UK Politics

Thoughts on Ed Miliband's Reshuffle

7 Oct 2011 at 20:14

The big test of any reshuffle – either in government or opposition- is this: does it make the top team stronger or not? On balance, I would say that this reshuffle does indeed make Ed Miliband’s team stronger, especially from the point of view of getting on the media. That may seem a false priority, but if a politician can’t get on the media in opposition, they’re not much cop. It is always a risk promoting new MPs very quickly, partly because it can damage them for good. Cameron did Theresa Villers and David Mundell few favours by bringing them into his shadow cabinet only six months after they had been elected. They needed to find their feet. In Miliband’s case, his new entrants have had sixteen months to do that, and many of them have performed impressively. Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna could well be the two that fight Yvette Cooper for the Labour leadership in 2015, should they lose.

The top three – Balls, Cooper and Alexander – all remain in post, which is no surprise. I am slightly surprised that Maria Eagle retains her place and Meg Hilllier doesn’t. Neither have made a huge impression, but surely Eagle, at Transport, has the easier brief to make a mark in. Many of my Labour friends are surprised that Sadiq Khan hasn’t been moved or sacked altogether. To me, that would have been unfair. His problem is that against Ken Clarke he looks unsubstantial. I must admit if I had been Ed Miliband, I’d have put Harriet Harman up against the old bruiser.

Andy Burnham must count himself lucky to still be in the shadow cabinet having failed to land a blow on Michael Gove and done little to create a new education policy. Is Stephen Twigg up to the job? Well, he has experience as a Schools Minister to fall back on, but will he try to fight past battles rather than form a new education policy? Burnham, meanwhile retreats to his comfort zone, but if he returns to his previous form, he will be a formidable opponent for Andrew Lansley.

Caroline Flint, at Energy & Climate Change is another one who needs to up her game. She is certainly capable of doing so and Chris Huhne now has a much feister opponent. Eric Pickles will lament her passing and regret he now has Hilary Benn as his shadow – one of the most transparently nice people in British politics today.

The promotion of Chucka Umunna and Rachel Reeves are the two most notable appointments in this reshuffle. I know and like them both and admire them as politicians. Both are nice people, both are hugely talented and both are destined for the top. Reeves knows her economic onions and will be more than a match for Danny Alexander. She has a gravelly voice that always reminds me of Pat Butcher – and I mean that in a nice way! She also has a sense of humour and a great strength of purpose. I think she will be the success story of this reshuffle. Chuka is a great front man and a calm, reassuring voice on the media. I do think he has had a tendency to believe his own publicity in the past and needs to develop himself as a policy innovator as well as a policy presenter. He will be a delightful contrast to Vince Cable, especially if he allows his impish sense of humour to find its voice. He can be very very serious, almost as if he’s frightened of releasing his ‘inner Chuka’ on an unsuspecting world.

One final word on Tom Watson. When I spoke to him at the Labour conference he was adamant he wouldn’t take on a shadow cabinet role. I have no idea if one was offered to him, but Ed Miliband has pulled off a master stroke by persuading him to take on the role of deputy chairman of the Labour Party. He can use it to, well, frankly do what he likes and take the Labour message to the media.

So all in all, a successful reshuffle for Ed Miliband. It remains to be seen how long it will take David Cameron to follow suit and reshuffle his own Cabinet team. The general consensus is that he will wait till next Easter.

The new Shadow Cabinet is:

Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party
Ed Miliband MP

Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Party Chair and Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Harriet Harman MP

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
Ed Balls MP

Shadow Foreign Secretary
Douglas Alexander MP

Shadow Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities
Yvette Cooper MP

Shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Sadiq Khan MP

Shadow Chief Whip
Rosie Winterton MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Health
Andy Burnham MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Education
Stephen Twigg MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
Chuka Umunna MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
Jim Murphy MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Hilary Benn MP

Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
Angela Eagle MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Caroline Flint MP

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Rachel Reeves MP

Shadow Minister for London and the Olympics
Tessa Jowell MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
Maria Eagle MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Policy Review Co-ordinator
Liam Byrne MP

Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
Ivan Lewis MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mary Creagh MP

Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office
Jon Trickett MP

Labour Party Deputy Chair and Campaign Coordinator
Tom Watson MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Vernon Coaker MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
Margaret Curran MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and Chair of the National Policy Forum
Peter Hain MP

Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Lords Chief Whip
Lord Bassam of Brighton

Also attending Shadow Cabinet:

Shadow Minister for Care and Older People
Liz Kendall MP

Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office)
Michael Dugher MP

Shadow Attorney General
Emily Thornberry MP

Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office)
Lord Stewart Wood

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Labour Conference Diary: Why Liverpool Is Ghastly

27 Sep 2011 at 20:16

  • There is always one politician who goes totally over the top and loses credibility at a party conference. We all remember Michael Portillo’s ‘Who Dares Wins’ speech in 1996. Last week it was Tim Farron’s turn. This week Ivan Lewis has covered himself in glory by suggesting that there should be a state register for journalists. A madder idea I haven’t heard in years. In case you don’t know, he is Labour’s Culture, Media & Sport secretary. And all I can say is, oh dear. Lewis had a good hacking inquiry, but on this he is so very wrong. It appears Labour’s authoritarian tendency hasn’t quite been eradicated. It’s so easy for politicians to go over the top on issues like this. The trouble for Ivan Lewis is that he is unlikely to find many people following him.
  • Last night was a first. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was in front of a microphone for half an hour and didn’t utter a word. To be fair, it was because she had come to take me out to dinner after my LBC show finished, but I was astonished she didn’t try to intervene in a rather sparky discussion I was hosting with three young Labour thinkers (Richard Angell, Owen Jones and Rowenna Davis). So, ten o’clock arrived and we went in search of food. Pizza Express (I know how to treat a girl), just outside the conference centre, was our destiny of choice. But its lights were off. It closed at ten, can you believe. And we had no more luck at Jury’s, the conference hotel. Their restaurant closed at ten too. This, despite thousands of people still milling around. Unbelievable. So we went next door to East z East for an Indian, where we were joined by Radio 5 Live’s Richard Bacon and Labour supporting advertising honcho Trevor Beattie. What a fabulous restaurant. I am not a great fan of Indian food, but this was something else. I much enjoyed by chicken shashlick and can highly recommend it! The evening ended strangely, as Richard Bacon kept putting the wrong pin number in the credit card machine. Shame really, as it turned out that Trevor Beattie’s card was in it. Three attempts and his card was invalidated. All Tony Blair’s fault reckoned Yasmin.
  • Look, I’m going to be honest. So far, I have found Liverpool to be a ghastly city. The Albert dock area is lovely, but from what I have seen of the rest of it, it makes Gaza look welcoming. It’s now that I understand perfectly why lots of famous people profess to love Liverpool so much they move away at the first opportunity and never return if they can help it. Driving in on Sunday it was quite apparent that what money the council has had has been blown on regenerating the docks area to the exclusion of everywhere else. There seem to be a large number of second world war bomb sites which haven’t been touched in 60 years. It gives a terrible impression to people visiting for the first time. And then there’s the Adelphi Hotel. A shocker. I vaguely remember watching a fly on the wall documentary about it a few years ago. Believe me, it hasn’t got any better. They are charging £189 a night for a room with no internet, no mini bar, a room service menu which has a choice of two things and which is only available for an hour a day (OK, I exaggerate a little on that) and a TV which was built circa 1976. Oh, and its car park resembles a Kevin Webster style MoT bay. But the bathroom does have a set of bathroom scales, so that’s nice. What an absolute dive of a hotel. I know Liverpool has many fans. A good friend of mine loves the place. She regularly comes here for weekend breaks. God alone knows why. If I never came back again ever, it would be too soon. I suspect the feeling will be mutual after this.
  • It’s interesting to note that there were more lobbyists at the LibDem conference last week than there are here at Labour. Power sells, you see. I remember my days as a lobbyist, having to organise fringes for clients, and then fearing that no one would turn up. They did, of course, but sometimes it was a close run thing.
  • Each year I compile the Daily Telegraph’s Top 100 People on the Left, with Brian Brivati and a panel of Labour insiders. I’m told that Chris Bryant took great delight in telling Ivan Lewis (him again) that he was one place above him in the list published this morning. After Lewis’s speech today, I think that one place might be extended somewhat next year.
  • Sitting here on the LBC table in the media centre I am looking around wondering what on earth the massed ranks of the 150 BBC journalists here actually do all day. Most of them stare at their computer screens and never seem to move from them. I try and make a point of wandering round the conference centre chatting to delegates. But it seems to me that most journalists here just feed off each other and the senior politicians they meet. Ordinary delegates don’t seem to have a role at all. Yet it is they who create the mood and atmosphere at a party conference.
  • Yesterday I chaired a fringe for the Fabian Society on whether there could be a LibDem/Labour coalition after the next election. After an hour and a half’s discussion I did not rush down to Ladbroke’s and put a bet on, I can assure you. Emily Thornberry spent the whole time hissing venom at LibDem MP John Leech and Centre Forum Chief Executive Chris Nicholson, whole Ben Bradshaw made a valiant attempt at being the voice of sweet reason, but to little effect. The audience clearly hated the LibDems just as much as Emily Thornberry. It was fun, though!
  • A BBC journo friend of mine was still in the broadcast centre when Ed Milibad was practising his speech next door in the conference hall last night. Apparently he was being coached in how to wave to the audience as he walks onto the stage. Indeed, so rubbish at it was he, that they made him walk on five times.

