Thursday, 30 April 2009

Hot or Not?

The Met Office has today predicted that we will have a hot and dry summer. That is the same Met Office which precicted that the winter just gone would be mild and which has been saying the same thing about summer for the last two years. They were wrong. Presumably they are hoping that if they keep saying the same thing every year they will eventually be proven right. I suppose the odds are better than using the same numbers every week on the lottery.

It's all quite amusing and entertaining really. We British do like to complain about the weather and being an island with an ocean on one side and a continent on the other we get weather, lovely unpredictable weather to complain about from hour to hour, sometimes minute to minute. It's not just in Britain though. Much of the world has just suffered a very cold winter. In the southern hemisphere after those awful fires which were inevitably blamed on global warming, they are now suffering an unusually cold autumn. It's all quite preplexing to the scientists with their simplistic computer models and their hubristic claims to be able to predict so much when our own experience suggests otherwise.

What is irritating though is when the same scientists who make these predictions about the next three months, which are wrong more often than they are right (not that this stops them), make similarly confident predictions about the climate for the next 100 years and are taken seriously. It's guesswork. It's nonsense. It's demonstrably wrong. It's potentially disastrous for us all and not in the way that they are suggesting. It's not funny.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

A slightly better day today for Gordon Brown. He has managed to get some reforms to MPs expenses today, although they were relatively uncontroversial as can be seen by the way that the voting went.

Unfortunately he has just gone on Channel 4 News and managed to make a complete prat of himself once again by attempting to spin it as if this has all gone exactly the way he planned. Oh no, in Gordon's world he hasn't had to make a humiliating U turn and the second homes allowance, which just days ago he wanted abolished this week, is now to be replaced once an inquiry has taken place and made its recommendations. This, he now insists, is exactly as he always intended. You can see the interview here. His interviewer, Gary Gibbon, did point out that he was attempting to rewrite history but Brown was having none of it. One can only shake one's head in disbelief.

Presumably our Prime Minister will soon tell us that black is white, up is down and that really he is an avuncular, consensual and jolly man who is much misunderstood and not a childish, peevish pathological liar who lives in his own fantasy world.

He has managed to push through proposals that will force MPs to reveal their outside earnings and the hours they work away from Parliament. Presumably this is all part of his class war crusade to show up the Tories. Yet ultimately all they are doing is working hard and earning additional income instead of fleecing the taxpayer for bathplugs and porn. If our delusional PM really thinks that the earnings of Tory MPs will resonate with the public then his head is even further up his own backside than we had hitherto realised.

If you haven't already signed the petition to get rid of this national embarrassment then watch that interview and you will feel compelled to do so. Sign up here.

Bad Calculation

The MPs expenses debacle raises its head again today after Gordon Brown's ill advised and plain peculiar video intervention last week. Yet those who write about it and wonder what he was thinking are failing to see the political calculation behind it. The reason Brown opted for the per diem allowance to replace the second home allowance was another attempt at one of those famous dividing lines. This was another way of poking and provoking the Tories. It backfired spectacularly but at the time that Brown and his cohorts thought of this little ruse they thought they were being clever. He thought that by announcing it in that way he would be able to get his MPs into line and hurt the Tories at the same time. Be in no doubt about that.

Think about it for a moment. One of the reasons that Labour MPs are so wedded to the allowances system is because they use it as a means of boosting their salaries. This is well known. But add to that their resentment of Conservative MPs' second jobs. The package Brown was proposing not only made all MPs account for their time and money earned it also ensured that MPs could only receive extra funding if they turned up to Parliament and clocked in. Thus it would have penalised all of those lawyers and company directors on the Conservative benches so resented by Labour MPs. If they were not in Parliament but away doing second jobs they would not get the extra allowance money. This was why Brown thought he was being so clever.

Unfortunately for Brown, as so often recently, he forgot to factor in the reaction of the public. The moment people saw it they instantly reacted the way that I did. This was a payment for MPs to show up for work. It required no receipts. It meant that they would be receiving the same money. The whole thing stank. Brown was so worried about sticking it to the Conservatives that he neglected to notice this aspect or arrogantly dismissed it just as he has done so many things lately from smeargate to Gurkhas. He had made up his mind and that was the end of it.

The result is yet another own goal and a humiliating U turn for the Prime Minister. It's all self inflicted and there seems no end to it. The government was last week accused of making some bad calculations in the Budget with regard to our future spending. The same is true of their political calculations.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Twits

60% of Twits - sorry, Twitter users - become ex Twitters and thus no longer Twits within a month. I don't find this in the least bit surprising. Twitter is pointless. It is a short term fad which, if its founders have any sense, they will sell off for as much as possible to some other twit as fast as they can. It will die a death as soon as people become bored with it which cannot be far away.

Why would anyone want to constantly read the minutiae of people's humdrum lives? Most lives are humdrum - even celebrities. Celebrities still need to do the things that the rest of us do. Their lives are nothing like as glamorous as they would like to make out. If they aren't careful, by Tweeting about themselves constantly they might give the game away. The fact is that, whilst they may have lackeys to take care of the excessively humdrum, nobody has yet found a way to spare us, all of us, from our bodily functions, Sunday afternoons, dinner with Prince Charles or the tedium of travel etc. Tweeting about such things would just make matters worse. A supposed highlight of the Twitter phenomenon was when Stephen Fry got stuck in a lift and felt the need to tell the world about it. Why? And why in god's name would anyone want to read about it?

I love the internet. I love the fact that information and communication is so accessible now. I love the fact that it enabled me to meet lots of people I might never have known and become friends with and even to meet and fall in love with the most beautiful girl in the world. I love its accessibility and democratisation of information. I love the way it scares the bejesus out of those in power who are terrified of what people might be writing about and gossiping about which they can't control even if they are stupid enough to try.

But Twitter is pointless. It is a symptom of just how banal and trivial our lives can be despite all of that access to things that are anything but. You have access to the whole world thanks to that device in front of you. Why would you want to read about someone stuck in a metal box?

Shot in the Foot

The government has just been defeated on the Gurkha veterans issue by 21 votes despite a last minute attempt to buy off Labour rebels. Yet again they have shot themselves in the foot over this. It was totally unnecessary, totally indefensible and totally incomprehensible. Nick Clegg should be congratulated for this. He took a stand and was impressive today in PMQs skewering a dishonest and evasive Gordon Brown who chose as ever to avoid the question.

It remains unclear whether Brown is still intent on pressing ahead with a vote on his ill judged reform proposals on MPs expenses. He stands a good chance of losing that too, again for no reason that anyone can really understand. It's as though they have a death wish. Are they aware that local and European elections are only a month away?

Statement of the Bleeding Obvious

Half a dozen people catch the flu and so today at PMQs it was all grave faces and unity in the face of this national emergency. How ridiculous. Part of the extensive preparations the government is putting in place are leaflets to be sent to every home by next Tuesday. Marvellous. I can't wait for mine. Presumably it will be full of advice about how to sneeze, how to wash my hands, what liquids I should drink plenty of and how to pass the time if I am confined to my bed. Personally I intend to ignore it all and avail myself of some bargains created by all of this panic. Flights and hotels are sure to be cheap and will compensate nicely for the weakness of the Pound. It's an opportunity not to be missed. I need a holiday.

Why do we need leaflets delivered to every home in this day and age anyway? All of the newspapers and 24 hour news stations have already been full of statements of the bleeding obvious. Yesterday a reporter helpfully showed us what a tissue looks like with a demonstration of how we should throw it away after use. Now we will have a government leaflet doing much the same. No doubt it will also be available in various languages.

This is not a national emergency. The so called experts don't have a clue what is going on and are still trying to work it out. Further advice from government is therefore pointless except as an exercise to show that they are doing something and wish to be seen to be doing so.

Matter of Honour

Why has the government set its face against allowing Gurkha soldiers the right to live in this country? At the start of PMQs today Brown as usual started off by praising a soldier who has lost his life in Afghanistan. Yet subsequently he continued to defend his policy of refusing this right for these men who risked their lives in the service of the country. It's utterly astounding and once again politically inept. Have they become so cloth eared? Is their moral compass so out of kilter?

They are even using the excuse of money now, claiming that we cannot afford such an influx. This is the government that is running up vast debts, refuses to make any cuts ahead of an election and is even increasing spending this year. Yet on this issue they are taking a stand and blaming lack of money, claiming that it will cost £1.5 billion. This is almost certainly another of their fantasy figures invented for the sole purpose of making an argument. But even if it is accurate it seems a small price to pay for a debt of gratitude we owe to soldiers who risked their lives to defend our liberty and way of life. That is the military covenant. They now wish to be part of that freedom and way of life. How can there possibly be an argument to prevent them? We owe them.

You can only shake your head in wonder at Brown and wonder what is going on in his head. He keeps picking fights on the wrong issues. Last week he decided out of nowhere to make a stand on MPs expenses having previously tried to kick it into the long grass. He did so presumably because he thought he was being clever and wrong footing the opposition. Yet they way he did so, via YouTube, notwithstanding his bizarre performance, was arrogant and politically inept. He was attempting to bounce his opponents into action and yet ended up making himself look weak and ridiculous. Yesterday one of his rent a quote ministers came out and actually claimed that the PM was trying to do the right thing and was being frustrated by the Conservatives. Do they think we are stupid? Do they think we have the memory of a goldfish?

