Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

What you could of won.

I don't know about you, but I never took David Cameron for a wannabe Frank Carson.  You see, according to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and a whole host of other Tories sequestered to explain the unexplainable, it's all in the way he tells 'em.  Cameron in saying he didn't intend to be around for a third term was just answering a straight question with a straight answer, a highly admirable thing in a politician.  What's more, it's not arrogance to set out where you intend to be in five years time when the public will be deciding your fate in just over a month.  No, it's the exact opposite; it's humility, it's knowing when to get out, being a true public servant rather than wanting power for its own sake.  And if you don't buy any of that, and frankly who would, it was just a statement of the obvious, dismissing the impossible, nothing more.

Being as absurdly presumptuous as the prime minister was for reasons we are no nearer to understanding in turn necessitates equally absurd defences.  All Cameron had to do was say I've got to win this election before I start worrying about the next one, and yet he didn't.  That he then expressly set out the frontrunners to succeed him rather than try and row back makes clear how calculated it was.  You can only guess at what the calculation was, and so too it seems can his allies, but at least we don't have to claim that black is white to incredulous journos.

The aforementioned Gove wasn't scheduled to be on Newsnight, but there he was doing his bit.  Not so long ago he might have hoped to be among the names reeled off by Cameron, and yet now his task was to try and provide some clarity.  He did so by constantly referencing the American system, as though it's worth emulating a model where a two-term president has essentially four years in which to achieve something, the other four years taken up with campaigning for re-election and then as a lame duck.  The introduction of fixed term parliaments has on its own meant we've been anticipating the election now for over a year, a situation which hasn't turned out to be an immediate improvement over the one where it was up to the discretion of the prime minister as to when to dissolve parliament.

That Gove had to be wheeled out in any case was evidence by itself of the Thick of It style panic which must have descended following the Cameron interview, although considering his way of putting it in perspective was to go all West Wing, most likely Crosby and pals wished they hadn't bothered.  By morning the message was at least slightly more coherent, if still utterly transparent.  When the AgeUK conference laughs at the prime minister repeating the I was being a pretty straight kinda guy line, it's fairly apparent just what a self-inflicted wound this has been.

Perhaps the Tories will console themselves that it at least knocked the Afzal Amin disaster down the news agenda.  Dealing as we are with absurdities, the story of the prospective Tory MP for Dudley North making a deal with the EDL whereby they would announce a demonstration then call it off following mediation with Amin, along with an exchange of hard cash to make it worth their while has to rank up there.  As well as Amin claiming that he was drawing on his experience of "dealing with the Taliban", having served in Afghanistan, although whether his claims about counter-insurgency are bullshit or not is anyone's guess, Alex notes that Amin's company succeeded in wrangling a contract out of the Department for Communities and Local Government to giving inspiring talks on Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the world wars.  Whether Amin might perhaps have a case for being stitched up, as he claims, is open to question: we are after all relying on both the Mail on Sunday and Tommy Robinson himself, who secretly recorded and filmed their meetings, as to the veracity of what went on.  Speaking of Robinson, considering he was supposedly meant to have put his EDL days behind him thanks to the work of the Quill.i.am Foundation, that he was negotiating alongside the new EDL chairman with Amin raises the question of just what, if anything, their "deradicalising" of aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon amounted to.  Quilliam hasn't as yet commented on their
protégé's latest attention grabbing exploits, oddly.

They have though welcomed Theresa May's speech on how a majority Conservative government would deal with extremism, which seems to amount in practice to more schemes like those provided by Amin's Curzon firm with a further blurring of the lines between what's considered to be Islamic conservatism as opposed to extremism.  Purists, i.e. people like me will also take issue with how on the one hand we must be robust in our promotion of "British values", those intrinsically British virtues such as participation in and acceptance of democracy (presumably meaning 35% of eligible voters are extremists based on the 2010 turnout) and respect for minorities (no further comment necessary), and at the same time deny extremists who aren't quite extreme enough to fall foul of anti-terrorist legislation their right to freedom of speech by extending banning orders.

Then there's how despite British values being so universal and unquestionable they also need to be promoted by a "positive" campaign.  Like the superb Britain is great one presumably, and not like the one telling Romanians and Bulgarians how awful it is here.  You could also question the commitment of governments past and present to the self-same values now deemed to be non-negotiable, such as respect for the rule of law, not utmost on the agenda of Iain Duncan Smith, or equality, which is so wide a concept as to mean something different to almost everyone.  When British citizens are imprisoned for making offensive jokes or posting riot "events" on Facebook you also have to wonder just which definition of freedom of speech it is we're deeming to be a "British value".  Not the American one, that's for definite, despite this seeming to be the first step towards an American-style drilling into kids of just how exceptional their country and its values are.  Seeing as May also ended the speech with a you're either with us or you're with the extremists flourish, last employed by a certain former president, it's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Not that it makes much odds as there isn't going to be a majority Conservative government, therefore rendering the entire speech all but completely pointless.  Here's what you could of won: a prime minister who doesn't, repeat doesn't believe he was born to rule, a prospective MP who would have got away with it if wasn't for the meddling EDL, and a home secretary who fought against Michael Gove's "draining of the swamp" only to then decide it needed dredging after all.  What fools we all must be.

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Monday, March 23, 2015 

Advantage Labour.

Baffling.  Alex Massie has it dead right.  Of all the mistakes Tony Blair made, what on earth has possessed David Cameron to repeat the one that guaranteed he most certainly would not serve a full third term?  At the time, Blair's declaration made something approaching sense: polling behind his party and as we now know having seriously considered resigning in 2004 at the peak of the why the fuck haven't we found any weapons of mass destruction imbroglio, making clear he wasn't going be around forever looked to be a way of placating his enemies and being straight with the public.  As it turned out, all it did was make Blair a lame duck, Gordon Brown and his (then) supporters went on manoeuvres, and the messiah was off to get ludicrously rich via his dictator frotting services not even half way through his "full" third term.

Cameron though is more popular than his party, something that itself can only be explained as being the work of alchemy.  Unlike Blair, he hasn't so much as managed to win a single election, let alone two.  Unlike Blair, he does not have an obvious successor.  Indeed, while Labour was half-bullied and half-sleepwalked into anointing Brown as leader, a Tory leadership contest promises to be hard fought and potentially bloody, not least when all three of Theresa May, George Osborne and Boris Johnson are proficient in the dark arts. There would almost certainly be other candidates too, including from further to the right, with all the baggage they carry.  Lastly, for all the distrust and hostility towards Cameron on said right of the party, he's managed to hold it together reasonably well in the face of the UKIP insurgency, and also kept it in the coalition for the whole 5 years, something that most certainly wasn't assured.  He is without doubt the party's greatest asset, yet he's effectively just admitted both that he doesn't expect to win this time either, and that his party will get rid of him as a result.

There is absolutely no other explanation for going public with his plans.  As the rest of the media are saying and has been discussed before, very few expected Cameron to serve a full second term anyway.  Presuming the promised referendum on EU membership survived any new coalition agreement, a successful renegotiation and yes from the voters would have provided a perfect opportunity to stand down.  The deficit all but gone, Britain still in Europe, say what you like but it would be something approaching a legacy, and subsequently be embroidered further by the sycophantic newspapers we so love.  Coming out and saying I won't be around come 2020, as well as specifically naming May, Osborne and Johnson as his potential successors is to set off that very contest before we've so much as entered the "short" campaign.

