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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Tuesday, July 01, 2014 

When presenting failure as success works.

You furnish decay with innocent hands.  You furnish decay with polymer down.

Politics is a strange, constantly changing, always the same business.  There are times when you can present failure as success and get away with it, and there are times when you can claim failure when you've succeeded and get pilloried for it.  You can travel across Europe, get the signature of a world leader that condemns an entire country and be feted for ensuring peace (at least for a few months), or you can go to Brussels, be completely humiliated, shown up as having precisely no influence over anything, and yet be cheered to the rafters by your backbenchers and most of the media as though you didn't just stop someone unsuitable from becoming EU commission president, but put a lance through their bowel in the bargain.

This is the really odd thing about David Cameron: for all the insults liberally thrown at Ed Miliband, about being weak, a loser, a nerd, weird, by rights the two former jibes should have stuck to our glorious prime minister.  Ever since he went to the Eurozone summit back at the tail end of 2011 and wielded the veto, achieving precisely zilch other than further isolating Britain in Europe, his policy on the EU has been one flub after another, yielding to his backbenchers in a way that would have seen his predecessors condemned as vacillating pygmies.

Pressured by growing discontent at his leadership, he promised an in/out referendum in 2017 following a successful re-negotiation of our role in the EU, believing giving a set in stone pledge would buy off his more intransigent critics.  Instead, as was wholly predictable, they've kept on pushing, trying repeatedly to hold the next government to account by forcing the referendum on to the statute book despite it being utterly futile.  Nor did it have the other desired effect of showing UKIP voters the only way to be sure of a vote is to support the Tories; again, if anything, it's just pushed those already disposed to wanting out to plump for Farage.  Cameron insists he wants us to stay in, after all.  Why would they be bought off with half measures?  To complete the trifecta, it hasn't trapped Labour either, Miliband refusing to promise a referendum when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with, and when staying in is so obviously in our interests.

If another aim was to make it clear to the rest of Europe we could leave, causing concern leading to  continental leaders becoming more amenable to to Tory demands, that's gone for the birds as well.  And no wonder, as the only way most Eurosceptics know how to communicate is through abuse.  Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker is, he's not the most dangerous man in Europe, that old formulation given life yet again by the Sun.  When the Germans, otherwise sympathetic to Cameron and desperate to ensure we don't leave do a volte face and support Juncker, it's not just down to Angela Merkel coming under domestic pressure, it's also in part due to our counter-productive attempts at lobbying, or more accurately described, that odd mixture of threatening and pleading.

We are then according even to Cameron one step closer to the exit.  Juncker's presidency of the Commission will make the re-negotiation more difficult.  Understandably, the likes of Bill Cash and Edward Leigh lap it up, unconcerned at how the exit happens so long as it does.  Nor does the obvious weakness of a British prime minister concern those it would normally excise deeply.  It also doesn't bother them how the increasing likelihood of leaving the EU could affect the Scottish independence referendum, when the SNP have been campaigning on the basis of being a welcoming country, wanting to be an active member of the EU, calling for more immigration rather than less.  The dismay of the vast majority of the business community is something else that can be shrugged off, especially when Labour is seen with such suspicion.

On almost any other issue Cameron would have been filleted had he talked so big and ended up achieving so little.  When the level of debate about the EU is so wonderfully summed up by the classlessness of UKIP MEPs turning their backs in parliament though, the kind of political gesture that would make fifth-formers look like idiots, it just doesn't get through the dissonance.  A man who supposedly wants us to remain in a reformed Europe gave into the demands of his want out MPs at the first sign of trouble, and on every occasion since has multiplied the magnitude of his original error.  If the Tories win in 2015, a huge if, he faces the nightmarish prospect of having to bargain and cajole those he and other members of the cabinet have insulted, knowing it could end up in a choice between putting either the interests of the country or himself as Tory party leader first.  Going by his past decisions, it's not difficult to ascertain which option he'd go for.

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Monday, May 26, 2014 

About as informative as Eurovision.

Taking the results of the European elections too seriously, in this country at least, is about as worthwhile as looking for deeper meaning in the corresponding voting in the Eurovision song contest.  Did the continent vote for Conchita Wurst because his was the best song, or because he's a drag artist with a luxuriant beard? Was his victory in fact a strike against Russia, for tolerance and peace, or simply down to how there's nothing quite like a novelty act?

Who knows, and who cares.  As for our own verdict, it was revealed the day after Wurst only came out on top due to the jury vote, as those calling in overwhelmingly favoured the Polish entry, notable only for its pneumatic butter churners. Either the Polish population voted e nmasse, or a whole lot of British men are truly that led by their dicks. Sadly, the latter seems the more likely explanation.

We have then been duly shaken by the UKIP earthquake, with some stirred up a hell of a lot more than others. I'm having problems getting too worked up, first as the results tell us even less than the locals did, and second as it was all too predictable. Labour always does poorly; the right always does well; and if they're lucky a fourth party makes something that looks approximate to a breakthrough. This time we haven't so much as had that, not even the not shock of the Lib Dem collapse telling us anything we didn't know already.

Farage himself described it as being an opportunity to land a free hit, and for once he couldn't have been more right. Reporting on what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg is all but non-existent, for the very good reason no one's interested. Considering we seem to be turning into a country where disengagement with politics is such many wear their ignorance with pride, the idea most voted on anything other than the broadest of strokes or tribal loyalties simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Some are after all trying to suggest great shifts on the basis of a 36% overall turnout, still less than it was a decade ago. When Blair won a comfortable majority in 2005 with a 35% share of the vote on a 61% turnout plenty went on about the inequities of our electoral system; UKIP winning a 27% share, impressive as it is for a fourth party, is hardly the stuff of nightmares.  Also needing separating out is the places where the surge for UKIP is clearly down to immigration, such as Boston, Great Yarmouth and Thanet South, with the party getting above or close to 50% of the vote, and those areas where it is just lashing out or Tory voters going further right, as they have before.

Lovely as it would be to think a solid proportion of the British public have suddenly come round to the idea of creative destruction, voting for a party not interested in doing much other than collecting expenses and being generally unpleasant, the more prosaic explanation is the one fingered by Flying Rodent. The European elections give those bothered enough the opportunity to show their true colours, and it isn't pretty. For every person voting for the UKIPs because they are worried about immigration and how they've been lied to, concerned at the pace of change and loss of identity, as the more earnest academics and politicos insist, there are another 9 who voted Farage precisely because they think the country's been going downhill since the Windrush docked.  Moreover, we have two newspapers pushing that view day in day out, with another couple sympathetic towards it, regardless of how the Sun last week suddenly decided Farage was just a teensy bit racist.