Brown is breaking manifesto pledges on taxes and Royal Mail privatisation for no good reason. He keeps making stupid and ill judged decisions and interventions. Once he has made a decision he refuses to back down no matter how illogical or morally questionable that decision looks and no matter the strength of public opinion. What is he thinking? Is he thinking at all? There seems to be precious little rationality in this government and morality seems to be deserting it too. They are going from crisis to crisis and most are entirely of their own making. The whole government is having a nervous breakdown.

100 Days

I don't really see the point of this 100 days obsession with regard to Barack Obama. I know that conventional wisdom (or did I see it on The West Wing?) holds that the first 100 days are important and set the tone and so on but I think it is grossly exaggerated. Six months in or more likely a year we will be in a better position to judge. The first 100 days are bound to be frenetic and dynamic. At the same time there are still many positions unfilled as the slow wheels of the American system grind on. What a contrast it is to the British way of doing things when government changes overnight and ministerial appointments take place within two or three days.

The Obama administration has certainly hit the ground running and has capitalised on his popularity along with congressional majorities enabling him to push through his reforms. He has sought to distance himself and the country from the past and wipe the slate clean. Thus far, even if you don't agree with everything he has done, you cannot fault his energy and drive. Also, in contrast to the tired administration in the UK, when they have got things wrong they have held up their hands, said sorry and moved on. Gordon Brown could learn a great deal from the novice across the pond.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Answer the Question

Why do reporters allow government ministers and the Prime Minister to get away with answers like this:

"The government will take all the urgent action that is necessary to halt the spread of flu."

Really, Gordon? What is this action? What are you doing? How is it going to halt the spread of an airborne virus? How is Britain best prepared for this apart from your stockpiling of a drug for something else entirely? You just got lucky that it works on this virus didn't you?

Indeed what little evidence we have is that there is little information being disseminated around the NHS to those who need to know - mostly GPs. According to one blogging GP there has been no general advice issued and he had to phone around to find out what to do. Urgent action? It doesn't look like it. They haven't even sent out general e-mails to those who are on the front line.

Nobody really knows how this is all going to turn out. It's all guesswork, whether you are a virologist, a GP or a humble but cynical blogger. I suspect it will all turn out to be overblown as usual in this 24 hour news, health and safety obsessed culture. When this all turns out to be a lot of fuss over nothing it will have nothing to do with anything the government or health authorities have done.

Soundbites and spin. That is all that politics is now.

Crisis? What Crisis?

How much do you want to bet that Gordon Brown and his government are secretly hoping that we are on the verge of a flu pandemic? This is not as cynical as it sounds - well, okay maybe it is a little bit. But it is simple human nature. When tragedy or calamity strikes we are all capable of thinking of ourselves first and foremost whilst at the same time shedding a tear or two (of the non crocodile variety) for those affected.

This is the government, after all, which puts political calculation first before any other considerations. They have demonstrated this repeatedly including just last week in the Budget. Lately such calculation has been biting them because the public and media have been able to see them for what they are. Maybe they need a natural disaster to rescue them.

Back in the halcyon days of 2007, when Gordon had just stepped up to the top job, we had a succession of such events. There were the floods, then a small Foot and Mouth outbreak and attempts at further terrorist attacks some of which partially succeeded. The PM's response was stoical and statesmanlike. Truth be told he didn't do a great deal. The procedures were already in place and the various authorities dealt with them in a largely competent manner. Brown just said the right words and for once his lack of the human touch did him no harm. He was seen as a safe pair of hands.

There is nothing that politicians like more than a nice crisis. Brown got a new lease of life last year again when the banks nearly collapsed. They love the drama of it all. They love the fact that the media actually listen without asking too many awkward questions. They love being able to convene meetings of COBRA. It feels like those movies when lots of officials and men and women in uniform gather around large tables, pore over maps and make big decisions about diverting battle ships and changing the alert status. It makes them feel important.

A flu pandemic would fit the bill nicely, always assuming that we are as well prepared as we keep being told. The fact that we have all of that Tamiflu stockpiled and ready can be spun as a competent government prepared for the worst, even though they were actually preparing for the inevitable outbreak of bird flu which has never arrived. Thankfully these drugs work on the new virus which actually isn't very new at all and thus not too frightening. The billions poured into the NHS ought to mean that it too is well prepared for a big outbreak. Is it? We shall see.

The fact of the matter is that all of the experts have been confounded by this outbreak. They were confidently expecting bird flu to mutate into something nasty. Instead we have swine flu which may well not be very nasty at all, although they are struggling to understand what is really going on. Our own body defences may well be able to see it off in many cases but then there have been deaths in Mexico. The world is better prepared thanks to past experience, better drugs, better hygiene, modern communications and a media waiting for disaster to strike and so keeping everyone on alert. Today, the first couple to be infected in the UK were all over the news. Their neighbours were 'surprised' we were told. That's the level of incisive reporting we are getting.

Nature still has the power to surprise us. Yet flu outbreaks happen every year and we are geared up for them. It is most unlikely that this will turn into another 1918 type pandemic and I still fully expect, after a few days of headlines, for the whole thing to disappear from the front pages and the OB units to disappear from the front of hospitals. The thing will spread of course and people will become very ill and in some cases die. But then people always die of influenza. It is a nasty disease even when we know what to expect. It is why we vaccinate against it. This year we have been caught on the hop and a vaccine is months away. But the hyperbole surrounding this across the world is being overdone. I doubt that this will be a crisis to once again rescue our desperate and hapless Prime Minister.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Spinning Defeat

So, Gordon Brown: what is there left to say about the man? Well, to summarise: We have had his smear tactics revealed, along with his inability to admit responsibility unless and until it becomes the lesser of various evil options.

This week we have had his desperate tactics over MPs expenses as he shamelessly tries to take the moral high ground whilst at the same time cravenly surrendering to the vested interests of his own MPs who don't want to be left out of pocket. We have heard his accusations that the row is all David Cameron's fault because he had the temerity to ask awkward questions at PMQs.

Then we had the Budget in which he broke yet another election promise and shamelessly played party politics while the country spiralled ever closer to bankruptcy.

We also heard stories of his temper tantrums during which he regularly throws things at hapless aides who have the bad luck to be bringers of bad tidings. Missiles have included various items of stationery, mobile phones and a printer.

It is reasonable, given the contempt with which our Prime Minister is increasingly held and the state of the opinion polls, to assume that he and his party are doomed to defeat at the next election, assuming that he is not knifed by his own colleagues or possibly fatally injured by an item of ricocheting office furniture.

The question is though, when the inevitable happens, who is going to tell him? Will some expendable assistant be sent in to deliver the news and inform him that he is required to take that last trip to the palace? Will said aide be allowed through the door or will it have been barricaded by now defunct government property? Will riot police have to be called in with all that implies for the life and limb of anyone who happens to be strolling in a provocative manner or indeed hurling Blackberries?

Even if the message is successfully conveyed to our leader will he necessarily take it on board or will he try to spin it? "As you know, the British people have today voted for the Conservatives, yet in the three previous elections they have voted Labour overwhelmingly. Thus we remain ahead. In my own constituency I have been re-elected with an overwhelming majority and that gives me the mandate I need to redouble our efforts and I shall be doing just that. I don't have time for this tittle tattle and gossip, I have been absolutely clear that I shall be concentrating on defeating terrorism and bringing this country out of recession which of course started in America. I shall be calling my best friend Barack Obama to assure him that, though he is a novice, I shall be at his side throughout this crisis to guide him. This is no time for a novice in Downing Street or for some Tory do nothing boy who would immediately sack all doctors, teachers and nurses and send the unemployed out on to the streets or possibly to act as his Eton fags. That is the message that the British people clearly meant to give today."

We only have a year to wait. It's quite possible that Downing Street and much of Whitehall will have to be cordoned off for several hours while the explosion is contained and wild horses drag out the incumbent.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Wrong. Just Wrong. Oh and then Right.

Given that there is nothing else on this evening I have been trying to watch the BAFTA TV Awards. I generally try to avoid such things because they are usually snooze fests full of self congratulatory luvvies who show themselves up when they don't have a script in front of them and usually give awards to the wrong people. And so it has proven. Lots of people making complete dicks of themselves and those who voted for the awards actually thought, from a field of just three concerning British sitcoms (clearly it's not been a good year), that The IT Crowd is better than Outnumbered. Wrong. Just wrong. On the other hand Criminal Justice was the stand out British drama series of the year. They got this one right. And who could begrudge the lifetime award to French and Saunders? Apparently the last comedy double act to receive such recognition was the legendary Morecambe and Wise - my heroes. To be mentioned in the same breath as those two is an award in itself but Jennifer and Dawn deserve it.

Northern Crock

According to a story in The Sunday Times, the government is to sell off Northern Rock later this year because the Treasury is keen to prove to the public that there is an exit strategy for the rescued banks.

