Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sleaze: Time to stop the dancing round the handbags

Sleaze has been firmly off the agenda at Prime Minister’s Questions for the last two weeks. “If you mention Hain, I’ll mention Osbourne…If You mention Conway, I’ll drag up Hain, Alexander etc” has led to a sort of stalemate situation. ...The parliamentary equivalent of dancing round the handbags or “don’t mention the war”. The three party "beasts" have bitten so many chunks out of each other than there is now an uneasy truce.

In one way this is quite wrong. The Conway scenario should have been aired at PMQs. However, there will be a debate on Derek Conway, led, oddly, by Harriet Harman, herself not exactly in the clear where “sleaze” allegations are concerned.

In another way, this “score draw” situation may hopefully at last lead to some meaningful reform. I hope so. It is a cliché to say that reform is overdue and that the parties ought to get together and agree ways forward. But now is the time.

The “Sleaze” allegations have all glued together into one amorphous mass in the public’s eye, leading to that old moan: “They’re all in it for themselves – they’re all as bad as each other”.

However, if you separate out the various strands of “sleaze” you are left with disarmingly simple solutions to reduce (but never, of course, eliminate sleaze). All it needs is the will to implement. Hopefully, the slugfest we have seen recently will, at last, lead to implementation of reform rather than continued schadenfreude enjoyed by one side or the other – usually for a short period.

...Taking each main type of “sleaze” from the last few years in turn:

Cash for honours

Simple solution. Make the Second Chamber wholly elected, for starters. Goodness knows why on earth Labour haven’t done it already. The late Robin Cook spent a year as leader of the House trying to achieve an elected second chamber. He wrote half of a book about it (the unexciting half, as it happens).

Dodgy donations

Sits alongside number 1 in terms of both symptoms and solution. We need an elected second chamber but also a radically reduced limit on political party spending. It is utterly ridiculous that you have to scrimp and save on paperclips locally during a general election to meet the very low spending allowance, while massive spending (and for what? Some ludicrous posters and adverts which cancel each other out) is allowed at national level, and these two levels merge so that, for example, the national spending limit can be used to put up massive posters in target constituencies and even advertise in local newspapers.

I don’t have an appetite for publicly funded political parties. I don’t think the public has either. But it is crazy that the parties can spend so much, especially when they are obviously spending beyond their means in that they have to take donations from unsavory sources (LibDems included) and often run up huge overdrafts in order keep up with the spending “arms race”.

The proxy donations problem has got to be solved by making it an offence to give or receive money from another source in order to donate it to a political party.

Expenses/allowances alleged abuse

The whole House of Commons expense and allowance regime needs to be reformed. It is not rocket science. If the House of Commons simply adhered to standard policies and practices which have been enshrined in normal companies for many decades, a whole host of problems would be solved at a stroke.

For example, in companies (except for family businesses without public shareholders) it is unheard of for someone to manage or employ their spouse or partner or family member. It is a complete “no no”. No one should have the power to set the wages or supervise the work of a family member or partner in a public limited company. I have known people moving departments as soon as a relationship has started, to avoid impropriety. That said, by putting the control of "pay and rations", performance metric-setting and annual appraisal under the Speaker's office or under the Whip for each party, there could be a way of properly separating the daily task management, of family members working for MPs, from elements of management which, when conjoined, could lead to impropriety.

It is frustrating that these simple solutions have not been implemented yet. I can only hope this situation is rectified with great urgency.

Going off at a tangent, the Conway revelations are just breathtaking. Obviously a police investigation is about to start. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

And they’ve got to come up with an offence yet. You can’t blame an employee if their boss didn’t demand any or much work from them. You can't blame a boss for not demanding any or much work from an employee if they didn’t profit personally from the situation (i.e if the employee did all the benefiting). So, in the alleged hypothetical situation who has done the fraud? Or is it conspiracy? In which case there would have to be evidence of conspiracy, which would be very difficult to prove.

Unity at Ministry of Truth has done a very thorough job of cataloguing the Freddie Conway alleged “workload”. Obviously, for any case to stick, it would, presumably, have to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt that no or hardly any work had been done. This would be difficult. It’s difficult proving the absence of someone when there is insistence that something (i.e work, in this case) existed. The onus of proof is with the prosecution. However, as Unity has revealed, the Conways have set up one defence that might be relatively straight forward to disprove, if it is not true. They said that little Freddie (despite allegedly not sending a single email and allegedly not doing a single piece of word processing and allegedly not even knowing the name of his father’s secretary) did his research work in Newcastle University Library where he prepared newspaper cuttings and sent them to his father.

Derek Conway doesn’t get a lot of press. He doesn’t feature on Iain Dale’s “media tarts” list often. Cutting up his press coverage would take about two minutes every week. I suppose you could argue that Freddie also cut up articles about relevant matters. Really taxing work, that. I bet he needed a stiff rum afterwards (but "none of that Lamb's shite", of course)

However, I would have thought it is actually possible to check how much time dear Freddie spent in the library through swipe card records, CCTV or witnesses. However, goodness knows whether he was in there doing his normal University work or parliamentary work. The whole thing is bizarre but I somehow would not put much money on a successful prosecution. We shall see.

One thing that did surprise me is how the Conway offspring left their Facebook and Bebo profiles up and running until as late as Tuesday. They must be mad. Surely they had enough warning of all this, didn't they ? And how about that Christmas family photo when they knew all this was brewing (it’s been going through the parliamentary committee for months).

It is all quite astonishing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rudy - an historic implosion

A couple of remarkable, if perhaps predictable, developments in the US Presidential Race:

You have to feel for John Edwards. He has soldiered on despite, or perhaps because of, his wife Elizabeth's illness. He is what English people might call someone who plays with a "straight bat". A straight shooter, but perhaps never Presidential material. He has particularly distinguished himself by capturing blue collar votes and through his passion for the poor. However, his weakness was that he couldn't win in his native South (e.g South Carolina, where he was born and which he won in the last set of primaries).

That comes back to a central weakness of the Democrats in the last fifty odd years. If they can't win in the South they don't win. All the hoo-ha in 2000 was about Florida, but Gore failed to win his own state - Tennessee - and Clinton's - Arkansas. If big Al had won those two he wouldn't have needed any chads in Florida, hanging or otherwise. Look back to JFK - won after LBJ took Texas (and perhaps other Southern states) for him etc etc

So it's sad to see Edwards go, and it will be interesting to see where his votes go on Super Tuesday. Given that he was bagging a vote around the mid to high teens, his exit will have quite a major impact on the Democrat race.

I would have thought the smart money is on Hilary to nudge or walk or romp ahead on Super Tuesday, but with the Kennedy endorsement, Obama may or probably will do well. Goodness knows. It's not about hand pumping any more. We're in overall media coverage territory. I bow to Duncan Borrowman's verdict that both races (Republican and Democrat) will go beyond Super Tuesday.

And so to development number two - Rudy.

What can you say? His failure in the race is breathtaking. He had it "in the bag", which presumably is the main reason he blew it. Tall poppy syndrome perhaps. Perhaps he has a self-destruct mechanism. I suspect he wasn't cut out for President - too edgy. But why did he ignore the initial key but small races? If you take Iowa, one can understand that he knew he would get a small vote due to the high Christian Evangelical vote there but goodness knows why he ignored the other states such as New Hampshire. Perhaps his wrong (as it turned out) strategic decision was in itself token of his unsuitability to be President. Then again, he's been "America's Mayor" - why does he want to be President where it would be all downhill? Perhaps he realised that - if only in his subconsciousness.

