Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Political Cycle

Phillip Hammond today admitted that the public debt as opposed to the deficit is going to keep rising over the next few years. This is quite right. There is little that we can do about that except cut spending as quickly and as painlessly as possible. But we cannot stress too often that this is Gordon Brown's only real legacy. The man who spoke about prudence and actually paid down that debt with the proceeds from the 3G auction early on in his chancellorship has doubled public spending, raised a trillion extra quid in taxes from us and still managed to double the national debt. Now it is set to double again thanks to his profligacy.

Yes Brown made the right calls over many of the issues facing the country that summer and autumn. But then so did many people. I advocated something similar to what was actually done on this and my former blog. I have no experience whatsoever. Neither am I surrounded by civil servants and highly paid advisers.



But we should not forget that this is the same Gordon Brown who used to criticise the Tories for running up the debt. This is the same Gordon Brown who argued that a weak pound was a sign of a weak government. This is the same Gordon Brown who claimed that Labour had seen the light and no longer believed that higher spending was a panacea for the ills of the public sector.

Oh and some more old and inconvenient quotes too. Yesterday the orange man formerly known as Tony Blair claimed that experience was what the country needed and that the Tories inexperience was a danger for the country. Can you remember him making that argument in 1997? How many of his team had any ministerial experience before entering government? The Tories actually have considerably more and have been undergoing training to prepare themselves for the very different requirements of being ministers.

It is all part of the cycle of politics I suppose that Brown and Labour are now making contrary arguments to those they made 13 years ago. But it would be nice if journalists pointed out these volte faces from time to time and watched them squirm.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator of Politics

Owing to my ongoing computer problems I do not really have time to write a long review of last night's Chancellors' debate. But like many I was pleasantly surprised by George Osborne. For those of us who want a Conservative victory - even if they are of the anyone but Gordon camp - it is important that Osborne be seen as credible. Until last night he has struggled to be seen as such. But his performance last night was strong, able and authoritative. He came across as personable and intelligent. This will have done him a great deal of good.

There were no killer blows last night. Vince Cable did his usual saintly act which frankly is becoming a little nauseating. Darling was solid and dependable. It will be interesting to see how Gordon compares to him. Will he out dour Darling who actually managed to make a decent joke or two. Ultimately all will have felt that this was a job well done.

I have my problems with the Tories new policy on cutting National Insurance - not that I think this is undesirable, quite the opposite, but because I wonder if we can afford it. But give credit to Osborne and his team for being bold. They are also playing Labour at their own game. Brown uses all kinds of ruses to pretend that he can spend here and there and make cuts without affecting those front line services, now the Tories are doing the same thing.

Ultimately this will be Labour's legacy, possibly their only one. And it will be Gordon Brown's in particular. Vince Cable last night was the only would be chancellor who was prepared to be a little more honest about what he would do. But he can do that precisely because he is not really a would be chancellor. Brown's years of dishonesty and fiddled figures mean that both of the main parties now play this dishonest game. He has become the lowest common denominator in our politics. The Tories now dare not talk specifics and Labour talk fantasy specifics. Now the Tories are joining in. Labour can hardly complain if the Tories claim efficiency savings will be the panacea for our ills since they did the same thing last week in a real Budget.

The next example of all of this is going to be social care. More unrealistic promises which cannot be delivered, more promises that people will be able to live to an old age, keep their homes, pass on legacies and still get free care. Absurd and yet that is what Labour are now promising and the Tories will feel obliged to follow. We have got ourselves in to the ridiculous position that people save all of their lives, build up pensions, buy houses and then imagine that they can spend freely their accumulated wealth whilst the state pays for them to have their arses wiped when they become incapable. They even demand at the same time to pass any wealth on to their kids who no longer feel it necessary to care for their parents in old age as would once have been de rigeur. And our politicians just compete to make ever more unaffordable promises. Sometimes you have to wonder if democracy really is the best way to govern.

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The Delicious Miss Dahl

Whose idea was this? What a spectacularly pointless and banale programme. What an utter waste of time and energy. That BBC2 should be reduced to this and at a time when the BBC is trying to fend off attacks about whether it is doing too much or doing the wrong things is astonishing.