Clearly, the main parties have to do a fuck of a lot more to persuade that one voter they understand their concerns. They need to stop pretending they can control immigration and make the case for it in terms of benefits it gives our own citizens, while at the same time acknowledging the pressure it has brought on housing and jobs. Labour has tried to do this with its work on zero hour contracts, the minimum wage and rent, something yet to have an impact, mainly because they've shied away from making clear the connection with the I word. They should have also attacked Farage personally at the same time, rather than his party's basement dwellers.

For in spite of the shameless spin from the right-wing press over the weekend, these were encouraging if not outstanding results for Labour. Anything over 300 seats in the local elections was a good result, something they achieved, while coming ahead of the Tories in the Euros wasn't guaranteed. Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll ought to give the party real hope, and Miliband himself can't possibly have as bad a campaign as he did again. The Lib Dems by contrast look doomed, and finally seem to have realised how deep a hole they've got themselves in, just as the Tories have apparently decided to fight the general election on personality rather than policies. UKIP can't be dismissed as a mere distraction, but will fall if/when pushed hard enough. Overreacting is precisely what Farage is betting on. Whether the Tories fall into his trap again remains to be seen.  Everyone else should surely have learned not to by now.

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Friday, May 23, 2014 

12 month warning.

Local elections generally aren't supposed to offer much insight as to what will happen at a general election. This time round that doesn't ring quite as true, while the results also aren't telling us anything we shouldn't already know. Confused?

The media certainly have been. This morning they were frotting the UKIPs more than a Jack Russell with priapism does the nearest leg. Breakthrough! Earthquake! Surge! 12 hours on and it turns out they were a little premature: yes, 155 seats is an impressive result, and clearly the party is taking votes from everyone, not just the Tories or the BNP. Compare it to their result last year though, when they won a 23% share, on a day when there were no other elections to motivate their supporters, and dropping back to 17% doesn't suddenly look so conquering. No doubt their counter argument would be if you strip London out of the equation it would look very different, while becoming the main opposition on a couple of councils is exactly the bedrock they need to challenge for seats as Westminster.

Well, maybe. Problem for the Faragists is these were elections practically made for the party. They've had weeks of publicity, the two debates with Clegg gave him an advantage the other minor party leaders would have killed for, and up until last Friday no one had so much as bothered to call him as opposed to the party's social media pink oboe players on their innate xenophobia/casual racism. If the party fails to win the European elections outright, as now seems more likely than it did before, 2013 could yet turn out to be their peak.

Not that this lets the big three off the hook, or means the UKIPs couldn't play havoc next year without winning a seat. In a campaign dominated by immigration Labour didn't want to so much as mention the word. Yes, the party's probably on a hiding to nothing whether it broaches the subject or not, but to let Farage get away for so long with his Romania-baiting was unbelievably stupid. People are opposed to immigration in general, not to specific groups, unless that is they're in the man's own image. If the Tories are still the nasty party, what on earth does that make the UKIPs?

Equally bizarre have been some of the responses as to why UKIP has succeeded and where the main parties have been going wrong.  From which planet do you have to be for Farage to look and sound more human than the rest of the political class?  Granted, when that class includes Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone and Grant Shapps, who more resembles Edd the Duck minus the intelligibility than he does your average homo sapiens it's not always difficult, but really?  Are some honestly falling for the whole a-fag-and-a-pint, whoops missus look out for that immigrant act, or is it they're voting for a party presented as being a safe protest and who've been hyped as no fourth party has been before?  Also popping out of Tory mouths has been welfare reform, which correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think I've heard a single person so much as mention as being one of the issues urgently needing more work.

The overriding message is the same as it has been since the crash, arguably since 2005.  Not just a plague on all your houses, but a veritable Old Testament series of pestilences, one after another.  Overall turnout yesterday looks to have been around the standard 35% mark, suggesting it's the same old people who always vote who are engaged, whether they've swapped parties or not, with the rest either not interested or more realistically, fed up with the whole pantomime.  Labour and the Tories are essentially stuck in stalemate, and when both have similar overall policies, even if the differences would be major for those at the margins, it shouldn't come as a surprise.  The polls have been telling us this now for a good few months, with yesterday's shares just reinforcing it.  Come next year the Lib Dems will no doubt recover somewhat, perhaps swapping positions with UKIP; it still won't be enough to get politics out of the muddle it's fallen into.  Personally, I'll be more than happy with a Labour minority government.  If everyone else isn't, here's the 12-month warning.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014 

Nothing changed.

Call me slow, but I'm just a trite confused by today's whole will we or won't we, shall we or shan't we announcement by Ed Miliband on a potential referendum on the European Union.  Not helped by how it was variously reported as meaning Miliband was in favour of a referendum when it's fairly obvious that he isn't, it also ignores that thanks to the wonderful stewardship of the coalition we have legislation on the statute books that requires a referendum in the event of any further power transferring to Brussels.  Technically that would be on whether that specific power should be given over, but not extending it to the question of EU membership entirely would both be seen as a betrayal and pointless.  May as well get the whole darned thing out of the way in one go.  As Labour has never suggested it would look to repeal that act of parliament, however perverse it is to legislate to hold a future government to do something, my assumption was always this was the party's position.

And so it has been confirmed.  The Tories, naturally, believe this is Labour walking straight into their trap.  The EU itself may rank extremely low on most people's list of pressing issues, but immigration is now consistently in the top three, for the precise reason one suspects that regardless of how we still have people insisting you can't discuss it at all no one seems capable of shutting the fuck up about it.  That leaving the EU over free movement of labour would be one of history's defining examples of cutting off your nose to spite your face, such is the way it works both ways, doesn't make much odds to those who have long loathed Europe for entirely different reasons. The thinking seems to be that Labour opposing a definite referendum will make the Tories the only party those who have defected to the UKIPs will even consider voting tactically for.

This, as has been gone over numerous times now, is to misunderstand where the UKIPs support has sprang from. It's not about Europe as much as it's a protest against the country they believe Britain has become, making it difficult to predict just how many of those who've voted UKIP once will go back to either Labour or Tory. There isn't the slightest amount of evidence that promising a referendum is a vote winner for those otherwise disengaged from Europe, despite the polls that suggest people want one, as they'll say that regardless of what the issue is. Moreover, Cameron has made himself a hostage to fortune as there are so many unknowns surrounding his pledge to renegotiate our membership. Even if he gets a few concessions, say on the working time directive, the Tories will be riven between those who just want out and the rest making the best of a bad job, a stay in vote by no means guaranteed.

It is by contrast easy to see why Miliband has clarified precisely what his policy is. The giveaway is the passage in his actually fairly decent speech, announcing how the CBI will be advising on where he should push for expansion to the single market. No surprises then that the CBI warmly welcomed Labour's stance, preferring the known regardless of its complaints about certain EU regulations, whereas the Institute of Directors was far more sniffy. With business otherwise predictably unimpressed by Miliband's positioning, it remains to be seen whether this one policy might make the difference. It's also exactly the same position as the Lib Dems', which should make things easier in case of another hung parliament.

