Wednesday 8 October 2008

12th century modernisation

Modernisaton has been the buzz word of any party trying to get into power for the last 15 years, (which is actually ironic enough to deserve a posting of its own.)

Anyway, true to his party's current modernising trend, a Conservative member tried to overturn a "market charter" dating back to the 12th century in the Commons chamber today.

I watched from the press gallery, thinking about how bizarre it was to be overturning something the man admitted himself probably didn't even exist, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned round to be confronted by a man wearing livery.

"Good god, he's going to challenge me to a duel," I thought.

He didn't. But he did throw me out of the chamber for not wearing a jacket.

Before I could apologise for being such a cad, he held his hands out and said: "Sorry mate. They're not my rules, I quite like your shirt. They're the speaker's and they're hundreds of years old."

Thoughts on PMQs...

For the first time in a long time Gordon just about came out on top today, albeit sparring with an opposition leader who had tied his hands behind his back.

Dave had pledged support for Government measures through the crisis and so was unable to really strike at Brown.

In fact both men had pledged to play nicely today saying the crisis outweighed partisan point scoring – of course neither could help themselves in the end.

It started off with both trying their hardest to out “have-the-interest-of-the-nation-at-heart” each other.

Dave’s initial questions were tame – affirming the need to stabilize the banking system. Brown mocked him – thanking him for the opportunity to explain how Labour was saving the day.

Every question Dave asked about whether the Government was doing its best to sort out the nation's problems, or if the cabinet would consider Conservative proposals, were met with heckles from the Labour ranks.

The Tories on the other hand seemed to be positively muzzled – as if a memo had gone round telling everyone to be deadly serious. Instead opposition MPs settled for mature headshaking at the childish banter on the opposite benches.

With his last question Dave couldn’t help but try and push the PM and asked him to give a guarantee to tax-payers that irresponsible bankers wouldn’t get a big bonus.

It was a bizarre question that didn’t quite fit with the Tory leader’s dialogue – particularly as he had defended banks in an earlier remark – and it left him open.

Brown hit back by smugly reading out a quote that Cameron had made on television – “what you won’t hear from me this week,” Dave had said, “is the sort of easy, cheap lines beating up the markets.”

Labour MPs finally had something to cheer about at PMQs. Tories shook their heads like older sisters looking at the tomfoolery of their kid brother.

After today’s performance Dave will be itching to go back on the offensive and Labour MPs will be scrambling to build on what they hope is the foundation of a come-back.

Neglect of duty...

City bankers aren't the only ones that have been neglecting their responsibilities in the recent banking crisis.

Left-winger Alan Simpson, Nottingham South MP, joked: "I always thought it was my job to bring capitalism to its knees.

"But I haven't done anything to help all of this on. I feel sort of neglectful."

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Congratulations on your congratulations

Even Coaker himself looked embarrassed as wave after wave of adulation was lavished on him from around the room.

The Gedling MP's promotion from a junior Home Office minister to Minister of State for Police was announced a couple of days ago.

But colleagues at this morning's debate were so eager to congratulate him that it turned into some sort of weird cross-party love in.

Nottingham North MP Graham Allen, who called for the debate, started off: "It would be remiss of me not to congratulate my right honourable friend on his promotion.”

Later adding that improving drug awareness would; "require a minister, perhaps even a minister-of-state, with unique determination - a quality my honourable friend possesses in abundance."

Fair enough, the two Notts MPs do go back a few years. But then there was the Tory's James Brokenshire.

"I've always found him fair-minded and always very honourable in the way he has conducted his dealings."

The homage fest was hotting up now. Time for Lib Dem Tom Brake, whose praise was tinged with a hint of jealousy.

He said: "I'll keep my congratulations short because otherwise we may see the minister's head swelling from all the praise that he's received."

Let's not forget UKIP MP Bob Spink.

"It's lovely to have such a superb minister with us this morning and I congratulate him on his promotion," gushed the George-Formby-voiced member for Castlepoint.

