Monday, February 23, 2009

Ministerial perks

Ed Vaizey and Iain Dale have argued that the perk of the ministerial car and driver is just one example of a luxury we should no longer be awarding ministers.  It’s a relatively low cost saving, but could of course be aggregated with a great many others.  Tom Harris defends the limo here, saying that hair-shirting MPs is a silly idea, that having a car and driver is a very welcome thing after a late night at the House of Commons, and that all this is getting out of hand:

Yes, a ministerial car is a perk. So let’s hear it for perks! Because if you’ve just had a 12- or a 14- hour day and you’re leaving the Commons after the last vote, it’s wonderful to be able to slide into the seat of a car and relax while you’re taken home, knowing you’ll be lucky to get six hours sleep before your ministerial diary kicks in the next morning. I don’t grudge that privilege to any serving minister and I wouldn’t begrudge any future Tory minister, either.

Well, a couple of points are probably in order here.  Fine, let’s hear it for perks.  Having a car to drive you home after work or work functions is a pretty regular benefit that executives in private companies get.  It is, of course, taxable as a benefit in kind.  Astonishingly (I bet you can see where this is going) the ministerial limo is not taxable.  14 hour days are not the preserve of MPs – the rest of us have to manage ourselves.

A thought does occur, however.  After a long day in the office, if you can’t face public transport and haven’t got your own car, there’s this wonderful service where, for a small fee, a car and a driver will appear and drive you all the way home.  Taxis I think they’re called…

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Shorter classes in journalism

Yup, this more or less explains most of the journalism I’ve read on Israel/Palestine…

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It's not like we weren't warned...

To all those Labour MPs and supporters who are struggling to understand why their party is now trailing the Conservatives by 15-20 points in the opinion polls, can I direct them to the diaries of Chris Mullin?  Lets look at the man you bundled into office without a competition, and expected the British public to fall in love with…

Sitting on the terrace, I was joined by a member of the Blair inner circle. Conversation turned to Gordon. I mentioned that, following my departure from government, I had received a handwritten letter from Gordon saying how much he had enjoyed working with me. It seems every former Minister has received an identical letter. He must have been up half the night writing them. Gordon's machine churns night and day. My friend was scathing. 'He's mad, quite mad.'

'What do you mean?' 'Gordon is obsessive, paranoid, secretive and lacking in personal skills. He's been responsible for two absolutely mad privatisations - air traffic control and the London Underground - and all this talk about privatising the NHS is coming out of the Treasury - I'd probably pack it in if Gordon became leader.'

There we have it: obsessive, paranoid, secretive and lacking in personal skills.  Does that sound like an election-winning combination?

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

By the way

Incidentally, and apropos of nothing at all, isn’t it fascinating to discover suddenly, at a relatively advanced age, a writer you love, and ought to have read years before?  How the hell did I get to damn near thirty without having read Raymond Chandler?

So if my blog posts start smelling like cold rain on a dirty road you’ll know who to blame.  But c'mon, how can you not love a writer who comes up with stuff like this:

Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.


Alan Johnson attacks

Now, I’m never entirely certain as to the efficacy of the black arts of political propaganda and ‘lines to take’.  Surely, however, this is one of those things, like mushrooms, that grow best in the dark.  Allowing a new line of attack to appear, as if from nowhere, and insinuate itself into the minds of the people – that’s surely the goal.  Can I think of any examples?  I suppose the Tories’ attempts to exploit the inability of Brown to say sorry for anything might be a good one.  First you create situations which demand an apology, then you highlight Brown’s failure to offer one.  Rinse and repeat.

What you surely don’t do is flag up this process in advance.  For all the proverbial idiocy of the people, we don’t tend to like being played like fools, especially if the precise course of that play is laid out for all to see.  So it was a bit of a surprise to see the piece ‘by’ Alan Johnson in today’s Guardian.  Entitled The Cameron veneer: Their leader may sound un-Tory. But his sweet talk on public services hides a reactionary policy the piece sets out the position that, although Cameron seems nice and reasonable, underneath it all is the same old Tory party.

Now this is a plausible and attractive line of attack – certainly better than the toff, chameleon or reactionary lines.  But it’s impact is surely diminished by the fact that Johnson more or less announced that he was going to give this a try a couple of weeks ago.

