Friday, October 29, 2010


I’d thought that Janet Street-Porter was only obnoxious, self-obsessed and incredibly annoying.  I hadn’t realised that she is also bat-shit fucking insane.
When one female columnist decided to take me to task for appearing on I'm A Celebrity ...Get Me Out Of Here! she made a huge issue out of the fact I apparently have cellulite. Get a life, love!  I had a large picture of her printed, tore it into tiny pieces and mailed it to her home address, with a note saying I was concerned, as she clearly needed psychiatric help…
In the end, though, God has a neat way of dealing with revenge  -  it's called natural death.
So I was spared the need to deal with Kenny Everett (his horrible impersonation of me really rankled over the years and was frequently repeated, just to rub salt in the wound).
Unlike his fans, I did a little dance of joy around the kitchen when he finally departed.
So… mad as a box of frogs, and thoroughly unpleasant to boot.  Who’d have thought it?

Johann Hari's unconventional attitude to facts

How does he get away with it? How does Johann Hari hold down a job as a columnist in a broadsheet newspaper when he is so often so flagrantly in breach of the truth? Whether it’s stating that British GDP fell after abolishing slavery, which it didn’t, claiming that the coalition intends to cut public spending by 20%, when that figure’s actually 4%, asserting that the foot and mouth leak in 2007 came from a US-owned private laboratory, when it was actually from a Government-owned one, or even claiming that the Japanese Prime Minister was attacked and nearly killed by a robot, when, um, he wasn’t, Hari manages to make such blinding (and simple) factual errors in his columns, that it’s hard to knew if he’s just stupid, or if he’s a liar.

And he’s at it again today. Now, when he first mentioned the Vodafone tax dispute a few days ago, I commented that things often look straightforward to the ill-informed, and assumed that Hari’s confusion on the subject was just a symptom of that ignorance. But since he’s so much more specific here, I’m not sure that holds.

In my column last week, I mentioned in passing something remarkable and almost unnoticed. For years now, Vodafone has been refusing to pay billions of pounds of taxes to the British people that are outstanding. The company – which has doubled its profits during this recession – engaged in all kinds of accounting twists and turns, but it was eventually ruled this refusal breached anti-tax avoidance rules. They looked set to pay a sum Private Eye calculates to be more than £6bn.

Then, suddenly, the exchequer – run by George Osborne – cancelled almost all of the outstanding tax bill, in a move a senior figure in Revenues and Customs says is “an unbelievable cave-in.”

Starting at the beginning, the tax dispute relates to an overseas subsidiary of Vodafone based in Luxemburg. Under the Controlled Foreign Companies tax provisions, HMRC (although since this was in 2000, it would have been the Revenue that would have started all this) claimed tax on this transaction in full – that’s where the £6bn figure comes from. Vodafone argued that the CFC tax regime was incompatible with EU law on freedom of establishment – and there was an ECJ case (Cadbury-Schweppes if you’re interested) that ruled that CFC rules are in principle a restriction on the freedom of establishment and that they should apply only to wholly artificial arrangements where the CFC in question was not carrying on genuine economic activities in the non-UK EU member state.

Far from it having been "ruled that this refusal breached anti-tax avoidance rules" Vodafone won their case with HMRC’s Special Commissioners, and won again at first instance when HMRC appealed – the court ruling that the CFC code was in basic conflict with EU law, and should be disapplied. HMRC won the right to appeal this decision further, but elected to settle it out of court instead. The tax bill wasn’t outstanding, it had been ruled invalid both by HMRC’s own internal commission and subsequently by the High Court. Now, it’s possible (hell, it’s more or less certain) that Johann is as ignorant of the law as he is of history and economics. But that’s why newspaper columnists are supposed to have editors.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The dangers of Labour's approach

The problem with casting your primary political message as being that the Coalition Government's economic policies will lead to a double dip recession, vastly increased unemployment and basically the end of the world as we know it is that it leaves a gigantic hostage to fortune.  What, to put it at its most basic, happens if there is no recession, if unemployment doesn't soar - if the UK goes into recovery?  Labour will be left looking rather silly, and fundamentally economically wrongheaded.  You got us into this mess, the Tories will say, and then you opposed our efforts to get us out of it into the bargain! 

So Labour will be understandably conflicted about the latest, better than expected economic data. On the one hand, I don't think even Labour politicians really want to see the UK go back into a full-blown recession.  On the other, it must be a trifle embarrassing to have spent the entire summer calling Coalition plans reckless, uneconomic and counter-productive and then to see the strongest third quarter growth in a decade.