The real point is that today changes nothing, the only caveat being if there really are legions of Labour supporters crying out for a referendum or reform as John Mann insists then it wasn't the wisest move. More likely is it just reinforces what we already knew: Labour and Lib Dems say they want a vote, but only on their terms; Cameron remains beholden to the whims of his backbenchers, and his ability to win a majority looks as dubious as ever; and the UKIPs are the UKIPs. At some point there will have to be a referendum, just not right now.  When that will be remains anyone's guess.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013 

Vote blue, get crap!

You can somewhat see the logic behind "a senior Tory source" being given the OK to brief the Sun and the Mail that our dear PM said it's time to "get rid of all this green crap." Forced into a corner by Ed Miliband's conference speech, and apparently unprepared to go after the big six energy companies for putting up energy prices year after year, the quick fix appeared obvious: dump the subsidies for green energy and the vulnerable which appear on the bill and instead fund them out of general taxation. You'll still pay, you just won't have it pointed out in black and white every quarter. As the source said, it's no longer vote blue, go green, it's vote blue, get real!

Choosing to brief the Sun, which has long since lost its short-lived enthusiasm for all things green due to the sad defenestration of James Murdoch, with Keith never missing an opportunity to tweet about how wonderful fracking is, and the equally antediluvian Mail with Dave's new creed was just bound to lead to positive coverage. Right? Well yes, except for how it pretty much represents the final renunciation of everything he and his supposedly changed party were meant to be for prior to the 2010 election. You can make a case that the coalition's welfare reforms are at least partially about fixing the "broken society" we heard so much about before the election and almost nothing about since, but no one can argue with a straight face the big society has amounted to anything. It was always hysterical that the Tories, plenty of whom are unconvinced climate change is man-made would be the "greenest government ever", yet Cameron went as far as to change the party's damn logo to a tree, not to mention put a mini wind turbine on his house. To abandon it all leaves the equivalent of a gaping hole in the middle of his head.

Little wonder then even ConservativeHome is wondering exactly what Dave is for.  We should perhaps mention Downing Street are denying Dave specifically said the words attributed him by both the Mail and the Sun, but seeing as Cameron and friends have been touting reducing the green levies for a good few weeks now, it hardly seems the source made up the colourful line for exaggerated effect.  Rather, it reflects both the strategy we're told Lynton Crosby has advised, the scraping of "the barnacles off the boat", getting rid of extraneous policies that distract from all those marvellous things the coalition has achieved, such as reducing the deficit (currently £53bn higher than Osborne had planned it to be by this point), welfare reform (don't mention universal credit), immigration controls (net migration nowhere near the promised reduction to under 100,000 a year) and better schools (so long as you want your children to go somewhere that resembles a prison), and Cameron's gambit of saying the smaller state is a good thing, and that you really can do more with less.

Like with the interesting decision by Danny Alexander to say the coalition couldn't have achieved economic stagnation for three years without his party's input, it's certainly one strategy.  The problem is, just as there's little evidence for a shift to the left among the wider public, although Miliband's conference speech undoubtedly brought us towards today, the idea that by returning to their traditional core themes the Conservatives are likely to see their decline arrested simply doesn't stand up.  Despite some of the more old school Tory MPs believing they would have won outright in 2010 if Cameron hadn't gone in for hugging huskies and all the rest, the real problem was, as Nick Boles this week admitted, most people don't believe the party has changed.  They still see it as the party of the rich, policies such as getting rid of the 50p top rate of tax at the first possible opportunity hardly doing much to alter the perception.

More prosaically, to go in the space of 3 years from telling people to vote blue to go green to saying that was a load of crap is just ever so slightly taking the electorate for fools. As Zac Goldsmith tweeted, apparently having heard it in a Westminster tea room, if Cameron can drop something that was so central to his image, he can drop anything.  The point surely though is that Cameron enjoys relative popularity despite not really standing for anything.  Newsnight earlier in the week asked whether Miliband would inspire an ism like Thatcher and Blair, skipping over how Cameron has (so far) failed to.  Cameron does resemble Blair, but only in how during Labour's first term our Tone was Teflon Tony, with nothing sticking to him.  By abandoning the last thing we were meant to think he believed in, Cameron really ought to hope events don't conspire to paint him in a far less attractive light.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013 

We all know what happens to people who stand in the middle etc.

To get a sense of the current flights of fancy afflicting some Lib Dems, you only need to see Ed Davey worrying about how the party might need to introduce all-women shortlists after 2015 to increase their miserable number of female MPs. You might have thought they should be more concerned about the number of MPs they'll have in total after the election, but such is the apparent belief that regardless of how bleak the polls look, everything will be all right on the night.

After all, this time round it won't be the other party leaders agreeing with Nick, it'll be him agreeing with him.  Or so went the feeble joke in his truly dismal keynote speech, Nick agreeing that Dave only cares about the rich while Ed is too irresponsible to be trusted with the economy.  Just as Danny Alexander seems to have found an interesting electoral strategy in saying that the Tories couldn't have kept the economy stagnating for three years without them, so it seems Clegg has decided that the voters will come streaming back if he realigns his party as being the ultimate moderating factor.  They'll be dead centre on the political spectrum, preventing Labour from going too far to the left and the Tories to the right!  Why, just look at what they've stopped the Tories from doing so far!

To give them some credit, Clegg's list of 16 policies they've halted isn't entirely without merit.  His putting his foot down probably has meant the Human Rights Act still exists, that Michael Gove hasn't got entirely his own way as education secretary, although frankly the damage is fairly devastating as it is, and Liz Truss hasn't managed to turn the nation's playgroups into the Ayn Rand School for Tots.  It's that what they've gone along with has been far worse: the axing of the 50p top rate of tax, which the party this week endorsed; the outrageous waste of time and money which was the reorganisation of the NHS; the bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy, as only the government calls it) where 50% of those affected are now in arrears; the scraping of the Future Jobs Fund and the support for the spectacularly useless Work programme as its replacement; and most grievous of all, the backing to the hilt of George Osborne's austerity plan, which will now not end until 2018 at the earliest.  Tim Farron, the party's chairman and supposed conscience even has the gall to claim that the recovery wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for them.

Having abandoned all the positions that made them different to the Tories and Labour, most recently deciding that our "independent nuclear deterrent" is worth keeping after all, just with one less submarine to help cut costs and salve previously troubled minds, all Clegg's left to argue is that his party isn't quite as bad as the other two and this is exactly why it deserves to stay in government.  It seems to work, just about, with the Lib Dem faithful, much as telling people how fantastic they are and how brilliant the stuff they've achieved is does in the short term.  As for everyone else, you can't help but think the party is going to soon get an extremely rude awakening.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013 

Is that the sound of gunfire?