"It's long overdue. He is one of the best, most caring and able-to-listen ministers in the House of Commons."

The new minister made a good go at humility when he stood up to respond, even sounding a little nervous.

He shouldn't worry though - the honeymoon period won’t last.

To the hills...

Labour rebel he may be, but Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson is not a militant.

At least I didn't think so until recently when he mentioned what happened to some eager journalists who followed him out to Italy last year.

The hacks went sniffing around for a tale about how the left-winger was living it up in his decadent holiday home - they were misguided as his flat is only a modest thing for him and his small family.

Two hacks, claiming to be friends of the city MP, went to a local cafe to ask the owner where their target lived.

The wise old Italian, wondering why friends of Simpson didn't know his address, sent them off to a random location in the country side.

When reporting the incident to the MP later the owner said: "It's ok. We treated them just like we did the Nazis. We sent them into the hills."

He added: "Of course we actually killed the Nazis."

I'm assured the hacks returned alive.

Monday 6 October 2008

Return for Campbell?

Word is that king of spin Alastair Campbell is about to make a return to Government.

It seems incredible but after Mandelson’s come back last week nothing is impossible.

A Government spokesman said he had "no information" regarding a return, but you may have got a similar answer had you asked this time last week if Mandy would be in the cabinet again.

Not sure how a lurch back to Blair's team will be received, particularly as Labour is being sold as the party of change.

Previous postings...

Friday, 3 October 2008

Would you Adam and Eve it?
The most recent casualty in the reshuffle was not a minister.

As whispers of who would replace who reached fever pitch a few moments ago, Sky News' Adam Boulton announced that former Sun editor David Yelland was going to be No 10's new communications guru.

It turned out to be codswallop and poor Adam had to do a stuttering live climb-down.After the joy of getting the reshuffle scoop this morning it must've been a bitter pill to swallow for Sky.

But it shows how much gossiping there is going on, and how difficult it is to sort reality from rumour.

Blair for PM - that's Cherie not Tony
As the reshuffle kicks in the rumour mills are going into overdrive.

Now that Hoon's move to the transport brief is pretty set and Mandy is on his way back from Europe, the question is - who is going to take over as EU Commissioner?

It could still be Hoon, a man who quite fancies the job according to sources, but would have to wait before taking it up. Meanwhile others are betting on Patricia Hewitt.

That brings up another interesting question. Hewitt has a 9,000 odd majority in her safe Leicester West seat.Who would Labour put in there as a sure bet to win at a difficult time for by-elections like this? Whispers are saying Cherie Blair.

Crazy, I know. But she has been raising her profile recently, TV panels and so on, and she was the only Blair at Labour conference this year.

Hoon's on the move
Hoon's going to transport.

For a man who felt the need to say he wanted to stay in Government a week a go, he'll be content to have a department back.

The chief whip's job can be a thankless task, particularly when you are trying to keep such disorderly troops in line.

The wider reshuffle is bigger and more surprising than many thought. Peter Mandleson's return could be a plot-line from a film that goes on too long.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Is Hoon the new Kelly
A long awaited reshuffle was expected sometime today.

But contrary to original whispers it seems it's going to be a small one - maybe just replacing Ruth Kelly.

After the Labour Conference last week Notts MP Geoff Hoon, along with two other cabinet members, sparked suspicions of cabinet unrest when they publicly said they wanted to stay in Government.

Hoon's name was linked to the soon-to-be vacant EU commissioner position - now it seems "they" are saying he may be given Kelly's old job at the Department of Transport.

Ole, Ole Ole Ole...
Absolutely no triumphalism allowed at the end of Tory party conference.

That was the rule for Team Dave.Ironically the message may have got lost on the way to the communications department.

Journalists in the press room were offered free red footballs with "give Labour the boot printed on them."

At least Dave's speech stayed on message, to read about how it and the conference went pick up a copy of Friday's paper.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Practical jokes...
Smug Tories have been handing out free computer memory sticks at their party conference.

The nifty little sticks carry a warning in red print reading, "WARNING: To avoid data loss keep out of reach of Labour."

