Monthly Archives: June 2008

Slow to wrath on Spelman

Nearly two hours back, after a previous and pointed trailer on the regular e-mail prospectus for Newsnight, the BBC web-site posted Michael Crick’s up-date on the Spelman affair, a.k.a. “Nannygate”.

Those ever-present scourges of all Socialist evil have so far reacted accordingly:

Politicshome got it, merely by posting a link to the BBC site.

By their deeds shall we know them.

Crick’s update helps us in all kinds of ways:

The original complaint arrived circuitously to the Tory Chief Whip from Spelman’s (real) Parliamentary secretary:

Mrs Spelman was “shopped” by her secretary Sally Hammond, who complained to the Conservative Party leadership that she was using Parliamentary allowances to pay her nanny.
Mrs Hammond could not understand why the MP had so little money available for office expenditure.

That complaint went, first, to Peter Ainsworth:

then, as now, a member of the Conservative shadow cabinet, and for whom Mrs Hammond had once worked.
He referred the case to the then chief whip, James Arbuthnot, who was worried by what he was told, and told Mrs Spelman to stop paying her nanny from Parliamentary money at once.

In other words, Spelman was told quite rightly, and apparently quite forcefully:

to stop paying her nanny via this method.

Then we have:

shadow security minister Baroness Neville-Jones [who] said [to BBC1 Question Time] she was “quite certain that Caroline has made it very clear that if she has contravened the rules, that she will do the right thing”.

The money paid to Ms Spelman’s nanny was “quite a small amount”, the peer told BBC One’s Question Time.

Except that:

Another of Mrs Spelman’s previous Westminster secretaries was also unhappy that the nanny was being paid from public funds – which amounted to about £14,000 a year … or more than £25,000 over 22 months.

Twenty-five grand. “Quite a small amount”. Hmmm.

We also have what seems to be a blatant Spelman fib: that the Nannygate business was a fill-in while more suitable office arrangements were established.

This is the defensive line peddled assiduously by Spelman’s Tory apologists. They even have the gall to imply critics are nasty anti-feminist and oppressive misogynists. Here’s Iain Dale in full aggrieved hurt-mode:

The baying mob is once again in evidence. Its victim this time is Caroline Spelman. A more unlikely candidate for condemnation is difficult to think of. No one seriously believes Caroline Spelman is – or ever was – on the make.

… There was no constituency office. There was no secretary to deal with it. As a new MP she didn’t have an office until a couple of months after the election. So she did the best she could. But she was drowning. That’s not to plead sympathy for her, it is a statement of fact.

The Nanny in question, Ms Haynes, in a clearly doctored statement, said:

“During the period of 1997 to 1998, I had two roles; one helping Mrs Spelman with childcare and another providing secretarial help to her as an MP.”

Ahem! Except again:

The Nanny was employed in Kent. Spelman’s Parliamentary secretary was in Westminster, somewhat closer to Meriden, Spelman’s constituency, and (surely the smoking gun):

Mrs Spelman’s claim that there was no other constituency office was challenged, since documentation shows that her current constituency office over the border in Solihull has always been listed as her office in official directories.
Separately, Janet Parry told Newsnight that when she did a stint of work experience over the summer of 1997, administration work was already being handled by the Solihull office at 2 Manor Road in Solihull.

As of this posting, Spelman remains MP for Meriden and Chairman of the Conservative Party. Her web-page “is the responsibility of Caroline Spelman MP and is funded from the Incidental Expenses Provision”. The “Latest news” thereon seems to have been up-dated as recently as 29th February 2008.

The “Incidental Expenses Provision” is another of those little “extras” MPs require to serve us:

The Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP) can be used to meet the cost of: accommodation for office or surgery use; equipment and supplies for office or surgery; work commissioned or other services; and certain travel and communications.

In 2006/07 the maximum an MP could claim on IEP was £20,440 . In addition, that year, it cost Spelman £20,871 to run her Parliamentary office, plus £86,628 in staffing costs.

Moreover, according to They Work for You, Spelman has claimed for “Centrally Provided Computer Equipment” a total of £8,950 in the last six sessions.