You could understand it somewhat if Cameron was facing a more onerous campaign, such as one featuring the same three debates as were held last time.  Except he managed to humiliate the broadcasters into all but accepting the precise format he wanted, so desperate was ITV to hold any sort of debate again.  Another possibility is he doesn't have any confidence in the campaign as it stands or in the manifesto, and so thought by making it about himself, as he undoubtedly has, it would distract from the other shortcomings.  Except, again, the Tory strategy up to now has been to repeat the words long, term and plan while ripping on Ed Miliband, which if nothing else hasn't seen the party go backwards in the polls.  It could be he's looked at the way the majority of politicians are tired of increasingly quickly, and felt that by making clear he's not destined to "go on and on" he'll avoid the kind of monstering Blair (deservedly) and Brown (less so) continue to receive.

It's a decision so bewildering, in the way it's clearly been planned, made in the softest of interviews with the BBC (Blair also set out his decision to the BBC, incidentally), and so presumably was signed off with Lynton Crosby as Matthew d'Anconservative writes, that makes it all the more difficult to get your head round.  At a stroke it opens up numerous attack lines for Labour (and the rest), whether they be vote Cameron get one of these jokers, or that Cameron is taking the voters for morons, both of which have already started to ring out.  Arguably, vote Cameron get Boris could be attractive to some, but that makes so many assumptions as to be moot.  It also blows a hole straight through one of the other Tory lines we've heard so often, of competence versus chaos.  Rather than provide certainty Cameron has just ensured the next 5 years will be a mess of plotting, skulduggery and infighting, instead of the strong leadership they're so desperate to project.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming.  The way the Conservatives demanded Labour rule out a coalition with the SNP smacked of a leadership that doesn't believe it can win a majority, a line that Miliband and the rest foolishly didn't respond with.  At the weekend the Graun carried a detailed report on how a "praetorian guard" would try to save Cameron for the nation in the event of the party failing to win a majority, a further sign of just how seriously the prospect of failing to be able to govern in any capacity is being considered.  This still doesn't explain why Cameron would make such an admission now though, instead of keeping it in reserve for later in the campaign if a breakthrough in the polls still fails to materialise.

To return to Alex Massie, it really is as though no party wants to win this election.  Surely, definitively, this has to give Labour the kind of fillip they could only have dreamt of.  Cameron makes clear his weakness, his party's coming self-destruction, win or lose.  And yet still you can't shake the feeling they'll screw even this up.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015 

Just the 57 days to go, eh?

There was a rather telling moment during today's prime minister's questions.  After the never knowingly modest David Blunkett had said his piece, David Cameron took the opportunity to pay tribute to the former home secretary.  Blunkett is a remarkable, extraordinary politician (and man), and Cameron for one will never forget the strong leadership he provided after 9/11.  Dave was too kind to mention this leadership included ordering tanks to be placed outside Heathrow only a matter of days before the massive February 15th anti-Iraq war march off the back of a spurious terror alert, the introduction of indefinite detention without charge, struck down by the House of Lords, or how Blunkett, not entirely seriously, suggested dealing with a prison riot with the army if the prison service itself wasn't up to the task.  Cameron also failed to mention their mutual, likely former friend Rebekah Brooks, whom was dining with Blunkett the night she got a little too tired and emotional and ended up smacking her then husband Ross Kemp.

Prior to blowing smoke up the arse of the most right-wing home secretary of the last half century, Cameron was calling Ed Miliband "despicable and weak" for not ruling out an accommodation with the SNP after the election.  Certainly, any politician needing the support of another party to stay in power can only be damaged and reduced by the ignominy of being unable to govern alone, which must surely make it extremely likely Cameron is to be a two-time loser.  How the Tory backbenches will respond to their leader once again failing to win a majority, as the polls suggest is odds on we can't know, but it's not exactly going to further endear him to them.

That the Conservative strategy remains to portray Miliband as not capable of breaking the skin of a rice pudding even as Cameron refuses to go one-to-one with this pitiful excuse for a human being speaks of how increasingly confident they are of returning to power, whatever the make-up of the government turns out to be.  As has so often happened before as an election approaches, the opposition's lead appears to be falling away, with the Tories having gained a slender advantage over the past week.  


Of special note is this has coincided with Cameron making clear he intends to give the debates a wide berth, the latest attempt by the unholy alliance of the Graun, Telegraph and YouTube almost guaranteed to be a similarly forlorn one.  A great example of both the uselessness of opinion polls on anything more complicated than party support, and how the public doesn't know what to think is contained in ComRes's attempt to gauge feeling on the debates.  Apparently Ed Miliband is both right and desperate to challenge Cameron to a head-to-head debate at any time, while, somehow, 18% don't know whether or not the debates will be important in helping them decide how to vote.  You can only presume the same 18% don't know whether or not they like breathing.

Quite why Miliband then decided to spend today plugging away on the debates we can only guess.  Yes, most would rather like them to go ahead, but they don't care enough about them for it to change their vote.  Yes, it makes a mockery of Miliband being weak, but Cameron has the advantage of appearing prime ministerial by, err, being prime minister.  Cameron has long made up for what he's weak on, which is detail on policy, debating and negotiating through sheer chutzpah, almost charisma and the quality of looking vaguely credible.  He's always been a poor man's Tony Blair, but that seems to be good enough for most people.  Compared to Ed, who in the latest ill-advised attempt to fight back invited along the BBC to see just how normal he is, during which they went to his old school to speak to one of his teachers, the kind of thing most of us do rather than run a mile from, it's never going to be much of a contest.

Where Labour's "long" campaign has failed and where the Tories' has succeeded is that Labour has not despite the media cynicism kept banging on about their central themes.  All we've heard from the Tories day in day out has been long-term economic plan and competence not chaos.  It's utter bilge, but it seems to have worked, while Labour have tried and failed to take advantage of events like the disclosure of the HSBC files or the debates.  They've also made some bizarre if not downright foolhardy choices, such as deciding to reopen the tuition fees sore when the current system, fees of £9,000 or not, works pretty well overall.

This doesn't of course mean the Tories are going to gain enough support between now and May to be able to form a majority, especially when you factor in some of those currently saying they'll vote UKIP, SNP or Green will almost certainly return to one of the two major parties.  It does however make George Osborne's final budget next week all the more important, with the suggestion being he'll rein back the cuts even if only somewhat in order to stop Labour claiming they signal a return to the 1930s  We could nonetheless be left with a situation where the Tories are only one or two seats shy of the point where they can form a majority with Lib Dem and DUP support, and as they're in government they'll have the first go, whereas Labour's only realistic option is to govern in a vote by vote arrangement with the SNP, Liberal Democrats and lone Green, and even then the sums might not add up.  If Miliband wants to at least go down with something approaching dignity, he'll spend from now until May the 6th out on the road, not indulging in stunts or trying to cash in on events but campaigning like the weirdo he so obviously is.  He'll probably fail, but just imagine the smirk being wiped off Cameron's face when he is forced into resigning, the natural party of government still not having won an election since 1992.  That has to be a prize on its own.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015 

Still mass debating the debates.

