Monthly Archives: June 2010

Self condemned?

Every Prime Minister has a defining utterance that sticks and stinks like dung.

The Sun wot done it for Jim

Jim Callaghan was doomed by something he never actually said.

On January 10th, 1979, he arrived back from a conference in Guadeloupe in the middle of a strike by lorry-drivers. He was asked by an Evening Standard reporter about the “mounting chaos” in the country. Callaghan rersponded:

Well, that’s a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you’re taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.

That gave The Sun its headline next day:

Crisis? What crisis?
Rail, lorry, jobs chaos—and Jim blames press

Women’s Owning up

Margaret Thatcher’s defining moment came in an interview of 23 September, 1987, given to Women’s Own (and published on 31 October). She started from little more than the Kennedy keynote (which itself may derive from Rousseau) of  “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This soon degenerated into her typical ungrammatical, gushing rant.

… no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation …

If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Again, the expression has to be ripped from its context to become truly grotesque.

A minor Major moment

Two isolated phrases came to doom the John Major government. It was Norman Lamont, the Chancellor who perpetrated the first one in 1992:

If higher unemployment is the price we have to pay in order to bring inflation down, then it is a price worth paying.

That was quickly conflated in the general consciousness with Major’s own gloss (possibly borrowed from a passing PE teacher or a Jane Fonda work-out video):

If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.

Aw, bless! In this case, there can be little exoneration.

Brownian motion

The Gordon Brown moment derived from his first pre-Budget statement of 1997:

For 40 years our economy has an unenviable history, under governments of both parties, of boom and bust.

So, against a background of mounting uncertainty and instability in the global economy, we set about establishing a new economic framework to secure long-term economic stability and put an end to the damaging cycle of boom and bust.

In his last Budget, before becoming Prime Minister, the same phrase was there again:

We will never return to the old boom and bust.

Despite Brown’s claim that he consistently referred to “Tory boom and bust” (as he did to Labour Conference in 2000), the mark has to be against him.

And now, Dave Cameron?

Today, in PMQs, Cameron has laid down a marker:

The figures published today show 2 million more private sector jobs.  They show 1.4 million [more —Cameron, by the way, is 200,000 out on his mental arithmetic. See below.] people in work at the end of this parliament.  They show unemployment falling every year… [actually, they don’t.]

… unemployment is going to be falling during this parliament and in terms of publishing the figures, we have published the full figures, but is not now us publishing the figures it is the Office of Budget Responsibility.

So far, so good?

Except that sounds like one of those rash commitments that come back to bite its committer in the most pain-bearing parts of the anatomy.

Cameron has admitted that the Guardian “leak” is correct in seeing 600,000 public sector jobs annihilated. His wishful thinking (and it cannot be more than that) is to have more than three times that number created in the private sector.

In one respect he has a faint hope of some improvement. If the “nationalized” banks can be re-privatised in this parliament, there  goes a bit of the shift. That presupposes a rapid upturn in banking shares; and a willingness of someone, somewhere to buy the script. General feeling, though,is this is definitely not a racing certainty before 2014-5.

Jim Pickard, doing his blog for the FT this afternoon, tried to pull Cameron’s nuts out of the fire:

The Guardian had an eye-catching splash this morning warning that the Budget would “cost 1.3m jobs”. Particularly striking was the premise that more would be lost in the private sector than the public sector over the next five years as a result of cutting the deficit.

Read the story in detail, however, and it also emerges that 2.5m jobs will be created in the private sector in the next five years. The result (even presuming no new public sector jobs): a net increase of 1.2m jobs. This explains how the Office for Budget Responsibility can still predict unemployment to peak this year at 8.1 per cent and then fall to 6.1 per cent in 2015. (You may or may not find this all a little optimistic).

Every year – with or without recession – there is “churn” in the workplace. That is, some companies and institutions take on thousands of staff. Others axe posts. Therefore we should not necessarily be quite so alarmed.

As John Philpott, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, tells me:

The rule of thumb answer is that in a ‘normal’ (i.e. trend growth) year around 500,000 jobs will be lost (as a result of productivity improvements) to the economy and about 750,000 created, enabling some amount of net job creation.

There are a couple of telling umms in that piece already. Pickard was instantly challenged:

Perhaps if you provided some detail on how realistic the jobs growth figures are this post would make some sense.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if you told people how many times in the past the sort of employment growth has been achieved? (Once.) Or when? (1966.) And then maybe you explained that the Budget assumes the government has to do it three times in a row? Do you think that might have been a bit more illuminating?

