recaptured the excitement of the first. They have been Roger Moores cast to replace the original Sean Connery - with the best will in the world the same quality isn't there.
I suspect that this fear - that he will end up as a mere footnote to the Blair years, a truly fag-end Prime Minister - has occupied Brown for some considerable time. That he ducked the Election in Autumn 2007 will gnaw at him still further. It is also, for the Conservatives, a profitable line to take on the Prime Minister - time for a change, stale government, no new ideas. It's a potent message, and all the more so for coming from someone so eminently able to fight and win the battle of intellect.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

As if by magic...

Richard Littlejohn:

Unless I've missed something, no one has yet blamed the California forest fires on "global warming", as they did Hurricane Bush, sorry "Katrina". It won't be long before some pipsqueak politician pops up to protest that unless we put another 50p on a litre of petrol, and bring back the pay-as-you-throw tax scrapped this week, we will all be burned in hell, Malibu-style, by an angry planet.

Johann Hari:

So it's a red herring to suggest that an individual arsonist was The Cause of the California fires, the latest right-wing talking point. Even if a malicious person did strike – and it's possible – the fire only spread so far and so fast because the climate is unusually dry. The hefty act of arson is our carbon-spewing behaviour every day, altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere in a way that guarantees more warming and more wildfires.


In Prison My Whole Life

Via the indefatigable Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I hear of a new film, designed to tickle the bien pensant by confirming each of their delicious prejudices. It is centered on the 25 years spent in prison by Mumia Abu Jamal, the Black Panther convicted of the murder of policeman Daniel Faulkner in 1982. His original death sentence was overturned in 2001 and replaced with a sentence of life imprisonment, a federal decision currently under appeal by both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Abu Jamal's lawyers.
It's been a cause celebre for decades now - there were very tatty old stickers up the Cowley Road calling 'Free Mumia' when I went up 10 years ago - but the evidence was pretty solid, and there has been nothing particularly infamous about the passage of justice: Faulkner was shot by a .38 bullet identical to the one remaining bullet in the gun held by Jamal - five had recently been fired. Jamal was caught at the scene, having already assaulted Faulkner and been shot by him. I'm not an expert in the legal minutiae of the trial, but the Birmingham Six this isn't. It's just a very convenient rallying cry for both racial activists and anti-death penalty acitivists - plus it's undeniably a catchy name.
So, a film excoriating the American justice system on the basis of this case might be said to be hanging its argument on a pretty flimsy hook. But then, look at the rest of the balls served up around it:
The film linked this abomination with Abu Ghraib, the execution of the Rosenbergs and the treatment of the Black Panthers in that land of the free. This is the ugly America, usually covered over with the stars and stripes. The Firths will be damned by patriotic Americans, including their fans. Like many other British "luvvies", so derided by the press – Juliet Stevenson, Emma Thompson, Ken Loach – they use their names for a greater good. There are such people in the USA, but today most have been silenced.
Jamal was a Black Panther, and, although Yasmin hasn't gone into specifics on what it was about their 'treatment' that so outrages her (I assume it wasn't the repealing of a law allowing the carrying of loaded shotguns and rifles in public) the fact that in 1967-1969, nine police officers were killed and nearly sixty wounded in altercations with the Panthers rather suggests that something needed to be done. As for the Rosenbergs, those pin-ups of the left for so long, they were guilty of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union. They were spies. Simple as that. And as for that last sentence, what a complete load of twaddle! This belief that some appear to have that all dissenting voices in America are being rounded up and 'silenced' is more than bizarre - it's demented.

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A Conservative Foreign Policy

In light of David Cameron's speech in Berlin on Friday on foreign policy, I thought it might be a reasonable idea of I were to attempt to explain what I see as being the basis for a truly Conservative foreign policy. Foreign policy has been essentially divided recently between 'idealists' and 'realists', with both terms being stretched beyond their traditional meanings. David Cameron's speech has been both heralded and regretted as being a repudiation of American liberal interventionism (which is not quite the same thing as neo-Conservatism) and a re-statement of traditional Tory pragmatism, but what is it that should characterise Conservative foreign policy?
When Labour came to power a decade ago, one of the most eye-catching (and widely derided) aspects of their ideas was that all British foreign policy should have 'an ethical element'. This idea of foreign policy as sixth form debating society rapidly proved unworkable, to the extent that even in a situation with a clear moral imperative, the civil war in Sierra Leone, the Government was caught in a bind by its own peculiar ethical concerns. Pure ethics is no basis for a foreign policy. It should be accepted that whatever the policy, and whatever the Government, John Pilger will not support it and Noam Chomsky will call it akin to the Nazis. These are basic truths, and happily mean that the opinions of both men can be discounted.
But the 'ethical' nature of Blair's foreign policy continued throughout his term in office. We can argue about Iraq, and I will address it more directly later, but one characteristic of that war was that it fitted neatly along the line of a foreign policy that encompassed Serbia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo amd Afghanistan - the intervention of British troops to improve or stabilise or protect the internal politics of another country. Iraq was simply the continuance of this policy a l'outrance.
Old-fashioned Conservatives said about all these conflicts, and particularly the last, "Why?" Why should British blood and treasure be spent on conflicts in which we have little interest? Where is the British dog in these fights? What, was ultimately the question, is in it for us? These are all perfectly valid questions from a Conservative point of view. If you do not accept the position that the role of the British in the modern world is to leave it better governed everywhere it can possibly reach (and note that this is a parody of intentions, not a description of outcomes) then there is a perfectly reasonable question of interest. Should not the primary motivation of every policy, foreign and domestic, be the furtherance of the British national interest?
Outcomes thereby become more important that motivations. Let us look, for example, at Zimbabwe - a subject close to my heart. An 'idealistic' foreign policy would surely say that the reign of Robert Mugabe is a murderous absurdity; that the people of Zimbabwe need our help immediately; that the immediate cause of this need is the government of Robert Mugabe; and that therefore the right policy is to remove Mugabe and the entire stinking edifice of ZANU-PF with all speed. Yee-hah and send in the Commandos. And a 'realist' might reply, yes but. We have no local base from which to send troops. We have no regional support. We have no real idea of how to put Zimbabwe back together again. Ultimately, callous as this might sound, this isn't our problem. So - what to do?
I suspect that a Conservative foreign policy would be a re-balancing towards the realist school. In truth, of course, there is never as much difference between the parties as they like to pretend. The little differences that are shouted about tend to be differences of emphasis and of style. Emphasis can be important, however. A few principles might be adduced: ask how, not why; what's in it for us?; every difficult question has a solution that is straightforward, understandable, and wrong.

