Friday, September 28, 2012 

Clearly distorted (and hiatus).

 And I'm not here next week, so sadly you won't be getting my views on the Labour conference and anything else that happens. Try and get on with your lives in my absence, difficult as it'll be.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012 

Cameron's bizarro world.

There's only one thing to do when you've already made a fool of yourself at the UN: go one better and do much the same on the Letterman show.  Supposedly appearing to promote British business when it's clear to everyone that Cameron was just doing what Boris already had because that's how ultra competitive Old Etonian rivals roll, he didn't know who composed the dirge squeezed out for the last night of the Proms, or that Magna Carta in English means Great Charter!  What a pleb!  Did she die in vain after all?

Of rather more importance ought to be the similar crapola Dave served up before the general assembly.  This time last year the splendid NATO intervention in Libya was still going on, with the civilians in Beni Walid and Sirtre being "protected" through bombing raids and Gaddafi yet to be pulled out of his sewer and sodomised to death, so naturally we heard of how wonderful bombing countries with copious natural resources was.  12 months on and the best that can be said about Libya is that the militia allegedly responsible for the murder of the American ambassador Chris Stevens was flushed out of Benghazi with just 9 deaths in the process reported.  According to Cameron, this popular uprising was "inspiring", although strangely he failed to make mention of the deaths or how it reflects rather badly on the Libyan security services that it was armed individuals rather than themselves who carried the burden of doing so.

Mostly though Cameron dedicated his speech to setting up straw men arguments about the Arab spring and then knocking them down.  Anyone would have thought that as a country we had supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt from the very beginning, instead of all but ignoring the overthrow of Ben Ali and then only dumping Mubarak when his fall from power seemed inevitable, such was Cameron's fervour for what a wonderful thing the downfall of these authoritarian regimes had been.  We don't though support the complete democratisation of the Middle East, as that would obviously be against our interests.  Search for a mention of Bahrain in Cameron's speech and you'll find there isn't one, despite Cameron trying to claim that Somalia's election of a new president is somehow related to the protests that began last year.  That his election was by, err, other MPs rather than by the people themselves also went curiously unexplained.

Every country, you see, takes its own path.  Occasionally we intervene to help them along that path, but others can be left to make progress based around tradition and consent.  In Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE for instance, stability has been brought through either oil wealth, allowing the United States to use the country as a glorified naval base, or making certain areas a Westerner's playground, so long as they don't do anything silly like enjoy themselves too much in public.  That in all of these nations minorities or citizens as a whole are horribly repressed doesn't matter, as they're our friends and allies.

By far the most egregious part of Dave's sermon was this section:

The fact is that for decades, too many were prepared to tolerate dictators like Gaddafi and Assad on the basis that they would both keep their people safe at home and promote stability in the region and the wider world. In fact, neither was true. Not only were these dictators repressing their people, ruling by control not by consent, plundering the national wealth and denying people their basic rights and freedoms, they were funding terrorism overseas as well.

Now, can you possibly think of a country that fits this description exactly?  No, not Iran, as only relatively recently has that country lost all vestiges of being democratic.  It's the House of Saud's rule down to a T.  Except, Cameron can't possibly mean the Saudis, as we seem more aligned with them than ever.  Just as in the 80s when the Americans joined forces with the Saudis to fund the mujahideen in Afghanistan, so now we're promoting Sunni dominance of the region as a bulwark against Iran.  That this means equipping jihadis in Syria to battle against Assad, hijacking what had been a non-sectarian uprising, is just one of the compromises we have to make if we're going to ensure that stability remains.  It also means we'll have to turn a blind eye to the shooting dead of protesters in restive regions of SA, just as we said next to nothing about the crushing of the protests in Bahrain.

Quite how Cameron had the nerve to stand up and say the UN was stained by the blood of children killed in Syria is though something else.  No one can deny that the Assad regime bears full responsibility for the situation in the country as it stands, but to completely ignore the atrocities also being committed by the opposition forces we're supporting is an outrage.  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, embedded with the FSA, reported this week on how a 16-year-old who said the wrong thing to the rebels was brutally tortured in front of him; if they're prepared to do that to someone who merely spoke out of turn, and in front of a Guardian journalist, then how they are treating those they're supposedly fighting for when there are no witnesses around?  The blocking of resolutions on Syria by China and Russia is partially down to how they were misled on Libya, when the imposition of a no fly zone was used by NATO as the authorisation for regime change.  The blame ought to be shared out equally, not just pinned on those who've dared to point out our hypocrisies.

Only then in this bizarro world of Cameron's imagining could it be Iran that's set "on dragging the region in to wider conflict".  The Saudi and Qatari funding of the FSA seems designed to weaken Iran, which in turn is undermining the stability of Lebanon.  Add in how Israeli politicians have been agitating for an attack on the country now for the last couple of years, with Benjamin Netanyahu today reaching new heights of fantasy, describing a nuclear armed Iran as comparable to a nuclear armed al-Qaida, and it's clear the exact opposite is the case. Iran is trying to consolidate its position in the region while our allies and ourselves are doing everything we can to push it back.

At least on Letterman Cameron only embarrassed himself.  Let loose on the world stage, delivering speeches in which he claims to be a liberal Conservative rather than a neo-con, he comes across as positively dangerous.  An independent British foreign policy seems as far away as ever.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012 

Marching towards the sound of gunfire indeed.

And so, verily, as we must every year, let us discuss the Liberal Democrat conference. Held this time round in the British seaside resort of choice for sandal wearers, Brighton, a city noted for how it does things differently, what a glorious contrast the arrival of the Inbetweeners would have made had anyone been bothered enough to take any notice.  Attendance by the media is said to have dropped by about 500 compared to last year, and it's not difficult to see why.  Imagining that 2011 would see blood on beards as well as the floor, what happened instead was much the same as at conferences past: occasionally passionate debates, the odd outburst of pure political lunacy from a rather too earnest delegate, a decent speech from Vince Cable and then one which sent everyone back to their constituencies asleep from Nick Clegg.

Why then change a losing formula?  Indeed, this year's outing has been so similar to last year's that you'd be forgiven for thinking the reports from Birmingham had been filed again by mistake.  For all the supposed intrigue behind the scenes, there's been nary a whisper about Clegg's position as leader on the conference floor.  Yes, he made a prize tit of himself with the "sorry" video and he's about as popular with the general public as Andrew Mitchell at a policeman's ball, but then the Liberal Democrats as a party have long cherished mediocrity. Why else would they all but beatify the likes of Shirley Williams, fresh from her role in the Lords as chief protector of the NHS proto-privatisation bill, or Paddy Ashdown, a man who dearly wishes he was still leader so he could be the one helping to ruin the economy?

For if one thing is completely different to last year, it's that the feared double dip recession has arrived and yet it seems to have changed almost nothing.  Last year Clegg was insisting, just as the Tories were, that the coalition had "pulled us back from the brink".  This year, with the borrowing figures for August all but ensuring George Osborne is going to have to abandon his plan to reduce debt as a share of national income by 2015, Clegg in his speech today was still claiming that austerity was essential as otherwise we could still go the way of Greece, comparisons that are according to him too "breezily dismissed".  

