Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Expenses or perks?

Expenses or perks?

All this kerfuffle over expenses (and as scandals they vary from the properly corrupt to the pruriently amusing) is there because there is a cognitive disconnect between what MPs think they are worth, and what they are paid.  £65k might seem a helluva lot to most people, but it is (or was, lets see how salaries stand up to the current mess) entry-level stuff for big City jobs.  Accordingly MPs have been used to treating allowances (and remember that's what they're called, not expenses) as a top-up to salary, and not as a way of reclaiming genuine business expenses.  That way they get their effective salary up to a comfortable six figures, and look at the money getting paid to civil servants and quangocrats as a parallel.  These fellas are on more than the PM - three times as much as a backbencher.

There are three ways to deal with this.  We could raise MPs salaries to, say roughly the average claimed at present (about £120k?) and then abolish all forms of allowance, introducing the same sort of business expenses as currently operate in business.  Alternatively, we could abolish allowances and introduce expenses as above, but make MPs make do with £65k a year.  Or we could leave the allowance system as it is, police it better and hope that MPs realise that they're taking the mickey.

The first option is probably the most sensible, which is why it is the least likely to happen.  The second would be the most popular with the public, and the least popular with MPs, so that probably won't happen either.  So we're stuck with hoping that everyone plays fair and the problem goes away.  Good luck with that...

Breaking news from 1998...

Breaking news from 1998...

The moment the words ‘Darius Guppy’ were used on Dispatches ‘The Trouble with Boris’ last night, I knew that the barrel-scraping exercise had drawn a blank.  This is, after all, so red-hot an exclusive that it first emerged on Have I Got News for You about a decade ago.  It has gained no real traction other than embarrassing Boris on HIGNFY because it’s not really a story – there’s no ‘there’ there.  Go and have a look at Peter Risdon’s site for the details.

Monday, March 30, 2009



Polly Toynbee on the protests planned for this week:

Things may get livelier on 1 April when street theatre happenings promise pithier protests.

I suppose pithy is this year’s sassy



The main problem facing Jacqui Smith over this whole tax-payer funded porn fest is that it is just so funny.  At least with McNulty there was a sense of public-spirited outrage at the way he was abusing the system – here it’s impossible to get angry because it makes you laugh.  And I agree with Michael Brown that it is worse for a Government to be laughed at than hated.

On a related point, how long can Brown hold the line that all these little indiscretions are ‘a personal matter’ and no concern of his?  It’s all awfully reminiscent of John Major trying to close his ears to the sound of tabloid papers baying for ministerial blood back in the mid 90s.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tom Harris talks nonsense

I entirely agree with Alex Massie here: Tom Harris is being an idiot.  He is, obviously, entirely entitled to find Dan Hannan’s (masterly, excoriating etc) speech obnoxious.  You wouldn’t expect a Labour MP to enjoy it.  But this is preposterous.

What was truly repugnant about his speech was the total absence of any sense of patriotism. Some Tories on the extreme right of the party share the problem of some Republicans in the States: they don’t regard the head of government to be the nation’s leader unless he or she is also a member of their little party.

Gordon Brown isn’t just Labour’s prime minister; he’s Britain’s prime minister, and for any UK politician to launch such a disgraceful, personal attack on his country’s leader — in a foreign country — is nothing short of disgraceful.

Well there are a few points to be made in response to this nonsense.  The first is that not regarding the head of government to be the nation’s leader in the States is not the preserve of the Republicans – he’s obviously not been watching for the past eight years.  The second is that the old American convention of politics stopping at the waters edge is based on the fact that the President is not merely the head of government, but also the head of state.

That’s not the case in Britain.  We have a much better Head of State thanks, and the notion that Gordon Brown is my ‘leader’ is rather nauseating.  Hannan is an elected MEP and he was making a speech in the European Parliament in response to a speech made by Gordon Brown.  Brown is a politician, no more and no less.  He is not and should not be immune from criticism, wherever that criticism comes from.

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Brown and Eden

As it’s crowing season here at the Reptile, let me cast my mind back to the summer of 2006.  I wrote a piece about Suez and, with the failure of Anthony Eden in mind wrote the following:

As for lessons we can take today from Suez, the most interesting can be drawn by analogy, by examining the character of Eden, the instigator and principal fall guy of the debacle. Eden was the gilded heir of a long-term leader: unparalleled leader in his field, a renowned expert on foreign affairs. Yet he had been made to wait too long for the top job, long enough that his strengths had calcified into potential weaknesses: an over-strong certainty of his own infallibility. By the time he finally succeeded to the leadership it was to be cataclysmic failure in his specific area of expertise that was to bring him down. Something for Gordon to ponder as he squats over the Treasury, biting his nails and brooding over the ultimate prize so far denied to him.

As the economic news gets worse and worse, along with Labour’s electoral prospects, Brown’s thoughts must be turning towards the question of his historical legacy.  I suspect it will be seen as a parallel with Eden – that Brown was never temperamentally suited to the leadership, that his apparent greatest strength was actually his downfall and that crown princes don’t make good kings.  Brown and Eden will be forever linked in the history books as representing respectively Britain’s largest foreign policy blunder and her largest economic blunder of modern times.  Happy days…

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Scary stuff

This is absolutely mind-boggling

In the annals of a nation that has prided itself on keeping tabs on government debt since shortly after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the state has never needed to borrow as much money. According to the Ernst & Young Item club, in the two years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the government will probably have to raise £350bn.

That is more debt bequeathed to its successor than the total borrowed by successive rulers and governments of Britain between 1691 and 1997, the year Labour was elected.

The prime reason that Britain’s finances are so utterly banjaxed is the precipitous collapse in tax revenues from the financial sector.  That, coupled with Brown’s belief that what is needed to repair the situation is ever greater injections of liquidity into the system, is going to cripple the economy for a generation.  And I’m not sure that Brown will be able to keep things going as they are – that is without substantial cuts in public spending, or tax rises, or interest rate rises – for another year and a bit.  We’re either going to see a sea-change in economic policy or, as I think is more and more likely, an election.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gilt strikes and sloganeering

It was one of Mrs Thatcher’s most memorable sayings, that Socialists always eventually run out of other peoples’ money. George Osborne recently approximated this in his last budget response:

"In the end all Labour chancellors run out of money," he said with acid scorn, "and all Labour governments bring this country to the verge of bankruptcy."