So, once again politics and spin come before doing the right thing for the country. By selling off the bank now at the bottom of the market, the government will just be crystallising their and our losses and handing over any potential upside to whoever gets to buy the bank at a bargain price. What's the rush? Why not wait until we are on the road to revovery and asset prices are rising again?

Furthermore the lucky old taxpayer gets to keep all of the toxic loans which caused NR to collapse in the first place meaning that potential buyers will get themselves a branch network, lots of clean, non toxic and profitable loans and savings and so will not even have to laugh all the way to the bank. They will already have one subsidised by the taxpayer full of our money.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Don't Panic!

There has been an outbreak of a new variant of flu called Swine Flu in Mexico which may be spreading to the United States. The media is already working itself into a frenzy about this and predicting all kinds of doom and gloom and that oft predicted world pandemic which will wipe out millions.

I don't claim to be an expert on the subject. It is wise however to approach such scares with a certain amount of caution. We have been here before. A few years ago we were told that it was only a matter of time until Avian Flu crossed over and caused havoc. We even had the ludicrous case of a single swan turning up dead in Scotland to which the BBC and other broadcasters responded by sending whole teams of journalists, OB units and even a helicopter to give an aerial view of this single bird's demise. It was actually very funny.

This new type of flu is not avian flu which remember we were told was a near certainty. This is swine flu. Nature is once again confounding the science, yet every time we get one of these scares politicians and the media take their dire predictions entirely at face value and fail to ask questions about just how robust their assumptions are. We always get dire predictions and stories of approaching armageddon. The same is true of global warming which of course we are told is 99% certain and requires billions to be spent on a huge research bandwagon which miraculously keep coming up with proof that it is happening and that we are causing it. Nobody questions why.

It could well be the case that this is an outbreak and the beginning of a pandemic. They have to be right some time. But remember that there were occasional outbreaks of avian flu which has killed about 400 people over the last 5 years. Whatever the media says over the next few days, disaster is not inevitable. The greatest likelihood is that this will all amount to nothing and that we can all go back to worrying about the financial cataclysm instead.

Correction

Apparently the Chancellor does not know the ONS figures more than 24 hours before they are announced and so he would not have had the benefit of these when he was preparing his Budget. I humbly apologise for this error in my earlier post.

The fact remains however that I, a man on a computer in a flat in London with a profound paucity of information and resources, have still proven to be better at predicting the state of the British economy than has the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I may have got my facts wrong on this occasion, but I corrected them as soon as I became aware of them. Mr Darling continues to stick to his convenient untruths about the future path of the economy, even when new facts come to light, some of which he ought to have known or have made a better guess at. That's why this weekend's papers will not make for happy reading.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Fall and Rise and Fall Again

They say there is no such thing as a completely original idea. That is certainly true in the world of entertainment. Television in particular is a medium that constantly feeds upon itself. One new and successful idea will instantly give rise to many imitators presumably bent upon flattery, or more likely because they couldn't think of anything better themselves. Hollywood too tends to follow where the truly original lead. This can be in the form of genre, story or setting. The fact of the matter is that, as a consequence, for every Star Wars (although even that was a remake of various westerns) we get a The Black Hole. It's a simple rule of the industry.

It doesn't always have to be mere imitation however. The remake is often the recourse of the truly desperate. Yet how often do they succeed? In an age when we can watch old movies and TV shows anytime we like, why do such retreads still come up? Has the industry really run out of ideas or at least ways of refreshing old ideas to make them seem new? I wrote recently about Big Bang Theory - the superb sitcom. This isn't a particularly new idea or in any way revolutionary. It is in many ways a remake of Frasier. Yet it seems new and original because the characters, though recognisably of a type well known to sitcom viewers, have their own voices and are written so well that they breathe life into something that ought realistically to be exhausted and bereft of life. That's what good writers do. Similarly, the new Star Trek movie is winning rave reviews. This is based on an old idea but it is a new imagining of it rather than a remake. They have taken a winning franchise, a great and optimistic premise and superb characters and remade them for a modern audience.

It was with such a mindset that I came tonight to a remake of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, now called simply Reggie Perrin. Now the original series is one of my all time favourites. It was something truly original and clever, although it had the advantage of being created in the 1970s when this was more likely. It also had the much greater advantage of a sublime cast, including the incomparable Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter was a genius. Many will remember him for his portrayal of Rigsby, the seedy landlord in Rising Damp. For me he will always be Reginald Perrin.

The BBC weren't silly here. They knew how good Rossiter was and so they chose Martin Clunes to fill those mighty shoes. If any part of this revamp managed to pass muster it was Clunes. I admire him for taking it on, even if I still think he should have said no. Perhaps he felt that, after taking a decent attempt at playing Mr Chips, he could pull this one off too. He was wrong. But he was nearly spot on.

It wasn't awful. It was even funny and rather clever at times, as one would expect from something co-written by Simon Nye. Indeed, if one had never seen the original, I can entirely understand why you might think it actually rather superior to other contemporary comedies such as the allegedly funny My Family. But it is no classic in the way that the original was. They reinvented it in places and in places it worked. But too often it looked like a transplant - something transferred to a different place and time but in need of a cocktail of drugs to keep it functioning. It looked like a pastiche of a classic - trying to pay homage and to be new and relevant at the same time. It had Clunes but the rest of the cast was decidedly lacklustre. Ultimately it lacked the verve and the cheek of the original. Fundamentally it lacked Mr Rossiter and that really isn't anyone's fault apart from whoever thought this was a good idea in the first place.

The reason classics become classics is because they are not just good ideas that chime with an audience. It is because they find that rare alchemy of good material, chemistry and something sublime and indescribable. It is why they should be cherished for what they are. In the digital age, we have no need to remake what is already perfect any more than one would want to repaint the Mona Lisa or rewrite Shakespeare. Laurel and Hardy may be scratchy and in glorious monochrome but they are untouchable. The same is true of so much we now take for granted in the throwaway world of television. One day we may realise it, cherish it and leave it alone except when we need to laugh.

Get Him Out!

On the Downing Street website there is a section for petitions, an innovation they have probably regretted since day one. Inevitably, in the wake of the last couple of weeks of this car crash government, someone has started a petition for the Prime Minister to resign. What a splendid idea. While you're at it, Mr Brown, if you could call an election too that would be the one great service you could do for the country you claim to love. Sign up here.

Update:

I just tried to sign up to it. To do so one has to respond to an e-mail. When clicking on the link that they sent, the link did not work. I'm no conspiracy theorist but......See if you have more luck.

Call a Doctor

Two days after what will go down in history as the worst Budget ever (unless of course Mr Darling or an even more deluded successor gets to deliver one last one next year prior to an election) his fantasy figures are already being exposed for what they are. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that the economy shrunk by 1.9 % in the first quarter of this year. This means that not only will Darling's trampoline bounceback be most unlikely but that even those figures he revealed which were half realistic, namely the GDP rate for this year, will also most likely be wrong. The Chancellor predicted that the economy will shrink by 3.5% this year and even this is now looking optimistic. He then added that we would start to emerge from recession towards the end of this year. This looked like nonsense when he said it and these figures confirm that suspicion. His other projections and the entire basis of our finances going forward are rendered useless two days after he made them just as we all predicted.

What is so hard to fathom about this is that the Government would have known about these figures this week before the Budget and yet they still chose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that they were on course to get to the end of the rainbow. They preferred to stick to their panglossian vision even though they knew that most commentators would be sceptical and even though they knew that new official figures would discredit them within hours.

This is a government so pathologically addicted to spin and lies that it now prefers to do so just for a couple of days before it is found out rather than be honest from the start. That's a kind of insanity isn't it? If this were an ocean going ship rather than a ship of state we would be sending in the doctor to relieve them of command before they steer us on to the rocks.

At the beginning of the year I predicted that GDP would shrink by 4% this year. In so doing I was on the outer edge of consensus. Now the consensus is catching up, well most of them anyway - all but those who are paid by the government. We have now been in recession for a year. It is hard to see how we can possibly emerge from this even tentatively in less than another year.

I still think that we may be approaching a turning point. This is not to say that we will emerge from recession this year or that all will be rosy in the garden in a few months time. It is a prediction that the worst may now be behind us and that we may soon start climbing the steep hill back towards positive growth. I would be surprised if the figures for this quarter are as bad as the last.

But the elephant in the room is our levels of borrowing. It is going to be even worse than the government is prepared to admit and they still refuse to take any action to address it this side of an election. The crisis of confidence they are creating will have disastrous ramifications for sterling, for the economy and for their ability to keep borrowing. They must know this. Presumably they are gambling that those ramifications will be delayed long enough for them to claim to have dragged us out of recession or for it to all be somebody else's problem. Perhaps this isn't insanity it may be a special kind of ruthless sanity. But if they think people won't notice or blame them for our predicament then they ought to ask for a second opinion.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Ignominious End?

What a bloody few weeks it has been for Gordon Brown and his government. It was not supposed to be like this. The master strategist was going to save the world at the G20 summit and then swoop down to do the same for the British economy in the Budget by splurging more of our cash. Happily more sensible heads prevailed and he was prevented from doing so. In between, the PM's smear tactics came back to bite him and undid what little he achieved grandstanding on the world stage.