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Tuesday LibDem Conference Diary

20 Sep 2011 at 20:19

Sarah Teather has been wandering round the conference with a face like thunder. As well she might. Her off colour jokes about the Chancellor, George Osborne, went down like a lead balloon among the delegates here, but what should worry her is the reaction of Nick Clegg, who, I am reliably informed went red with rage when he heard what had happened. It wasn’t just Teather who incurred his wrath, though. The LibDem leader was furious at his colleagues who insulted other coalition colleagues, and indeed, fellow LibDems. There’s an inquest into what happened and whether next year the opening conference rally might be ditched in favour of something less risqué. And as for Sarah Teather, she’s in the happy position of knowing she is unsackable. Why? Because she’s a woman, and there aren’t many of those to the dozen in the ranks of LibDem ministers.

Presenting a three hour programme on an O/B is a challenge even if you’ve been doing them for years. Yesterday’s LBC show was my first from the conference. It went really well (I think!) but I have rarely felt so tired as I did afterwards. So tired that I have to admit I didn’t wake up until 10 o’clock this morning, something I haven’t done in years. Tonight’s show includes an hour long phone in with London LibDem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick from 8-9. Paddick is an interesting character who has something to prove, not just to the LibDems but himself. He says he has learnt a lot from the rather awful campaign he ran last time. I intend to find out what that is, because at the moment, I’m none too clear.

There is a very different air about this conference compared to LibDem conferences of years gone by. It is infested by lobbyists and campaigning groups. Oh, and the BBC. Oh, and newspaper commentators who two years ago wouldn’t have given the LibDems the time of day. Did I mention the BBC? I reckon they must have the best part of 150 people here. Mind you, for an organisation that employs 52 journalists on Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme, I don’t know why I should be surprised. I mean, what the **** do they do all day?

I love interviewing Ming Campbell. He such a pleasure to interview. Some people go through the motions. Ming really engages with you, especially when he knows you’re going to give him a bit of time. He hates the two minute interview just as much as I do. Last night I asked him about Nick Clegg’s performance as leader. I followed it up by saying: “Were you comfortable in the job as leader?” He gave such an honest reply that I almost felt guilty for asking the question. Almost.

Last night’s Newsnight was a frustrating watch. Jeremy Paxman got 80 LibDems together, ostensibly so he could shout at them. What on earth was the point? Quite what we learned from the segment, I’m still not sure. Yet people on Twitter seemed to think it was marvellous. “Paxman in blistering form” said one. Really? I thought it was dreadful. Being combative is one thing. Being downright rude and insulting is another. I am a huge admirer of Paxman, but I do wonder sometimes if he is encouraged to play up to the caricature by the programme’s editors.

