Tuesday, March 30, 2010

So, who won?

So, who won?

I have mentioned before that Labour have become surprisingly poor at expectation management.  Previously, however, this has been because they have failed to predict the full extent of the trouble that they were in, leading to people saying ‘oh, anything above x% would be a good result for us – we’ll only really be in trouble if we go below y%’ before the results come in showing them substantially below even the managed figure.

Last night, on the other hand, was the victim of expectation management of a rather different sort.  Labour have gone all in on the notion that George Osborne is the weak link in the Tory party and therefore the one most worth attacking.  Well, it’s a theory and poor George does rather have the air of a French aristocrat leaning out of a carriage window.  It’s a strategy that carries with it certain risks though.  Firstly, as Matt D’Ancona points out, it’s a pretty limp strategy to ignore the boss and target the number two.  Are elections really decided on the character of the Chancellor?  It seems unlikely.  Was the 1983 campaign dominated by Geoffrey Howe?  Was Oliver Letwin really shadow Chancellor in 2005?

The other risk is of overplaying your hand.  Labour have invested a good deal of effort in pushing the image of Osborne as, in the words of their favourite imaginary focus groups, “shrill, immature and lightweight”.  Strong stuff.

So, how did the Chancellors’ debate go?  Predictably most pundits have handed the plaudits to Vince Cable.  But then, he had by far the easiest gig.  Positioned in the middle, he was able to snipe liberally at either side, make grandiose statements about his own infallibility and surf a tide of adulation for his own marvellousness.  But the reason he was able to rise above the hurly-burly of the debate is because he and his party are an irrelevance.  Neither Osborne nor Darling bothered to engage with Cable either on his projections for the future, nor his auto-hagiographic rendering of the past.  Cable was a sideshow – albeit a sideshow with reasonably good comic timing.

Darling was, well, Darling.  Not an electrifying speaker (barely even an oil-lamp lighting speaker), he stumbled over his words, was far wafflier and indirect than either of the other two, and flip-flopped agonisingly over the death-tax.  But he still managed to radiate the sort of dull dependability that you would expect from a regional solicitor.  Much of a Chancellor’s job falls into that large category labelled ‘boring but important’ that most of us cannot look at too closely without succumbing to narcolepsy – Darling is able to reassure us that he is boring enough not to be bored by this.

And Osborne?  Well the thing is here that, after so much character assassination, all he really had to do was stand there for an hour without actively fanning himself with a cambric handkerchief or calling Alastair Darling ‘my good man’.  He was solid, competent and sounded reasonable.  I thought he was rather good myself, but I suspect I’m not the audience he had to win over.

This is why questions over ‘who won’ are so pointless.  This was more like a round of golf than a game of tennis.  Not only were each of the three competing against their own targets, but they were also playing to handicaps.  If Osborne had been as tongue-tied as Darling, or as smug as Cable it would have been written up as a disaster for him.  But he wasn’t – he did the job he had to do.  Maybe no more, but certainly no less.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Black holes and baby universes...

Black holes and baby universes...

A long time ago, I commented on the traditional New Labour battle plan – declare that any proposed Tory tax cuts would result in a ‘black hole’ in the public finances, and that this proved that they were irresponsible and that nurses would starve in the streets etc.  Ridiculous of course – as I said at the time £6bn is a rounding error in modern British finances, not a black hole.  The situation has, as they say, developed not necessarily to the advantage of Britain’s public finances.  We’re in the red to the tune of £160 odd billion a year.  Now that’s what I call a black hole.

Back in those heady far-off days when the annual borrowing requirement was a mere bagatelle at £40bn a year I thought, perhaps a bit optimistically, that this line of attack had finally been put to bed.  How, after all, can one shout about figures being out by £5bn or so, when your own sums are out by nearly 10 times that?  Let alone when they are out by more than 30 times that amount?

Easily, apparently.  Andrew Grice in today’s Independent (Moscow edition) makes precisely this argument in relation to Tory plans to reverse the recent rise in National Insurance.

The move could be the centrepiece of the Tory manifesto. But it would deprive an incoming Cameron government of about £7bn a year of revenue and, to have a credible platform, the party would have to spell out how that would be found.

We’re facing spending retrenchments on a scale not seen since the 1920s and Geddes Axe.  Darling is admitting to cuts on a greater scale than Margaret Thatcher’s (which is not all that hard, given that public spending rose nearly every year she was in power).  While this does mean that the Tories are going to struggle to cut taxes very much over the next Parliament, and may indeed raise them in the short term, it also means that getting all hysterical over unfunded cuts of £7bn is rather missing the wood for the trees.