It really can't be stated enough just how much of a blinder David Cameron has played from a position of weakness on the debates, or increasingly likely non-debates, and what a spectacularly craven one the broadcasters have from a position of strength.  For months before the first proposal sources made clear Cameron would do everything possible to avoid a repeat of what he and his advisers felt was a debacle last time round, when Clegg seized the advantage they felt was rightfully theirs.

Rather than adapt their bids accordingly, they walked straight into Craig Oliver's trap.  Dave debate with Nige? Not without Natalie there to snipe at Ed and Nick from their blind sides.  Instead of saying OK and calling his bluff, they came up with the completely ridiculous and unwieldy idea of also inviting Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and to two rather than just one of the showdowns.  Why then not invite the DUP as well, or Sinn Fein, the Natural Law party, the Pirates, the Real Elvis continuity wing?  There didn't seem to have been the slightest thought put into how a 7-leader debate could possibly work, presumably because they were expecting Miliband and Clegg to now say hang on, this is becoming a joke.

Only they didn't, apparently believing the pressure on Cameron to take part would become too much.  It hasn't, as was predictable considering there isn't as much demand for the debates as the broadcasters, heady from the belief the debates were the campaign last time, and the other parties have convinced themselves.  Then you also have to factor in the lack of pressure from the press, both as they have an interest in not helping out the broadcasters and as most have already dismissed Miliband as only slightly less weird than Arnold Layne, making anything that could prove them wrong extremely unwelcome.  If it was Miliband refusing to be involved you can imagine the uproar, the jibes, taunts, the multiple interns in chicken suits that would be following him around everywhere.  As it's Cameron he'll raise the ire only of the Daily Mirror, and their stock isn't exactly high at the moment.

Now we have Oliver and Cameron's "final" offer, and it's playing the broadcasters at their own game.  You wanted 7 leaders, you've got it, but we're only doing one and before the campaign proper gets under way.  As contemptible as this is for all the reasons the other politicians have spent the day outlining, you also can't help but admire the way it's been done.  It's been Campbell-esque in its evil genius, which is no doubt why it's annoyed the man himself so much.  Having a debate before the Conservative manifesto has been published is all but pointless, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, as is one when the very presence of at least two of the leaders is completely irrelevant to most of those watching as they can't vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru whether they like the sound of their policies or not.  Even if answers to questions were limited to two minutes, that's nearly quarter of an hour that's going to be spent on just each leader's opening gambit.  No wonder Cameron thinks he'd escape completely unscathed from such an encounter.

And so we are once again left with the broadcasters threatening to "empty chair" Cameron.  Only because of the impartiality rules the Conservative policy would have to be outlined regardless, quite possibly by a journalist, making the spectacle even more ludicrous, and leaving the one-on-one debate with Miliband presumably transformed into either a long-form interview with Paxman or a town hall style non-event.  The question is who comes out of such silliness looking worse, and Cameron will quite happily take a few negatives headlines rather than risk Miliband appearing prime ministerial a week before voting.  Channel 4 and Sky offering to move that debate forward yesterday was all the encouragement Cameron and Oliver needed to make a final mockery of the "negotiations".  What a mess, and for all the cowardice, cynicism and calculation of the Conservatives, the incompetence of the broadcasters has been just as remarkable.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015 

Mass debating the debates.

Is there anything more thrilling, more guaranteed to get the pulses racing than a debate about having debates?  Does parliament get any more electrifying than when the back and forth is effectively the equivalent of two eight-year-olds saying I know you are but what am I?  Could the public, supposedly completely engaged and at one with the leaders demanding the debates take place, in fact be any less interested by this cavalcade of nonsense, from both the political parties and the broadcasters?  Is that enough rhetorical questions for an opening paragraph?  (Yes. Ed.)

Christ alive.  If anything, what I find most perplexing about this entire farrago is the insistence, best expressed by Roger Mosey, that "In a short time, television debates have become a vital part of our democracy".  To which I say: bollocks.  What they most certainly have become is very lucrative indeed for the broadcasters, especially when budgets have been slashed for news gathering in general.  Why bother to follow the party leaders around the country on the campaign trail when you can let a skeleton crew do that and instead concentrate on those heavyweight clashes between the big three, or indeed four, or even five?  David Cameron is of course prevaricating over the inclusion of the Greens when he just doesn't want to take part as there is no possible way he could gain from the debates unless Farage shoots Clegg and Miliband dead while a bodyguard takes the bullet intended for him, but all he's really doing is reverting back to practice before 2010.

What's more, there's a decent case to be made for having no debates at all, or just the one between Cameron and Miliband.  Everything about our political system makes the presidentialising (or infantilising, if you prefer) of party leaders problematic.  Just look at the outcome in 2010: "Cleggmania" led to the Lib Dems increasing their share of the vote, only for the way those ballots were spread across the country to mean the party in fact lost seats.  However you try to dress it up, come May we'll be casting votes not for a party leader, but a party's local candidate.  Only those lucky enough to live in Witney, Doncaster North or Sheffield Hallam will have the chance to personally support one of the big three. 

For all the uncertainties over the election outcome, there's also no doubt the prime minister will either be from the Conservatives or Labour.  Unlike in presidential systems, our party leaders also do regularly go up against one another, although the quality of their tete a tete's are not always as high as they could be.  True, they rarely face questions direct from the public, but it's also not as if they won't have answered the ones set to be posed dozens of times before.  There's something to be said for taking a leader out of their comfort zone and seeing if they get agitated or crumble under studio lights, and they clearly serve a purpose for all those smart enough not to follow politics or the news in any great depth, but otherwise they are supremely overrated and over analysed events.

Whether they suck the life out of the campaign as a whole though, as Cameron is felt to believe the debates did in 2010 is more open to question.  Also different this year is the campaigns have already effectively started; most people won't be taking any notice till around the start of April, it's true, but can anyone really say they're looking forward to Cameron then repeating for the umpteenth time it's a choice between competence or chaos?

Besides, this isn't for once a mess of the big three's making.  The broadcasters must have known the second they started making plans for Nigel every other smaller party would demand they get a hearing too.  Invite him and you surely have to invite the Greens; invite the Greens and you may as well get the SNP and Plaid Cymru in too, as otherwise they'll start whinging despite not standing candidates outside of Scotland or Wales.  As to whether this makes the entire thing even more ridiculous, or impossible to contain to 90 minutes, let's worry about that nearer the date.  Oh, except this provided Cameron with his excuse to back out.

Only now comes the call for the broadcasters to go ahead without Cameron should he continue to refuse to attend.  Really?  This isn't HIGNFY where Roy Hattersley can be replaced by a tub of lard with hilarious consequences, it would render the entire spectacle completely pointless, a bit like those wonderful debates between Clegg and Farage last year that no one watched.  If the incumbent doesn't go along with it, it snookers the entire process,  and would surely also be unfair to Clegg, who'll be left having to defend the coalition at the same time as he'd like to be distancing himself from it.  For all the half serious half snide remarks about how without Natalie Bennett the debate would be one between four men on the centre-right, it would also result in Clegg and Miliband ganging up on Farage, which if they sat back and thought it through is unlikely to help them much either.

Surely the best solution is as the Graun suggests, for ITV to call Cameron's bluff and invite Bennett regardless of what Ofcom's final decision is.  If they won't, and the wider media really is sincere about this being what the public expect now and the very essence of democracy and so on, they should step into the breach themselves.  Otherwise, is it really unimaginable for there to be a campaign which doesn't revolve around the leaders and instead is about, horror of horrors, policy?  Would it be possible for the manifestos to be somewhat gone over and compared with each other, for instance, or even a series of films on what the issues are in different constituencies across the four nations?  Are we back asking rhetorical questions again?  (Yes. Ed.)

