Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 28 February 2011

That prime ministerial softer side in full

Here's a guest post from my colleague Hannah Brenton:

David Cameron showed his softer side in an interview on Friday and let slip a crucial personality trait – he is an optimist.

Asked in a Youtube interview to describe one experience that changed the way he viewed the world, the prime minister waxed lyrical about the end of the Cold War.

"I suppose the experience that made me think a lot, politically, was the fall of the Berlin Wall," he said.

"I had spent some time behind the Iron Curtain, I had travelled through Russia beforehand, and I think that incredible year of 1989 was a momentous year. I think so many people had felt that change wasn't possible, and it proved that change was possible; a more bright, democratic future was possible. And there are some echoes with what is happened in our world today.

"So I suppose I am an optimist, I always like to think on the bright side, and when I think of an experience that gave me a great lift in thinking about life and the future of our planet and the people who live on it, actually that year of liberation was an incredible year."

As we face a bleak economic outlook, optimism may well be a useful quality in a leader – as long as it's not misplaced.

The prime minister was then asked if he could ask one question to a world leader, dead or alive. What would it be and to whom?

Unsurprisingly, as a British prime minister the obligatory answer is Winston Churchill.

Cameron said he would ask the wartime prime minister how he kept going in the face of adversity.

"I think if it was anyone ever, I think it would have to be Winston Churchill in 1940, I think the most incredible year in British history when we stood alone and the whole of the world seemed to be against us, with only us standing against Hitler and all of the armies he had amassed," he said.

"I think understanding how Churchill maintained that courage and that fortitude to take his country, my country through that incredibly difficult time – I have read so many books and articles and stories about that period, but to ask him what it felt like and how he kept so steadfast, I think would be fascinating."

Perhaps Churchill was an optimist.

Friday, 18 February 2011

What PMs do when they don't know the answer

Yesterday's launch of the coalition's welfare reform programme hit the slightest of hitches yesterday – but David Cameron was so smooth in glossing over the hiccup that most people will have barely noticed.

He was in east London, talking with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith about the government's proposal to introduce a new universal credit. The speech went fine. Then came the questions.

The first appeared to be on topic, but wasn't really. This is a deadly combination for the prime minister, who must know what he's talking about at all times.

It was from Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis. She's worried about the contracting structure the government is adopting as it rolls out its 'big society' plans.

Cameron responded with – let's not beat about the bush – waffle. His generalisations were supreme. "For years we've had a government which has just led to the large players farming those on unemployment benefits and skimming off the top those who find jobs," he began. Completely unrelated to the question. But it didn't matter. Because, after having made one or two generalised points, he concluded thus: "That is very much the intention of our policy. Of course it's extremely difficult to put in place – and Iain's now going to have to explain how it's going." Talk about putting your secretary of state on the spot. Queue lots of laughter, and the situation defused.

After the proceedings had wrapped up I went and talked to Ms Morphy, who explained to me the detail about which the prime minister was so perplexed. It's about contracting arrangements – which sounds dull, but is actually pretty fundamental if the 'big society' is going to get off the ground. You can read the resulting news story here.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Democracy in action

We've just received this from one of our regular readers, who is one of the millions of people in Britain keen to get hold of the deputy prime minister.

‎"Hello, can I speak to Mr Clegg, please?"
"I'm sorry, he's unavailable at the moment"
"Well, can I make an appointment to speak to him?"
"Err - I'm not sure..."
"He is my MP..."
"Ah, I see. So you're not just calling to make a fuss?"
"Well. I am calling to make a fuss. Just in his role as my elected representative, not as deputy Prime Minister"
"I see. You'll have to call his office"
"Isn't that you?"
"Well, yes it is"
"I'm sorry, I mean, his constituency office in Sheffield"
"But isn't he in London today? I've just seen him on the telly"
"Yes, yes, he is."
"So, don't you have his diary there?"
"Well, yes I do"
"So can't I make an appointment?"
"I'm afraid not"
"But don't you have his diary there?"
"I'm afraid you need to call his Sheffield office"
"How about I leave a message"
"Of course, what would you like the message to say"
"Don't sell off the forests"
"Is that it?"
"Well, you can add my name and address"
[Name and address copied down - unconvincingly]
"Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Well, I did really want to tell him myself"
"I'll be sure to pass the message on"


An interesting conclusion, isn't it? I'm quite a long way from agreeing it. It seems to me that if every politician was to make themselves personally available to every one of their 80,000-odd constituents, prioritising that over the important business of, you know, running the country, we might find ourselves in even more of a mess than we are now.

But how to prove the point? Well, I'm going to try speaking to some constituency offices of important politicians and look into the matter. Watch this space...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Expenses are dead. Long live expenses.

There's something deflating about covering MPs' expenses while historic change sweeps the Middle East.

Here we all are in parliament, leafing through the files, while the TV screens above our heads show events which will one day be considered pivotal in world history.

"Ah, look – someone's charged £14 for a taxi," you hear. How wonderful.

What was once symbolic of the decline of British politics now seem trivial and tedious – and frankly it seemed pretty dull well before the riots in Cairo.

There's always been something parochial and petty about expenses. The original scandal happened to coincide with the financial crisis, and there was something remarkable about the way the figures contrasted. Sure, we're all banker bashers now, but the vitriol directed at MPs always seemed excessive given the scale of the greed going on down the road, in the City.

But the expenses scandal opened up the political space to rejuvenate British democracy. It led to questions about electoral reform, the role of the whips and the select committees and even the point of Labour and Tories as representatives of social classes which no longer exist.

We've seen some efforts at change since then – a bit more backbench power, the use of urgent questions in the Commons (well done Bercow), a referendum on AV. We need more, to drag us out of our slumber. But in a political system as anaemic as Britain's, you'll take what you can get.

That's useful. Trawling through MPS' expenses really isn't. The way right wing commentators focus on this pitiful amount of money while ignoring the monumental tax avoidance of multinationals is so deranged and misguided I don't really have the words to express it.

The solution to the MPs expenses scandal was always so simple and cheap: Just automatically upload all expenses claims online. I’d like to see how many MPs keep making excessive claims then. No need for Ipsa, no need for hacks to spend their entire day trawling through files of absurdly low claims – and importantly, no need to make becoming an MP an even worse prospect than it already is. Now then, back to Egypt.

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