It just makes it so crashingly obvious that this is just another attempt to find an attack that sticks.  It’s surely letting in too much daylight on the magic of the dark arts.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cameron Derangement Syndrome

One of the odd things about David Cameron’s position at the moment (riding high in the polls, high personal approval ratings, a united party etc) is just how little support he receives from the ‘Tory’ press.  Simon Heffer’s issues are well-known and long-standing (diminished only slightly by the fact that he is clearly a fictional character), but it’s not just him getting irrational and absurd.  Jan Moir wrote a peculiar piece a few weeks ago entitled “God how I hate Cameron’s legs” that included the following rather creepy image:

There is something about the Tory leader's hideous orbs of compressed, calfy muscle  -  testament to a cycling habit that keeps him in favour with the eco-nuts  -  that makes me want to beat them black and blue with a bicycle pump.

As James Forsyth says, Cameron appears to have Blair’s knack of driving his opponents literally insane.  Which knack is on display again in the Mail today from A.N. Wilson.  It is noticeable that these three columnists are all from the Telegraph/Mail stable – people who ought to be Tory supporters.  Wilson’s piece is a reaction to those pictures of Cameron wearing casual clothes at a film premiere.  Shock horror and all that.  Brace yourselves: this is going to be ugly…

The dark corduroy shirt, not tucked into the jeans. The truly awful camouflage trainers and the bright-green laces flopping any-old-how. This is a 42-year-old man disguised as a teenager out on a Friday night.

So…. Shirt not tucked-in, jeans and trainers.  Shameful huh?  But then, what should he have worn at a casual event?  Perhaps A.N. Wilson can offer some guidance.

Surely a man like David Cameron should wear a pair of well-polished shoes made in Northampton rather than those idiotic smelly trainers? Maybe he did not need to wear a tie when going to see a cartoon film, but what is the objection to tucking his shirt into his trousers?

I love the maybe there.  Personally I found those pictures of Gordon Brown on holiday wearing a sports jacket and slacks far more peculiar than Cameron wearing jeans and trainers.  And as for the objection to tucking your shirt into your jeans I have two words for him: Jeremy Clarkson.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

There are only 2 things I cant stand...

... intolerance and the Dutch.

I think that the Government was wrong (natch) to block this Wilders fellow, and that until the 'muslim community' and its sel appointed, semi-representative spokesmen like the alledgedly man-slaughtering Lord Ahmed learn to have adult conversations about stuff then we are all a bit buggered.

I am afraid that this hate speech rot has to stop as well, society needs free speech much more than it needs 'community relations' where the last seems to be short hand for giving into bullies, bigots, liars and fantasists.

And at the risk of sounding like Simon Heffer (or Boris) what in the name of Fuckety Fuck are the Tories playing at coming out with mealie mouthed crap about equity of judgement.

Wilders and the loony-imans that Labour are so happy to allow in are not in the same boat - Wilders has a belief that Islam is inherently dangerous, but does not advocate the slaughter of those who disagree with him. The loony-imans believe that Jews, unbelievers, some other muslims should be killed, as should anyone who says anything that implies they disagree with the fundamental tenents of Islam. They are rather different positions, and the sooner our politicians grow some balls the better.

I am a fan Dave, but you have been utterly pathetic on this (oh, and the Titian thing made you look like a cock as well)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The 2 funniest sites on the web...

I know - that is a big claim, but it just happens to be true.

RUN, don't walk, to these 2 sites...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Killing all the bankers

The new spirit of vengeance and approbation towards bankers that’s sweeping the nation, stretching from the usual suspects all the way up to David Cameron, is, I suppose understandable.  That doesn’t necessarily make it right, however.  Employees contracts shouldn’t be torn up because a new shareholder has taken control of the company.  They can certainly be amended going forward – that’s pretty much standard practice – and I’d expect a lot fewer ‘guaranteed bonus’ contracts next year, if any at all.  But we shouldn’t be tearing up all principles of employment law to satisfy the baying journalistic mob.  More worrying a response is this, articulated by Simon Carr in the Independent.

Yet there is something our leaders might say to these insulate beneficiaries. "We'll save your firms from bankruptcy but as your new owners we've got new rules. Existing bonus contracts are void. You'll get a utility salary with nothing on top. You won't leave for jobs elsewhere because there aren't jobs elsewhere. And if there are, you won't get them because you'll have a court case pursuing you. Yes, chum, if you bale out we will prosecute you for a) trading while insolvent, b) fraud and/or theft, or c) misfeance. Now unravel these securities and derivatives and get this bank back on its feet."