It's a message that the party itself has lapped up, delegates voting to stick with "Plan A", even while they voted down the relaxations to planning laws and defeated the leadership on the secret courts bill.  According to Clegg, if "Plan A was as rigid and dogmatic as our critics claim, I’d be demanding a Plan B", and that he and the coalition had already taken "big and bold steps to support demand and boost growth", some of which his party have err, just voted against.  Except as Vince Cable told the conference on Monday, "[T]he central point is that the country must not get stuck on a downward escalator where slow or no growth means bigger deficits leading to more cuts and even slower growth."  Nothing proposed so far by either coalition party has come close to being bold enough to avoid just that.

If anything, power seems to have gone to Clegg's head.  All the time spent hanging around the likes of Cameron and Osborne has infected his rhetoric with their same dividing lines, the ones they themselves learnt from treating Tony Blair and Philip Gould as all knowing sages.  Casting about for villains of the piece, he chose Liam Fox and Ed Balls, as if their recommendations for getting the economy growing were somehow worse than the mess the coalition has delivered.   Balls and Labour were duly blamed yet again for the crisis, as though every other factor was irrelevant, and as if they were the ones who had created the double dip.  He mentioned how while the economy had grown threefold over the last 50 years, welfare spending had gone up sevenfold, without deeming to note how this might be something to do with the population ageing rather than largesse going to scroungers.  To finish off this cavalcade of bollocks, he defended the decision to agree to the drop in the 50p top rate of income tax in return for a further rise in the personal allowance, ignoring for the umpteenth time how this helps the middle far more than it does the poorest.  In an attempt to sugar the pill, he announced the 45p rate would remain in place until 2015, or presumably until he's once again mugged by George 'n' Dave.

This resorting to empty Blairite soundbites didn't just end there, oh no.  If you stripped away the layers to reveal the party's inner core you wouldn't just find an unshakeable belief in freedom, you'd be able to hear it!  It wouldn't be tinny, like libertarian freedom, or thudding, like a socialist's freedom, but rich, amplified and sustained by opportunity!  Earlier on, Clegg declared that his mission was national renewal, and if the party's policies didn't serve that, they served nothing at all, which isn't quite true.  They're serving the Conservatives by keeping them in power.  Instead of listening to Clegg, the party could have called for an end to the coalition, offering support to the Tories only when their policies are genuinely in line.  Doing so couldn't possibly be worse than what seems to be facing them in 2015.

The problem is that even while they're (relatively) enjoying power, the party as a whole doesn't know what it's for.  Even if the socially liberal rather than social democratic wing are in the ministerial positions with the exception of Vince Cable, they aren't distinctive enough in their liberalism to attract new support.  As John Harris tries to get to the bottom of, the likes of Mark Littlewood would push for the party to be known for deregulating business and letting you smoke a joint, and yet neither policy is likely to make it to their next manifesto.  It's all well and good wanting, as Clegg does, to be a third party of government, but you don't get there by being exactly the same as the other two.  In 2010 you thought you knew what the party stood for, and when set against Brown and Cameron Clegg was worth a punt.  Come 2015 and the exact opposite will be the case, unless the party once again acts ruthlessly against a leader who seems determined to lead them to oblivion.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012 

Who says we're abandoning our traditions?

In keeping with the glorious tradition of the British military training future dictators, it's just swell to see that not only were senior Syrian military figures given the once over back here in Blighty, no doubt instructed in how to handle demonstrations without resorting immediately to shelling the protesters, but that soldiers from both Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also been welcomed with open arms to Sandhurst.  While Sudan isn't quite in the same dire straits as Syria, protests have been on-going there since the beginning of the Arab spring, while the DRC has never recovered from the two Congo wars and the Kivu conflict.  Doubtless some of the training has been put to good practical use rather than to just disrupt protests and crack down on dissent, yet it's hardly surprising there's cynicism about exactly what purpose these links fulfil.

How unlike our continuing connection and cooperation with the government of Bahrain, as how can you possibly be cynical about something so out in the open? And how in any case could anyone be critical of what is and has long been such a lucrative mutual relationship?  We send them John Yates to give their police advice on how to stall investigations respect human rights, and they bung us £3 million quid for a new sports hall at Sandhurst while buying British-made lethal weaponry at our premier arms fair.  Everyone's a winner.  Oh, except for the poor sods who don't much like living under an all but absolute monarchy directly connected to the House of Saud.

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Monday, September 24, 2012 

Andrew Mitchell and me.

It turns out, against all the odds, that I have something in common with Andrew Mitchell. Both of us have sworn at police officers and thanks to the discretion of the police, not been arrested.

The circumstances of my altercation were though ever so slightly different. While Mitchell lost his rag after the police refused to open the main Downing Street gates to let him through on his bike, I was stopped on suspicion of being in the process of breaking and entering. I used to work at a shop on a main side street, and tasked with opening it one day, I naturally overslept. Rushing to get there on time, I also succeeded in forgetting to pick up the keys. Luckily, the shop had a pair of battered old wooden delivery doors which when suitably forced opened just enough for you to get the bolts out of the ground. Both myself and the owners had used this method before when locked out, or when the keys had done a vanishing act.

While trying to force the doors open, at the same time as reassuring anyone walking past that it wasn't what it may have looked like, I noticed that a police van had gone past on the junction at the bottom of the road. Hoping against hope that they wouldn't be coming back the other way, I continued my attempts, only for around three minutes later the van to come haring round the corner at the top of the street, with three officers swiftly leaping out. Someone had obviously stopped them and said there was some nutter trying break into a shop round the corner. Even though I'd taken my top off and left it on the ground and didn't try to run as soon as they approached, they refused to accept that I was anything to do with the shop, even after the owner of the shop next door came out and told them I worked there. "You two could be in this together for all I know," the officer who had took charge told me. It was then I informed him that he could go forth and multiply, although I did add a conciliatory "mate" on the end of my statement.

Luckily, he didn't arrest me there and then but did inform me I'd be nicked if I said anything else along those lines, and proceeded to search me. Finding nothing, and agreeing to ring my boss, who backed my version of events (after they checked the van parked across the road belonging to him was his), they finally decided I'd been telling the truth all along. I then apologised, he graciously accepted it, and off they went. A minute later and the doors had been pushed back far enough for me to get in. Apart from the embarrassment at my stupidity on all counts, that was that.

By rights, they could have arrested me even before I'd swore. Broad daylight or not, and in full sight of everyone walking down the street, it was possible I could have been breaking in to steal, even though forcing the doors had taken me a good five minutes or more and I'd taken my top off in the process. They were just doing their job. Yes, they could have taken at face value the account of the shop owner next door and not given such a specious reason for not believing him, but still. They could well have come across burglars drugged up or idiotic enough to be doing exactly what I was.