Two bits of recent news have combine to make this look more and more imminent. The first, of course, was Mervyn King’s statement that the country was no longer in a financial position to afford another fiscal stimulus. In other words, the money has run out. The second was today’s news that the latest British gilt issue had failed to find sufficient buyers – the first gilt strike. In other words, we’re not even going to be able to borrow any more money.

It’s another reason why I suspect an election may be coming earlier than next year. And Harriet Harman’s performance in PMQs today adds a modicum of substance to this too. Her continuous stressing of Tory IHT plans, and references to ‘a millionaire’s manifesto’ along with renewed emphasis on the old ‘Tory cuts’ record look far more like electioneering than they look like Government. Watch this space.

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Bankers 4 Labour...

Michael White, who I normally have quite a good deal of time for, writes an article about the ‘trilemma’ (© Niall Ferguson) facing the Tories which includes, as a cute little throwaway line,

Low-tax theorists don't feel comfortable with the huge monetary and fiscal stimuli which most governments, left and right, have deployed to undo damage done by Conservative-voting bankers.

These would, presumably, be Conservative voting bankers like Tom Hunter, Sir Ronald Cohen, Christopher Ondaatje, and so on and bloody on. The banker that everyone will immediately associate with the financial catastrophe will be Sir Fred Goodwin, mates with and knighted by Gordon “for services to banking. Just like the other architects McKillop, Crosbie and Blank. Rather hard to pin this one on the Tories I’d have thought.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hannan tears Brown apart

This is a must see

Spread the word - the BBC wont want you to see this!

UPDATE: See it here

Labour's endgame?

Further to those comments by Mervyn King stating that Britain no longer has the ready money for another fiscal stimulus, a thought occurs.  What the hell is Labour going to do for the next 15 months?  They have already abandoned their summer Comprehensive Spending Review, and it looks like the budget will be a cut-price affair.  They are avoiding saying what and where they will cut public spending, because it’s their last line of attack against the Tories.  It looks like they are aiming all their energies at scraping past the finishing post.  But can this really be dragged out for over a year?

Their entire economic policy is now in tatters.  Jack Straw is announcing fantasy politics ‘to be implemented some time in the next Parliament’.  No one seriously believes that an ID card system will be operational, or even irreversible, by June next year.  What are Labour going to do for a year?  It looks far more as though they are gearing up for an election sooner rather than later – at least judging by Brown’s performance in the Commons yesterday.

I’ve previously been sceptical about the prospect of an early election.  Labour will almost certainly lose it, and why lose this year when you can lose next?  But there is a tempting counter-argument now.  Labour can delay taking the horribly painful fiscal measures that will be needed for long enough to lose an election.  The Tories will then take the blame, and Labour will be well placed to berate them for every cut in the public sector, as well as for every rise in taxation.  It’s beginning to look like the least worst option for Labour, go early, minimise losses and leave the tidying up to the Tories.

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Broke Britain

Mervyn King looks to have rather shot Gordon Brown’s fox on the fiscal stimulus.  It is, of course, the central plank in the Government’s economic policy that the world, following the heroic example of Chairman Gordon, needs another fiscal stimulus to preserve us all from the horrors of another depression.  Here’s the Chairman of the Bank of England:

"I'm sure the government will want to be cautious in this respect. There is no doubt we are facing very large fiscal deficits over the next 2-3 years.

"Given how big those deficits are, I think it would be sensible to be cautious about going further in using discretionary measures to expand the size of those deficits.

"The level of the fiscal position in the UK is not one that would say: 'Well, why don't we just engage in another significant round of fiscal expansion?'"

In other words, Britain’s too broke to afford it.  Any thoughts Gordon?

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Scorched earth spending

Incidentally, while we’re talking about tax, the mistake that the Conservatives appears to have made with regards to the top rate of 45p is to talk about it at all.  Danny Finkelstein sets out the problem beautifully here.

Let me begin my argument with the central inescapable fact in British politics.

There IS NO MONEY. The next Conservative Government will spend its entire period in office making hard decisions. It will not have to choose between hard decisions on tax and hard decisions on spending. It will have to do both.

It’s going to be this salient point – the coffers are empty and need to be recharged – that dominates British politics for the next decade.  When Cameron and Osborne took charge of the Tory part they were working under the illusion (a near-universal illusion) that the economy was reasonably settled, and that the size of the state could be managed down gently without bruising too many people as a result.  That option no longer exists.

The budget needs to come back into balance – or at least make significant moves in that direction.  As such not only will spending have to be cut, dramatically in some areas, but state income will have to rise.  There is a legitimate argument about how best to do this, and a good case that higher top-rates of income tax are an inefficient and small-scale way of doing this, but the problem for the Tories is at least partly presentational.  Spending cuts and tax rises will hurt.  Even if tax rises are minimised (and spending cuts therefore maximised) this will hurt.  As the Fink says:

We've looked at the books. We can see that there is no money. Gordon Brown has left us with unimaginable debt and his forward plans are unaffordable. We have hard decisions for years to come. We have abandoned many of our plans for public spending. We are going to cut Labour's plans down and services will feel the pinch.

We're sorry, but we can't help it. We'll get things going when we can.

Oh, but just as a start we don't need the £2bn that Gordon Brown was going to raise from people who earn more than £150k. We will find that by cutting spending even more. Vote Conservative.

It’s not an attractive position is it?  The Tories have been forced into this position by the Government’s shameless political posturing.  They haven’t implemented a higher top rate – they won’t have the chance to.  They haven’t identified where cuts in spending will fall – they won’t have to.  Labour have, in essence, ordered and eaten an enormously expensive meal and plan to run away before the bill arrives.  They are currently ordering Tokay and VSOP brandy on our buck, and noisily demanding how on earth the Tories plan to pay for it all.