Briefly, preventing them from resigning/retiring/finding another job would be illegal (restraint of trade) a prosecution for trading while insolvent would apply only to directors (who mostly aren’t the ones taking bonuses, that’s the traders with guaranteed bonuses), fraud is incredibly hard to prove, theft doesn’t apply here (“dishonest appropriation of property with intent permanently to deprive” – just doesn’t wash) and misfeance isn’t even a word.  Even if he means misfeasance, that only applies to members in public office.  Finally, and fortunately, our legal system isn’t yet quite so in thrall to the executive that they allow show trials on trumped-up evidence.  It can be handy, when bandying legal terminology around to, you know, have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.

Many think regulation is the answer. No, revenge is the answer. You can't specify what people should do in every situation. It is incentives that guide employees. The risk of catastrophic personal loss in the event of losing the money they were entrusted with – only that will produce the culture of responsibility politicians are after.

Great.  The abolition of the limited company, the invention that has been responsible for so much of the wealth creation in the modern world.  Well, if we do as Carr suggests, and make banks' directors  or, as he seems to suggests, all bank employees, personally liable for all corporate debts, we’re going to be seeing a few changes round here.  Yes, we probably won’t see so much financial debt packaging (which, arrgh, we won’t be seeing so much of anyway), but among the other things we won’t see will be mortgages for journalists (notoriously bad risks, plus they're low-paid), loans to start-up entrepreneurs (ooh, couldn’t possibly justify that sort of risk old boy), credit for the low paid (are you crazy?  That’s my house we’re talking about).  In other words the rolling back of the financial revolution.  Well, as I pointed out here, I’m all right Jack.  I’m a nice upper-middle class boy with a steady job and a good income.  Not so rosy for everyone else though.

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The moral bankruptcy MPs have brought on themselves

Yet another one on bonuses, I fear.

Let us be quite clear, Government in its role as the Government has no place to pontificate, comment or legislate on private sector pay awards and conditions.

Government, in its role as a shareholder can impact the remuneration policies of the businesses that it owns – in exactly the same way that any significant shareholder can.

This means, for example, that it can wave a stick around and bully RBS and to some extend Lloyds. It also means it can fuck off with regard to Barclays or HSBC where it has yet to extend its dead hand.

So much for its executive power – but government and politicians in general have influence beyond the executive, to whit the bully pulpit that comes from the publicity they enjoy.

Again, let us be quite clear. No politician, political party, spokesmen, apparatchik can have any credibility on the matter of results-based pay the morality of otherwise of bonuses or the equity of pay deals as long as the current scandal of MPs allowances and expenses is allowed to continue. They are too expensive, and too inclined to play the system for personal gain.

MPs have no moral authority to criticise bankers over bonuses or pay.

UPDATE: Mr Brogan has it right

Monday, February 09, 2009

Brucie's banking bonus

Further to my colleague’s words on this subject, I’m finding myself getting a little irritated with the calls for the retrospective abolition of all bonuses.  Piling into the matter is Vince Cable, who has acquired the mantle of an economic sage, by virtue of being both bald and not a Conservative.

"There's an excess of bankers with more bankers around than banking jobs - they're lucky to be in work," he said. "The government has got to be very tough with these people and put a freeze on this".

He said that the system of bonuses must be changed so that rather than cash payment, bonuses are linked to the performance of a company.

"In the longer term if you have incentives  built into the banking then yes they should be paid in deferred shares," he said.

Well, the first thing to say about this, is that a large proportion of bonuses are already paid in deferred share options, so the good Dr Cable is pushing on an open door here.  The second is that this is all getting rather out of hand.  I fully agree, that companies that have performed disastrously ought not to be paying performance-related bonuses to its staff.  But then, in most cases, this is already the policy.  Banks, for the most part, have a serious cash-flow problem.  The last thing they want to be doing is handing over great wodges of the stuff to the workforce.  My friends in the banking sector unanimously report that bonuses are through the floor this year – if they exist at all.

Those bonuses that are getting paid are going to bankers with ‘guaranteed bonus’ clauses in their contracts.  That is, it is a contractual right of these employees to receive a bonus.  These aren’t discretionary, they are contractual payments.  Luckily Vince Cable has a great idea of preventing even these from being paid:

Later Mr Cable said that the government should sack anyone taking legal action to preserve their bonuses from banks partially owned by the government.  