That's the problem with opposition, since all you do is talk there's a strong temptation to talk yourself into awkward corners.  You can certainly expect David Cameron to play on the GDP figures quite strongly - until next quarter's figures come out anyway.

No Polly, seriously

This is not so much jumping the shark as leaping joyfully over the entire cast of Jaws and Jaws II.  Housing benefit is being cut to a maximum of £400 per week.  That is, of course, still more than most non-benefit receiving people will be spending on their accommodation, but still.  And how is this described by Polly?

At last the Tories have a final solution for the poor

Because, obviously, reducing housing benefit is just like rounding up 6 million Jews and gassing them.  Sheesh.

UPDATE:  This article currently appears directly below a piece by Tim Montgomerie politely asking Labour supporters not to accuse Tories of being a cross between Fagin and Goebbels.  Nice touch.

Um, really?

From a piece in the Guardian saying, apparently, that public sector workers are whinging, workshy layabouts who need to be molly-coddled by the great feather bed of the state as employer.

As if this is not enough, many of the public sector workers released will not have the skills the private sector businesses will need. Many will not have the attitude required for jobs in the cold outside world. There are many more suitable people seeking work, and public sector workers may be too much of a risk to hire.

I can only assume he's trying to be nice - it is in the Guardian after all - but if right-wingers say this sort of thing they get pilloried by, well, the Guardian.  Peculiar.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Peej on the midterms

I've not really been paying much attention to US politics, other than to note that Americans in general do seem now to have realised that their President really is just another politician with a nice line in speeches.  But it's starting to look as though the midterms next week are going to be something of a thumping.  Partly this is because there's nothing more an electorate likes than to be angry and disappointed, and partly because although Obama ran as a post-partisan centrist, he's actually presided over an even more bitterly divided polity than before.  Be that as it may, lets have a little pre-election punditry from the might P.J. O'Rourke:

This is not an election on November 2. This is a restraining order. Power has been trapped, abused and exploited by Democrats. Go to the ballot box and put an end to this abusive relationship. And let’s not hear any nonsense about letting the Democrats off if they promise to get counseling.
That's the spirit.

Sodding bloody hell

Well, I've finally been able to spend enough time monkeying around in the bowels of my template to work out what it was that was causing the sidebar to drop off.  On the upside, this means that the sidebar no longer drops off.  On the downside, I only worked out what it was (font size in the posts on the vanishingly small chance anyone cares) after deleting more or less everything in that sidebar.

At least this gives me no choice but to update my links...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's the end of the world (as we know it)

One of the depressing things I found about researching a doctorate is that the clear, simple, broadbrush messages and patterns that you can discern when you start begin to blur, dissipate and smudge as you dig deeper into the evidence.  The person who can give you a simple, straightforward and lucid description of pretty much anything is either a towering genius or, far more likely, mostly ignorant of what he’s talking about.  As a prime example of the latter, lets turn (once again) to Johann Hari. Hari has, of course, decided that the cuts announced in the CSR yesterday are the end of civilisation as we know it, and is not to be swayed by the inconvenience of facts.

When was the last time Britain's public spending was slashed by more than 20 per cent? Not in my mother's lifetime. Not even in my grandmother's lifetime.

Anyone spot the blinder in this line? Yes – it’s that public spending, far from being slashed by 20%, is actually being cut by the rather more modest 4% over 4 years.

No, it was in 1918, when a Conservative-Liberal coalition said the best response to a global economic crisis was to rapidly pay off this country's debts. The result? Unemployment soared from 6 per cent to 19 per cent…

Who thinks that the demobilisation of 3 million men might have had an impact on unemployment? In fact, Hari has all this arse about tit. Public spending diminished dramatically after the end of the First World War because, um, the First World War had ended. When by far the largest single component of public spending ceases to be, the effect is likely to be a diminution of that spending. If Hari wasn’t such an arsehead about numbers, he’d know that public spending fell even more sharply after the Second World War – by 35% from 1945 to 1949. In the style of Johnny Cochrane, if 35% is bigger than 4%, then Johann Hari is an idiot.

That's why virtually every country in the world reacted to the Great Crash of 2008 – caused entirely by deregulated bankers –

I would love to know what regulation, specifically, Hari believes was removed from the financial sector, that caused the Credit Crunch. Because my guess, based on reading Hari for a while, is that his knowledge of the financial sector is rather less profound than his knowledge of history.

