Politics.co.uk Blog

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Well done England!

The unrestrained joy of politics.co.uk at England's Ashes triumph knows no bounds, which is why we say a heart 'well done!' to the vanquishers of those pesky Aussies.

For too many years has England endured humiliation down under. Now honour is restored and the normal way of things has returned. This, of courses, includes prime ministerial congratulations.

"Congratulations to the England team and Captain Andrew Strauss on a brilliant performance Down Under," David Cameron says, in fact.

"Retaining The Ashes for the first time in almost a quarter of a century marks a very special end to the year for sports fans and a great late Christmas present for the country.

"I look forward to welcoming them to Downing Street when they return."

It'll be interesting to see whether they get Cameron doing the 'sprinkler dance' in No 10!

(Usually we object to politicians putting things in capitals. They call themselves the Government instead of the government, because it looks more important, for example... but when it comes to a trophy as venerated and significant as The Ashes, we're prepared to make an exception)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cable's gaffe is no surprise

Vince Cable is not especially adept at keeping his feelings to himself. Which is somewhat unfortunate, given the profession he finds himself in.

Being part of the government has traditionally required extensive lip-zipping. The constitutional convention of collective responsibility, which requires all ministers to resign if they cannot back the government's position on everything, has already been stretched by the coalition. Cable's suggestion shortly before the tuition fees vote that he might abstain is a case in point.

Now the business secretary has been caught making improper remarks about his "war" with Rupert Murdoch. Given that he was supposed to be making a quasi-judicial decision on the issue, it's right that he steps back. Despite the obvious opprobrium this has attracted, I can't help but feel that Cable's longer-term position as the man holding up the coalition has been strengthened..

The problem is that he's not great at keeping himself to himself. I spoke with him last summer about his thoughts on the coalition. He was far more candid than he needed to be: in fact Cable was about as frank as he was on the Telegraph tapes which have now got him into so much trouble. There is a balance to be struck in being privately open with journalists – we can't do our jobs if we don't know what they're really thinking - but Cable has spent his months in office being surprisingly unguarded. Perhaps now he will learn his lesson.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Thoughts on the departure of Iain Dale

Iain Dale is a funny symbol of the Westminster bubble. Inside it, he's practically royalty. Outside, he's nobody. It's a funny discrepancy, to have so much fame within one important circle and barely any name recognition outside it. Today, Iain Dale announced he would quit blogging. That will mean nothing to most people and really rather a lot to others. His duties at LBC, Total Politics and his book publishers have won over his blog entries. But what did Dale do to deserve his status?

Dale's primary achievement was to introduce civility and thoughtfulness to the blogosphere. In what will later be considered the painful birth pangs of a new media form, Dale offered considered opinions and a reasoned approach to political argument. This was totally at odds with the barely concealed rage of many, if not most, right wing bloggers of the period, whose vitriol often revealed a barely concealed hysteria about the country and themselves. He also demonstrated a healthy commitment to using his considerable influence to promote new bloggers of all political stripes.

He was not perfect. Since the coalition was created his blog posts became considerably less interesting. On too many occasions they could easily have been swapped for a ministerial statement without too many people noticing. It was a far cry from the independent Conservative opinions he was capable of.

But there was much more that was right about Dale than was wrong with him. When we look back on the early years of political blogging, we'll be grateful that he was around to lay out his opinion in a polite and sophisticated manner, despite the fury of the voices around him. It was the manner with which he expressed himself, rather than his actual opinions, which will be missed.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Tuition fees vote is on the brink

Nothing is certain when it comes to Thursday's tuition fees vote, as ministerial brinkmanship clashes with the genuine dismay of government backbenchers.

There is, for this week at least, nothing else to talk about. Ministers are pushing their tuition fees proposal to a vote on Thursday afternoon. Amid the din of protestors shouting about broken promises, will Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs really be able to hold their nerve?

The answer, despite everything, is probably yes. Like a Jane Austen-style dance where everyone knows the steps, the run-up to tomorrow's crucial tuition fees vote is following a depressingly pre-ordained rhythm.

The government is unlikely to be defeated when it comes to the crunch. This is usually the case when it looks like ministers are running into difficulty: look at the almighty row which nearly scuppered Tony Blair's premiership on tuition fees in his second term, when, despite massive opposition, Labour managed to scrape through to a win.

Around 40 or 50 rebels are needed to see Vince Cable's plans to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000. Judging by the disparate nature of the rebels, this doesn't seem like a number which is likely to be reached.

In the Liberal Democrat camp the atmosphere is, admittedly, distinctly moody. A lengthy parliamentary party meeting yesterday evening went on for at least three hours. One exhausted insider told politics.co.uk afterwards that MPs were fraught with anxiety. Even those who previously thought they had been won over are put off by the sheer scale of the increase in the cap from £3,300. Measures to mitigate the hike by improving fairness, it seems, can only go so far.

Nevertheless, Clegg's efforts have at least managed to rally the payroll vote. The deputy prime minister emerged confidently claiming he will be able to rely on the support of his ministers in pushing the measures through. This is partly because of that classic government move, the last-minute concession. This morning Cable announced a new and improved version of the higher education reform package, including plans to uprate the earnings thresholds in line with inflation and full loan support for part-timers. These are meaningful changes but don't change the broader thrust of the proposals. Nevertheless, they will have the desired political effect.

Even if the Lib Dem refuseniks achieve a sizeable rebellion – with perhaps a third of their 57 MPs actively rejecting the party's approach or choosing to abstain – they would have to rely on Conservative rebels to carry the day. This is why the party is deploying senior figures to win over wavering backbenchers. For some, the wording of the opposition motion could be critical. Will Labour table an alternative which, by being overly partisan, puts Tories off?

At least the opposition can be relied upon to fall into line. A handful of Labour MPs have privately admitted they don't mind the bulk of the proposals outlined by Cable and co. But the sheer thrust of the message being sent out – the same complaint made by potential Conservative rebels – is enough to keep them in line. Alan Johnson's decision to fall into line on the graduate tax alternative is helping keep the shadow Cabinet happy, too.

A quick word, finally, about MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It's a mark of the turmoil caused by this issue that MPs from all sides of the debate have been wondering how these will vote – could their decisions make a difference? A senior Northern Irish MP has told politics.co.uk he is 99% certain to vote against the government, citing real concerns about the issue – even though it's a devolved one – back home. The nationalists look likely to vote in a block, too, it has been reported. If it's closer than we think their decision-making could prove decisive.

Some MPs have admitted to politics.co.uk that they have been dreaming about the tuition fees vote, such has been the mental strain caused by the issue. Their agonising will be drawn out to the last minute as ministers seek to minimise the concessions they make to win the day.

The government should manage to push its higher education funding proposals through. But its deployment of the same old last-minute tactics carries huge risks which have set the whole of parliament on edge.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Naughtie's C-word slip: Was he thinking it?

Waking up to the Today programme is usually a pretty reliable experience. Stern interview, concerned activist, balanced pundit: it's a format that's worked pretty well for them.

So it was with unmitigated pleasure that listeners enjoyed James Naughtie's rather brilliant slip up this morning, in which he unilaterally changed culrure secretary Jeremy Hunt's name to something more… robust.

He promptly corpsed all over the place, disappeared for 20 minutes and then emerging with an apology.

You can hear the moment by clicking here - but we warn you, it's explicit.

"Some of you thought it was funny, some of you were frankly offended," Mr Naughtie, whose name becomes more fitting with each passing second, said.

"All I can say is that occasionally, in live broadcasting, these things happen and I am very sorry to anybody who thought it wasn't what they wanted to hear over breakfast.

"Needless to say, neither did I."

Hunt himself took it rather well, later tweeting: "They say prepare for anything before going on Today but that took the biscuit... I was laughing as much as u Jim or shld I say Dr Spooner."

Moments later, as he took over for Start the Week, Andrew Marr made exactly the same clanger.

All of which raises the question: what does Naughtie think of Hunt? Plainly he didn't mean to say it, but for the association to slip out his mouth like that, well, it would have to be on his mind. Predictably, lefties on Twitter are going spare claiming Naughtie as one of their own, his secrete socialist principles now suddenly revealed.

Being born with the wonderful name Ian Dunt is perhaps an acquired taste. This is a dangerous area for me, and I'm hoping it's not the start of a trend.

Friday, 26 November 2010

MPs' committee privacy breach won't rock Westminster to its foundations

Select committees are an important part of our democracy. Their grilling of ministers is often hailed as one of the best ways in which MPs do their job of holding the executive to account.

You'd think, given their prominence, that parliamentary journalists would be carefully monitoring their sessions. Gripped to their television screens. Or, now that these things are streamed online, their web browsers.

An accidental broadcasting of a 15-minute private session proves that this is not the case.

Keith Vaz's home affairs committee didn't realise as they discussed an evidence session which has just concluded that their closed-door remarks were being streamed live on the web.

Yet, so it appears, just one journalist noticed.

Well done to the Press Association hack for clinging on and achieving what all journalists crave: the chance to be a fly on the wall. Doubtless if they had said something sensational we would have had a great story. As it is, Vaz and co are thoroughly relieved the session's secrets will not become public.

"I am most grateful that even though they had this information, PA is choosing to respect parliament in this manner," Vaz said.

We shall draw our own conclusions. That the committees don't get as much attention as they perhaps should is... well, it might be one of them...

Who will rid me of these pesky peers?