I do then have more than a sliver of sympathy for Mitchell.  We are surely all entitled on occasion to lose our temper, or get so exasperated for whatever reason that we let fly, even if it's at a police officer.  As long as we then apologise and ensure that it hasn't been taken as a personal affront, that should be the end of it.  In Mitchell's case, regardless of whether or not he did call the police who blocked him either plebs or morons, the officer he directed his frustration at has accepted his apology.  That ought to have sorted it.

Except, of course, this is the first government since the days of Macmillan to be so dominated by both millionaires and the privately educated.  Yes, if any minister of any recent government had called police officers "plebs" then there'd be uproar, but that it's this one, when the police are already up in arms over the Winsor report and when it was the day after the shooting dead of the two officers in Manchester, you might just have imagined that Mitchell wouldn't have been such a boor.  As is so often the case, it seems that someone who's reportedly a stickler for protocol and appearance in his office, asking for civil servants to wear ties when they're around him, expects respect and yet fails to always give it in return.  Add in how Mitchell initially denied he had swore at all, and it wouldn't have been a surprise if David Cameron had asked for his resignation.

That he hasn't is as much down to the Police Federation's role as anything else.  Their representative's appearance on Newsnight on Friday, when he claimed that David Cameron's words on the deaths of the officers in Manchester were hollow wasn't just over the top, it must have concentrated minds in Downing Street.  Why else would Cameron have accepted Mitchell's account, when the police from the diplomatic protection service had no reason whatsoever to lie about what happened?  "Pleb" is hardly a common insult, and it's difficult to see what else they could have mistaken it for, unless "Clegg" on its own is now a epithet amongst Tories.

This said, and as much as the opposition has to, err, oppose, the call for an investigation into it from Labour is utterly ridiculous and a waste of time.  If the police are to be believed, then the Tories have just confirmed the very worst that is thought of them, and that's going to be a difficult thing to shake.  Going after Mitchell isn't going to make any difference.  If on the other hand you take the minister's side, that it was just an aggravation at the end of a very long day, then Labour also aren't going to achieve anything.  Indeed, if you're among the former, then it just enhances the belief that this government is helmed by condescending posh boys who think the lower orders, including the police, should know their place.  And Labour can't really ask for much more than that.

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Friday, September 21, 2012 

Lie detection.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012 

The lost art of the political apology.

It's become an increasingly bizarre thing, the political apology.  Our representatives tend to be rather good at saying sorry for things they weren't responsible for, whether it was the Irish potato famine, the slave trade, Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, and bloody awful by contrast at doing so for things they actually were.  And in contrast to the idea that modern politicians don't apology willingly, that's only true so far as it applies to those that are currently in power: Tony Blair only found something resembling the word "sorry" when he was in front of the Chilcot inquiry, David Cameron based his almost entire early leadership of the Tories around apologising for the party's past attitudes, even if he never said sorry for anything, while the two Eds wasted no time in making clear how they regretted New Labour's closeness to the banks.  Indeed, Ed Miliband's first conference speech was essentially one long mea culpa.

Nick Clegg's decision to apologise for his party's tuition fees pledge is then at least somewhat novel.  It's therefore a bit of a shame that it was done in such a cack-handed fashion that it's become one of those increasingly rare political events that's crossed over into general discussion, helped immensely by the Poke's inspired auto-tuning of Clegg's lachrymose monologue.

For a start, making an apology your party conference political broadcast is a terrible idea; if you're going to say sorry for something, do it in your actual conference address.  It'll get much the same attention, but it'll be reported alongside the rest of what you had to say.  Second, it tends to help if you really are sorry about what you've done: as anyone who heard John Hemming's tortuous reasoning on Jeremy Vine earlier today will testify, the majority of the party isn't sorry about the issue because it's still conflating two separate issues.  As Linda Jack points out, the promise that individual Liberal Democrat candidates made to the National Union of Students was that they wouldn't vote to increase tuition fees.  The manifesto pledge to abolish them entirely was separate.  If Clegg is saying that it turned out to be unaffordable to abolish fees then that's one thing; if he's also saying keeping them at the same level as prior to the election was also unaffordable, then that's frankly nonsense on stilts.

There are multiple reasons why the broken tuition fees promises has been the stick of choice with which to beat Clegg, regardless of there being so many lying about which could be used.  It wasn't just the pre-election broadcast on keeping promises rather than breaking them or the stunt of signing the actual promise with the NUS in front of the media, it was that it was one of the first, if not the first policy to be thrown on the bonfire come the coalition negotiations.  The party felt it could make it because they thought the Tories were going to win the election, and so opposing any rise would have come naturally.  Regardless of the changes to the law, so that fees are no longer paid up front and only after the graduate is earning a certain amount, it wasn't just a betrayal, it was doing the exact opposite.  It was an act of pure cynicism, and it was a mistake the Tories haven't made.  Some of Cameron's promises are distinctly flaky, such as his pledge to protect the NHS, which is in fact facing a real terms cut in funding, but he hasn't rowed back on keeping pensioners' benefits.  The Tories might not have been up front about the cuts, but they haven't been fundamentally dishonest either.  They certainly have been about other things since they've been in power, but not from before.

The almost three minute long apology then isn't really an apology at all.  It's fair enough that Clegg, apparently genuinely, believes that the change in the law has been for the better, but that doesn't alter the fact that the numbers applying and indeed going to university have fallen, something that can hardly be explained by the current economic climate.  Plenty of people don't want £27,000 of debt hanging over them, especially when this government does nothing other than keep banging on about how terrible debt is.  When you're in a hole as deep as Clegg is, unfairly disliked to a far greater extent than Cameron, you ought to stop digging.  Inviting everyone to come along and throw shit at you while you're still in the hole, as he's done, is just a teensy bit daft.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012 

Two for the price of one.

There was widespread outrage today when a foreign publication published not just the paparazzi shots of Catherine Middleton sunbathing topless, but also a collage which superimposed her naked breasts onto an image of the prophet Muhammad.

The Albanian satirical magazine, Horatio Longoria, estimated to have a circulation of approximately 6 copies, went ahead with the printing out of this month's issue despite the legal action taken by the Royal family, and in spite of the widespread rioting across the Muslim world that greeted the sudden discovery on YouTube of a trailer for a movie of truly laughable production values.

Asked as to why he would do such a thing, the editor of Horatio Longoria, 14-year-old Simon Quinlack, was quoted to have said: "Well, it's for the profit. I might sell a few more copies to people at school. Never has then been so much fuss about such inconsequential things. And yes, I do mean that in more ways than one. Oh, and it was this week's hobby."

Albanian police, fearing that Quinlack might become a target for reprisals by deranged monarchists and hysterically hypocritical tabloid journalists have posted an armed guard outside his bedroom, which he is any case not allowed out of as he is grounded. Worldwide reaction to Horatio Longoria's slur on the prophet has so far been relatively muted, although Anjem Choudary is said to have called for Princess Eugenie to be beheaded.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012 

The point of no return.