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LibDem Conference Diary: Day 1

18 Sep 2011 at 20:20

  • Listening to many of the speeches both on the platform and on the fringe at this conference, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the LibDems are in government. Their whole attitude indicates an oppositionalist attitude which may make them feel better, but won’t go down well with the electorate which knows full well that they have been part and parcel of every government decision.
  • I didn’t go to the LibDem conference last year and I had wondered if this conference would be any different to the others I had been to in recent years. In a sense, I am rather relieved that it isn’t. It’s still the usual mix of the weird and wonderful. I know I have said this before, but the LibDems really do have more than their fair share of very odd looking supporters. I saw a woman yesterday, who was about 5’ 1, weighed about 18 stone and worse shorts and a T shirt which failed to cover her amply proportioned midriff. I am afraid you could not help but stare. And what about the man whose whole body seems to be covered in tattoos. And… No, I must stop. But it’s why these conferences are a fascinating study in social anthropology. At least, I think that’s what they are.
  • The constant attacks on the rich at this conference are a little odd and totally populist. It’s all you hear. Vince Cable wants to curb bankers’ pay. Danny Alexander is recruiting 2,000 more tax inspectors to make sure the rich pay their tax. All well and good, and I am sure it will go down well with the readers of the Daily Mirror. But have we heard a peep about how the LibDems want to create economic growth or create jobs? Well, if we have, I must have missed it. At the next election people will cast their votes based on who they think is best equipped to run the economy – not who can utter the most extreme insults to the rich. They forget that most people aspire to be rich.
  • Let Them Eat Carbon is a most unlikely book to find on sale at the LibDem conference, but there it was on the LibDem Image stand. I was rather pleased, especially as I published it, but it’s hardly a book Chris Huhne would approve of. I was even more pleased t discover that they had sold several copies of it. Just as it is possible to find the odd LibDem Eurosceptic, it seems there are a few LibDem climate change sceptics too.
  • Talking of Chris Huhne, he addressed the Total Politics Nuclear Power v Sustainability fringe last night. I can’t say I agreed with all that he said, but if ever there is a cabinet minister on top of his brief, Chris Huhne is it. Rather against my instincts I found him enormously impressive. Conservative friends in the cabinet also think highly of him. Initially they had been very suspicious of his reputation as a bit of a slippery customer, but what they tell me now is that he is the one LibDem they feel they can really trust. If he promises something he delivers on it.
  • Vince Cable has every right to give his views on private sector pay. He has every right to criticise the bonuses bankers receive. But he can’t pretend that he is actually going to do anything about it, because we all know he isn’t. Unless he’s going to introduce some sort of 1970s pay restraint type law (and we all know how effective that was) all he can do is play to the gallery and bluster. Having worked in the private sector, you’d think Vince would know that the people who can do something about excessive pay and bonuses are shareholders. Perhaps he ought to look at giving them more powers of oversight. One thing I would do is legislate to restrict the number of non executive directorships any one individual can have. Some people have 8, 10 or a dozen. Sorry, but there is no way a non executive director with a dozen of them can do his or her job properly and monitor exactly what is going on. There are too many quid pro quo non execs too – people who sit on each other’s boards. That’s where Mr Cable should be directing his fire.
  • This evening from 7pm I am broadcasting my LBC show from the press centre here in Birmingham. I suspect it is going to be an “experience”. Everything that can go wrong, no doubt will. But that’s the joy of live OBs. So I am told. I’m hoping we will be able to keep the whole show conference related, but I suspect Dale Farm (no relation) might upset my plans. Anyway, do tune in from 7 if you can for a LibDem-tastic show.

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Top Ten Things To Be Overheard At The LibDem Conference

17 Sep 2011 at 20:21

1. Don’t you think Danny Alexander’s a bit of a Tory?

2. Isn’t it terrible all this new security? I’d rather risk being bombed.

3. Well I don’t care what anyone says, I’d happily take Chris Huhne’s speeding points.

4. Don’t mention the AV referendum. I did, but I think I got away with it.

5. I know I’m probably alone in this, but don’t you think Evan Harris is an absolute dish?

6. What kind of People Carrier do you think the party will order to transport all our MPs after the next election?

7. Isn’t Birmingham an absolutely ghastly place to hold a conference?

8. No, Lembit, go away.

9. I’m so looking forward to Vince’s speech. He’s bound to slag off the Tories.

10. Did you know that Iain Dale’s broadcasting his LBC show live from the conference?

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Cameron Intervenes On Gay Marriage

16 Sep 2011 at 20:37

I well remember David Cameron’s first speech as party leader back in 2006. I remember the frisson that went round the conference hall when he said these words…

“There’s something special about marriage. It’s not about religion. It’s not about morality. It’s about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it’s in a church or anywhere else, what you’re doing really means something. Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it’s not just about “me, me, me” anymore. It is about we: together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man."