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My position on the European Union

Rather neatly summed up by Mark Mardell of all people.

Being Norway or Switzerland might prove of great benefit to the UK. But becoming Norway or Switzerland would be a painful and long drawn-out process.

It's the question of when the benefit becomes worth the process that is the crucial one.

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The European Treaty - what should happen next?

One of the things that Gordon Brown's delay of the next General Election to 2009 (probably) has meant is that the Conservative position on the European Treaty has become significantly more complicated. Presently, their position is admirably clear: they support a referendum, in which they would oppose the ratification of the Treaty. Hard to pick a hole in that really. But suppose the Treaty does not go to a referendum, but is passed through Parliament by Labour and Lib Dem enthusiasts. This would be in early 2008, and the Bill would go through to the House of Lords, where surely an amendment allowing a referendum would be returned to the Commons.
Intriguingly, of course, though the Commons can force a Bill through the Lords, it is more or less convention nowadays for this to happen only where the Commons are upholding a manifesto pledge of the Government. In this case, it would be argued, the Government are in fact reneging on a manifesto committment, and it would be the Lords upholding it - a tricky case to use the Parliament Act on. Fun and games aplenty in store for us here I suspect.
Lets imagine, however, that by a combination of low cunning and dirty politics, the Bill is passed and Royal Assent is given. A year later the Election is called and the Tories come into Government. They are faced with a fait accompli. In a discussion at the Ministry of Truth, Bob Piper says that they should honour their current committment and call a referendum on the Treaty - and repudiate it if that is what the referendum decrees. He gives, as an example, the referendum called by Harold Wilson in 1975 on the entry into the European Union.
I think this is either based on a misunderstanding of the issue at hand or, more likely, mischief-making aimed at painting the Tories into a corner. Wilson's referendum was 'In or Out'. A straightforward question with clear actions following. Had the No vote won, Britain would (probably) have left the European Union. In the current situation, unless the referendum is also an 'In or Out' question, the scope for Britain in the light of a No vote is very unclear. It is possible (and in this case desirable) to attempt to alter the rules of a club of which one is a member before the rules are introduced. It is not possible to repudiate those rules a year after they have been unanimously endorsed - unless you want to leave the club altogether. I do rather, but suspect that this isn't yet a majority opinion. So, Hague and Cameron are right to act with extreme caution on what the Tories future tactics will be with regard to the Treaty - it's all too easy to sign up to a policy that would be entirely impossible by the time of the next Election.
Depressingly, I find that I have written a piece that could be by Timothy Garton Ash. I'm quite profoundly Eurosceptic, veering towards the Worstallite position. At some point there will have to be a reckoning. At some point public opinion will tip to the point where current federalism is no longer sustainable. And the massive cynicism of the European political hierarchy over the Constitution may well be the beginning of that movement. I hope so. But it would be a very bad thing for both the Conservative Party and, the pretty valid criticisms of the DK notwithstanding, the wider Eurosceptic movement in Britain if the Tories were to go to the mattresses over an impossible principle.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Getting personal

Apparently Gordon Brown has a real problem with David Cameron: he hasn't spoken to him privately in weeks. While nobody would expect the two to be soul mates, the level of animosity goes a bit further than that. But the reasons given are rather bizarre:

The Prime Minister has barely spoken in private to Cameron since he lost his cool with the Conservative leader in early September. Brown abruptly ended a telephone conversation with Cameron, while he was explaining the second outbreak of foot and mouth, because he saw the Tory leader pop up on television lambasting the government in a pre-recorded interview.

So Brown refuses to talk to Cameron, because David Cameron gives interviews criticising the Government? That's really peculiar - what did Brown expect? Relations have broken down to such an extent that Brown sees everything as a personal slight:

Cameron, who speaks openly about his disabled son, Ivan, offered warm words for Brown and his wife, Sarah, when Fraser was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis shortly after his birth last year. Cameron expressed 'huge sympathy' for the Browns in a television interview in July, a move that upset Brown.

So expressing sympathy for his son was upsetting? Brown is becoming alarmingly irrational in his attitude to Cameron. The good thing is that this is probably also clouding his judgement as to how to deal with the Tories:

Brown regards their weekly encounter across the Dispatch Box as an important part of making him accountable to Parliament. But Cameron's theatrical success is not impressing Brown, who believes the Tory leader is failing on substance. Downing Street believes this was illustrated last week when Cameron ploughed on and condemned the government for planning to claw back schools' budget surpluses after Brown had said he was reviewing the issue.

Brown has said to MPs: 'The guy reads out a script, with a studio audience behind him. And it's the same script and the same response, no matter what answer you give him. It's not parliamentary debate: it's just soap opera and soundbites. I'm not going to do that rubbish.'

And if Brown continues to treat PMQs as an irrelevant sideshow, he's going to continue having his backside handed to him on plate every week. As for the schools issue, it was a crap idea, exposed as such by the Tories, forcing Labour to U-turn on it. If Brown doesn't see why DAvid Cameron talked about it on PMQs, it's easy to see why he's such a hopeless failure at them.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More PMQ fireworks

Gordon Brown really doesn't seem to have got the hang of PMQs. Quite apart from the poor delivery, the stuttering, stammering and desperately poor jokes, he simply doesn't have the capacity to get from ears to brain to mouth. There are, for example, a few things that you simply do not do in the House of Commons. Almost chief among these is accuse a fellow MP of lying, or 'misleading the House'. Even the perishing neophytes know that.
And yet, in response to a jibe from Cameron about how Douglas Alexander had fiddled with the Scottish electoral system for party-political gain - with shambolic results - the Prime Minister accused Cameron of "misleading people" about the report. Even Michael Martin, the transcendentally useless Speaker, was moved to warn Brown about his intemperate language. The problem is that it makes Brown look even more rattled - and gets Cameron that bit closer to making him lose his temper in the House altogether.