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The Tories and tax

The Tories have got themselves into a bit of a muddle on the whole question of taxation.  This is rather frustrating as the beginnings of a clear and understandable Tory message on the economy was just starting to emerge: namely that the nation’s finances are close to be being utterly ruined, and that fairly drastic measures are going to be needed to pull it round.

The problem is that, although this over-riding message is becoming clearer, the detailed policies behind it are a bit contradictory.  Fraser Nelson has a very good point here:

Cameron's original poster claimed a baby born in Britain is saddled with £17,000 of Brown's debt. Under the plans the Tories are pursuing - ie, raise spending regardless of the tax base - this figure would be £27,000 by the end of a Tory government.

The possibility remains that the Tories are trying to set the mood music – that big cuts are urgently needed – before spelling out precisely what and where.  Given that the Government have clearly decided to fight the next election as an opposition rather than an incumbent, for that is the implication behind abandoning the Comprehensive Spending Review, how many hostages to fortune can the Tories afford to leave?

This, I suspect, is what is behind the two big bits of trouble over the Tories’ tax plans, the 45p rate and Clarke’s little moment over IHT.  The point is that the public finances really are screwed – quite how badly the Tories won’t know until they get their hands on the Treasury’s internal figures.  But how far can that message – we don’t yet know what we’ll have to do, but trust us – work for a party that hasn’t been in power for over a decade?

As an aside, it’s hard not to admire the Government’s chutzpah over all of this.  Ken Clarke’s point was basically that, owing to the spectacular mismanagement of the public finances by the Labour Government, coupled with their dissembling as to their true nature, Conservative economic policies would be largely dependent on how bad it really was.  The Government’s reaction: this is proof that the Tories are unfit for Government.  As I say, you have to admire the cheek.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Schools out...

Anyone who has ever accidentally switched over to BBC Parliament while looking for the news will have noticed that, for the centre of political debate and the Mother of Parliaments, the Commons chamber gets pretty damned empty.  Except for PMQs, there’s hardly ever anyone in the place.  As Paul Waugh notes today, as a result of both the bodged Cook/Straw reforms and the rather apathetic nature of Labour backbenchers, the Chamber is running effectively a three day week – not to mention the socking great recesses.

Waugh reckons that the place needs a reform-minded Speaker and a reform-minded Commons leader to make sure we get real value for money once again.  I suspect that what’s needed is a Government that needs to pay more attention to Parliament both because its majority is less assured than the current lot and because they’ll be forced to take unpopular and difficult decisions.  In other words, this is a problem that will partially solve itself…


More on Macintyre

The James Macintyre piece I referred to yesterday is kicking up something of a bijou stormette.  Fraser Nelson had a go at a rebuttal, in terms not unsimilar to my own:

The CoffeeHousers who despair at Cameron’s lack of radical policies would do well to read this piece, as it will cheer you up immensely. Cameron has adopted a “state-slashing, neo-Thatcherite agenda. While Cameron claims to be committed to spending increases, he is backing “spending cuts and tax cuts.” Rather than declaring Europe to be a low priority, Cameron “presides over the most anti-European parliamentary party in Tory history”. He has apparently reversed his plan not to expand grammar schools (damn, I missed that story) and, even better, William Hague is now a neoconservative. Result! Macintyre can also reveal Tory plans to “penalise single mothers.” He doesn’t give details. Perhaps he’s saving that for next week.

Well Macintyre has had a go back at Fraser today.  It starts with a frankly bizarre query:

Why is it that attacking the Labour party in print is seen as fair game in the Westminster playground and common practice for “neutral” journalists, but dare to turn your fire on David Cameron's Conservative party and you are dismissed as a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth red under the bed?

For a start, you wrote a political column in the New Statesman devoted entirely to ‘proving’ that Cameron was a barking Thatcherite who wanted to personally punish single mothers.  Each to their own, but it doesn’t really paint a picture of a neutral journalist does it?

Well, I am glad Nelson raises nationalisation because the point I was trying to make was precisely that Cameron has failed in making any major change on a par with either Tony Blair's symbolic abolition of the nationalising “Clause IV”, or for that matter, with Neil Kinnock's spectacular expulsion of Militant in the 1980s.

But that was because, in Clause 4, Labour had a highly visible, highly symbolic example of why they were unelectable – their fundamental lack of economic soundness.  The Tories, which have never, even under Thatcher, been as ideological a party as Labour, didn’t have the luxury of an obsolete totem which they could ostentatiously sacrifice.  (Does one sacrifice totems?)  Macintyre’s claim that Clarke would have ruled out tax cuts (forever?  Until they can be afforded?) is either nonsense or identical to current Tory policy depending on which way you read it.

Nelson also denies that Cameron made a U-turn on grammar schools, despite the fact that his original plan of saying there will be no new ones under a Tory government was reversed, with Cameron appeasing his Tory critics, explicitly stating this was not a “Clause IV” moment and saying “I don't go around picking a fight with my party”. I am surprised Fraser, an assiduous Cameron-watcher, “missed” the U-turn story when it was in covered by the rest of the Tory press.

It wasn’t reversed.  The existing policy – that grammar schools were fine where they were, but that they wouldn’t form the basis of Tory education policy – remained in place throughout that summer.  The Tory press went out on a limb over grammar schools (as I went into ad nauseam at the time), but the policy remained the same.

Nelson also ridicules my claim that Cameron is set to penalise single mothers – perhaps this is one of the “lies” he mysteriously refers to towards the end of his blog. He must, then, have missed the story that Cameron will reward through the tax system married couples, and middle class couples when one of those is wealthy enough to stay at home. These are not, I fancy, policies aimed at the single mother on a council estate in Hull.

Guh.  Nor are they aimed at the British Olympic cycling team – are they being penalised as well?  Tax breaks that affect one section of society do not automatically penalise every other section of society.  In other words, when trying to prove that the Tories want to penalise single mothers, it is not enough to demonstrate that they want to help married couples.  I suspect, however, that this cognitive dissonance will rumble on throughout the campaign and beyond.