Here's a guest post by one of our writers, Peter Wozniak, which will be appearing on the site over the weekend. It's a bit of a humdinger...

David Cameron's attempt to drag the Conservative party into the 21st century is far from complete - but without the odd eccentric, politics would be a much duller place.

Let's be honest. David Young and Howard Flight are not government ministers. They are eccentrics whose time in frontline politics has long since passed.

Their comments about the distastefulness of the poor "breeding" and scepticism about the "so-called recession" demonstrate a grotesque and unreconstructed view from the right that is anything but representative of the people now pulling the levers at CCHQ.

Labour synthetically rages about how this demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government is out of touch with Joe Bloggs on the street.

It doesn't. It shows that two ageing dinosaurs, each of whom could be plucked fully-formed from the politics of the 1980s, are out of touch.

And yet, I can't quite join in the chorus of rage that seems to want their heads impaled on a pike atop the Tower of London for being so hopelessly mistaken. My heart isn't really in it. This may be rather selfish from a hack's point of view, but without these eccentric nutters to liven up political debate our jobs would be an awful lot less fun.

It is only when politicians are immediately destroyed by public opinion for expressing daft opinions that we need worry. When that happens we end up with a political class so afraid of saying anything of value or interest that we are faced with a series of production line party apparatchiks capable of uttering only the most banal and meaningless platitudes.

For instance, I may (and do) despise the views expressed by Ukip leader Nigel Farage. I may find it depressing and faintly pathetic that if all the sheep in New Zealand were to suddenly die of blight, he would still almost certainly find a way to blame the European Union.

But I would defend to the death his right to spout such stupidity. What we do not want is a political debate paralysed (as I fear is happening) by an atmosphere in which no meaningful discourse can take place for fear of saying something 'out of touch' or untoward.

Argument and controversy ought to be fostered by proper political debate. That is the very purpose for which it exists.

Eccentricity and mistakes enliven politics. It is only polished perfection which is manifestly dull.

Observe 95% of political interviews these days and you'll see what I mean.

The suggestion that the only views allowed to be expressed are those which are 'in touch' raises worrying implications, of which the reaction to the Conservative peers is only a symptom.

What precisely are they supposed to be in touch with? If the answer is 'the public mood' then logically politicians should never do anything unpopular at all. That way lies the madness of basing policy on the focus group and the opinion poll, rather than on ideology.

It enfeebles our politicians to a state so excellently parodied in the film In The Loop, where a Cabinet minister gravely informs his Alistair Campbell-esque tormentor: "I might be forced to the verge of making a stand!"

As our prime minister should well know, appearance means a great deal for the purposes of elections. He still needs to quash the image of a Tory party implacably opposed to masses of the wretched poor.

David Cameron spent five years of clawing the Tories out of an age in the political netherworld.

The prime minister could be forgiven for tearing some hair out and sprouting a few greys at having two political non-entities threatening to scupper the immaculate PR image he has constructed.

It is quite possible to imagine a scene in Downing Street reminiscent of Henry II railing against Thomas Becket: "Who will rid me of these pesky peers?"

But the truth is there are plenty of Conservatives (and more than a few others) who privately agree with the sentiments of the two offending Lords, even if they condemn the language in which they were expressed.

It is a sign of the times that such people are far too concerned about the reaction from our 24-hour news cycle to raise their voices. Kenneth Clarke said last night that in today's media environment, "there are no problems, only crises". He wasn't far off the mark.

Howard Flight and David Young have expressed unpleasant and inaccurate views in foolish political language.

Criticise them by all means. Dismantle their arguments and pillory their antiquated notions.

But as the most radical government of modern times sets to its controversial work, the very last thing we need right now is a bonfire of the opinionated.

Monday, 22 November 2010

What Lib Dem leaflets teach us about Oldham East and Saddleworth

The Lib Dems and Labour couldn't be behaving more differently in Oldham East and Saddleworth, which remains on track to be the coalition's first by-election test.

Phil Woolas, who is as disgraced an MP as he is a former one, is clinging on to the hope he might be able to overturn the election court's ruling kicking him out of the Commons. While he does so the local Labour party are keeping their heads down, hoping against hope that the government's unpopularity will hit the Lib Dems.

Their hopeful, Elwyn Watkins, is taking a different view. He's been bombarding his voters with leaflets, repeating the drown-them-under-an-avalanche-of-literature tactic which fell just 104 votes short of beating Woolas on May 6th.

These are the first Lib Dem election leaflets to defend the party in government – and they make for some interesting reading.

"After 13 years of Labour let-downs, the Liberal Democrats in government are delivering a fair deal for local people," one notes.

It says the link between pensions and earnings has been restored and points out an extra £2 billion has already been fixed on social care.

Another lists "just a few of the positive changes being introduced by the Lib Dems in government". These include "more money for schools", "action to get Britain working again" and "no tax on the first £10,000 you earn". There's not much of a mention of the VAT hike, or tuition fees, either. Instead the approach is a very general one.

The bulk of the leaflets try to ignore the national picture, however, instead focusing on what the Lib Dems are achieving on Oldham borough council. Local issues like better street lighting, tackling antisocial behaviour and even "a new leisure suite at Saddleworth pool" are trumpeted. "I depend on the same shops, hospitals and everyday necessities as everyone else here," Watkins writes. "I know how much this part of the world to offer [sic] – with the right support."

Watkins will become the Lib Dems' 58th MP if he wins the by-election, giving himself the chance of entering the Commons after most would have given up and walked away. His decision to take Woolas to court, for the first time in a century, has shaken up the electioneering rulebook. But Watkins doesn't mind – in fact he's making the most of the victory.

"Labour's shamed MP Woolas has let our area down," one headline proclaims. "Labour MP Phil Woolas lies to local people to get re-elected," says another. "Labour's Woolas brings shame on our area." You get the idea.

Interestingly, there are no claims that Watkins is an absolute paragon of virtue in response. Instead he contrasts himself with Woolas by pointing out he has "a record of fighting hard for local people". He's a "no-nonsense northerner who'll stand up for all of us". Equally, the leaflets' overall tone is one of generalised frustration against Labour – exactly the right approach, given we don't know who Watkins' opponent will be yet. "ANGER," one extra-orange leaflet blares out in massive letters – even if it adds, in smaller print underneath, "... as Labour's mess leaves Greater Manchester police facing cutbacks".

The biggest purpose of the leaflets, common to all of them, is the Lib Dems' infamous bar chart. This is always deployed when the party needs to demonstrate it is the only alternative to the incumbent. "Just 103 votes in it!" it says, above a bar chart showing the top two parties in the seat at the general election. Labour got 14,186 votes. The Lib Dems got 14,083. The logic is clear: if you want to oust Labour, you've only got one option.

In fact that's not quite accurate. In 2005 the Conservatives were a long way behind, taking 18.2% of the vote compared to 33.2% for the Lib Dem candidate and 41.4% for Woolas. In 2010 the incumbent stood on 31.9%, with Watkins on 31.6%. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, took 26.4%.

The conclusion is clear: Oldham East and Saddleworth is a three-way marginal. And, as Watkins' uncompromising rhetoric shows, it's going to be a close fight. His early leaflets suggest he is aware of the danger voters' residual anger from a tough-fought campaign earlier this year poses now. The emphasis on fighting the Labour party generally – and ignoring the Conservative threat completely – is unlikely to shift even when the official campaign gets underway.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Is this really what the Lords is for?

Sometimes the openly political machinations of peers makes it far too easy for critics of the unelected upper House to do their job.

Earlier this week we reported on Charlie Falconer's attempt to derail next May's planned referendum on electoral reform. He was attempting to shunt the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill, of which it was part, into an obscure House of Lords committee which could have delayed it sufficiently to kybosh the referendum. In the end the Lords narrowly defeated his motion with a majority of just 14, ending the matter.

I've been talking to a clerk in the Lords about the baffling legalistic "wheezes", as the leader of the Lords put it, which Lord Falconer was deploying. Without entering into the complexities of "hybridity" – whether the bill specifically affects private interests or not – milord Falconer's argument was that something which is usually spotted before a bill begins its passage through the Commons and then the Lords had not been spotted, or even complained about, during its passage in the Commons.

This was suspicious enough, as peers pointed out in Monday's debate. What has now been explained to me is how brazenly political the move was.

Had Falconer's motion been successful, the 'hybridity' question would have been put to a a panel of Lords officials who would have provided an answer. These are the clerk of public bills in both Houses, who would also call in counsel to the chair of both committees. It turns out these are the same clerks who informally categorise bills before they begin their parliamentary journey, meaning they are highly unlikely to change their minds. Doing so would admit they got it wrong the first time! Doesn't seem at all probable to me.

Falconer was confronted with this when he discussed the matter with the clerks, but – so I'm told, at least – he didn't have a leg to stand on. But he went ahead and very nearly got his way. Is this really what the unelected Lords is for?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

'Mumbai-style': Emails we don't like to get

Part and parcel of living in a well-organised, security conscious country are contingency plans. We all have contingency plans. They are sensible, practical, useful things for when things go wrong. I have a contingency plan for when I lock myself out of the house (my wife). politics.co.uk's editor, Ian Dunt, has a contingency plan for if he fails to buy, possess or procure any kind of writing implement. He just steals my pens.