Have we at long last reached the point of no return on Afghanistan? It's a question worth asking, not because of the decision made by the Americans to put an immediate stop to joint patrols and training in the country as a result of the ever increasing number of "green on blue" attacks, or to put it in English, Afghans in uniform we're meant to be handing control over to killing their trainers, but due to how at long last a substantial number of our own MPs have been prepared to say what was previously confined only to comment pieces. Yesterday Denis MacShane, Paul Flynn, David Winnick and John Redwood all called either for a withdrawal from the country by Christmas, or as soon as humanly possible after that. While the latter three have been making similar arguments for some time, Denis MacShane is most certainly not one of the usual suspects, and was among the strongest supporters and then defenders of the Iraq war. Indeed, he was previously a supporter of the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank that has long supported the (forced) democratisation of the Middle East.

This isn't to ignore the fact that during yesterday's debate there were just as many MPs pushing the same old unbelievably out of date argument that our presence in Afghanistan is in some way protecting our national security, or that alternatively to leave now would somehow mean all those who have given their lives would have done so in vain, but it's clearly progress of a sort. Certainly, if that incessantly repeated two word answer given to the question of why we are still in the country has always been a nonsense, it never sounded quite as hollow as it did when Philip Hammond stated it yet again on Newsnight yesterday. How can our mission possibly be about national security when al-Qaida was cleared out of Afghanistan years ago, as even Hammond himself has admitted? As John Baron asked yesterday of the defence secretary, either our continuing presence is about nation building and the training up of Afghan forces, a mission which he himself said we shouldn't be putting lives at risk for, or it isn't. If it isn't about that, then we're expending blood and treasure for seemingly little other reason than our continuing obsession with riding on the coattails of America, a decision made for reasons of prestige rather than pragmatism.

The sad fact is that our contribution to America's post 9/11 wars are increasingly resented rather than welcomed. US commanders have long been dismissive about our role in Helmand, and the US military in general now tends to regard our unwarranted boasting and pride as exactly that, unwarranted. They've never really cared whether or not decisions made at the top have been relayed to all of their allies swiftly, yet it's surely come to something when our defence secretary, completely unaware of the change in strategy made we're told on Sunday stood up in parliament and told everyone that nothing had been altered. Recalled to the Commons today to alter his comments, Hammond was left claiming that in fact everything was just as it had been, only that now we would have to apply to the Americans for permission to carry on joint patrols below company level. Last week in an interview with the Graun Hammond was claiming that we could draw down our forces quicker, despite the "green on blue" "problems" as the work had been progressing so swimmingly; now they can't even go out together without asking the Americans first.

According to Richard Norton-Taylor, the military has long wanted to get out of Afghanistan and it's been the politicians holding them back. Alternatively, according to MacShane, the problem has been the "unelected military-Ministry of Defence nexus" which has been in control of policy. The reality is that both the military and the politicians have wanted to stay in Afghanistan; it was after all the military which while desperate to get out of Iraq wanted to do more in Helmand, and John "without a single shot" Reid was happy to oblige. Nothing has changed since then, regardless of the coming to power of the coalition. What else explains the second deployment of "Harry Wales" to the country, other than an attempt on behalf of the MoD to conjure up some good news and easily sellable propaganda? Harry's at relatively little risk in an Apache, but clearly you can never be too careful, as reports of Harry's bundling to a safe place in Camp Bastion when the Taliban carried out their most devastating attack in terms of destroyed equipment and buildings of the entire war on the base testifies. Hammond didn't even deny this was the case last night, merely that such treatment was given to all "VIPs" when at the camp. Not many VIPs are actually serving soldiers though, are they? Either Harry's a squaddie like all the rest and therefore should face the same risks as them, or he's the equivalent of a regimental goat. That the MoD can't decide which it is speaks volumes.

Clearly then, something has to break. Not a single politician can possibly claim with a straight face that our remaining in Afghanistan is achieving anything. It isn't improving our relationship with the United States, it isn't stopping al-Qaida from returning as al-Qaida central has effectively ceased to exist, it's helping to prop up a hideously corrupt government that is widely loathed by Afghans themselves, and those we're training are so mistrustful and bitter at how we see them that they're prepared to kill us, as not every recruit who's turned their gun on foreign forces can possibly be a Taliban infiltrator. If anything, the only thing we're providing is continuing target practice for the Taliban, and while they might not be as strong as they were in previous years, they're clearly capable of the odd spectacular assault when they feel like it. What we should be doing now is pushing ever more fiercely for some kind of accord between the Karzai government and the sections of the Taliban prepared to negotiate, even if that means making really unpleasant decisions about the carving out of autonomous regions within the country. Afghanistan has been at war now since 1978; just as the Russians admitted defeat, so must we.

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Monday, September 17, 2012 

All stand for the arrival of the Gove level.

Far too much of politics, it's impossible not to notice, is vanity. For a couple of years we heard of little other than Tony Blair's legacy, and how he was desperately trying for it to be something other than a 4-letter proper noun. This mania isn't just limited to leaders though, as Justine Greening recently inadvertently made clear: told she was being moved from transport to international development, she apparently exclaimed that she hadn't gone into politics to distribute money to the third world. Quite what she did go into politics for she didn't say, but one suspects it was the exact opposite, with perhaps a side-project in not concreting over the rest of the London area.

Which brings us to Michael Gove. Not content with having already established his free schools project, as well as vastly increasing the number of academies, he's now managed to come to an agreement with the Liberal Democrats over what was meant to be his replacement of GCSEs with a return to something resembling the old O-Levels. Except, thanks to the intervention of Nicholas Clegg, there now won't be a return to the old system of one set of exams for the bright kids and another for the thickos. This, we are told, will make all the difference.

Except this rather raises the question of why bother to introduce an entirely new set of exams at all. Already this summer we saw the heavy influence of Gove over Ofqual, who in turn brought pressure to bear on one exam board to shift the grade boundaries so that the marks that got a C grade in January only brought a D six months later. If the motive is purely to raise standards, as we are told, then there's no reason whatsoever why GCSEs can't be revamped accordingly, the modules Gove so despises abolished, and just the one exam board established. This makes far more sense than effectively starting again in 2015 with another new qualification, further confusing employers and further education establishments when they already have to differentiate between GCSEs, the international GCSE, the international baccalaureate, highers, AS-Levels, A-Levels and so on.

Quite what it is that Gove has against a module based curriculum other than how under the current system you can do a unlimited number of resits is in any case unclear, as Labour years ago heralded a shift away from coursework. Modules have long been the standard at university, and we're often told of how important it is for universities to provide their expertise to schools, but not apparently when it comes to structuring the school year. Rather than meaning the end of teaching to the test, the current situation which for years has reduced teaching to not much more than the endless parroting of key facts and figures until they've finally sunk in to even the most solid of skulls, having a single exam at the end of a 2-year course will put more emphasis than ever on finding out what's likely to appear and teaching little more than that. As Eoin Clarke also points out, having just a single exam rewards cramming, and ignores how teenagers develop at different speeds. It additionally makes things even more difficult for those who go through significant personal problems right before the final exam: when it's all or nothing, with just the one apparent opportunity for a resit, many are going to come away with that nothing.

