Thursday, 20 May 2010

The fastest rebrand in history

‘The Coalition’, as the Con-Dem leadership now proudly calls itself, has got busy. Nick and Dave have produced a logo of sorts and a new corporate colour – a rather insipid green – which adorned the policy document they released yesterday. I guess this is what children get when they mix pale blue with orange on the painting table.

The Oxbridge identikits didn’t bother employing a big branding consultancy for their change of identity, because they didn’t really want to tell anyone else it was happening. They believe in delivering all their proposals as a fait accompli. After all, a lot of their pronouncements don’t stand a moment’s scrutiny. The shortest of breathing spaces and the party activists on one side or the other will gather troops in revolt against the leaders of this ludicrous coup d’état. So, like magicians, Nick and Dave swirl the cups around on the table hoping that no one can spot their sleight of hand. And hey presto! Another empty policy initiative is unveiled.

The best example of Cameron’s style to date has come in his confrontation with Tory backbenchers over the role of the 1922 Committee. This archaic body has traditionally served as a ‘safety valve’, allowing ordinary MPs to express their concerns over policy to the Tory leadership. I stood against one of its former Chairmen – Sir Archie Hamilton – in Epsom & Ewell back in 1997. While the Committee has never been renowned for its perspicacity in matters political, it has legitimately claimed to be independent of the executive and to provide some kind of impartial commentary on the government of the day. This thought clearly troubled our new Prime Minister so much that he has insisted on his frontbench team being able to join the club. 118 Conservative MPs rebelled against his suggestion, as they felt that it completely undermined the whole raison d’être of the 1922. What’s more, they’re already fed up with Cameron’s high-handed style and touchy-feely policies. If only a fraction of this number rebel on substantive political issues, the Coalition will become extremely vulnerable.

It would be churlish to suggest that nothing good can possibly come out of the new government. If some of the more ambitious plans for House of Lords reform and the electoral system see the light of day, then I would be the first to applaud. I suspect, however, that the crowning glory of Nick Clegg’s political career is more likely to be the abolition of Home Information Packs. Far from ushering in the biggest political reforms since 1832, he will end up giving estate agents the biggest fillip since Sarah Beany first climbed her property ladder.

Clegg is a lightweight figure, promoted by circumstance way beyond his comfort zone. Many Conservatives realise this and are privately horrified at the amount of time he’s getting on TV and the prominence he seems to have in the new government. With fewer than 60 MPs – and from an election platform which promised amnesties for illegal immigrants and a nicey-nicey relationship with Europe – Clegg seems to be calling an awful lot of the shots. The feeling among Tory activists and MPs will undoubtedly be that Cameron has given his Lib Dem admirer more than was actually necessary. Is this because the Conservative Prime Minister is naïve and trusting? Or because he has a secret agenda to jettison the Tory right and its hardline agenda? Either way, it doesn’t look good.

What about the Lib Dems meanwhile? Why haven’t we seen more of a rebellion among their own grassroots? My feeling is that while the Tory oppositionalists will stay and fight, becoming a thorn in Cameron’s side for months and years ahead, the Lib Dem objectors will simply leave the party and head for Labour or the Greens. Or maybe they’ll pack up their troubles in their old kit bag and spend more time down on their allotment. Clegg’s party is dumbstruck by events that have taken old lefties such as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable over to the arch-enemy that they had fought in countless constituencies around the UK. For the moment, the endorsement of these influential figures gives Clegg some kind of figleaf. But it’s a figleaf that we know has been removed at least 30 times before and will eventually disappear again. At which point one of the Coalition Emperors will have no clothes.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Democracy is being poisoned and we may have to wait for the antidote

The latest polling shows that Nick Clegg and David Cameron are enjoying a honeymoon period. There’s been a lot of commentary about their excruciating ‘civil partnership’ ceremony which took place earlier in the week. In reality, the analogy is grossly insulting to any couple in a genuine, long-term relationship, as it’s clear that Nick and Dave picked each other up casually on the rebound. It’s not so much a marriage. More a status change on Facebook from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’. I have no doubt whatsoever that the coalition will end with an extremely messy divorce. The question is not if it will fall apart, but when.

Dave and Nick (described lovingly as Dick in one of the Sunday papers) are conducting their love affair in the centre ground of British politics and have much in common with one another – not least their elitist background, which includes leading public schools and Oxbridge. It’s actually not surprising that they are able to deal with one another, as they are both in their social comfort zone and neither has any clear ideological standpoint. Each is a pragmatic opportunist. The problem is that their respective parties are filled with people for whom pragmatism is anathema. These are the tree-hugging, pavement-pounding, anti-nuclear lefties of the Liberal Democrat Party and the authoritarian right-wingers in the Conservative Party who are bemused by their leader’s conversion to gay rights, ecology and hoodie-hugging. If you put these factions in a room together, there would be a blood bath, but their parties are now joined at the hip as they parade around the Westminster tearooms.