Other smug Tories haven't laughed so much since yesterday, when boxes of free bananas were given away to delegates.

The boxes were placed underneath life size cardboard cut-outs of David Miliband standing in his now notorious banana pose.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Interest rates...
Cameron did well to get some sort of speech on the financial crisis out this morning as it is now overshadowing his party's conference.

His team fears the key-note speech scheduled for tomorrow will not get as good a showing in the media as it would have done had things been more stable.

A number of journalists from the press room have already packed their bags and gone back to London to watch the markets fall apart.

Don't come back Ken
It was like a bizarre pantomime, but with the editor of the Telegraph Simon Heffer instead of Widow Twanky.

With his oddly coloured hair darling-of-the-right Heffer got on stage at a conference fringe meeting and bemoaned the handover of power and sovereignty to Europe.

Sitting a little to his right, in both senses, was UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

It was only a few minutes before he mentioned our very own 'big beast' Ken Clarke to grumblings, boos and hisses from a Tory crowd frustrated with Cameron's cuddly Conservatives.

Ken of course is one of the few openly pro-European Tories - and he had, according to Heffer, extracted an assurance from the Tory leadership that the party would not withdraw from the right-of-centre group in the European Parliament.

If in doubt about why the Tories are still in Europe, Heffer's line of argument seemed to be, blame Ken.

The Rushcliffe MP's name, mentioned on at least two other times in Heffer's speech, was met with more grumbles or rapturous laughter.

We'll see whose laughing if Mr Clarke is recalled to the shadow cabinet in the weeks to come.

Emergency legislation on the financial crisis? It seems to be the first time anyone has talked about that seriously.

Either way by altering the programme of his conference and making a speech on the growing crisis, Cameron has thrown Brown a difficult conundrum.

Possibly even a no-win situation. Speaking to him in a side room at the conference before his speech Cameron let slip that he had been on the phone with the PM last night, as well as the head of the Financial Services Authority.

It may have been that he was truly trying to hammer out a cross party deal on emergency legislation - perhaps it was knocked back by the Government.

If it was, then Cameron's pledge today to support legislation is throwing down the gauntlet to Brown. If it wasn't then Cameron has stolen Brown's thunder.

If the Labour leader does now bring forward legislation, with or without Tory support, he risks making it seem like Labour is following the opposition's lead. If he courts Tory support that risk grows - it may even feel as though the Government 'needs' the Conservatives to move forward.

If Brown refuses support and brings forward a bill he may look as though he is playing party politics with the most important piece of legislation in a generation - playing into the "irresponsible" tag put on him by Cameron previously.

The third option, not bringing any legislation forward, will make him look like he is doing nothing - the worst possible outcome.

While Cameron called for a stop to the jockeying for position that led to the failure in American politics this weekend, he was actually doing just that.

But looking beyond the sly move made by the Conservative leader, there is something else here.

If Cameron, Brown, or both think that emergency legislation to stop banks going under is necessary - doesn't that mean they strongly expect more to go down? Watch this space.

Monday, 29 September 2008

As the Government talks tough at the world of finance and the Tories attempt to look tough at their conference the Lib Dems roll out Vince Cable to do his bit.

Unfortunately they seem to have forgotten to fully update their old press release...

Liberal Democrats
Contact: **** ****** - 0207 *** ****
Embargo: Immediate, Sunday 28 September 2008

Nationalisation of Northern Rock is the least worst option - Cable

Commenting on the Nationalisation of Bradford and Bingley, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable said: “It would have been better if Bradford and Bingley could have been saved with a private sector purchase, without recourse to the taxpayer. But in the absence of a buyer, the Government had no alternative but to learn the lessons of Northern Rock and act decisively.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Come-back Ken?
Rumours abound that Rushcliffe MP Ken Clarke may be invited back to the front bench by David Cameron.

The Tory 'big-beast' is tipped to be Leader of the Commons - with responsibility for organising Government business.

It is really a position that can be as important or insignificant as the holder makes it.