It's also unclear where vocational education is going to fit into all this. Mike Tomlinson's report, which called for an all encompassing diploma, looked to have found the solution, ensuring that the different and often undervalued qualifications for practical training would add up in the end to a new whole. With Gove-levels, or whatever they'll officially be known as (English Baccalaureate Certificates, apparently) the gap looks to be widening even further. Moreover, forgotten in all of this has been the fact the changes will require a new curriculum, and we know all about Michael Gove's preference for "traditional" teaching, a fact that belies his repeated references to and supposed belief in innovation and best practices. The proposed changes are already worrying teachers, especially those who are going to follow this year's Year 7s through their time at secondary school, with the unlucky sods destined to be Gove's guinea pigs.

Not disputed is that despite Blair's mantra of education, education, education, Labour failed to challenge the brightest and continued to let too many underachieve. At least they succeeded in raising standards overall though, despite what Gove and the right-wing press claim, and the academy system for its many flaws was aimed at improving schools in the most challenging areas. Everything the coalition has done since it came to power with the exception of the all but meaningless "pupil premium" has been to undermine that work, encouraging elitism for its own sake rather than as a means to improve standards overall, while antagonising teachers for little reason other than the right long ago took against them. And don't believe for a second that should Labour win in 2015 they'll move quickly to repudiate Gove's legacy: Andrew Adonis's polemic for academies, written up so dutifully by Martin Kettle in the Graun last week, shows just how little room for manoeuvre the once uber-Blairite Stephen Twigg has. Gove-levels are likely to be here to stay, improvement or not.

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Thanks for that, Captain Obvious!

Good to know that BitTorrent users have just as abysmal taste in music as the buying public.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012 

Bring in the Katz!

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Friday, September 14, 2012 

Cut the Cable.

On Tuesday Vince Cable said that "pure laissez-faire economics" do not work. Today, despite recognising that in the past two years there's been over a million new private sector jobs created, more than suggesting that there isn't any great hesitancy on the part of business to take on staff, apparently the job market needs to be even further liberalised. He might not have gone along with Adrian Beecroft's recommendation for "no fault dismissals", but the capping of compensation for those found to have been unfairly dismissed and a voluntary settlement scheme whereby those wanted rid of agree not to go to a tribunal in return for a pay out is along with the introduction of fees for going to tribunal another loosening of workers' rights. The idea that this will somehow, through making it easier to get rid will in turn encourage those same bosses to hire and thereby drive growth is utterly bogus. It will though delight the headbangers both on the Tory right and at the Institute of Directors, which was the whole point of commissioning Beecroft in the first place.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012 

Annual Mercury prize whinge.

No Rustie (yes, he won the Graun first album award, but that's no excuse), no Actress, no Lone, and no bass except for the odd track on the Jessie Ware album. Of those actually nominated, Field Music's album is dull as dishwater, the Maccabees' third effort is dismal, and any artist who cites Jack Johnson as a major influence, as Ben Howard does, needs a kick up the arse. Django Django's debut is decent but not a best of the year, Roller Trio are the token jazz entry, and the less said about Plan B and Alt-J the better. As such the nominees pretty much reflect the state of mainstream music in 2012: in the toilet.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012 

Bitter vindication.

The last time David Cameron stood up in parliament to issue an apology for a past wrong, he said that he was "deeply patriotic" and that he "never want[ed] to believe anything bad about our country". It was the only dissonant note in what was a well judged statement on the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, an insight into the attitude of some of those in power that unquestionably makes it easier for cover-ups to happen in the first place.

Today, making an equally decent statement on the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report (PDF), there was no such digression from Cameron. If the Saville inquiry was a repudiation of the whitewash of the Widgery report, then the work by HIP is the most savage indictment of the failure to achieve justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who died as a direct result of the incompetence of South Yorkshire Police imaginable. It doesn't just once and for all smash the myth created by SYP that the disaster was in some way the fault of Liverpool fans, drunk or otherwise, who forced their way into the ground, when it was in fact the direct decision of the officer in charge on the day, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, a man who hadn't worked at Hillsborough for 10 years and had only been put in charge 3 weeks prior to the match, to open Gate C, which caused the crush, as that would never have been enough. It also demolishes the inventions of the SYP and the local Tory MP that resulted in the Sun claiming "THE TRUTH" was "some fans" (PDF) had even gone so far as to urinate on the dead and dying as well as the police officers attempting to help.

The SYP are rightly though not the only organisation to be heavily criticised, although we'll return to them. There were major failings also by the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service, whom along with the police failed to activate their major incident procedure protocol, resulting in delays, misunderstandings and officers not being deployed until it was too late (Chapter 4 of part 2 of the report). As also with the police, despite being situated close to the pens at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, those officers at the scene failed to realise what was going on. The failures of leadership and coordination were so serious that it wasn't until 45 minutes after the pens were opened that the situation was finally brought under proper control. Despite the quick deployment of ambulances to Hillsborough, all but three stayed outside the ground, along with the equipment that was so desperately needed to save lives. While the report doesn't specifically state that more lives could have been saved had the response been better, it does find there was the potential for there to have been.

Also accepting criticism today and apologising was Sheffield Wednesday Football Club itself. Rather than leading to significant changes to the Leppings Lane end to reduce the danger, the near disastrous crush that took place at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final in fact resulted in a breakdown of the relationship between the club and the police, with the former blaming the latter (Chapter 1 of part 2). With the SYP focusing on "crowd management" and SWFC concerned mainly with cost, the changes that did take place only made things worse: further lateral fences were built which created two central pens, making the movement which had saved fans in 1981 who had moved sideways along full length of the the terrace impossible. Despite the fact that the ground did not have an up to date safety certificate, the FA again started using Hillsborough for semi-finals in 1987, and continued to do so even though the kick off was delayed that year due to crowd congestion and there was another crush resulting in injuries the following year. The bottom terrace of Leppings Lane was a death trap.

Equally found wanting are the inquests (Chapters 8 to 10 of part 2). Rather than relying on Lord Justice Taylor's interim report into the disaster that had found the police's account of Liverpool fans' behaviour was inaccurate, to say the least, the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, allowed SYP to use the "generic hearing" that followed the "mini-inquests" into the death of each fan to dispute it. This turned the hearing into an adversarial rather than an inquisitorial one, to the extent that a judicial review at the High Court found that the inquests had been "unorthodox" and failed to comply with the coroner's rules, yet the High Court still decided these breaches hadn't resulted in "insufficiency of process". More distressing still is the new evidence the report has compiled that contradicts the then "incontrovertible" finding that all those who died on the day were beyond help by 3:15pm, the time that first of just three ambulances arrived on the pitch, leading the inquests to "severely limit examination of the rescue, evacuation and treatment of those who died". This will almost certainly result in the attorney general ordering the quashing of the inquests, and the setting up of a new one.