"My view would be yes indeed if you want to take us to court take us to court, but there's the door please leave," he said.

Ooh, firing people for exercising their contractual and statutory employment rights.  I wonder if there’s a word for that?

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

...Winning one more for the Gipper

The other night I was looking at Youtube clips of the life and times of Ronald Reagan, y'know the way you do. 2 things struck me.

The first, as always, was the deep affection and respect that I have for a man. An affection and respect which grows the more I learn about him. I am only just learning that as well as being a great communicator, he was also a great conservative thinker and writer.

I also learnt that the Conservative party could do worse than going back and reading his 1980 campaign literature: it has an extra-ordinary resonance, try this, covering the economy, on for size:

Strong leadership in economic policy means lower taxes, more jobs, and less inflation.

Governor Reagan has an economic program for America that will work because it's a comprehensive program. A program that recognizes the interrelationships and complexity of our that combines the wisdom of leading American economists with common sense.

Here is the basis of the Economic Plan that can be expected from a Reagan Administration:

The growth of federal spending will be controlled. A freeze on federal hiring will be instituted immediately. And Ronald Reagan will do as President what he did as Governor of California: create a task force composed of the finest minds from industry and labor, to isolate wasteful and fraudulent operations in government, estimated by the Justice Department to amount to as much as $25 billion. No longer will unemployment be used to fight inflation.

An immediate 10% reduction in personal tax rates, along with acceleration of depreciation schedules, will be initiated in order to help generate industrial expansion and the creation of new jobs. Changes will be made in the tax structure, especially aimed at removing those requirements which serve as disincentives in industry. It will be recommended that the tax on savings account interest be further reduced. Upon reducing the tax rates, tax indexing will be proposed to protect taxpayers from automatic tax increases resulting from cost-of-living wage increases.

Action will be taken to review those government regulations which clearly hamper, instead of encourage, economic growth -- and to then change them in as orderly a fashion as possible. This action will not affect regulations in such sensitive areas as health and job safety which do serve a useful purpose.

A sound monetary policy will be restored -- one designed to instill confidence in the American dollar abroad, as well as bring down the rate of inflation at home. The nation's economic policy, once established, will be adhered to. Abrupt changes in economic policy have, in recent years, aggravated existing problems and created new ones; they have played havoc with the confidence of those in both industry and labor. The right economic policy, held steadily and consistently on course, will do much to establish greater stability in America's economic system.

Beyond these broad economic steps aimed at expanding the economy as a whole, a Reagan Administration would recognize that special problems exist which require special solutions. A few examples:

For workers who have lost their jobs because they lack certain skills or are victims of a changing technology, Reagan would act to implement job retraining and job placement programs.

For disadvantaged youths and others unemployed because of the flight of industry from the cities, enterprise zones would be established in depressed urban areas in order to stimulate new businesses and new jobs.

For industries in trouble because of exceptionally aggressive foreign competition -- such as the auto industry -- he would initiate steps to permit American industry to be more competitive in the world market. These would include the elimination of unnecessary,costly regulations...and adopting a firmer, common sense view of future trade agreements with other nations, always with jobs for American workers uppermost in mind.

A clearly defined strategy would remove the unfair 'do-nothing' claims and enable some of DC's rhetoric to move outside the immediate and look further ahead to a post recession Britain and bring forward his version of the wonderful 'from shore to shining shore'/new Jerusalem / Morning in America' language that Reagan is best remembered for.

Come on David, let's win one more for the Gipper..!