Pickard did not resile at that, but came preciously close:

… the Guardian article only makes sense if you consider the net number of jobs created, not the gross created/lost. (Given that there is churn every year in the jobs market). I do agree with you, however, that the employment growth forecasts seem heroically optimistic.

How would Jim Hacker react to Sir Humphrey declaring his statement heroically optimistic?

Actually we know:

… ‘controversial’ will lose you votes; ‘courageous’ will lose you the election.

Expect the unemployment commitment, from PMQs today, quickly to be nuanced as an “aspiration”.

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Filed under Britain, David Cameron, Financial Times, Gordon Brown, Guardian, Labour Party, politics, Quotations, Tories.

Dave and the Führerprinzip

Why must any political leader automatically assume the robes of omniscient guru?

Is there anything more bewildering than this?

The prime minister has backed calls for video and goal-line technology (GLT) to be used in football matches.

David Cameron’s call echoes that made by makers of ball-tracking systems, along with a number of managers.

“I’m a keen follower of cricket and tennis and I think the third umpire has been a great thing… that’s something football could now have a look at,” said Mr Cameron.

Gordon Brown (Raith Rovers) and Michael Foot (Plymouth Argyle) could credibly have got away with a similar utterance. It would have struck a false note if opined by Tony Blair (who couldn’t have sat behind the goal at Jackie Milburn’s last match) or by John Major (whose opinion we might accept on Surrey Cricket). Nobody possessed of an atom of sense would have dared approach Margaret Thatcher for a view (though Dennis Thatcher would have been worth the asking). So, since when was David Cameron known for expertise in dissecting and amending the Laws of Association Football?

Two corollaries:

  1. Every Prime Minister’s authority is limited, becomes progressively weakened with the inevitable passing of time, and the incidence of what Macmillan termed “Events, dear boy, events.”
  2. Befehlnotstand, the notion of the leader’s voice having the force of law, is sadly endemic in forelock-tugging Toryism. Fortunately, though, those same forelock-tuggers eventually recognise feet of clay. In due course a new authority figure is rolled out as the next idol of adoration.

Why, then, dilute the mystique and authority of leadership with such a pointless parade of irrelevance and ignorance?

Render unto FIFA that which is FIFA’s. Else keep stumm.

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Hush-hush on rape anonymity?

There are two points here:

The major one is: What, for heaven’s sake, is the government’s position on anonymity in rape cases?

The minor one is: Why was Lynne Featherstone, for a second, considered for bag-carrier duties, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Home Office?

Perhaps the second there is easier to explicate. Home Secretary Theresa May (Wheatley Park Comprehensive; St Hugh’s, Oxford; and the Bank of England) is a bright lady. Still, she may feel the need for a comparator, a DIT, a DUF, or a duff. Step forward the hardware merchant’s daughter (South Hampstead Girls and Oxford Poly).

The main event

Yesterday, Kerry McCarthy, the Labour MP for Bristol East, asked of Theresa May (or may not) a simple question about:

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the effects on police investigations of plans to give anonymity to defendants in rape trials; and if she will make a statement.

For reasons that further confuse the issue, the question was delegated to the PUS of the Home Office, Lynne Featherstone, who trillingly waffled:

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had a number of discussions on this issue with her cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Justice. We have made it clear that we will progress our commitment on this subject with the care that it merits. Our consideration of the options will of course include a full examination of any impact on police investigations.

Quite what is intended there, except obfustication, is anyone’s guess.

Kerry McCarthy pressed her point:

The Minister will know that this issue has been brought up time and again in the Chamber. We have had a confusing and mixed set of responses from the various Ministers who have answered. Could she now confirm whether it is the Government’s intention to bring forward legislation to give anonymity to rape defendants, and if so, what is the timetable for that, and on what basis have they made that decision?

More Featherhead flannel:

There have been a number of discussions, as I just said, and the Prime Minister himself has said that the issue will be brought forward for debate in this Chamber at an appropriate point.

My, my! Tory Ministers are now the LibDem’s “friends” (surely, in this case, “Right Honourable Friend”?). And the clincher of an argument is “the Prime Minister himself”. One hears the votes and the patience of Muswell Hill and Highgate true liberals evaporating in the mid-summer sun. On this performance, Ms Featherstone is not long for ministerial office. And not likely to survive another General Election.

