Politics.co.uk Blog

Friday, 12 February 2010

Sweet Treasury committee dreams

Excitement at politics.co.uk towers today, as the prospect of an early-morning Treasury committee evidence session emerged.

The parliament website has the time down for John McFall and co's grilling of Goldman Sachs Bank USA's chairman Gerald Corrigan as "4am".

That sounds eminently sketchable. Grizzled MPs, struggling to stay awake - or perhaps not even having gone to bed - trying to question a fresh-faced US financial titan in the dead of night.

Select committee hearings are pretty soporific, so we can only wonder at the devastating impact a session in the wee small hours would wreak on those present. Maintaining consciousness for more than a few minutes would be considered an achievement of Olympian proportions.

Parliamentary staff reacted with something approaching bashfulness when an inquiry into the early morning start was made. It turns out "4pm" might have been more accurate.

"I know he works quite hard but that's pushing it," an embarrassed Treasury committee official said of Mr Corrigan.

Still, perhaps the typo might lead to some innovative new reforms. Why not, we ask ourselves? At least it might do something to convince the public that MPs are working hard.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

An unusual accusation

Party political exchanges on the parliamentary estate are usually confined to the narrow restrictions of - well, politics.

But Nottingham North MP Graham Allen has taken the partisanship wars to another level as he accused shadow children's secretary Michael Gove of being behind a plot with several large holes in it.

According to Mr Allen, his Westminster office corridor has become infested with moths. And he knows who to blame.

"It is not true that the first moth arrived when I opened my wallet, nor when I had to examine my 1987 expenses claims," he said.

"The fact is Michael Gove MP brought in a secondhand Moroccan carpet and ever since we have been plagued by them.

"Michael Gove somehow has managed to get a transfer to another (moth free) office. I hope the Common House moth does not take up permanent residence and become the House's Common moth."

The House authorities have taken a parliamentary question tabled by Mr Allen very seriously, as they inevitably tend to do.

But they offer solace with the claim that the moth population in the corridors of power is "generally declining". A bit like Labour's election prospects.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Politics it's a funny old game

Who would be a politician at the moment? Honestly?

If it's not Austin Mitchell appearing on Channel 4 and proving that despite being a Labour politician he has absolutely no idea what the poor have to live on, and more importantly appearing to not care all that much, it's Harriet Harman being given 25/1 odds on for rear of the year. And let's not forget Quango Directgov getting it wrong when naming part of its website Buster's World – aimed directly at children but with the same name as a gay porn website, which appears higher on Google because it's been around a while longer. Someone surely has a sense of humour over at DirectGov I bet the market research that went behind the name for that little gem costs a pretty penny too.

One wonders why they do it.

Last night's Tower Block of Commons - fast becoming my favourite TV show - managed to show just how out of touch Labour really have become. Mitchell seemed to think a dinner party in a council flat with the local Birmingham MP would help solve the problems of the people living in said council block - including the family he was ostensibly supposed to be staying with, but refused point blank to.

Of course it might but I'm thinking flats that aren't falling apart, microwaves that actually work without having to be hit with a hammer, beds and other furniture and the opportunity for dad Dave, a qualified chef, to be able to ply his trade might be of more help. What's more confusing about this is that Mitchell is not a young man and, one expects, did not come from a privileged background. So how on earth could he have completely forgotten his roots?

His utter refusal to try to work with the producers of the programme in the way that had been outlined to him, to try and live on the same amount of money as someone on benefits in some of Britain's worst sink estates, not only made him look utterly ridiculous but massively arrogant and utterly disrespectful towards the people that actually have to live on such meagre handouts. Don't think I'm getting all loony leftie on you; I'm just saying that the people involved in the show were, for the most part, far from benefit scroungers that the Daily Mail might have you believe Britain is infested with.

They were families struggling to make ends meet and not one of the MPs involved in the documentary has so far come out of the experience looking all that good. Good thing some of them - Mitchell and Mark Oaten, for instance - are retiring really. I'm not sure this programme would have helped them much. Take note Nadine Dorries and Tim Loughton. Although of the two Loughton just about came out of last night's episode with a little bit of dignity still intact.

