masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.

Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

freedom to, freedom from, freedom for

Should prisoners be denied the right to vote?
No.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday has been, predictably, rounded upon by the awkward squads. The Daily Mail has called the decision “contemptuous”. I can’t bring myself to check what the Express thinks, it’s like not wanting to open a bank statement. There can only be bad things in there.

I’m glad for the Mail and Express having apoplectic fits of fury over prisoner voting rights, because it ticks all their boxes and therefore has to be right. Dealing with their opposition is similar to arguing with the pub drunk – there’s all the relevant points there, just not necessarily in the right order. As with many of those subjects which rile and vex, the tabloids have whipped up anger on their own fears, rather than the evidence. It’s as though a student has thrown their laptop across the bedroom because the essay is over a word limit.

The UK stands almost alone in its ban on prisoner voting rights, a view that puts us far lower down the list of respectable developed democracies than the tabloids would like.  That a convicted criminal receives extra “time off” from voting doesn’t differentiate them from the rest of the population for 11 months out of 12, and with turnout in the general population this year at around 30%, it’s not as though whatever logic existed beforehand stands up today.

Whatever general principle existed at the core of the current policy doesn’t make sense. How does giving prisoners an “additional extra” punishment work? Many criminals request – and are not barred from receiving in any case – help or communication with Members of Parliament. There have been a number of high profile cases of MPs helping release convicted criminals who were victims of miscarriages of justice. There is “justice” and there is “revenge” – denying criminals the right to vote is very much the latter – it does not stand up to scrutiny. Who wins because a convicted thief can’t vote for their local councillor, or a rioter was unable to vote in the AV referendum?

Prisoners are already considerably de-humanised by society – we are told that all those convicted  of a crime, from stealing a bottle of water to raping an under-age child – must be considered the same kind of evil. Jailed for sending a drunken tweet or beating up a pensioner? All the ban on voting does is feed resentment and bitterness amongst criminals, setting them along a spiral against rehabilitation. Society is at its best when it’s trying to take people away from criminal behaviour. This ancient pettiness is not society at its best.

The issue has very little about prisoner rights if you read the tabloids. There’s no concern in there about the levels of illiteracy, drug habits, access to employment opportunities. We’re forced to read the parallel rants, barely connected, against “Europe”, in favour of David Cameron “doing a Thatcher” against Brussels and all the usual, tedious British nationalism/EU-bashing. It’s the closest thing the tabloids have to showing signs of Internet trolling – the merest mention of a European decision sends staff to the keyboards in frenzied fury.

There’s people out there right now who have not stolen so much as an office stapler, but they can exercise their right to vote whilst not knowing one policy from another. There’s former prisoners living somewhere near your house who postal voted two weeks ago, and next door to you is a cannabis smoker who hasn’t voted for anyone in twenty years. Democracy is not just the right to slam your front door in the face of a leaflet-dropper two weeks before polling day; it’s about making  difficult choices for the right reasons. If we can get to a stronger, more liberal, more humane situation for convicted prisoners, it should be worth the long stretch of anti-European bile we’re about to drown in.

anger management

As people who know me would testify without delay, I have been known to react disproportionately to the merest of situations, often triggers which observers would struggle to explain even after detailed analysis. Following an innocuous remark directed my way, my balanced and mature response was a full-on flounce resulting in an unscheduled snooze at a bus-stop in Standish. That happened last year; I was thirty-one years old.

This ‘red mist’ and its responses are analysed by people earning a lot more than I ever will researching what makes the behavioural ‘tick’, mostly in men, which turns frustration into an outburst. Basic, back of the envelope assumption would conclude that there’s a) inability to deal with intense situations brought from childhood onwards, b) a mental imbalance of some kind, or c) a bit from both and more besides. As with all personal problems, from drug addiction to persistent low-level crime, admitting there is something wrong is always considered the first step: from there comes working with others to resolve whatever is curdling the brain.

