Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 30 November 2009

Don't mention the special forces

Usually politicians are keen on round numbers. £100,000 of funding here, 250 new hospitals there. But there are some occasions when the 99p approach is more appropriate.

Gordon Brown's statement on Afghanistan is one such occasion. Britain has 9,500 troops now committed to the country, we were told. That much-vaunted figure has in fact been the subject of two statements, not one, for today was merely a confirmation of the figure initially proposed last month. It's certainly sticking in the headlines.

But it's not quite true, is it? In fact the total number of British forces is slightly higher. So high our troop levels have increased from a four-figure to a five-figure amount.

"For understandable reasons of operational security, we shall continue to withhold
information about their deployment and the nature of activities of our special forces," Brown said.

"I believe the British people have a right to know and deserve the assurance that our highly professional widely respected and extraordinarily brave special forces are playing their full role not only in force protection but in taking the fight directly to the Taleban, working in theatre alongside our regular forces. And I want the whole country to pay tribute to them.

"Taking into account these special forces, their supporting troops and the increases announced today our total military effort in Afghanistan will be in excess of 10,000 troops."

Today's statement shows Brown's commitment to Afghanistan - but also his nervousness about public sensitivities towards the struggle against the Taliban.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The X (in my ballot box please) Factor

Here's a guest post from politics.co.uk's own Jonathan Moore:

In what can only be described as the latest indicator of British politics' slow march into the populist gutter, the Conservatives launched a new campaign poster last night featuring Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling superimposed onto an image of Jedward, immediately after the Irish twins were voted off the X Factor.

To compound this monkey-see-monkey-do approach to political campaigning – attempting to appeal to the 'yoof' vote by associating politics and politicians with whatever happens to be on the tele at the time – the poster doesn't even make a great deal of sense and can only be described as an offensive assault on the intellect of the British public.

The tagline "Jedward are gone but we're still left with… Deadwood" is embarrassing to say the least; uninspired, lazy and insulting to add a little more detail.

If they have any excuse – they don't – the Conservatives can point to the fact that they didn't start this latest round of vomit-inducing pandering. This poster is, in fact, a response to a Labour campaign from a fortnight ago depicting Cameron and Osborne as John and Edward with the line "You won't be laughing if they win".

Quite apart from the disgrace of political parties jumping on the bandwagon of a hate campaign against a couple of teenagers, if this is the level and quality of how this election campaign is going to be fought then it's going to be a long march to May 2010.

A cursory glance at the major films to be released around election time next year shows two major sequels: Iron Man 2 and Oliver Stone's follow up to his 1987 hit Wall Street, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. After these two posters, expect campaigns depicting Gordon 'the Iron Man chancellor' Brown protecting us all from financial despair and either Osborne or Darling as a "greed is good" Gordon Gekko. God help us all.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Megrahi clings on

Families and friends of the 270 Lockerbie bombing victims will be tapping their watches impatiently today. The only man convicted of Britain's worst ever terrorist attack remains alive.

The diplomatic storm which followed his release on August 20th was bad enough. But, from today, Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill's judgments starts getting more and more embarrassing.

Medical advice cited by Mr MacAskill stated Megrahi's life expectancy was around three months.

Now he's survived that date pressure will begin to grow for him to - well, for him to die.

Labour MSP Richard Simpson knows more than most how delicate the situation is.

As a prostate disease specialist in his former life as a doctor, he's especially well qualified to demand regular independent updates on the bomber's health.

"That should be something simple saying whether he is doing well or not," he told the Scotsman.

"I think the public are interested to know whether the original advice about his life expectancy was correct or not."

As the days pass by, more and more people will begin to feel like Megrahi is cheating justice.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Osborne takes it personally

The remarkable thing about George Osborne is how personally he takes it.

Watching the Tory front bench yesterday while Cameron eviscerated the Queen's Speech, it was amusing to note how tragically transparent Conservative's faces are.

To his left, William Hague and Sir George Young watched over the Commons like angels on the gates of a cemetery. Hague had a smile plastered on his face throughout, and he sat quite still, almost zen-like. He gives the sense of reliability somehow. Sir George never looked up from the ceiling. He looked as if he should have a post-coital cigarette. We were informed today he was the man who had a phone call with Sir Christopher Kelly yesterday. When? No-one's really sure. If it was before the Speech was delivered, it would be considered naughty.