One things for sure. Rudy Guiliani will go down in history twice:

Firstly, in the main text as the hero of the 9-11 aftermath.

Secondly, as a footnote and/or political anorak's trivia answer concerning his historic implosion in the 2008 Presidential race. I suspect polly-nerds will be debating his failure for many years to come.

'£1.5 Million - the cost of the Conways' - The Mail

UPDATE: The Mail has an article entitled: "£1.5m: The extraordinary amount Tory MP Derek Conway's family earned from the taxpayer (after bonuses)"

The press really get their teeth into the Conway family today. The Mail tops the list in my view - with details and photos, prominently featuring Freddie Conway's Bebo site. There's also interesting coverage in the Guardian and the Sun and just about everywhere else, except Iain Dale's Diary of course.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A potpourri

Garth Crooks - a gem
/ /
The Royal Today
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Stinger beer
/ /
Nigel Slater recipe success at last

The Tories on crime - some confusion....

One could be forgiven for wondering where the Tories stand on crime these days. The BBC reports:

Shadow minister Nigel Waterson has been questioned by police after allegations he assaulted two teenage children. The MP for Eastbourne, was arrested after an incident at an address in Bromley, London, on Sunday. The Tory MP is understood to have called the police himself to report an assault. He was held for nearly 13 hours before being released on bail.

The Telegraph reports that Mr Waterson allegedly assaulted his own teenage children. A police spokesman is quoted as saying: "Detectives from the Child Abuse Investigation Command (SCD5) are investigating."

This is all very confusing when read in conjunction with the words of Mr Waterson's Annual Report in Autumn 2007:

MP on the beat
Nigel has always campaigned for tougher measures to deter crime and antisocial behaviour. Violent crime has been rising recently; and Nigel supports proposals to cut red tape for the police, minimum sentences, an end to the early release of prisoners and building more prisons. “Recent tragic cases show that we need to address the problems of gun crime, alcohol abuse, lack of discipline in schools and family breakdown.”

Where are all the traffic wardens when you need one?

A photo of a very under-stated campaigning event via : UK Daily Pundit

Conway - no room for the Tories to crow

I see Tories such as James Cleverley trying to say how tough the Tories are on sleaze, based on the Conway episode:

Once the Standards & Privileges Committee made their report Derek made an immediate apology. He didn't squirm, he didn't hide and he didn't blame a great left-wing conspiracy.

Hang on a minute - didn't he say something about "administrative shortcomings" ? (pull the other one).

Compare the situation with that of Haine (sic), Alexander, Harman and Livingstone. What will it take for Gordon Brown to stop dithering and make a stand?

The real comparison to be made is that in the Labour cases cited there is no suggestion of the named politicians actually personally benefiting financially from any misdeeds. In the case of Conway, this is the case, respective to his family.

So, I don't think there is any room for the Tories to crow on this one.

Tory whip withdrawn from Conway

Giving credit where credit is due, I welcome David Cameron's decision to withdraw the Tory whip from Derek Conway. The BBC reported prominently that Duncan Borrowman had reported Conway to the police, and the Mail report this morning about Conway's eldest son must have also added to the pressure.

Conway's explanation of an "administrative shortcoming" simply won't wash.

Conservative Home: Cameron is wrong on Conway (while Iain Dale is silent)


The next time David Cameron rises at PMQs to attack sleaze within the Government Labour MPs will only have to shout 'Derek Conway' back at him to blunt his attack. Unlike Brown Mr Cameron did not dither. He needed just a few hours to decide what to do about Mr Conway. He was decisive but decisively wrong.

Iain Dale is meanwhile keeping schtum on this one because Derek Conway is a friend of his. That is laudable and I respect that. Wasn't Iain nominated as "Political Commentator of the year" last year?

Derek Conway's son on Bebo and Facebook

It's great to know that Freddie Conway has had such a good time at Newcastle University - "loving every minute"...he says on his Bebo page.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Where is David Cameron's moral compass?

James Graham has quite rightly contrasted the Alan Johnson donor furore with the case of Derek Conway. I also note that Duncan Borrowman has written to Scotland Yard to investigate the latter MP.

Having worked tangentially with a series of parliamentary researchers, there is one thing that stands out.

Parliamentary researchers send a lot of emails to a lot of people. They answer queries, draft speeches, ask questions and, for that matter, chat about their work. And all of it is normally done via email.

So, if any parliamentary researcher wants to demonstrate their workload, all they have to do is do dump of their email account. Failing that, those with whom they corresponded regularly should easily be able to produce copies of emails from the researcher in question.

So the fact that the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee stated that "no records appear to exist of either actual work that FC (Freddie Conway) did for his father, or the work he was required to undertake…no-one outside of the Conway family was aware of the work" is astonishing.

Come off it. It doesn't happen. Researchers are talking to people and emailing people all the time. It is what they do!

I heard Derek Conway on the radio saying words to the effect that he regretted the administrative shortcomings which meant that he was unable to prove all the work his son had been doing.

Ah yes. In the same way that I can't prove that I just saw a pig flying past my window!

This is crying out for a police investigation and I'd like to know where David Cameron's moral compass is on this one. Where is the sanction of the Conservative party against Derek Conway?

Tory blog aggregator - imitation is....

The Beta version of Tory Blogs is coming on here. It is very welcome. I used to use a thing called Right Wing blogs, which aggregated most of the Tory blogs. But it went belly up a year or so ago. It will be great to get all the Tory blogs in one place with a small bit of text. Google reader etc can be a bit of a pain.

Polish pub opens

A Polish pub (above) has been opened today on Reading's Oxford Road. The building used to be an Irish pub when it was the "Battle Inn". Now it is the "Gospoda". Good luck to Lucas Celmer and Margaret Majszak, the landlord and landlady!
When it was an Irish pub, I remember going in once and trying to find a recognisable tune on the jukebox. It was difficult. The machine mostly had Irish folk songs on it. During the Irish troubles, it was a bit weird having an Irish pub just 200 yards from an army barracks. I have heard tell that it was not unknown for the odd squaddie to enter the pub in uniform just to see what "kicked off" as a result!
I have noticed an increase in "Poles" stories in the Express and Mail recently. For example, last week one of them had a front page headline about the number of Poles who have entered Britain recently. Of course, finding the number who were here temporarily and the number of equivalent British people who have gone to Poland or other EU countries in the same period, is usually an uphill task in these newspapers.
I have noticed that a couple of Polish shops have sprung up in Newbury recently. I welcome them and the Gospoda pub.

Spectator on Clegg: The "love-in" continues

The stream of praise for Nick Clegg on the Spectator's Coffee House blog continues. Indeed, the author of these pieces, Fraser Nelson admits he has been accused of having a "love-in" with Nick Clegg:

Nick Clegg continues to say the right things. This passage from Steve Richards’s interview on GMTV Sunday Programme this morning:

"We understand that the years of unprecedented increase in public spending, and let's remember the increases in public spending since 2000, three years after New Labour came into power, is probably without precedent anywhere in the Western world since the war. There's been an explosion in public spending. That is not going to continue, in fact it's going to very much level off."

Of course, he “envisages” that taxes will lower - while the Tories say taxes will fall “over the cycle”. So the Tory policy is still harder. But I like Clegg’s language, his correctly choosing 2000 as the starting point to an “explosion”. The days of Kennedy’s “penny on the pound of income tax to pay for education” is gone. I’d like to think the premise of Kennedy’s proposal – that more money would get extra results – has been tested to destruction so future governments know not to make the same mistake.