To pluck a random example, one of the richest corporations in Britain, Vodafone, had an outstanding tax bill of £6bn – but Osborne simply cancelled it this year. If he had made them pay, he could have prevented nearly all the cuts to all the welfare recipients in Britain.

And this is what I meant earlier about the best and most powerful arguments being based on ignorance. The Vodafone case has been rumbling on in the courts for over a decade now and relates to a technical dispute over a Luxembourgeois subsidiary and the Controlled Foreign Companies tax system that the late and unlamented Labour Government made such a monumental horlicks of during their time in office. Rather than continue to pursue a legal case with no guarantee of any recovery at all in the long term, and no possibility of any recovery in the short term, HMRC has decided to settle this and similar long-standing disputes now (Vodafone settled for £1.25bn), and clarify the law so that there are fewer such disputes in the future.

Which all means that in that first sentence, both major elements are incorrect. It wasn’t an outstanding tax bill, and Osborne didn’t cancel it. If he (or any previous Chancellor) could have made them pay, then he undoubtedly would have done so – unfortunately there’s this pesky thing called the rule of law.

You can’t fault Hari’s emotional engagement, but I do wish he’d read a little more.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tom Harris and Lady Thatcher

It’s easy to see why Tom Harris failed to win a place in the Shadow Cabinet. He is, after all, amusing, thoughtful and intelligent. If political parties were run on the basis of doing what their opponents least wanted there is surely no question that people like Harris, John McTernan and Alistair Darling would be playing prominent roles in the opposition. But then, if political parties were run on the basis of doing what their opponents least wanted, David Miliband would be Leader of the Opposition.

It’s something of a dilemma for partisan spectators like me: should we be pleased that Labour is so ostentatiously handicapping itself in opposition, or disappointed that the best Labour MPs are on the backbenches?

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a paean of praise to some unwashed Glaswegian socialist. It was supposed to be a reflection on Tom’s latest post: Considering the Iron Lady.

Last night I ReTweeted a message from Peter Watt, wishing Margaret Thatcher a heavily caveated happy 85th birthday. The response from some party members, particularly on my Facebook site, has been pretty extreme: “evil” and “hate” were used in abundance by my detractors.

Thatcher is a totemic hate-figure for the left.  The mere mention of her name is enough to drive many of them into a frothing lunatic rage.  Which made me think: who is the equivalent hate figure for the right?  You’d think it would be Blair, after all he trounced the right for a decade, and had the same sort of contempt for his opponents as Lady Thatcher.  But the real source of Blair Derangement Syndrome is on the left – often among the same people who suffer from Thatcher Derangement Syndrome.  Gordon Brown?  Well, that’s probably closer, but I really don’t see the name of Gordon Brown raising anything more than a shudder in 20 years time.

Are the right just worse at resentment than the left?  To me, as to Tony Greig, a grudge is nothing more than a place to park your car – is this representative?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dennis Macshane reported to police; loses whip

Couldn’t happen to a nicer chapThe picture of the office that required £20,000 per year to be spent on it is really quite eye-opening.  And there is, of course, the obligatory Mandy Rice-Davis moment.
He has been one of the most high-profile critics of the new expenses system.
Well, quite.

The chill of opposition

An extremely good post by Hopi Sen on the difficulties and contradictions of opposition.  As he says, there is a continual tension between tactical opposition and strategic positioning – there are countless examples of parties that were good oppositions, but failed to convince as an alternative Government.  He has good advice too for Ed Miliband:
One the one side, resisting the urge to jump at easy tactical victories at the price of strategic defeats which will prevent us becoming the next government.
On the other, resisting the urge to destroy the village in order to save it, accepting that oppositions must campaign and oppose with vigour and energy to show progress and growth.  That sometimes it is right to jump on the passing bandwagon, if it’s going in the right direction.
He’s also right that Labour are having difficulty adjusting to the reality of not being in power. When Ed Miliband became leader, Polly Toynbee wrote a bizarre ‘open letter’ to him containing priceless advice like the following:
Do be brave, at least sometimes: governments are also judged on policies they enact when public opinion is out of kilter with the facts.
Don't panic on crime. Don't respond to every passing horror with a hundred new Criminal Justice Acts. Don't overflow prisons with the non-violent. Understand the public need for tough punishment but know your only measure of success is reduced re-offending.
Don't be afraid to back winners, whatever neo-liberal textbooks say (conveniently forgetting China, Singapore and the US): support manufacturing, invest in British-built wind farms, in home insulation and carbon capture.
Don't allow another housing bubble. If prices take off again, impose a land value tax and use the proceeds to kick-start building private and social homes, an engine for growth.
Do reform voting so elections no longer rely on winning a handful of middle Englanders in marginals. Make every vote count. Reform the Lords.
Don't go to war without wholehearted national support backed by solid international law.
The merits or otherwise of this advice is beside the point – none of it is relevant to a Leader of the Opposition.  Can anyone reading this remember what was in the 2001 Tory manifesto?  Something about saving the pound – and that’s literally all I can remember.  90% of the time, no-one cares what oppositions say or do.  Nobody knows who is in the Shadow Cabinet – they barely know who is in the Cabinet.  Prime Ministers wake up wondering what to do; Leaders of the Opposition wake up wondering what to say.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ashes Fever