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014 

The ghosts of Tory Christmas future.

There is one, and one comfort only to be taken if worst comes to worst and the Conservatives win a majority next May: David Cameron will continue to lead the party.

This isn't out of grudging respect for David Cameron's achievements as prime minister.  Having never understood the appeal of a man who seems to emanate insincerity, who is easily discombobulated and angered (see PMQs most weeks), and who can also express faux anger if the need takes him, about the only positive to be taken from his time as head of the coalition is he will have guided it through the past five years without it collapsing.  This of course has much less to do with Cameron himself and more with the Liberal Democrats staring into the electoral abyss, the Tories also unconvinced they could win a majority in the event of it breaking apart, but slight achievement it is nevertheless.

Cameron is however a titan, a veritable Alexander the Great as compared to those whom aspire to be Tory leader should he fall under a bus or that majority continue to be unobtainable.  Fighting like a sackful of rats and tomcats are George Osborne and Theresa May, with the latest skirmish resulting in Theresa May's special advisers being denied the safe parliamentary seats they believed they were entitled to, supposedly for refusing to do their bit in the Rochester by-election.  Their demotion was, according to the Mail, approved by Cameron, who for reasons known only to himself appears to favour his chancellor moving next door when the time comes.

As mysterious as the charms of Cameron are, those of Theresa May remain as hidden or indeed as illusory as the lost city of Atlantis, and just as cold.  May's rise seems to stem purely from how she's managed to last the full term as home secretary, which as with Cameron speaks much of just how many powers the Home Office has farmed out as it does about her competence.  If nothing else she's managed to stare down problems which destroyed past holders of the office: like the little difficulty with Bodie Clark, or more recently the various immigration reports she delayed publishing, not to mention how while it's unfortunate to lose one head of a child abuse inquiry, to have two resign isn't so much carelessness as sustained buffoonery.  Not having the right-wing press tearing lumps out of you merely for being a Labour home secretary also helps matters.

Dear old Georgie by contrast remains in the race if only due to his superpower of placing sycophants in various government departments.  Not content with having once smashed his party's ratings with the omnishambles budget, his autumn statement with its promise of "colossal" cuts seems to have seen resulted in blowback once again.  Admittedly, only some polls are showing a lengthening of Labour's slight lead, but considering how in the immediate aftermath the spin was about how Osborne had once again made a silk purse out of Ed Balls's scrotum, it's enough to suggest his great shrinking the state gambit isn't working out.

And then we have Boris Johnson.  Anyone who's read Just Boris will be all too aware of quite how unprincipled, hungry for power and determined to get it at any cost the London mayor is.  Hidden beneath the artistry veneer of being upper class twit of the year is a venal liar without scruples, and a libido that would embarrass Russell Brand.  All things considered, he's probably the least worst potential candidate.

Whether Cameron can hang on in the event of his party again emerging with the most seats but without a majority depends on whether the backbenches could be convinced to back a two-time loser for a third time.  Would Cameron really be capable of getting the fabled majority in a snap election following the collapse of a minority administration?  Would the alternatives be any better?  Can you imagine George Osborne helming the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU?  Theresa May being softened by the usual advisers in an attempt to make her likable?  Boris Johnson doing anything other than his Macavity act, one that would put Gordon Brown's in the utmost perspective?  Trust me, the horror could be only just beginning.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014 

Bringing out the worst.

By-elections in marginal seats always without fail bring out the absolute worst in politicians.  They know full well that in the grand scheme of things i.e., as a guide to what might happen at the general election they're meaningless, and yet still they campaign as though it's the last ballot ever.  Every Conservative MP we're told has been ordered to visit Rochester and Strood 3 times, while cabinet ministers are expected to have made the journey 5 times.  Bizarrely, no one seems to have connected this swamping of the constituency with those lovable rogues from Westminster and the continuing rise in support for UKIP.  Can you imagine just how hellacious it must be to turn one corner and see Michael Gove in all his finery, and then discover Jacob Rees-Mogg further down the road holding forth on the iniquities of EU farming subsidies?  And this has been going on for a month.

24 hours before the vote and the campaign has predictably ended in a battle over whether it's the Tories or UKIP who are going to be nastiest to migrants.  For sure, it's being conducted as though it's truly outrageous Mark Reckless could ever have suggested Poles might be repatriated should the UKIPs' vision of leaving the EU become a reality, while the UKIPs for their part are feigning contempt for Tory candidate Kelly Tolhurst's letter-cum-leaflet which nearly suggests people might not feel safe walking the mean streets of Rochester because of uncontrolled immigration, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The fight over who can move closest to shutting our borders completely without being objectively racist or invoking the old policies of the BNP/National Front has been going on for some time now, and just when you think they've gotten near as damn it, they inch ever nearer.  The "go home" vans were just the start.

Because the by-election is obviously all about immigration, see?  It's all the Tories want to discuss, it's all Labour wants to broach, and err, are the Liberal Democrats bothering to stand a candidate?  Oh, they are.  That's £500 wasted then.  It's also the only topic the media wants to cover, as they can't seem to handle the idea a by-election might be about more than just the one issue, especially when they decided beforehand it was the only thing anyone was interested in.  As Frances Coppola writes, and she's unlucky enough to live in the constituency, even the BBC's local political editor says it's the immigration, stupid, and this in a piece headlined issues beyond immigration and in which she concedes the main topic of discussion on the doorsteps is the local NHS hospital.

Other reporters point towards concerns about the Medway as well and, staggeringly, this might just be why Mark Reckless despite being far less popular than UKIP itself seems to be winning.  It's also no doubt helpful the Conservatives haven't learned anything from the Eastleigh by-election, where it was decided their candidate should try and out-UKIP the UKIPs and came third for her trouble.  Tolhurst if elected will apparently "demand something be done" immediately, although seeing as David Cameron is yet to figure out exactly how to temper free movement without angering business and coming off the worst at the European Commission it's not exactly clear what the tactic will achieve.

Then we have the never knowingly unconfused Labour party.  Last week Ed made great play of how Labour wouldn't pander to UKIP, as once you looked "[at their vision] it is not really very attractive".  This week, first up was Yvette Cooper informing the world one more time it's not racist to be concerned about immigration as she announced yet another new border force, this time complete with shiny uniforms, and then yesterday it was Rachel Reeves' turn.  Apart from the heart sinking at the very mention of the name, it's an odd sort of not pandering to all but agree with the greatest myth of them all, that it's the welfare system attracting EU migrants and not the promise of better paid work, or increasingly, a job at all.

In the name of listening to real concerns people have Labour will prevent migrants claiming out of work benefits until they've paid into the system for two years, an arbitrary period of time if there ever was one, and also stop migrants from claiming child tax credits and child benefit for children back in their home countries.  Reeves also intends to look at migrants claiming tax credits in general, as "it is far too easy for employers in Britain to undercut wages and working conditions ... knowing that the benefit system will top up their income".  The inference seems to be it's fine if Brits have their income topped up in such a way as has become the norm, rightly or wrong, while for migrants it's a subsidy too far.