Critics of David Cameron use the term ‘flashman’ to deride the Prime Minister’s occasional bursts of temper and red-faced snapping. Like many who suffer from this tendency to react badly to pushes and prodding, Cameron looks as though his eyes genuinely do fall behind a cloud of red smoke, and his mind becomes blinkered to exits, alternative options, spaces to breathe. It’s partly the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions, I wager, though it’s clearly part of Cameron’s nature. The “calm down dear” approach to argument might have been ill-advised sarcasm, but from that event onwards the suggestion of ‘red mist descending’ has become increasingly convincing.

Where could Cameron go with this? Will he bring something of the Australian parliament to Westminster by swearing or biting the head of a bat?

I come to this from the little local difficulty involving Joey Barton yesterday. Now we all know that Barton likes his philosophy and chin-stroking consideration, which frames many of the arguments pro- and anti- defending him for repeated violent moments and verbal outbursts. The growth of wisdom, as Nietzsche suggests, may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill-temper, and as Barton claims to learn from Nietzchean philosophies, you’d assume that the ill-temper/wisdom see-saw would have been  rebalanced at some point. Yesterday’s nail-biting, heart-pounding, sweat inducing final Premier League day was not ruined by Barton’s elbow/knee/head, though it has cast a shadow. As thousands of people watched the games unfold – I did so in a pub which showed both Manchester games on adjacent screens which didn’t help the heart rates – the Barton flip-out took over the conversations across the pub as much as the David Cameron “LOL” revelation threatened to hijack the Leveson inquiry analysis that day. Sometimes the silly, trivial, the curiosities are bugs eager to dig into the topic to take it over, to divert attention from the really important stuff. Luckily both games had enough other stuff happening – and Aguero’s goal, Rooney’s miss and such were momentous enough – to allow Barton’s ‘red mist’ to be pushed to the fringes.

Because of his repeated assurances that he’s learning, self-analysing, reflective, Barton’s constant return to the stage of silliness has stripped away almost all sympathy from neutrals and fans. QPR fans have taken to the internet and phone-in shows to disown him. Barton took to Twitter, his own personal Speaker’s Corner, to act bullish with an edge of accountability. The edge was as thin as the head of a southern-pulled pint, which exhausted yet more patience.

Over at the arena of politics, D-Cam has a few more days before facing another bear-pit PMQs. More often than not, the bun-fights with Ed Miliband bring out the worst in Cameron’s argument technique.  He usually ‘wins’ against Ed, because the Labour leader has all the weight of a speak and spell machine, though it’s how Dave conducts himself which gets the attention, blogs and commentary pieces. Whilst Labour are led by a man who struggles to set jelly never mind the agenda, Cameron’s fits of pique shouldn’t cause too much damage. The term ‘flashman’ has stuck, and some MPs know how to press the right buttons. Cameron hasn’t learned from Tony Blair about how to flavour temper with sarcasm and theatrical flair. It’s all in the tag, as Kenneth Williams would advise. It’s all there in the punchline, the pay-off – get it wrong, and you’re a bully or a short-tempered prat.

Where Cameron and Barton align is the apparent lack of willingness to change, to repair the damage they cause and the damage in their own mental well-being. Whilst many are now abandoning Barton for good – the Guardian which took him around an art gallery now snidely dig at his “copy and paste philosophy” – there’s still sizeable support for Cameron and the Coalition. The temptation to go over the edge must be strong for the PM – the three years before General Election 2015 is a timeframe sprinkled with landmines, death traps, nooses and Nadine Dorries. Pushes from Labour, pokes from the backbenches, irritation from the constraints of compromise politics in this era of Coalition – all the little things which stir up the smoke, colour the mist, send the heart pounding further, stronger, harder. For a man whose ‘flashman’ snapping has been constrained within the House of Commons so far to save his reputation, Cameron will have to deal with all this before it happens in the television studio or on the stump.