Speculation has been fuelled by numerous recent television appearances which have seen the former Chancellor talking on the world financial crisis.

There have also been references at party conference to his sturdy economic record including specific praise from shadow foreign secretary William Hague in his speech today.

Birmingham - City of the future...
Birmingham's paper quoted David Cameron as saying the city was "on trial" during the Tory conference - with a successful event leading to future bookings.

But for one Conservative MP at least, whose name we shall spare, the city already seems to have been hung, drawn and quartered.

After the welcome drinks had started to flow he made his way through rowdy Saturday night revellers to queue at a secured hotel bar."

I'd forgotten just how vile Birmingham is," he commented to his colleagues surveying the drunken scene.

Unfortunately most of the rest of the queue was made up of members of the press.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Me, Sam and Dave
We are a friendly bunch on the 1.17pm to Lime Street, Liverpool. Good thing too – it’s going to be a longer journey than planned because of track works.

The train, which also stops in Birmingham – hosting the Conservative Party’s conference – isn’t as packed as on the way to Labour’s Manchester gig last week.

There is me, the lustful Chinese lovebirds at the end of the carriage and the irritatingly cheerful girl who laughs too loudly.

Oh, and then there is David and Samantha of course. A well-preened couple up in first-class.I met them in the café at Euston Station before hand.

Dave walked in dutifully pushing a mountain of bags on an airport style trolley while Sam tottered along behind in her heels and bright red jacket.

A lackey found them a table, before Sam started picking at a brown-coloured salad which looked as appetising as dog food.

I thought I’d let Dave wolf down his sandwich before pressing him for a message for the people of Nottingham.

His eyes told me to p*** off, but true to style his voice slipped into the sales pitch.

“I hope next week we will show the people of Nottingham a strong, united party that will help them deal with all of the problems they are facing,” along with some-other platitude.

For some reason he didn’t look thrilled to find out we’d be sharing our journey.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Trains and Trannies...
On the train back from Manchester after Labour Conference some delegates reflected...

"It all seemed a bit subdued. There weren't as many fringe meetings, not as much going on," one said.

"Mmm," the other replied, "nothing really out of the ordinary, oh, apart from the miming transvestites of course. That was a bit odd."

And indeed it was. Visitors at one fringe after party were welcomed by transvestites in white boiler suits cleaning a stage.

An hour in they shed the suits and burst into song, well, into mime.

They mouthed the words to camp pop and danced while the crowd looked on confused by why someone thought it would be good or appropriate entertainment.

At least they made a lasting impression.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Due process...
Brown bought himself a few months at least with his speech yesterday but the leadership issue has by no means disappeared.

Two East Midlands Labour MPs – who have given their backing to the PM publicly – said to me that they wouldn't push for a leadership contest and didn’t think one would be helpful, but if one were to come about their support for the leader would not necessarily be automatic.

A decision on who to cheer for would be based on who the other candidates were and the situation at the time, they said.

Before Ruth Kelly’s resignation she was overheard describing Brown’s speech as terrible, and with at least one other cabinet member briefing journalists against the PM he has a tough job to decide what shape his new cabinet will take – keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?

Oh, sit down!
The speech should have started half an hour before and the crowd were starting to get a bit impatient – so to entertain themselves they sang and danced to the rousing music playing in the hall.

Conference songs are supposed to embody the party spirit – think M-People’s Moving On Up – but for some reason the 90s indie hit Sit Down had sneaked its way into the play list.

It seemed cheery enough until large portions of the crowd began to sing along to the lines: “Those who feel the breath of sadness sit down next to me, those who feel they’re touched by madness sit down next to me, those who find themselves ridiculous sit down next to me…”

After a few embarrassed laughs they did all sit down.

Cue Sarah Brown to introduce a video which was meant to show how Labour had improved Britain since the Tories ruled.

It started with videos of police beating back rioters and burning buildings before the film took the viewer into a bright white light – symbolising the 1997 victory I suppose – and on the other side were pictures of kids eating fruit and nurses.