Quite apart from the obvious problem of basic fairness, one the EU isn't likely to peer kindly on, it once again makes you wonder if the logical next step isn't to extend the same restrictions on JSA to everyone. Small things like how claimants are sanctioned for the slightest alleged "infraction" don't matter, nor does the false economy of reducing so many to relying on food banks, a development Labour has never condemned too loudly, presumably as it has no intention of changing the JobCentre regime.

If as expected UKIP win tomorrow it most likely won't result in the reckoning or further defections some predict.  For a start we're getting too close to next May for there to be any point in more by-elections prior to then, especially when UKIP's real aim has always been to keep the Farage bandwagon rolling on.  Second, if more defections are in the offing, delaying them until nearer the election will damage Cameron and the Conservatives that much more.  Third, it'll go some way towards confirming a pattern: as we saw in Clacton, voters who already favoured their MP aren't too bothered if they move slightly more to the right, especially when most Tory voters are sympathetic to UKIP in the first place.  There was some anger locally at Reckless's betrayal, but if anything Tory support will likely hold up thanks to tactical voting.  Lastly, the sensible will point out how by-elections are always fought on local, rather than national politics.  No doubt however the media and parties both come Friday will be crowing on how it proves immigration is set to dominate next May.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014 

Extremely loud and incredibly close.

John Harris is without a doubt one of the best political commentators we have.  Unlike many of the others with a column and their name in a large font, he bothers to respond to the keyboard hammerers below the line, and he really does go beyond, indeed anywhere but Westminster.  Just though as not getting out enough leads to losing touch, so too can travelling to wherever the next by-election is being held make you think the hot topic of the moment is the most important issue in politics outright.  Add in a straw man, and you pretty much have his piece for the Graun today.

To say I'm bored out of my mind by the immigration debate in general doesn't really cover it.  It's taken the place of the Iraq war in being constantly talked about without anyone ever making an original point or changing their position.  These are the facts: despite claims to the contrary, we've been having a debate about immigration for over half a century now.  Yes, there have always been some people who've shouted racist whenever the topic is broached, mainly for the good reason that up till relatively recently the majority of complaints about immigration, rather than being couched in economic or social terms, were based around skin colour or culture.  This is to simplify massively, but Steve Bell captured how far we've come in his cartoon from last week: we've moved on from the days of "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour" to "if you want a fruit picker from Romania for a neighbour, vote Labour".

Next, Labour did not try and transform the country into a truly multicultural society through immigration, as those who can remember back to the times when it was asylum seekers rather than eastern European migrants who were regarded as the biggest problem facing the country will know.  The mistake in 2004 was not realising the effect opening the borders to A8 states would have, especially when only Sweden and Ireland similarly didn't impose further restrictions.  Even fewer Poles speak Swedish than English, hence why so many journeyed here instead of to Stockholm.  Lastly, as it bears repeating, it's now almost been a decade since the Conservatives under Michael Howard used "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" as a slogan.  Ever tighter limits have since been imposed, except of course when it comes to the EU.

Harris's piece could have almost been in response to my post on Tuesday.  He was though most likely thinking of the works of either Polly Toynbee or Richard Seymour, aka Lenin from the Tomb.  Without referring directly to Harris, Seymour has since tweeted this poll finding, which does rather underline his point.  No, people's worries and fears about migration writ large aren't racist, bigoted or down to prejudice; are however some of those fears at their most base down to as, Seymour puts it, entitlement and chauvinism?  Well, yes.

That topsy-turvy poll finding by ComRes does in its own way sum up the immigration, even the Europe debate in microcosm.  Do we still want the undoubted benefits of being in the EU, that past waves of immigration have brought here?  Certainly.  Are we as keen on the impact on public services, on how towns like Wisbech, Peterborough and Boston have been altered, and just how swift the pace of change has been?  Not so much.  At the same time, the poll makes clear those most concerned about immigration are extremely noisy, as a solid 36% still accept freedom of movement within the EU.  As Flying Rodent has argued, concern about immigration is one of the relatively few areas of public opinion which is pandered to.

And it hasn't worked, for the reason it hasn't addressed the fundamental right of freedom of movement, as politicians haven't had the guts to make the argument for why it's one of the few areas of EU policy they ought to be able to agree has been a success.  Chris answers Harris's question of whether free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour, but that obviously isn't going to convince the people he's been listening to.  What might, and is something Westminster politicians have shied away from as it would reduce their control is, as we now know to a fair extent where the most pressures have been put on public services and housing, the targeting of extra funding to those areas.  This, finally, does seem to be where Labour is moving towards, with Ed Miliband today setting out 5 points around which an immigration bill from his government would be based.  We can quibble about the rights and wrongs of preventing migrants from sending child benefit and child tax credits back to their home nation when Brits working abroad can do the same, but if it helps to staunch public concern then so be it.

If some of the left has been blasé about migration, as Harris puts it, the reason is precisely because of the way we've arrived at this point.  Yes, public concern about immigration has been high in the past, and is high now.  Where though did the current mood have its roots, and is it all about migration or rather migration becoming the rallying point for a whole other myriad of concerns?  Easily forgotten is the way panic was whipped up last year over the looming ending of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians coming here, with the media all but joining UKIP in predicting a movement similar to that of post-2005.  It didn't happen.  What did happen is the economy continuing to recovery, albeit without a similar recovery in living standards, the former leading to workers in western rather than eastern Europe looking for jobs further afield.  The fault is not with the migrants, but with the joint failings of late capitalism and politicians both here and in Europe.

For all the insults and asking of what the "modern left" would do, Harris himself doesn't offer a solution other than restricting free movement, despite how this both isn't going to and shouldn't happen.  We could start with being straight with the public rather than continuing to lie to them.  Who knows, it might just begin to have an effect.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 

Farage's face, staring out - forever.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell through O'Brien offered as a picture of the future a boot stamping on a human face - forever.  It's a visceral, shocking image you want to turn away from, yet it's not as horrifying as the current vision of the future we are presented with.  It still involves a human face, only rather than it being stamped on, there's a rictus grin across its mug, the eyes bright, teeth being flashed for all their worth.  The face, all but needless to add, belongs to Nigel.

Future historians looking back on the coalition government will have plenty to examine and debate over.  They will wonder how a government which insisted it was dealing with a national emergency, the size of the budget deficit, could first choke off the recovery left by the previous government by cutting back capital spending and then conjure to provide a recovery of their own in which the deficit fails to fall.  They will try to reach conclusions over whether it was the emphasis on cuts to the welfare budget by this government that led inexorably to the dismantling of the system of social security as the country had known it post-Beveridge.  Most significantly, they will be forced to consider how despite presenting himself as a strong leader, David Cameron was in fact the embodiment of a weak prime minister, at every step giving in to the worst instincts of his party rather than pursuing what was right for the country.

The evidence for just such a finding is there in abundance.  Most fundamental will be the colossal error Cameron made in January 2013, announcing in a speech that if returned to power in 2015, his government would hold an in/out referendum on remaining in the European Union by 2017, after a successful "renegotiation" with the other member states.  Designed to win over backbenchers complaining about his leadership and the party's standing in the polls, it does for a matter of days.  Having succeeded in pressurising a leader they have never taken to and never will into making one promise, they quickly demanded he move sooner.  They make clear their displeasure at legislation not being present in the Queen's speech preparing for the referendum, and again, Downing Street soon gives in.