I bow to nobody in my admiration for Sophie Dahl in the looks department. She is a spectacularly beautiful and sexy woman. But does that qualify her to have a half hour programme talking about food? She doesn't even do recipes as such, she just puts it all together, enthuses about it in a not very poetic way and then has a model style nibble.

I also suspect that Sophie is not terribly good at extemporising and talking to camera. Why? Because they have employed the infuriating device of getting her to talk to someone off camera meaning that she never looks at the camera. It's like watching a chat show in a kitchen. Her promotional interview with Andrew Marr the weekend before last was also heavily heavily edited, presumably to take out all of the long gaps and ums and ahs. Maybe they are thinking of asking her to replace Adrian Chiles.

They say that show business is unfair but this illustrates it for all to see. Sophie Dahl is being turned into a new Nigella despite her lack of interesting new recipes and an inability to actually present and talk to camera. She looks and even sounds great (when edited) but is that all you need to be on TV now? Shouldn't the Beeb be aiming higher?

Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights: Recipes for Every Season, Mood, and AppetitePlaying with the Grown-upsThe Man With The Dancing Eyes

Monday, 29 March 2010

Easter Break

My apologies to regular readers but the paucity of posts is going to be continued for a few more days. I have tried to blog from libraries, internet cafes and occasionally from work but find it rather difficult. Thus I have decided to stop until I am back to normal and on a brand new computer. This should be around the same time that Gordon finally calls that election. I shall also endeavour to bring you my thoughts on the last PMQs before the election is called and have also prepared in advance a lengthy post assessing Gordon and Labour in government. I shall probably post that next weekend once it becomes clear that the election is going to be called.

This does give you all an easter breather however. I shall be back and posting next week and with plenty to write about we assume. In future I shall endeavour to ensure that I have a main computer and a spare so as not to let you down.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Access Denied

What should we make of News International's decision to start charging for access to its generally excellent website? I applaud them. We have all grown accustomed to free access to so much in the last few years, but where do we imagine the money comes from to provide all of this? Even the BBC, ostensibly free, is paid for by a licence fee more and more are coming to resent. Newspaper sites and blogs such as this one - I'm not comparing myself to The Times don't worry - are really free. I can do it because it's a hobby and doesn't cost much, although my current lack of a functioning computer is limiting my output. Proper journalism and other content as opposed to comment as found here, costs money.

Iain Dale has asked his readers how many regularly access The Times website now and how many will continue to do so once they have to pay. The vast majority, like me, regularly read it at present but only 4% intend to do so once they have to pay. That will probably remain the case whilst free alternatives are available. But what then? Clearly it all depends on what content is available. I for one will pay and will link to any stories I find interesting provided it continues to offer something similar to what we now have. I shall do so on a point of principle. It is only fair that I give credit to those whose writing has inspired me to write a post (I only wish that others would return the compliment - you know who you are) and I also happen to think that we ought to be prepared to pay for content online just as we had to pay for paper. I also happen to think that people who download music and video content from pirate sites are modern day shoplifters. They ought to be penalised.

My only doubt about the Times's new policy is on price. Is £1 too much? Surely they should have a system which enables people to pay according to usage? If you only want to access one story then just pay a few pence. Reading the whole paper 7 days a week for £2 is reasonable. But flexible charging ought to be adopted if people are ever going to get accustomed to the idea. And online access ought to be much cheaper, after all newspapers save the cost of distribution and don't have to pay retailers their hefty share. Price will be the only real determinant and I'm not sure The Times have this right.

Finally Iain Dale says that if he were to charge a few pence for his content and only 4% were to pay he would be making a £270,000 a year. I rather think he is kidding himself. The blogosphere likes to kid itself that we are replacing the dead tree media. To some extent we are but only collectively. But maybe that is the business model of the future. If someone creates a a blog site and charges for access to thousands of blogs with blog owners being paid according to how many page loads they get that could be the model of the future. It could also be an alternative model to what The Times is trying too, although how much those precious columnists like David Aaronovitch or Polly Toynbee would like such a model is open to question.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Now the Dust has Settled

Now that the dust has settled on the Budget what should the verdict be? From an economic point of view it was of course a complete waste of time. It was the Budget that didn't really need to happen. Darling could  simply have stood up, moved that the Commons simply renew existing measures to raise taxes and then come back to the public finances after an election. Ironically I think he would actually have got rather a lot of credit for such a stance. It's the reality after all. There is no time to enact more than the bare essentials if Brown does indeed intend to call an election in a couple of week's time.