Well, five years on he has lived up to his words. In a few hours time he will announce that gay people will, for the first time, be able to enter a proper civil marriage. Not just a civil partnership. A marriage. The Home Office is about to launch a consultation on the best way to do this, but done it will be, and before the 2015 election. Now, I’d have thought that this would be welcomed by everyone of a liberal persuasion and who has supported the various moves under Labour towards equalisation of the law for gay people. But no. This was the response to the news on Twitter by Chris Bryant.

The Government is spinning it’s going to consult next March on full gay marriage. Why not just introduce a Bill now and Parlt can vote?

It’s a typically churlish response. He can’t bear the fact that a Conservative led coalition will introduce legislation his own government failed to do. This may be announced by LibDem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone at the LibDem conference. At midnight the Home Office issued this statement…

A public consultation to consider how to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples will begin in March 2012, the government announced today. As part of its commitment to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals the government announced in February this year its intention to look at how legislation could develop on equal civil marriage. Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone said: “I am delighted to confirm that early next year, this government will begin a formal consultation on equal civil marriage for same-sex couples. This would allow us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. We will be working closely with all those who have an interest in the area to understand their views ahead of the formal consultation.” The consultation will only cover civil marriage for same sex couples – not religious marriage. NOTES TO EDITORS 1. Currently, civil marriages are only open to opposite sex couples and civil partnerships are only open to same sex couples. 2. The consultation will look at civil marriage of same sex couples but it will not include consultation on civil partnerships for opposite sex couples. 3. Earlier this year, the government announced that religious buildings will be allowed to host civil partnership registrations. The change, which will be entirely voluntary and will not force any religious group to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so, is being introduced as part of the Equality Act 2010. It will give same-sex couples, who are currently prevented from registering their civil partnership in a religious setting, the chance to do so. 4. The government will be laying the necessary regulations by the end of this year in order to allow the first civil partnership on religious premises to take place as soon as possible in the new year. This is a separate piece of work to the consultation being announced today.

I happen to know that this was going nowhere until the Prime Minister himself intervened. A source close to No10 told me last night:

“The Prime Minister personally intervened to give same-sex civil marriage his enthusiastic support, so that it would be introduced in this parliament. When David Cameron was elected Leader of the Conservative Party he spoke of the importance of commitment and how special marriage is, so this is entirely consistent.This move doesn’t down-grade civil partnerships, what it does is recognise there’s been a demand for equality”.

Note the bit in bold. This is not a consultation on WHETHER to introduce gay marriage, it’s a consultation on HOW to do it.

Remember also, that soon, gay couples will be able to have their civil partnerships if the churches are happy to perform the ceremonies. I suspect most won’t, but at least the law will allow them the option.

My own view is this. I have never been bothered that the traditional marriage ceremony hasn’t been available to gay couples. To me, a civil partnership is quite good enough. It’s a bespoke piece of legislation for gay couples. I have never bought into the idea, promulgated by Peter Tatchell, that straight people should be able to have civil partnerships and gay people necessarily need the same marriage facilities as straight people. As long as the legal consequences are similar all that is different is the name. But others feel that if there isn’t full equality between gay and straight people, then it’s just not fair, and frankly I am happy to go along with that.

The government has made clear that it will not legislate to allow straight people to have civil partnerships, and I quite see their point. Surely that is what registry office weddings are anyway?

I welcome this move and I hope most reasonable thinking people will do too. Let’s leave the last word to Clint Eastwood…

“I don’t give a [expletive] about who wants to get married to anybody else! Why not?! We’re making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t be making a deal out of … Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want."

Quite.

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'Oh My God, It's Going To Hit The Other Tower'

11 Sep 2011 at 04:38

I was sitting at my desk on the balcony at Politico’s talking to my bookkeeper when I suddenly noticed that Sky News had switched to Fox and were showing smoke coming from a tall tower. As the situation became clearer I remember seeing a spec on the skyline coming closer to the tower. I assumed a small light aircraft had hit it. In the corner of the screen I noticed a spec moving across the screen. ‘Jesus, there’s another plane’, I remember saying. ‘Oh my God, it’s going to hit the other tower’. Crash. Fire. Carnage. But it wasn’t until the first tower collapsed that the true horror hit me. People down below in the shop stood watching the bigger screen in silence. Someone rushed out the door saying her sister worked at the World Trade Centre and she had to phone her.