There's something almost touching about the general mood prevailing at the Liberal Democrat conference up in Glasgow.  For a party that is still looking electoral oblivion in the face, they seem to have managed to convince themselves that things will be fine. Really. Honestly. Everything will turn out okay in the end. 

To be fair for at least a couple of sentences, their reasoning isn't completely irrational.  Buoyed by the victory in the Eastleigh by-election, which seemingly proved that local organisation and popularity will trump the vote nationally, they're fairly confident that they can hold on in at least their Tory marginal seats.  This appears to be backed up by Lord Ashcroft's latest batch of polls in those constituencies (which also suggests Labour have increased their lead where they need to win, despite Ashcroft saying the results make him slightly more optimistic for his side's chances), and combined with the changing economic weather, those who have always favoured the coalition have something resembling a message to make about all the pain having been worth it.

Except, if you so much as bother to look slightly more broadly, the positives are clearly outweighed by the negatives.  About the only policy contribution the public look positively on is the rise in the personal allowance, and even then less than half think they deserve credit for it.  If I wanted to be completely factitious I'd suggest this is because it's always been a policy that looks good in principle but doesn't work as well in practice, especially when a cut in VAT would be more progressive, but more likely is that people, regardless of their party allegiance, are simply turned off by the party the Lib Dems have become.

For if there's one that goes in their favour, it's that they still talk a good game.  There's something to be said for seeing ordinary delegates speak for their motions (Sure you don't want to rephrase that? Ed.) on the news bulletins, like the Tories and Labour also did prior to their discovery that party democracy means splits and differences of opinion and both are Very Bad Things Indeed.  The problem for them is that having said these things, they promptly do the opposite when it comes down to it.  Having done nothing to stop the secret courts bill from becoming law, they've now decided they're against it.  The same seems certain to happen with the proposed "default on" filtering of internet pornography; they voted it down, but they hardly seem likely to make a stand on it within government.  Now according to a leaked email they want the rich to pay more in tax (although apparently almost double the average wage doesn't make you well off), despite having, err, went along with the ideological decision by George Osborne to cut the 50p rate before it had a chance to prove its potential worth just a year ago.

The veritable king of this approach is the man once referred to as the sage of Twickenham, the oracle himself, Vince Cable.  Like the many who have gone before him, briefly intriguing the media, Vince seems to have began to believe his own hype.  And just as they gradually turned into their adversaries, so Cable is morphing bit by bit into Gordon Brown. Every year dear old Gordie used to go to conference and deliver a speech that gave the impression he could do a better job than our Tone, and so too now does Cable. Nothing was too hypocritical for him yesterday, as he set about reprising the nasty Tories riff, denouncing their approach to immigration, benefits, and the trade unions to name but three.  All true, naturally, but just a bit redundant when you're either facilitating those policies or doing nothing whatsoever to stop or alter them.  Nor does it reflect well on him when he doesn't seem to have the courage of his convictions. Regardless of whether or not Clegg engineered a vote on economic policy to trap him, speaking up for continued intervention then voting with the party rather than staying away as he planned looks pathetic.

It does however make more sense than the actual party line, which is to claim equal credit for the "recovery". Saying the Tories couldn't have done it on their own is certainly one strategy, but it isn't one you'd recommend unless electoral suicide is the ultimate goal. The hope presumably is that by the election most will have forgotten the three years of stagnation and drift and be optimistic for the future instead. This rather forgets that it's thanks to the flatlining economy that austerity will continue well into the next parliament. Cable's warnings about the type of recovery we're seeing would surely be the correct line to take, yet he's been dismissed as talking nonsense by the same man who wants to share the blame with Dave 'n' George.

The same thinking is behind the "compromise" which will see the Lib Dems claim credit for funding free school meals for primary school students while the Tories get their marriage tax allowance. Decent and praiseworthy policy as a free lunch for kids is, it's hardly worth going along with the Tory bung to the middle classes for. The Tories will simply claim they came up with both, while Clegg and friends will be saddled with a backwards looking piece of bourgeois social engineering.

Lib Dem strategy is built around the belief that this sort of compromise, however unpopular, will stand the party in good stead if another hung parliament ends up being the result of the next election.  This rather ignores just how this particular coalition has put people off them, and yet still the rhetoric is that without their influence, either Labour would ruin the "recovery" or the Tories would go off the deep end into out and out social conservatism.  Dislike it as they may, "coalition" is not going to be an option on the ballot paper.  By abandoning all pretence of winning a majority, despite the prospect being unthinkable, the Lib Dems encourage the belief that their manifesto won't be worth the paper it will be printed on (even more so than already).  Three years ago it seemed as though the party was going to make a true electoral breakthrough.  It didn't, but still gained some semblance of power.  We shouldn't be surprised in two years' time if the predicted by some but scorned by others wipeout becomes reality. 

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Monday, August 12, 2013 

August is hell.

Simon Jenkins is right: August politics is hell.  Anyone with even the slightest amount of sense (or a life) is paying even less attention than normal, which gives free rein to the worriers and the bitter to whine about how their party is doomed to defeat.  Earlier in the year it was the Tories that were staring into the abyss, riven by Europe, embattled by UKIP, staring a triple dip recession in the face.  Little more than 3 months later, and things are looking brighter for the party, although nowhere near as good as their chances of winning the next election are being portrayed in certain areas of the Tory press.

Naturally then, it's now Labour and their hangers-on that are having an attack of the jitters.  Quite why is difficult to ascertain: it's not as though things have changed dramatically.  The party still has a lead in the opinion polls, even if it has been somewhat reduced; the economic recovery, such as it is, is hardly secured, and for now is likely a mirage outside of the south east; and despite the best efforts of the Tories, no one out in the real world gave a toss about the supposed selection scandal involving Unite up in Falkirk.  The problem more than anything is that Labour has been relying on both the economy remaining stagnant, despite Ed Balls having accepted there would be growth by the time of the next election, and the Tories remaining about as popular as they are, difference being they're the ones in government.

True, there's more than something in the criticisms from the few backbenchers who say the party doesn't seem to know what it's for, isn't offering an alternative, or managing to make the agenda.  Nor though for the most part is the government doing the latter; when it does, such as with the "go home" campaign, it's also far from clear as to whether or not the effect has been positive.  Policy is stuck in a groove: the Tories characterise it as Labour opposing every cut, while in actuality it tends to be "we wouldn't be doing this if we were in government now but most likely won't alter it if we win the next election".  It's opposition in spirit only, while still taking a hit.