Now we have learned that parliament has a contingency plan for if armed terrorists launch a 'Mumbai-style' attack on the Palace of Westminster. The details were circulated to all who spend their days toiling away on the parliamentary estate, which includes politics.co.uk's editorial staff. Journalists have been discouraged from printing details of the plan, but it would be both fair and accurate to state that the running-away option is being positively encouraged. Don't hang around, we're told.

"We have contingency plans to cover a range of emergencies, of which this is one," a House spokesperson will say. "It does not relate to a specific threat. We do not comment in detail on security matters."

I was in parliament on July 21st 2005, when police officers thwarted a potential terrorist attack. The place was locked down quickly and efficiently. In a fast-moving situation like Mumbai, the atmosphere would be less calm. But at least, amid the chaos, all those present will be able to think: 'At least I once received an email about this.'

Monday, 15 November 2010

Why you shouldn't watch 'I'm a Celebrity'

Being a respectable Westminster-based news outlet, politics.co.uk doesn't watch programmes like I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

In no way would politics.co.uk be so vulgar and populist to watch a reality TV show, especially one which specialises in the kind of coarse humiliation rituals which pass for entertainment in modern Britain.

And even if politics.co.uk did accidentally switch on said programme accidentally last night, and promptly spend an hour enjoying itself immensely, it would certainly gain no pleasure from watching prominent former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik being forced to handle rodents.

If that had happened, it certainly would not proceed to, say, cancel its evening plans simpl to watch said former MP be buried alive with rats and fight his way out of a makeshift coffin.

Nope. No way. It would never happen.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Our new editorial board unveiled

Exciting news is rippling around the Palace of Westminster. MPs huddled outside the Commons chamber have been muttering about it, breaking away in suspicion as strangers approach. The researchers have been chattering about nothing else in the canteens. Wise-owled journalists have been taking careful notes. Now the moment they have all been waiting for has finally arrived. politics.co.uk has unveiled its new editorial board!

A few changes were required from the old line-up of MPs tasked with making sure the website's editorial content remains scrupulously neutral. Alistair Carmichael, our Liberal Democrat representative, was promoted into the deputy chief whip role following the formation of the coalition. This meant, now that he is on the government payroll, it was no longer appropriate for him to continue in the position. So Stephen Williams, who shadowed Peter Mandelson before the general election, has been drafted in to take his place. Stephen is now chair of the party's Treasury backbench committee.

Our former Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, was re-elected as Ribble Valley's MP on May 6th. But he won another election soon afterwards, becoming one of the Commons' three deputy Speakers. Setting party politics aside is part and parcel of this new job, but Nigel has agreed to stay on in a neutral capacity and as a representative of parliament.

Stepping into his Tory shoes is Jason McCartney, who won a close three-way marginal in Colne Valley to take the seat from Labour at the general election. Jason has a background in the media, having worked as a journalist for the BBC and ITV in his native north-west. All that followed a career in the RAF, making his time in politics something like career number three. We're delighted to have him aboard.

That leaves Labour's Barry Sheerman, the erstwhile Huddersfield MP, who has now been an MP for 31 years. His status as a parliamentary heavyweight was confirmed when he emerged as a key critic of Gordon Brown during the ex-prime minister's last months in No 10. His now chairs the Skills Commission for the Policy Connect organisation, which he helped establish.

Much of our business rests on us being politically neutral, so the board do an invaluable job in making sure this continues to remain the case. You can see our official blurb on the editorial board here.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lib Dem discomforts continue to mount

That feeling of discomfort which many Liberal Democrat MPs felt in the initial aftermath of Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition just hasn't gone away.

They worried, then, that the party's identity would be eroded. One even admitted fears that the press would call David Cameron's administration the 'Conservative government' rather than the coalition government. That nightmare, at least, hasn't come to pass. But much else has.

Two stories published on politics.co.uk this week reveal the full extent of the malaise. Yesterday we showed how fed up many of the party's mid-ranking MPs are. They've been handed roles as co-chairs of the various parliamentary policy committees, which are supposed to help keep ministers honest by constantly referring to Lib Dem party policy. But the precise purpose of the roles has not yet been pinned down. One even called his committee a "waste of time".

Today we've published comments from an interview with the woman who set up those committees, Lorely Burt. Her job is to chair the parliamentary party. "I think it's a cross between a shop steward and a favourite aunt, really," she tells us, describing her role. "I listen to their moans and groans, I pass it on to the appropriate people."

Nowhere has she been hearing more moaning and groaning than on tuition fees, an issue which has once again leapt to the fore today. Burt has conceded that the issue is simply not one on which business secretary Vince Cable, at least, can afford to abstain on, as per the coalition agreement. She's also backing the leadership's stance over those of the malcontents, as you can read here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Woolas' demise was hard, but not impossible, to spot

Even with the benefit of hindsight it was impossible to tell, as I travelled around Oldham East and Saddleworth with Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins, what lay ahead. But the clues were there.

By Alex Stevenson

The first inklings of tension came on Sunday April 25th, when Woolas and Watkins clashed in a hustings event in Saddleworth Civil Hall – the same venue in which the five-day hearing was heard.

The two high court judges would subsequently conclude that Labour leaflets were misrepresentative when it came to how 'local' the Liberal Democrats' Watkins was. Referring to one of Saddleworth's villages, Watkins told constituents: "I believe you need at least three generations to be a proper Delphonian, but at least I've - ah - made a start." The audience's reaction, I wrote, was 'unclear'.

Woolas, meanwhile, was going down a storm. "I'm always proud to be called a professional politician," he said. "I wouldn't want an amateur one." Watkins didn't look at all happy as a murmur of approval rippled around the room. The jibe didn't go unnoticed.

Locals say Watkins lost the May 6th election that day. His performance was heavy-handed and laboured. He appeared uncomfortable and out of sorts. Saddleworth is the well-off half of this constituency and those attending the hustings should have been flocking to the Lib Dems in their droves. Afterwards, some had changed their minds.

The following day I began to understand why this was the case. In the afternoon I met up with Watkins, who I shared a pint with in a village called Shaw. He was clearly overwrought, shaking his head repeatedly, flustered and breathless. "It's been terrible," he said, as he drove me to the day's leafleting destination. Of all the candidates I met during the general election campaign, Watkins most resembled a drowning man.

Woolas, by contrast, was much calmer. He frankly admitted that he didn't know which way the result was going to go. In the end he won by 103 votes, a desperately narrow margin which makes Oldham East and Saddleworth one of the supermarginals at the next general election. Scratch that – at the upcoming by-election, of course.

As we walked around the Holts housing estate, a deprived area on the outskirts of Oldham, his strikingly blunt manner shone through. Nowhere was this the case than when it came to the seat's famous racial tensions. "We haven't done anything to address it," he admitted.

Locals say the situation has improved in the decade which has passed since the Oldham race riots – and many give Woolas some of the credit for that. The importance of racial politics to the constituency's dynamics remained critical in 2010, however. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, was thought to have removed well over a quarter of Woolas' votes in the Asian community. Perhaps this was why Woolas' literature tried so hard to link Watkins to Muslim extremists. It backfired, as we learned today.

Now Watkins must muster up the strength to fight a second campaign within 12 months – in a political climate much harder for the Lib Dems than it was back in May. The grim look on his face as he told me of Labour's allegations is hard to forget. "It's a very dirty campaign Labour fight when they're losing," he told me. What did he mean by that, I asked? "Get the muckspreaders out."

On every issue, big or small, Woolas and Watkins would sneer or splutter in turn whenever I told them of the other's claims. The Holts estate was a typical example – Woolas claimed the Lib Dems had abandoned its residents, but Watkins said the Lib Dem council had helped turn it around. "For him to claim credit for that - I'm almost speechless," Watkins said despairingly. This was, by itself, not that unusual. When added to the greater extremes taking place elsewhere on the campaign trail, though, even the slightest attack seemed to have a disproportionate impact on the challenger.

All marginals are close and difficult to predict, but the perfect storm of two sides' acrimony and voters' failure to pick a clear winner made this one of the most compelling. With Woolas launching a judicial review against today's verdict that struggle, even now, is not quite over. The bitter taste will not have faded by the time the second round of campaigning begins.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Miliband's plans to 'regenerate' Labour

Ever since Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership we've been trying to work out whether he will reflect the rhetoric of his campaign and march his party off to the left. Now we have our first real clue as to his plans for Labour's future.

His leader's speech in Manchester didn't clear up this question, providing material to please both the centre-left and the left-left of the party.

His allocation of shadow Cabinet roles wasn't very revealing, either. Perhaps focusing on unity rather than clarity, Miliband balanced his team with supporters of his own and backers of his elder brother. No insight there, then, into his longer-term plans.

At a soiree with lobby journalists earlier this week Her Majesty's leader of the opposition all but admitted this was a very deliberate strategy. "Being in opposition is different to being in government," he said, explaining that Labour would not make their position clear immediately.

The frankness is refreshing, even if it does mean we will have to wait a little longer to find out where Miliband really stands.

Or maybe we don't. Backroom staff close to the Labour leader are suggesting that, by the end of Miliband's first 100 days, he will have revealed his direction of travel much more clearly.

Miliband is set to emphatically rule out a shift to the left. It doesn't matter that the unions got him over the line; Miliband will attempt to redefine the centre-left instead. New Labour, like Doctor Who, will regenerate into a new political party without different emphases and sensibilities – but occupying exactly the same political territory which won Tony Blair three terms in power.

(Whether this is possible, or mere semantics, is beyond this particular writer. Politicians' reinventions are always tortuous processes, but this one sounds agonising).