Not that it was only backbenchers taking the credit for Cameron's shift.  In another example of Cameron's reckless promises coming back to bite him, prior to the 2010 election he set out how a Conservative government would bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the "tens of thousands".  At first it looked as though he might achieve his aim, only for the continuing economic woes in the Eurozone to result in a surge of migrants from the western European states most affected by austerity coming to the country.  Immigration duly becomes second only to fears over the NHS in people's concerns, not because of it having a personal impact on most, but as a catch-all complaint over the sense of drift, the general feeling of powerlessness most are experiencing as real wages fall and politicians refuse to offer anything resembling a vision of where the country is heading.

So desperate are the public they look anywhere for an alternative.  In any other circumstances Nigel Farage would be an incongruous figure, a deeply boring, petty man who covers up for his party's lack of policies and rigour with an overarching narrative: things ain't what they used to be, and it's all the fault of the European Union.  Nigel smokes tabs, drinks beer, and so delights a media starved by the blandness and sterility of the focus grouped out of existence political elite.  They can't get enough of him, and the publicity combined with the mood of hopelessness leads to his UK Independence Party winning hundreds of council seats, before it comes out on top in 2014's European parliament elections.  Rather than bother to submit Farage himself to anything resembling proper scrutiny, with a very few select exceptions, the media instead focus on those lower down the party structure.  All the while the personality cult of Farage continues to build, to the point where a former DJ imagines the UKIP leader at Number 10 in a calypso inspired song.  It seems and is completely absurd, and yet the main topic of debate is whether Mike Read's appropriation is racist.

Absurd is the word.  Cameron's weakness knows no apparent bounds.  Only a few weeks ago he offered to his party and by proxy the country the promise he would put freedom of movement at the heart of his renegotiation strategy.  He said he wouldn't take no for an answer.  The outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, points out the answer could only be no when the rest of the EU, imposing its own restrictions on benefits or not, has not the slightest intention of curtailing one of the EEC's founding principles and biggest successes.  Panicked further by the prospect of losing the Rochester by-election, and apparently fearing a leadership challenge in the aftermath, we now learn Cameron is set to announce some form of unilateral restriction on low-skilled eastern European migrants, most likely by refusing to issue them with national insurance numbers.  How this will affect the economy he cares not; nor does he worry over the legal implications.

Cameron's gambit has failed on all fronts.  His backbenchers, meant to be sated by his giving them what they want, now realise they have pushed to the point at which they are closer than ever to reaching their goal of getting Britain out of Europe.  Why on earth would they stop now?  UKIP, meanwhile, has had its every argument validated, continues to gain support and still can point out that the only way to truly control the borders is to leave.  All this, and the Conservatives remain behind Labour in the polls.  The only reason Cameron hasn't been called on this disaster is due to the majority of the press sharing the backbenchers' opinion on the EU, and how they can't imagine anything as terrible as Red Ed in Number 10.  I can.  It's another 5 years of Farage's fizzog staring out from every screen, every alternate sheet of newsprint, every billboard, the same silent laugh emanating from his gob.  You're the one he's laughing at, Dave.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 

Judge actions, not just words.

It's another of those days when you look down the headlines and think, is there really nothing else going on in the world than outrages about who said what to whom, and arguments over whether the threats of one side are more reprehensible than their opponents'?  Well, admittedly, there is, it's just the other big story continues to be Ebola, which is still failing miserably to gain a foothold in the West, whereas it continues to ravage West Africa, killing poor black people, who aren't quite as important.  Also we already seem bored about the siege of Kobani, for similar reasons.

We come then to Lord Freud's comments about disabled people and the minimum wage at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference.  If you completely ignore the context in which he was speaking, then yes, they really are as bad as they look on the surface.  Minister says some disabled people aren't worth the minimum wage!  He must resign forthwith!  Look closer however, and it becomes apparent he was responding to a question from a Tory councillor who related an anecdote about a person who wanted to work but at the same time found it difficult to do so and keep the same entitlement to benefits.  The solution David Scott found was to set him up as a company director, meaning he could do some gardening, get paid for it and not be penalised for doing so.

The conversation is admittedly not conducted in language which everyone would use: Scott talks of the "mentally damaged" not "being worth the minimum wage" and goes on to speak of "them" in a more than slightly patronising, if not outright offensive way.  He is though describing the contradiction between wanting to help the sick and disabled either back into work or to be able to work, and how the system currently immediately ends support once it's deemed someone's capable of holding down a job.  Freud in response mentions universal credit, which to a certain extent is meant to be able to adapt to fluctuations in the number of hours someone works, then agrees with Scott on "there is a small, there is a group ... where actually they're not worth the full wage".

How far Freud is agreeing with Scott on his overall point and just repeating his words is obviously open to interpretation.  He has since apologised on precisely these grounds, saying he shouldn't have accepted the "premise of the question", while making clear the disabled should "without exception" receive the minimum wage.  Certainly, if Freud really does believe a group, however small isn't worth the full wage he can't remain in his position.

Always you should consider a person, or in this instance government's deeds alongside their words.  David Cameron, reasonably enough, said he would take no lectures on looking after disabled people; perhaps though he should take some responsibility for the coalition's woeful record on the work capability assessment and how Iain Duncan Smith insisted everyone needed to go through the system again regardless.  That's not to forget the botched introduction of the personal independence payment system, still causing misery, the closing of more of the Reemploy factories or the impact the "spare room subsidy" has had on the vulnerable.  Also needing to be factored in is how many disabled people have reported feeling under suspicion, such has been the change in mood towards anyone who might be claiming benefits.  The coalition can't take the blame for all the anti-scrounger rhetoric, not least as Labour first encouraged it while in power, but it picked up where they left off.  On your works ye shall be judged, and the Tories and indeed the nice, caring Lib Dems must be.  Harshly.

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Monday, October 13, 2014 

The UKIPs are coming!

Last week's by-election results told us precisely nothing we didn't already know.  In Clacton, a popular local MP won back his own seat after resigning it as part of a marketing campaigning designed to keep the Nigel Farage beerwagon rolling.  In Heywood and Middleton Labour won back their safe seat, the party's share of the vote holding up.  Only of slight interest is how the party's majority was cut to just over 600 votes, as it shows how people vote differently in by-elections: the Tory, Lib Dem and BNP vote collapsed (the BNP, still in turmoil, didn't stand) and UKIP profited as a result.  Some Labour supporters no doubt switched to UKIP as a protest, with former Lib Dem voters going back to Labour making up the difference.  Moreover, apathy, non-interest or the pox on you all mentality were the real winners, with a turnout of just 36%.

And yet, and yet, because the former meant the UKIPs finally have a seat at Westminster, which hopefully means everyone can now shut up about it, and the latter obviously means the UKIPs could possibly, maybe, have a major impact on the outcome of next year's general election, even if they don't win more than a handful of seats, if that, all we've heard since has been the equivalent of the UKIPs are coming!  The UKIPs are coming!

Yes, just when you thought the why-oh-whying had withered slightly, the number of here's why UKIP is getting so much support articles and think pieces reaches 9,000 againThe same old points are made over and over: it's immigration stoopid; it's because the political elite are all professionals, never had a real job in their lives; they don't communicate in plain English, can't get their message across with descending into slogans and wonk-speak; they're all the same; and so interminably on.