Some commentators have suggested that Blair dragged Labour into the centre and faced down opposition from his unreconstructed left wing. Surely, they argue, Cameron and Clegg are merely doing the same kind of thing? This superficially plausible argument ignores two points. The first is that the left of the Labour Party had already been fatally weakened by Kinnock and Blair in opposition before the party took power. The left-wing of the Lib Dems and the right-wing of the Tories are very much alive and capable of giving their leaders a kicking. The second point is that we are no longer dealing with one power axis, but two. We have twice the opportunity for division and revolt.

Vince Cable – the Con-Dem Business Secretary – is a decent enough guy. He’s my constituency MP and has helped me out on a couple of occasions. I was very struck by his ability to grasp the detail of some messy and complex problems I talked through with him. You could see how he became the chief economist at oil giant, Shell. There’s a big brain in there.

According to news reports, Vince was desperate to do a deal with Labour rather than the Tories and was on the phone to Gordon Brown in the days before the shameful agreement with Cameron. How far do Vince’s ‘progressive’ principles extend, however? Not far enough that he is prepared to draw a line in the sand. Not far enough to stand up to the vacuous nonsense spouted by his leader about ‘stable government’. No, the prospect of ministerial office was on offer and Cable took it, recognising no doubt that at 67, he was drinking in the last-chance parliamentary saloon. The price he pays is having to swallow hook, line and sinker any rubbish spouted by Chancellor George Osborne, to whom the cerebral Cable must now defer. With the trappings of power comes the humiliation of having to agreeing to the younger man’s claptrap. It can only last so long.

By bringing in the left-leaning intellectual Will Hutton to look at public sector pay and the maverick Labour MP Frank Field to tackle ‘poverty’ (ie slash welfare), Cameron’s big tent is starting to bulge with the biggest bunch of misfits, has-beens, losers and no-hopers that the British political establishment has ever managed to cram onto a campsite.

The huge lie at the heart of the Con-Dem government is that it represents some new kind of politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the ultimate example of a ruling elite coming together to appoint friends and close political neighbours in a stitch-up that ignores the will of the voters entirely. Liberal Democrats around the country stole the support of Labour electors by promising that they were an anti-Tory party. Vince Cable has exploited this tactic endlessly in his south-west London constituency which he’s held since 1997. In the neighbouring seat of Kingston & Surbiton, Ed Davey squeezed my vote relentlessly in 2001 with the same argument. Today, the tactical voting bandwagon is exposed as a fraud. Far from being the anti-Tory party, the Lib Dems are revealed as being pro-Tory. If this information had been known prior to the 2010 election, how do you think it might have affected the way that people would vote?

The Liberal Democrats are shown to be shameless hypocrites and opportunists and they, in my opinion, will be the biggest long-term losers from this election. They claim to represent a new politics, but now believe in forming coalitions with opponents they denounced in the election. They rightly criticise our current voting system, which renders many people’s votes meaningless. But they have used it to do a deal which renders everyone’s votes meaningless.

The end result is completely poisonous for British politics and will almost certainly lead to greater disaffection – particularly among younger people who hope for change. The new way of doing things turns out to be the same old way of doing things. And I, for one, haven’t felt this politically motivated in 20 years.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Two-timing Clegg is out of his depth

Nick Clegg, when probed by Piers Morgan, went on record as saying that he'd jumped into bed with 'no more than' 30 women over the years. No doubt a greater number were interested, but the Liberal Democrat leader played hard to get.

I'm sure that Cleggy would never have had more than one girl on the go at once. And if I'm right, that will have left him woefully unprepared for the world of bluff and double bluff that he's entered after the general election.

There seems little doubt that the so-called 'Con-Dem' talks were genuinely proceeding pretty well until yesterday morning. The Lib Dem leadership has few principles and would gladly jettison its remaining ones for a sniff of government. The problem is that many of the party's backbench MPs and activists live in the naive expectation that Clegg will use this historic moment as an opportunity to screw meaningful concessions from the Tories on electoral reform. These people will have forty fits if their party is sold down the river.

Just as vocal will be the Tory MPs and activists who can't quite understand why Mr Cameron is spending so much time courting their former arch-enemies. They are already suspicious that the smooth-talking Notting Hill set is full of closet lefties and now their worst nightmares seem to be coming true.

It's a crazy and confusing world and no one knows where anyone stands any more. George Orwell's 1984 comes to mind. Is Oceania at war with Eurasia or Eastasia today? Unsurprisingly, in this febrile climate, there's a fair amount of mutual suspicion. And a lot of pressure on the respective leaders. Clegg has been told privately by his supporters to keep his options open and not rule out the possibility of a deal with Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the timing of his intervention yesterday. By announcing his resignation, but being vague about the timing, he leaves every potential option on the table. A government led by him until the autumn. A government led by someone else perhaps. Either way, immediate legislation for a pretty poor electoral system called AV, with no referendum required. And a later referendum on a proportional system favoured by the Lib Dems.