I’m sure there’ll be more of this nonsense to come – it’s starting to feel a bit like election season again…

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Social democracy

Tony Benn is fond of claiming that it was the Labour Party that saved Britain in WWII, because they voted against Chamberlain in the Norway debate.  Well, it’s a point of view I suppose, though it ignores the fact that Chamberlain won the debate, and that it was the opposition of Conservative MPs that forced his resignation.  Now Vernon Bogdanor has a similar sort of crack in an article in the New Statesman (it’s obviously the season for this).

The article itself is about how and whether ‘social democracy’ can survive and thrive in a post-recession political sphere, but the bit that caught my eye was this:

In Britain, the divisions on the left have helped encourage Conservative hegemony. From 1914 to 1964, there was just one government of the left with a comfortable overall majority, and this even though there probably was a progressive majority in Britain for much of that period, a majority that would have adopted more imaginative policies to deal with unemployment and the threat from dictators.

Well, there were really two dictatorships during this period, Hitlerite Germany and the Soviet Union.  Given the relatively benign position on Stalin and the Soviet Union taken by much of the Labour Party, at least until 1956 though it continued beyond that, you’d think that Bogdanor must be focusing on the mid-thirties and the age of appeasement.  But that surely can’t be the case – look at what Labour leader George Lansbury was saying Britain should do to react to the Nazi threat:

I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world "do your worst".

I’m not sure that’s better than a policy of appeasement coupled with intense re-armament.

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Easy rider

It has become almost an article of faith among the left that the Tories in general, and David Cameron in particular, has received an astonishingly easy ride from the media, and have yet to be challenged on their actual policies.  These policies are then derided as either unreconstructed Thatcherite red meat, or as shallow and vacuous presentationalism – sometimes, confusingly, both at once.

There is, of course, some truth in this.  The Tories do face less severe questioning from the media – just as all oppositions do.  Oppositions have the luxury of pencilling in positions, and have the benefit of deniability, which Governments simply don’t have.  That tooth-grindingly awful Sion Simon interview this morning was a classic case in point.  Oppositions can criticise the current problems, and can get away without proposing specific solutions.  Ministers can’t.  It’s also a good general rule that unpopular Governments stop catching the breaks.  The dog days of Major’s administration was coloured by repeated complaints that the press were letting Blair get away with murder.

But in this case, how true is that Cameron’s party are unusually policy-lite?  There’s an article in Alastair Campbell’s super soaraway New Statesman that rehearses pretty much all the standard complaints, although there’s something a little odd about a rash of media articles criticising the, um, media for their lack of scrutiny of the Tories.

There’s the usual degree of disingenuousness in it, for example on education – which is the one area where pretty much everyone agrees that the Tories have a policy that is both radical and settled.

In May 2007, Cameron pledged that no new grammar schools would be created under the Tories. But, under fire from the right, he backtracked and left the possibility open. By this February, he was saying that “we’ve got to bust open the state monopoly on education” and talking of the need to increase “competition”.

At the risk of getting into all that grammar school stuff all over again, I would point out that the grammar school position never changed – it was always the case that grammar schools where they exist won’t be closed, but that there are no plans to extend them across the country.  Equally the last sentence here, about increasing competition beyond a monopolistic state provider, has nothing to do with grammar schools at all.

Had Kenneth Clarke, who also stood for the leadership in 2005, been elected, he would have made ridding the party of its ideological commitment to tax cuts the Tories’ own “Clause Four” moment. But George Osborne, the shadow chancellor whom Cameron will never sack, has always insisted that they do not need any such moment. In fact, on Osborne’s advice, Cameron abandoned the Tories’ commitment to government spending plans in November. So, far from resisting calls for tax and spending cuts, they are backing them just when these are least needed. 

I’d be astonished – in fact, utterly incredulous – if Ken Clarke had ‘rid the party of its ideological commitment to tax cuts’.  Unless you assume that the current levels of taxation are either ideal or too low, there will always be space for cutting taxes.  Spending cuts too are now inevitable – as the Government has acknowledged by announcing, um, spending cuts.  If the argument is that Cameron has been calling for instant, unfunded tax cuts now now now – well, I’d like James MacIntyre to point me to them.  I’d been under the impression that the Tories deliberately hadn’t been doing this.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives remain the party of the very rich, proposing to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. They failed to condemn the practice of short-selling shares last September and the party’s opposition to bankers’ lavish bonuses has been a last-minute conversion.

Inheritance tax as it stands is paid by, what, 7% of estates, as opponents of cuts delight in telling us.  However, the important statistic is that as it stands, some 37% of estates would be liable for IHT.  In other words, IHT encourages an enormous amount of behavioural change to avoid becoming liable for it.  As such it is extremely inefficient and falls, not on the ‘very rich’ who can afford accountants to help them avoid it altogether, but on the middle class who can’t.  My preferred option has always been to exempt primary dwellings from IHT (though hey!  Another few years and this won’t be a problem any more anyway) but to characterise the IHT move as only for the very rich is to miss the point.

With Duncan Smith’s guidance, Cameron has developed his “broken Britain” theme, and promises to reward married couples with tax breaks, thus satisfying the old Tory urge to penalise single mothers.

I’ve never been convinced by this line of argument.  Do benefits for the disabled ‘penalise’ the fit?  Does child benefit ‘penalise’ the childless?  It’s just not an argument that works.

Other than their relative youth, however, Barack Obama and David Cameron share little: they are diametrically opposed on every issue, from Europe to the Middle East, to the need for fiscal intervention. It is not surprising, as we reported last year, that Obama is said to have described Cameron as a “lightweight”.

Every issue?  Really?  Hmm.  And for God’s sake, this ridiculous unsourced ‘lightweight’ thing – you’re saying that you said that someone said that Obama said…  What is this?  A playground game of Chinese whispers?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Did you hear the one about...

Reptile readers with a good memory might remember me explaining the origins of the Irish Taoiseach’s nickname of Biffo Cowen.  It would be unkind of me to rub this in too much, but…

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was just a few paragraphs into an address at a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House when he realized something sounded way too familiar. Turns out, he was repeating the speech President Barack Obama had just given.