The fact is there are clearly different explanations for why UKIP has gained support in some areas, hasn't in others and will most likely fall back substantially come next May.  I think John Harris has overstated at times the UKIP "surge", but his piece on Clacton last week nailed why Douglas Carswell was always likely to retain his seat, albeit for a different party.  Telling people just how right-wing Carswell was, the response was one of not caring.  UKIP has become a "safe" protest, an anti-immigration party that isn't racist, merely xenophobic, albeit one fronted by a former metals trader with a German wife.  Carswell's more out there politics were counteracted by his being a good constituency MP, while most former Tory voters were more than happy to support his shifting slightly further to the right.  If there was anger or doubts about the use of public money to stage an unnecessary by-election, those unimpressed stayed at home.  Clacton also fits, as John B has noted, the pissed off at the march of progress demographic as first identified by Lord Ashcroft's polling, and perhaps exemplified by Tilbury.  People who don't properly know why they're angry, who are opposed to change yet also don't want things to remain as they are.

Apart from opposition to immigration there's not much that unites them apart from contempt and a sense of being abandoned.  Hence the desperate search for just why it is they feel this way, with some of the reasons alighted upon saying more about the insecurities of politicians and journalists than getting to the heart.  Voters saying politicians don't understand their lives doesn't mean they want them all to talk like Farage, nor have they've developed an instant aversion to PPE graduates, as Owen Jones seems to believe.  An amalgam of the crash, the resulting austerity, continued anger over the expenses scandal, the belief that London and the surrounding area dominate everything, a "popular" media that focuses on the negative, while the "serious" puts undue emphasis on ephemera and identity politics as opposed to that of the everyday, along with just good old general alienation and the lack of difference between the big three parties is largely how the majority have reached this point.  They've been further encouraged by a media that is enthralled as much as some of it is appalled by UKIP, to the point where certain sections view the party almost as their creation.  The emergence of a fourth party is also exciting, or at least is in comparison with much else of politics, and so the hype feeds itself.

There's danger in both over and under-reacting to all this by the parties.  The Conservative response has been a mixture of not understanding it combined with appeasement: freezing in work benefits at the same time as promising a giveaway to the upper middle is almost precisely how not to win back working class UKIP defectors, while the moves on Europe merely demonstrate how there's little point in voting for a party that only goes halfway towards the exit and has encouraged the Carswells and Recklesses to make their move.  Labour doesn't really want to talk about immigration full stop, whereas it should recognise it made a mistake in 2004 while arguing in reality it's the least of our problems.  The Lib Dems meanwhile have just gone the complete anti-populist route, and it's not exactly won them many friends.

Should Mark Reckless manage to win in Rochester and Strood then it might be worth getting concerned.  The Tories are set to throw everything at it, while in normal circumstances it's a seat Labour should be taking in a by-election.  Even if Reckless fails, the announcement today that Farage has been invited to one of the leader's debates underlines how the media certainly doesn't want to let their little engine that could run out of puff.  If UKIP have won enough support to be represented, then surely the Greens and SNP should be too, especially when either or both genuinely would bring a different perspective to proceedings.  The Graun, lastly, also sounds an ominous note: taxes are going to have to rise after the election, and yet none of the parties have begun to so much as broach the subject.  Should UKIP fall back as some of us believe it will, it or something like it could soon be resurrected when it again turns out a harsh truth wasn't communicated.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014 

The chronicles of Glasgow.

And so to Narnia (surely Glasgow? Ed.) for the Liberal Democrat conference.  For the second year in a row the yellow peril have decamped north of the border, opting not to go somewhere different every 12 months as the other parties tend to, presumably as booking the hall 2 years in a row was the cheaper option.  Never let it be said the Lib Dems don't know how to save money.  Indeed, such has been their dedication to making the most out of old material, at times you could be forgiven for wondering if they weren't just giving last year's speeches again, hoping no one would notice.  Certainly the media wouldn't have done, and with reports of plenty of delegates leaving before Clegg's main speech, the hall apparently less populated than it was for Vince Cable's annual bash-the-Tories-let's-hope-everyone-forgets-we're-propping-them-up oration, neither would most of the party's members.

Give the delegates their due: they've continued to oppose the leadership's worst instincts, defeating the party on airport expansion, much to Clegg's chagrin.  If anything can save the party from being all but wiped out come the election, their sacrifices and dedication just might.  What certainly won't is the strategy, or rather lack thereof emanating from the party's advisers.  They just can't work out why it is Nick is so disliked, especially when Cleggmania reigned for a couple of weeks, and when he's so personable, honest, prepared to apologise for broken promises and all the rest of it.  He's the political leader all the focus groups and people in the street when asked the qualities they most admire are effectively describing, and yet he remains less popular than Ebola.

Perhaps the contempt for Clegg and the Lib Dems in general might just be linked to how the party that once tried to be all things to all people has become disliked for that very reason.  If you're a right-wing Tory then Clegg's mob have prevented the coalition from being truly radical, while if you're a Labour supporter or even vaguely left-of-centre then by the same token they've enabled and supported a right-wing administration that's cut the public sector to the bone, privatised Royal Mail, put in place a Health and Social Care act that opens up the NHS to privatisation as never before, froze benefits and introduced the bedroom tax.  Most pertinent of all, if you were a floating voter last time around and plumped for Clegg, loathing Brown and not trusting Cameron, believing Clegg when he promised a new politics, no more broken promises and all the rest, you really have been taken for a ride.  It isn't just tuition fees, although most will point to it as the most glaring betrayal; it's the whole damn package.

Nor does it help when at the same time as they condemn the Tories as evil for proposing to slash the benefits of the working poor to pay for tax cuts for the well-off and poor old Ed Miliband for his never to be forgotten or forgiven failure to mention the deficit, everyone knows they're actively reaching out to both should there be another hung parliament, as the party itself believes.  It takes some almighty chutzpah for Clegg one moment to be going on alarming about an us vs them mentality, the tribalism of right vs left, swinging at both the other main parties, and then once again making the case for how wonderful coalition is with one of those tribes, as though his party's mere presence makes it all better, "undermining the soulless pendulum".

The voting system, for all its faults, does after all protect the Lib Dems to a certain extent.  While the party seems destined to lose most of the seats where Labour is its main opponent, in the constituencies where it faces off against the Conservatives the choice for those on the left is either the Libs or bust.  With the Tories bound to lose a uncertain percentage of support to the UKIPs, they can afford to be quietly confident about hanging on to around 30 or so seats.  It'll mean the party seeing its number of MPs cut in half sure, but the way polling continues to suggest either a dead heat or slight Labour lead it will likely still mean they hold the balance of power.  The nightmare scenario, outlined somewhat by Norman Lamb, is Labour winning the most seats but coming second in the popular vote to the Tories, while UKIP picks up a token number of seats if that but manages to come third in the popular vote ahead of the Libs.  The right-wing press would duly howl about the illegitimacy of a Lib-Lab coalition, something preventable had they err, supported the alternative vote, and the likely outcome would be a second election sooner rather than later.