Today we see the net results. Labour, according to a YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph, is now 18 points behind the Conservatives. This damage is almost entirely self inflicted. The Conservatives, other than David Cameron's impressive response to the Budget yesterday, have been able to sit back and watch the government self destruct.

If this sort of poll lead persists over the summer we could well see the kind of infighting we saw last year as Brown's popularity plummeted and his colleagues began to not so subtly jostle for the top job. This kind of Conservative lead would see a huge majority and the end of a number of careers including Cabinet ministers. The whispering about Brown is sure to start up again if it hasn't already. He is proving to be a spectacularly awful Prime Minister and today we see the public's opinion of him in black and white.

There is also the small matter of the MPs expenses row. It is reported in certain places that some of the details to be revealed in July will be so bad that it could lead to the downfall of several MPs and possibly ministers. Some are so bad they would have to quit Parliament immediately we are told and by elections would have to be held. The details already revealed about some have been appalling even if they were 'within the rules'. What have some of the others been up to?

It is obvious that this is a government that has completely lost its way and which is clinging to power by its fingertips. There is an air of desperation and decay about it. But will it last all the way to next summer? It ought to be able to under normal circumstances but suddenly the impossible no longer seems quite so impossible. Is Gordon Brown heading for an end even more ignominious than merely losing an election?

Small Print

The more we look at yesterday's Budget the worse it gets. This government has completely lost control of the public finances and yet, even now, they will not act responsibly.

This is the same government that was so angry with the banks last year for failing to come clean on their liabilities. Yet the Treasury has produced fantasy figures for growth to make the borrowing figures look a little less horrendous which we all know will have to be revised in a few months time. The same happened in November. Why do they keep doing it? Why must this government spin everything even when they know we can all see through it? It is all they know.

Instead of taking tough decisions they are determined not to switch off the spending tap leaving all of the pain until after the next election. This just means that when the cuts come they will have to be even more savage on a scale to make the early 80s look puny. This is only made worse because the government has allowed such high spending to become entrenched in the system. The huge borrowing we are now committed to is not for 'investment' as the ridiculous Yvette Cooper kept telling us last night like a monotone speak your weight machine with only one set of answers no matter what the question is. This government is borrowing money to fund every day spending and not even the additional costs of the recession. It is the equivalent of you or I having to use our credit card to pay the groceries bill. It is the very definition of living beyond your means.

We will be spending more on interest payments on government debt than we are on schools. And
that bill is going to get bigger because they are still fiddling the figures and pretending that things really aren't so bad and that we can spend our way back to economic health. The worst thing of all is that we still have another two of these fantasy economics setpieces to go before we can kick them out of office. This autumn and next spring Mr Darling or whoever occupies his office will be able to dream up some more figures and avoid having to play Mr Nasty for a while longer. Such is their cynicism they might even conjure up a tax giveaway and pay for it by pushing up higher taxes even further. Don't bet against it. This government is capable of anything.

Virtuous Circle

It's fair to say that the Budget has not gone down well with the British media and deservedly so. Take a look for yourself. The Times argues that, with the cynical abandonment of the commitment not to raise taxes, the Budget spelt the death of New Labour and return to the same old Labour with their usual inability to control public spending as last seen in the 70s.

The Telegraph again calls it cynical and questions the economic validity of the tax rises whilst again worrying about the horrendous borrowing, the fantasy growth figures going forward and the refusal to set out viable plans to address our debt.

Peter Oborne in the Mail talks of bogus initiatives, gimmicks, comforting falsehoods and outright dishonesty.

The Sun worries that the country may well be bankrupt before the country gets the chance to chuck Labour out.

The Independent calls it a Budget for the short term based on the never never.

Even The Guardian, although congratulating the Chancellor for his 'honesty' on the scale of borrowing and being predictably keen on the top rate tax rise is similarly critical about Darling's assumptions about future growth.

I have, as you can probably tell, been scouring the newspapers for news of the Budget. It's fascinating how some stories can be told differently. But on the Budget there is actually a great deal of agreement.

Only the ridiculous Polly Toynbee, of those I have had time to read so far, is a cheer leader for this Budget and bemoans the fact that taxes weren't raised earlier to combat child poverty. She's always good for a laugh is Polly and can usually be relied upon to be wrong about any subject currently in the news. I remember her telling us a few years ago why it was imperative that we should join the Euro and presumably still thinks the same now despite the evidence all around her of how much worse off we would be right now had she got her way.

The same is true now. The way to end child poverty, Polly, is not through goverment diktat and 'redistribution of wealth' it is by ensuring good and well paid jobs for parents and a benefits system which does not encourage the unemployed or poor to have children that they cannot afford. This is not to say that the poor shouldn't have children of course not. It is merely pointing out that we are living in the 21st century and we have choices. Responsible parents in the 21st century know that children are an enormous responsibility and are enormously expensive. They plan accordingly thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and our understanding of the human reproductive system. Child poverty happens when people ignore basic common sense and expect someone else to pay for their mistakes. The system that this government and its cheerleaders like Polly Toynbee advocate will not end child poverty it will exacerbate it. Remember Karen Matthews?

Similarly their take on taxation is plain wrong. It has already been proven in the 1980s that lowering tax rates actually increases the tax take. But the likes of Polly refuse to acknowledge this. It is simple common sense really. People don't mind paying tax provided it is fair. 40% is on the edge of fair. The state taking 50% of someone's earnings is not fair and they quite rightly resent it.

I have said it before and I will say it again, this notion that people who earn higher salaries should pay higher percentages of those salaries in tax because this is 'fairer' is utterly bizarre. Why? Why can't people get into their heads the way that percentages work? Someone earning £20,000 is earning five times times less than someone earning £100,000. If they are paying the same tax rate however, say 25%, this is not unfair because the man earning five times more will still pay five times more tax. One will pay £5000 and the other £25000. That is fair. To ask someone earning more than that to pay a higher percentage of their income is grossly unfair. To take half of that income without any allowances just because you have lost control of the country's finances and want to embarrass your political opponents is the behaviour of an authoritarian regime whose 'moral compass' has gone haywire.

Until people and politicians can get this through their heads we will forever have this problem. Paying tax is something we accept provided it is fair. It is a failure of successive governments that the very low paid have to pay any tax at all. If that was ended and low paid but still vital jobs were thus more rewarding it would stand a much better chance of ending child poverty than Gordon Brown's tax credits, welfare and other schemes which provide perverse incentives for the feckless and irresponsible. At the top end too, if people are asked to pay a rate that is fair and proportionate they will pay it without complaint. Furthermore, since Britain is still a pretty good place to live, we would attract or retain well qualified people and entrepreneurs here and achieve a virtuous circle of wealth and job creation across the employment spectrum and end child poverty in a virtuous and more sustainable way. All that is required to achieve this is for the government to keep control of the public finances so that taxes stay at reasonable levels. The amount raised would actually increase and avoidance would decrease.

Of course in such a system people who work hard and become skilled or educated and thus in demand do tend to become very rich, a fact which seems to offend the likes of Polly Toynbee. Then again she has done very nicely out of writing constantly about it and so far be it from us to put her out of work. Indeed there is no reason why, if she feels so strongly about it, she shouldn't pay 50% of her substantial earnings to salve her conscience. I'm sure right now Alistair Darling will take any contributions he can get his hands on.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Fantasy Finance

So, the Budget. It's full of fantasy figures again. This isn't optimism this is cynicism. They are approaching an election and they don't want to admit just how bad this is even though they have had to unveil already horrendous borrowing. They are pencilling in £220 billion of borrowing for this year which could be up to £260 billion. Are they going to be able to raise that?

Even that astonishing figure is predicated on growth restarting this year and returning to pre recession highs within a year or so. That is ridiculously optimistic. We may have seen the worst of this recession and we may well be at or near the bottom of the recession curve. But to assume that we will bounce back from this to growth this year is a fantasy. At best we may be emerging back into growth by the time whoever is Chancellor stands up for next year's Budget. Darling is assuming it will have started by the time he stands up for his autumn statement.

Instead of being honest about the need for constraining spending they pretend that they can conjure 'savings' the same sort of savings which, when proposed by the Tories they said were impossible. This is not to say that such savings are not possible. They must be. But why now? Presumably this means that they are now admitting that they have been wasting £15 billion every year for the last ten years.

There was lots of talk in the speech on Brown's favourite theme that this is a global problem. This is of course true. But it was a global problem to which we contributed with our poor regulation. They tend to gloss over that part.

They are also, as expected, putting up the top rate of tax and increasing it even before the new rate has been implemented. It will now go up to 50% instead of 45% for those earning more than £150,000. Leaving aside that this is ignoring yet another manifesto commitment, it is more to do with politics than raising money. It is designed to discomfit and corner the Tories who would do well to ignore it. It will raise no money and sends out an appalling signal when this country is so reliant on the City of London for tax revenues. It is a return to the bad old days of Labour who have lost control of the country's finances and seek convenient fall guys for their own failings. It is simply wrong to take half of somebody's earnings in tax. High earners who include doctors and other professionals who have worked hard and made sacrifices are now to be discouraged and indeed penalised for trying to better themselves.

