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.