In exchange, Spelman has:

Finally:

Spelman is, as she proudly says, “an Essex girl” and

she is against a scrutiny and inspection policy (at least for local government) because: “These now cost over a billion pounds a year and I can think of a billion ways to give taxpayers better value for money“.

Curiously,

Malcolm has just thought of

one better way of giving taxpayers

value for money.

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“Reviewing the situation”

They are at it again.

Here’s Julian Glover in today’s Guardian:

Gordon Brown faces a damning verdict from voters ahead of his first anniversary in power, according to a new Guardian/ICM poll. It suggests that his prime ministership has been a disappointment: 74% of those questioned say that he has been a change for the worse compared with Tony Blair, and only 24% think Labour has a chance of winning the next election while he remains leader.

In the aftermath of the London Mayoral election, Malcolm elsewhere meditated on Opinion Polls, in particular Peter Riddell trumpeting the Populus poll for the Times (7th May, 2008):

More than a half of Labour supporters believe that Gordon Brown should stand down to make way for a more electable alternative.

Today’s Populus poll for The Times — the first survey since last Thursday’s local elections — shows a dramatic collapse of confidence in Mr Brown’s leadership.

This marked the beginning of the Open Season on Gordon Brown, involving allegations of dead duckery, and so on.

Malcolm’s sage musing went something like this:

Fitte ye first:

The Polls, not excluding the famed YouGov Wot Won It for Boris, have been all over the place in recent months (and particularly so during the Mayorality campaign). As a result, one at least had to be within an unstated margin of error. As far as Malcolm recalled, Populus didn’t have a steady contract in the London Blutfest (and they only do it for the money, you know), so there’s no guarantee for their recent record.

Apart from that, as Malcolm’s dear old Dad would have said, “Ask a daft question, you deserve a daft answer.” Since the Times commissioned the Populus Polls, presumably the questions are tailored to fit a previous agenda. Now, do we need a clairvoyant to help us with what the Murdoch media line might be here?

Then Riddell could man the machine-gun and could blast away at pre-ordained targets. Example?—explain in simple terms what is meant in real money by:

Mr Brown’s leader rating (on a 0 to 10 scale) had dropped sharply from 4.50 to 4.08 in a month—well below the other leaders.

Dontcha just lurve them decimals? Us epsilon semi-morons are reely, reely impressed wiv um.

Now, let’s take Populus on its own figures:

Populus interviewed a random sample of 1,509 individuals

29% of the sample declared for Labour, so we are talking about 437.61 bods (don’t forget how vital those double-decimal points are!)

Of those 437.61 Labour voters, 55% think “Gordon Brown should step down”. So we have the considered views of 240.6855 Labour voters disaffected with their Leader. Malcolm would suggest, after half-a-century, man and boy, in and around the People’s Party, that’s a flattering outcome for any Leader. At any time, the Leader of a political party has to be capable of aquatic ambulation, while having one or both wings of his Party lobbing brickbats.

So, if (say) 10 changed their minds before the next survey, what would Mr Brown’s leader rating be? Come on, boy, you should able to do that in your head!

Fitte ye seconde:

As for these grand predictions of political doom, Malcolm remembers long-lost and long-buried exemplars of punditry. Start with Saturday, 10 October, 1959: the first leader of the Daily Telegraph was quelling the fears of the huddled masses of Tonbridge and Surbiton with the assurance that red revolution had been avoided. Labour was finished “for a generation.”

The Times was of a similar voice:

For neither Labour nor the Liberals can things be quite the same again. For both of them the 1959 general election has marked the end of an epoch. After three defeats in a row (and the 1950 result, although it kept them in office, was realy a fourth) Labour must at last be convinced that its present road has reached a dead end …

What now seems astonishing is how the runes were then misread: the number of women MPs fell (though one of the newly-elected was a certain Mrs M.H.Thatcher); the Ulster Unionists swept the board across Northern Ireland; and Harold Macmillan was hailed for his “personal triumph”.