I think the markets will now become genuinely twitchy. Clegg doesn't know which side his bread is buttered on and he's beginning to look like an indecisive wimp. The Lib Dem leader isn't great at gravitas and his nerves are beginning to show.

The most likely option, in my opinion, is still a minority Tory government trying to face down the numerically superior opposition in parliament. This is the strategy favoured by Norman Tebbit. Thankfully, it's also the one that will do Labour the most favours in the longer term.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The best options for Labour

Sometimes in politics, the worst option in the short term proves to be the best in the long run. Gordon Brown is an intelligent man and he must be pondering this point right now.

Let's say that David Cameron and Nick Clegg fail to reach an agreement. The main obstacles will be opposition from within their respective parties, rather than any lack of pragmatism on the part of the leaders. It's possible something temporary may be cobbled together, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Gordon Brown's offer to Clegg is still on the table. An immediate referendum on PR in exchange for support in Parliament. Sounds good in theory and it could lead to the 'progressive' anti-Tory coalition that many on the centre-left have championed for generations. But there is a fundamental problem which goes way beyond the inadequate arithmetic of the Lib-Lab deal in Parliament.

An attempt by the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in power is not an option, because there is just as much an anti-Brown sentiment in the country as there is an anti-Tory one. If he were to cling on at Downing Street in the short-term it would do unimaginable damage to Labour over the coming years. He has to accept defeat gracefully and allow party members to elect a new leader, such as David Miliband.

Miliband - or whoever replaces Brown - cannot become Prime Minister immediately, because such an outcome would be utterly unacceptable to the general public. We thought we were choosing between three presidential candidates who paraded before us on the television. To be lumbered with someone, however able, who wasn't on offer previously would confirm everyone's worst suspicions about the political process. What's more, it would undermine the case for electoral reform that the new Lib-Lab coalition would presumably be making to the country. People would say that if the horse-trading under first-past-the-post produced such a perverse outcome, wouldn't the deals under PR prove far worse?

This leaves only one favourable option for the Labour Party. Allow the Tories to form a minority government and watch as they stumble from crisis to crisis. George Osborne will, of course, be hopelessly out of his depth. Cameron will be left cosying up to the DUP in Northern Ireland and forming ragtag and bobtail coalitions on an ad hoc basis to get his legislation through. We could be pretty sure that the more extreme elements of the Conservative manifesto would remain unimplemented.

Meanwhile, Labour would elect a new leader in an open contest. And this person would lay the ground for a victory in the next general election - almost certainly within the next six to eighteen months.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The cold light of day

After some sleep, a beef sandwich and some coffee, I'm now turning my mind back to the general election.

Looking at the coverage on the BBC this morning, I think it's very clear that the door is open to a Conservative-Lib Dem agreement of some sort. Clegg is not prepared to prop up Gordon Brown, recognising that Labour has been rejected and that such an arrangement would be unacceptable to the public. This may be bloody-mindedness on Clegg's part, as Brown is far more likely to give him the kind of concessions he wants, but the Lib Dem leader probably knows that he can't keep the dour Scotsman in power. And it's very difficult to tell the public that a new Labour leader - David Milliband, perhaps - has emerged in a puff of smoke. The cerebral Foreign Secretary didn't take part in the three-way presidential debates.

There are two major obstacles to the Conservative-Lib Dem scenario and neither of them is David Cameron. The first is constitutional. In theory, Gordon Brown should have first crack of the whip when it comes to forming a government. (In reality, I think it's constitution constischmution. The Labour PM can have the right to form a government in theory, but it remains academic if there are no options on the table.)

The second obstacle is more fundamental though. Many senior Conservatives were frustrated with Cameron's campaign and never bought into his soft soap politics. Their knives are out. What's more, many of them are fundamentally opposed to any form of proportional representation.

Lots of fun and games to come.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Lib Dems may still hold the key

Although it seems as if the Lib Dems haven't done as well as we might expect in this election, they still may play a critical part in deciding whether David Cameron is able to command an overall majority. It seems as if the Tories are achieving some very strong swings against Labour in the north-east of England and London. They are struggling, however, against the Liberal Democrats in the south-west. Every target seat they fail to take from the Liberals needs to be replaced by a Labour seat - perhaps one that they had less expectation of winning originally.

My feeling at this stage in the evening - about 1.45 am - is still that we shall see a small overall Tory majority. But things are complicated.

It ain't over until we see the fat lady

What can we conclude so far? The BBC exit poll points to a hung parliament, but I have a strong hunch the Tories may end up doing better than the instant predictions. The swings against Labour in safe seats in the north-east are very striking - particularly given David Cameron's recent pronouncements about how public money is likely to be drained from this part of the world.

Another early story is the fact that significant numbers of people have been denied the right to vote in Sheffield, Manchester and East London. This situation has led to a public protest in Hackney, with disenfranchised members of the public holding a spontaneous sit-in. Without a doubt, some of the results may be open to legal challenge and this could prove significant if the final number of seats is finely balanced.

We have a long night ahead of us