Joey Barton is the very definition of the angry young man, and whilst I’m not about to dismiss him entirely, I can see why frustration with his constant return to idiocy on the pitch and at the keyboard has turned into abandonment. People can only take sympathy so far. If the constant misbehaviour never goes away, than either the person has a serious problem which requires longer-term help, or the person just has no intention of ever bettering themselves. Cameron is not some crazed loon at the dispatch box, though he has shown no sign of calming down the red-faced tendency or sarcastic snapping. The temper tantrums which infect Barton’s character, and those which taint Cameron’s responses, are parts of the same diagnosis, and both fans/voters will deliver their medicine whether it’s wanted or not.

Jumping into the ballot box

Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.

The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.

Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.

The UK Independence Party has been a constant in British politics now for over twenty years. It has singularly failed to get any of its candidates elected to Westminster, but from Parish Council to Brussels, the UKIP success story is more remarkable than its critics might ever concede. Its done fantastically well despite only having one policy, changing its high profile leader Nigel Farage for an obscure Peer during the last election, and being unable to explain how its well paid MEPs have brought the country ever nearer its aim of leaving the EU from inside their very nice offices in Strasbourg. Somehow the party with little credibility outside its hobby horse has managed to grow in strength and size by achieving precisely nothing. What UKIP has always enjoyed, however, is a credible protest vote attraction to them. They are not the British National Party, knuckle-dragging anti-everythings without unity or purpose. They can’t point to success in their aim to drag the UK out of the European Union, but they can still attract votes. And with a hung parliament in 2010 and something similar possible in a reduced House of Commons in 2015, Nigel Farage knows exactly how significant his party has become.

Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change. 

Two, maybe three, possibly four MPs going across would be difficult for Cameron to defend, though the nature and character of the “gang” may do his argument the world of good. “They are just one-policy nutters,” he could explain, “going to a one-policy pressure group.” Local Conservative associations might not appreciate their MPs suddenly taking a leap into the unknown like so many lemmings draped in the Union Flag. There could be more tension in the Party as different shades of right-wing battle it out amongst themselves. “Whilst that lot busy themselves like ferrets, ” Cameron would tell the House, “I’m getting on with leading the country.”
Things will get tougher if the rumours, some of which come from hints and allegations within UKIP, that the true number of Tory defectors is nearer two-dozen. That’s not normal. That’s unexpected. And that is a constitutional earthquake. Yes, it makes the Conservatives smaller in the Commons, less anti-EU and presumably less right -wing. Yes, it even shores up the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition, who find themselves speaking with a louder voice as the backbenches empty around them. Though what would a mass phalanx of anti-EU defections do to the governance of the country? Would it need the MPs to resign on mass, causing by-elections across the land to smoke out ‘true’ conservatives, forcing local associations to choose between party loyalty and perceived patriotism? Would Labour capitalise on the splits within the Government by forcing through amendments to controversial health, welfare and education legislation? Could they even force a vote of no confidence? Could there even be an early general election?

Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?

To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment. 

He could probably absorb Nadine Dorries trying to “do a Sarah Palin” by coming across as a strong, independent maverick woman with a voice of her own and no man ain’t gonna tell her otherwise, no way, no how. He could cope with Mark Pritchard, not exactly a household name, acting as de facto leader of the UKIP Rump State. 
But if he finds himself with 20 or more MPs under his party label sitting in the Commons as a group larger than the SNP, larger than Plaid Cymru, and in greater number than all Northern Irish parties combined, he has the sudden strength of the starting pistol no future Prime Minister can ever use. How legitimate is Project Cameron now, he’ll ask, when we’re the Party his MPs are moving to?

Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine. 

Now Cameron has another piece of bad luck shadowing his every move. And it’s not as though he hasn’t been warned.
To lose one MP might be considered misfortune. To lose two, careless. To lose over a dozen and have a rival effectively force a General Election onto you? That, Prime Minister, is incompetence. 