The odd thing is that on the whole, Ed Miliband has set out the general themes that the party needs to be focusing on.  The squeezed middle might be the least well defined social grouping in history, but living standards will undoubtedly dominate come 2015.  He set out a critique of predator capitalism, for which he was widely mocked by the media at the time, and yet tax avoidance by multinational corporations has become an issue as never before, while the spread of zero-hour contracts has exposed what a nonsense it is that employment law is in some way holding business back.  One Nation Labour has not been explained quite as well, but the potential is still there, especially as the Tories look set to go for a doctrinaire right-wing manifesto come 2015.  Should Scotland vote no next year, it certainly won't be due to gratitude for the coalition government.

Labour's problem isn't then just due to indecision within the party itself, it also reflects the sad state of politics more widely in the country.  We're told endlessly that politicians are all the same, yet present the electorate with an alternative and they don't want that either.  Up until very recently they thought cuts were unfair and harming the economy, but they didn't want to take the risk of loosening up, reflected through the lack of anything approaching street opposition as austerity as has been seen elsewhere in Europe.  The closest they've come to approving of an outsider is Nigel Farage for goodness sake, about as alternative as John Bishop is to Michael McIntyre.  This is where some of the criticism of Labour's current position gets silly: John Harris bemoans how Labour has missed the digital revolution, as though "a viral video" or a few more tweets from Balls and Miliband could make the difference.  You might have thought it would have been cleaved into a few skulls by now that only politics nerds and journalists are interested in passing Twitter frenzies, let alone such pointless campaigns as trying to ban page 3, but apparently not.

In effect, the main reason behind the whinges is that Labour isn't doing quite as well as it was.  It's not anything more deep seated than that.  How could it be?  Despite the despair of the likes of Dan Hodges or the equivalent from the opposite side by Owen Jones, the party remains where it is because it doesn't think the general public wants it any further left or right than where it currently is.  What's more, the opinion polls back them up.  Hardly any MPs voice outrage at what the coalition is doing to the welfare state, how Serco and G4S are not that far off from running the country or how the Tories seemed to have settled on creating growth through encouraging another housing bubble, for the precise reason that it's exactly what they would do if they were suddenly foisted into power.  Sure, they might do things ever so slightly differently, but not massively.  The most anger we've heard from a Labour MP recently has been Stella Creasy, and that was about fucking Twitter again.

More pertinently, why make the effort when the next election will be decided in such a small number of seats again?  For the Tories to win a majority they have to increase their share of the vote, something a party in government hasn't managed in a very long time.  They seem to think they can achieve this feat through repeating the same Lynton Crosby-honed themes over and over for the next two years: Labour is weak; Labour got us in this mess; Labour are the welfare party. Given a shorter timescale it might work, but keep it up for too long and it'll just become tiresome, even for those who don't pay attention.  The result we might have to face is another hung parliament, another five years of conglomeration and drift.  And the sad thing is, no one seems particularly upset by the prospect so long as they've got some hold on power.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013 

It's all just a little bit...

Considering where we've been almost ever since the coalition came to power, growth of 0.6% in the last quarter isn't to be sniffed at, especially seeing it's not boosted by one-off factors such as the Olympics.  The worry was that we could have slipped into a triple dip recession back in April, only for that low to be narrowly avoided and the double dip itself revised away.  Having took no responsibility whatsoever for the economy flat-lining, blaming every factor other than the cuts and the chill the spectre of austerity sent through business confidence, naturally Osborne and the Tories are more than happy to present what is fairly insipid growth historically following a recession as the economy healing.

On the face of it at least, the signs are encouraging.  All the main sectors of the economy grew in the last three months, unemployment is coming down, albeit very slowly, and Osborne managed to just about reach his borrowing target, once the Office for Budget Responsibility had revised their estimate.  Take a closer look though, and the figures paint a picture of an economy still heavily reliant on the service sector.  With wages not keeping pace with inflation, there's eventually going to come a crunch point when those who have so far kept spending cut back.

Despite Osborne continuing to boast about rebalancing the economy, his actual strategy is far less refined. The plan is to boost the one sector that has remained overheated with prices now rising again: the housing market.  Desperate for any kind of growth, the danger is of another bubble.  If it works for the Tories in the short-term however, helping them win a majority that otherwise looks all but impossible, who cares if it's repeating the same mistakes the coalition castigated Labour for?  Except for us nerds, obviously.  Oh, and economists.  And anyone with any real interest in winning that "global race" the coalition is constantly regaling us about.  Still, politics eh?

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013 

The Crosby mystery.

There are a number of explanations as to why it's taken so long for either David Cameron or Lynton Crosby to deny they so much as discussed plain cigarette packaging.  The most obvious is that neither were certain that they hadn't, although this still doesn't explain why it took so damn long for them to long back through the minutes of their meetings and rack their aides' brains to be sure that they hadn't.  Another is that they didn't do just that precisely because it would encourage Labour and the likes of the Graun to dig deeper and keep asking about what other interests Crosby has and whether they had been discussed.  Notice that Crosby doesn't today deny talking with Cameron about either alcohol pricing or private companies working within the NHS, both of which he is also linked to through his lobbying firm.  Seeing as the lack of candour up to now has meant it's happened anyway makes that difficult to believe.

Alternatively, it could be that they in fact did talk about it, and it's fallen to Crosby to say they didn't so as to protect the prime minister.  Considering the widespread belief among the press that Crosby was responsible for persuading Cameron to focus on all that guff about hard work and aspiration in the Queen's speech, dropping out the bits on fags and booze, it would be bizarre if it wasn't even mentioned.  This isn't to say that Crosby's conflict of interest had anything to do with Cameron's change of heart, but this doesn't alter the fact that getting in advisers with previous having already lost one in unfortunate circumstances simply isn't very clever.  Nor is going weeks without adequately answering an exceptionally simple question.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013 

The Crosby show.

Where once everything seemed to lead back to the Simpsons, now everything seems to just as often lead back to The Thick of It.  With David Cameron whining to Nick Robinson about how he seemed to be falling in with the Labour campaign to link Tory adviser Lynton Crosby with the decision to drop plain packaging for tobacco, something described as "looking like a smear campaign" by Michael Green Grant Shapps, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jamie's response to Clive when he said "he would never forgive" what Malcolm did to him.  "This isn't fucking Eastenders ... we're all in the same plague pit, there's no clean hands."