One of those gimmicks like the electric cars of last week is also unveiled. Owners of cars that are over ten years old will be given £2000 to scrap it and buy a new one. This is a nonsense too. Most people who run cars that old do so because that is all they can afford. They cannot afford to buy new cars even with a £2000 subsidy.

There is some good news, increases in ISA allowances and continuing holidays on stamp duty for the cheapest houses and some sensible measures to stimulate businesses and employment and offset taxes for them. But this is set against massive rises in duties yet again. These are taxes that everybody pays and they are going up hugely. So they are taxing the so called rich as a political gimmick that will raise next to nothing and making most of the money up by taxing everyone else on non discretionary purchases such as fuel that we cannot avoid. This necessarily impacts most on the poor. It also makes a nonsense of any claims that we are slipping into a deflationary spiral. The government will ensure that cannot and will not happen by taxing the rate back up again.

Furthermore this Budget was supposed to be for jobs. Yet these initiatives may well end up costing jobs. Raising fuel prices puts people out of business or adds to costs meaning that jobs may have to be cut. Raising alcohol duties means that more pubs will close in an already struggling sector. These low paid jobs are the sort which are usually filled by younger people, the very people the government says it wants to help and prevent becoming unemployed and another lost generation. Duties are easy and quick and raise a lot of money but they damage the economy.

Of course we have yet to see all of the detail of the initiatives announced today. Past experience suggests that they are often less impressive than the headlines and spin suggest. The idea of guaranteeing work or training for the under 25s is a good one. They should be obliged to either take work or training, if necessary creating jobs for them if they haven't found one within a reasonable period. This would prevent a massive number of people languishing on benefits and never working as can be seen on estates in certain parts of the country as was illustrated starkly with Karen Matthews and her ilk. Such benefit dependency causes all kinds of social problems and costs much more in the long term thanks to social breakdown, hopelessness and criminality. The devil will however be in the detail. How will it be made to work? Anyone who has had dealings with Jobcentre Plus and other similar agencies supposed to help the unemployed will soon tell you that too often it just doesn't work or do what the politicians tell us.

This was actually rather a thin Budget and necessarily so. It was a political exercise about putting a spin on appalling figures and trying to disguise, at least for now, just how painful it is going to be for us all and not just high earners. It was an exercise in extreme cynicism and breathtaking arrogance. David Cameron's response was as good as I have ever seen him in the Commons. He had plenty of ammunition of course. That he was hitting the target was proven by the silence on the Labour benches and on the face of Gordon Brown. He adopted that peculiar juvenile smile he always wears when he is trying to appear nonchalant. It's as pathetic as his government is inept. Essentially Mr Brown sits there on the bench saying 'Am I bovvered'? Yes, Mr Brown you are, or at least you should be. Only he would consider it appropriate to respond that way on a day when he made history for all of the wrong reasons and put the country in hock for a generation.

Sneaking them Out

Today, on the day when most of the media will be concentrating on the Budget, several men who were arrested at gunpoint two weeks ago have been quietly released without charge after spending 13 days in custody. They will now be deported. The police were able to investigate this and released the men in less than two weeks despite the cock ups which led to the arrests being easy. The government, which loves to posture on issues of national security, was responsible for the visa mess which allowed these men in to the country. It has been lecturing Pakistan about preventing terrorism. It's very fortunate that the police just happened to conclude their investigations so quickly, the sort of investigations which, we have been told, are complex and time consuming and needed extended detention powers of up to 42 days for the security of us all. Yet now such inquiries can be concluded according to a different timetable when it suits. Interesting,

Shutting out the Past

Wimbledon yesterday unveiled its new wonder roof. It's a giant, corrugated, transparent contraption which, in just 10 minutes, can seal Centre Court from the rain which almost always comes along at some point during that illustrious fortnight and forces stoical tennis fans to huddle under umbrellas and newspapers whilst staring forlornly towards the leaden skies hoping for the best.

It is a miracle of engineering I suppose, another example of man's triumph over nature. Yet at the same time it's rather sad isn't it. Our weather defines us as a nation. We are a tiny island with an ocean on one side of us and a continent we feel blessed to be separate from on the other. We are battered by wind and rain but never by anything too extreme. Yes it can be grey and drab but that gives us something to talk about and complain about. That's why we never have violent revolutions. We're too busy complaining about the weather to worry ourselves over mere transient politicians. I firmly believe that the British weather is responsible for our distinct sense of humour and culture and our ability to laugh at ourselves. It was raining again and so we stayed in or went to the pub and told jokes.

So the thought of shutting it out instead of just making do and mending or making do and making jokes seems very un-British somehow. It was fun watching them abandon matches in mid game as the heavens opened. It was fun watching them collapse the net, pull the umpire's chair back and pull the covers across in one beautifully coordinated movement. It was especially fun on the occasions that someone fell over and got swallowed up by the covers. And it tested our ingenuity to reschedule all of those delayed matches and still get everything finished by the second Sunday. Only very very rarely did everyone have to come back for a third Monday to clear everything up.

Yes that giant roof will feel like the end of an era in a way. It may be sophisticated and cutting edge and it may be recognition of reality in this cold and windswept land but it also takes away a bit of the romance and fun from the greatest tennis tournament in the world. The only silver lining to this now frustrated cloud is that never again will anyone have to be 'entertained' by Cliff Bloody Richard while it rains. That's enought to make the sun shine for the whole fortnight.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Brown TV

Politicians often go into high paying and high profile careers once they are thrown out of office or if they go voluntarily. Tony Blair is currently earning millions on the speech circuit. John Major made a tidy sum from various directorships. Harold Wilson famously had his own talk show for a while although it was the sort of programme to be watched from behind the sofa and for all of the wrong reasons.

If Gordon Brown is now considering his career options and looking at the media as an option, I think we can now safely say that he would be about as successful as Wilson. Just take a look at this which No.10 posted on the web to announce his sudden volte-face on MPs' expenses. Is this part of his secret plan? Vote for me or I'll start doing this for a living!

What's He Up To Now?

Has Gordon finally noticed that he's going to have to face an election some time soon? Not only is he facing European polls in a matter of weeks but the big one is looming and he is not exactly flavour of the month with those he will shortly be asking to extend his stay in Downing Street - us.

The thing about this Prime Minister is that we are now cynical about everything he says and does by default. It's what happens when someone has been in power for ten years and constantly gets caught out being less than frank with us. Today he has done an about turn on MPs expenses which would not disgrace an ice skater. Just a few weeks ago he was trying to push it all out into the long grass until after the next election. Today he is coming over all principled and self righteous about this and again flagrantly nicking other people's ideas and pretending they are his own. But to be fair at least he is finally taking a lead on this issue and has perhaps finally recognised how incendiary it has been. There was never any need for an inquiry.

Why has he done it now though? Is it just because the polls are looking bad? Is it because the Budget is not all that he had hoped for? Is it because when all of those receipts are released they are going to look appalling for several leading figures in his own party? He never does anything like this when he has previously set his face against it without calculating that it is the least worst option.

At the same time it wouldn't be this Prime Minister if he didn't find some way to try and turn it party political by inserting some reference to his party's big bug bear - company directorships and second jobs which are mostly enjoyed by Conservative MPs. I suspect he's barking up the wrong tree with this one. The public don't care about second jobs so long as they don't give rise to a conflict of interest. If this means that MPs are less likely to abuse their expenses to feather their nests then so much the better. It also means that those doing additional work are getting useful experience one would have thought. The Labour Party is currently trying to parachute a 22 year old who has only just left university into a safe seat. Presumably they think this is preferable to some Tory with two jobs which might give him or her some insight into what is going on in the real economy.

Some of the details of the PMs proposal look dodgy too. He is proposing that MPs should get a daily allowance for turning up to work. Nice work if you can get it. No wonder university leavers are so keen. The rest of us have always assumed that we get salaries in return for turning up. It looks a bit like bankers bonuses doesn't it. Interestingly this new scheme will amount to much the same as the second home allowance. So it is the same old Gordon Brown once again, more sleight of hand and nothing really changes.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. No doubt, given the generosity of this scheme, Brown will be able to get his troops to agree to it as all they have to do is turn up for work and will be rewarded just as well without the need for all of those embarrassing receipts. The opposition could object to the daily allowance proposal. All that is really needed is a London allowance for those MPs who live far enough from Westminster to require them to have a second home in London. It doesn't have to be anything like as much as they have been able to claim hitherto for them to rent a flat or even use a hotel. Any more than that is just a salary increase through the back door.

The Yo Yo Economy

We are told today that the country has slipped into deflation. This is something we should all be deeply worried about and we should be thankful that those who lead us and understand these things are currently printing money at a rate that Gideon Gono can only dream about in order to prevent this looming catastrophe.