Ruffled feathers

Cards on the table – though by now regular readers should have fathomed this out – I am not the biggest fan of the Labour Party. I was struggling even as a child, when my dad would sneer at the very sound of the word “Kinnock” and I’d be given very compelling reasons why the son of a Wiganer whose entire working life was down the mines was no more ‘socialist’ than a goldfish.

It doesn’t help that the current Labour leadership is so ineffectual. Remember Ed Miliband telling us that the strikes earlier this year were wrong “while negotiations are still going on”? (It’s the video in which he tells us again and again and again and oh sorry my ears have run away).  Now he’s using the same drone-voice reasoning for this U-turn. I presume the Union leaders have sharpened their poking sticks. He must be one of the few walking talking humans whose voice doesn’t change when goosed.

Ed Balls doesn’t help make the Opposition very attractive to me either, and that’s not a personal insult against his face, though it does resemble a sack of cauliflowers. I would appreciate Balls admitting that the Labour Party is partly responsible for the mess we’re in, though that would be less forthcoming that admitting he dresses up in Yvette’s clothes of an evening, so instead we’re faced with an economic “5 point plan” that’s more insane than a cheesecake made from Ritalin.

During yesterday’s Prime Minister’s bunfight, two things happened. One – John Bercow signed his resignation letter. Two – D-Cam used “left-wing” as an insult. It was obviously the soundbite he wanted because he used it twice, including the bit at the end where he can say whatever he likes because Ed has used up his six questions. It wasn’t much of a soundbite anyway, because the flow was all wrong – “Irresponsible, leftwing and weak!” sounds clumsy and without any rhythm. It’s not an insult so much as a shopping list.

“Red Ed” still gets used against the Labour leader, and despite its accuracy has not stuck. Political labels are difficult to sustain as insults. “Liberal” in the United States might as well be “Baby Eating Whore”, though that’s very much a product of the polarised political situation over there. “Liberal” in this country has never caught on as a disparaging label. “You’re too liberal!” sounds almost effete and camp. “You can protect my civil liberties any day of the week, you jolly old eek.”  “Fascist” has taken to wearing on the damp cloak of “Tory!” and “Thatcher!”, not so much an effective swipe to the ego, more a measure of the man saying it. “You’re just a Yellow Tory!” is something I am often accused of being, though it does paint a picture in my mind of an elderly conservative woman having trouble with her bodily functions. But that’s just me. And in any case,  I am no Tory. Okay, I’m a bit more economically conservative than I am socially liberal but I point honourable members to my dad for that one.

Cameron’s use of “leftwing” as an insult landed squarely on the floor in a heap of damp tissue and I suspect he knows this. Nobody denies that the left have their loony tendencies, or being a slogan-shouting anti-everything socialist does tend to have you marked down as potentially unstable. “Tax us more! Spend more! Borrow more!” – it’s like being shouted at by a drunk Open University lecturer, one whose still trapped in side your television in a beige box room, strangling  himself with his kipper tie in your nightmares.

If “leftwing” sticks, it’ll be accident and not design. One time socialist micro-grouplet “Left List” tried and failed to win elections some years ago in the London Assembly elections, the word “left” seeming unusual and out of place. We know “Labour” and we know, at a push, “socialist”. The slow  beating to death of ideology in the years following Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power probably did for the extremes to do much good in the identity stakes. It took Tony Blair the Iraq war for some members of the Labour Party to remember that they were, in fact, on the left wing. Hence the birth of the Socialist Alliance and Respect and all the other far out placard wavers.

Both sides of the political spectrum agree with each other more than they think, or would dare to admit. It’s expediency to use each others stance as a beating stick. It’s also potentially damaging to a discourse already reduced to its most shallow forms. We’re supposed to do democracy different in this country, and Cameron had vowed to end Punch and Judy politics. If Ed Miliband is wrong just for being “leftwing”, than Cameron has missed the point entirely. Labour is wrong for all sorts of reasons.  Using political labels in this way is inaccurate and insulting. It would just have to be a fluffy, fence-sitting liberal to point that out. 