Indeed, in the irony stakes, the whinging from the Tories about Labour daring to suggest there might at least be a conflict of interest in Crosby's lobbying firm representing Philip Morris is off the charts.  In what have almost certainly been Crosby advised ploys, over the last couple of weeks we've first seen Cameron present Len McCluskey as being only slightly less evil than a 70s BBC TV presenter, and the unions in general as little better than enemies of the people, while last weekend there was clearly an orchestrated attempt to "get" former health secretary Andy Burnham over the mediocrities in the NHS laid bare in the report by Bruce Keogh.  Fed to the likes of the Mail was the deeply misleading, not in the final report figure of 20,000 excess deaths (other papers went with 13,000) at the 14 trusts examined, with the blame pointed squarely at Burnham and Labour for having allowed the situation to develop.  This was then followed by Jeremy Hunt describing the report as "Labour's darkest day", while yesterday's Mail again splashed with an attack on the party.

Frankly, who knows what it was that led to the coalition backing down on plain packaging for fags and a minimum price for alcohol, although you suspect on the latter at least it was because it would have been extremely unpopular and also wouldn't have worked.  There's also a decent explanation for delaying action on tobacco for now: that it's prudent to wait and see whether it has an impact in Australia.  Of course, this government like its predecessor doesn't give a fig for evidence when it comes to going against expert advice on drugs they decide simply must be banned, so it's not entirely convincing, but all the same, it just about stands up to scrutiny.

Cameron's problem is that he keeps placing his trust in people who have what might be known as previous.  First it was Andy Coulson, and there's still the potential for massive trouble for the prime minister if his former spin doctor is found guilty of perjury, amongst the other charges he's contesting, now it's a man who was at the helm when the Australian PM John Howard claimed asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard.  His advice during the 2005 Tory campaign resulted in the much mocked "are you thinking what we're thinking" campaign, while his work for Boris Johnson's Mayoral campaign has been undermined somewhat by accusations he ranted about "fucking Muslims"

Regardless of the reality, and Cameron still hasn't explicitly denied that he discussed tobacco packaging with Crosby, just that Crosby didn't "lobby him" about it or anything else, that your chief adviser also works for tobacco companies fails the smell test.  It might not be Bernie Ecclestone giving Labour £1m and then finding to his surprise that Formula 1 would be exempt from the ban on fag advertising, but it's of a piece with Cameron's apparent lack of curiosity about those he surrounds himself with.  Yesterday's lobbying bill isn't going to alter that.

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Thursday, June 06, 2013 

Just as expected.

I can't help but have mixed feelings about Ed Miliband's big welfare speech, as it's been trailed all week.  The pragmatist in me thinks it was about as good as it was ever likely to be.  It makes some concessions to the way the Tories have attempted to depict everyone on benefits, regardless of what they're claiming, as a scrounger, but for the most part it takes the argument back to them.  This is what we would do to bring the social security (as Miliband repeatedly referred to) bill down, even if it takes time: by reducing unemployment through a job guarantee, building houses, allowing councils to negotiate with landlords on the behalf of tenants, encouraging employers to increase wages through giving them tax breaks via the money saved on tax credits.  What would the Tories do, other than keep eulogising about work while condemning those who are desperate for it?

Obviously designed as an attempt to win back the support of those who think they are the only ones deserving of benefits while everyone else is gaming the system while also fighting back against the myths the Tories and the right-wing press have propagated, it does seem to have been mostly successful.  If we were to judge by the Tory response, which has been to say the entire thing was vacuous or the same old nonsense from a party that has opposed every welfare cut the coalition has imposed (which isn't true, but never mind), then it seems to have hit the target.  Rather than engage, all they've responded with is ad hominems.  It also seems to have in the main gone down well with both right and left within the party itself, which considering the worry there was that Miliband was going to essentially adopt the coalition's policies is a reasonable achievement.

My idealist side, however, feels this was exactly what we'd feared.  It's one thing to suggest that it appears that some people get something for nothing out of the system while others get nothing for something, it's then quite another to accept that there are a "minority who should be working and don't want to", and then repeat that sentiment again and again.  It would be to deny reality to say there isn't anyone out there on benefits who is able to work but doesn't, but the numbers we're talking about are incredibly slight, so tightened has the system become.

You also have to worry that the party has walked straight into George Osborne's trap by accepting a cap on overall spending.  Miliband said that it would be structural, rather than cyclical, yet this is hardly set in stone.  When Osborne outlines what his cap will be and the benefits it will cover, the demand will be for Labour to accept that as well.  After all, the party has effectively said they'll abide by the overall amount of spending come 2015/16, just not the specific items.  Why should it be any different on this?

Nor was he convincing when it came to ensuring that the most vulnerable are properly protected.  There was no apology or recognition of the damage caused by the work capability assessment, rather Miliband said he'd wished the last government had reformed incapacity benefit sooner.  Yes, there was recognition that the system still isn't working despite changes under the coalition, and that there needs to further changes so that the test recognises what you can do rather than just what you can't, but we've heard all this before.  The sad reality is likely to be that this "tailored help", should it even arrive, will be the same as those on the work programme are receiving, where the stick comes first and the carrot second.  Much the same can be expected for those called into the Jobcentre once their child reaches the age of 3.

There's also little to recommend the section on low wages.  Rather than action, all Miliband promises is more persuasion.  While it's understandable that Labour doesn't want to promise a large increase in the minimum wage towards a living one when the effect could potentially be devastating on some small businesses, that doesn't excuse the failure to act to stop large employers from paying wages that still leave workers in poverty.  Condemning zero hour contracts and brutish work places is meaningless if Labour is unwilling to do something about them.  As welcome as the message is that work isn't always an end in itself, Miliband said nothing that so much as suggests the party knows how to stop business from reling on the state to top up poor pay.

Then again, why should we have expected anything else?  Rather than challenging public perceptions or media narratives, the modern politician accepts them as gospel and adapts their message accordingly.  It was Labour that began this race to the bottom, and now it's desperately trying to catch up.  In those terms, the speech worked.  If it does convince a few that Labour are worth trusting again, great.  Clearly, we should worry about what it means for the welfare state as we know it another day.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013 

Breaking out of the Tory trap.

Trying to get your head around where Labour stands less than two years away from the election isn't easy. In theory, the party looks to be in decent shape: ahead in the polls, Ed Miliband the most secure main party leader, however strange that seems, and proven right about austerity choking off growth, as even the EU has now acknowledged.

And yet, things could clearly be better. The poll lead is shallow to say the least, Ed Miliband's ratings are as bad as Cameron's, and the party isn't trusted on the economy, despite the coalition's abject failings. Labour Uncut at times reads like a journal of despair. The pessimists know how difficult it is to defeat a government after a single term, even one as unconventional as our unholy coalition, while the optimists cling to the fact that the governing party hasn't succeeded in increasing their share of the vote at the next election since 1974.

If there is one message coming through loud and clear from the electorate at the moment, it's contempt for politicians in general. Nor is this surprising when the economy's lousy, wages are falling in real terms and when there isn't any real alternative on offer from the opposition, let alone the promise of something better to come. It doesn't exactly inspire then when Ed Balls comes out and all but commits to keeping to the level of spending set out by the coalition for 2015/16 should Labour win the election.