Miliband's '100 days' milestone, by the way, fall round about January 4th. So don't be surprised if Labour's first full year in opposition kicks off with a major speech clarifying that Ed is a man with a centre-left plan.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Could Lib Dems be in for some good news on tuition fees?

It's been nothing but misery for many – correction, all – Liberal Democrat MPs since Lord Browne published his review of higher education funding last month.

Plans to increase tuition fees directly contradict the pledge signed by the party's candidates before the general election. Nick Clegg has tried his best to persuade them why they need to break their promise, but many have understandably threatened that they simply can't betray their constituents in this way.

Now some good news may finally have arrived. politics.co.uk is hearing that ministers have come up with a solution to the impasse which would allow the potential rebels to fall into line.

We understand a statement from either the Conservatives' higher education minister David Willetts or the Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable could be made as soon as tomorrow lunchtime, after prime minister's questions, resolving the matter.

One Lib Dem source told us that the moves were sufficient to persuade him not to vote against the government, as he had previously feared he might have had to do.

Another said a cap on tuition fee rises remained a possibility. Cable suggested introducing a £7,000 cap on fees, more than doubling the current rate, last month.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Was the government nearly defeated last Thursday?

This news story just uploaded to politics.co.uk has the phrase 'diary' written all over it:

Red-faced Labour whips will not be looking forward to tonight's parliamentary party meeting after an attempted stunt to defeat the government in the Commons backfired last week.

Angry opposition MPs are expected to demand an explanation as to why they were forced to stay in parliament later than usual on Thursday for a debate which did not go to a vote.

The debate on the comprehensive spending review was a one-line whip for the Conservatives but a three-line whip for Labour MPs, a parliamentary source told politics.co.uk.

Panicking coalition whips, having noted the number of opposition MPs' cars in parliament's underground car park, believed they faced an embarrassing defeat as they could only muster around 150 votes in the chamber.

But Labour's failure to understand Commons rules meant when time ran out the deputy Speaker moved straight on to the next item, the adjournment debate.

It would only have taken a Labour figure to stand up before 18:00 and call for a closure motion for a formal vote to have followed on whether the House had 'considered the CSR' or not.

Mistakes of this kind had been anticipated by government insiders, who expected mistakes after Ed Miliband appointed inexperienced Rosie Winterton to the chief whip job.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A profitable day out

Having got an unpleasantly large number of party conferences under the belt, the opportunity to attend a slightly different kind of event had to be grabbed with both hands. The Confederation of British Industry's latest gathering did not disappoint.

Labour leaders are usually guaranteed a good reception at the TUC. The same goes for Tories at the CBI. This year was no exception; the business world poured its affections on David Cameron, while raising their collective eyebrows and sneering their collective upper lips at his newcomer rival Ed Miliband.

What proved more interesting was the behaviour of the delegates, which differed in three moderately fascinating ways from their partisan counterparts.

Political party delegates display a never-ending enthusiasm for applauding – they become uneasy and apprehensive if a speech is not accompanied by regular and fawning clapping.

Businessmen and businesswomen, those titans of industry, are a hardier bunch. It would be very improper, hardly British, for them to indulge in anything so market sensitive as putting two hands together. In handshakes, yes. This is encouraged. In political appreciation, certainly not.

Moderately fascinating observation number two: the reticence of CBI delegates is much more of a lottery.

It stands to reason that your average political punter tottering around a party conference has something to say. It is part of a politician's DNA, however lowly they may be, that they instantly seize upon publicity.

Not so at the CBI. Here corporate reputations must be protected. One woman, who worked for a large bank, insisted she could barely countenance being quoted on a non-attributable basis. Her and her many thousands of colleagues are not allowed to open their mouths on the record, she explained, without it being cleared by the bank's public relations team.

Say what you like about party political press officers, they're never that restrictive.

Finally, CBI delegates are simply more interesting. There is always amusement to be extracted from political small fry who are distressed by their party's policy on x and y, of course. But it is always the case that these dissenting opinions must be extracted from the mass of slavishly loyal sentiments.

Not so at the CBI, where – when they are permitted to open their mouths – delegates are happy to back this party or that one with abandon, saying what they think without having to stick to the party line. How liberating; it would be even more liberating if they didn't all back Cameron over Miliband.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Ghosts of the past haunt defence review

Admiralty House was, perhaps, not the best place to announce the government's strategic defence and security review yesterday.

This aged building is best known to readers of naval fiction, where Captains Hornblower, Aubrey et al waited to receive orders sending them off to foreign climes to fight for martial glory.

Its best days are clearly over. Apparatchiks warned journalists nervously not to sit on the antique furniture or bust up the assorted paintings and ornaments littered all over the place. One Japanese screen received particularly fearful treatment.

Worst of all were the pictures on the walls. The room in which senior officials briefed journalists was graced by several large paintings of former naval glories dominated by hundreds of white sails, wooden hulls and grey smoke.

There are 23 frigates or destroyers in the Royal Navy at present; by 2015 there will be just 19. Dealing with today's security threats, like cybercrime, just isn't as exciting as taking on Napoleon in a thrilling frigate action. Can someone lend me a time machine, please?

Friday, 15 October 2010

Health and safety, art and perfect timing

Sometimes the world does it for you.

It's pretty hard to define the precise skills journalists have. Many people would gleefuly insist we have none. If we do, one of them is discerning narrative. Finding that commons thread in a set of stories that can keep in running or associate it with issues readers care about.

Lord Young's health and safety review today came out at 9.30. It was about an hour later the Tate Modern closed off the sunflower seed exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. You don;t really need any skills to put those together, even if - frankly - the review probably won't stop organisations like the Tate pulling back to avoid lawsuits. Viewers would now be forced to look at it from a bridge, and not be able to walk on it as intended for fear of inhaling ceramic dust.

It's a sad move. The exhibit is beautiful and its artistic impact relied on the viewer seeing it from afar and then being able to examine its intricate, detailed beauty. Regardless of the ins and outs, we were able to quickly change the story to reflect the timing. That got us picked up all over the web. Sometimes the world just does it for you, and there no need to use those skills. If indeed we have them.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Incapacity benefits Graham Allen

Yesterday a strange thing happened in my journalistic career. I visited an MP's home.

This isn't the first time I've done this. Interviewing the electorally doomed Stafford candidate David Kidney during the general election campaign will stick in the memory. And there's always No 10, of course.

The experience is a strange one – a bit like being in your teacher's home. You're not supposed to see them in scenes of domesticity.

Yet this was where I found myself yesterday. And all because of Graham Allen's hip.

It's playing up, he explained, and the doctor has ordered him not to move from his flat. As his pad is literally just around the corner from the Palace of Westminster, why not pop by?

Apart from the alarming red socks and lack of suit – you must make allowances, even for ill MPs – Graham Allen was not taking the time off to shirk. His assistant appeared, setting him up with a laptop. He conducted a newspaper interview over the phone. And then there was I, interviewing him in his capacity as chair of the political and constitutional reform select committee.

Allen is busy preparing to challenge the Cabinet manual which influenced the coalition formation process. Apart from complaining of not being able to move one side of his hip without it feeling like he's being stabbed in the leg, he was on good form – as you can see here.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The final victory of the PR industry

I just made a couple of calls to find out details around the publication of Lord Browne's review into university funding. I started with Vince Cable's department.

Alas, they weren't dealing with it. That honour goes to Lord Browne's PR company.

That's surely the final victory for the industry then. Pivotal reviews into the future of British higher education delivered by a PR company. Off the top of my head, I can think of about five historical figures – let's start predictably with Orwell – who would be spinning in their graves.

Defence review publication may be brought forward

I'm hearing that the publication of the defence review may be brought forward to October 19th. That would only give it a day's coverage before the spending review detonates and wipes everything else off the news agenda.

If true, it suggests the government wants it out the picture as soon as possible. That could be a left over embarrasment from the Liam Fox letter, or perhaps it doesn't want journalists having time to dig too far into it.

The Ministry of Defence is refusing to comment.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Some reassuring home truths from Birmingham

Writing about British politics inevitably involves some generalisations.

When we assess how this or that policy is going to go down with a party's membership, for example, we are retreating back to the comfortable familiar version of each party's grassroots which is so easy to over-exaggerate.

Such concerns don't apply with the Conservatives.

Heading off to the party conference and talking to 'ordinary' delegates is a thoroughly reassuring exercise. The membership really is obsessed with defence. They can't get enough of law and order. Rural issues, which get short shrift at the other party conferences, are of prime importance here.

It would be wrong for me to unveil the full findings of my chats with party members about child benefit being withdrawn for higher earners here. Suffice to say that the party faithful's response is as predictable as ever...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

New generation: He didn't mean it literally, of course!

Ed Miliband wanted to clear up a point or two as he answered questions from Labour party activists in Manchester, 24 hours after his first leader's speech to conference.

The phrase 'new generation' had popped up again and again in his speech. Could it be Ed Miliband, the youngest of the three main party leaders, is turning his back on the elderly vote?

"It's not an ageism thing," he explained. "It's about an attitude of mind and an attitude of willingness to change."

Almost as if it had been pre-planned, the 77-year-old Doreen Chadwick of Collyhurst jumped up (well, not quite) to pledge her support.

"I am part of the new generation," she said, getting an enormous cheer. "It's not how old you are, it's what you do that counts."

If the setpiece keynote leader's speech is designed to address the country and grab the headlines, this Q and A session was the exact opposite. All the talk was of increasing party membership and other deadly dull topics.