It's all nonsense of course. It's a statistical anomaly. I've just been grocery shopping and I can assure you that prices are not falling. Quite the opposite. Last year, when oil prices were sky high and the Bank of England still had high interest rates to dampen down inflation, we were told by those in the know that high oil prices were feeding through to all manner of everyday goods. Thus the price of milk and bread and various other staples went through the roof. There was near rioting in Italy as the price of pasta went skywards. Since then the oil price has halved, although it has crept back up again in recent weeks. Yet, despite this dreadful deflation we are now suffering, those same staples remain at the same price they went up to last year. Funny that.

Perhaps Bank of England economists and economics journalists don't notice such things. To be honest, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't notice either. But as I spent a few months recently unable to work due to my back problems and so counting every penny, I suddenly had to live on a budget. Instead of just blithely filling my trolley with all kinds of goodies and then exclaiming loudly but paying up when I got to the checkout, I found myself stretching my mental arithmetic skills and adding it all up as I went along. Suddenly I was looking for bargains and special offers. Suddenly I was paying attention to those flyers that come through the door from different shops and buying certain items from one supermarket and then going to another one with different offers to make my money stretch. When you do this you notice how the prices fluctuate. You notice how the shops inflate prices one week so that the following week they can claim to have slashed prices by a huge percentage. Most people don't bother of course which is how the likes of Tesco make their vast profits as announced today.

The deflation reflected in the figures is down to the sudden drop in oil prices and housing costs. It is not and will not be reflected in the prices most people pay. Even oil prices are on the rise again and the price of imports will increase because of the weakness of the Pound.

The worry is that the authorities will once again miss what is really happening just as they did last summer before the shit hit the fan. Quantitative easing is currently being deployed to prevent deflation but also to help the government monetise their vast borrowing. I said it was a bad idea before they started and now, as they continued to pump money out, is could become disastrous. What it will actually do is create rampant inflation next year and mean that interest rates will have to be raised thus choking off any recovery before it happens. China is beginning to grow again and that will lead to a rise in commodity prices once more. The whole cycle will start again, albeit this time not as bad because hopefully the banks and the regulators have learnt recent lessons.

We are entering a period of boom and bust as the economy yo yos around for months and years to come. Perhaps economists should spend more time on the high street analysing the real world instead of theorising about it.

Monday, 20 April 2009

A Boring Budget Please

So, after all of the fun of smeargate last week (it may not be completely over in terms of revelations but lack of attention to it may mean that it dies as a major story) we will now be returning to more normal politics and talk of the economy again. This, the government told us last week, is what they want to talk about. They may regret that if the Budget gets bad reviews.

As I mentioned yesterday, it is reasonably clear that we may be past the worst of this recession. This is not to say that it is over and that mass redundances and bankruptcies are at an end. But the banks are starting to work again, the housing market is showing signs of activity, record low interest rates, the devaluation of the Pound and, most importantly, the end of the fear we all felt last autumn when the whole world economy seemed to be on the brink of collapse, all of this means that the slowdown is decelerating. The bottom is close and may already have been reached.

Should the government get credit for this? Yes and no. Yes they saved the banking system from collapse and that is now starting to reap dividends. The cut in interest rates and the fall of the Pound have happened and will be to our benefit but they are an automatic response to our dire situation. If Gordon Brown should take any credit from this it should be for his dogged refusal to allow us to go into the Euro. We should all be thankful for that.

Those who wrote, often gleefully, that this crisis signalled the collapse of capitalism and that capitalism had failed can now be shown to be utterly wrong. That we can look with reasonable confidence at emerging from this next year is down to the fact that people are looking at the economy and seeing opportunities and taking risks again. Prices have fallen. People see a potential to make money again and are investing accordingly. That is how it works. We have had a correction, a nasty and brutal correction but a correction all the same. The crisis we have suffered was less about the failings of capitalism which we have always known about. It was about the failure of those who regulate it and are supposed to prevent its worst excesses.

Next we have this week's Budget. There will not be any good news in this. The best we can hope for is that it doesn't make matters worse. We already know that the borrowing figures are going to be horrendous. How the government tackles this will reveal a great deal. Brown's instincts are to keep borrowing and worry about how to pay for it all the other side of an election. This is why he is a lousy Prime Minister. He would probably also like to pretend that all of this can be paid for by putting up taxes only for the rich, this despite the fact that he has put taxes up for everyone over the last ten years (ten years when there was plenty of money around) by 10%. We all know that there is pain to come. It would be nice if the government could be honest about this for a change.

The public is also ready to accept spending cuts. There is plenty of fat to trim in the first instance which would save tens of billions. Then there will have to be some harsh choices made. Perhaps it is time to trim that vast and wasteful welfare budget and put an end to all of those ridiculous quangos so beloved of this government and a nice little earner for the great and good as they retire on their lovely fat civil service pensions. Perhaps it is time to accept that the NHS cannot go on giving free treatment for everything under the sun but to concentrate on those who have genuinely life threatening illnesses or conditions or whose quality of life can be immeasurably improved. I for one would end free IVF treatment on the NHS immediately but there are plenty of other less than vital initiatives that could be cut from pointless and useless publicity campaigns nagging us about what we eat and drink to the innumerable levels of bureaucracy which seems to achieve very little at vast expense. Politicians are going to have to get real on such issues. We cannot afford such largesse any more even if we ever could.

If there was any justice in the world, the man who presided over all of this mess and in part helped create it would have to admit to us what hard choices he will have imposed on us thanks to his recklessness. But of course he won't. This will probably be a gimmick strewn Budget with a few fancy promises for 'creating jobs'. Some will also claim to be creating 'green jobs' whatever that means. They would be much better off giving tax breaks to business to preserve the jobs we already have and encourage entrepreneurs to create new jobs, any jobs, whether green or otherwise.

What we should have on Wednesday is a very short speech. Mr Darling should stand up, give us the new figures for government borrowing and admit that this year is going to be even worse. He should predict that we may finally see growth again in the economy around this time next year. Consequently, he should say, I propose to take radical action to cut government spending across the board this year and set out details of what is to be cut. This should be done as an alternative to raising any taxes at all including on fuel and alcohol which will just destroy more jobs. He should then set out plans for raising taxes once the recovery has begun. Nothing more. No big promises of eye catching initiatives for training and creating jobs which won't work even if they ever happen. This is a time of austerity and cost cutting so the Budget should reflect this. People would understand because it is what they are having to do themselves. They might even feel more confident about future prospects and better disposed to this government.

This is a government that thinks it must constantly look dynamic hence their daily announcements of initiatives such as last week's ridiculous scheme for electric cars. What is required of them now is to do less and to do what they do more efficiently and productively. That is what businesses and families are having to do through necessity so as to survive. It would be good government and ultimately good politics for the Chancellor to show that he understands this and sympathises.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Real Green Shoots

Sunday was a beautiful spring day, warm with unbroken blue skies, blossom on the trees, daffodils blooming and girls in short skirts in abundance. I got away from my computer, went out, quaffed some nice wine, enjoyed some pleasant company and had a good time.

Maybe it's the weather and the verdant beauty of spring turning my head, but I'm inclined to agree with various people who are seeing green shoots in the economy. All of that money and interest rate cuts and a plunging Pound must be having an effect and I think that they are. The thing about recessions is that, though they are awful for some they do not mean doom and gloom for all. Those in work are doing quite nicely. Mortgage payments are down, prices of various things (except groceries) are falling or stable and perhaps all of the doom and gloom has been overdone. I'm not saying the recession is over. But we may be at or near the bottom. The recovery may well be shaky and hesitant and the spectre of inflation is a very real possibility. But if the Budget this week is boring and doesn't do too much damage there might just be light at the end of the tunnel.

More as the week progresses.

Smeargate II

They're calling it Smeargate II. In the peculiar way of the British press, this story is coming out over two successive weekends via the Sunday newspapers.

Eight days ago Downing Street started by calling this a trivial matter and just juvenile behaviour between two friends that went too far. Then they had to sacrifice Damian McBride. What next? The comparisons between this and Watergate were made but seemed to be fanciful. But it's starting to have real resonance now. This is reaching into the top of the Labour Party and, more pertinently, it is reaching into the Brownite clique.

According to The Sunday Times, a whistleblower has revealed that the smears unit was run by Brown's protege, Ed Balls. Last week Balls went on the offensive, albeit rather defensively and sought to distance himself from the activities of Damian McBride. In fact, says this insider, the whole operation is being run by Balls as he seeks to position himself for the top job. Though Balls and Brown have denied the accusation other 'senior Labour figures' have confirmed the story.

Elsewhere The News of the World has another story about those e-mails and reports that Labour Party General Secretary Ray Collins was at the meeting which agreed to set up the blog which prompted these works of fiction in the first place. He still denies knowledge of the e-mails but was aware of what was being planned.

The thing about this story is that, as the details keep being unpicked, it just shows the government to be dishonest and seedy. They issue denials and claim that no apologies are necessary only to backtrack as more is revealed. They are cornered on this and the panic is starting to set in.

What is making matters worse for them is that these revelations are emboldening those who have been smeared to speak out. The omerta is breaking down and scores are being settled. The infighting is beginning. The government is disintegrating. The Conservatives probably can't believe their luck. They have scarcely had to say a word about this. They demanded apologies and had Labour MPs agree with them. Now they can just watch as this sack of rats fights one another to the death.