Politically what Darling did was a balancing act. He had to avoid alarming the markets any more, give the pretence at least that he was addressing the deficit and give a little to his backbenchers and of course his next door neighbour and his forces of hell straining at the leash. In that respect he did rather well. Not as well as Brown would no doubt have liked, but as well as a Chancellor who knows that this Budget will almost certainly be his last major act in front line politics.

Economically this Budget was a nonsense. The talk about cuts started to unravel almost immediately. Even Peter Mandelson struggled to mount a convincing defence of these. The increasingly absurd Liam Byrne on Newsnight last night tried to have it so many ways he was practically spinning in his swivel chair. The efficiency savings in the NHS including the curiously specific figure of £555 million were just plucked out of the air. It is a classic Brown tactic. They even did some double counting. This was money which was going to be saved so as to reduce the deficit whilst at the same time being reinvested in the NHS to compensate for the lack of future spending. The panic showed in Byrne's eyes. Had this been Brown on the hook - as it ought to be- he would probably have got rather angry. David Cameron should remember this for those debates.

The headlines in the papers today reflect this non Budget. They are neither good nor bad. If this was part of Brown's grand strategy for winning an election, like his various summits and saving the world then he might need a plan B. But it could have been worse. Had Brown had his little oily helper installed in Number 11 it almost certainly would have been. The pound by now would be falling faster than Liam Byrne's face when he was caught out last night.

This Budget just confirms what Labour's tactics are going to be for the election. They don't really amount to much. But then as Alistair Darling showed yesterday, there isn't much they have to talk about.

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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Last Budget

Gordon Brown should be rather glad that he did not or could not follow his natural instincts and replace Alistair Darling with his oily little protege Ed Balls as his next door neighbour. Not that Darling produced a tour de force today, far from it. What he did was produce a rather dull, workmanlike and at times monstrously tedious Budget which bored people into submission. Darling's bank manager image and demeanour might even have fooled us into thinking he was being straight with us for a change.

This Budget was essentially a political speech given the kind of billing and build up it most certainly did not deserve. There were of course a few flourishes in there - or as close as Darling ever gets to a flourish anyway - for the party faithful, a few dividing lines for Gordon, a bit of rich bashing, a few claims of competence and quality decision making in the face of the evidence and an awful lot of glossing over facts the government does not want us to dwell on. But this was largely a pointless exercise. He could easily have delivered the speech in 5 minutes. This was a Budget as a holding exercise, a bit of spin designed for pre-election consumption with more meat to follow. Should we take Darling's word that another post election Budget will not be necessary? Not on this evidence. The Tories will certainly have to present a more weighty statement should they win the election. If Brown sneaks back in Darling of course will be out on his ear. Perhaps that was what he meant when he said he would not present another Budget this year - or ever.

The nation is supposed somehow to be grateful to this government that our public borrowing is not quite so awful as was predicted. The same goes for the level of unemployment, a lower level than predicted which they are claiming credit for although there is no way this can be proven one way or the other. Was it anything to do with government policy and initiatives? Possibly. But much more significant have been the sensible and pragmatic responses of employers and employees alike in being more flexible. All except in the public sector and of course BA.

As predicted Darling did not set out how borrowing is to be reduced, although he continually claimed that he was doing precisely that. His claims amount to a few cuts already announced, fantasy growth figures from a bombed out economy struggling to grow at all and an awful lot of efficiency savings. It will have done nothing to satisfy the markets and the evasive answers of even the likes of Peter Mandelson suggest that the government will do their best to avoid talking about this if at all possible. Whilst other countries with similar debt levels to our own have identified cuts and are busy implementing them, our government insists it cannot even have a spending review yet.