Eddie Izzard was drafted in to provide some colour as the session's compere – and inspiration following his 43 marathons last year. "Humans can do way more than we think we can do" was the lesson he drew from his achievement. He struggled to enliven the audience, however, despite suggesting that Ed Miliband was less like Wallace and more like his furry friend.

"You're actually Gromit," Izzard said. "He's the really cool dog who builds a spacecraft that goes to the moon. He defeats an evil penguin."

"I think we should take some more questions," Ed Miliband replied. Izzard, ever the loyalist, obeyed.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Brown's exit: An awkward farewell for an awkward politician

After the embarrassment of Tony Blair's memoirs – which suggested Gordon Brown was mentally unbalanced – the former leader's appearance at yesterday's leadership conference was a fine opportunity to bow out gracefully.

It almost worked. In the end the impatience of the audience to know who was going to be their next leader overwhelmed the exit.

Audiences can only clap so much. In an ideal world Brown should have been applauded out of the conference hall, receiving the adulation which as leader he had become used to.

Yes, they did give him a standing ovation for 50 seconds. Waving and cheering, Brown slowly made his way towards the exit as most of the conference hall finally sat down.

But there was a problem. Brown had not left the room. He had embarked on a lengthy shaking-hands tour of the front row. For an awful period only those around him were still applauding. The majority of the conference hall had stopped and were simply watching his exit in silence.

This was painfully awkward to watch. Perhaps sensing he wasn't quite getting the send-off he'd have liked, Brown and his wife finally made their way out.

It was an unfortunate exit from a politician whose lacked the personal touch. There is affection for Brown – but nowhere near as much as he would have liked.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Tories pray for Ed

The system used by Labour to choose its leaders is already so absurd it may as well have another layer added to it.

In addition to the votes of party members, affiliated unions and MPs being given I would suggest those of opposition parties – specifically, the Conservatives – be considered.

Ignoring minor technical difficulties, this would involve working out who the Tories don't want to be leader and knocking off votes accordingly.

It is a matter of no small significance that the senior coalition party are dreading a David Miliband victory.

They fear his New Labour rhetoric would prove extremely awkward to combat. They know David Miliband's politics are of the centrist, pragmatic, concede-and-move-on type which worked so well for Tony Blair. And we know what effect he had on the Conservatives' general election performance.

By contrast an Ed Miliband win, which bookies are getting excited about after a flood of last-minute money on the younger brother, would delight the right of British politics.

He is a more uncompromising candidate, prepared to return Labour to an earlier era which the Tories are far more comfortable with.

These views, surely, are useful in informing the choice of who should become the next leader of the opposition. If the government don't want them in, so much the better, say all champions of decent British politics.

(This article may be followed by more details about my proposals for the fifth, sixth and seventh layers of Labour leadership voting: a panel of newspaper political editors to ensure a flowery personality, the readers of the hotornot.com website and – most ridiculous of all – the general public. Pshaw!)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Miriam Clegg denied access to Lib Dem conference

She might be the wife of the party leader, but even Miriam Clegg doesn't get into the Liberal Democrat conference without her pass.

Photographer Steve Back just heard from a senior police officer that Nick Clegg's wife was turned away after she turned up at the conference centre without her access pass. She is sporting a rather dashing new outfit though.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

We're in for a treat

There is no other verdict: this year's Strictly Come Dancing will be essential viewing.

The woman who once said she would not touch an image consultant with a ten-foot bargepole might seem like an improbable choice for a show dominated by sequins, glitter and short, frilly dresses.

It does not seem to have deterred Ann Widdecombe, the former prisons minister who stepped down as Maidstone and the Weald's loyal MP in May.

Her appearance on the show - it would surely be folly to assume anything other than that she would be voted out immediately - will be a magnificent affair. Politicians are usually adept at covering up inadequacy, if nothing else. How will the indefatigable Widdecombe cope?

Perhaps the clue is in her tenacious spirit. She is bound to give the judges a piece of her mind. She will shatter those bright studio lights with her screams if her dance partner steps on her foot. She will 'ave a go.

Perhaps - and surely we are now entering the realms of fantasy - her brash, no-nonsense attitude will see the public fall in love with her in ways she could only dream of as a politician. Reality TV has sprung more absurd surprises on us, as the terrible lesson of Jedward teaches us.

If only Turner were alive he could probably paint a portrait of our Ann being towed away to be broken up. The Fighting Widdecombe, they would call it. Perhaps Strictly Come Dancing is the 21st century's equivalent.

Monday, 6 September 2010

End of the honeymoon

Returning after two weeks away from Westminster, it's striking how out of date our last blog post now is.

Instead of a sluggish summer period when the unabashed smugness of new ministers left a distinctly queasy feeling, we're confronted with ministers under pressure from scandal and officials facing controversial allegations.

A colleague, who was on holiday until two weeks ago, was understandably upbeat about the timing of his own summer break. "It's been very busy this last fortnight," he said. The William Hague revelations. The News of the World claims. And wasn't there something else, too? I seem to remember something about the publication of a book...

There is nothing worse than the political honeymoon, that terrible period when novelty dampens the usual cynical zeal of public discourse in Britain. Thank goodness it's over. Normal service has, thankfully, been resumed.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Cosying up to the coalition

One of the most infuriating aspects of writing about a new government is the sheer foot-dragging reluctance of lobby groups to mouth off against them.

So many organisations prefer to keep on err on the side of caution when it comes to criticising our new rulers - because they know they are going to have to work with them for several years to come.

To the extent that the coalition hasn't yet addressed all of the agenda points in its programme for government just yet, that's fair enough.

But for those where clear proposals are now in the open, what's wrong with a bit of open-ended criticism?

The shift from six months previously makes the trend all the more clear. After 13 years of irritants virtually any organisation was ready to launch into a rant against the iniquities of New Labour's processes.

Now we find ourselves faced with endless off-the-record conversations about the slapdash approach of the coalition - and nothing to put into our articles. There is real concern out there about many of the government's ideas, but very little willingness to openly come out and challenge them.

The result? Ministers get something approaching carte blanche. Only when they try especially ill-thought-out proposals (c.f. academies bill) do they attract slings and arrows of negative press coverage.

This honeymoon period won't last forever, of course. This is the thought which sustains us through the long, long summer months.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Dog days

The terrible torment of politics in early August is especially excruciating this year.

Twelve months ago was bad enough. I recall staggering into a deserted parliament (out of boredom of course) before being told by a sage old veteran that the first week of August is, approximately, the most tedious period known to man.

Two years ago Russia obliged by invading South Ossetia. Last year Locerkbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's compassionate release livened up the Worst Month Of All. So far, this month hasn't come up with an equivalent relief at all. The row with Pakistan definitely doesn't count.

The break is, arguably, worse than usual, because MPs are set to return for a two-week sitting of parliament in September. It means they only have five weeks or so to cram in their summer holidays - and so are all off at once. No one is available to speak to because they are all on a beach somewhere.

The result? Those who haven't yet managed to escape are left trying to get worked up about very little. They can, for example, write five paragraphs about absolutely nothing. A journalist's work is never done.

Friday, 30 July 2010

They need a holiday

After a couple of (very busy) days MPs are heading back to their constituencies for the long summer break.

Actually, it's not so long as all that. There's only five full weeks until the Commons returns for an unusual fortnight of sittings in September.

Still, most of us wouldn't sniff at the opportunity to have five weeks away from it all.

Twelve months ago the newspapers were full of outrageous 'MPs on holiday' stories as hacks looked for new angles on the 'they're monsters' theme.

This time around it might be different. A senior government whip I spoke to on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster on the first day of the recess had a distinct strain of relief in his voice.

"We all need a holiday," he said, rather pathetically. MPs felt utterly victimised this time last year. Walking around the corridors of parliament was like wandering through a combination of a morgue and a museum.

(Given the state of the culture budget, I'd probably just be able to say 'museum' in a few months)

The Kelly inquiry into expenses restarted the furore one day before MPs returned. Then came Legg and the auditors; an exhausting general election campaign; and the minor trauma of a coalition formation. Perhaps MPs do deserve a holiday, after all.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Exalted company

If you're one of our many dear, devoted readers who receive the politics.co.uk daily newsletter you already know of the many delights we have on offer.

But it is always reassuring to know that those in positions of power and influence - or at least those who were until recently in positions of power and influence - are among those who follow the site carefully.

politics.co.uk has discovered, through the underhand means of talking to him, that Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband is an avid follower of the site.

He said: "I get your newsletter every day. It's very good."

For some reason this was the only one of his remarks which stuck in the memory. But then, what could possibly be more important?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Sir George Young: Good at his job

Last Thursday lunchtime I bumped into an MP in the Commons on his way to business questions, after which the parliamentary weekend officially kicks off. He was hugely excited. "There's something about business questions - it's so unpredictable," he enthused.

This is because there's a fundamental tension in the role of the man in charge, Sir George Young. As leader of the House he can be asked about absolutely anything - and must be as adept at coming up with an answer as David Cameron is in PMQs. He also has to look after the interests of backbenchers, too, who are constantly clamouring for debates on this and that.

Sir George, who was the runner-up to John Bercow in last year's Speaker election, is doing what appears to be an excellent job. Here's a few examples to illustrate the point:

- - - - - - -

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am not entirely sure about this new democracy malarkey. Although we are not allowed to say it, the Whips did a very good job in previous Parliaments of ensuring that Select Committees had a good balance, geographically and in terms of gender and experience. Under the new system, I am not sure that that will be possible. May we have a debate at some point on whether this new experiment in democracy within the House has worked? I am not sure that the Wright reforms were the right reforms.