Farage fandango

Nigel Farage has enjoyed more false dawns than a customer at a transvestite holiday resort.  Third place in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election and runner-up spot at the European Elections in 2009 pointed towards a spectacular break-through at the 2010 general election. Focusing on election in the Speaker’s constituency of Buckingham – the constituency of the sitting Speaker is nominally uncontested though every election sees a collection of independents and oddities make a contest out of it – Farage stood down as leader to be replaced by Malcolm Pearson, aka Lord Pearson of Rannoch.  I have a distinct memory of their election press conference crumbling before my very eyes, Lord Pearson struggling to hide the rather obvious fact that he hadn’t read his own manifesto.

Decked out in their garish purple and yellow party colours – which tend not to go well with mahogany tan – UK Independence Party candidates are notoriously good at talking up their chances. Under our current First Past The Post voting system, it matters not that the recent YouGov poll puts them within one point of overtaking the Liberal Democrats: no UKIP candidate will ever be elected directly to the House of Commons.

That said, it’s not as though Nigel Farage is Nick Griffin, who has seen his own British National Party collapse from height to shambles in a matter of months. Farage is the master of his party’s image and spin, and boy can the man talk. Yes, his anti-Belgium diatribes are embarrassing. His Statesman like behaviour carries all the credibility of a garden gnome. And yet…

The threat of UKIP has never been so potent as it seems to be this year. By “threat” I also mean “promise” and “aspiration”. Farage is not the captain of a sinking ship, even if the tan and fancy get up shouts “Howard’s Way”. With this month’s European Union referendum controversy still ringing in David Cameron’s ears, it’s little wonder UKIP are being talked about in terms of spoiling the party come election time 2015.

Realistically Farage has much more of a steep climb even with the EU debate so freshly served on the agendas of breakfast television programmes and commentariat sections in newspapers. Europe is the bee-hive poke which ruins every well laid out policy picnic Governments have planned since the days of Heath. There’s Cameron and Clegg in the rose garden, trying to return to the happy days of their honeymoon over barbecued halloumi and fruit juice when armies of purple and yellow ants creep up from behind. 


Whilst the Liberal Democrats have been excellent in holding back most of the excessive policies of the Conservatives since last May, the secret coalition partner stalking Downing Street has been Nigel Farage. There must be times when even the mention of the word ‘defection’ sends Cameron into a blind panic, the kind which enters the mind of a teenage boy in the middle of entertaining upon hearing the sound of footsteps outside the bedroom door. What if, what if, what if…Whilst decent showings in general elections are quite beyond UKIP under the current voting system, causing a shock in local and European elections most certainly are not, something Cameron knows all too well. Additionally, any threat of a backbench defection, even just the one, would be a heck load of urine in the punch. 

Crucially for the Conservatives, and in a broader sense pro-Europeans from all parties, is the lack of credibility on Farage’s part with regards to selling UKIP as a genuinely broad church. They have one policy – Europe – to which they return for each and every question posed. Until that problem is solved, then the polls will continue to show only one thing – where Liberal Democrats were once the party of protest for electors fed up with the mainstream parties, now stands UKIP. And as once was said of the LibDems, there’s no chance of a protest party ever getting into government. 

Press constraints/contrition

“Self-regulation is dead,” declares Greg Dyke, as the ongoing development of the News of the World, its closure, and hackgate, reverberates through the Establishment this week as hard as it did months ago. If David Cameron looks nervous, it’s genuine; the close relationship between his predecessors and certain elements of the media’s largest empires has reached the explosive conclusion everybody knew would detonate eventually. From here – the death of an iconic newspaper with over 7 million readers, arrests and enquiries, questions at the heart of Government as much as the corridors of ‘Fleet Street; – where exactly is traversed next?