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An unsettling gap

One of the most enlightening aspects about the debates about the European Treaty has been the light it has shed on the strained relationship between the ruled and the rulers. Peter Oborne's new book on the new political establishment has identified a new 'elite' in British society that consists of the political classes, media darlings and the like. This is held to explain why there exists such a dichotomy of opinion between 'us' and 'them'.
Think about capital punishment. If there were to be a referendum on whether that should be re-instated it is quite possible that a majority would still be found in favour. At the time that it was abolished that majority would have been very large indeed. Or look at Europe. People argue about whether there would be a majority for absolute withdrawal, or mreely a substantial minority, but it's fair to say that public opinion is significantly more sceptical than mainstream political opinion.
Does it matter? We live, as people who don't want a referendum on the European Treaty are constantly reminding us, in a representative democracy - we rely on our elected representatives to take all those difficult decisions for us. But where there is such obvious disconnect isn't there also a democratic deficit?

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Is Simon Heffer right?

Normally, of course, the answer to this would be no. But in asking, as he does today, whether the Tories would best be served by focusing on cuts on public spending and the resultant capacity for cuts in taxation, he is merely vocalising what a lot of Conservatives, both lapsed and current are also thinking.
The idea is as follows: the Conservatives recovered their popularity as a reuslt of promising an increased threshold for Inheritance Tax. This means that the time is finally right for the old debate on tax and spend to be reversed. The Tories should thus identify large areas of public spending that should be cut, and make plans for cuts in personal and business taxes on that basis.
The traditional counter is that the Labour Party would jump up and down, talking about 'black holes' and claiming that every school and hospital in Britain would close, and every nurse would be reduced to prostitution. Which, of course, would be the Labour response.
At a certain level this has been the Tory dilemma since 1997. Calls for cuts in taxation have been met with the 'so how many doctors are you planning to kill?' response. Its inherent ludicrousness as a response (£6bn is a rounding error in modern British finances, not a black hole) has not, until now, dulled its effectiveness. What Heffer is arguing is that now the tables have switched, now the weight of public opprobrium is on levels of taxation, not levels of spending.
But Heffer has been saying this for years now, and he's been wrong at every election during that time. Why should he be right this time? My personal feeling is that, while the reduction in overall public spending should be a strategy for the Tories, it should not be a tactic. Introducing benefit reform a la Wisconsin or Australia should be done to reduce welfare dependency and increase employment levels, not to cut the spending levels. NHS reform should be done to improve service, not solely to keep bills lower. Conservative ideas for social reform should have the effect of cutting spending as it is - and focusing on this should allow the Tories both to talk about general reduction in taxation, and not to be accused of slashing services.
As for tax cuts, the true lesson of the conference is that any tax cuts need to be both eye-catching and specific. Therefore, such specific tax cuts should be clearly identified and separate from a general ambition to cut taxes. The public don't believe parties that say they want to cut taxes, so specific examples must be given., The Labour Party currently seems in such ideological retreat that all the Tories must be certain to do is cost the proposals thoroughly, and make sure they pass the first smell test. So, Heffer is mostly right. Changing times, or stopped clock?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Studied Emptiness?

Since Brown took over as Prime Minister, the country has been assailed by constant talk of his vision for the country, of how his moral compass directed him through politics and of how he needed to articulate his ideas for the 'new politics'. The reason he gave for calling off the autumn election was that he needed more time to spell out his vision for the country - he repeated that phrase about ten times in a half hour press conference. Yet here we all are, four months into the Brown premiership, and what have we learned about this vision of his? Not much.
We've had re-heated (and half baked) ideas about 'citizen's juries'; we've had announcements of reviews of Government policy on half a dozen things, ranging from casinos to licensing laws; we've had loudly-trumpeted micro-fiddling of the tax and benefits system. What we haven't had is any articulation of underlying direction, nor any discussion of overarching principles. Gordon Brown has waited ten years to be Prime Minister - but it's beginning to look as though the destination was the end of his ambitions, and not the start of them.
Common wisdom was that Brown was the policy hub of New Labour - the intellectual creative force. But he has promoted nothing, articulated nothing, announced nothing. The entire Government is devoid of purpose - it, like Randolph Churchill's pudding, has no theme. A greater opportunity for the Conservatives can hardly be imagined - they have the chance to set out a vision, to - in my over-rehearsed argument - plan out a narrative of where they want to go, and what they intend to do in order to get there.
Brown and Labour look intensely, definitively reactionary. They have been on the back foot in the press since conference season ended, but policy-wise they have been on the back foot for far longer. Everything is seen in the prism of short-term political advantage. From Darling's hastily re-written pre-Budget Report to Brown's announcements of mythical troop movements. They are in Government - they should make the running, they should craft the policy. Nothing Brown has done has suggested anything other than the fact that he is out of his depth as Prime Minister. He seems to need someone to tell him what to do, and when you're Prime Minister, there is no-one left who can do that.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Oddness from the Yazz-monster