For that was the real story to come out of the speech Balls made yesterday morning.  This wasn't the first time that Balls had all but suggested the party would do so, only the last time he did there was such a (justified) outcry from the unions that the subject wasn't broached again.  Yesterday, apart from a few noises from the GMB union, there was no such protest.  Partially, that's down to how things have changed since and how catastrophic the coalition's helming of the economy has been.  An economy that was beginning to recover in 2010 has since stagnated, making the next government's inheritance potentially even worse than the one the coalition had in 2010 and which they have made so much of ever since.  It's also a recognition though that regardless of widespread discontent, there hasn't been anything approaching a unified protest against austerity, unlike on the continent.

It's exceptionally close to being a paradox.  The often heard complaint is that politicians are all the same, and it's certainly true that on most domestic measures there's little real difference between the main three.  At the same time though voters tell pollsters they don't trust a party that's offering a subtle but significant difference to the government's economic policy, leading that party to move to reassure voters they can be trusted by signing up to their overall spending plan.  That doesn't mean they'll spend on the same things, just that the same overall amount will be splashed out.  This, Labour's thinking goes, will be the message that gets through.

Except as we saw, through also looking for specific spending to cut in an attempt to respond to Tory jibes about opposing everything, the media focused on means testing winter fuel payments.  Balls also suggested stopping free schools from opening in areas where there's plenty of secondary capacity already, abolishing police commissioners and cancelling "titan" prisons as other areas where savings could be made, but these strangely didn't have the same impact as stopping payments to well-off pensioners.  Much nonsense was spoken about how this could be the beginning of the end of universal benefits, or how the Tories might exploit Labour's change of position, when it's clear this was designed to be a gesture and little more.

Deserving of far more concern is that Balls floated the idea of having an overall welfare cap that differs according to the cost of housing around the country, meaning effectively it should be higher in London where prices are silliest, very one nation, and that on Thursday Ed Miliband is due to give a speech that is being briefed as Labour agreeing with the Tories on the need for a "structural" cap on welfare spending.  There's no point whatsoever in saving £100m by stopping payments to comfortable pensioners if there are then further cuts to working age benefits that have already been so squeezed by the coalition, as the IFS today made clear.

All this feeds into Labour's biggest problem: the party hasn't worked out where it intends to stand and fight come the election.  Despite the sloganising, Miliband still has failed to set out exactly how he intends to tame predator capitalism, nor has he attempted to define what he means by One Nation Labour.  He and Balls have said they want to bring back the 10p tax rate, but not explained how that would fit in with changes made under the coalition.  The party rightly opposed the 1% freeze on benefits, yet now seems to have decided to give in and ape the Tories.  With the rise of UKIP politics is undoubtedly being pulled further towards the right, and there are plenty within Labour who are perfectly happen to continue with the old policy of triangulation, epitomised by the murmurings over allying with the Tories to get the communications bill through in the face of Lib Dem opposition.

Needed most of all is a vision that contradicts the Tory myth of being in a global race where the only way to compete is by slashing hard won rights and protections.  We already know how the Tories intend to fight in 2015: attack Miliband as a creature of the unions, say all Labour want to do is borrow more, and claim they are incapable of taking tough decisions.  The best possible answer to that is for Miliband to set out how he intends to govern, as the knowledge that he couldn't possibly be as terrible at it as the coalition isn't going to cut it.  Nor is Ed Balls' message that the answer to too much is austerity is more austerity going to suffice.  Labour can win in 2015, but will fail miserably if the best the two Eds can offer is that they'll be the Tories with a kinder face.

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Monday, May 20, 2013 

Meltdown man.

The great thing about Tory meltdowns is that they come from out of nowhere.  Look where we were just before the local elections: Cameron's handling of Maggie's funeral was mostly praised by the backbenches, even if it wasn't formally a state funeral, and Labour's year long lead of around 10 points in most polls was beginning to slipThe economy had avoided a triple-dip, it might not have even truly double-dipped, and the economic news (so long as you ignored plenty of other conflicting stats) looked encouraging.

Nor did it seem at first as though UKIP's surge at the local elections had truly spooked the party. Indeed, losing 335 seats from their high point was a pretty good result in the circumstances, just as 300, regardless of what the leadership claimed, was poor for Labour.  Where everything began to come unstuck was with Nigel Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately, swiftly followed by the Queen's speech, which despite some pressure failed to so much as mention the possibility of a bill for the promised referendum on the EU in 2017.  That you can't legislate to hold the next parliament to account was deemed irrelevant; as John Baron, along with Peter Bone the ringleaders behind the rebellion said, the public simply wouldn't believe a promise having had them broken previously.

A smart questioning of Michael Gove later, who said if there was a referendum now he would vote to leave the EU, a position Philip Hammond quickly echoed and Dave, who just so happened to be travelling to the US to help hammer out a deal on, err, EU trade, spent the next three days with his advisers trying to head off a rebellion he claimed to be "profoundly relaxed" about.  Those with memories similar to my own might recall that the last time Cameron said he was "relaxed" about a development was when the Graun revealed the News of the Screws' settlement with Gordon Taylor, exploding the idea that there was just one "rogue reporter" at the paper who had indulged in phone hacking.  He might well have been relaxed then when he should instead have been asking Andy Coulson what exactly had gone on; this time the reality was he was anything but.

Rather than face down the rebels, Cameron repeated what he originally did back in January: he gave in.  Ever since he proclaimed that his aim was to repatriate powers from the EU and then have a vote on this changed relationship, so long as the Tories won in 2015, the "swivel-eyed loons" have kept pushing.  The vagueness of his original promise, based on sound reasoning that you don't give away your bargaining position when you haven't even started negotiations, simply wasn't enough to satisfy those who seem to think that if you sort out Europe then you effectively sort out everything.  Nor had the Bloomberg speech had the other intended effects of dampening down support for UKIP, which instead predictably increased, or trapping Labour, with Ed Miliband sticking with the position that there are more pressing things to deal with, which there self-evidently are.

Who could possibly have guessed that the same thing would happen again?  Rather than being bought off with this new pledge, 116 Tories voted for the amendment expressing regret about the lack of a bill in the Queen's speech anyway.  Nor does the proposed bill, due to be tabled by James Wharton after he won the ballot of those wishing to publish a private member's bill stand a chance of becoming law when both the Lib Dems and Labour will oppose it.  All Cameron's appeasement has done is make clear just how weak he is and how monomaniacal a third of his party is.