Iain Dale now supports Barack Obama (for footballing reasons)

Following my post about Barack Obama absenting himself from a Wokingham pub after a stripper appeared, it now transpires that Obama is an avid West Ham fan.

The Sun says that Obama is "forever blowing bubbles".

Iain Dale, a keen Hammers fan himself, says on his special West Ham blog that he has now switching his allegiance from Rudy to Obama.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jeremy Paxman's epitaph: "Widespread gusset anxiety"

I had thought that "He asked him twelve times" would be Paxo's epitaph. All that has changed this week.

"Widespread gusset anxiety" indeed! Why doesn't he just go to another shop? Presumably the fact that he doesn't and writes a letter to the CE instead, is an indication of the institution that is "Marks and Sparks".

Woodbine Willie - an example to us all

Me and Jonathan Calder seem to be conducting sort of parallel lives. There's so many little tidbits he comes up with which are from my little sphere of interests also.

Jonathan has just linked to a superb clip of Divine Comedy's Absent Friends. This track impressed me so much that it sent me off on a research tangent about a year ago. I found out all I could about "Woodbine Willie", who is mentioned in the song along with other noble and forlorn figures such as Jean Seberg, Steve McQueen, Oscar Wilde and Laika. (Laika was a dog and the first animal to be launched into orbit.)

"Woodbine Willie" was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy. That's quite a mouthful - which is why, no doubt, first world war soldiers sought a snappier name for him. He was a chaplain with the army on the Western Front. He won the military cross for running into no-man's land, under fire, to help the wounded. What he would do is give the dying a last cigarette and comfort them, as he could. Hence his nickname, "Woodbine Willie".

Kennedy acheived a lot of fame when he returned to Blighty from the war. I read a biography of him called "A fiery glow in the darkness". What stood out is that he dedicated his life, as a priest, to helping the poor at home, and at war, the wounded and dying.

The man was truly inspiring and a refreshing example of what a Christian should do and be.

I found out that "Woodbine Willie's" grandson is a parish priest at Marlborough, Wiltshire, and exchanged letters with him.

As an aside, Neil Hannon, the driving force of Divine Comedy, is the son of the bishop of Clogher, which might explain how he came across "Woodbine Willie".

Alan Johnson donation - yes, it is a damp squib!

Tinkering around at midnight last night, I thought I was going out on a bit of a limb by describing the media story about the Alan Johnson donation as a "damp squib".

I am delighted beyond measure to see my early doors judgment supported by the vociferous Mr Whenman and Liberal Action.

There's a clip here of Johnson stating the position on Sky News. His team checked and declared the donation as per the rules. They checked the man was on the electoral register, as they are required to do. They checked he was a member of the Labour party - which they were not required to do. They declared the donation in time. And they even reminded the Electoral Commission when the donation did not appear on their website in time.

What the heck else were they meant to do? Go to the man's house and interview him and keep a webcam in his living room to record conversations between him and his brother?

Paddy pulls out of Afghan role

Funny. I was rummaging around in the foilage of Google news at midnight and saw a story in the Earth Times (what is that?) saying Karzai, the Afghan PM, had expressed dissatisfaction with the option of Paddy Ashdwon as UN Envoy to Afghanistan.

Paddy has now pulled out of the role.

Paddy pulls out of Afghan role

Funny that. I was rummaging around in the foliage of Google news at 11.30pm last night and saw a story in the Earth Times (what is that?) saying Hamid Karzai, the Afghan PM, had expressed dissatisfaction with the potential appointment of Paddy Ashdwon as UN Envoy to Afghanistan.

He was seen as too strong a figure who was potentially a rival for Karzai and "too controversial"...apparently.

Paddy has now pulled out of the role.

...Back to being a "gardener and grandfather".

Poor Paddy. Think of a quote from Wittgenstein, quick!

Cameron lambasted for school choice and cycling habits

I'm getting worried about myself. I am starting to enjoy regular Sunday pleasure from seeing the foam form on Peter Hitchens' mouth in the Mail on Sunday. This week it is particularly pleasurable because he lays into David Cameron for his choice of school for his daughter and for cycling through a red light:

That strange man in Tory HQ, David Cameron, has spoken up in favour of the wanglers, the parents who use Blair-style methods to get their children into oversubscribed good State schools.

This survival-of-the-fittest nastiness is particularly slimy when it comes from a man who refuses to countenance selection on merit. It is also self-serving.

...Mr Cameron last week rode his bike through a red light at a pelican crossing, was rightly told off by a pedestrian and responded with an arrogant dismissal followed by a Railtrack-style 'I'm sorry if' non-apology.

Most of the media didn't mention it. It's the second time he's been caught doing this. I think it says quite a lot about him.

A worrying gap in James Purnell's knowledge

James Purnell, who until a few days ago was Culture Secretary, said on Sunday AM that "The BBC have four (television) channels now". It actually has more than that. They have 21 by my reckoning. I would have thought a freshly ex-Culture Secretary should know that. I don't think this bodes very well for his performance as Work and Pensions Secretary.

*17 if you discount the ones they co-own.

Ming voted for Nick Clegg to be leader

It was a delight to see a very fit and relaxed Ming on Sunday AM. He dropped into the conversation that he voted for Nick Clegg in the leadership election, which is interesting. He obviously kept quiet about this during the campaign, as all immediate-past leaders do. But I think he is the first one to say, after the election, who he voted for.

Cameron gets "Order of the Brown Nose" treatment

Polly Vernon makes a bid for this month's "Order of the Brown Nose" for her Observer Food section article on David Cameron, in relation to food and his green credentials. I'd advise read the following with a precautionary Alice-conveyed sick-bag at the ready:

How does David Cameron qualify as an eco hero? He became a poster boy for green in April 2006, when he took a trip to a glacier on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to witness first-hand the physical effects of global warming. He'd been building his image for a while - he set out his eco agenda on his election as Tory leader, in December 2005. 'I tried to make a start this morning by biking to work,' he said, in his acceptance speech. 'That was a carbon-neutral journey until the BBC sent a helicopter to follow me.'

But that tour of a glacier - organised and supported by the World Wildlife Fund - sealed the deal. It generated an iconic image - Cameron, powering hatless through the frozen wastes on the back of a dog sled - and a certain degree of sniping. It was, critics said, a flagrant publicity stunt, a photo opportunity (why else, they asked, was Cameron not wearing a hat in the sled shot, despite obviously being very cold indeed?). Others calculated the carbon footprint for the entire trip - which was sizeable, if offset by (among others) the World Wildlife Fund.

But regardless, this was a turning point for conservationist politics in the UK. With it, with that picture, Cameron and his Conservatives co-opted the environment, and the public (who were in the throes of an Al Gore-inspired awakening) registered their approval in local elections held within a fortnight of the Svalbard tour. The government was inspired to give global warming some serious thought. The Climate Change Bill was eventually passed, in no small part as a consequence of a spate of prolonged political one-upmanship on eco.

Big win in South Carolina for Obama

Obama gets 57% in South Carolina to the Clintons' (yes, they are two) 27%.

Crikey, that's a huge gap!

I was expecting a narrower gap, or a Clinton win, given the strong fight back by the two Clintons in the last few weeks.