Since the Independent used to hide its comment pieces behind a subscription wall, and I wasn't going to go out and buy the bloody thing, I had never read the articles of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown until recently. I rather think that should have remained my policy, as today's article is by equal measure baffling and irritating. There are bizarre non-sequitors:
There is still no genuine and uncontested equivalence between white Britons and those who are unfortunate enough not to be. Old forms of overt racism have been banished from the landscape; the main political parties have tacitly agreed a red line on racist statements by influential insiders; chosen black and Asian citizens now get to powerful positions; friendships and romances between us steadily weave a multicoloured social tapestry, strong and beautiful. New internal fissures and violent hatreds within black and Asian hearts and minds sometimes make white racism appear tame and polite.
Or in other words, there is no acceptable racism any more, but it's still a racist society. Is it just me or is that a rather pointless argument? Don't worry about the facts - just go with how you feel! There are odd statements:
I still say there is no genuine and uncontested parity between whites and non-whites, not here, not in Europe, not Australia, not in the US, not even in post-apartheid South Africa rejoicing today in their rugby win.
Not even in South Africa? South Africa is still a far more racially divided society than Europe, the UK, Australia or the US. There is still a clear social and economic division between white and black, while the political legal situation veers ever further towards positive discrimination. It's a bizarre thing to say. The whole article feels very flat - rather as if she was writing 800 words to a deadline with nothing new to say and no new ideas to examine. I preferred it when I couldn't read them to be honest.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007


I've been sick as a dog for the last week, and last night really didn't help. Mind you, congratulations to the Aussies for finally getting their revenge for four years ago...

In all seriousness, rugby is won in three areas: at the re-start, at the break down and in on-field discipline. Last night England lost their own line-out 7 times. They gave away at least three entirely unnecessary penalties. They probably played slightly more rugby, but ultimately didn't deserve to win it. So, well done to the Springboks...


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

PMQs - again

After last week's ritual slaughter, Gordon Brown had to do better today. And he sort of did, although that's not saying much. But there are times when Brown tries to think on his feet that he says some really peculiar things. Responding to Cameron's question as to why he won't call a referendum (as if we all didn't know) Brown said something along the lines of:
The [shadow] Foreign Secretary (he didn't actually call him shadow, but surely he must mean Hague...) denied the British people a vote over Maastricht, which was a more important Treaty...
Well, what the hell's he talking about? Maastricht was signed in 1992, and ratified by the British Parliament in 1994. Hague wasn't even a minister at that point - and he only entered the cabinet, at which point one could, I suppose, invoke collective responsibility, in 1995. Brown's trying to get the current Tory front bench on hypocrisy, since there wasn't a referendum on Maastricht. But he's talking absolute nonsense, and he really ought to be better than this.

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An essentially bogus argument

So, should we have a referendum on the European Constitution? It is, I suppose, an important question, and the arguments brought on both sides are largely interesting and sometimes even valid. But they are also, almost entirely, bogus.
The prime argument in favour of a referendum is pretty straightforward. The Treaty is structurally identical to the Constitution, and all major parties pledged a referendum on that. QED. This is less, of course, an argument for the merits of referenda in general, or even this one in particular, than it is a statement of political fact. Wriggling out of this is tricky.
But they've tried, of course they have. And all the arguments brought as to why there shouldn't be a referendum are false. Not perhaps intrinsically, but because they are made in fallacious ways by people who are least qualified to make them.
Lets ignore the claim that this document is a different document to the original European Constitution: it isn't. Where the Constitution brought European Treaties together into one over-arching document, the Treaty simply incorporates them by reference. The effect is the same, except that it makes the Treaty impossible to read - a feature, not a bug.
So, what's the first argument against a referendum? That referenda are not a part of British democracy - we live in a Parliamentary democracy, read Edmund Burke for the classic defence of this position. Parliament is the place for proper scrutiny of such matters. Linked to this is the Ken Clarke position: referenda never answer the questions asked. "You ask the public for a decision on bi-metallism, and they reply 'Throw the rascals out!'" as the hush-puppied one said. Both these are fair points. But not when made by the party that has brought referenda on London mayors, on devolved assemblies, on devolution in Scotland and Wales, on the peace process in Northern Ireland. All these referenda were said to be necessary because they involved a transfer of sovereignty. So does, par excellence, the European Constitution. The argument doesn't fly, not from them.
What else? That Britain has defended its red lines? That's an argument why the Treaty is a good one for Britain, not why it should not be decided by public vote. You think it's a good treaty? Excellent, then winning a referendum should be easy. If you think the Treaty is bad for Britain, then why are you even considering signing it?
The arguments against a referendum are flawed beyond measure. But so, in truth, is the argument for a referendum. Those of us who want a referendum don't do so because we believe that the measure is so important that it can be decided only by a plebiscite. We do so because we know that we would win it. The only truthful position is that those in favour of a referendum are opposed to the Treaty, and those we are in favour of the Treaty are opposed to a referendum. High and philosophical arguments about the sovereignty of Parliament, or the mandate of the people is so much nonsense.

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Monday, October 15, 2007


Ingredients for a Liberal Democrat Leader

Poor old Sir Ming, that was pretty quick. Elected as a safe pair of hands, he's looked wobblier than a French full back. So it is to be decision time for the Liberal Democrats after all. The first Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, drew them closer to the centre-left consensus. The second, Charlie Kennedy realised that he needed distance from Labour, but didn't know whether that should be distance to the right or to the left. He was able to conceal that lack of direction by a mixture of personal affability, shameless disingenuousness from local Lib Dem activists and the only Lib Dem USP - opposition to the war in Iraq.
When his alcoholism made his leadership completely impossible, Ming was faced with making the final choice - left or right. He didn't make it, and, with Iraq slowly losing its potency as an elction-winning issue, he had neither the message nor the medium to sell the Lib Dems. The question is more where do they want to go, and not who shall lead them there. The 'bright young things' of Clegg, Laws and even Huhne all look too right wing for their party, while Hughes has the smell of failure about him. What's surely no longer an option is to continue wobbling along two lines at the same time.

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Aux timbrales!

Two Pints...

Joining in the chorus of disapproval over proposed plans to encourage the drinking of UHT milk over actual, you know, milk, I am reminded of two things. The first is, as the Devil points out, is that UHT milk is utterly revolting in tea. If the Government are proposing standing between the Englishman and his cup of tea, I can only suggest that we break out the pitchforks, and start measuring the lamp posts.
The other memory that sprang to mind was an episode of Father Ted, where Father Dougal becomes a milkman, beacuse the usual milkman is going around shagging all of the Craggy Island women, causing a pandemic of hairy babies. In discussing with the boss of the dairy his duties, Dougal is reassured that it's all very simple. Everyone drinks ordinary milk,
"There is that UHT milk, but no-one drinks it because it's shite."