None of this however quite prepares you for the cynicism of the cover-up perpetuated by South Yorkshire Police almost as soon as the disaster had happened (Chapters 11 and 12 of part 2) . Over the last few years we've seen the Metropolitan police do its level best to spread similar myths about mistakes of their own making, whether through the smearing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Kamal family or the untruths told about the circumstances of the death of Ian Tomlinson, but they're clearly amateurs by comparison. From the original lie told by Duckenfield, who claimed the fans had broken into the stadium when he was the one who had ordered the gate be opened, to the conspiracy hatched over three days involving the Whites News Agency in Sheffield, the local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick and senior police officers to slander the fans, to the altering of 116 statements by police officers to remove criticism of the force, this was and remains an unprecendented attack on those the police were meant to have been protecting. It's a scandal that frankly makes phone hacking look meagre by comparison.

The police couldn't though have launched their cover-up without the help of the media, and in the tabloid press they had an ally eager to help. It's unfair to pick only on the Sun when both the Daily Express (PDF) and Daily Star splashed on the most lurid and ridiculous claims of the SYP, but it was the Sun edited by Kelvin MacKenzie that even before "THE TRUTH" was beginning to blame the fans, an editorial on the Tuesday after the disaster (ditto) claiming that it had happened "because thousands of fans, many without tickets, tried to get into the ground just before the kick-off - either by forcing their way in or by blackmailing the police into opening the gates." Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie in their history of the Sun relate what happened later that day when reporter Harry Arnold filed his report based around the Whites agency's story:

Seeking out MacKenzie, he confided his fears. 'We've got to be really careful with this stuff,' he said. 'These are only allegations that we're reporting, you know.

'Yeah, yeah,' MacKenzie assured him. 'I know that. It's all right, Harry. Don't worry. I'm going to put in "some fans".

MacKenzie then did an enormously uncharacteristic thing. He sat for fully half an hour thinking about the front-page layout. The story Arnold had written had been the automatic splash from the moment it came in. But, as he doodled with layouts, for once MacKenzie's flair for instant decision-making seemed to have deserted him. He was obviously torn as he weighed up two alternative headlines. The first was his most vicious slag-off phrase, 'YOU SCUM', bringing into play the vilest word in the Sun's vocabulary and putting all the Liverpool fans on the Scum of the Earth agenda. That was bad enough. But the second, and the one he finally sketched out on the layout pad with his fat green pen, was to prove even more calamitous.

As MacKenzie's layout was seen by more and more people a collective shudder ran through the office. There was an instant gut feeling that it was a terrible mistake. The trouble was that no one seemed able to do anything about it. By now MacKenzie's dominance was so total that there was nobody left in the organisation who could rein him in except Murdoch, who was not there. The whole subs desk and the backbench seemed paralysed, 'looking like rabbits in the headlights', as one hack described them, as they stared at the two huge words in front of them in horrified fascination. ... Nobody really had any comment on it -- they just took one look and went away shaking their heads in wonder at the enormity of it.

(pages 339-340 of Stick it Up Your Punter!)

MacKenzie's supposed "profuse apologies" today, blaming the news agency and those who contributed to its report are worth about as much as his previous apologies which he was forced into making and then retracted. MacKenzie it should be remembered had like every other editor at the time either seen or sifted through the thousands of images taken on the day by sports photographers, some of which ought to have documented the supposed feral behaviour "some" Liverpool fans had taken part in, and which none had. Likewise, broadcast on the night of the disaster was a harrowing edition of Match of the Day which featured extensive footage of events as they unfolded, which again showed that apart from understandable anger at the initial reaction by the police, who treated the crush as crowd trouble rather than an medical emergency, there was no evidence whatsoever that fans had stolen from the dead or urinated on and beaten up officers as they tried to help. Rather than reassess the story the following day as the other papers did, MacKenzie's Sun ran a front page editorial headlined "The truth hurts", alongside a further story alleging a pub owner who helped the fans had been robbed at the same time. The paper's thought for the day was "Nothing but the truth".

If much of the blame then can be heaped purely on the shoulders of MacKenzie, it should also be kept in mind that it took the Sun until 2004 to put out an unreserved apology, and that was only after the paper had bought up the rights to Wayne Rooney's life story, to outrage in Liverpool. Today's further apology from Dominic Mohan, and tomorrow's splash "THE REAL TRUTH", might go some way to making amends, but clearly the paper is never going to be forgiven on Merseyside.

It of course should never have taken 23 years for a report such as this to be published. While the report found there was no wider government connivance in the cover-up, suspicions will remain that the South Yorkshire police's role during the miner's strike earlier in the decade contributed to the Thatcher administration's failure to intervene, especially when a briefing prepared for the prime minister noted that "defensive – and at times close to deceitful – behaviour by the senior officers in South Yorkshire sounds depressingly familiar" (page 199). That doesn't however explain why it took until 2009 for a Labour government to order an inquiry, and while Andy Burnham deserves credit for starting the process, the families of the 96 were let down for far too long. It could have been any big club that went to Hillsborough in 89, with it only being coincidence the club that was involved in the Heysel disaster should suffer its own tragedy. That coincidence undoubtedly contributed to the attitude of some in the immediate aftermath and coloured the debate for years. Similarly, the tabloid invented reputation of Liverpool as a city had a similar effect. All the jibes aimed at the community in the city have now been exposed as what they always were: arrogant ignorance. Vindication though has surely never been as bitter.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012 

Liam Fox steps in front of the Boris bandwagon.

The threat to David Cameron is serious. The threat to Cameron isn't serious. There is no threat to Cameron. Of these statements, after today only the latter can possibly true. Away from dubious reports concerning two Tory MPs approaching Colonel Bob Stewart about standing as a "stalking horse" candidate, apparently unaware that the rules on challenging the leader in the Conservative party changed long ago, dubious reports which it should be noted came from the man himself, indisputable is that there is no serious challenger to Cameron as leader who is currently a Tory member of parliament. It's not impossible that George Osborne could recover from his current difficulties but at the moment he's unemployable, and anyone who seriously suggests either Jeremy Hunt or Michael Gove could step up if Cameron went under a bus is, to put it politely, off their trolley. There could well be a leader in waiting on the backbenches, but ready to take over now? Clearly not.

Which leaves us with Boris Johnson, who like Cameron, although in a slightly more amusing and likeable way, believes that he was born to rule. The two main obstacles to Johnson coming to the rescue of the Tories are that he's, err, Mayor of London till 2016, and second, that, err, that means he needs to become an MP again. Even if Cameron and friends go back on their pledge not to support a third runway at Heathrow this parliament, the issue plucked out of the air for Johnson to make a stand on, despite the difference of opinion only relating to where the runway is and how many should be built, resulting in Zac Goldsmith resigning his seat to give Boris a leg-up, all this relies on the notion that the Tories remain as fratricidal as they've been in the past.