Don'tcha hate it when that happens?

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If my aunt had balls...

She’d be my uncle.  There’s an article in the Guardian today where they have canvassed cabinet Ministers as to Labour’s prospects in the next election.  A sort of ‘view from the bunker’ if you will.  Surprise, surprise they are upbeat and optimistic – at least for the benefit of the press.  The cause of their optimism is perhaps a little delusional though.

Ministers were buoyed by the Guardian/ICM poll finding that if the economy picks up in advance of an election - a mighty if - the Labour vote could increase by as much as eight points. The finding confirmed the volatility of the electorate.

It is indeed a mighty if – there’s no sign of the economy picking up in time for an election in 2010, and even if it did the visible indicators would inevitably be lagging behind.  It’s also a pretty hefty could.

It also plays (again) on this polling volatility that Labour are pinning their hopes on.  It isn’t true though.  The polls have followed a pretty sure pattern since October 2007 – Labour have fluctuated between the middle twenties and the low thirties.  The Tories have fluctuated between the low forties and the upper forties.  That’s a solid pattern and not a wild swing.  There’s a lot less hope out there than they like.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cheap shot...

It’s reassuring to see that even the most extreme of political upheavals don’t have to derail your career options.

When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 I was 17-years-old and my career under communism was already mapped out; I was preparing to work as a journalist for a state-run newspaper.

Twenty years later I find myself working for the BBC...

The more things change eh?

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Useless, fraudulent incompetents?

I sort of sympathise with David Aaronovitch here.  He’s arguing, basically, two things.  The first is that a liberal democracy is better than an authoritarian dictatorship (well, duh…) and arguments that the increasingly intrusive powers assumed by the state would be positively dangerous in the hands of an authoritarian Government are meaningless.  If an authoritarian dictatorship were to take power, it would ignore the existing laws altogether, or make new ones, or do what the hell it wanted.

It’s a good point.  The famously liberal Soviet constitution of 1936 didn’t matter a damn.  Hitler came to power legally, and then changed the law utterly.  I think it’s worth protesting against the spread of the surveillance society on its own merits, but that’s a separate argument. 

Aaronovitch’s second argument is that we are too quick to dismiss all politicians as useless fraudulent incompetents.  What about, he says, the things that went right?

The new schools. The defeat of bullying. The new hospitals. The waiting list reductions. The expansion of nursery education and of parental rights. The city regeneration. The Right to Roam. The many public sector IT projects that - quietly - worked. Northern Ireland. Were these all done by the wrong people and despite the broken system? So, in a messy adult democracy you get achievements and you get stupid errors.

I agree with the sentiment here, but most of these examples are a bit specious.  The defeat of bullying?  What does that mean?  The expansion of parental rights?  To what?  What public sector IT project?  If we’re left with the Right to Roam as the prime defence of the British system of government it’s a pretty shocking state of affairs.

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Hanging them high

Some of the straw-clutching I referred to yesterday is on display from Steve Richards in today’s Independent.  We have a reference to Cameron and Osborne being yet to seal the deal with the electorate and the idea that the polls are overstating the Tories and that Labour can be the largest party in a hung Parliament.

In these circumstances, Richards believes, and refers to unnamed senior Lib Dems as being in negotiations with Labour ministers for a re-run of the Lib-Lab pact.  This sort of talk is pure electoral poison for the Lib Dems.  The 1992 election was dominated by the Tory talking point of ‘vote Lib Dem, get Labour’ – it will be even more damaging if it’s actually true.  The Lib Dems have no option but to continue their tight-rope act between the two parties, and should in fact concentrate more of their fire on an unpopular Government sinking in the polls than a resurgent Opposition.

Incidentally, there’s a rather lovely piece of timing in this article.  Seeking to illustrate the Tories inherent puerility, Richards seizes on Cameron’s rather well-received speech on Friday.

With David Cameron and George Osborne still playing student-like games, taking time last week to discuss whether it would be clever of them to make an "apology", it is not surprising they have yet to seal the deal with the electorate.

What’s the main story of the morning?

Was that an apology? Brown admits he could have done more to prevent economic crisis.

Tch.  Bloody students.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Bullshit baffles brains

In an article bemoaning the inability of British politicians to express themselves clearly in understandable English, Catherine Bennett gives Harriet Harman a partial pass for her feats of clarity over the draft Coroner Reform Bill, although she then goes on to criticise her for this less than clear expostulation on the efficacy of quantitative easing:

"In respect of quantitative easing, the monetary policy committee has introduced up to £75bn extra that will be put in the economy"

Catherine Bennett is unhappy with this:

Given Harriet's commitment to simple speech, as well as the airy way in which she made this incomprehensible announcement, it's possible she thinks quantitative easing is so commonplace an expression that any explanation would be an insult to the intelligence of ordinary people. Unlike the legal language in her coroners bill, whose translation, unfortunately, almost no ordinary people ever appreciated because the bill was all about tinkering with the legal system and therefore of interest only to lawyers.

I have a rather simpler explanation.  For all that it becomes ever harder to believe, Harriet Harman was a solicitor – that is a qualified legal professional.  The rather peculiar nature of legal language is something she jolly well ought to understand – and even know how to translate for the laity.  She is not, however, an economist.  Her failure to explain quantitative easing in simple language stems from her failure to understand quantitative easing.  Jargon is almost always used as a shield to prevent the listener from realising that you’re talking rubbish.  Nowhere is this more true than among politicians.

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Scargill was right?

An argument you see a lot at the moment is that the current recession represents the ‘failure’ of capitalism and that therefore Scargill was right all along, and socialism as an economic theory has been vindicated.  Really?  When the economic crises of the 1970s destroyed Bretton Woods, did that mean that the old economic systems of protectionism and mercantilism were vindicated?  When the Russia economy collapsed in 1998 did that mean that the communist economic system was right all along?

This reasoning, that capitalism is flawed, therefore socialism works, is a neat little illustration of the false dilemma fallacy.  I’m particularly disappointed that Seumas Milne (tribune of the people that he is) doesn’t appear to have learned much from the philosophy he was taught at our old alma mater.