Could this really drag down the government? It would have seemed ridiculous last weekend but thanks to incompetent news management, a Prime Minister who cannot accept responsibility for anything without being forced to do so and a decade or more of stored up resentment which has now been uncorked it no longer seems so outlandish. It has certainly badly damaged the government, possibly fatally. Can they really last another year in this state?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Fall Guy

In the wake of this appalling week, Labour are down to 26% and trailing the Conservatives by a whopping 17% in the latest Marketing Sciences poll for the Sunday Telegraph. It's bad for Labour but not unexpected.

What is worse for Labour is that this malaise does not seem to be wholly around Gordon Brown. The whole party is being blamed and a change of leader would not affect people's voting intentions. 75% of voters claimed that a change of leaders would not change their minds. Then again, when asked to vote for the best Labour leader in recent times, Tony Blair comes top followed by Michael Foot of all people and then John Smith. Brown trails in last with only 1% of the vote behind Neil Kinnock and Jim Callaghan.

Are we about to see a re-run of the dissent and open campaigning to depose Gordon Brown or will the party look at the figures and allow him to be their fall guy? Even if they do make such a calculation this and other polls if they come out the same way are bound to increase dissent and make backbenchers nervous. Brown may be facing a summer of discontent both within his party and in the country at large as the recession does its worst.

Put Him Out of Our Misery

This has been a god awful week for Gordon Brown and the Labour party. One could almost feel sorry for him if it wasn't for the fact that his behaviour and cynicism means that he richly deserves it.

This week we have had those e-mails which, everyone is agreed, though Brown was not personally responsible for them, bore his mark and had his tacit approval until he was found out.

Today it seems that Labour's control freakism and cronyism is still going strong as they have tried to parachute a favoured but woefully unqualified candidate into a safe seat and someone somewhere has tried to ensure the 'right' result by tampering with a ballot box.

Also today Alice Mahon, a Labour stalwart, has resigned from the party expressing her disgust at recent behaviour and probably speaking for thousands who watch on in bewilderment, proud Labour party members who cannot believe how low their party has sunk. She cites not just spin and smears but broken promises and the serial cynicism of this tired and broken government over issues like Iraq, Royal Mail privatisation and the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Most shocking and depressing of all has been the Damian Green affair and the default, knee jerk authoritarianism of a government that cannot tolerate dissent or disagreement from anyone. The police, quite apart from arresting a man they had no right or grounds to arrest, then seized all kinds of documents and computer equipment and trawled them for incriminating evidence. They searched for links to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, despite the fact that she was in no way linked to the leaks. This is blatantly political. Are we seriously expected to believe that the police took it upon themselves to make this link? Ms Chakrabarti has been a continual thorn in the government's side and teamed up with the Conservatives to defeat the attempt to impose 42 days detention without charge for terrorism offences. She therefore incurred the wrath of Jacqui Smith and presumably Gordon Brown. We know what happens when people do that.

Whilst the smeargate scandal alone is probably not enough to bring down a government with a comfortable majority determined to hang on to the bitter end, when added to the Damian Green affair it really ought to. It won't but it ought to.

We have a Prime Minister who is unelected and who is now hanging on Micawber style in the hope that something turns up. This week we will have a budget which will reveal just how badly the public finances have got out of control and just how wrong the estimates for those finances were just 6 months ago. Yet Brown's unelected government will carry on racking up debt, will cynically spray around some bribes and gimmicks in an attempt to save their own skins and may well even try to soften us up for holding out the begging bowl to the IMF. Even then, four years since an election, they will see no reason to ask the permission of the country before enacting their ruinous schemes which will take decades to repay. The rules say that they can hang on for another year yet and this is a government very keen on hiding behind convenient rules.

There are rumours that there could be more bad news yet to be revealed which could further undermine this already sinking administration. There may be more e-mails to come out, possibly implicating those who have thus far managed to distance themselves. There is the issue of MPs' expenses yet to be divulged and which may well lead to ministerial resignations, although given their limpet-like grip to their jobs, despite all manner of scandals, we'll believe that when we see it.

The decay of this government is there for all to see. It's revealed by the scandals and the control freakery but more importantly by the absence of any policies of note. When Brown came to power we were promised all manner of new ideas and initiatives from the man who had been waiting for this moment all of his life. Yet we have seen nothing but gimmicks and broken promises. Even when his past policies have been shown to be faulty, such as his regulatory regime for the banks, he has refused to change course. The Prime Minister has been most energised when it comes to the recession, something he once told us he had ensured would never happen. Had he been right, what would he have found to do with his time given the absence of any other ideas? MPs have little or nothing to do at present, so thin is the legislative programme of this Prime Minister.

The whispering and the infighting is starting all over again and Gordon Brown is retreating into his bunker. Worse for him he cannot now start smearing his potential rivals because the mood of the press and public will not permit it. They are now preparing themselves for disastrous election results in June and will then have a reshuffle in response, presumably as a kind of relaunch. It doesn't occur to him to shuffle the likes of his disastrous Home Secretary out of government because she is not up to the job, uses the police to silence her critics and has been helping herself to public money to pay for things that the rest of use our salaries for. Moral compass?

Now the only bit of shuffling that will work is if Brown quits and calls an election. He has no idea what he wants to do with power except cling on to it for its own sake. His first thought in all matters is political positioning to embarrass his opponents rather than what is good for the country.

Alice Mahon has today resigned from her beloved party because she is ashamed to be associated with it. This weekend, as the slow drip drip of scandal and cynicism is revealed, others in her party should consider similar action. The only way this broken and bankrupt Prime Minister and his government can be removed before he has to call an election is if his own party does the deed. By so doing they would be doing the honourable thing and would be doing the country a service. Who knows they might even get some credit for doing so. Most importantly they would be putting Gordon Brown out of his and our misery.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Let's Debate

The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S has today declared that greenhouse gas emissions are a danger to public health and thus set the wheels in motion for the Obama administration to start to regulate and cap them.

Now you might, given my oft stated stance on this issue, expect me to be angry or at least disappointed by this. Yet it comes as no surprise. Their assertion that 'the science is compelling and overwhelming' is complete nonsense but then this is what we have come to expect.

In many ways this could be as much an opportunity as a setback for those of us who prefer to take a more rational and truly scientific approach to this issue. The EPA decision is subject to a 60 day public review. Thereafter the White House wants Congress to legislate on this. Given America's more robust democracy and a legislature that is anything but compliant and a rubber stamp as our own Parliament tends to be, this could be the opportunity to have a real debate on this issue, the very sort of debate we keep being told by the alarmists has already happened and which they claim to have won.

It's an odd time for the Obama administration to be proposing additional costs on American industry. But then the whole AGW issue is at odds with logic, evidence and rationality. Yet in the bear pit of American democracy this issue could at last be exposed to some proper analysis and debate. That is what it needs more than anything. What has been occurring mainly on the internet thanks to the media's supine surrender to environmentalists, can now take place where it should, in the open, with politicians and potential regulators justifying themselves. These are people who are proposing to tax us all on emissions of a gas which is fundamental to life. They are proposing that we fundamentally alter our lives and spend billions, possibly trillions to combat a threat that may not exist, which has a completely different cause or which we are powerless to prevent. Presumably, since the science is so compelling and overwhelming, they won't mind proving this. Is that much to ask?

Not Fit For Purpose

The 5 month police inquiry into Home Office leaks cost £1 million. That is an astonishing and outrageous amount of money to splurge on an investigation which, as any objective observer could see when it began, was never going to amount to anything. The CPS report yesterday, whilst couched in lawyerly terminology, was nevertheless damning. There was never any case to answer, the documents were not secret and did not endanger national security. The Home Office used this convenient catch all excuse, which is increasingly being used by this government to excuse all kinds of questionable activities, as a means to put pressure on opponents and enable it to cover things up which the public ought to know about and has a right to know about in a democracy.

The Home Secretary, who is using the standard ignorance defence to excuse her department's behaviour, either did know what was being done in her name or ought to have known. That is her job. Her department exaggerated to get the police involved. Another way of putting it is that they lied in order to have an MP arrested. The Home Secretary, who is already being investigated for claiming public money to fund her home dishonestly or at least disreputably, now stands revealed as being responsible for wasting more public money on a pointless police investigation to silence a critic. That is outrageous.

What has happened here is altogether worse than those e-mail slurs which were bad enough. This is a British Watergate, albeit altogether more amateurish and incoherent. But then that is the way that Jacqui Smith seems to operate. She is a poor minister and an incompetent politician. A department once famously described as not being fit for purpose has at its head someone who clearly also deserves that description. That she remains in post shows that this government is rapidly heading the same way.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Brown's Junta

Damian Green, the now cleared MP who was arrested for receiving leaked information from the Home Office, just told BBC Newsnight that the police, when interviewing him, told him that he could face 'life imprisonment' for his alleged offences.

One scarcely knows what to make of that. We have an economy which more closely resembles that of a banana republic and a police force that is showing increasing signs of thinking it is working for a junta. They are spying on us in the streets, reading our e-mails, introducing ID cards, demanding our travel information when we go abroad and even if we want to go to the Isle of Wight for god's sake. Now it turns out that the recipient of embarrassing information and an MP to boot can apparently be threatened with a lifetime in clink for causing ministerial red faces.