Sir George Young: I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we go back to the old system whereby the Whips nominated Members to Select Committees. It is astonishing that in the House of Commons, the cockpit of democracy, an hon. Member should make such a regressive suggestion that we abandon elections and go back to nominations.

- - - - - - -

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Further to the comments of my hon. Friend and best mate the Member for Cardiff South-sorry, I mean Glasgow South- [Laughter.] It is a bit further north than the Cardiff constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) obviously agrees with a predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker. Bernard Weatherill once told me "You can't have civilisation without sewers, and you can't have Parliament without the Whips." May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on the cost of democracy and of some things we have lost which are valuable, including the ability of Opposition spokespeople to travel in order to carry out their duties? That has been taken away by our handing over such matters to people who know nothing about politics. Is it possible for the Leader of the House to look into the matter? I am sure that he will want to make certain that the Opposition can do their job properly, as he did when he was in opposition.

Sir George Young: The Government are very anxious for the Opposition to be able to hold us properly to account. Having been an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman myself, I recall that the Short money makes provision for travel for Opposition spokesmen. That is the source to which the hon. Gentleman should look in order to fund his important travels around the country.

- - - - - -

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): If the Leader of the House granted a debate on public sector cuts, I could inform him of my plans for alternative cuts. The Foreign Office recently admitted to me that the ministerial wine cellar was worth £860,000 a year, and that it had just spent nearly £18,000 on replenishing it after the election. However, it was less candid about what was held in the collection. Does the Leader of the House think that Ministers should tell me what is in it, and should we sell it so that we are "all in it together"?

Sir George Young: I could have said that the chief secretary was not the only person who left the cupboard bare, and that the government hospitality cellar had to be replenished when we came to office; but I will not.

It says here: "The Government hospitality cellar is a carefully managed resource that is integral to the service delivered by government hospitality for all government departments. Expenditure since the election has been part of the normal buying pattern for the cellar, on which between £80,000 and £100,000 is spent per annum."

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Seating arrangements ruffle Lib Dems

About an hour before the state opening of parliament began, Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell was spotted tottering into the chamber of the Commons.

After a quick curious look up at the press gallery, which was packed with journalists having their official picture taken, the Father of the House wandered up to his customary seat and slid a small card into the place-holder covering his customary seat.

It was the first time I'd spotted this practice takes place - and teaches us that in the Commons, as on commuter trains, getting a seat is everything.

Unfortunately I'm hearing seating arrangements are the latest source of tensions within the fledgling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

In the last parliament the Lib Dems reserved exclusive use of the first two benches in their corner of the chamber.

They have sought to flip this arrangement in the new Commons - but the influx of new Tory MPs unfamiliar with this custom is causing trouble.

I'm hearing Lib Dem MPs are having to fight for their right to an independent parliamentary party.

Regular battles take place in the minutes before the Commons begins its session, as misguided new Tories put their place reservations in the Lib Dem benches.

"They're like Germans with beach towels!" one Lib Dem old-timer told me.

It feels like the latest good deal the Lib Dems have got. Their party's ministers are allowed to sit among the Tories elsewhere; but the Tories aren't allowed to intrude on the Liberal enclave.

As I write, the build-up to the next big event after the Queen's Speech - the emergency Budget - looms closer and closer. Sir Peter will be putting his card in its usual place around now. He might be witness to a bit of Lib Dem jiggery-pokery as he does so.

Monday, 21 June 2010

An ill-advised break

It's no surprise the BP chief executive was ripped apart by the White House's chief of staff for spending his first day off sailing.

"I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting," Rahm Emanuel said. How right he most certainly is.

Anything else would have been acceptable. A game of chess. A quiet pub lunch. Sitting around watching the World Cup.

Not riding the majestic waves of the Solent and English Channel, enjoying the delights offered by large stretches of non-polluted water.

It was the latest in a series of gaffes by Hayward, who was accused last week of evading questions as he sat grumpily through a Capitol Hill grilling.

The fuming hostility of the congressmen questioning him was a little overwhelming for those of us who like our select committee queries to be more sedately put.

After all, the contrast with the Treasury committee's mild-mannered assaults on banking chiefs in the wake of the financial crisis couldn't have been greater.

But imagine a scenario where the glittering waters of the Channel were the ones being sludged up by an environmental disaster on the scale of that currently blighting the Gulf of Mexico.

Imagine the anti-American fervour which would be triggered if it was a US energy giant behind the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil spewing out of a sea bed near us every day.

The truth is every drop of anger and frustration targeted at BP is justified. We shouldn't be complaining as BP attracts flak.

It was pointedly called 'British Petroleum' by one congressman, even though the company has been officially registered by its initial for the last decade.

Yet now is no time for nationalistic quibbling. BP deserves all its gets.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Sign here, please

Cheque-books out, politics fans.

Your signature - for a guide price of up to just £2,000 - could be all that's required to gain possession of a remarkably geeky collection of British history.

When one thinks of autographs the instant assumption is of a bubblegum-chewing 1960s schoolgirl doing all she can to get the signatures of her favourite popstars.

It's difficult to think of her 19th century equivalent striving to get the scribble of the Duke of Wellington or Pitt the Younger.

Nevertheless, autograph hunters have done their best to cobble together the genuine signatures of this country's great leaders.

A total of 46 British prime ministers' autographs will be going under the hammer in an auction today in Gloucestershire.

Starting with Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first PM, it passes through most of No 10's residents.

Spencer Perceval is dead, like the vast majority of the others. But the fact he was assassinated makes his signature slightly more interesting.

Auctioneer and autograph specialist Chris Albury said:

"While Victorian autograph albums turn up fairly regularly and include cut signatures of royalty, nobility, clergy and politicians, this is still an unusually large collection of British prime minister autographs to come on the market as one lot," Dominic Winter Auctioneers' autograph specialist Chris Albury tells us.

"Some may question the attraction of collecting autographs of British prime ministers and why anyone would want signed portraits of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown."

It's almost not worth adding his closing comment: "For many others, however, it allows a fascinating connection with 300 years of British history."

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

World Cup parliament

In every office in the parliamentary lobby, there's a little poster with the World Cup fixtures. Lobby hacks have been organising the sweepstakes, and chatting about it for weeks. Every cup of coffee bought from the café down the hall results in a good five minute distraction as we peer at whatever game's on now.

But things became a little too intense yesterday when some enterprising hack found a vuvuzela – those profoundly annoying horns you hear in every World Cup match, like a swarm of flies preparing to attack. The first time we thought it was some new demonstrator come to join Brian Haw and the impossibly angry woman in Parliament Square. Then we realised it was coming from inside the building. And shortly after that we realised it was the sound of the Daily Mirror blasting through the halls of Westminster. No matter.

Personally I've found the noise has started to become invisible, but bear in mind I've sat through select committee hearings with Jacqui Smith, so I'm trained. Can you imagine a worse time for politics? With the World Cup on, no-one cares, including most political journalists. Thank heavens it didn't coincide with the election. But then – no government would be foolish enough to set the election date during a World Cup. No-one would turn up.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The calm after the storm

As always in Westminster on Friday, it's incredibly quiet. The Palace is deserted as MPs return to their constituencies for surgeries.

Spare a thought for Stephen Timms: the last time he held a session in East Ham to help out constituents one of them allegedly stabbed him. He'll be forgiven for being a little nervous today.

He's one MP who'll be extremely glad it's quiet. The truth is this little period of respite has lasted all week, not just today.

Perhaps it's the impact of the Cumbria shootings, whose barbaric enormity has wrested people's eyes away from parliament.

Perhaps it's the Bank Holiday effect: in a four-day week and with this weather, who cares about politics?

Perhaps it's just that Vince Cable's first major speech yesterday was utterly, utterly boring.

Whatever, this calm after the storm actually feels like something of an opportunity.

Now we're into the build-up to the emergency Budget it's time for the stresses of the coalition to really come to the fore.

I've drawn up a modest list of 84 policies which I think deserve a bit of looking into - precisely because of the scope they offer for tensions within the government. It's going to be busy next week!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A sticky wicket for Danny Alexander

Attacks on the new Liberal Democrat in the Treasury, Danny Alexander, are perfectly reasonable.

The chief secretary has no experience in the City and spent his pre-parliament career working as a press officer in the Highlands.

From the Cairngorms to the City: you don't get much further apart.

Despite this, the 38-year-old already has experience dealing with pesky civil servants.

Five years ago he appeared for the Parliament XI in their annual cricket match against the Civil Service XI.

This writer also appeared for Parliament, for reasons it's probably best not to dwell on. The phrase 'making up the numbers' seems painfully appropriate.

Still, it gave an opportunity to witness Alexander in a new situation. Then just 33, he had just been elected to parliament.

Scots are not supposed to be good at cricket, but - after an earnest conversation about whether stopping people smoking fitted in with liberal values - Alexander proved everybody wrong.

Coming in off a long run-up, the ginger hair bearing down remorselessly on the quivering bureaucrat batsmen, Alexander's bouncers and yorkers proved more than the pen-pushers could handle.