Similar mistaken prophecies, probably using very similar phrasing, exist for the weekends of 2-3 April 1966, 13-14 June 1987, 3-4 May 1977, 9-10 June 2001 …

Of course, even journalists must hit the spot once in a while.

So, Malcolm’s prescription to over-wrought journos is:

  • take a stiff drink;
  • lie down in a darkened room, and
  • concentrate on re-arranging the following into a well-known saying:
  • long in a week politics a time is.

Fitte ye thirde:

In case this is regarded as the idle wind, which we respect not, Malcolm draws attention to the breeze from across the Atlantic:

Sen. Barack Obama and his surrogates continued to criticize Charles R. Black Jr., a top adviser to Sen. John McCain on Tuesday for saying a terrorist attack before the November election would help the presumptive Republican nominee. But behind their protests lay a question that has dogged Democrats since Sept. 11, 2001: Was Black speaking the truth?

Ah, yes: the great unspoken. Today’s Washington Post regards this as a major story, so under a header, the Terrorism Issue, it provides its number four lead-item of the day:

McCain Adviser May Have Struck a Nerve

Inevitably, the follow-up starts from Obama’s distaste (but, significantly, less than total rejection) of the the story. Then comes this:

McCain has distanced himself from Black’s comments, saying, “If he said that — and I don’t know the context — I strenuously disagree.”

But radio host Rush Limbaugh said aloud what other Republicans have been saying privately for months. Black’s comments were “obvious,” Limbaugh said yesterday on his program as he criticized McCain for distancing himself from them.

Sam Seaborn would, rightly, see this as “so bad in so many ways” were it dropped into his in-tray. Black is correct:

  • Anything that looks like a major terrorist attack plays to the Government (in both the UK and the US).
  • McCain looks naïf for failing to recognise that, and weak for a certain limp-wristedness for his denial.
  • The worst news is that the shock-jocks like Limbaugh can state just that.
  • If the US commentators cannot see as far as November 2008, it casts aspersions on the certainty of all their Brit equivalents of no major upheaval in the status quo until the long-delayed Election. That, of itself, explains the current edginess and shifting of ground.

Fitte ye fourthe:

Which is why today’s exchange at PMQs has an additional edge. Every Wednesday, as regu;lar as putting the bins out, comes the Tory crowing about PMQs, and the tail-wagging fawning on Cameron. Curiously, today, it seems somewhat subdued. There is, it seems, no frenetic blogging on Conservativehome. Even there there the issue hangs, as palpable as Macbeth’s dagger:

12.18pm: If you want to ask questions call an election, Cameron responds.  Brown says the Conservatives aren’t making the big decisions. He says Labour have made all the big decisions on nuclear power, airport expansion and housing.  David Cameron, he says, ducks all the big decisions.  You can get away without substance some of the time, but not all of the time.  The Conservatives are only offering opposition for opposition’s sake.

To reinforce that, the taster for tonight’s BBC2 Newsnight, under the name of Ian Lacey, includes:

It’s a year since Gordon Brown took office as prime minister. Since his brief honeymoon period there has been a series of PR disasters and crises: the election-that-wasn’t; inheritance tax policy; data records loss; Northern Rock and the credit crunch; and losses in the London Mayoral vote and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. The latest polling makes for disturbing reading for Mr Brown and Labour MPs.

Some commentators are suggesting that there is now nothing that the PM can do to turn around his and his government’s fortunes.

But if there was just one thing that Mr Brown could do to help restore his public standing, what would it be?

Even Riddell seems to be having doubts, and casting around for smaller-calibre weaponry:

Whenever Gordon Brown talks about long-term, global challenges, he is well informed, impressive and persuasive, the personification of hyperactive Davos man. He knows and talks to everyone who matters. His phone is always busy. Electoral politics, however, is short-term and local. With less than two years before polling day, Mr Brown does not have the time to be proved right in the long term.

This contrast also explains one of Mr Brown’s central weaknesses: his difficulty in translating his shrewd sense of global challenges into politically saleable policies. Something goes wrong in between. He is almost too aware of the pitfalls of any course of action, and overcautious, often producing confused policies. So even when Mr Brown is being bold, and thinking long term, it does not look that way. Paradoxically, his activity, even hyperactivity, can appear like action for its own sake, blurring his long-term message.