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Gallup polls, and other misleading arguments

There’s a superficially convincing argument doing the round, particularly amongst those supporters of the Government that have reached the whole clutching at straws stage, that the Tories are far from nailed-on certainties to win the next election.  The argument stands on the following assumptions:

  1. The polling, though good, is nowhere near where it needs to be.

This argument – evidenced today in the Telegraph – notes that the solid Conservative polling lead of 10-12% is nothing like the 20-30% leads that Labour enjoyed in the run-up to the 1997 election.  As a result, the Tories have failed to insulate themselves from the inevitable ‘swing-back’ to the governing party that always happens before elections.  Rod Crosby is a tireless proponent of this point of view over at political betting.  However, this approach fails to take into account the revolution in polling that has taken place over the last decade – see political betting for Mike Smithson’s repeated postings on this point, or see Anthony Wells.  The only polling company that is remotely comparable is ICM – and in March 1996, the relevant comparative date, ICM were showing polling shares of Con: 31; Lab: 45.  The eventual result?  Con: 31; Labour 43.

Bearing that in mind, it is almost entirely pointless to argue that since the Tories aren’t polling as well as Blair did, they aren’t on course to win the election.

2.  Despite their lead in overall votes, the Tories will get stuffed on tactical voting.
Well, they were in the four elections of 1992-2005 – surely this is a perennial feature of the British electoral landscape?  As Andrew Pierce says:

Labour gets in because the opposition vote is split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, while the Conservatives normally don't get in because their opponents vote tactically for the party best placed to stop them.

The entire point of the first two years of David Cameron’s leadership was to detoxify the brand.  There do appear to be signs that this working – apart from the increased Tory polling shares.  Mike Smithson highlights the fact here that Lib Dem voters now prefer David Cameron to Gordon Brown.  These suggest that the old “get rid of the Tory” campaigns may be unravelling.  As an illustration of this, lets look at Crewe & Nantwich.  As everyone knows, the Tories took the seat, with a 17.6% swing from Labour.  The Labour vote collapsed, and the switchers were direct from Labour to Tory.  In the old days of unpopular Labour Governments, by-election victories in Dunfermline and Brent East went to the Liberal Democrats, as voters wanted to give the Government a kicking, but didn’t want to hand the vote to the Conservatives.  There’s no hard evidence, and won’t be until the election, but I think that the old anti-Tory vote is unwinding.  More bad news for Labour (and the Lib Dems); more good news for the Tories.

3.  Cameron hasn’t ‘sealed the deal’ with the public, and as a result Tory support is ‘soft’.
Politics Home did a pretty good number on the second half of this – Conservative supporters are the most enthusiastic of all.  And as for those ‘soft’ leads, the Tories have maintained a double digit polling lead since January, and were last, very briefly, behind in January 2008.  Their support hasn’t dipped below 40 this year, and has been overwhelmingly in the 40-44 range since October 2007, with occasional flourishes into the upper 40s.  Despite the constant references to volatile polls, the truth is that these are solid, consistent numbers.

As for Cameron ‘sealing the deal’ with the public, well of course he hasn’t – and can’t unless and until he is elected as Prime Minister.  It’s a daft benchmark to set.  What he has done, however, is attracted and maintained the stated preference of more than 40% of the public in opinion polls, and he’s don it consistently for the last 18 months.  Which, frankly, is as close as you’re going to get to sealing the deal before an election.

Labour and Labour-supporting pundits will continue to push these points as hard as they can – bless them, they need something to keep their spirits up – but I’m far from convinced that there’s much merit in them.

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Perfect neutrality

We hear a lot about political impartiality from the media these days – especially about how any suggestion that there is a bias against the Tories is nonsense.  Bearing that in mind, I’ve found a perfect example of this fabled even-handedness in today’s Guardian.

Who is right about the miners' strike - Kinnock or Scargill?

Wait – you mean there’s a third option?

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Great minds...

Sunday Telegraph 15 March 2009

The credit crunch was not unforeseeable, nor was it an act of God. It was caused by US sub-prime mortgages only in the sense that the First World War was caused by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand: these events were the trigger, not the cause. The underlying cause of the credit crunch is unsuccessful speculation by large banks in wholesale money markets.

Conservative Party Reptile 15 December 2008

There have been two distinct phases of the current recession, related but distinct.  The first was the rapid and dramatic contraction in financial liquidity.  Everyone knows this happened because of sub-prime.  Which is true, in the same way that the First World War happened because of Gavrilo Princip.  What ‘sub-prime’ is used to mean is a short-hand for the popping of the US housing bubble.  Every country has always had dodgy mortgage loans.  So long as house prices are going up, these don’t matter.  Or at least can be said not to matter.  What was different this time was that the international financial sector had discovered a way to commodify financial products in a way that hadn’t been thought of before.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Breast is best...

However worthy they might be, three hour sessions devoted to breast feeding are not as much fun as they sound.  Word to the wise there.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tactics vs. Strategy

Steve Richards is one of a few journalists who are well worth reading, despite their tendency towards a somewhat Panglossian analysis of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party.  In today’s Independent Richards looks at what Peter Hain has had to say recently about the future prospects of the Labour Party.  Hain’s case, essentially, is that this Government has failed to articulate any sort of convincing narrative.  Obviously, I would tend to go along with this analysis – I lurve political narrative.  Richards also seems to agree:

His broader analysis reflects what a lot of ministers and Labour MPs are saying in private: that there needs to be much greater sense of direction if they are not going to be slaughtered at the election.

Part of this goes to what has been Gordon Brown’s biggest single failing as Prime Minister – his lack of strategy.  So much of what he has done has been driven by short-term political positioning.  Look back to the early days, the ostentatious ‘tax cuts’ the recruitment of Tory defectors, the invitation of Margaret Thatcher to tea: all these were done with the aim of positioning the Tories to disadvantage.  I wrote about this at the time, and said then that the relentless party-politicking indulged in by Brown was bad Government.  It’s turned out to be bad politics as well.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

'Car accidents' and other convenient fictions

It is, of course, entirely possible that the death of Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife in a car accident south of Harare was nothing more than a tragic accident.  God knows the roads in Zimbabwe are dangerous enough.  But the news instantly rang a couple of bells with me.  Car crashes in Africa aren’t always what they seem.  General Gunda was killed when a goods train hit his car a couple of years ago.  That raised more than a few eyebrows – the regularity of goods trains in Zimbabwe is best measured by a calendar rather than a timetable.