Shooting fish in a barrel

Recognising an open goal (and a narrow mind), Andy Burnham stepped up for the penalty. He shoots. He scores. He noted that Cameron had invented a statistic. On 9th June, PMQs included this in reply to Caroline Flint:

I know that the right hon. Lady cares very deeply about this issue – the key issue of getting the conviction rate for rapists up – as do I… We know that a lot of people are falsely accused, whose careers and lives can be blighted – [Interruption.] Opposition Members shake their heads, but in some cases people have committed suicide. One of the proofs is that when the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), now leader of the Labour party, was in office, she commissioned a report into this issue by Baroness Stern, which found that 8 to 10% of reported rape cases could result in false allegations.

This time around, Burnham took the Gatling gun to that:

The Minister should know that the Stern report made no such finding and that what Baroness Stern recommended was independent research to study the frequency of false allegations of rape compared with other offences. Does the Minister agree that the Government ought to be implementing that recommendation, instead of proposing to introduce anonymity?

Feratherstone was now in a definite tizz:

In the first instance, I am sure that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice will indeed look at what sort of research is necessary, prior to bringing any debate to the House.

So what are the second and later instances, Ms Featherstone? It suddenly looks as if that promised debate has disappeared over any immediate horizon.

The kill

The coup de grace was administered by Fiona McTaggart, Labour MP for Slough:

I was slightly taken aback by the hon. Lady’s “Oh, we’re going to look at the research before we do this”, given that, up until now, it seems there has been a failure to talk to those tasked with implementing the policy. Has she or any of her colleagues spoken to the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on rape about the policy, and what has his response been?

That’s right. You’ve announced a major shift on how rape cases are investigated and brought to Court. The “ACPO lead on rape” is Chief Constable of Cheshire, Dave Wharton. He is already on record, and welcomed the Stern findings:

“Rape is a uniquely difficult crime to investigate. Every inspection and review in recent years has agreed that in the UK we have great examples of best practice and some of the best training in the world available to investigators.

“ACPO and the CPS last year completed complex guidance on the investigation of rape to ensure a more consistent approach in the investigation of and support given to rape victims.

“There is no doubt that the key to sustainable improvements in the investigation and prosecution of rape is for all relevant agencies including ACPO, the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service, the voluntary sector and the Department of Health to work together.

“The public can be assured that while there is more to do, police are committed to improving and maintaining the service and ongoing support to victims of this most heinous of crimes.”

Wharton said there what Theresa May herself should be reiterating, instead of hiding behind the inadequate Featherstone’s shuffling and anodyne:

I have not spoken to the ACPO lead on the issue, but I will refer that question to the Secretary of State for Justice, who may well have done so.

Notice anything else about that exchange?

Not a single Tory or LibDem caught the Speaker’s eye, to be called for “balance”.

Ms Featherstone there, clearly out of her depth, reminds Malcolm of a previous victim of over-promotion and vaunting ambition: Thomas Gray’s favourite cat, Selina, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes:

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between —
Malignant Fate sat by and smiled —
The slippery verge her feet beguiled;
She tumbled headlong in!

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Filed under crime, David Cameron, Gender, Labour Party, Lynne Featherstone, politics, Quotations, Theresa May

“the soggy end of the Lib Dem spectrum”?

Clearly the Economist has retreated to its shrill (smallest possible) liberal origins.

For the time being it is awarding the ConDem coalition every possible brownie point. This is a love-match that cannot last.

Dig past the (fairly-porous) subscription wall and you will get this:

SEVERAL members of the cabinet were born great (or rather, equipped by fate and privilege to become so). A few might claim to have achieved greatness. And others have had it unexpectedly thrust upon them, in some cases because of the exigencies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. None, perhaps, bestrides government more improbably than Danny Alexander, who became chief secretary to the Treasury on May 29th, and is now responsible—with George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer—for righting Britain’s parlous public finances. Mr Alexander’s rise has been dramatic, but it and he are symptomatic of the coalition’s delicacy, and its challenges.

He was moved to the Treasury, following a three-week stint as Scottish secretary (a much-diminished office since devolution), after David Laws resigned. Mr Laws quit after the Daily Telegraph, in a reprise of last year’s parliamentary-expenses scandal, revealed he had claimed reimbursement for £40,000 ($58,600) in housing costs paid to a landlord who had become his romantic partner. Mr Alexander—hitherto little-known beyond Westminster, even by the standards of Lib Dem MPs—was drafted in.