The difficulty with this blogging malarkey is that it requires, above all else, constant enthusiasm.  I have, very occasionally, been asked for advice on blogging – presumably only by the truly desperate – and my advice has always been the very obvious point that any blog stands and falls on content.  Update the damn thing every day – three times a day if possible.  Otherwise people won’t bother.

I am not, as you may have noticed, terribly good at following my own advice.  This is mostly a political blog, and I find the political world a bit depressing at the moment.  This is not so much because it now looks far less likely that Ed Balls will lose Morley and Outwood in six weeks, although the heart admittedly does sink at the prospect of five more years of Gordon Brown, but more because the tone of this pre-election phase is so basically dishonest.  The wilful conflation of debt and deficit; the inability of anybody to be honest about cuts – the wells of political debate have been poisoned.

In the circs, it’s a bit harger to conjure up much enthusiasm.  Electoral fun and games are usually just that – I could take a pretty detached view of the last three elections because I knew Labour would win and I was relaxed about that.  This time, however, I don’t know who’s going to win and it suddenly really does matter.  My tolerance of the usual bullshit is commensurately lower.  That said, I will try harder…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reader's block

Reader's block

One of the unexpected drawbacks of fatherhood is how it affects your reading habits.  Not just in the inevitable increase of Miffy goes to the Zoo and the Just So Stories at bedtime, but in how it reduces your capacity to read large books.  And I do mean large.  Since reading time has now been reduced to three opportunities – bed, bath and commute – it has become effectively impossible to read hardbacks at all.  Family Britain has sat on my bookshelves reproachfully since Christmas.  I haven’t even bought Anthony Beevor’s book on D-Day, nor the new Robert Service book on Trotsky – I won’t have the time read them.

What’s really frustrating about this, is that I really want to buy Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party.   I loved Servants of the People, and the sheer publicity that the book has garnered means that I feel like I’m missing out.  Not least because there seem to be so many anecdotes that they’ve largely been missed by the press.  Alex Massie has a fabulous one here:

The scene: Anthony Minghella has arrived to film a 2005 PPB featuring Gordon and Tony that's designed to show what good pals they are...

'It's all about working as a team,' Brown was recorded saying to the Prime Minister he wanted rid of. 'It's a partnership that has worked,' said Blair of the Chancellor he had planned to sack.

Before the filming began, Minghella did a warm-up exercise with his subjects to get them into the mood for some acting. The director gave each of them a notepad on which they were to write down the greatest achievement of the other man. On his notepad, Blair's looping handwriting paid tribute to Brown for: 'A strong economy'.

On his notepad, Brown wrote in his cramped script: 'A strong economy'. The Chancellor could think of no achievement that he wished to credit to Blair so he wrote down a tribute to himself instead.

That’s just gold.  And it’s bloody annoying that I’ll have to wait until David Cameron’s second budget to read the damn thing in paperback…

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cold War Warriors

Cold War Warriors

As Iain Martin says, it was interesting to see David Cameron hit out at Labour on defence at PMQs.  After the six or so wars that Labour have initiated on their watch, it might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that they are wobbly on defence, but in truth the disconnect between ambition and provision for the armed forces was a reflection of the struggle between Blair and Brown for mastery of the party.  Blair willed the ends, Brown refused to provide the means.

But, as ever, Brown will never admit to this.  The defence budget has increased in real terms every year since 1997, he proclaims loudly at every opportunity (the resonance of this defence is marred slightly by the fact that it is a lie, but there we are).  There is good reason for Labour to be defensive on this issue – defence was toxic for Labour throughout the 1980s.  Attitudes to the Cold War were one of the defining points of the part division of the time.

So it is perhaps inevitable that Cameron’s angry response to the point that defence spending fell in the 1990s was that this was a peace dividend – we had won the Cold War.  If, as was reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, this had been a claim about the Tories winning the cold war, then the criticism would have been pretty valid.  But I don’t think it was.  The words, after all, were the reason the defence budget was cut in the 1990s was that under the Conservatives we won the cold war.  Now, you could read that as Cameron claiming that the Conservatives won the cold war, but it’s a far more reasonable reading that while the Conservatives were in power, ‘we’ won the cold war.