So, the combination of Brown’s pugnacity at PMQs, ConservativeHome’s tacit consent, BBC “whatiffery” and the Times‘s leading attack dog equally imply a shift in attitudes.

The game is not yet into end-play. The second trimester is always any Government’s least manageable. All in all, Malcolm feels a bit Micawberish (for whom — let it be remembered —  in Chapter 63, something did, indeed, “turn up” to assure a happy ending).

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A toast to Boris

Seen on the Northern Line, about 12.30 p.m., Tuesday 24th June, 2008:

Malcolm recognises a can of Stella when he sees one. He also learns it is known among the younger element as “wife-beater”.

In this case: ban-beater.

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Ferry cross the murky

Public Health warning:
Malcolm senses that this is a story which he will handle inadequately.

Good to see, then, Nevin Taggart still has the bit between his teeth, despite months of taking lumps out of the Paisley clan (mainly over their curious property connections and how their constituency offices are financed).

Nevin is a rank Unionist, of the most unreconstructed nature: he is also a decent and honourable man.

What follows is, at one level, a trivial matter. It is, however, sourly redolent of all that is going amiss in Northern Irish politics. There’s a lot of money (most of it straight out of the Westminster Exchequer) around, looking for pockets into which it can slosh.

Alongside that, there’s a traditional spoils-culture at work: what can be trousered for “our” side? “We” know that “themuns” are at it, so “we” demand our share. As part of this, the ministerial roles are carved up on party (i.e. denominational) lines. Sooner rather than later the great mass of tax-payers will wake to a real sickener of a major financial scandal.

Nevin, like many others, is currently taking a more than educated interest in the £4 million contract for the Rathlin ferry. New readers should know that much of that sum comes from the the Northern Ireland Department of Regional Development [DRD].

For time out of mind (well, the last dozen years) the ferry has been run by Caledonian MacBrayne. Now it is to be handed to a Mr O’Driscoll of the County Cork. The story ran in the Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph last week.

It has been a slow burner, with lots of smoke. It has lately been developing some heat, if little illumination.

The contract was awarded back in April, using the previous vessel, the 35-year-old MV Canna (in dry-dock, right). Any references to the Canna being a “roll-on, roll-off ferry” should be interpreted as “drive-on, reverse-off, sixth car left on the pier: pre-voyage breakfast not recommended”.

The change of operator was envisaged as 1st June. However, as the Newsletter discreetly put it, nearly three weeks beyond that date:

Co Cork businessman Ciaran O’Driscoll … is to use the same boat as CalMac, the MV Canna – leasing it from the owner, Caledonian Maritime Assets (CMA) – although a CMA spokesman said it had yet to sign a contract with Mr O’Driscoll…  despite DRD saying that it believed Mr O’Driscoll would take over the Rathlin route on June 1, he has still not done so… a CalMac executive said he was unable to provide an assurance that his company would continue to keep the ferry running beyond July 1 if Mr O’Driscoll missed that deadline.

Otherwise, CalMac, who have carried 50,000 passengers in the time of their contract, have bowed out gracefully:

CalMac Managing Director Lawrie Sinclair said: “Caledonian MacBrayne believes that through the service offered in recent years, which has seen significant growth, we have established a track record as a safe, reliable, and dependable ferry operator and we are grateful to the island community on Rathlin for their cooperation and assistance over the years.”

Mild-tempered indeed: some might see this as contrary to natural law, and spitting in the face of the Almighty, for (as the re-write of Psalm 24 famously has it):

The Earth belongs unto the Lord, and all that it contains,
Except for the Clyde and Western Isles, for they are all MacBrayne’s.

Now it starts to get political.

The Regional Development Minister for Northern Ireland, and so the main contracting party, is Conor Murphy, the Sinn Féin MLA for Newry and Armagh. Murphy originates from Newry, which is about as far away as one can get from the seething waters of Rathlin Sound, and still remain within the Six Counties.