This assumes of course enough former Lib Dem voters return to the fold, something not guaranteed by Clegg's address.  While Miliband spoke for over an hour and yet managed to say very little, Clegg had everyone heading for home in 52 minutes, racing through all the reasons why the party has much to be proud about and so should return to their constituencies to await their doom.  Again we heard how the Tories couldn't have stalled the recovery for 2 years without the help of Clegg and Danny Alexander, although he might have phrased it slightly differently, how the raising of the income tax threshold is the greatest single tax initiative of all time, despite how it helps the better off more than it does the poorest, and how the pupil premium has saved the lives of thousands of school children, with teachers and parents coming up to Clegg in the street to thank him.  In spite of the drubbing their anti-populist strategy took in the European elections, Clegg and his party will be resolute in standing up for liberal values, a position less brave than it seems when there's not really that much further their support can fall.

To give Clegg some credit, his speech was probably the best of an extremely poor vintage.  He's spent the week acting like someone who can go no lower, coming across happier and more content with his lot.  There were some exceptionally dodgy parts, mostly the guff about opportunity all but required by diktat and the parts about "vested interests" where he seemed to be channelling Tony Blair, but this was outweighed to a point by the announcement on mental health services, which if followed through on has the potential to be something resembling a legacy for him.  Sure, his portrayal of the Liberals as the only people who can possibly be fair to society while also strengthening the economy is completely putrid when his proposal is for the same 80/20 ratio of cuts to tax rises as the coalition has been pushing through, still leaving the country in the dark to just how savage the next round of cuts will have to be, but at least it's a start.  His and his party's chief problem is most people made their minds up long ago.  And as the rise of the UKIPs has demonstrated, something akin to realism and shallow decency aren't the sellers they once were.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014 

It's about Farage, not Carswell.

Quirky is one way of describing Douglas Carswell.  Giving a bad name to all the perfectly respectable swivel-eyed loons out there is another, rather more accurate one.  He was certainly far closer to Dan Hannan than Boris Johnson on the libertarian scale of just how out there you can be and still stay in the Tories, and duly, despite a "few sleepless nights", he's off to join the good ship UKIP.

The first obvious criticism to make when that rare thing, an MP resigning only to stand again in the subsequent by-election on a different platform or principle happens, is self-indulgence.  This was thrown at David Davis when he stood down over 42 days detention, and clearly annoyed the Tory leadership despite Cameron just about managing to swallow his pride and campaign for the man he challenged for the leadership.  To give Carswell some credit, he has long campaigned for political reform and the public recall of MPs, a perfectly reasonable measure but one I've always felt could be triggered too easily by single issue campaigners under the system proposed by those pushing for it.

All the same, to stand down and trigger a by-election now, when we are only about 8 months away from the general election doesn't exactly speak of concern for the public purse.  Had he wanted to, Carswell could still have defected and hung on in his seat until the general election, then stand for UKIP.  Indeed, it would probably give him the best possible chance of remaining the MP, seeing as he will now face two votes within the space of 8 months.  He could easily win the by-election, only to lose his Clacton seat next year once the Tories have had time to build their candidate up in the constituency.

This isn't about Carswell though, it's about UKIP, Farage and keeping the party in the headlines right up until the election.  Give the party's adviser Patrick O'Flynn his due, the former Express hack knows both how to time their announcements and how to keep the illusion of pressure up on the Tories.  If making it the same day as the latest immigration figures were published wasn't coincidence, the rise of net migration to 243,000, just the 143,000 above the Tories' target, it couldn't have put their raison d'etre back on the agenda better.  With the media still more than happy to fluff Farage, despite his anointment as candidate for South Thanet guaranteed weeks ago, you can't help but wonder whether the Liberal Democrats are going to be left struggling with the Greens for attention, at least until everyone remembers at best UKIP might, emphasis on the might, pick up 1 or 2 seats next May.

Nor should Carswell get re-elected will he be the first UKIP MP, considering Bob Spink's defection to the party in 2008.  More important is proving Farage right in his prediction the party will pick up seats, or can win at least once, not having managed to do so in all the previous by-elections.  The party must be fairly confident he can take his support with him, as losing would be a humiliation; recoverable from certainly, but the kind of setback Farage has previously said could "puncture their bubble".

The other motive presumably is to put the same idea in the heads of other Eurosceptic Tory MPs, suggesting they too could defect and still keep their seats, being as right-wing as in their dreams, supporting their former party on a case-by-case basis.  It's why the Tories will throw as much at the campaign as they can, hoping they can make the best of a bad situation.  As for Labour, it's a dream: the Tories tearing themselves apart over an issue the public are only exercised about by proxy.  It will also split the vote in Clacton: unlikely as it is they could pick the seat up as a result, it will put under scrutiny the claim from both academics and UKIP alike that they pose as much of a threat to Labour.  Interesting times, at least for us politics nerds, are ahead.

(P.S. There's a simple reason I'm not on Twitter, or Facebook for that matter.  They're not for me.  I really appreciate the kind words about yesterday's post nonetheless.)

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014 

Run for the hills.

Boris Johnson's announcement he intends to return to parliament is about as much of a shock as Tony Blair signing up to shill for another dictator.  Beneath the bumbling act lies a man whose life has been one long tale of relentless ambition, as his biographer Sonia Purnell has documented. Having succeeded in becoming London mayor, it was only a matter of time before he made his move back to the Commons, readying himself for if or rather when there becomes a Conservative leadership vacancy, convinced as he is he was born to be prime minister.

That Johnson has chose to set out his availability now rather than wait until nearer the election and parachute into a safe seat courtesy of a late retiree isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the skills of his former adviser Lynton Crosby and his "Kill Mill" strategy.  Johnson clearly believes regardless of his transparent suggestions to the contrary that Cameron's position should the Tories fail to win is likely to hang by a thread; indeed, you can only really see Cameron remaining leader in the event of a Labour minority government.  A Lib-Lab coalition or outright Labour victory, distant as the latter might seem at the moment, and he would surely be forced to resign.

Johnson is far too canny though to just wait it out, hence the report he commissioned which finds although staying in the EU would be in our best interests, it wouldn't be a disaster to leave either.  Despite Cameron's placating of the right of the party by getting rid of the few remaining holdouts against leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, Johnson is positioning himself as the man to really get us out of the EU, whereas Cameron won't even contemplate his renegotiation strategy failing.  The one problem with this is Johnson is just as socially liberal as Cameron and Osborne (he could hardly not be) something that doesn't sit entirely comfortably with the headbangers who believe the only thing holding the Tories back is a "real" right-wing manifesto and leader.

Whether we'll see Cameron and Johnson on the campaign trail together isn't clear, although you have to suspect we won't be seeing a Tory version of Cameron buying his rival an ice cream.  Those with links to the "players" are making out this was all agreed in advance and how delighted Dave and pals are by Boris deciding to battle on two fronts.  Underneath George Osborne must be seething, his own designs on the leadership having clearly been thrown into the utmost jeopardy.  As for where this leaves Londoners, destined to have a part-time mayor for over a year in spite of Johnson's past promise to not do precisely this, they've never really been at the forefront of his considerations anyway.

The other question is whether the country as a whole could really stomach Johnson as leader of the Tories, let alone prime minister.  You have to go back almost half a century to find someone else with such a how, shall we say, distinctive past in a similar position.  We prefer our leaders if not boring then certainly staid; our most recent flirtation with someone even closely comparable didn't end well for us, although it certainly has for him.  The "Boris ler-gend" cult can only go so far.  Should the Tories not win next year however, making it 23 years since they last got a majority, longer than the 19 Labour spent in the wilderness, they might just be moved to decide Boris couldn't possibly make things any worse.

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