At that moment I thought of my friend Daniel Forrester who I knew worked there from time to time. Indeed his father had a corner office in one of the towers. I tried to ring him. The number didn’t work. I remember helping a customer ring her boyfriend in China to tell him what was happening. His father worked in one of the towers. I kept trying to call Daniel, becoming increasingly frantic. Eventually he called me. The emotion of the day caught up with me and I can remember speaking to him with tears running down my face, trying to keep my voice from breaking up completely.

I remember thinking how brilliantly Sky had coped with the coverage. I think Kay Burley was broadcasting at the time. She had come a long way from her first job on TVAM. That day she came of age. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I started to think about the political implications. I could not understand why President Bush hadn’t sought to immediately reassure his weeping nation. It was not his finest hour.

September 11th 2001 was a day that changed the world. It robbed a generation of its innocence and its consequences will be felt for decades to come. But there is one thing it did not shake – and that is the alliance between the two greatest free nations on earth – the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of the most evil regimes in the world have tried to defeat the cause of freedom which our two nations exemplify. They failed in the first world war, they failed in the second and they are failing now. As long as the cherished flame of freedom burns in the hearts of true democrats we’ll never give ground to those who seek to destroy us. Indeed, we must destroy them.

This is no normal conflict and it is a conflict which will endure for many years to come. It is a conflict which demands extraordinary leadership from extraordinary people, which demands courage and bravery from those who defend us. We are fortunate that there is no shortage of that. We should salute them.

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http://www.iaindale.com/posts/why-i-would-vote-for-murdo-fraser

6 Sep 2011 at 20:44

Regular readers of my old blog will know critical I have been of Scottish Conservatives and their poor leadership over the last few decades. Back in April 2007 I wrote…

If reports are true the Scottish Conservative Party is to be given its freedom to go its own way. It is likely to be called the Unionist Party. With devolution now irreversible I see little alternative and it offers the Scottish Tories the best chance of reviving after two decades in the doldrums. However, and it is a big however, I have to say I have not yet seen anyone north of the border who is likely to provide the ideas and inspiration for such a revival. As a group of politicians, Welsh AMs are far superior to their Scottish MSP counterparts and in Wales they are about to reap the rewards. Those of who don’t live in Scotland do not realise the extent to which the UK Parliament has already become an irrelevance to the Scottish media. In some ways Scotland already is a separate country. The Scottish Tories have got to not only live with that but develop an identity which recognises it and to some extent embraces it. They cannot achieve that if their every move is second guessed by a London based party which doesn’t understand the new Scottish politics. Let’s hope that someone in Scotland emerges after the May elections who can kickstart a right of centre revival in a country that so desperately needs one.

Well, four years on, there seems to be hope in the form of Murdo Fraser. The key to winning an election is to fight it on your own terms. I am very impressed with the manner in which Murdo has set the agenda for this election campaign. Scottish Conservatives need a radical new approach. Yes, it’s a risk, but most things in life are and there is little doubt that just carrying on the failed campaigns of the past won’t be good enough. Scotland needs bright, fresh radical thinking and from what I have seen, Murdo Fraser is in a good position to provide it.

I am afraid that for all her undoubted qualities, Annabel Goldie outstayed her welcome. I remember seeing a Scottish Conservatves PEB in the last Scottish election campaign in which she talked to camera for five minutes. It was nothing short of an embarrassment. A new Scottish leader needs to do something radical. The Tory brand in Scotland is tarnished beyond repair. They should now adopt a CDU/CSU type relationship with London, embrace devolution and aim to displace the Labour Party as the main opposition to the SNP. It won’t be done overnight, but they’ve got to believe it is achieveable. Otherwise, why bother?

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Abortion Counselling: Case Unproven

6 Sep 2011 at 20:43

It is indeed risible that Nadine Dorries comes under attack from the pro-Choice lobby (whose attack on her is largely based on ther contention that she is mad) and also the pro-Life lobby, who reckon she’s selling out by not wanting to ban abortion altogether. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children must indeed get an award for cutting off their nose to spite their face. I interviewed their spokesman last Monday on my LBC show and could hardly believe what I was hearing.

So, tomorrow the Commons gets to vote on Nadine’s amendment, which seeks to ban abortion clinics from giving abortion counselling, and instead allowing GPs to recommend “independent” counsellors. So far, Nadine has been unable to define just who these new counsellors would be. She has specifically denied she would want religious organisations or charities to be involved in abortion counselling, but if not them, then who?