At the sight of its iconic 1992 front-page – that of Kinnock as a lightbulb to be extinguished were Labour ever victorious at that year’s general election – the architects of New Labour realised their immediate future steps would be to the doors of News International, Rupert Murdoch, and every influential newspaper editor connected thereto. The creation of New Labour had right at the beginning the finger-click of Murdoch or his acolytes by way of permission. As the photograph shows, above, current Labour leader Ed Miliband trod up the path to the newsrooms of Britain’s soar-a-way NI titles. Press officers and communications directors crossed from one side of the Establishment to the other, making what has always been a difficult relationship (there has always been press barons, there has always been press officers willing to bend the rules) into something far dirtier, complex, malignant.

Cameron’s “we were all in this together” speech was the sound of a man having to excuse all his predecessor’s behaviour. From the very start of the NI invasion (“I always found it funny how easy it was to buy into British newspapers”, as the man Murdoch said himself over a generation ago), Prime Ministers and those behind them stood bewitched by the colour, language, attitude, and ultimately the power, of the new breed of newspaper industry growing in front of them. The consequence was a pact, unwritten, signed only by handshakes. Labour’s run of Home Secretaries, each more hardline than the last, effectively allowed their policy papers to be written by Sun journalists the night before. Sway became push, suggest became demand.

Above all the newspapers in this country (well, almost all), sits the ombudsman without much clout, the Press Complaints Commission. As anyone could tell you (including me in an earlier post around the Jan Moir débâcle), the PCC was the wrong body doing a terrible job, ineffectual and irresponsible. The ‘freedom of the press’ was always guaranteed when the overseeing group was self-appointed, self-serving. Richard Desmond withdrew his Express titles from the ”control” of the PCC system as easily as a teenager walking out of the house to avoid his parents.

In his speech, and in others by politicians and commentators since, David Cameron has spoken of the vital need of a ‘new’ PCC, one which is enabled to cope with events like hackgate and the behaviour of all British newspapers. The sound you could hear at the time was the loud tutting with newsrooms – whispers of ‘censorship’ and one side of the Establishment letting down the other. “You screwed us over with expenses stories,” crowed the MPs, “now we’re getting our revenge.”

It’s not necessarily so. Press freedom in the UK is amongst the best in the developed world, and is certainly amongst the most distinctive in the English-speaking press anywhere on earth. There is, largely because of the hands-off regulation approach, almost nowhere the press won’t go in search of a story. From dodgy vicars and unscrupulous business men, to the bedroom antics of pop-stars and royalty, the press provided the goods and the public bought it in its millions. Where we are today is the result – so much freedom, so much public interest, so what if mobile phones are hacked in the hunt of another headline, another scandal? The Telegraph’s exposé of MPs expenses came from the illicit sale of documents, and from there has been the jailing of former MPs and wholesale changes in the expenses system.

Cameron is right, as are all critics of the PCC, that self-regulation has to change. The PCC is not able to regulate the print media. However, “Ofprint” must not be the filter through which copy must go before the presses, nor should it be populated by the very media folk who ensure the extent to which each back is scratched. Rightly, such actions as the hacking of Milly Downer’s phone have been condemned by public and politicians alike – but what can the PCC do, and how does “Son of PCC” better them? To what extent do we demand a tighter press regulator?

The freedom of the press is central to any functioning democracy. We have all enjoyed, as consumers, the freedom of the British press; its foibles, the success stories and shocking line-crossing. We have all bought shares in the scandals and controversies. Rightly, we complain at any perceived bias – the BBC is too lefty, the BBC isn’t left enough, the Guardian is too liberal, the Guardian has forgotten its liberal routes, the Mail is an anti-everything rag. What should we demand from the watchdog for the printed press? How much bias? I wonder what we mean by our demands for a stronger PCC. When I complain about prejudice, I do so from a largely left-wing perspective; what do I want from “son of PCC”? I want fairness, the right to expression, the right to shine light on the dark corners of all the Establishment. Do I want it from a left-wing perspective? How strong should the fine be for a commentary piece dripping in right-wing bile? Or for that matter, oozing socialism with which I disagree as strongly?