Boris clearly has the ambition and the killer instinct, but that's not enough when he needs the wider support of the parliamentary party. There might be murmurings against Cameron, but at the moment that's all they really are. And why would they replace one posh boy with a slightly less posh boy who's based his entire public persona around being a bumbling toff when he's nothing of the sort? On actual policy, with those supposedly starting to take soundings against Cameron decidedly on the right of the party, there's very little real difference between the two.

A death knell has duly been sounded for now in any case, thanks to two very usual suspects. We'll gloss over Nadine Dorries' latest utterance in her personal jihad against Cameron, and instead focus on the quite incredible comments from Liam Fox. The launch of Conservative Voice might not have been his brainchild, but his remarks on the need for a "broad 'internal' coalition of competing views" were both a rewriting of history and a laughable call for the party to shift to the right.

According to Fox, "[A]fter Thatcher's first win we did have our widest coalition. That is what the Conservative party needs to understand". This is only true up to a point: while Thatcher's first cabinet did lean towards the one nation wing of the party, she swiftly purged most of the "wets" in September of 81 when they came out against further cuts. From then on, Thatcher's first question on someone's reliability was whether they were "one of us". If as Fox seems to be claiming it was this broad church that won the Tories power in 79, it couldn't have been in 83 and from then on till 97. The implication from Fox that the Tories failed to win a majority this time as they weren't appealing to aspirational voters is a nonsense: we were left with a hung parliament because the Tories failed to win over the voters in the north and Scotland that Thatcher lost, perhaps permanently. Politics has changed.

Besides, if Fox meant what he said then he would presumably be pushing for the few remaining one nation Tories (are there any besides Ken Clarke?) to be promoted to ministerial positions; instead, he and his allies in practice want the opposite. The fundamental reason why the Tories look unlikely to retain power come 2015 is down to how their economic plan has failed, and should that continue to be the case then neither targeting the "aspirational" or changing leader is likely to alter the result.

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Monday, September 10, 2012 

1924 - 2012.

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Friday, September 07, 2012 


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Thursday, September 06, 2012 

Going nowhere with bells on.

If the idea behind this morning's announcement of a temporary relaxation of some of the planning rules was to ensure it stayed at the top of the news agenda all the day, then it singularly failed. Admittedly, this is somewhat down to the tragic news from France, but it's also down to it failing to set the world alight. A policy always ought to be seen as in trouble when it's announced from the sofa of Daybreak rather than the Today programme, or, heaven forfend, even the Commons, but then we really shouldn't be surprised when about the only politically inclined presenter both Cameron and Osborne are willing to let "interview" them is Andrew Marr, who has picked up the laid-back Sunday morning show baton so ably from David Frost.

As for whether it'll have much of a major impact, it seems dubious in the extreme. Apart from the likes of Lord Wolfson and other major business execs with a monomania for plonking massive warehouses, retail or otherwise on the outskirts of towns and cities, no one seriously claims that it's been the planning rules holding the economy back. As the Local Government Association pointed out, there's currently planning permission for 400,000 new homes; the problem is the lack of demand, the difficulty in getting a mortgage and the banks failing to lend. The same applies to extensions: the rough figures suggest that out of around 200,000 applications for extensions a year, only around 26,000, or 13% are rejected. Even if all of those now go ahead, with perhaps a few set on the idea by today's announcement, then it still seems unlikely to result in the number of jobs as claimed by David Cameron.

The fundamental problem is as, Kirsty Wark is currently trying to get into Nick Boles' thick skull on Newsnight, that many are now in negative equity and are using the disposable income they do have to pay off their debts, so they simply don't have the money for extensions or to move to a new house. And even if they wanted to borrow to invest, then the banks are still not lending. Even if the real reason behind the lack of house building when the margins are so tight is the stipulation that new developments include a certain percentage of social housing, which seems highly dubious when council houses are in such desperately short supply, then this is the kind of splurge which simply isn't sustainable.

None of this is to say that house building isn't part of the solution. It clearly is. It's that this should of been part of a package of measures, such as that suggested by Jonathan Portes for Policy Network. We should be using the low bond yields to borrow to invest in major infrastructure projects, cut national insurance contributions temporarily, reduce VAT and perhaps even consider helicopter money. The coalition has made a rod for its own back: they surely must know that their Plan A has failed, and yet they refuse to accept that it's time to try something different. This isn't about ideology, although it's certainly playing a role, it's fundamentally about loss of face. When you're getting booed by 80,000 people though, surely you can't sink much lower.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012 

On the road to nowhere.

I can't say that Hopi Sen is someone I always find myself in agreement with, but his analysis of the state of the Tories after the reshuffle is pretty much spot on. It has to be kept in mind that to a ridiculous extent David Cameron and George Osborne based their rebranding of the Conservatives on that process Labour went through after the death of John Smith, with the difference being that they never followed all the way through. Cameron may have hugged huskies etc, but there was no Clause 4 moment. More to the point, despite many believing that once in office New Labour would return to the left, the opposite was the case; Tony Blair repeatedly picked fights with his own party, effectively appointed the Sun newspaper as home secretary and after 9/11 was in cahoots with the most right-wing US administration in history.

With the Tories, Cameron's claim to be a liberal Conservative hasn't been borne out. True, with Ken Clarke as justice secretary the party hasn't been anywhere near as draconian on law and order as their manifesto suggested they would be, but this is about the only area in which this has been the case. Policies which featured in neither the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos, such as the NHS reforms and "free" schools were implemented almost immediately. Cameron spoke often of the need to mend our "broken society", and yet with the exception of in the aftermath of the riots, barely a squeak has been heard about it since. Indeed, the measures taken by the coalition have if anything widened the gaps: the cuts to welfare and the failure to get the economy moving have helped towards Save the Children today launching its first campaign on child poverty in this country. Rather than waiting for proper evidence on the 50p top rate of tax, George Osborne abolished it at almost the first opportunity.

As hopeless as Sayeeda Warsi was, bless her, when she argued her case for why she should stay as party co-chairman she put her finger on exactly who the Conservatives need to appeal to if they're ever going to win a majority, let alone win one in 2015:

If you look at the demographics, at where we need to be at the next election, we need more people in the North voting for us, more of what they call here 'blue collar’ workers and I call the white working class. We need more people from urban areas voting for us, more people who are not white and more women.