The power of punctuation

Ever since the Lynne Truss book that filled a thousand Christmas stockings, I have veered away from my incipient grammar freakishness (which is so bad that I can identify gerundives in English - which apparently don't exist). In place of eats, shoots and leaves I in any event always preferred a similar cautionary tale about the importance of capital letters (it involved going down to the farm and helping Uncle Jack off his horse...).

But the absence of punctuation marks in classical languages has left us at least one perpetual puzzle. While we know that Julius Caesar's dying words were not 'et tu Brute' as Shakespeare would have us believe, our only source is Suetonius - admittedly not always entirely reliable. And he says that what Caesar said, turning to Brutus before pulling his toga over his face to hide his dying face, was, in Greek, 'and you my child.'
But what we don't know, because there isn't a Latin symbol for an interrogative, is whether this was a despairing question - even you Brutus? - or a grim prediction - they'll get you next my lad. It is entirely unsolveable from the source material we have to hand, and a very pleasing little conundrum. In the absence of a definitive answer, lets go with Kenneth Williams.


The first casualty?

It doesn't look good for Ming Campbell: you can tell you're really in trouble when your colleagues start stabbing you in the front. In truth, when you're polling at 11-14% in opinion polls, and Electoral Calculus is still showing you with no seats whatsoever on a mythical universal swing, it's hardly a surprise that the knives should start coming out. There's a small problem, however: short of Sir Menzies doing the decent thing and toddling off to the library with a bottle of scotch and his Webley service revolver (standard issue in World War One, you know), it's hard to envisage the Liberal Democrats having the requisite blood lust to defenestrate a second leader in two years. Having fired one leader for self-induced infirmity, it would run the risk of seeming callous to do the same to another for his perfectly naturally-induced infirmity.
However, one feels that this is a bullet that has to be bitten as far as the Lib Dems are concerned. Their problem is simple: squeezed hard in the south by a Conservative Party that no longer looks hopeless and nasty, they are also not getting the better of the squeeze on the left. A lot of the disaffected Labour vote that flocked to the Lib Dems in 2005 seems to have drifted back to Brown. Denied the oxygen of publicity, largely because of the highlighted spat between Cameron and Brown and because the flurry over the election that wasn't concentrated on the Tories and Labour, the Lib Dems are drifting quietly under the radar. They need to stop this, but with Iraq diminishing as a matter of importance to voters, what do the Lib Dems have to catch attention?
Even if they do find the courage to depose Ming and replace him with, presumably, either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems are not guaranteed a hearing. The Iraqi USP having faded, traditional Lib Dem areas like the environment are no longer being left open to them, while with the Tories having shed their 'nasty' tag, even the cosy jumper-wearing south may desert them. The Lib Dems need to find a selling point, and fast. But there lies the rub. The two prime candidates (and I suppose people like Simon Hughes on the extreme left wing of the party and David Laws on the extreme right) need to choose whether they are going to be a centre-right challenger to the Tories, or a leftist challenger to Labour. The smart money is on challenging the Tories - the so-called Orange-booker wing - but activists are unlikely to stand for it. The soul of the party would rather lead to the left of Labour - but is there room.
The tragedy is that, while Kennedy managed to be all things to all men, Campbell has managed to be nothing to anyone. The next leader will have to choose which road to take.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007


I actually cannot believe what I saw. Another massive forward performance, another bravura performace from Jason Robinson, another heart-stopping final five minutes. If it's like this next week then I'm going to need a rest cure.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Written Constitution

There have been mutterings and mumblings for ages and ages that what Britain needs is a written constitution, in the words of Flanders and Swann, "to finish once and for all this compromise and uncertainess that has served us so well for so long."
Well, I don't think it's possible. Literally not at all possible without a revolution. Because the only body that could enact a written constitution - Parliament - is incapable of doing so. It is not possible for Parliament to bind its successors. That's a law more akin to gravity than it is to speeding. Unless the entire principle of British governance is redesigned from the bottom up, there is no way that a written constitution can be enacted.
Lets take a brief example. In the eyes of British law, the independence of the Republic of Zambia was established through a Parliamentary Bill, then confirmed by an Order in Council. For Parliament to order the enactment of a written Constitution would be akin to their revoking Zambian independence - technically possible, the Bill could be written, but not practical.
Lets say that in the dying days of a Labour Government they introduce a written constitution that squeaks through both Houses and is enacted before an election which they lose. The new Conservative Government could simply abolish the Bill, amend it, or tear it up to make lavatory paper. It would have no residual power. It's almost as much a philosophical point as anything else - the only body capable of redesigning British Government, doesn't have the power to do so.

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Why have the wheels fallen off?