We demand that the Internet is saved from censorship, control, governance. Towards the press, our attitudes are very different. With reason, given what has been happening. And from this will come, in a new form, possible censorship, control and governance of the print media we celebrate as free and fair and brilliant. My ideal world hands “son of PCC” enough power to counter the excesses of journalistic misbehaviour whilst allowing the right to expression which we expect from a democratic state. The phone-hacking scandal displayed in lurid colour the extreme behaviour of journalism’s hunt for the next big headlines. The consequences for the freedom of the printed press are only now being written; the “exclusive to all newspapers” story of that is a splash nobody thought would ever get to the presses.

Round-table tradition

Read the published diaries of almost any former MP – Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Mullin – and amongst the common themes is one ‘absolute’ which links through every political era and will doubtlessly do so for the foreseeable. If “reform” means anything to the Coalition government, the annual parlour game which distracts MPs, obsesses journalists and distracts even the most ardent policy-wonk from the finer points of the issue at hand. It is, but of course, the Cabinet Reshuffle, the one element of British political life which shared with football, and the one tradition no government has ever considered could be worth putting to bed.

Prior to the election – and reiterated last year both Cameron and Clegg have tried to distance the Government from the annual charade. If only anyone would believe them. It’s not necessarily their faults – football fans know that the merry-go-round will one day stop turning, and one of the chosen few will be back in a job not long before or after Christmas.

Only in the realm of politics could there be similar employment attitudes to the chairman of football plcs. The MPs I mentioned above cannot avoid writing – and enjoying – the sport of promotion and demotion, the rise and fall of backbench stars or Cabinet flops. Clark relished every chance to insult those who passed him on their way up the ladder or to scoff when they fell back to earth. Brandreth recalls the need to stuff the Ministerial red box of Stephen Dorrell (newly promoted at the Department for National Heritage as it then was) with videos of British film classics as he was in a position for which he had no understanding. Chris Mullin regularly recalls how ministers across Africa and Europe could not make strong relationships with British counterparts because, amongst other things, the 13 years of Labour rule saw over 30 different MPs given the jobs of Minister for Europe, or Minister for Africa.

The Reshuffle is enjoyed and endured as a consequence of the Old Boys Club attitude within Westminster. The most conscientious constituency representative becomes enslaved to the system – will the call from Downing Street come this year? Next?

Who would care about the Whitenslade Scouts Summer Fayre when there’s ministerial responsibility just around the corner? Mullin admits that even the most lowly promotion is grasped with both hands. He also writes very well about how sharp and short the experience can be; the Minister who has spent a year building relationships and strong reputations can be out the door in the morning to be replaced by someone who has to start the whole thing from scratch.

Reshuffles are outdated, outmoded, and clearly straight out of the Great British political traditions dressing up box. They are very expensive – Department names are changed and re-named at whim (“Department for Children, Families and Schools” lasted just over 3 years before returning to “Department for Education”. One has to ask – why did it have to change at all?). Ministers suddenly become experts in their new field (and did we have any faith in Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary? Really?).

Cameron, as ultimate hirer-and-firer, should take a lead from the rest of Europe on this (and for that matter, the US, where such pack-shuffling is almost unheard of). To allow Ministers and Secretaries of State to get on with their jobs, the constant ticking clocks must have their batteries removed. Cameron has made some unfortunate ministerial choices, but whilst in other jobs (especially in business) time is allowed for improvement, the Westminster attitude leaves sharpened knives at the door. Policies which are not delivering need focus and concentration. The delivery of policy is stifled if the carousel is whirred into action by pressure from every lobby hack with impatience and deadlines on their mind.

To show the wider public that the Coalition really does understand “new politics”, Cameron should avoid anything remotely close to a full-scale Reshuffle until at least next year. Another glut of traditionalists doubtlessly feel angered, another reem of right-wing Tories will huff and howl, though it’s all for the good. Few people in the real world see as much pointless, expensive, repetitious, duplicating japery as members of parliament. It infects their brains, alters their thinking. Any MP who knows their thing will tell you the same – and it has ultimately damaged our political culture.