So, well done Obama! This will give him and his team a huge morale boost for Super Tuesday. But that is a toughie the US and South Carolina has a big Black American population (and Obama worked very hard there for months), so we shall see.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

New donation row - now it's Johnson

While keeping an open mind on this one, it does appear that the explanation from the Johnson camp suggests that this might be a damp squib:

We had no reason to believe the donation came from anyone other than (Mr Siddiqui)...We checked he was a member of the Labour Party and was on the Electoral Register and we registered the donation with the Labour Party, the Register of Members' Interests and the Electoral Commission.

Do we have to go through every donation to every political party over the last twenty years one by one in the media spotlight? It's getting a bit tedious.

Hat-tip to Peter Black.

There's still Cruddas, Benn and Blears left of those who contested the Labour Deputy Leadership but from whom, to my knowledge, there hasn't yet been a donations row about. So there's plenty of fodder left.

Paddy kiboshed by Karzai?

Karzai objects to Ashdown as UN envoy, reports Earth Times. I thought it had gone a bit quiet on the Ashdown Afghan front. Apparently, the Afghan Prime Minister's objection to Paddy was registered during a conversation at the ski resort of Davos with David Cameron and Condeleeza Rice. I think that's what's known in diplomatic circles as an "off-piste discussion".

More here (thanks to James Schneider for that latter link).

Iain Dale's Diary versus The Morning Star

Last Saturday, I bought a copy of the Morning Star and blogged about it.

By spooky coinky-dinky, this week Iain Dale compared his blog, favourably of course, to the Morning Star, in connection with the Newsnight paper review.

Under two titles, The Morning Star has been going as a daily national newspaper since 1930, and currently has a circulation of between 14,000 and 16,000, according to the BBC.

That's a remarkable record of tenacity, if nothing else.

To compare that with a blog? Well, as they say, comparisons are odious.

Iain has mentioned that he is preparing to launch a political magazine. If that magazine is still going in 78 years time and selling more than 14,000 copies, then Iain may be in a stronger position to make a comparison.

Staggering tale of financial illegality and drugs

Continuing on the theme of the farcical nature of the financial markets, it is worth reading "Wall Street Crash" in today's Guardian Weekend. It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, the "Wolf of Wall Street". Fabulously wealthy and drugged up to his eyeballs, Mr Belfort spun a web of financial illegality which would have made Robert Maxwell blush. He was eventually nabbed by the FBI.

The Weekend piece, taken from Belfort's book "Wolf of Wall Street", is remarkable for the candid way he describes his breathtaking, illegal activities.

There is also a telling and amusing remark from a policeman after Belfort is arrested for allegedly causing a series of car crashes while under the influence of drugs. Belfort writes:

I tested positive for cocaine, methaqualone, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, MDMA, opiates and marijuana. "In fact, the only thing you're not showing is hallucinogens," said the police officer. "What's wrong, you don't like those?"

The farce of the financial markets

I have resisted blogging on the economic situation. I couldn't be bothered. Reprehensible apathy on my part? No. When you get to a certain age, you have actually lived through the odd real recession of twain. The Oil crisis of the Seventies springs to mind - now that was a real recession - a proper brown trouser job.

There are different definitions of a recession, but here's a reasonable one from The Free Dictionary:

A significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting longer than a few months. It is visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade. The technical indicator of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth as measured by a country's GDP.

I have heard reports in the media which take it for granted that we are already in a recession. I suppose we could be, but until there is far more evidence of hard numbers showing this, that is pure guesswork.

In the fourth quarter of 2007, the UK GDP rose by 0.6% as part of a 3.1% growth in 2007.

That's a very long way from a recession. A lull in house prices, a squeeze on the banks and panic in the city does not make a recession.

All right, there may be one starting. But recessions are a relatively normal part of the economic cycle. Let's all grow up and stop panicking. I suspect that many of the media reporters who have hyper-ventilated about a recession haven't actually lived through one as a grown adult.

One thing which confirmed me in my "don't panic" view was the amusing news that the turmoil in the stock markets in the last week or so was stoked, to a significant degree, by the antics of one Jérôme Kerviel at Société générale. You have to laugh.

The story of M. Kerviel is fascinating. He conducted his fraud for no personal profit and at the bank's HQ. That is in sharp contrast to Nick Leeson's misdeeds, which were for personal gain and carried out thousands of miles from the bank HQ. Also, M.Kerviel was operating in a sophisticated and controlled environment, in contrast to the naively loose environment in Barings' Bank when Leeson was doing his stuff.

Katie Allen in the business Guardian details the series of checks and balances that a trader is subject to:

A trader has strict limits on how much can be put at stake in one day. Bank systems flag any breach of those limits with the alert passed to the middle office - the risk-monitoring section of a bank. Middle office will ask the trader for evidence his or her limit has been increased by management. Such checks limits are performed daily.

That's just the start, the list of controls continues, making it all the more extraordinary that Kerviel found a way around them. It seems to have something to do with the fact that he worked previously in the "back office" and therefore knew how to beat the systems. As a result the Financial Services Authority has hurriedly contacted banks to seek reassurances that, among other things, "any back-office staff promoted into trading positions...will be managed closely".

It doesn't inspire confidence does it?

ICM: LibDems on 20%

An ICM poll in the Guardian shows the LibDems on 20% and a marked increase in support for EU membership - 58% thought membership of the EU is a good thing as opposed to 47% in 2001.

The gap between Labour and the Conservatives has narrowed to just 2 points (35% to 37%).

But it's just one poll of course. Stephen Tall has a round-up of the January polls on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Boris' office sponsor - a warning to Londoners?

Boris Johnson has already established a firm track record of farcical bumbling. But today's Guardian shows us some of the slightly more questionable side to Boris. His choice of office sponsor, Shirayama, gives Londoners a clue as to what might be in store if, heavens forfend, he is elected Mayor of London.

Do Londoners really want a Mayor who has taken sponsorship from a large developer, previously involved with trying to build on designated metropolitan open land?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Wise words on the EU Reform Treaty

My old English teacher, a wonderful man called Mr Phelps, used to say "Give that man a chocolate mouse", when someone came up with a clever answer in class.

The chocolate mouse was never forthcoming, but we were nonetheless delighted with the accolade if it was directed at us.

Well, this week's theoretical chocolate mouse deserves to go to Richard Gadsden who wrote this remarkably perceptive comment on Liberal Democrat Voice, regarding the EU Reform Treaty:

The European Union has had a constitution since the Treaty of Rome. It’s ludicrous to suggest that this is some new thing.

The problem with Giscard’s constitution was that it didn’t change anything; it just rewrote the existing one from treatyese to constitutionese. There were a couple of minor amendments, but that’s what they were - minor. The Treaty of Lisbon is essentially those minor amendments rewritten back into treatyese instead of constitutionese.

Eurosceptics keep getting offended by things that were in the Treaty of Rome - and then pretending that they are some new innovation.

The EU is a constituted structure that is superior to the nation-state. Always has been. It already is a federation - has been since the Treaty of Rome. The so-called federal superstate is something I’ve lived in my entire life - and I’m in my mid-thirties.

If you don’t like it, propose changing it, or propose leaving it, but so-far-and-no-further does require you to actually have a clue how far so far is. And you don’t.

Superb! And, because Richard mentioned the "F-word", we ought to add the next comment from

I agree with pretty much everything Richard has just said except “it’s already a federation”. Byt most definitions of what a federation is, it isn’t. It’s more closely a confederation with some extra bits, my old lecturer in EU politics called it a “confederal consociation” which is good enough.