One of the labour-saving joys of this new Stormont regime is that the political parties in NI now re-issue the Civil Service hand-outs verbatim under their own banners — when reporting their own ministerial achievements, of course. It saves the casual reader quantums of time and study. So, both the Ministry and SF trumpeted the gains from the new contract in stereophonic sound:

“This new contract will offer improved summer and winter timetables using a combination of the current roll-on/roll-off ferry and a new purpose built high speed catamaran capable of carrying 100 seated passengers. The new vessel will provide a comfortable, accessible, year round, service to the island with a reduced crossing time from 45 minutes to 20 minutes. The enhanced timetable will no doubt assist journeys made by the Islanders but will also help in promoting tourism.”

Now, Malcolm is a long way, in time and place, from when he phut-phutted out of Schull to Clear and Sherkin Islands. He remembers it involved a paraffin-driven engine which needed to be primed by long heating with a blow-lamp. Then the mail-boat operating out of Baltimore was run by Danny Leonard (as he dimly recalls). Soon after, the service had an O Drisceoil name at the helm of Naomh Ciarán, built in Arklow. It is presumptuous to assume that Ciarán O Drisceoil is of the same line (there are more O’Driscolls in West Cork than one dare shake a stick at), but seems a distinct possibility.

Malcolm’s first thought, then, is that the O’Driscolls have a long reach to stretch from West Cork to Rathlin. On another level, the connection is less outrageous. Sherkin and Clear Islands have, together, a population of (Malcolm guesses) a good couple of hundred permanent residents. And, yes, there is a substantial summer trade. Rathlin has a permanent population of far less: some 75 at the last census. The DRD says of the ferry:

The Rathlin Ferry Service is a ‘lifeline’ ferry link between Rathlin Island, which is Northern Ireland’s only, inhabited offshore island, and the mainland.  Rathlin Island is located 6 miles from Ballycastle, off the northeast Antrim coast, and has a resident population of around 80 people. However, during the summer period the resident population rises to around 150.  The ferry service is the only public means available to access and egress the Island.

Historically, a ferry service between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle was provided by the islanders themselves using converted fishing boats. In 1991, the two existing ferry operators on Rathlin Island approached the then Department of the Environment to seek some form of subsidy as they were experiencing financial difficulties. The Department recognised that action would have to be taken to improve the ferry service in order to halt the decline in Rathlin’s population, to encourage tourism and improve economic prospects.

A “life-line” service … “to halt the decline in Rathlin’s population, to encourage tourism and improve economic prospects”?

Which requires a “new purpose built high speed catamaran capable of carrying 100 seated passengers”?

The questions start to pile up as soon as one considers the issue.

All credit then to Nevin for snuffling around and casting a light into some very pokey corners.

Anyone intrigued by this saga (which, apart from curious use of public money, also involves a here-today, gone-tomorrow approach to trade union membership, and implications for public safety) should immediately redirect to the sequence of Nevin’s excellent three posts at:

And we haven’t reached closure yet.

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Vain, ridiculous and thrasonical

The headline is from Love’s Labours Lost, V.i.13: the word “thrasonical” is used again by Shakespeare in As You Like It, V.ii.34. Not many people know that.

All those words that seem to have slipped out of currency — like that “thrasonical”, or “vainglorious” — are epitomised in the personality and actions of the Rt Hon David Michael Davis. It may be that he has a lot to be arrogant about, but arrogance accompanies him as the “great smell of Brut” pervades a cheap gymnasium.

Yet, as Michael White is suggesting in the Guardian, he has attracted a significant following in British Bloggerdom:

David Cameron’s whips are so cross that they only half-joked about delaying the contest until November, to teach Davis a lesson for what they still regard as a reckless, egotistical stunt. That is the overwhelming Westminster verdict (“attention-seeking,” says one shrewd Labour judge of character), not shared by bloggers, letter writers and activists in all parties who proclaim him a hero.