One could argue that the only way to fix the Reshuffle bug is a wholesale revolution within our political system, cutting the link between constituency MP and Ministerial job (as happens in so many parliamentary republics), increasing the number of appointed Ministers who are not accountable to voters. Others could argue that no Reshuffle should happen at all between elections, giving voters the right to compare like-for-like over a parliaments life-time.

Some traditions are hard to break. The dinosaurs who want to keep First-past-the-Post (because, you know, an MP needs only 33% of the vote in their constituency to become Foreign Secretary) are the same who lap up the “fun” of the Reshuffle and all it represents. Football is rightly criticised for giving second, third, and forty-eighth chances to the same old dwindling number of ex-managers. Politics really should have the same fingers pointed in its direction. Cameron should lead by example and leave the parlour games for another year.

Clegg Factor

God damn, it’s a good time to be a Liberal Democrat.

Above most serious and considered reasons, we’ve got the Daily Mail spitting feathers. I will warn you, it’s Daily Mail at about Level 5 on the “Palin Scale”, so if this is against your current medication, allow me to summarise their complaints about Nick Clegg and our party;

1) The LibDems are going to enforce socialism onto this great nation of ours (like Barack Obama did, FACT).
2) All LibDem MPs are so incompetent and untrustworthy that not a single one of them flipped their homes (the only thing we could drag up was claims for lipstick and a trouser press, how CORRUPT and TWISTED must these LibDems be?)
3) Despite claiming they want to clean up politics, not once has the LibDem party been successful in forcing through reforms past a stubborn and corrupt Labour Party and a solidly establishment Tory opposition (Clegg is dripping with principle, it STINKS)
4) They were actually against the Iraq War long before we all twigged that it was pretty much an illegal turkey shoot (so what else do they know that we haven’t been told yet, HMM?!?)
5) Apart from Liverpool, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle, and countless other places, oh, and Scotland for a time, they couldn’t run a whelk stall.

So, anyway, the Daily Mail is shit scared. And shit. Also, scared.

There shouldn’t be a surprise to any of this, of course, for the red/blue consensus has been sleepwalking into exactly this kind of disaster for years. If any of them thought the expenses scandal would slap them around the face for a bit, they haven’t learned a thing about the British peoples’ ability to hold a grudge.

The Leaders Debates, which began last week with Dave “I met a black man, once” Cameron failing to shake off his Blairite “Look….” sentence structures and public school smugness, and Gordon “I agree with Nick” Brown, have clearly shaken up the 2010 general election in a manner nobody really expected.

If “Jennifer’s Ear” and “Prescott’s Punch” did anything to their respective elections, the media seemed to have declared Eyjafjallajökull and Lord Adonis’ game of Texas Hold ‘Em with the Civil Aviation Authority as the game changers for this one.

Not so fast, news media. For Nick Clegg had something up his sleeve; personality and policies. Tomorrow night should be even better for him, for the Sky News Debate is right up the LibDem street – on international affairs and terrorism, our party holds almost every trump card. From the like-for-like renewal of Trident, through to ID Cards, DNA Database and the truth on MoD spending, it’s the LibDems winning here, and here, and over there too.

David Cameron will fail to argue the point on his relationship with Europe after leaving the EPP for a group of RATHER dodgy extremists; while Brown will suffer from being forever associated with holding the purse-strings while Tony Blair marched into Camp David for a good session of one-sided instructions.

I am under no illusions; the LibDems cannot sustain over 30% in the opinion polls for the entire election. Now, however, is the best chance we have had since the first reawakening of the Liberal Party under Grimond to shake the tired old Establishment from its very high but rotten tree.

The Daily Mail telling voters to “wake up” to the LibDems proves that we’re doing something right. It’s a very good day to carry the membership card of such unconventional troublemakers.