Why? Well, first, because (like Mr Laws) he is a Lib Dem. When cabinet portfolios were initially apportioned, both coalition partners wanted a Lib Dem to work with Mr Osborne in the Treasury: to spread and perhaps dilute the unpopularity its policies will soon cause, hoped the Tories; and, thought the Lib Dems, to give their party a voice in the most important domestic decisions.

Mr Alexander is also the right sort of Lib Dem. There is a place in government for a few MPs from the party’s left-leaning, social-democratic wing; indeed, if Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, is to keep his party bound into the coalition, there must be such a place. But that place is not at the chief secretary’s desk in the Treasury.

In his cameo in the job, Mr Laws impressed many Tories with his fiscal rectitude and his eager adoption of their plan to begin trimming the deficit immediately (an idea the Lib Dems opposed until last month). Mr Alexander may not be quite so doctrinaire an economic liberal, say some, but, like Mr Clegg, he is intellectually closer to Mr Laws than to the soggy end of the Lib Dem spectrum. He sounds hawkish on the deficit. Moreover, he is Mr Clegg’s right-hand man: before the election he was Mr Clegg’s chief of staff and wrote their party’s manifesto; afterwards he was in the negotiations that formed and shaped the coalition, which also included Mr Osborne (Mr Alexander’s place on a large number of cabinet committees attests to his liaison role).

Loyal, ideologically sound and personable, Mr Alexander’s promotion will suit Mr Clegg and some Tories. But others are less convinced. Mr Alexander is a tender 38; before he became an MP in 2005, he worked as a press officer, largely in politics or on its fringes, but most recently at the Cairngorms National Park Authority. “Another God-damned public-relations man” was the verdict of Lord Tebbit, a Thatcherite headbanger. Mr Laws, by contrast, is a conspicuously numerate former banker.

Thus the appointment exemplifies some familiar syndromes of government: the need, sometimes, to rely on untried youth; the need to barter ministerial posts for the support of rival internal constituencies. But such considerations tend to become acute after a government has been in power for years. And, usually, the equilibrium of only one party has to be maintained. In the coalition, with its need for balance within two parties as well as between them, these problems will be perpetual and tricky.

The key point about Mr Alexander, however, is not that his background and trajectory are exceptional. It is that he is typical.

Danny Alexander—c’est moi!

The ululations that Mr Laws’s exit provoked—he has been described as an “essential” and “indispensable” part of the coalition—have in some ways been oddly overblown. After all, he was in office for less than a month. In any case, the chief secretary’s job has not generally been regarded as quite so sensitive and vital as it has been portrayed this week. The role has often been assigned to rising rather than established figures; and its occupants have not usually been expected to boast an insider’s grasp of finance. On the contrary, it has been regarded as an essentially political function, involving parlaying with other ministers and mandarins over funding—a task to which, Mr Alexander’s boosters say, his negotiating skills make him well suited.

The trouble is that these are not usual times. Mr Osborne will present an emergency budget on June 22nd, then a departmental spending review this autumn. These will inflict the most painful spending cuts in a generation. They will require an order of ministerial discipline that would be tough to achieve in any government, let alone a coalition. Mr Osborne and Mr Alexander will need to massage an electorate still mostly oblivious of what is to come, while keeping the markets happy. It is no insult to Mr Alexander to say that, for him, this looks a tall order.

Then again, it looks just as daunting for the rest of the government. It is easy to sneer at Mr Alexander’s service at Cairngorms National Parks; but he has actually had more extra-political experience than his boss, Mr Osborne, who, at 39, is only a year older. Many of their colleagues have only limited experience inside politics, let alone beyond it, having risen meteorically during the Tories’ last years of opposition.

In truth, this challenge would probably intimidate almost any Treasury team, however wily or accomplished, be they Gladstone and Disraeli or Mr Alexander and Mr Osborne. Those who say that Mr Alexander is peculiarly callow or ill-prepared are engaged in a kind of scapegoating displacement activity. No one is really ready. We are all Danny Alexander now.

Curiously enough, that is so surreal (“above reality”) Malcolm feels he cannot ridicule it any further.

It’ll be fun when the marriage begins to crack.

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No irony intended

Go to the website, and see two stories, pretty well side-by-sade:

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Filed under Britain, broken society, politics, Ryanair