Back in 1991, Levy Mwanawasa, then Vice President of Zambia was involved in a car accident – reportedly involving an army Land Rover.  It has never been established just how accidental that accident was.

And, perhaps most pertinently of all, Josiah Tongogara, the head of ZANLA and a more significant figure in the bush war in Zimbabwe even than Mugabe, was ‘killed in a car crash’ in Mozambique.  Ian Smith always used to say that, for a car crash, it was amazing how many bullet holes were in him.

This is still a developing story, but it strikes me that it’s hard to be too cynical about Zimbabwe at the moment.  However hard you try, it always manages to be worse than you think.

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Has O'Sullivan picked up the right lessons from Cameron?

Has there been a Cameroonian revolution in British conservatism?  And if so, should it be used as a model by the American Republicans?  These two questions have caused a bit of a stir, starting with an article for the National Review written by John O’Sullivan.

This article was based really on two premises: that Tory problems since 1997 have been exaggerated; and that their recovery has been the result of their return to good old-fashioned Conservatism and not any mythical ‘rebranding’ by David Cameron.  Danny Finkelstein disagrees, as does Alex Massie, and there has been an ongoing debate between the parties which makes for interesting, if not always unduly enlightening reading here, here and here.

O’Sullivan’s first premise goes as follows:

In fact the bedrock Tory vote stood up pretty well. The Tories hovered around 32 percent in the elections of 1997, 2001, and 2005 — which may sound terrible but is normal for the losing party in a two-and-a-half party system like Britain’s. Labour won the last election with only 36 percent of the popular vote — just three points ahead of the Tories. When Labour had its own losing streak in the 1980s, its share of the vote fell to 27 percent. So a Tory recovery when Blair was gone and Major finally forgotten was always a likely outcome.

Well, I’m not convinced that “The Tories: slightly better than Michael Foot” is as comfortable a position as O’Sullivan believes.  A vote share of 32% – itself hyper-concentrated in ‘traditional’ Tory areas – was a disaster for the Tories.  That this share barely increased over two elections and nearly ten years was also disastrous.  Claiming now that recovery was ‘always a likely outcome’ is to be wise after the event – certainly in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 election it was easy to find voices claiming that the Conservative Party was now finished forever as a political force.  Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a book about it

The narrative is solipsistic. It assumes that politics revolves around the Tory party. From 1997 to 2005, however, Britain was having a passionate love affair with Tony Blair. No one was interested in the Tories or whatever policies they managed to send forth from their coven. Only when the voters became disillusioned with Blair did the Tories get their chance. Fortunately for Cameron, that was where he came in.

Up to a point Lord Copper.  Tony Blair’s vote (in terms of raw numbers) dropped dramatically between 1997 and 2001, and by 2005 it was pathetic.  And yet the Tories didn’t benefit from it.  The electorate fell out of love with Labour pretty early.  But the Tories did nothing to woo them.

O’Sullivan’s insistence that the Tory’s electoral woes during this period were the result of their half-hearted ‘modernising’ attempts is still less persuasive.  Look back to Tory election campaigns and what sticks out?  Britain becoming a foreign land; 24 hours to save the pound; are you thinking what we’re thinking?  They were exclusively negative and often downright unpleasant.  I’m about as Tory a chap as you’re going to meet and I remember squirming at the immigration posters – they seemed to be the poster equivalent of saying “Look, I’m no racist, but…”  And the rest of the country seemed to agree.  There are few better ways of illustrating this point than by that finding that the public were less likely to agree with a policy if it were identified as a Tory one.

When Cameron was elected leader of the Tory Party it’s worth pointing out that the top priority was not policy – as had been established even good Tory policies were unpopular because they were Tory policies – it was the Party’s image.  To complain that Cameron was image-obsessed is to miss the point.  The image was the main problem.  What he was doing – for the first year at least – was earning the Tories the right to be heard.

O’Sullivan then looks at polling throughout Cameron’s leadership, and divides it into four stages – the early stages before the Blair departure; the first Brown bounce; the long Tory resurgence; and the second Brown bounce.

About the first stage he says This period is regarded as a success by the modernizers and their media claque because it allegedly “detoxified the brand.” In fact, the Tories were still stuck in the mid-30s in the opinion polls in June 2007, lagging behind an increasingly unpopular Labour government.

This does not exactly square with the facts.  Look at this graph from Anthony Wells.  Immediately after Cameron’s election as leader, the Tories went from their bedrock 32-34% support to 37% - ahead of Labour on 35%.  By and large the Tories maintained this lead – and this polling position of about 37-38% until the departure of Tony Blair.

The rest of the opinion poll review that O’Sullivan offers again seems to miss the point – every reversal is the result of Tory wetness; every recovery the result of bold moves to the right.   And where are we now?

After all the repositioning, detoxification, and photo ops, Tory poll ratings have now slipped back into the 40–44 percent range. If that were translated into votes, it would produce a Tory majority of about 70 seats in the next election. Opposition parties typically win fewer votes in general elections than in midterm polls or special elections. To win the next election on Tory merits, Cameron needs the steady high-40s share in polls he enjoyed last year. And recent polls show small gains at Labour’s expense, not for the Tories but for third, fourth, and even fifth parties.

And this, frankly, is nonsense.  O’Sullivan needs to read more of Anthony Wells or Mike Smithson on polling.  When Tony Blair demolished the Conservatives in 1997 he won 43% of the vote.  When Thatcher destroyed Michael Foot in 1983 she got 42%.   The current average Tory polling is 43% - enough by electoral calculus for a majority of 86 – pretty bloody hefty by UK standards.