Ashes tours are funny things.  While I tend to watch all of a home series, and remember them to the very smallest details (Graham Thorpe dropping Matthew Elliot on 29 when he went on to (jolly nearly) a double hundred; Robin Smith being the first batsman given out stumped by the third umpire; Peter Such’s batting making Brian Johnston giggle) away tours only stick in my head via little snapshots of despair – snippets I very often never see.  I’ve still never seen footage of David Gower slapping Merv Hughes to deep long leg, but it’s there in my memory, just like Phil Defreitas getting pummelled by Michael Slater, or Warren Hegg playing for England.  In fact, the only tour I have no memories of whatsoever is the 2006/7 tour.  Funny that.
But the upcoming tour is a strange one for a number of reasons.  The first is that, as of today and for the first time, England perch one place higher in the world rankings than Australia.  The unprecedented nature of such superiority is only slightly dented by the fact that the ranking process only dates back to 2003 – the last time England toured Australia as anything other than rank outsiders was 1986/7, and even then they were considered definite second-favourites.  The last time England toured as favourites was 1978/9.
England also, at present, aren’t encumbered by injuries.  Vaughan, Trescothick and Jones missed the 2006/7 series; Thorpe, Flintoff, Gough and Jones missed the 2002/3 series.  England are used to putting out sides missing their best batsmen and best bowlers for Ashes series.  So far, and touching wood, there’s nobody but Trescothick that the selectors would like to pick but can’t.
Australia are looking fragile too – three straight defeats for the first time since 1988. The middle order looks shaky, the back-up pace attack doesn’t yet look test class, and they don’t have a spinner worth his place.  This isn’t to say England don’t have vulnerabilities: Alistair Cook and Paul Collingwood are still fighting flawed techniques, and Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen are fighting perceptions of a flawed temperament.  Morgan and Finn are unproven, Anderson has been poor overseas, Bresnan isn’t test class, and a lot depends on Graeme Swann.  Still, for the first time since I can remember, it’s Australia who look to be the side in more trouble.
All we need now is for Mitchell Johnson to deliver the first ball of the series to second slip…

Friday, October 08, 2010

Alan Johnson? Really?

It was, as I said, always going to be a tricky decision over who should be Shadow Chancellor.  The most obviously qualified candidate, Ed Balls was scuppered by three terminal disadvantages: his stated economic policy was very different to his new leader’s; Shadow Chancellor would have given the most powerful position in the party to a disappointed leadership hopeful with an unmatched reputation for plotting and disloyalty; finally, he’s Ed Balls – the man’s about as popular as cayenne pepper in a jar of lube.
Ruling him out, the next most obvious candidate would have been Ed Balls’s wife Yvette Cooper.  But presumably Ed Miliband takes the view that he’s broken up enough family relationships this month, although why she’s landed up at shadow Foreign is a mystery to me.  In opposition this is almost a non-job; she’d have been far better employed at Business, or Work & Pensions.
But if it isn’t Balls or Cooper, who is there as a credible candidate?  Well, nobody really.  John Healey is too low-profile, Jim Murphy too Scottish and too low-profile, Andy Burnham too lightweight, Liam Byrne destroyed by a jokey letter.  Who else?  Alan Johnson.  No economic experience, a reputation for laziness and inattention to detail, but on the other hand, a good presentational politician and, by Labour’s reduced standards, a heavyweight, albeit an aging one.  The Tories’ initial reaction, via Philip Hammond, that this looks like a caretaker appointment rings true.  The stage looks to be set for somebody to ride back into town in a year or so, rehabilitated and ready for the big league again. 
The real question now is just how loyal Ed Balls decides to be as Shadow Home Secretary.  The idea that this is a perfect springboard for an opposition politician to reach the big time should be challenged though – who, without looking it up, can remember who William Hague’s first two Shadow Home Secretaries were?  Brian Mawhinney and Norman Fowler.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Balls and more balls.