Then there's the case of Harriet Harman being in the running for the rear of the year award famously won by the likes of Charlotte Church and Rachel Stevens in the past. One wonders how the arch feminist and champion of equality feels about such a nomination and whether some of her more cheeky colleagues couldn't help themselves in nominating the deputy leader of the Labour party as she seeks to guide her equality bill through its final stages in the House of Commons. I wouldn't be surprised if a few Tory members thought this would be a great wheeze themselves and decided to add their names to the nominations. If the Sun has its way she'll probably win. After all, 25/1 are far better odds than I would have expected her to get.

And why oh why does this government continue to shoot itself in the head? What a wonderful juxtaposition we had in today's press. On one page Harman is being nominated for rear of the year; on the next directgov is in hot water because it names part of its website after someone else's gay porn balloon fetish website. You couldn't make it up!

All in all a strange day in the world of politics. Let's try not to forget the serious business going on at the moment. What's that I hear you say? Gordon Brown has just nominated Caroline Flint for Playboy's playmate of the year?

Monday, 8 February 2010

Some well-earned applause

Sir John Chilcot and co will have been especially gratified by the public gallery's spontaneous applause at the close of today's session.

Perhaps it was euphoria at having made it through nearly four hours of evidence from the former secretary Jack Straw, but the audience seemed distinctly pleased after Sir John passionately - by civil service standards, at least - reaffirmed his determination to do a good job.

His statement rebutted many an accusation levelled at his panel by the media in recent weeks: the inquiry was "committed to being open and transparent"; "we have no reason to believe any material is being deliberately withheld" by the government; and "the inquiry has broken new ground".

I've been a member of the audience two or three times so far and have noticed one or two familiar faces each time. These committed individuals tell me they're impressed by the panel's work and are more dismissive of journalists than the non-forensic nature of the questioning.

As one pointed out, the purpose is to get new facts to come to light; there has been some success here.

Perhaps more importantly, the questioning has been getting more and more forensic recently. Today's session - especially the scintillating 40 minutes - was riveting as Straw wriggled on the hook of legal advice for the war.

"Nicely done," Lawrence Freedman whispered to Sir John as the applause died away, the grins showing on all five of the panel's normally serious-looking faces.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The subtle arts of the lobby

There is a subtle art to asking the prime minister's spokesman questions.

Some rules of thumb are very clear. Asking reshuffle questions is a complete waste of time; these are hypothetical and so easily brushed away. And queries about the state of the economy are also folly if a Budget or Pre-Budget Report is coming up.

What is slightly less clear are party political questions. The way this works in Downing Street is more than a little strange: Gordon Brown's political activities are utterly divided from his governing ones. The prime minister's spokesman speaks on behalf of the government; he is a civil servant, not a party apparatchik.

My problem is that this is damaging to No 10 - very damaging. In this afternoon's lobby briefing, for example, the prime minister's spokesman was invited to respond to Liam Fox's claims that Mr Brown was 100% wrong on his statement about the 2005 manifesto featuring promises of cuts. In fact, Dr Fox says, the Tories were seeking a £2.7 billion increase in defence spending.

This is a party political matter, we were told. So Dr Fox's criticisms went unanswered. We can of course ring up No 10 and ask to speak to the "political colleagues". But most of those in the room won't have done, and come away with a worse impression of the PM than before.

Not that they hadn't already made up their minds, of course.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Ken baffled as never before

I've just come from a rather bizarre trip to north London, playing the part of a panel show guest with Ken Livingstone in the chair.

The former London mayor, once king of all he surveyed from City Hall, now spends two afternoons every month presenting a book review programme on Press TV.

This was an opportunity not to be passed up. A pleasant 23 minutes was passed discussing Cambridge historian Ben Wilson's third book, What Price Liberty?, which comes out in paperback this week.

More interesting, of course, was experiencing first-hand Ken's small-talk treatment.

The man is legendary. Within the space of around 15 minutes we covered everything from Vince Cable's Labour past to 70,000-year-old volcanic eruptions.

He was happy to admit he was an expert at having opinions on things, even if he didn't fully understand them.

The only exception to this appeared to be the general election. On this, as never before, he said, he did not have the foggiest who would come out on top. It's tough being a spectator, but Ken is doing his best at it - in his own inimitable way.