Politics.co.uk Blog

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...