Ken Clarke looked perturbed, and interestingly, he looked most perturbed when glancing at Cameron. I was reminded of Sir Edward Heath's analysis of William Hague while he watched the then-Tory leader destroy Tony Blair at the despatch box. Apparently, he turned to Charles Kennedy and whispered: "Such a vulgar little man." I don't agree, really, but I very much enjoy that he said it.

But most interesting of all was George Osborne. Every joke by Cameron he laughed boisterously at – even genuinely. Every attack on Cameron, he stared at the MP like a vicious dog protecting its owners. He is a shadow of his leader, replicating Cameron's inner thoughts. It's obvious these two are close. But yesterday they looked like Romulus and Remus.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Another grassroots victory

The Labour party's new party political broadcast isn't, it turns out, so new after all.

'Fighting and believing', which presents Gordon Brown's policies in the same tradition as the suffragette campaign for women's votes and the creation of the NHS, was initially broadcast to the Labour party conference before the prime minister's leader's speech.

There it would have stayed, if it wasn't for a bright idea from an activist known to the Twitterati as BevaniteEllie.

Her campaign quickly gathered pace, leading to its adoption as the Labour party's Queen's Speech PPB this evening.

"Funny what can happen when you put your mind to something isn't it?" she wrote on her blog.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

They didn't mention the war. Neither will I

It's good to see that, on this day of all days, Anglo-German relations are slightly better than they were 91 years ago.

New German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has popped across the North Sea for a quiet dinner with the foreign secretary this evening.

In a press conference taking place, in time-honoured fashion, 20 minutes late in the Foreign Office, the pair exchanged the usual compliments. Mr Westerwelle, according to Mr Miliband, is a "strong European and a strong internationalist". Mr Miliband was told bilateral relations were "excellent" and that Germany and Britain were "genuine partners, genuine friends".

As is always the case, personal relations between the pair are analysed carefully. Feedback, apparently caused by their interpreter headsets being placed too close to the microphones, provided an opportunity for awkwardness.

"I think it's a trick!" Mr Westerwelle exclaimed, apropos of nothing. Perhaps bilateral relations were about to take a turn for the worse.

Mr Miliband, somewhat baffled and just about to mention Tony Blair, tried to make light of the situation. "You think this is designed to stop me mentioning the TB word," he said, with the air of a theatrical impresario trying to convince the audience nothing is going wrong.

"No - I think it is to force me to speak English!" Mr Westerwelle replied. It was an embarrassing, self-deprecating remark of the kind the Foreign Office is not accustomed to from foreign diplomats. Perhaps over dinner Mr Miliband will be able to offer some kindly words of advice.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Iain Dale takes on the Daily Mail

Interesting post from Tory blogger Iain Dale yesterday. Dale is one of those people who occupies an important place in the area where politics and the internet meet – so much so that you forget, when talking to outside friends, that he's not really known at all in the population at large. It's a curious, very focused sort of celebrity that he inhabits.

Personally, I've always had time for him. I frequently disagree with his conclusions, but I always got the impression he was a gentleman.

So it's disappointing, and entirely unsurprising, that the Daily Mail wrote this about him:

"Overtly gay Tory blogger Iain Dale has reached the final stage of parliamentary selection for Bracknell, telling PinkNews: 'I hope any PinkNews readers who live in Bracknell will come to the open primary on October 17 to select their new candidate.

You don't even have to be a Conservative to attend.'

Isn't it charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause?"

Dale reported the newspaper to the Press Complaints Commission for this little titbit, and yesterday it found against him:

"The complaint seemed to be that describing him as 'overtly gay' at the same time as saying it was 'charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause' was spiteful to the point of homophobia. This was a more subtle and subjective charge against the newspaper.