I’d like it to be a proper Publish Postdevolved federation with proper democratic accountability at each level and as little as possible decided at Brussels, but that would require a proper rational informed debate. Which we might manage to get after we have the membership referendum.

What, in the name of holy smoke, is Boris on about?

I know Legoland. Been there. I know those "whirly teacup things". They're in the photo above.

But they are for tiny kids. It is an exaggeration to say that they "subject the human body to the most extraordinary stresses and shears". We're not talking about Oblivion or Nemesis at Alton Towers here. They go at about one m.p.h so as not to upset a three year old who's just eaten an ice cream!

So the whole premise and logic of Boris' statement seems fundamentally flawed.

But what the Sam Hill has this got to do with seeking to convince Londoners that he can run London?

Is he trying to explain how to lose an election for the Conservatives which they ought to win?

Turning children into political footballs

Couldn't we draw a line at 11 years old and at least ignore what politicians are doing with their children, regarding schooling, before that age?

I squirmed as Nick Clegg felt compelled by David Dimbleby (on Question Time during the leadership election) to describe the schooling of his very small children. It sounded awful, the poor fellow having to say to what sort of establishment these little tots go.

Now we have the schooling decision of David Cameron and his wife for their four year old daughter splashed over the Daily Mail. It's not on. So what if DC and his wife were choosy? If the school in question accepted the child - what is the problem?

It is, frankly, disgusting to drag children, who are barely out of nappies, into a debate which is fairly pointless anyway. And I hope that David Cameron's comments about parents and schools earlier this week weren't cynically designed by him to draw attention to all this!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hurrah! Mr Graham nicely explains what a constitution is

I have been patiently labouring away in the comments fields of Liberal Democrat Voice about the nature of a constitution versus the EU Reform Treaty.

It was therefore with a shower of relief and delight that I read James Graham making the same point with great authority and clarity:

But is Nick Clegg correct to insist that an in or out referendum is the closest we have to the promised referendum on the Constitutional Treaty? Abso-bloody-lutely.

Because the whole point of the Constitutional Treaty was that it was a “delete all, replace with” process. It was a Year Zero approach to reforming the EU. Lisbon, at the insistence of the Euro-sceptics, is not; it is an amending treaty. That being the case, the EU’s constitution is the body of treaties going all the way back to Rome. If you want a referendum on the EU’s constitution, you have to have a referendum about that.

Hurrah! Yippee!

Hain resigns

Dear dear dear. It got to him in the end. How the mighty have fallen. The final straw seemed to be the Electoral Commission referring his case to the police.

The Sun: "Cameron's a right plonker"

David Cameron seemed to try to copy Vince Cable's sense of humour (a la "Stalin to Mr Bean") yesterday with this comment:

It’s like a used car salesman who won’t tell you the price, won’t tell you the mileage, won’t give you a warranty. You’ve gone from prudence to Del Boy.

Not very funny. But the Sun have given Cameron their full treatment ("Cameron's a right plonker" and photo montage) because, as Labour MPs pointed out, Delboy never sold cars.

Washing Ken's dirty linen

It was extraordinary to have the prime 15 minutes of Today turned over exclusively to examining Ken Livingstone's dirty laundry. You can listen to it here.

In fairness, I thought Ken did pretty well, particularly in avoiding sounding defensive - which is the mistake made by many politicians.

We did however, appear to be entering the realms of a novella when discussing the trip to Nigeria made by Lee Jasper's business manager:

"Did Lee Jasper know about this trip?" ask James Naughtie.

"Oh, I broke the news to him. I saw his face. He was devastated." - said Ken.

Yeah. Yeah.

Our hilarious Home Secretary

On Today this morning, Carolyn Quinn put to Jacqui Smith that the legislation for 42 days detention without charge was to cover "hypothetical" situations. "No", said the Home Secretary.

When Smith outlined some examples, Quinn persisted and said: "But these are hypothetical situations"

The Home Secretary's retort was priceless:

"But they won't be hypothetical if and when they happen".


You could say that about any hypothetical situation, for example:

Minister: We have to legislate in case the Earth turns into green cheese.

Interviewer: But that's a hypothetical situation.

Minister: But it won't be hypothetical if and when it happens.

Warf! Warf!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The great success of the newspaper for kids

When "First News" was launched, Philip Hensher in the Independent described it as a "sickening...smug-sounding publication".

You'll recall that "First News" is the newspaper for children launched by Piers Morgan in May 2006. Well, I can confirm that, in its 88th edition, it is going down really well with one 10 year old who I know well. I have now given up trying to read the Guardian over our Saturday "Big Breakfast" after swimming. My offspring was excitedly telling me what she was reading in "First News" - a sort of running commentary for 30 minutes.

So now I just sit there and listen to the enthusiastic reports of the articles in "First News".

The paper presents the news for kids in a highly attractive and accessible format. It really is a rip-roaring success and Philip Hensher was obviously wrong.

Top stories from this week's issue are "Poo Power - Cow dung to provide green energy for a village", "More help help for runaway kids" and "Flood chaos in Mozambique".

It is brilliant to have a organ which encourages kids to read a newspaper from an early age.

BREAKING NEWS: LibDems want a referendum on the EU constitution!

Yes it's true! We have not broken any promises - we promised a referendum on the EU constitution. We still want a referendum on the full constitution of the EU as constituted from the various treaties since the Treaty of Rome - ie. an “in or out” referendum - which is a much, much wider matter for referendum than the very narrow amending treaty - the EU Reform treaty.

There is a principled reason to ask for a referendum on the EU as a whole as it is constituted and to reject a spurious referendum purporting to be one on EU membership but in actual fact being on a series of amendments.

Many thanks indeed to MatGB on Liberal Democrat Voice for pointing out that, after flailing away writing hundreds of words on this subject, I may possibly, just conceivably, have stumbled upon a reasonably persuasive few sentences at long last.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

EU Reform treaty: Death by tumble dryer

I now know how a cat feels trapped inside a washing machine when the tumble dry cycle goes onto overdrive.

It's like being trapped in the EU Reform Treaty debate.

Round and round it goes, and where it stops....we all heave a sigh of relief.

Fortunately, since the last fast spin cycle of this debate, I've managed to clarify my thinking - helped, largely, by Messrs Clegg and Huhne (yes, in the leadership debate they beautifully clarified our position on this).

Stephen Tall. Lovely man. Such precise prose. A man of impeccable judgment and balance.

But he is in severe need of a stiff whisky.

He writes:

I do not like to see banner headlines on the BBC News Politics website proclaiming: Lib Dems oppose referendum vote.

Well first of all, there is a technical term in the journalism profession for such headlines. It rhymes with "rowlocks" (pronounced: rollocks).

We oppose a referendum on an egg-cup, but we want a referendum instead on the swimming pool which contains the egg-cup. So the BBC headline writer chooses the egg-cup without reference to the swimming pool. Well done BBC!

We all don't like those sorts of headlines, Stephen. I didn't like "Jeremy Thorpe on trial" but with the 9 million negative headlines for the LibDems since then, 8 million of them unjustified [rhymes with rowlocks], I have learnt to live with it.

I prescribe three fingers of Glenfarclas 105 (if you like something with a bit of a bite) or a few drams of Laphroaig (if you like something a bit mellower with a peaty taste).

Whatever your/our poison, Stephen, and others who might be tempted to have the jitters also, we need to take it and stand fast. Don't panic Mr Mainwaring.

But Stephen is always fair, so I'll be fair to him. The main thrust of his post was quoting an excellent speech from Ed Davey, so good on you, Stephen.