It's been a terrible week for Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. Widely derided for not calling an election, he was also savaged at PMQs yesterday. David Cameron was sharp, and has evidently decided that the best approach is to get under Brown's skin and needle him repeatedly with jibes about his lack of courage, honesty etc. It worked yesterday, Brown was visibly cross, but managed only to sound petulant and short of ideas. Matthew Parris has observed that Brown's first response 'I won't take lessons from...' is a classic briefing response, but the “no lectures” section is placed at the end of the briefing: an “in emergency, break glass”, last-ditch line of defence. That it was Brown's first response is not encouraging.
But why is Brown faring so badly at the first reverse? This is, after all, a noted Commons performer, who regularly put Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont (though less often Ken Clarke) onto the back foot. Why is he so incapable of dealing with personal attacks? Why can't he deflate difficult situations as Blair, and even John Major, could when PMQs turned difficult? In the days before Brown became Labour leader, and I was convinced that he would be a poor Prime Minister, particularly in the Commons, I based my reasoning on three things: he was unused to Commons debates where he was subject to any degree of cross-examination; he was used to widespread admiration and respect; and his tactics had always been to render opposition impossible rather than to defeat it.
The first left me thinking that he had become too used to delivering crashing Budget speeches, where although there is a right of reply, there is no back-and-forth debate. It meant that he became too reliant on figures, on statistics and on pre-prepared material. There is no real room for spontaneity in a Budget Speech, and his facility for such things appears to have atrophied. As a Prime Minister that's bad news. On matters economic it is sometimes possible to disguise the fact that you are not answering the question. On more general matters (like calling an election) it is not - you have to have sufficient command of the brief to answer unexpected and off-the-wall questions, whether they are asked by Andrew Marr or David Cameron.
The second was largely a question of lese-majestie, Brown had become used to being treated as the Iron Chancellor. Even when Blair became unpopular, Brown was still held up as the solid exemplar of practical politics. His power within the Labour Party meant that there was little direct confrontation where he was the victim. Brown became a bully, and no-one successfully fought back.
And that brings me to what I think the real reason is for Brown's sudden (and quite possibly temporary) collapse in the House and in the press. Brown's tactics with the Conservative Party in the immediate aftermath of his taking office were essentially the same as the tactics he employed to ensure that he didn't face a leadership contest for the top job. He attempted to destroy the Tories - to win the General Election by default. This is why he focused on enticing disaffected Tories over (how is Quentin Davies feeling now I wonder?), on cosying up to the Daily Mail, on inviting Margaret Thatcher round to tea. It was all an attempt to get the Tories to implode so utterly that he would automatically win the next election. It worked on Alan Milburn, it worked on Charles Clarke, it worked on Tony Blair, eventually. It hasn't worked on the Conservatives, and it has shown him unable to win the argument by default.
He's not used to having to win arguments through debate - especially when that debate is reported by a hostile media. He's made repeated mistakes, such as the budget 'con' on Inheritance Tax, and he looks half the politician of a fortnight ago. Maybe those polls last year showing how little people wanted him as Prime Minister were prescient after all?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Worse than a crime

As the Duc d'Enghien said of Talleyrand, this was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. The problem that Brown's government has, and it has been a problem for the ten years of New Labour, is that they are so routinely disingenuous on tax and spend figures that an attitude of overwhelming cynicism has become hard-wired. In Brown's last budget he announced a two pence 'cut' in income tax that turned out to be a modest increase. In Darling's first PBR-CSR he seemed to announce a review of Inheritance Tax, 'doubling' the threshold for married and civil-partnered couples to £700,000. Apart from predicatable cries that they had stolen Tory clothes, it looked like it wa sabout to neutralise the IHT issue - one that had played particularly well for the Tories at conference and in the polls.
But. What looked like a tax cut was nothing of the sort. It was, in essence, a simplification of rules relating to married couples that have existed for years. There is no harm in this, and it could have been sold quite effectively along the lines of 'as house prices have risen and families that cannot be considered rich are now liable to pay inheritance tax, we believe that we should remove from the the need for complicated financial planning'. Something like that anyway. Instead, by selling this as a tax cut to match the Tories, Darling and Brown have traded one day's moderately favourable press coverage for yet more confirmation that they don't tell the truth on financial policy.
And it's worse than that. Labour have: specifically recognised marriage as worthy of a 'tax cut'; sold the pass on tax policy to the Tories; and done so incompetently. It will still take a lot for the memories of Black Wednesday to be erased completely, but Labour are doing their best.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Milking it...

OK, this is a cheap shot, and Madeline Bunting is making a perfectly reasonable point in this article - prostitution isn't the happy experience that Billie Piper's new show makes it appear - the reality is a brutal one of rape, drugs and violence, and it shouldn't be glamorised in the way it is. But still...
Piper's Secret Diary of a Call Girl is a dramatisation of the Belle de Jour novel. It's not a one-off: it is part of a genre you could call fuck lit, featuring titles such as Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire, Dairy of a Sex Fiend, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Confessions of a High-Priced Call Girl and The Internet Escort's Handbook.
Dairy of a Sex Fiend? The imagination is simply boggling...

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The Election that wasn't

Should Gordon have called it after all? The polls, both in the marginals and wider, aren't looking nearly so promising as they were, and the problems with funding, the electoral register and finding an excuse to go to the country are nothing like resolved, but Brown has sacrificed something important by not calling an Election - the goodwill of the media. Adam Boulton was livid that, after weeks of being carefully and extensively spun by Ed Balls and wee Dougie Alexander that an election was imminent, the PM called it off by means of a fairly soft interview with Andrew Marr, rather than by a press conference - or even in the House of Commons.
The vacillations over this, added to the raw calculation of polling data that Brown admitted to reviewing over the weekend, have erased the image of Brown as the solid, dependable politician that he fought so hard to establish this summer - and replaced with the 'frit' cowardly figure, willing to wound but afraid to strike, so familiar from 10 years of the TBGBs. It was the worst of all possible outcomes for Brown - the threat of an election unified the Conservatives, forced Cameron to move on from the 'brand decontamination' that was depressing and demotiviating MPs and activists alike, made the media look closer at Brown's Government and jacked up expectations to a fever pitch. The subsequent retreat allowed Cameron to claim the high ground, made the jouralists like like idiots and made Brown himself look like a big cowardy custard - as well as a disingenuous one when he claimed that he hadn't called an election because of his great clunking vision for the country. Good job.

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Richest ever

Tim calls attention to a list of the 250 richest ever Britons in the Times. As ever with these lists, there are anomalies. Tim points to two: are Lakshmi Mittal and Roman Abramovitch (repsectively 20 and 59) really British? I suppose for that sake, you can query the Norman French chaps like Alan Rufus and William of Warenne (1 and 2) - they were more conquering outsiders than British after all.
But the thing that always makes me question these lists is that someone isn't there - someone who was one of the richest men anywhere in the world, ever. Cecil Rhodes, born in Bishop Stortford, may have made his money in Southern Africa, but he was as proud to be English as anyone ever has been - and much more so than most. He also left a very great portion of his money to the rather shadowy furtherance of English values (something sanitised into the Rhodes Scholars). His wealth was being measured in billions in the nineteenth century, so what that translates to in modern values is certainly more than Bernie Ecclestone's £2.5bn. And that's without counting the fact that the old crook had two countries that were effectively his personal property. If you're counting Abramovitch and Mittal as British, then you have to count Rhodes - so where is he?