In coming to a conclusion on the matter, the Commission had to have regard to the context in which the remarks were made. They appeared in a diary column which is well known for its mischievous – and sometimes self-consciously fusty – remarks that poke fun at the antics of public figures. The piece followed the complainant’s own comments to PinkNews – a news website aimed at gay people – about his attempt to secure the nomination in Bracknell. It may have been an uncharitable account of the complainant’s position – and any intended humour may have been lost on some readers – but the item appeared to be relevant to the news, and to fit into the column’s style, rather than constitute an arbitrary attack on him on the basis of his sexuality.

This might strike some as a fine distinction to make, but where it is debatable – as in this case – about whether remarks can be regarded solely as pejorative and gratuitous, the Commission should be slow to restrict the right to express an opinion, however snippy it might be."

Before I go any further, I should mention I used to work for PinkNews, just because if I don’t someone else invariably will. On the other hand, I'm not gay or Tory and neither of those facts discredit my opinion either. It seems to me the PCC got this one right. Coming from the Mail, of all newspapers, you can just smell the sneering mean-spiritedness of the overtones clinging on to the copy. Dale felt they were insinuating, and I would have probably come to the same conclusion. But….

I have another disclosure I feel I should make. I made a couple of retweets on the Jan Moir article the other day, which ended up causing such a palaver she was forced to make one of those sort-of apologies. The article just irritated me in a big way. But afterwards, surveying the wreckage, I didn’t feel very proud of myself. It felt like we'd just closed down debate a little. That's unfortunate, even when the sentiment is ugly and sad. I think probably the same is true here. It's wise of the PCC to take account of the tone of the piece. We need to be wary of this new PC censorship, even if I am much more sympathetic to its values than the Mary Whitehouse school that came before.

Dale says something interesting at the end of his post: "I can but live in hope that the Daily Mail will think twice before writing such tosh in the future." Perhaps these appeals to PCC will achieve that. It's one of those weird situations where Dale behaved correctly in complaining and the PCC behaved correctly in rejecting it. Everything behaved exactly as it should, and it's not often you can say that in Britain right now.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Miliband's European future?

Here's a guest post from politics.co.uk's own Emmeline Saunders:

Has David Miliband already accepted the European foreign secretary role he was hotly tipped for?

Senior Labour figures seem to think so. Rumours abound today that the Blairite foreign secretary will be announced as a European representative within the next fortnight, even though his mentor's hopes of assuming the presidency of the European council have faded.

Despite his ardent insistence last week that he was "not available" for the post, Labour sources say he has already taken up the offer.

And, in a deliciously smooth New Labour coup, Mandelson could soon be settling back into the green seats of power with a triumphant beam writ large on his face.

If, or when, Miliband announces his new job, he will have to stand down as constituency MP for South Shields, triggering a by-election. Mandy's old stomping ground Hartlepool borders the constituency, so it is widely expected that the business secretary will contest the Labour safe seat, and could even wrestle the reins of control from Brown after what is sure to be a dire election for Labour.

A Labour source told politics.co.uk that Mandelson will keep the leadership seat warm for one term only, before resuming his position as kingmaker and all-round smoothie and handing over to Miliband, who is bound to have come back from his gap-term suitably tanned and raring to go.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said today she had not heard that Miliband had accepted the job, but there has not been an out-and-out denial from the minister's people.

He became a serious contender to the EU's first high representative for foreign policy role last week, with his name put forward on a shortlist which also included √Člisabeth Guigou, a former French Socialist Europe minister.

Brown and Miliband were involved in a tense exchange at a Brussels press conference when they were asked about the shortlist of candidates. Brown quickly dismissed rumours that Miliband had been proposed for the job.

"Let me just say, I have been at the meeting," the prime minister said. "That was not their decision, just let me tell you. Also if there is a shortlist I am sure David would be on it because he has excellent qualifications. But he doesn't want to be on it. And indeed there is no such list."

Miliband laughed off the suggestion, and replied: "Not available, as the prime minister said."

The new post and the presidency of the European council are expected to be filled in the next month, as the Lisbon treaty has now been ratified by the Czech government. EU officials want both jobs to be operational by January 1st.

No 10 would be most put out if a senior minister was perceived as bailing out before a horrendous Labour defeat. Miliband has distanced himself from the position, but has never ruled himself out, yet he was seen to be canvassing for the post when he was delivering speeches on how to campaign for a global Europe.