So, back to the tumble drier. You know the routine: "We promised a constitution...the Daily Nonsense and the House of Commons Terminal-Numptyism sub-committee says its 95% the same...we demand a constitution...inalienable rights of the British people......hang on a minute...a constitution actually sets things up from scratch...this is a reforming or amending doesn't set things up...the Lisbon thingey intended to scrub the decks and start again...a proper constitution...but that was abandoned...this is just a list of amendments....we need to be honest with people and offer them a proper referendum on EU membership - all the treaties to vote on....Ah! But you promised a referendum on the constitution....."

Brrr. Wizzzzzz. Meeow.

The comments to Stephen's piece have been taken over by a Tory/UKIndy gang-bang team, rather like a Chippendale table being infested with woodworm.

But one of the most ludicrous arguments was repeated by Timberwolf:

We should have said ‘Yes, we will vote for a referendum on the Treaty, but even better, let’s have a referendum on staying in the European Union’.

That would have put the Tories in a difficult position.

Oh, I see: Play short-term politics with the long term future of this country and the European Union?

That suggestion throws into sharp relief the fact that the Liberal Democrat party’s stance is strong and principled rather than cowardly and short termist - which voting for the EU treaty Reform to put the Tories on the spot, or bash Gordon Brown, or get us off the hook of an unfortunate headline or twain, would be.

Politics, even in opposition, occasionally requires a spot of principled hard ball. Well done Nick Clegg and the parliamentary team for sticking to our principles! People in the country will understand this. They will not forgive the alternative of cynical short-termism.

Without a clear tradition or adopted policy of regular referendums in this country, having a referendum, out of the blue, on the EU Reform Treaty would be an utter farce, which could send this country down a five year cul-de-sac of untold and unnecessary constitutional upheaval in the middle, possibly, of a recession.

It would be disgraceful if we have anything to do with letting that happen.

Cheeky Girls "vetoed" from performing at LibDem black-tie event

The Telegraph Spy says that the Cheeky Girls were "vetoed" by LibDem HQ from appearing at a party black-tie event, for fear of 'offending female MPs'.

Whatever the real story is, the Cheeky Girls should have been vetoed on the grounds of being relatively talentless one hit wonders whose act is based on a feintly ludicrous initial idea. "We are the Cheeky Girls" raised the odd titter. But to imagine this can be stretched out to sustain a career is laughable. Their sort of "Carry On" nonsense is well past its sell-by date.

"The girls offered their services for free". I bet they did. They are so desperate to get work. It would have been worth about £20,000 in free publicity for them.

Lib Dem veto

Liberal Democrats attending the party's recent black tie ball were deprived of a special treat: a private performance by the Cheeky Girls, one of whom - should you have missed the past 50 issues of Hello! - is dating Lib Dem housing spokesman Lembit Opik.

Gabriela Irimia and her sister were apparently shunned by the party hierarchy. "The girls offered their services for free," reports Liberator, which is read by "liberal radicals" in the party. "

But organisers then found this vetoed by [Lib Dem HQ] Cowley Street on the grounds that female MPs would be offended."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Vince Cable - the city traders' enemy

Thanks to a commenter called DavidA, on my previous post about Northern Rock, for this link to a site where city traders share tips and chat.

The link is to where the traders were chatting during the House of Commons discussion of Northern Rock this afternoon.

In summary, they liked Darling's speech very much because it sent the Northern Rock share price soaring as he spoke. They were all licking their lips at making a killing. (In fact I think some of them were "typing one handed" because they were making a killing as they chatted!) And then they wanted Vince Cable to shut up - badly.

It is spine-chilling to read their greedy remarks when you consider we are talking about vast amounts of taxpayers' being put on the line here.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that Alastair Darling is the city traders' friend, while Vince Cable is the City trader's enemy and the taxpayer's friend.

Here are some of the remarks from the traders:

Paranoia Blue wrote:

All being told, I thought that was a pretty good all-round performance [except VC, of course] Let’s hope for a few more companies entering the fray – to punt this price up some more!

BigFoot001 wrote:

I wish VC would sit down and shut his mouth. anybody would think he has a vested interest to help someone to buy NRK on the cheap. all he keeps harping on about is to drive the price down. to no avail today.......... good!!!
now the sea of blue and @ 94.00

As Darling was talking, Whizzy wrote:

As he's speaking.its going up. Someone tell him to keep talking for the next hour lol.

Vince Cable - the people's hero

Many thanks indeed to Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice for highlighting Vince Cable's Commons speech on Northern Rock this afternoon. It is priceless. A devastating and hilarious critique of the government. It should be framed. I make no apologies for repeating it:
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I congratulate the Chancellor on brilliant originality. The Government, through their bond guarantees, are solemnly undertaking to repay the Government. The taxpayer is standing behind the taxpayer and we have a private sector solution without private money as well as nationalisation of liabilities and losses and privatisation of profits. It requires a special sort of genius to dream up such an idea and I hope that the Government’s financial advisers have been well rewarded.

I am tempted to recall the Danish economist, Hans Christian Andersen, who told the story of the two conmen who visited a particularly credulous king to sell him an imaginary suit of gold to cover his nakedness. We have a naked King Gordon, desperately trying to cover his embarrassment over the “n” word “nationalisation”.

It was said this morning in the City that the financial value in the insurance markets of the guarantee of the bonds was £2 billion. Since the private buyers are not providing that money, where will it come from? Are we talking about a guarantee of a guarantee? How else will it be funded?

The Chancellor said that there would be a profit-sharing arrangement between taxpayers and the private owner, but no numbers were given. Is it true, as the Financial Times reported this morning, that the proposal is likely to be for a 5 to 10 per cent. Government equity stake, with 95 to 90 per cent. of the uplift going to the private owner? If the proposal is of that order of magnitude, what is the position, if there is to be profit sharing, of the Northern Rock Foundation? The Chancellor mentioned it in the context not of profit sharing but of nationalisation.

Since we have heard from the north-east of England, the Chancellor will know that the Treasury’s private sale document made not a single, solitary reference to jobs or the future of the region, so what is its role under the proposals?

This morning, the BBC’s political correspondent described Mr. Branson as the “cat what got the cream”. I do not know what that is, but Mr. Branson appears to be the Government’s preferred bidder. Can the Chancellor tell us what Mr. Branson is going to contribute? My understanding is that he is proposing to put in £250 million in kind, not cash, to acquire a bank worth £100 billion, or 40 times that value. He has never run a bank, and I believe that the profits will be routed through a Caribbean tax haven, so what benefit does the taxpayer derive from his participation?

Finally, as the Conservative spokesman has already noted, Northern Rock shares have soared, while the British and other international stock markets have fallen. The only cheerful faces this morning were those of the two equity fund investors who made a speculative punt on Northern Rock a few months ago and have now recouped their investment. Meanwhile, the taxpayer is being taken for a very big ride. That will continue until the Government adopt the honest, transparent solution of taking the bank into public ownership.

The man who will play Bush in the movie

This is Josh Brolin, who will play Bush in Bush:The Movie (or whatever it is eventually called - suggestions?)

Oliver Stone is audaciously planning to make a film of George W Bush's life and release it on the same day that Bush leaves office.

His previous Presidential films (JFK, Nixon) have been released well after their subject left office and died. So he's obviously planning something substantial.

I can hardly wait. Let's just say that he has a broad canvass to work with !