In theory she has a point, that abortion clinics have a vested interest in providing counselling which in the end which results in abortion. In theory. But where’s the proof? There has been a distinct lack of women coming forward telling media organisations that they felt they got terrible advice from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service or Marie Stopes. I’ve covered this subject for three separate hours on my LBC programme and desite repeated entreaties to women to call in if they felt they had received dubious advice, not a single one did. But we did get quuite a few calls from women who felt the advice they had been given was both impartial and good. And they were from women who had gone ahead with abortions and some who hadn’t.

Nadine and others have used an analogy with the pensions industry, where pension providers are prevented by law from giving impartial advice to clients. I’ve always thought this was a rather desperate argument. In the pensions situation there is a financial gain to be had. Abortion clinics are charities. They do not exist to make money, so far as I am aware. Ah, but the chief executive of BPAS, Ann Furedi won’t tell us how much she earns, and their executives all drive expensive cars we are told by Nadine and her allies. Er, so what? Is that really supposed to persuade us that their staff are instructed to “up” the abortion rate in order to keep them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Well, if so, where’s the proof?

Don’t get me wrong. In my heart I am completely pro life. I hate the idea of abortion, and especially late term abortion. But you cannot allow your heart to rule your head on issues like abortion. Much as I would love to ban it, realities dictate you have to be pragmatic and try to base the law on practicalities. So we can have debates on the point at which abortions should stop – currently 24 weeks (I would vote to reduce it to 20). And we can debate what kind of counselling women considering having an abortion should get, and there may well be a case for opening it up beyond BPAS and Marie Stopes, but that case, for me, has not yet been made properly.

Instead, what we have heard from people who maybe should have known better is that Nadine’s proposed amendment would reduce the number of abortions by one third. I don’t necessarily believe that this is the prime motivating factor for her, but that’s how it looks to the outside world, and it has meant that the argument has shifted away from her original territory.

Even discussing abortion is something which, as I am, I am uncomfortable with. But too many men shy away from this debate.

The debate shouldn’t be about counselling. It should be about the reasons why British women have far more abortions than in virtually very other European countries. It should be about the number of repeat abortions. It should be about sex education and what we teach girls and boys at school about countraception and the consequences of a moment of madness. But instead, we’re spending countless time and column inches on counselling.

If there is a problem with the counselling given by BPAS and Marie Stopes, wouldn’t we have heard more about it by now? Wouldn’t we have been regaled by countless horror stories? Unless the entire media has silenced these women who have received such awful advice it seems me that it remains ‘case unproven’.

And unless a case has been proven, there can be no case for changing the law.

One other argument that the pro Life lobby have latched onto this week is the research in the US that seemms to prove that women who have abortions are twice as likely to have mental problems later in life. Even pro choice people have had to admit this research is valid. Very worrying. Until you ask yourself this. What about women who continue with a pregnancy and have an unwanted child. I wonder if any study has ever been done into their mental problems. Probably not.

One final point. Can people who disagree with Nadine on this stop branding her as ‘mad’? Just as it is unacceptable for pro life people to bran those who believe in abortion as child killers, isn’t it equally as unacceptable to call Nadine ‘mad’? Surely to goodness we can have a debate on this subject without resorting to idiotic namecalling which gets us nowhere. Yes Suzanne Moore, I mean you.

I don’t imagine my next conversation with Nadine will be an especially comfortable one. But while I admire her in many ways, and count her as a friend, on this I just don’t think she has proved her case. So while I do think that people other than BPAS and Marie Stopes should be able to provide abortion counselling, I certainly don’t want religious fundamentalists to be able to, and no one has yet been able to tell me who else is clamouring to provide this advice.

Unless you know different.

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My Any Questions Experience (3)

3 Sep 2011 at 20:45

Yesterday I made my third appearance on Any Questions. The old saying that once you have done something once it’s easer the second or third time doesn’t really apply to Any Questions, as there is so much scope to make a complete tit of yourself. One stupid answer to a question, one remark that you think is clever but which falls flat can ruin an otherwise reasonable performance. So it’s one of the few things I get nervous about doing. I get less nervous about being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman than I do about going on Any Questions. But maybe that’s a good thing.