Lib Dems will be hoping Alexander can exceed expectations just as strongly in his latest brush with the civil service as he attempts to get to grips with the deficit.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

All change on the committee corridor

The Speaker may have been re-elected, the pomp of the Queen's Speech may be over and done with, but there is still plenty of settling-in to come in Westminster.

Next on the list for many veteran MPs are the select committees, a vital outlet for those who need to feel self-important but have never quite made it on to the frontbench.

In fact the select committees do a vital job: they are crucial to the functioning of parliament in holding the government to account. Arguably the most senior select committee chairs have more influence than the lowliest ministers of state.

This is why the new process of electing these committee chairs is so important. We discovered this week the allocations by party of the committees, which mean in some cases there are inevitably going to be new MPs filling vital roles.

We're going to be investigating who's looking promising in the next few days. But for now, here's a list of the committees where a bit of internal politicking is called for.

Business, innovation and skills - Conservative (as before, but former chairman Peter Luff is now procurement minister in the Ministry of Defence)
Education - Conservative
Energy and climate change - Conservative
Environmental audit - Labour
Foreign affairs - Conservative
Health - Conservative
Northern Ireland - Conservative
Public accounts - Labour
Public administration - Conservative
Science and technology committee - Labour
Treasury - Conservative
Welsh affairs - Conservative
Work and pensions committee - Labour (ex-chairman Terry Rooney lost his seat)

Monday, 24 May 2010

God loves the coalition

One enjoyable feature of the new politics is that it's predominantly conducted outside.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron's rose garden press conference in Downing Street has already turned into a Westminster legend. Today, it was George Osborne and David Laws' turn, as they set up podiums outside to present us with the first chapter in the 'Age of Austerity'.

The beautiful, steaming sunshine did them no harm, even if the content of their words was as gloomy and miserable as a February morning.

What's remarkable is how appropriately the weather is framing itself to the new government's needs. As Cameron prepared to enter Downing Street, the clouds parted and the sunshine briefly shone from the darkening skies. At the rose garden, the threat of rain was very real, and a few drops fell before organisers could breathe a sigh of relief.

Today – well you couldn't ask for nicer weather. It appears God believes in coalitions.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Nukes, the PM and a dose of letter-writing

Getting used to being prime minister takes some time. Getting used to being in charge of the nuclear codes, it seems, takes even longer.

A former Cabinet secretary has told of the "shock" new prime ministers feel when they have to write orders to Britain's nuclear submarines.

Former chief civil servant Lord Butler told the BBC Radio 4 programme Day One in No 10 about the reaction of both John Major and Tony Blair when he briefed them on their responsibility for deciding how and when to use the country's nuclear weapons, as they took office.

Here are the wise words of Lord Butler: "They reacted as you'd expect any human being to react: soberly, shocked if they hadn't realised before that that was one of the things that they would have to do at the start of their administration. So I would say it was a shock and a sobering one."

New premiers are briefed by the Cabinet secretary on what their options are regarding the use of the UK's four Trident submarines in case the country's government is destroyed.

They are then left to write the secret letter to Trident commanders alone, "wrestling with their own beliefs and conscience," according to Lord Butler.

The letters are sealed and sent to the submarine commanders and are top secret.

"I mean they are clearly really secret because the whole point of a nuclear deterrent is who your enemy doesn't know what he may incur if he attacks you, and so these are highly secret things, and only one person, who is the initiator of them, knows what the orders are, and that is the prime minister."

Let's hope Cameron's letter-writing skills are up to scratch. He won't want to complete this one at the end of a long day in power.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The grisly fate of Bercow's predecessors

John Bercow may find himself suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune later today, but he should be thankful. They are at least figurative rather than literal.

Looking back at parliament's history we find the role has been littered with men who have consistently faced rejection, sometimes in distressingly violent form.

Notes on the parliament website's briefing paper provide some intriguingly sketchy details about the fates of some of these poor, poor individuals.

An early trendsetter was Sir John Bussy, the MP for Lincolnshire, whose four-year Speakership was swiftly followed by his beheading in 1399. Perhaps his fate was linked to that of his successor, Sir John Cheyne, who resigned after only two days in office.

Sir John Popham was too poorly to actually take on the job, being excused on the day of his election because of ill health on November 8th 1449. That may have been a sensible move; Thomas Thorpe of Essex was beheaded after serving as Speaker in 1453 and 1454.
Matters had not really improved 50 years later, when two ex-Speakers - Sir Richard Empson and Edward Dudley - were beheaded together.

The traumas of the 17th century provide us with a raft of rather grisly fates. Sir John Finch of Canterbury was impeached by the long parliament in October 1640 and fled to Holland. This was a period when, with the Commons confronting the monarch in a constitutional showdown, being Speaker really was rife with peril.

The note next to William Say's entry - he was Speaker in January of 1660 - simply reads "regicide".

After the monarchy had been restored matters appeared to have calmed down. But there was still room for Sir John Trevor, the MP for both Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight, to be expelled from the Commons in 1695 for taking a bribe.

There then followed 314 years of relative calm. It took the 2009 expenses scandal before we come to the next Speaker to face an unpleasant fate: Michael Martin's exit was truly historic.

Let's wait and see what note is to be written against the name of one John Bercow, who represented the constituency of Buckingham. Whatever happens later today, he won't have met the worst fate on this list of victims.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The calm between the storms

This is going to be a strange, strange week.

Apart from anything else we're not expecting a change of government in the next five days.

Yes, there are a few more details to be ironed out as the final details of the coalition agreement are published. But this is the week which comes after last week's dramatic and historic deal - and before the dramatic and historic Budget which will see the new government commit itself to drastic public spending cuts in a bid to placate the markets.

Nowhere was this hiatus period more apparent than in the first lobby briefing of the new government.

The new prime minister's spokesman (PMS) deserves pity: this is a tough job at the best of times. But in a week when the government has barely managed to come up with its full range of policies he doesn't have much to go on.

For now, the PMS has very little to work with. Usually after a general election the winning party's manifesto would be the main point of reference. But on a day when the chancellor's first major announcement was the launch of a body backed by another party, normal rules don't apply.

Instead he was forced to retreat to the six-page coalition agreement as the only real concrete statement of government policy. It was reported today, for example, that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition intends to create over 100 new peers to smooth the flow of its legislation.

The PMS frowned when asked about this, before reading out the relevant section from the initial coalition document. Proposals are being brought forward "for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation". In the interim, crucially, "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the general election". The PMS made his position clear: "It's quite a leap to go from that to 100 more peers." Is it, though?

Until the full coalition document arrives we can expect much more of this. The 24-hour news agenda has its own demands, but we're all being forced to wait as the coalition works out its stance on a whole range of issues. The final document, by the way, can be expected "quite soon" - probably within the next couple of weeks. The ultimate deadline is the Queen's Speech, which takes place on May 25th.

Until then the government has very little to say on the many, many issues of national importance which must be addressed. "This is quite an unusual week," the PMS said dolefully. How right he is.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Not so boring anymore

No sooner had I written yesterday about the boredom of closed-door negotiations, than Gordon Brown decided to make a statement and the whole world went mad.

There had been rumours of a statement throughout the morning, but news only got to us that it was definitely happening eight minutes before it began.

Cue a desperate dash from parliament to Downing Street, as a small army of overweight, borderline-alcoholic hacks pushed tourists out the way in a violent attempt to get to church on time. For us news reporters, it was important. For sketch writers – it was essential.

Alas, most of us were too late. Trapped outside by a scowling policeman and a thick black gate, most of Fleet Street's finest were forced to hobble around one man with an iphone, set to Radio 4, which was playing the statement.
Just as Brown said he was now going to comment on his future, it cut out, triggering much horror and dismay from very recognisable faces. Then it came back in. "The reason that we have a hung parliament is that no single party and no single leader was able to win the full support of the country," Brown said. "As leader of my party I must accept that that is a judgement on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labour party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election."
"My God," someone muttered. Tourists, gathered around outside Downing Street, watched us with a mixture of curiosity and mild pity. Since then it's been frantic and occasionally funny, but there's no boredom anymore. There won't be today either.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The boredom of historic events

For such exciting times, it's getting terribly dull.

These are, of course, unprecedented times, times that will go down in history. But after three days of meetings with no content to report, the journalist's job is getting strangely tedious.

The stories are starting to resemble a secretary's diary: A meeting took place at this time between these people.

It's impressive how few leaks there have been. We have no idea what is being said. The quotes we get afterwards are exactly the same as they were on Saturday. Basically, 'positive and amicable talks are being conducted to create a stable government'.

Today, we might have a little more information when we camp out outside Lib Dem and Tory internal meetings in parliament, hoping for a bit of gossip. But the weird combination of historic events and dull news stories looks set to continue for a while longer.

Monday, 26 April 2010

More hung parliament malarkey

More hung parliament malarkey dominating the headlines today, as every poll points towards no party securing a majority.

The Tories have been put into an absolute frenzy. It's all they talk about. David Cameron spent his entire trip to Romsey trying to get voters to prevent it happening. As I write, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt are giving a press conference in Millbank, complete with a mock-up broadcast from the hung parliament party, which, I will freely say, was unspeakably awful.

On the one hand the Tories have to come out and argue against a hung parliament, and face the reality of the 2010 general election. On the other hand, the Tory attack gives an aura of vulnerability to the party, which, given the unpopularity of the government, is a profound comment on how the country still thinks of the Conservative party. It also puts them in a weird position – their 'vote Clegg, get Brown' campaign highlights the irrationality of an electoral system they are committed to maintaining.