Three things key to the speech were the attempt to define the lines between Tory and Labour, the attempt to define Gordon from anyone else and the attempt to create the clear direction that everyone has been crying out for.

That direction it seems is fairness – the word or some form of it was mentioned no less than 37 times.To be fair, the PM was very fair in his speech – giving a mention to just about everyone, including all his cabinet, who were working hard to make things better for kids, parents, families, teachers, nurses, soldiers, employees, workers, business and everyone who New Labour need to vote for them.

Then it was Tory-bashing time. His voice took an almost pantomime sinister edge as he said: “When the salesmen wont tell you what they’re selling, it’s because they are selling something no-one should buy.”

It was no time, he explained, for a novice to be running the country – a jibe overtly aimed at Cameron, but also perhaps at light-weights closer to home.

The Scot then went on in an odd warbling voice, as if he might cry, to practically accuse the Conservatives of stealing from babies.

This was, all in all, the same old Gordon with the same old hand movements – the double karate chop and the better known ‘flat-hand-thumb-sticking-up’ – the same odd air gulping thing he does and the same incorrect pronunciation, “revolyoution” and “transpearency”.

What felt different was that he was talking to a room full of people that were listening and clapping.

Same old song...
After Gordon's speech at conference last night the party was supposedly looking to the future.

But as delegates and MPs attended the free-bar bash of think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research there was a more reminiscent feel.

Tipsy delegates were a bit slow taking to the dance floor when the DJ suddenly shouted "remember how good this felt?"D:Ream's 1997 Labour anthem Things Can Only Get Better rang out and the dance floor was packed in seconds.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Toughest of the tough...
There is so much "tough talking" at Labour conference that I'm starting to feel a bit intimidated.

You can't walk around a corner without a furrow-browed party member jumping out and vowing to fight the Tories to the death.The most recent offender was Lilian Greenwood, the candidate who will fight to hold Alan Simpson's Nottingham South seat for Labour.

Mr Simpson - whose own tough talking against the Labour leadership has been key to his popularity - will step down at the next election.

If polls this week are anything to go by, which show the city seat as a Tory gain, Ms Greenwood has a fight on her hands.

In her address to conference today she claimed the party had changed the world over the last ten years and praised the Government and city council - and swore, steely faced, to stop the Tories coming back.

The question is whether the people of Nottingham South will mind being represented by someone who talks tough in a different direction.

The contrast between the left-of-centre parties in the US and the UK could not be starker.

The Democrats have a leader who is considered visionary, has captured the public's imagination, has a campaign machine that is the stuff of legends - it raised $66m in August - and is looking like winning the next election.

Wondering if any of that shine would rub off on the Labour party Amber Valley MP Judy Mallaber spent some time working with the Democrats this month and has been chatting to her colleagues at conference about what she saw.

She said: "Politics over there is a very different thing and I’m not sure that kind of approach – at least to raising money – is transferable.

"These are huge amounts to be spending on an election, that kind of money comes from somewhere and it may mean that you are tied to lobbyists very closely."

Spoken like a true New Labourite.

Missed opportunity...
Last night Gordon had a great opportunity to capture the headlines on a day that might turn out to be a turning point in his leadership.

But in his “major policy announcement” he has really missed a trick – not to mention a golden opportunity to show he is in tune with what people’s worries are.

The ‘educational technology allowance’ – worth up to £700 – will be offered to low income families to cover the cost of getting them on the internet – including, a computer, software, a connection fee and initial monthly charges.

This is the key policy that Brown has chosen to release in advance of his major speech, which suggests he might think it is one of the most important.

It is of course important that all youngsters should have internet access.

But at a time when families across the country are scared they are not going to be able to afford fuel bills this winter, when people are worried about keeping their jobs, the Prime Minister’s ‘come-back’ speech should not hinge on internet access for families in 2010.

There is another scenario – that Brown has more eye-catching policies that he will pull out of the hat and that this was just something to get the morning headlines.

If that is the case then the story failed to get the showing Mr Brown would have hoped for – suggesting that the communication problems that have dogged his leadership continue.