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Vive la France!

And that was something else. I think that's only the second time I've ever supported France. Funnily enough they were playing the All-Blacks then too. What was that about New Zealand being a bunch of chokers? Well up for a Fiji-Argentina semi in the other half now...


Waltzing off home

That was bloody fantastic, even if I did have to watch most of it standing outside a pub in Marylebone (surrounded by Aussies) squinting at the TV through the door. England played to their strengths perfectly, and the Aussies were made to look downright poor in the forwards. It's not enough to have fancy-dan backs who can run in tries from all over the park, if you're pack has all the heft and power of a Sinclair C5.

I wonder how the head of the Australian RFU is feeling right now though. I mean it's bad enough to lose your third world cup match in a row against any opponent, but to lose to a team that you absolutely hate? That's gotta hurt. And while it's childish to point out articles like this one that were bigging up the Aussies a couple of days ago, it's fun too.

The poor English, bumblers that they are, have fallen short throughout this tournament on all three criteria: style and humour and most definitely good intent.

Where in the past Australia were obliged to use hit-and-run tactics, now, boasting a scrum that even rival flanker Lewis Moody concedes may be the strongest Australia has assembled, they will engage England head-on.

The sad thing is that this probably is the strongest pack Australia have produced. It's just that it's still rubbish. Lets finish with a little chant. Aussie Aussie Aussie! Out Out Out!


Friday, October 05, 2007

The sound of roosting pigeons

The problem with letting it be widely known that you are strongly considering an autumn election, refusing to rule it out yourself and encouraging your entourage to drop hints left, right and centre that it will be soon, and that it will destroy the Tories, is that it leaves rather a hostage to fortune. As I said the other day, Labour doesn't have the feel of a solidly popular party. The bounce in popularity for Brown has been led by and supported by widespread and largely uncritical media coverage - when Cameron blitzed the newspapers in the summer the Labour lead dropped to almost nothing.
So, again, after a week of favourable coverage of the Tories, the opinion polls shift back towards parity. It may well be that this is an artificial Tory bounce, inspired by the conference and the large amounts of airtime granted to David Cameon in particular. It may equally be a rebalancing of opinion and coverage. I babble on dementedly about the importance of narrative - how central it is to political fortunes to have an easily describable and media-friendly narrative. David Cameron's original story was that of bright young moderniser about to reshape his party along new lines (which is why the comparisons to Blair were made). Brown's was that of a solid, professional figure turning his back on flim-flam and spin and putting his shoulder to the wheel.
But that latter one has been very badly damaged by his disastrous trip to Iraq. At a stroke he revealed low party-political cunning, an opportunistic cynicism and a tendency to mislead over facts and figures. In truth, of course, no-one should have been surprised. The down-and-dirty political tactics were nothing out of the ordinary, even if their timing (during Tory conference week) was against convention. His penchant for double and triple counting good news numbers has also been well documented - so why the surprise this time? In part this was because while the average person gets confused and/or bored by financial data - thereby allowing Brown to count spending promises several times without being caught - we can most of us count to a thousand, and we know what soldiers are. Playing clever politics with troop numbers doesn't look so smart when we can all see what's going on.
But it was partly so important because it fits another ready-made narative. The media are, like most of us, inherently lazy. If there's a perfectly good narrative lying around, they're inclined to use it. So Brown becomes 'more of the same', his 'no more spin' persona is discredited and journos reach for their discarded 'dour, grumpy Scottish git' story that was common wisdom in the Spring. Similarly Cameron now has the most compelling narrative of all - the 'Comeback kid'. That's a story that writes itself really.
So, while Brown sits through a long, dark night of the soul wondering whether an election now would leave him as John Major in 1992 - or Harold Wilson in 1970 - he must, sure;y, be regretting that he allowed his lieutenants to kill a perfectly good story, and replace it with a vrey much less flattering one.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The price of a phone call

Gratuitous, I know...

One thing that has irritated me for ages now is the practice of British Transport Police of putting large notices in tube stations saying, basically, that using a mobile phone outside a station is an open invitation to any would-be thieves and muggers. Similarly those adverts about how, if you don't buy three deadlocks, an alarm system and an expatriate South African armed with an AK-47 you clearly deserve to be burgled. Frankly, if the police can't maintain basic law and order on the streets, then they should be re-assessing their methods - and not relying on us walking about in suits of armour.

So I feel rather sorry for Bryony Gordon, who was bopped on the head and relieved of a mobile phone this morning in Ladbroke Grove. The right of women to have mildly inane conversations with their mothers is, and always must, inalienable. Given that everyone, quite rightly, gets into a palaver if it is suggested that, by drinking half a bottle of vodka and wearing skirts shorter than Gordon Brown's nails, women are 'asking to be raped', the same should hold for petty street crime.
Sadly, of course, online commenters being what they are, sympathy has been in rather short supply. Well, on the admittedly vanishingly slight offchance that she's reading this, I think it's jolly unfair. On the other hand, at least she did get a column out of it...


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Quentin Davies...

So, if there is a snap election, where will Quentin Davis stand for (come on, you remember! Defector, large head, writes in green ink)?

Conventional Wisdom

I sometimes wonder if it's just me. This makes me sound like a Daily Telegraph letter-writer, but it's true. As Daniel Hannan writes in today's Telegraph it just doesn't feel as if the Labour Party are 11 points clear in the polls. It feels close than that. Equally, looking over the Atlantic, although received wisdom is that the election is basically a shoe-in for Hillary Clinton, that doesn't quite feel right either. I dare say that she will win, but I simply don't think it's quite the fait-accompli that is so widely assumed.
My gut instincts (and these really are worth nothing) are that if Labour does go for an Election next week, and I have to say it's looking more likely than ever, Brown would be lucky to retain a majority the size of what he has already. Similarly next year in the States, I think that it will be as much of a nail-biter as the last two have been. The great thing about the web is that these things can come back to bite you, however, I will say that the last time I felt this disconnect was during the Liberal Democrat election last year - Chris Huhne was the bookies favourite, but it never felt right. It wasn't right in that instance, and I'm similarly uneasy this time.