I particularly look forward to the portrayal of the Fratboy years, the incident where Bush choked on a pretzel leaving his dogs in charge of the nuclear deterrent and, of course, the Alabama Years, when Bush went AWOL from his national service (in turn to avoid Vietnam service) by working for some obscure Senate campaign in Alabama. It's all going to be fascinating.

The government's £1 billion gift to Richard Branson ?

Alastair Darling's appearance on PM today was remarkable.

Despite being asked several times by Eddie Mair he could or would not answer these questions:

1. Is there a cap on the taxpayers' liability? (the answer was no, one assumes, as Darling wouldn't give a straight "yes")

2. On what date will the taxpayers' liability for Northern Rock end? (despite being asked several times from Mair, who was going into Paxo mode on this one ("What's the date?" x 3), no date was forthcoming from Darling).

3. Can you say that the taxpayers' money is safe and secure? (Can he 'eck as like)

Basically, the taxpayer is being abused. Public money is being used to underwrite the risk of a private purchase of Northern Rock. There are no guarantees that taxpayers' money will not be wasted or lost. Dickie Branson must be laughing himself silly. He's laughing all the way to his Virgin Bank. All the risk is with the taxpayer. Virgin have the remarkable opportunity to make profit without risk.

The BBC's Robert Peston says that the proposal means that the taxpayer will support the bank with £25 billion and could still have a financial obligation to the bank five years from now. Peston describes the scale of the government package as "breathtakingly large and without precedent". Peston says that the "guarantee would be the equivalent of a one-off injection into the Rock of more than £1 billion, a subsidy of that amount".

All this is because the government has decided that safeguarding taxpayers' money is not the first priority. Their first priority is to avoid what they, wrongly, regard as the humiliation of "nationalisation" of a bank. Brown wants to save face and avoid being compared with the old Labour nationalisation guard by the likes of the Daily Mail. He is prepared to seel taxpayers down the river in order to save face. It is scandalous.

I'm delighted that Vince Cable unravelled all the double-talk from the government and simplified the situation with his usual economist's authority:

The reality is the Government has ingeniously come up with a private sector sale that doesn’t involve any private sector money.

“In order to save face Brown has decided that losses of Northern Rock should be nationalised, but that profits should be privatised.

“Taxpayers now face years of underwriting Northern Rock, giving the opportunity for a private bidder to make an absolute killing - this is of course assuming that the EU decides that the Government position of guarantor is even legal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Tories helped kill Gary Newlove"

There is nothing more certain to drive me up the wall than the writings or the image of Peter Hitchens.

I am the first one to put the boot into the Tories, but in his Mail on Sunday today he appears to have finally flipped his lid under the title "The Tories helped kill Gary Newlove":

They had helped pass the laws that stopped police policing and judges judging. They killed Garry Newlove, in my view, as surely as the morons who actually did the kicking.

Typically, Hitchens makes a wistful reference to dictatorships:

At least in dictatorships the scum are scared of the police, whereas here it's the other way round.

Let things carry on like this much longer, and millions will be longing for a dictatorship if it at least means they can get some peace in their homes. This is a genuine danger.

They should keep a strait-jacket near Peter Hitchens at all times. For that matter, keep two - one for his brother as well (albeit in America).

I'd love to know where Peter Hitchens lives. It's surely not the kind of place which he describes as commonplace in Britain today:

After a week or two of public breast-beating, we will begin to forget about it, and the people who are in charge of this country will carry on turning it into Hell.

Hell tends to appear in the midst of societies which don't believe that Hell exists. The fate of ever-expanding numbers of people, trapped in their own homes at nightfall as the whooping, loping ferals come out and play, is Hell.

It is a life of fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, torture, loss and danger - with no prospect of help coming, ever.

You can't blame one tragic crime on a political party. It's nuts.

Let's all calm down a bit, shall we?

The coppers getting in on Nick Robinson's act

This is a little mystery which has excited the interest of Terry Wogan and his listeners. Why is there always a flurry of constabulary activity behind Nick Robinson when he reports from outside Number Ten Downing Street ? Is it all choreographed ? - our Tell wants to know.

It turns out that the police tend to"ham up" their shift changes so they can get on the telly:

One of those who guards that famous black door tells me that there is a shift change at about that time but, he confessed, some of his colleagues make an effort to get into the shot. They are rewarded by calls on their radios and mobiles from those watching in the duty room. Not long ago, Gordon Brown's televised handshake with a visiting dignitary was interrupted by a melodic ring- tone. When there was no answer, a voice came across the radio saying: 'Here, mate, you're on the telly.'

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bloomberg - a question of "when" rather than "if"?

AP report that Michael Bloomberg has met with Clay Mulford, who is a "ballot access expert and campaign manager for H. Ross Perot's third-party presidential bid."

He's also had a photo-op with Arnie.

Bloomberg couldn't be clearer in denying he is running for President:

"I just said I'm not a candidate — it couldn't be clearer," he said. "Which of the words do you not understand? People have urged me to do it, but I'm not a candidate."

Despite his public denials, Bloomberg has been consulting with people such as Mulford and is conducting an analysis of voter data in all 50 states to better understand his chances as a third-party candidate. Aides have said he would delay a decision until after the major parties produce clear front-runners.

The Guardian reports that Bloomberg will not oppose McCain or Obama, and that his stash of cash would completely skew the whole contest - being particularly damaging to the Democrats (thanks to James Schneider for correcting my last post on this subject - I had not fully caught up with the strange world of US politics where you can be a lifelong Democrat, then become a Republican to get elected Mayor then dump them when you feel like it).

Now Iain Dale gives Nick Clegg a B+

There's some sort of conspiracy going on, that's for sure ;-)

Protests and statues must stay in Parliament Square

It is heartening to read that Parliament Square is going to have most of its traffic moved out, to allow people to walk round it.

I do hope they leave the statues there, as that seems the main reason to walk around it (as I did, braving the traffic, last November). Apparently, the initial design removes the statues to make the square "uncluttered". But this would be a disaster.

It is vital that the square still facilitates protests, such as those led by Brian Haw.

I would also think that the retention of a fair amount of grass is desirable. Design architects seem to get carried away with paving if you let them.

Vera Duckworth bows out


Yeo Blair!


Jonathan Yeo's portrait of Tony Blair is stunning. He may have perhaps overdone the "grayscaling" of Blair's suit, shirt and tie in order to show the piquant scarlet of Blair's poppy. But the face is remarkable well painted and, of course, the poppy makes the main point about Blair.

In fifty years time, people will walk past it and ask "Why does the poppy stand out so much?"

It is a work of genius.

Conservative Home pass favourable verdict on Nick Clegg's first month

Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home reflects positively about Nick Clegg's first month as leader:

Team Clegg: His top team is a strong one. Not as strong as ours (!) but stronger than Brown's. Vince Cable at the Treasury continues to win considerable publicity on Northern Rock - more than George Osborne. Home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne was assured on BBC1's Question Time last night (on which Louise Bagshawe did very well). And Ed Davey will be a safe pair of hands at Foreign affairs.

PMQs: He's done okay at PMQs - choosing safe topics - neither making a big impression but neither flopping in the ways that so damaged Ming.

Policy direction: Last week's speech on the public services (watch highlights here) - Clegg's first big speech as leader - was well received by some conservative commentators, including Matthew d'Ancona. MdA described the speech as "impressive" and "robust"; "this was Clegg back to his formidable best". Clegg has also promised to look at Britain's Constitution and attacked Cameron's support for marriage.

Isn't it great to have a leader you agree with so often ?