Furthermore, the whole policy is based on the idea that these families who can’t afford to pay for the internet now, will be able to once they have a computer and are connected.

A special advisor to Mr Brown said: “It’s a common feature of studies that families can save hundreds of pounds a year through on-line buying and price comparison websites.“So in the long term, especially with these help and start up costs, there is a benefit to families which will out-weigh the cost of ongoing internet connection.”

In other words, the money the family will save shopping at Tesco on-line instead of the supermarket will pay for the monthly broadband charges – it is not the basis for a solid policy.

I fear people will be thinking, ‘if they can find £300 million to pay for this, why can’t they use it to give poor families £700 to pay their gas bill this winter?’

One other thing – the scheme will only apply to England. That won’t go down too well in November’s Glenrothes by-election, which rebel MPs say will be key to Brown’s chances of continuing in his job unchallenged.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Men in tights...
Unions and some MPs struggled to persuade the Government to levy a one-off windfall tax on energy companies this morning.

Seeking to re-ignite enthusiasm for the cause one union delegate stood up and argued for the measure, calling it a "Robin Hood" tax - stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

As it seems the Government will be unmoved by the reference to Nottingham's most famous son, it doesn't look like the union delegates, or the fuel impoverished, will be merry men this winter.

It's party time...
Despite years of bashing the Labour Government Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson was big enough to brush it all aside with one of Brown's most loyal ministers.

He shared a hearty embrace with the "photogenic" Housing Minister Caroline Flint when the pair wished each other happy birthday.

Both celebrated their special day on Saturday, the first day of the Labour Conference.

Mr Simpson, who is stepping down at the next election, opted to skip the first day in favour of spending his 60th having a picnic with his wife and young daughter.

Ms Flint, defender of an embattled Government, had to settle for a different kind of party, meeting Labour delegates on how to make housing affordable.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Walking the line...
In a tucked away room of a huge empty building, an hour before anything else at the Labour conference began, Nottingham North MP Graham Allen attended a meeting.

It was set up to discuss the Early Intervention projects, helping families and young people with social problems, which the MP has pioneered.

The intent was admirable and the discussion meaningful, but the meeting was odd for two reasons.

Firstly because at the front of the room former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith sat to the left of Guardian journalist Patrick Wintour - we'll never see that again.

Secondly because Iain Duncan Smith was there at all, remember whose conference this is.

This is an event where Labour is desperately trying to define the dividing lines between itself and the Tories.

It seems an issue like this which has won cross party support, hence the presence of Duncan Smith, is not something the event organisers want to draw too much attention to.

The ghost of Tony walks these halls…
Some old wounds would have been opened for Gordon Brown if he had attended a debate chaired by Sherwood MP Paddy Tipping last night.

As the debate was thrown open to the floor Mr Tipping pointed at the man he had chosen to speak next.

But as the microphone worked its way to him, another delegate sprang up, intercepted the microphone and started talking.

When the next person then came to speak Mr Tipping commented: “You’ll have to make it quick because someone here jumped in before it was their turn.“But that’s the way it goes, it is the Labour conference after all.”

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The red green zone
The theme for Labour’s conference which started today was ‘winning the fight for Britain’s future’ – and ready to fight they were.

The conference descended on Manchester with a mammoth security operation – the local paper even reported that one man’s 999 call had not been responded to for an hour because police were busy guarding the event.

Sealed off behind fencing and a wall of armed, uniformed and mounted police, the main venue forms a sort of ‘green zone’ in the middle of the city which only people with the right pass can access.

The drawn-out application process for passes started months ago, more than enough time to weed out any terrorists and hecklers.

Unfortunately a few others also fell victim to the application process – including Nottingham North Constituency Labour Party who, after a mix up with their application, didn’t manage to get accreditation for a delegate.

Luckily their MP Graham Allen stepped up to the mark. But oddly that means he now holds the rare position of being both Nottingham North MP at the conference and his own local party’s delegate – that is devotion.