It may well be the case that it's the serial rebels who do represent the majority of the Tory grassroots, those who claimed yesterday that Cameron's support for gay marriage will somehow cost the party the next election, when the polls suggest overwhelmingly that even the EU ranks higher in most people's calculations of how they'll vote.  As reflected before, the really strange thing is that apart from gay marriage and the EU, Cameron has achieved much of what his base wanted and was set out in their manifesto.  They've hijacked Labour's academy programme and introduced free schools; they've put a cap on the amount a family can claim in benefits and introduced universal credit, while continuing to cause misery through the constant reassessing of those on ESA; they've pursued self-defeating austerity despite even the IMF urging George Osborne to ease up; they've reduced immigration, albeit mainly through making the country less attractive for foreign students; and they've reduced corporation and income tax, would like to fillet employment law further if they got the chance, and have cut the public sector workforce massively.  All this, and yet it seems as though the fact that Cameron and his pals are elitist and socially liberal undermines everything else, with the fall in living standards playing a lesser role.

Whether or not Andrew Feldman did describe Tory activists pre-occupied with gay marriage as "swivel-eyed loons", and it's strange that two separate newspapers reported that an unnamed party figure did if he didn't, it's the kind of comment where the damage is done instantly.  Nothing seems more calculated to increase defections to UKIP, the new home of those on the right who want to stop the world, where ideological purity can come ahead of things like electability.  It reminds somewhat of the Tea Party in America, where the hard right holds sway over those who favour compromise and change. The result has been lost seats and a two-term Democratic president.

The widening split in the Tories threatens the party in a similar way.  It's apparent that David Cameron cannot win an election on the platform espoused by the rebels, having failed to win in 2010 on a centre-right manifesto against the walking target that was Gordon Brown.  While arguably the political census has shifted somewhat to the right since 2010, a section of support for the party has gone to UKIP and isn't going to come back regardless, such is the disenchantment.  At the same time the banging on about Europe just sends most of the country to sleep, and if anything support for staying in seems to increase the more it's talked about, while business gets ever more restless.

Just how much Cameron can do to change things now isn't clear.  One step might be a reshuffle, calling back some of those who have one foot in the rebel camp (John Redwood, maybe?) whose presence might placate the criticism that Cameron just surrounds himself with cronies and pals.  He could turn his fire on his coalition partner and stymie a Lib Dem policy, but, err, are there any?  He could hope that an improvement in the economy might trickle down enough to swing some who are currently flirting with Labour back, but that still seems a way off.  Looking at 2015 from here, and failing a UKIP pact, something extremely unlikely, it just doesn't seem possible that the Tories can even equal their showing last time.  For all the destruction the coalition has unleashed, Cameron faces the ignominy of having helmed a single term government.  Not even John Major fell to that low.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013 

Cameron: a hostage to fortune.

Although it feels like aeons ago, it was only back in January that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, pledging an in/out referendum on EU membership should his party win the next election. At the time it must have seemed a good idea, and initially it looked like it had had its desired effect: his restive backbenchers cheered him to the rafters, it seemed to have trapped Labour, and surely it would have some impact on the increase in support for Ukip.

Less than six months later and it's as though the jaws of the trap have snapped back. To further mix metaphors, it always seemed as though Cameron was setting himself up as a hostage to fortune. The man he so wanted to be the heir to never gave in to his backbenchers; instead he thrived on picking fights with them. True, Cameron failed where Blair succeeded, which partially explains the backbencher ire in the first place, yet Dave caved in at first sign of trouble.  Rather than being sated, they've demanded ever since that Cameron move faster, to the point where it looks as though legislation may be forthcoming in this parliament as a further sop.

Nor has it had the desired effect on Ukip. Indeed, they've been emboldened by it, as was predicted. As counter-intuitive as it seems, support for Ukip isn't about Europe, as is now hopefully apparent. It can be overstated just how far the popularity, such as it is, for Farage is down to a state of mind, and it'd be great to quantify how many of those saying they'd vote for the party would still do so if there was to be a vote on the EU tomorrow.  Total disaffection and/or sending a message of protest nonetheless explains much of it.  It's possible that some of those who've decamped could be won back if Cameron shifted slightly further to the right, or better yet, recruited some advisers from outside his own social milieu, but it's deeply dubious as to whether those voicing their discontent beyond a mere protest can be so easily persuaded to return.

Thankfully, it does seem as though those making clear that much of Ukip's support is irreconcilable are now in the majority.  As easy as it is to fall into stereotype, it's difficult not to meet the odd person that fits all the descriptions of being a Kipper, and they usually aren't shy in venturing their views on Britain as it is in 2013.  They might not be racist, but they certainly don't like immigrants even if they don't mind those they know of locally; they blame the EU at the first opportunity; and they are invariably complaining about something or other.  They don't have to read the Mail/Express/Telegraph, but it helps, and they regard things as being much better at some point in the past, even if they can't say exactly when.

The obvious point to make is that plenty of people also hold one or more of the above things to be self-evident, yet they either don't let everyone else know about it or would ever dream of voting for a party other than the main three.  Nor are any of these things irrational or wrong; rapid change in local communities as happened post-2004 was bound to lead to a backlash, while even those of us who would stay in the EU hardly regard it as being anything close to an unmitigated force for good.  Nostalgia also has to be taken into account: reading the Graun's pieces today on 1963 you can't help but think that was a pretty good year on the whole.  Would any of us who weren't around at the time actually want to live in that period were such a thing possible though?  Almost certainly not.

Those who have moved to Ukip also realise they can't turn the clock back.  They might want to, and they want to make clear that they do, but they know full well that Ukip isn't going to win a general election, nor necessarily would they want Farage to be the prime minister.  This is the conundrum facing the Tories: in almost every way, the party would be a better vehicle for their discontent, as many of their MPs also hold Ukip voters' prejudices, yet for any number of reasons they've lost faith in them and so would rather register their anger elsewhere.  This can't all be put down to Cameron or the detoxification strategy, nor can it be easily explained by all three parties fighting over the same territory.  It is more, as Max Dunbar writes, a lashing out at the present while coming over all rose-tinted about the past.  Perhaps it can be best explained thus: whereas the young disenchanted simply don't vote, those who feel much the same but who were brought up with the importance of the franchise drilled into them regard putting an X in the Ukip box the least worst option.

Lord Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately doesn't really change things much.  The EU is the least of most people's worries, although should the Tories increasingly fight over just how soon the referendum should be they might become excised at the amount of attention something arcane is receiving.  Cameron's problem is that a move that was designed to buy him more time and hopefully damage the other parties has so spectacularly backfired.  He doesn't want us to leave the EU, businesses on the whole don't want us to leave, and nor I'd wager would the electorate should the vote be held tomorrow.  He can't however take such a risk, and so the uncertainty that is so damaging will continue instead.  And all the time the boneheads within his party continue their rattling.

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