Slightly odd this, from Michael Crick.  In Cameron’s speech yesterday he referred to Ed Balls’s comment to Toby Young on Newsnight that “The danger is that there will be winners” and then riffed on that subject:
Winners? We can't have that. The danger that your child might go to school and turn out to be a winner. Anti-aspiration. Anti-success. Anti-parents who just want the best for their children.
What an unbelievable attitude from this Labour generation.
Michael Crick thinks that this is a distortion of what Balls said, which was different. Well, here’s what Balls said, in full:
The danger is that there will be winners, but it is dishonest to suggest that there will not be losers as well.
Which is, as John Rentoul says, precisely what Cameron said that he said.  Labour seem to believe, in these post-Blair days, that no-one should be allowed to do well, on the grounds that not everyone will.  Or, as John Prescott said “If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that’s the place they want to go to.” Ed Balls has become the thinking man’s John Prescott.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Some thoughts on child benefit

1.  The sting in it is going to be less about higher-rate taxpayers losing their child benefit payments, and more about families with two just-not-higher-rate taxpayers managing to keep theirs.
2.  Something will probably done to mitigate the impression that stay-at-home wives are being specially disadvantaged – probably some form of transferrable allowance.
3.  The Government will wheel this out repeatedly as their primary example of us all being in this together.
4.  Labour will find it hard to go beyond a generic criticism about how this cut is being implemented.
5.  Jeeze, this cuts malarkey is going to be unpopular…

Friday, October 01, 2010

Labour in the lead

So Labour get a small polling lead from ICM.  The importance of this shouldn’t be over-stated: it’s conference season, they have a new leader, and most importantly it’s still four and a half years before the next General Election.  If the Tories are stretching for positives they should also note that the Labour share hasn’t in fact shifted (when traditionally they have enjoyed substantial boosts during conference), and that David Cameron still has a substantial lead on who makes the best Prime Minister.
But I think there’s no question that the Coalition has a bit of a problem getting its message out at the moment.  John Redwood identifies the problem with characteristic acuity here:
For the last few months the main message coming out of the Coalition is the message of “deep cuts”.  The long rambling spending review has allowed Labour politicians to get on the airwaves and excite concern about a long list of possible cuts.  It has allowed all sorts of special interest groups free rein to parade the importance of their public spending and imply it is about to be cut in clumsy ways.  It has allowed Ed Balls to confidently predict a double dip recession based on the cuts he expects.  It has damaged public confidence, and even led to a Monetary Policy Committee member demanding more money printing…
They [the Government] just make the task a whole lot harder if they allow the impression to gain hold that they are in it for the cuts.  That will unite the Union hotheads with Labour to fight harder.  It might even make firebrands of some moderates within the public services.  We are all in this together.  Temperate language about public spending which reflects the truth of how much money is available will serve them better than the harsh language of cuts.
It’s a good point – the debate on cuts has reached the point where a substantial number of people think that the cuts have gone too far when they haven’t even started yet.  But the Coalition have two audiences to play for. They first have to convince the markets that their deficit reduction measures are stringent and substantial, before trying to reassure the electorate that it’s not as bad as all that.  The first half of this strategy seems to be working – witness the IMF report on Britain’s economy:
The government’s strong and credible multi-year fiscal deficit reduction plan is essential to ensure debt sustainability. The plan greatly reduces the risk of a costly loss of confidence in public finances and supports a balanced recovery.
But that success does make it harder for the second half to kick in just yet.  The Government seems to have taken the decision that they can ride out the unpopularity for a couple of years, and then try and run a line that the cuts have ‘worked’ and thanks to the responsible policies of the Coalition etc etc. 
So the surprise shouldn’t be that Labour have a 2 point lead in their conference week. It should be that they only have a 2 point lead in their conference week.  I’d be surprised if Labour weren't polling a good 10 points clear of the Tories by the spring, and it wouldn’t be a great shock if they’re outpolling Tories and the Lib Dems combined.  But it’s not what happens next year that matters, it’s what happens in 2015.  Buckle up chaps, bumpy road ahead.