Jacqui Smith has been taking the Gordon Brown approach to this, refusing to back down or say sorry and defending her department's behaviour. She has to go.

No Power for the People

The government is to offer £5,000 subsidies to buyers of electric and hybrid cars as an incentive for people to 'go green'. Even if we accept that CO2 is causing climate change, for which there is no evidence (see Power to the People earlier today) where do they imagine the electricity is going to come from? Electric cars, which are still impractical for every day use however much the technology has improved in recent times, require recharging from the mains. That power comes from power stations. How does that reduce CO2 emissions? This is the sort of thinking we keep seeing on this issue. All of these schemes to 'combat climate change', even if we accept their interpretation of the science, still don't make sense. It cannot possibly achieve what they say it is going to achieve.

If that wasn't stupid enough, this is the same government that is currently dithering over the building of new coal fired and nuclear power stations to replace the ageing existing providers of our power. Their inability to commit to decisions on these issues, presumably for fear of the green lobby, means that we are at substantial risk of power cuts during the next decade. Their response to this? They are providing incentives and subsidies for people to use even more electricity! That's joined up government.

Taking Responsibility

Gordon has finally girded his loins and behaved like a big boy at last by saying sorry. Well done. There, it didn't hurt did it!

If he had done this five days ago the story would never have ground on and on as it did. It was a no brainer, especially as nobody was actually accusing him of being specifically aware of the e-mail contents. But by failing to take responsibility and refusing to just say sorry he kept the spotlight on him and that spotlight revealed a culture of bullying and smears. The next polls due at the weekend may well not make very pretty reading and Brown will only have himself to blame. With only a few weeks until local and European elections, all of this will have damaged the Prime Minister, possibly terminally.

Of course the government is still trying to spin this as being something unique to one individual and something which can be cured by a bit of rule changing. Gordon Brown tells us that he was very angry about this, something which does not ring true since Number 10 tried to paint this as a minor if unfortunate matter between two friends just joshing with one another at first.

Yesterday Ed Balls lived up to his surname by trying to widen this to being a problem throughout politics, even alleging that he and his wife had been smeared when in fact people had asked perfectly legitimate questions about their living arrangements and claims for expenses. No doubt Jacqui Smith will soon start telling us that she has been smeared by vicious bloggers for claiming for various household items and patio heaters not to mention her husband's video libido boosters.

Speaking of Jacqui Smith, the CPS has today announced that, as expected, no charges will be brought against Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman. Essentially they have concluded that there was no case to answer as many of us pointed out last year. The leaks were of embarrassing information but nothing sensitive from a security standpoint. As proof of this the leaker himself, Christopher Galley, is not to be prosecuted but will be dealt with internally as should have happened in the first place. The whole thing was a nonsense and an abuse of power.

One cannot help but look at this and at those e-mails seeking to smear opposition politicians and draw conclusions about this government. Not only are they willing to invent lurid allegations so as to attack their opponents, they are also willing to overstate the seriousness of leaks so as to have an opposition politician investigated by the police. The Home Office are of course not responsible for the ridiculously over the top way that the police conducted their investigation with raids on offices and holding Mr Green for hours in a police station. But Jacqui Smith should never have involved the police in the first place. She was embarrassed and annoyed that she had been caught out and so brought in the Met sledgehammer to crack a nut.

When all of this broke the government promised a Parliamentary inquiry into the matter, an inquiry that they then postponed using the ongoing police investigation as an excuse. That investigation has now ended and no charges are being brought against either of those arrested. There is now no excuse for that inquiry not to go ahead. Such an inquiry may well be rather uncomfortable for the Home Secretary but then that is the least she deserves. Her behaviour in this matter may well be even worse than her venal and crooked expenses claims. As Gordon Brown has finally taken responsibility for those working for him, will the Home Secretary take responsibility for the overreaction of her department to inconvenient and embarrassing leaks? Her position is looking increasingly precarious.

Power to the People

There has been much criticism of the police in recent days, much of it justified. As part of this bandwagon, some have criticised their reaction to the impending protests at Ratcliffe on Soar power station in Nottinghamshire in which an inchoate piece of direct action by 'green' protesters was prevented before it happened by arresting 114 people. I too have been critical of recent police actions but I cannot join with the criticism of this one. The police were quite right to act as they did. In doing so they managed to prevent a major breach of a fundamental part of the country's infrastructure. They then used the law to curtail the activities of the protesters in the coming months and were again quite right to do so.

The right to protest is something which we should always regard as precious and inviolate in a democratic country. The intention here was much more. The protesters had gathered and were equipped to do much more than merely shout slogans and peacefully make their arguments. They were equipped with bolt cutters and other paraphernalia and were intent on bringing the station to a halt. They were intent on doing criminal damage to property and obstructing others from going about their lawful business.

I and many others have long argued that the so called green movement is more akin to a religious belief. Their certainty about their cause is remarkably similar to those who believe in the existence of a god without any supporting evidence or logic. The green meanies have a conviction that they must save the planet and thus convince themselves that their actions are just and right. Thus they invade airports to stop flights and try to bring power stations to a halt. They even went to court recently and argued that they should be able to take such direct action unimpeded by the law because they would be saving the planet by doing so. Happily they lost.

This cause is taking off because it has been embraced and indulged by the media and politicians. The theory of man-made climate change has become a crusade for some and they are pursuing it with all the vehemence and certainty of new and naive converts who have seen the light. They have their fire and brimstone preachers like the sainted Al Gore promising death and destruction unless we mend our ways and believe. They talk about those of us who have not seen the light with what is approaching real hatred and bile. It's rather like animal rights protesters who consider it perfectly okay to harm humans in defence of a few lab rats. Or to continue the religious theme it is like those fruitcake Christian fundamentalists in America who regard all homosexuality as sinful and shout insults at anyone who disagrees. It is worryingly similar, although nothing like as extreme yet, as Islamic terrorists.

Just like religious extremists the green meanies will brook no dissent. They will not listen to counter arguments. The debate, they tell us, is over. The difference is that large sections of the media and politicians have bought this. They believe the line propagated by many that the science is settled and that we must take radical action now to ward off a catastrophe. This is simply not true. This is dogma not science. Science requires evidence.

Where people get confused is the conflation of CO2 emissions with a warming climate. The AGWers see these two things happening and jump to a conclusion. They also, like true believers, ignore the fact that temperatures have actually stopped rising for the last 8 years.

But the real crux of the issue is this. We keep being told that the science is settled. Yet in order for science to be settled, in order for a theory to be accepted, there needs to be evidence. What the AGWers have got is circumstantial. There is more Co2 in the air, temperatures have risen a little in recent years, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, albeit a not very powerful one, ergo CO2 is causing this. That is circumstantial evidence. If this were a court of law it would not be enough. In order for the science to be settled we need more. We need, if you like, a smoking gun. There isn't one.

It's actually worse than this for the AGWers. Not only is there no smoking gun but there is actually strong counter evidence. There should be a hot spot in the atmosphere (this would be the smoking gun) which would prove that CO2 in the atmosphere was causing the warming. Scientists have been looking for it for years using weather balloons. It isn't there. It has to be there for the theory to be proven.

Ice core evidence actually proves that past warming happened before CO2 levels rose in the atmosphere and that CO2 increased in response to rising temperatures.

Despite all of those power stations and the new ones being built in the developing world, temperatures have not increased now for 8 years. The computer models which are so relied on by alarmists to make their case did not predict this and cannot understand why it is happening. Therefore the computer models are wrong. No ifs, no buts - they are wrong. They do not know why temperatures are not currently rising and so their model is deficient.

Finally CO2 is a minor greenhouse gas. Doubling CO2 does not double temperatures. There is only so much light for it to trap and more CO2 makes no difference. CO2 levels were much higher in the past and yet the world slipped into an ice age. CO2 is nothing like as important a gas as we are being told by those who want us to stop flying, stop driving and in fact stop breathing altogether so as to save their beloved Gaia. Furthermore CO2 is actually good for Gaia. It leads to additional plant growth and bigger crop yields.

Those who worry themselves about our planet and demand the closure of power stations, an end to aviation and become furious about 4x4s are worried over nothing. Politicians who tax us and stymie industry to combat climate change are doing so for nothing and damaging our economies for nothing.

There is plenty to worry about the state of the planet. Let's stop them cutting down the rainforests by all means. Let's turn them into international parks, a resource for the whole world paid for by the whole world. Let's look for new alternatives to replace our wasteful use of precious fossil fuels. Let's stop the overfishing of the oceans. Let's clean up the world's rivers. Let's do something to slow population growth and ensure that clean drinking water is available to all. These are real issues. It's plenty for the green meanies to worry about.

Worrying about CO2 is nonsensical and scientifically illiterate. Invading power stations and airports may make the green meanies feel good but if they stop and think about what they are doing instead of just believing they might realise how ridiculous it is - just as ridiculous as believing in an invisible and benevolent man watching over us in the sky.