On banking bonuses

So, the news comes that the good burglars (surely Burghers. Ed.) of RBS are lining up to pay out bonuses, rumoured to total millions of pounds, to their employees - predominantly one imagines their workers in the city - a fair number of whom one surmises are on guaranteed schemes.
This, it is fair to say, is causing a little bit of strife and anguish amongst sections of our commentariat and executive - and one can rather see their point.
To my mind, the issue needs to be broken up rather, to be understood fully.
#1 - some of these bonuses will be contractually guaranteed - a 12 - 24 month guaranteed bonus being one way in which leading bankers were poached. Hard to see how these can be wriggled out of;
#2 - some of these bonuses will relate to specific actions / deals / targets which will have been reached. Now, there is a wider remuneration issue here that should be addressed, as bonuses should be dependent on shareholders receiving value, and therefore elements subject to bottom line considerations; however it seems harsh for example to punish the Corporate Financier (working 100 hour weeks, 52 weeks of the year, delivering millions of pounds in fees) for the sins of the securitised debt team;
#3 - some of these bonuses - especially those payable to senior directors with responsibilities across divisions for overall performance - will be very hard to defend.
We cannot however judge the issue until 'millions of pounds of bonuses' are broken down into these 3 buckets.
Equally we must be careful of the Obama route of capping executive pay. These are troubled waters - and the ramifications large: do they apply for example to legal entities outside of the US? What constitutes a senior executive? What exchange rate should be used? Do the deferred stock based bonuses carry voting rights? How should the costs of setting up 'B' style shares be covered? If we accept that our economy does need a strong vibrant financial sector, can we afford to allow the dead hand of government drive away our key talent?
Finally, how can a government which over the last 5 years has driven the income of the unproductive sector to a point where the average is £62 per week higher than the productive economy urge wage restraint?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The sound of summer: leather hitting Brian Close

OK, so the West Indies is not the force it once was, its batting is brittle (apart from Chanderpaul of course), its bowling wayward and its fielding too often lackadaisical in the extreme.  But there’s always a thrill about the Windies.  The first time I saw them properly was in 1991, with the fire already starting to die, but I remember Marshall steaming in to Graham Gooch, and Viv Richards still swaggering over his bat.  And that was nothing compared to how they had been in the 70s and 80s.

One session that comes to mind – and I know it’s a cliché so hush – is the evening session at Old Trafford in 1976, with Holding, Daniel and Roberts bouncing the shit out of Brian Close – aged 46 – and John Edrich – a stripling of 37 or so.  Look back at the video now, and it’s a miracle no-one was killed.  The bowlers were bowling at the batsmen's’ heads, and the pitch was spiteful.  Close particularly was bashed about all over the place.  But, as Viv Richards remembered:

"Close got hit in the chest by Wayne Daniel and sank to the floor. OK, I was playing for my country, but this was my county skipper on the ground in pain. So I went up to him, asked: 'Are you OK, skipper?' Closey eventually gathered himself together and bellowed, 'Fuck off.' What a man."

They don’t build ‘em like that any more – either for us or for them.


Everything before the but...

There’s a very old saying, used here for example, that “everything before the but is bullshit”.  It’s a handy way of remembering that the ritual ‘I’m not a racist but…’ lines can be safely ignored.  Bearing that in mind, lets have a look at the comments to Jonathon Freedland’s article, which says that it is important not to allow legitimate criticism of Israel to spill over into a general anti-Semitism.

“Firstly let me say I completely and utterly condemn all anti-semitism.  But…”

“Who couldn't agree with the sentiment, but…”

“There is some truth in what Mr Freedland has to say but…”

“Of course anti-semitic attacks of the kind JF describes are unacceptable, and if anyone is deliberately stoking this extremist fringe into such acts, they need to think again.  But…”

“I deplore any instances of anti-Semitic abuse, violence or intimidation, wherever they come from and for whatever reason.  But…”

“You make valid points. Anti-semitism should not darken world history, along with all the other race-isms: Never Again.  But…”

“There's no excuse for anti-semitism, but…”

“All anti-semitism, like all racism, is vile and should be condemned outright. More often than not, its perpetrators are wilfully ignorant or insecure.  So I agree wholeheartedly with this article.  But…”

“We all know that the British Jewish community are not directly responsible for the massacre in Gaza, but…”

Comments have only been open for an hour or so…

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

By George he's got it?

I was forced to do a quick double-take this morning reading George Monbiot:

For the first time in my life I resent paying my taxes. Until now I have seen this annual amputation as a civic duty - like giving blood - necessary to sustain the life of a fair society. Suddenly I see it as an imposition. Its purpose has reverted to that of the middle ages: subsidising the excesses of a parasitic class.

Has he finally seen the light?  I’ve been feeling this way for years – so much tax paid, and so much of it going to pay the wages of bureaucrats and out-reach officers.  So much pissed up the wall of low productivity and gold-plated pensions: George, welcome to the right side!

Sadly it turned out he was talking about Government bail-outs of the banking sector.  Right sentiments, wrong target.

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