And that, I think, is an entirely fair point.  Who won the cold war, after all, us or them?  No Conservative would blink before answering that one, although a few Labour men might struggle a touch.  Because, despite the rather frantic dissociations now, more than a few on the left veered between moral equivalency and downright fellow travelling.  In Labour List today, there’s a nice example of precisely this dissembling.

The notion that anybody 'won' the Cold War is obscene.

No it’s not.  It’s fact.  The west won it.  We won it.  The Soviet Union lost it.  If you have to pause to think who won the cold war, you’ve already taken a great long step along a pretty unpleasant path.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Giving it double barrels.

Giving it double barrels.

This Jonathan Freedland article is pretty meritless in most ways.  It does, however, perform a signal service by recalling one of Britain’s more prominent families into the public eye.

The likely next member for South Dorset is in fact – deep breath – Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

Now, Richard Drax is an eminently good candidate – background in the army, journalism and farming – and apparently an all-round good egg.  But it must be admitted that it is one hell of a moniker to carry around with you.  Just how big must his cheque-book be for one thing?

Magnificent though his name is, however, it fairly pales by comparison with that of his grandfather, who rejoiced in the full handle of Admiral The Honourable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, KCB, DSO, JP, DL.  He may not have been the brightest entry in the Navy list, but he was certainly the longest.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft

Lord Ashcroft has been an invaluable asset to the Conservative Party.  He almost single-handedly prevented the Party from going bankrupt in the aftermath of 1997, personally writing cheques as bills fell due.  He has also been an astute strategic mind.  His pamphlet on what went wrong in 2005, Smell the Coffee, is a very clear-eyed analysis of why the Tories kept on losing the elections.  It can be distilled into the following key messages:

- Target your resources;
- Campaign on things that matter, not the things you think ought to matter;
- ‘Core vote’ strategies drive away more people than they attract; and
- Seek professionals, women and aspirational voters.

Bang on, and a pretty good description of what the Cameron approach has been.  The first point in particular has come to sum up Ashcroft’s perceived influence on the party, and why his name is anathema to Labour MPs.  Labour MPs in the marginals in particular see the influence of Ashcroft at every turn and on every corner.  He is the bogeyman for the left.

Which explains why they have pushed so hard, for so long, at any perceived weakness.  Originally they tried to smear him (preposterously) as a drug-dealer, with the Times, in one of its least creditable hours, churning out statements to be read out by a Labour MP in the House, so as to rely on parliamentary privilege.  Labour’s obsession with Lord Ashcroft can best be summed up by the fact that, after a FoI request, they were forced to disclose 3,700 documents.  The motives of the Times  in spending so much time and energy to discredit a man can only be put down to a very natural dislike of non-British residents having so much influence over British politics.

It’s hardly surprising then, that the ‘revelation’ that Lord Ashcroft is domiciled in Belize should have been seized on with such relish.  In fairness, the presentational side of this entire affair has been lamentably managed.  It was, albeit awkward, entirely reasonable to say that an individual’s tax status is a matter between him and HMRC, and that all Lord Ashcroft had to say was that he was acting entirely within the law.  Once, however, the precise nature of the undertaking he had made before becoming a peer was due to be revealed after a FoI request, the only question that should have mattered was when to get this information out.  The best time to have done would have been when another big story was taking up the headlines.  Bullygate (gah) would have been a perfect day to bury bad news, as Jo Moore might have said.

The substance of the story, however, and its reporting have been a disgrace.  Lord Ashcroft undertook to become resident in the UK for tax purposes.  He has done so.  And that, pretty much, is where the story ought to end.  He had no need, at the time that he did so, to become UK resident in order to remain a Conservative donor, nor a party official.  All that is needed for that is to be UK citizen and qualified to vote, both of which he was.  Nor does one need to be a UK resident (or even a citizen) to play a key role in determining party strategy.  How many articles called for Lynton Crosby to be fired in 2005?  Here was a man who wasn’t even British playing a key role at the heart of Tory election strategy.  Who cared?  Nobody.  Does anyone care that Bob Shrum has been a central Brown adviser? 

Ashcroft is disliked because he is effective.  His money saved the Tories from bankruptcy, and his organisational and business skills are driving them towards a majority in the next election.  He is a significant and substantial figure for these reasons.  there are, however, no constitutional implications involved.  No questions of national sovereignty.  No matters, in fact, of particular moment or interest to anyone beyond nervous incumbent MPs.  There’s a lot of smoke being kicked up, but really there’s no discernible fire.