Following my post about the Bishop of Rochester's remarks about "'no-go' areas" in Britain, I found the following comments from Nick Clegg on the subject. It is reassuring that I find that I agree with Nick wholeheartedly on this one, particularly on the subject of the "call to prayer":

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg - who recently declared that he does not believe in God - strongly rebutted Bishop Nazir-Ali's claims.

Mr Clegg told Sky News' Sunday Live programme: "I strongly disagree with him. I don't think he has produced any evidence that there really are no-go areas - that is an extraordinarily inflammatory way of putting it."

He added: "I know our cities quite well and I don't think you can describe them reasonably as no-go areas for non-Muslims. That's what he is suggesting - he is suggesting the country is being carved up geographically according to religious identity.

"That's not to say that there is not a legitimate debate to be had within our Muslim communities about the identity of modern Islam in modern Britain. Clearly, there is a legitimate debate to be had there, because of the rise of extremism, particularly for young men in these communities.

"There is a legitimate debate to be had about the meaning of multiculturalism.

"But to suggest that somehow non-Muslims are not able to enter into a particular area seems to me to be a gross caricature of reality."

Mr Clegg said that the Muslim call to prayer was no different to the Christian practice of ringing church bells before services.

"The idea that a centre of worship, for whatever religion, advertises through chants or through bells that it is a time for prayer is a long-established tradition in world religions, which I think is a good thing and often a joyful thing," he said.

Update: Jock Coats writes hilariously about the actual situation regarding the "call to prayer amplification request".

Ta-ra chuck

It's very sad to see the departure of Vera Duckworth (played by Liz Dawn). There's a description of last night's episode here. It was co-written by Lucy Gannon, who has also written "Peak Practice" and "Soldier, Soldier".

It is uncanny how Coronation Street, over the years has captured the soul of relationships. They did it with Hilda and Stan Ogden. They have also done it unerringly with Vera and Jack Duckworth. Their relationship is perhaps summed up by some highlights from the last double episode:

Vera told Jack she'd never loved anyone except him, and he, in his gruff way and with a bit of prompting from Vee, said he'd never loved anyone except her, and he'd go and fetch her slippers.

...."Fifty years and never a cross word?" a paramedic asked Jack... "Nothing but, son," he replied.

The latter line comes from an appreciation by Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian.

Final update: Blog reaction to Nick Clegg's speech on public services

UPDATE 19th January: This is now a complete round-up of media and blog reaction to Nick Clegg's speech on public services at the Manifesto Conference on January 12th.

In all, there are 14 media stories and 59 blog posts listed below.

In this update, I've added 8 more blog posts and 1 media story in bold at the bottom of the lists. This is the last update, but please let me know if I have missed anyone's post on this subject and I will sneak it in.

UPDATE 15th January: There's 14 more blog postings added to the bottom of the list in bold. Many are fascinating.

UPDATE 14th January: That Times piece on their Comment Central strand is just one of the updates below in bold in my list of blog (16 new posts) and media (2 new items) reaction to Nick's public services speech last Saturday.

UPDATE 13th January: The Sunday Telegraph covers Nick's speech yesterday with an article entitled: Nick Clegg shifts to the right". (That's inaccurate in my view - what he is proposing is historically "liberal"). This now joins my list of links to web stories and blogs about the speech - below.

Here is a fully updated round-up of media, website and blog reaction to Nick Clegg's speech this morning, so far. Other commitments allowing, I hope to update this with Sunday paper coverage later.

It's all great reaction (including one Tory who is obviously jealous) and it is abundantly clear that Nicolas William Peter Clegg has completed a very good day's work and deserves a large portion of whatever takes his fancy tonight (a tipple or a slice of premium Victoria Sponge perhaps - I don't know).

He has clearly set out a distinctive, intellectually attractive Liberal alternative for Britain's public services. It is one of the most sharply drawn pieces of political agenda-setting which we have seen for many years.

Well done Nick!

LibDems want parent-run schools - BBC

Clegg to call for smaller state in first major speech - Independent

Clegg in call to scrap low grades - Press Association

Clegg backs "diversity and choice" - ePolitix

State must back off, says Clegg - BBC

Clegg calls for radical grassroots innovation in public services -

Clegg steps up - Spectator

Clegg makes first keynote speech - Channel 4 News

Clegg wants Whitehall downsize - IntheNews

Clegg eyes schools shake-up -

Nick Clegg shifts to right - Sunday Telegraph

Clegg's Orange revolution - Nick Assinder on BBC News Online

LibDems back private sector's NHS role - Health insurance and protection magazine

Lib Dem leader outlines plans for health service - Health Service Journal

And in the Blogs:

Nick Clegg - Sounding like the Tories only better - Norfolk Blogger

Nick Clegg reannounces Tory policy - WestBrom Blogger

Clegg should take inspiration from Summerhill School - Jo's Jottings

The Clegg era starts here - Quaequam Blog! (Gold star!)

Orange Book was right says Clegg - Andy Mayer

Nick Clegg's speech on the reform of public services
- Liberal England

My: Nick Clegg's clear and compelling speech on public services

Nick Clegg on public services - Anders Hanson

Will Nick Clegg tip the balance in British politics? - DaFink on Times Central

Nick Clegg finds his voice - Cicero's Songs

More on Nick Clegg and Free schools - Liberal England

LibDem civil war warning
(yeah, yeah) - Man in a shed

Does England really need three Conservative parties - Brothers Judd blog

The Orange Book delusion - Quaequam Blog!

LibDems move right - Though Cowards Flinch

LibDem localism v Tory localism - The Real Blog - David Boyle

Clegg: Conviction or plagiarism ? - Iain Dale's Diary

Telegraph has it both ways - Alex Foster on Liberal Democrat Voice

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg calls for radical grassroots innovation in public services - Simon Davis on 24 plus news - politics

It's just a jump to the left - Nevali

State must back-off, says Clegg
- Kevin Davis

Clegg makes first keynote speech - Tim McLoughlin

Making Disempowerment history ? - Charlie Mansell on the Campaign Company blog

Nick Clegg: doing well - Lunar Talks

I love the LibDems, but I couldn't elect a whole one - ASWAS

Clegg, Brown's Trojan horse - Newmania in Lewes

The role of the state - Though Cowards flinch

Clegg and the law of the meaningless opposite - Joshua Mostafa

It's accountability that counts - The Sound of Gunfire

Nick Clegg's speech - Wouldn't it scarier to discover....

How we can get that "good local school" everybody wants
- Liberal Polemic

How the LibDem leadership contest almost turned into a bloodbath - Liberal England

Clegg calls for grade changes - Adfero on behalf of the NUT

Imitation etc.... - Ed Vaizey

Opinion: Essence of Cleggism
- John Pugh on Liberal Democrat Voice

New Lib Dem Leader sets out his vision for public services - Tim Ball

Free schools: the sequel - Freethink

Podcast - Realpolitik 10

Free schools and the school leaving age - Liberal England

The Education speech that Nick Clegg should have given - Democratic liberalism

The future's bright, the future's Orange - The Dissenter's Voice / Charles Anglin

Tuesday 15th January 2008 - birkdale focus

Day 2567 - A Society Willing to Take Risks - The very fluffy diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant

Choice is a good thing, isn't it? - Liberal Bureaucracy (Nearly missed this one because it doesn't mention "Nick Clegg" - which is what I have been searching on!)

Gareth Epps reviews manifesto conference - Liberal Democrat Voice