This is a piece that, typical of White’s polished style, is neatly topped and tailed with the brutal and unspoken truth of modern British political life: living with the near-certainty of unannounced imminent atrocity. Take just the opening and closing sentence of White’s piece together, and one has this:

But what if there’s a bomb in the London Underground before [Davis’s] byelection? … What [Davis] needs is luck.

Ouch.

The truth is that Davis’s bubble reputation, among a certain cyberspatial underclass, stems from the fawning admiration of the likes of Iain Dale (who was Davis’s major domo in the disaster of the Tory Leadership campaign) and Paul Staines, the all-purpose attack-dog and general smear-merchant.

In many ways, it is very much in the interest of the Government, pursuing its 42-days detention policy, to have Davis continuing what would otherwise be settled Commons policy. On one level Davis (along with the Conservative Party line, and indeed the LibDems as well) is faced with having to explain why 42 days is so wrong, if 28 days is “acceptable” even to Chris Huhne:

I am very happy with a period of 28 days. We should stick with that period because that is what we voted for…

At another level, the whole point of 42 days is that it relates specifically to the most serious, the most heinous offences imaginable. As Jackie Smith asked:

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that one of our amendments would limit the use of an extended period of pre-charge detention to the most serious terrorist offences, which would carry a life sentence for those found guilty?

We need to remember here, as always, how fragile the Tory line on 42 days has been, and remains. There is a not-inconsiderable number of Tory MPs who would settle for 90 days. We have heard rumblings that Osborne and Michael Gove tried to dissuade Davis from opposing 42 days. The Politicshome panel reckons on 37% of Tory MPs actually favouring 42 days, despite being whipped into opposing the measure. Tim Montgomery’s Conservativehome weblog warned that opposing 42 days was misguided. CentreRight was as consistent. The bell-wethers of Rightist opinion — Norman Tebbit, Melanie Phillips — also favour of 42 days.

Against these views stands Davis:

Alexander: They say he is a very man per se,
And stands alone.
Cressida: So do all men, unless they are drunk sick, or have no legs.
[Troilus and Cressida; I.ii.15]

__________________________________________________________________

Malcolm made a comment on Slugger O’Toole about the DUP backing 42 days. Mick Fealty’s Brassneck column for the Telegraph now recycles that to close a brief blog discussion:

A clean liberal conscience is a nice warming feeling; but for once the tabloid press, and the general public mood have it right. The right of my wife and family, and millions like us, safely to use the London underground and British airports is superior to the rights of a few individuals to exploit present law.

The DUP, despite the last minute theatricals, were doing the proper thing, in policy as well as short-term advantage. The Opposition Tories were, and are playing partisan politics: but don’t worry—in a similar situation the Tory Whips will be prepared to pay the Ulster pipers in even-more devalued currency. Politics is a grubby business.

Malcolm stands by that.

  • It isn’t fear (but Malcolm’s lady came home on 10th September 1973, with whiplash injury from the IRA bomb at Euston Station).
  • It isn’t illiberal bloody-mindedness (but Malcolm’s eldest daughter was at Hoboken station, trying to reach the World Trade Centre for 9 a.m. on 9/11).

It’s what Michael White’s piece was all about: calculating the luck.

For those who have forgotten, it was the morning after 12th October 1984. Five were dead and several dozen had to be dug out of the ruins of Patrick Magee’s bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel. The IRA announced:

Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.

Malcolm started with Shakespeare on vain boasting. Let him end there, with Parolles in All’s Well; IV.iii.370:

Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this, for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.

This post also appears on Malcolm Redfellow’s World Service.

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Democracy 101

Why Kelvin MacKenzie will not stand in a hypothetical Haltemprice and Howden by-election:

[Andrew] Neil said Murdoch was reluctant to go into battle against the Conservative party.

“He doesn’t want to pick a fight with the Tories. We now know they are going to be the next government and he knows that and he wants to be on the winning side,” he added.

Gosh, isn’t it fine and dandy that these talking heads save us the trouble and expense of a General Election?

And that the BBC continue to keep such impartial commentators in the style to which they have become accustomed?

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The skewering of D. Davis.

What if they held a by-election … and nobody came?

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