I am a firm believer that too much preparation for a programme like this can be a very bad thing. If you are overprepared it can make you seem very flat and a little boring. But on the other hand, if you wing it, it’s also a rather dangerous thing to do. While it is true that the panel don’t know the questions in advance, you’d have to be a bit of a fool if you couldn’t guess at least half the subjects what will come up. Last night I got them all right, apart from one, so that wasn’t a bad strike rate. Last year I only guessed half. Indeed, the one which I didn’t guess (planning) last night, I felt was one of my stronger answers, so maybe there’s a lesson there.

My first mistake yesterday was to drive myself to Somerton. I had been up since 5am, as I have been presenting LBC’s breakfast show all week. I was already knackered having only had four hours sleep on Wednesday night. My own stupid fault, as I had forgotten to cancel my regular Wednesday night appearance on the Sky News paper review. So by mid morning on Friday I wasn’t exactly feeling my best -and a business meeting on Friday morning went on far longer than anticipated so my preparation time was cut to the bone. In the end I ended up leaving for Somerton an hour later than intended, and then it was the turn of the A303 to scupper my plans to have tea with some friends in nearby Langport. In the end I arrived at the pub in Somerton (the White Hart) where the panellists were to meet for dinner at 5.30. So, half an hour to prepare for the fifteen subjects I figured might well come up. Hey ho. David Davis rung. “What should I say about control orders,” I asked, wondering if his view (guess!) would coincide with what I intended to say if it came up. In the end it didn’t.

So, 6pm and I walk over to the White Hart. No one is expecting us. Surely to God I hadn’t got the wrong pub. I walk back to the car to check. No, this is the right one. Eventually, Polly, one of the AQ production team turns up, followed ten minutes later by my fellow panellists, Joan Bakewell, Norman Lamont and John Kampfner, and stand in presenter Martha Kearney. We ordered a meal and while Martha went off to talk to the producers we all tried to guess what the questions were likely to be. Jonathan Dimbleby always tries to put a stop to such discussions! We were all obsessed about not being able to answer the funny question.

Anyway, around 7.25 the driver came to get us to ferry us to the community centre, where the audience were already being warmed up. I hadn’t met Joan Bakewell before, but she seemed very nice. I hadn’t realised she was a Labour peer – I’d assumed she was a cross bencher. She certainly didn’t seem very party political. It’s quite difficult being on the same panel as a national treasure and I certainly knew I wouldn’t be able to launch any exocets at her as the audience would instantly be turned against me!

I knew John Kampfner quite well and had met Norman Lamont a few times. He’s a very entertaining individual and we all seemed to hit it off very well. In fact I’m not sure whether these dinners are necessarily a good thing. It’s quite hard to be confrontational with people you’ve got on quite well with over dinner.

At about ten to eight Marthe Kearney rejoined us and was about to tell us what the warm up question would be. I implored her not to as I always find it better not to know in advance. The others agreed. We were then introduced to the audience, walking on stage one at a time. The audience seemed a friendly bunch, and the hall was packed. So at about 7.54 Martha asked for the warm up question, which I have unfortunately now forgotten! But it all seemed to go off very well.

And then it began. First question on banking, second on planning, third on the Dale Farm travellers, followed by defence cuts and then one n school discipline. And then we came to the final question: What stupid things did the panel do in their youth. My mind went completely blank and I prayed Martha wouldn’t come to me first. She didn’t. I had thought I would talk abut driving a combine harvester, unsupervised, at the age of eight, but right at the last second I changed my mind and talked about being in the Making Your Mind Up Bucks Fizz video we made with Total Politics last year. Got a good laugh.

The only subject which I hadn’t really prepared for was on the government’s plans to relax planning regulations. I’m afraid I did resort to shameless populism by calling local planners “quasi dictators”. It got the biggest cheer of the night from the audience. I didn’t know it at the time but there are some big planning related controversies in Somerton!

I’ll leave it up to you, if you were listening, to judge how I did. Of the three times I’ve been on the programme I certainly felt more comfortable about how I’d done at the end of this one than the other two. That’s all I’ll say! There were no real spats and I guess some people felt we all agreed with each other a little too much. Joan and I had a bit of a contretemps over the travellers, but that was really the only bit of controversy. It was the same last year, when I was on with Deborah Mattinson, Matthew Taylor and a businessman called Adrian Fawcett. I’m just too consensual!

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