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Opening shots of a campaign, or a successful prevention of one?
Stakes were pretty high at the Winter Gardens this afternoon. The Tories are trailing by a long way in the opinion polls, with Gordon Brown looking ready to call an election next week, with 1 November being widely trailed as the most likely date. Conservatives, although famed for their disloyalty at moments of stress, have actually usually fallen into line at Conference time - at least publicly. If you don't believe this, then remember Iain Duncan Smith's 17 standing ovations during his ghastly 'Quiet Man returns' speech - two weeks befre his defenestration. So it was probable that all Cameron had to do was read out the phone book, or copy Gordon Brown and read out Michael Dukakis's stump speeches from 1988, in order to garner lashings of applause. The press, however, are a harder bunch to please.
Important speech then, and there were two primary objectives for Cameron: first to energise the Tory faithful; second to prime the wider public on the differences between Brown and Cameron. The first objective had to be fulfilled largely through content, and the second on presentation. How did he stack up?
I'll talk about the content of the speech later - what sprang out was its presentation. As in Blackpool two years ago Cameron decided to speak without notes, and without a podium to hide behind. This meant that the speech was looser in form than it might have been, but gave it greater informality and also a more intimate style. Deliberate contrasts with Brown ('just imagine him giving a speech like this') were hard to avoid. The tone was generally reasonable and light - the Labour Party were described as having made mistakes despite generally good intentions for example - and it ought to come across well on television. The instant vibe from the press pack was good. Interestingly the press weren't given a transcript of the speech beforehand (obviously, since it was at least partly off-the-cuff). As a result, the reports will have been a lot more 'feel of the moment' in character.
As for the content - well, there was some real policy content. On education Cameron came closer than he ever has to explicitly adopting a voucher-style system:
We want to open up the state monopoly and allow new schools to start so we can bring the innovation, change and diversity of the private sector to the state sector... Simple regulatory regime, per capita funding and have new schools so we can really drive up standards.
Welfare Reform was also addressed, with Wisconsin and Australia being flagged as systems that work in getting people off benefits - which was also encouraging. Various other areas were touched on, including soldiers welfare, the NHS and so on, but these two were the big proposals that stuck out - welfare reform and voucher education. Sounds rather like Newt Gingrich's Republicans...
Whether it was enough to stop an Autumn election is debatable. There's an AJP Taylor-esque argument that an election is now impossible to avoid. Brown has ramped up speculation to such an extent that if he were to have second thoughts and call a halt he'd look terribly weak. On the other hand, if the polls do turn around after this Conference, would Brown really risk losing his Commons majority? It would only take a 1.5% swing to the Tories after all, and Labour have done almost unbelievably badly in the South over the last couple of years. If an election is called, however, David Cameron has, in my view for what that's worth, done enough to ensure that the Conservatives can go into it with as good a chance as they have had for the last ten years.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Brown and Presentation

A thought occurs to me. When Chancellor, Gordon Brown was famous for giving Budget Speeches that were all but un-repliable. Packed with statistics, sections on policy were delivered at breakneck speed so that it was very difficult to ascertain precisely what had been said. Time and again, however, detailed study showed that massive changes, some of them accidental and catastrophic, had been slipped out under the radar. For the first time Budget Speeches were examined not for what they said, but for what they implied, or didn't even mention.
Now that he is Prime Minister, will he stop doing this? He'll have to up to a point - Prime Ministers have the luxury of writing a set-piece speech setting out policy rather less than do Chancellors, and there's no room for that sort of style at PMQs. For all the current guff about 'Not Flash; just Gordon' Brown's image has always been as carefully managed as Blair's ever was. The difference is simply that Brown is less good spontaneously, less quick on his feet. He can't rely on boring the pants of everyone for two hours, then avoiding serious debate by making his speeches incomprehensible any more.

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Polly on Taxation, again

Polly, evidently miffed that her call for a Conservative Party indistinguishable in every way from the Labour Party appears not to have been heeded, has written to denounce in clarion tones the Conservative plan to raise the threshold of Inheritance Tax to £1 million. Once again, however, she's missing the point. Look at this, for example:
This is a very Tory version of Robin Hood. George Osborne yesterday promised to steal from the outrageously, stratospherically rich and redistribute it to the already very, very rich. That's what taxing non-doms to relieve inheritance tax does.
So, only the 'very very rich' pay Inheritance Tax?
To raise the threshold to £1m reduces the number of estates that will ever pay a penny from 6%, the pretty rich - to 1%, the very rich.
I see, so only 6% of estates actually pay IHT in its current form?
As house prices rise, more people fear that their estate will creep into the £350,000 level most recently set by Gordon Brown; 37% of estates are now worth over £350,000 (homes, pensions, cash), so if everyone died today then 37% of estates would be liable.
Ah, so in fact some 37% of estates are potentially liable today, should death actually happen. Now, the great problem with IHT is essentially this: few estates actually pay it; but a very large proportion are potentially liable for it. Given that a good revenue-raising tax raises money without altering behaviour, it's clear that IHT, by impacting the planning and behaviour of over a third of people while only collecting revenue on 6% of estates is an ineffecient tax. What's absolutely clear is that it affects far more than the 'very very rich' - most of whom won't be paying it anyway.
Labour has an opportunity here. Who inherits £1m? Let's look at photos of the homes of David Cameron and his wife's parents, or George Osborne's parents
Oooh yes, lets have some lovely personal attacks on the families of politicians, that'll go down a treat. If Polly Toynbee is really suggesting that the Conservative's are making economic policy in order to save David Cameron's wife's parents from having to pay IHT on their estate then she's crossed the line from being merely disingenuous to being downright nasty.

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