Strange times indeed in British politics.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Cameron says no to Panorama

He ignores joint politics.co.uk/Yahoo! interview request too!!

It's just emerged this afternoon the David Cameron is refusing to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman for the BBC's Panorama programme. According to Paul Waugh that's causing Aunty a little bit of a headache in that they've now got to come up with something to fill next Monday's programme slot with.

Oh dear.

Ian Dale has been quick to pick up on this and to call it a shame.

He adds: "I'd have liked Cameron to have accepted the Panorama interview as I think that, like Nick Clegg, he'd have emerged well from it, and Brown wouldn't. But it seems now we will never know."

It's certainly true that Clegg came out of the interview the other day well. And who knows maybe Cameron might have as well. But it's probably a bit weak to suggest, as Dale does, that the reason Cameron isn't going to do the interview is because he's going to be prepping for the TV debates.

The Conservative leader needs to be able to show that he can handle both an in-depth interview and a set of TV debates. Otherwise why should anyone take him seriously? Surely he has a firm enough grasp on his party's policies to be able to meet the challenge of being asked serious questions about them? Or is Dale trying to suggest the Conservative leader cannot meet the intellectual challenge?

And given Cameron appears to have backed out of the interview surely the prime minister will now jump at the chance to face Paxman and show he has the intellect and the belief in his own policies to put his case to the British people. Why you would turn down a chance to talk to nine million voters is a little odd.

That said, politics.co.uk gave the Conservative leader a similar opportunity to talk to as many as 20 million users – not ours granted we're not that big….yet – in a joint venture with Yahoo!

Both Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg took up the challenge of facing questions put to them by a member of the politics.co.uk team from users of both websites. It was their opportunity to speak directly to voters and they understood that. Mr Cameron's team have ignored repeated attempts by our team to secure an interview. Apart from being extremely rude could Cameron's people be running scared of the public? I guess we'll never know either, seeing as Cameron's press team refuse to talk to us. And we're nowhere near as scary as Jeremy Paxman!!

All's well in the ancien regime

The greatest political rivalry of our age - or one of them at least - hotted up again this morning as Ken Clarke and Peter Mandelson exchanged personal jibes.

The shadow business secretary and the first secretary of state have not been able to face off against each other in the Commons thanks to Lord Mandelson's ennoblement.

As a result they are forced to let off their enthusiasm through other means. In a Financial Times interview yesterday Clarke said Mandelson's grants to companies in need of a leg-up meant he was like a "Bourbon monarch [who] went round in his coach throwing out gold coins".

"He sneeeeeers" at me, Mandelson said at the conclusion of this morning's Labour press conference. It had been a relatively easy half-hour, with Mandelson gaining special pleasure from lording it over the Brownite figure to his left, Ed Balls. He couldn't resist but get in the final word, even mentioning the "Bourbon monarch jibe" as he attacked Tory plans to scrap regional development agencies.

"I think as he looks down his rather long, toffee nose at the regions, people will come back and say thank you very much," Mandelson said glibly.

Andrew Neil, whose chief purpose in this general election appears to be to heckle during press conferences, said he thought Mandelson was more like the Hapsburgs.

"We'll keep the footmen," Balls joked, as Mandy shimmered out of sight. No doubt Balls would suit a footman's outfit himself.

Don't sniff the bubblegum

Modern political campaigning holds many perils. Being photographed sniffing powdered bubblegum can now be added to the list.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's visit to the 2K Manufacturing factory on an industrial estate in the tight Luton South seat had, until then, been going swimmingly.

There was the usual milling around beforehand, the interview with the excited local candidate and the smartly-turned out staff hopping around nervously (but representing what was undoubtedly a very impressive green business).

After the usual handshakes came the interrogation, in which Clegg subjected his hosts to a vicious grilling. At times this was a little too demanding. "Where do you get the raw materials from?" Clegg asked. "From recyclables," a starstruck employee stated a little too obviously. "Oh, right," Clegg said. We got the impression he'd already worked that out.

After the polite questions came a little bit too much interactivity. Clegg tested the finished product, a green kind of plywood, by giving it a couple of forceful raps. The material did not dent. He then plunged his hands into jars of the raw materials - little chips of plastic. Laughs and jokes ensued, before the final kind of material: a strangely coloured fine powder.

"It's bubblegum," the factory boss said enthusiastically. "You can smell it."

Clegg, eager to please, raised the powder in his hands to his nose and cautiously inhaled. The motion was accompanied by a swarm of shutter clicks as the 70 or 80 photographers in clicking distance, capturing the moment for posterity.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

From Pole to poll

The death of Polish president Lech Kaczynski is a real tragedy.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron expressed near-identical sentiments on the issue this morning, sending their sympathies to the families of all the 87 victims who have died near Smolensk.

There is nothing especially unusual about this. Either man could be prime minister a month's time, so it makes perfect diplomatic sense for the two political leaders to express their sympathies - on behalf of the British people as well as themselves.

But I can't help feeling a slight sense of unease at the timing of their announcements. It wasn't David Cameron's fault that he put out a statement before Downing Street (who, in purdah, are probably only half-awake anyway). For a few brief moments, though, it felt as if there was the slightest, subtlest sense of oneupmanship going on.

This is probably getting a bit carried away, of course. We're only one week into the general election campaign and I can't afford to lose my head just yet. For a bit of self-refreshing perspective, international news offers us another thought-provoking object lesson in seriousness.

The general election is a big deal and we're in exciting times, but the ongoing political crisis in Thailand - which has now seen the government resort to rubber bullets and water cannons - is in another league altogether.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Goodbye, McMPs

It's been a strange week in parliament. And not just because it was only three days long.

After the small matter of a general election being called we've had the bizarre wash-up procedure, in which the government's bills have been rushed through at the pleasure of the opposition.

With the excitement of the campaign getting underway most MPs have disappeared to their constituencies and the all-out fight for survival now developing.

After parliament finally finished an incredible end-of-term atmosphere pervaded. Harriet Harman and John Bercow's handshakes and awkward kissing had to be seen to be believed.

Emotions have been soured somewhat by a goodbye interview with one of the grandest of Tory grandees, Sir Patrick Cormack.

Daily Politics host Andrew Neil paid tribute to Sir Patrick by getting his name spectacularly wrong.

"I'd be in a slightly better [mood] if you'd got my name right," the miffed veteran mused unhappily.

"You obviously made a big impact when you were an MP.

"I think a slightly bigger and more positive one than you've made. I'm sorry we're ending on a slightly acrimonious note."

Sir Patrick then called Neil's introductory spiel "absolute twaddle", to show there were no hard feelings.

The Daily Politics team underlined the error by misspelling the MP's name on the website - first as McCormack and then as MaCormack. Have a look at the (now corrected) website here.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Sad faces on the last day of term

The similarities between parliament and school are endless, not least of all because they contain the only humans who still use the phrase 'half-term'.

My colleague and I have just been watching MPs file out and say their goodbye to the Speaker and the leader of the House.

One by one they shook John Bercow's hand and exchanged pleasantries. But the real action was just behind the chair, as they gave their best wishes to Harriet Harman.

Surprisingly warm and amiable, Harman had three modes: A handshake, a hug, or a hug and kiss. The warmest option was offered to a surprising amount of members, even many of the old-school posh Tories. Sitting right above them, just a couple of metres away, it was the first time we'd ever felt like we were eavesdropping.

The most interesting moment came when she bid farewell to James Purnell, who offered a lot more warmth than she did. The body language was all his, and she kept her distance as he acted friendly. For hundreds of members, today is the last day they'll step into that room, unless they opt for the public viewing gallery.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Lobby pangs

A twice-daily cycle is deeply embedded within political journalists' body clock. Every morning and every afternoon, at 11:00 and 15:45 to be precise, they feel an urge to ask the prime minister's spokesman questions.

Usually No 10, a sympathetic bunch, ease their suffering by providing them with the outlet they need. Whenever parliament is sitting, so convention goes, Downing Street is obliged to field questions from senior hacks twice daily. Twas ever thus. Or rather, twas ever thus until today.

Parliament is sitting today and tomorrow, before dissolution takes place on Monday. But, to the shock and horror of all those who regularly attend these meetings, there are no lobby briefings taking place.

The prime minister's spokesman broke the news in a kind and gentle, but nevertheless firm tone yesterday afternoon. The government has entered its 'purdah' period, in which major announcements are deferred in order to prevent the incumbent party gaining an unfair advantage during the campaign.

According to the PMS this means Gordon Brown's civil servants are obliged to zip up their mouths. Journalists begged him to stay on a little longer - but, alas, this was not to be. "Even this is me fraying at the edge of what is possible," he explained.

By way of sweetening the bitter pill we were left with the bizarre story of Gordon Brown in romantic mode, which he told in an informal speech to Downing Street staff after calling the general election yesterday.

The prime minister, during his courting days, cooked his wife-to-be Sarah a meal. All went to plan, until he realised that he had mistakenly used a duvet as a table cloth. This was "a slight tactical error, but it didn't stop romance blossoming".

What was meant to have been an endearing little story was soon turned on its head by cynical hacks. This is the man in charge of the country, after all. God knows what he might substitute the nuclear launch codes for.

The PMS, in his last ever lobby briefing, thus concluded with the immortal words: "I wouldn't suggest the prime minister has any difficulty in distinguishing between these two objects."

His successor - whoever that happens to be - may face slightly tougher questions.