That she went on to describe herself as working class we'll gloss over, as her main point is backed up by Lord Ashcroft's studies for the party. Everything that the Conservatives have done so far is almost the exact opposite of what they need to be doing to appeal to those voters. Some will probably find the prospect of Chris Grayling at justice more appealing than the liberal Ken Clarke, but other than that the reshuffle will have said absolutely nothing to them whatsoever. At prime minister's questions today David Cameron was once again bested by Ed Miliband, who was left relying on a piece of Daily Mail fluff about Miliband supposedly having to always buy the coffee for the other Ed. "Not very assertive and butch of the leader of the opposition, is it?", to loud laughter from Miliband. Quite apart from the irony of Cameron suggesting someone else is a bit submissive and effeminate, it was but a distraction from his fundamental failure to explain where growth is going to come from. His biggest failure is to be unable to decide what he and his party are fundamentally for other than cutting the deficit, something that without growth they can't do. And without such leadership, there's even less chance those needed voters will come into the fold in 2015.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012 

Nowhere fast.

If there's one thing that truly categorises a major government reshuffle, it's the quite incredible level of sycophancy displayed by lobby journalists, including those in the very top jobs. Nick Robinson last night did everything except lick the boots of David Cameron, so enthralled was he by the power being wielded by our glorious prime minister. He most certainly wasn't angling for a few tips as to who would be moving jobs, as that would be to suggest our top hacks colour their coverage according to the demands of the day, an absolutely outrageous slur I'm sure you'll agree. Elsewhere, there was a lack of honesty on the behalf of some of those called to pass comment: James Purnell and Danny Finkelstein both appeared on Newsnight's political panel, the latter without making clear his closeness to George Osborne, while the former only mentioned that he had been appointed work and pensions secretary by Gordon Brown. That he then stabbed the man who promoted him in the front, calling for him to resign, went unmentioned.

As per usual, there's a middle ground to be found between those saying that reshuffles mean little and those arguing the opposite. This particular reshuffle is clearly significant because it well may be the only one this parliament; whereas Tony Blair liked to change his ministers around yearly, often for no real purpose whatsoever but to great detriment to the government department that found itself having to work with someone new at the top almost every 12 months, David Cameron has at least resisted the temptation to micromanage. You could make a case that he's been too hands off, especially with Andrew Lansley, the latest politician to try to make the NHS his personal plaything, the end result being a welcome demotion to leader of the Commons. This said, it was Cameron who clearly give his blessing to yet another top down reorganisation of the NHS, despite both the Conservative manifesto and coalition agreement pledging no such thing would happen; and when Nick Clegg was presented with the opportunity to exercise a rare veto, he instead plumped for going ahead with Lords reform. Lansley was a disaster, his plans an expensive distraction, but the leadership went along with them.

The reshuffle also shows how Cameron is loyal to those who are willing to act as an effective shield for him. Not that there was any real danger of George Osborne being moved from Number 11, as that would signal the last two and a bit years have been an economic disaster of the government's own making, but any chance of his swapping jobs with say, William Hague, was trounced with the Olympic stadium's reaction to the chancellor last night. While everyone hates the supremely punchable Osborne and blames him solely for the double dip recession it keeps the attention away from Cameron himself. Likewise, we shouldn't be in the least surprised that Jeremy Hunt has been rewarded for his efforts in protecting the Dear Leader from assault on the Chipping Norton set front; the minister for Murdoch who so dutifully sacrificed his special adviser so that he could continue on at culture will now be secretary of state for privatisation of the health service. That Hunt clearly breached the ministerial code simply doesn't matter a fig.

As is also confirmed by the return of David Laws as education minister, replacing the lesser spotted Sarah Teather. Laws' breach of the rules on expenses was so serious, lest we forget, that he was suspended from parliament for seven days. What his return also signals is that there is no difference whatsoever between the Lib Dems and Conservatives on education policy - they're fully behind Gove's pet free schools project, the transformation of the academy system and the moving of the goal posts we saw last month on GCSEs. Soon to be announced is Gove's bringing back of O-levels, suitably updated for the 21st century so that this time the proles won't be left behind, honest.

The most apparent rightward shift is the expected dropping of Ken Clarke as justice minister, replaced by the truly lovely Chris Grayling, fresh as he is from insisting that unpaid work for dole money really does help all involved and not just the government and retailers who can't believe their luck. We shouldn't overplay Clarke's liberalising role, seeing as he failed to bring Cameron round to much of his thinking and his main idea for reform of prisons was to set the unfortunate inmates to work for an average of a £1 an hour, but his demotion to be effectively minister for television studios as he is without portfolio seems the worst of all worlds: unable to properly speak his mind for the few remaining one-nation Tories within the party and country at large. Equally telling of what's to come is the shift of Justine Greening from transport, a job she's held for a whole 11 months, to that of international development, where she most certainly won't be ostensibly in charge of airport policy. Anyone who's read Chris Mullin's diaries will note how intense the lobbying from BAA and the airlines was back then; one can only imagine how ministers are being bombarded with propaganda for a third runway at Heathrow now.

By contrast, not too much should be read into Iain Duncan Smith's apparent refusal to move from the DWP. Any idea that he's a greater friend to the sick, disabled and unemployed than Chris Grayling would have been is a fantasy, reported refusal to countenance a further £10bn in welfare cuts or not. We've yet to see whether the universal credit, a good idea in theory, turns out to be a bureaucratic nightmare in practice, akin to how tax credits were in their first few years of operation. You also suspect it will lead to yet another round of reassessment, exactly what those who are now going through the work capability assessment for the second or even third time need, although at least the person responsible for it will still be there to cop the blame should it go belly up.

Going further down the ranks, and trying not to snigger at Sayeedi Warsi joining Ken Clarke in attending the cabinet while essentially not having a job, we must note that Elizabeth Truss has also joined the education department. One of those in the 2010 intake describe as "talented", which translated means right-wing and never misses a chance to be on radio or TV, she also contributed to the "Britannia Unchained" book which so rightly described us as "among the worst idlers" in the world. Quite apart from the fact that this claim was factually inaccurate, it's always good to know what Tory MPs think of the hoi polloi, and indeed the million or so who desperately want to work longer hours but can't. Doubtless Truss is just the person to put in charge of early years development, and any suggestion this will involve the setting up of Ayn Rand schools for tots will clearly be well wide of the mark.

Overall, while not much has been changed, the general sense of direction is clear. While there was never going to be the full absorption of the David Davis agenda, the cabinet has noticeably shifted to the right. We can expect movement on a third runway at Heathrow, to the anger of Boris Johnson who wants to plant an entire new airport in the middle of a nature reserve instead, and a shift to the right on crime and prisons in an attempt to somewhat appease the likes of the Sun. What hasn't been altered is that announced plans for infrastructure aside, all of which will take years to have an effect, the coalition remains wedded to an economic policy which will almost certainly this year result in no growth. Return to David Cameron's new year message, a gift that keeps on giving, and there's talk of doing "everything it takes to get our country up to strength". Three quarters of the year gone, and we can see where the coalition has got us: nowhere fast.

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Monday, September 03, 2012 

You ain't seen nothing yet.

Anyone would have thought David Davis was a Liberal Democrat plant. They'll be spending the next two weeks and their conference telling everyone just how much worse things would be if they weren't in government. It'll distract attention from the return of David Laws, anyway.

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