I’m not being complacent here, but the real narrative that Cameron represents is one of gaining the Tories a hearing and then, with one blip, maintaining a steady lead over the Labour Party.  There are, I am certain, plenty of good arguments why a reversal in fortunes of a centre-right party that looked old, out-of-touch, absorbed in recriminations and increasingly irrelevant to its own country should have no relevance for a Republican party that looks old, out-of-touch, absorbed in recriminations and increasingly irrelevant to its own country.  I’m just not sure that O’Sullivan has articulated them.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ferret time

One of the less edifying (but hey! Still fun) aspects of the death throes of this Government has been watching the various no-marks, dropkicks and child-frighteners begin the positioning process for after the election.  Is it going to be David Miliband?  Yvette Cooper?  Jon Cruddas?  Uncle Tom Cobbley?  Well, on one level, who cares?  In ten years time it will be as if we were still worrying about Gillian Shepherd and Stephen Dorrell.  This lot are doomed, and that grows more certain the longer they cling onto power.

But, on another level, it’s an important question.  Labour will, barring unforeseen events, be one of the two largest parties in the Commons for a long time to come.  The make-up of an opposition is important, not only for the party itself, but for the Government – the absence of a credible opposition certainly did Tony Blair no favours.  In light of that, it must be seen as discouraging that Harriet Harman appears to be the bookies favourite.

Now, my colleague has long believed that Harman is the inevitable future leader for Labour, and I’ve been coming around to his way of thinking.  Despite her obvious shortcomings (her shrillness, her fondness for the abolition of the rule of law, that sort of thing) she has been playing a pretty shrewd game of capturing the left of the Parliamentary party.  If there is to be a Labour leadership election after the General Election (and, joking aside, it’s pretty hard to see how this could be anything other than a Labour defeat, even if they defy gravity and deny the Tories a majority) then the parliamentary party will be greatly reduced in numbers – and the majority of those losing their seats will be the newer, more ‘Blairite’ MPs.  This should scupper the hopes of Purnell, Burnham, Miliband D and so on.  Straw is too old to be anything other than a caretaker leader.  Who’s left?  Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, possibly Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman.  Doesn’t look so outlandish in that context does it?

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Please, make it stop

Christ.  I’m getting tired with asking what the fuck is wrong with The Telegraph.  A pat answer is that they’ve fired all the journalists that were any good and retained those that aren’t.  Today is a case in point – a glorious encomium to the wonder and marvel that is Gordon Brown’s leadership.  Some of this drivel from Mary Riddell is almost amusing:

The speech lacked the Prime Minister's usual statistical and literary flourishes.

Jesus, as bad as that?

His interest in the bond between Lincoln and Burns was, none the less, reflected in the speech. As two of the most respected world figures, the president and the poet shared a humble upbringing, a sense of destiny and a quest for social equality. The PM's assertion that "our first responsibility is to help the powerless" suggested that he saw this synergy replicated in an Obama/Brown partnership of like-minded pioneers.

Is this suggesting that Gordon Brown is one of the most respected world figures?  If so, I’m not sure who is more deluded, Riddell or Brown.

Whatever his culpability over City freeloading and lax regulation, he has produced as coherent and impassioned an exit strategy from recession as any world leader.

What is it?  Where is it?  He hasn’t got a clue what to do, which is understandable, and if Riddell is describing the ‘headless chicken’ approach that has been derided by virtually one and all as ‘coherent’ she’s operating to a very different definition to the one I have.

No leader has spent more time on the phone to Premier Wen Jiabao and other international statesmen.

That’s it?  He’s been on the phone?  Oh well then, panic over…

Critics wonder whether they can bear another 15 months of Brown. They should ask just how well they would fare without him. Voters will, soon enough, have their say on his fate. But if he had been ousted last year, or Mr Cameron had already been parachuted into No 10, it seems unlikely that a "novice" would have navigated disaster so surely.

Look, you can’t just keep repeating that Brown has handled this crisis surely when it’s so apparent that he hasn’t.  His Government have lurched from crisis to crisis, usually following whatever policy looks most likely to damage the short-term interests of the Conservative Party.  That’s not leadership.

It’s actually rather hard to dissect this piece, as the author seems to have spent the last six months with her fingers jammed into her ears going ‘la la la’.  Can we just say that Labour’s policies, on the economy as on so much else, are a combination of ineffectual and malign.  That virtually anyone could do a better job than the Labour Party.  And that the Telegraph seems to have entered a spiral from which only change of leadership can rescue it.

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Special relationships

Look, I’m as Atlanticist a chap as you could meet.  I intensely dislike knee-jerk anti-Americanism; I consider that in most ways we have more in common with America than with continental Europe; I even like American literature.  But I’m starting to agree with Iain Martin on the Obama presidency.  The prompt return of Churchill’s bust is one thing – it’s understandable in fact.  That was Bush’s thing, and Obama, who has fewer ties to Britain (and Europe as a whole) than any previous President, is under absolutely no obligation to keep it going.

But add this to his statement that the US can no longer afford to go to the UN prepared for war, armed only with the signatures of Britain and Togo, the shambles over the Brown visit, his description of Britain as ‘one of our closest allies’ and a definite picture begins to emerge.  Britain is simply not a priority to Obama – who has bigger and newer fish to fry.

I suspect a lot of this is to do with an understandable reluctance to allow Brown to taint him with that stain of ruin and defeat that he exudes – Obama was no more courteous after all to the doomed Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso – but it’s graceless and short-sighted.  Obama is the coolest kid in school at the moment, but nothing causes resentment quicker than the cool kid humiliating the others.

But then, perhaps Obama really doesn’t give a shit about keeping Britain close.  His gift to Brown (a DVD box set for fuck’s sake) rather suggests that he doesn’t.  Well, as Iain suggests, next time he does want support for a foreign policy that requires more than kind words, he can damn well ask Germany.

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Back from the dead...

Sorry for the enforced radio silence for the past week – I’ve been confined to barracks with a particularly noxious virus.  Still, since I’m finally now eating again you can expect a new, stream-lined Reptile to resume service…