David Cameron was pretty impressive in response. It's never easy for an opposition leader to give an instant reaction to these Budgets - especially those from this government which tend to hide away a lot in the small print. But he made a decent fist of attacking the government with what he had been able to glean plus pre-prepared lines. His preparation for this presumably detracted from his preparations for PMQs in which he was less convincing, even if Brown blustered ineffectively as usual.

Gordon Brown at PMQs has taken of late, in addition to talking about Lord Ashcroft with tedious frequency, to accusing the Tory leader and his party of being always wrong and of having nothing to say. Alistair Darling then stood up and nicked another Tory policy - this one on stamp duty for first time buyers. As Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times yesterday, Labour are desperately looking for policies and ideas for their manifesto. Of late they seem to have been finding quite a few by checking out the wrong and vacuous opposition. Had it not been for that one major policy this Budget today would have just been a long speech about debt. This would however have been rather more appropriate. 

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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Fighting Fire With Fire

I wrote last week that the tide may well have turned again in the run up to the election and that it seems to have stopped Brown's resurgence in its tracks. Not only have the Tories come out fighting again but Brown's luck has run out.

But the fact that the Tories are fighting and sometimes fighting dirty is a good sign. The Labour strategy for the election is to lie. That is all they have. They will lie about what they are going to be able to spend, the state of the economy and their part in it's predicament and they will lie about Tory plans. Now at last Cameron and the Tories are saying so. David Cameron, at his press conference today got angry again and rightly so.

Labour will of course be damaged by the latest example of our MPs venality and astonishing stupidity. They will try to deflect some of that on to the Tories as the twice resigned and unelected Peter Mandelson tried to do today. Cameron has to fight fire with fire.

There are signs that the post election infighting in Labour ranks may be about to start. Ed Balls has already tried to blame Blairites for losing an election that hasn't even been called yet. But until they start attacking each other - and they will as surely as the days will get longer at this time of year - Cameron should hit them hard every time they lie and cheat and spin their tales of duplicity and cynicism. It's going to be a nasty election campaign. Labour have nothing else to say.

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Macavity Cornered

I'm lost without a computer. What's a man to do? Answer: read a lot.

I've been reading the diaries of Lance Price, the former Downing Street spin doctor under the Blair regime during the first term.

As ever when one reads this stuff it has a resonance to our current politics to an astonishing extent. For instance: the spinners decided to brand the Tories manifesto for the 2001 election the boom, bust and public service cuts manifesto. Yet nine years on Brown has delivered us the boom and the bust and we are now starting to get the public service cuts - further education colleges have been complaining just today. Education, education, education?

Price, in addition to realising what an awful human being Gordon Brown is, also keeps mentioning Brown's obsession with his dividing lines and talking about those alleged Tory cuts. It's mentioned almost every day in the diary. At the time Price and everyone else really seemed to buy this notion that Brown is some kind of great strategist and electoral genius. Yet here we are in 2010 and Brown is saying exactly the same lines. The only reason that he has moderated his line is that he has been forced to by colleagues. Great strategist or stuck record?

Note also that back in 2001 Labour were arguing that Tory policies - tax cuts and higher borrowing - would mean higher interest rates and mortgages and lead to financial ruin. Look beneath the Tory manifesto, they told the nation, and you see the economy at risk. Hilarious!

Gordon Brown back then was establishing his reputation as Macavity. He was avoiding giving interviews to the hard hitters like Paxman and Humphries and preferring the GMTV sofa instead. He also went out of his way to avoid debating the economy - his supposed specialist subject - with his opposite number at the time, Michael Portillo. No wonder Number 10 now is so worried about those debates we will be seeing. Macavity has finally been cornered. Will he now finally run out of lives?

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Monday, 22 March 2010

Tax the Bastards

Since I have a non-functioning computer and a limited amount of time to blog I shall make little comment about the latest example of MPs and ex ministers earning cash illicitly trading on their supposed contacts and ability to influence legislation - although if they are so keen to influence legislation it is noteworthy that they think they can best accomplish this by going private so to speak and leaving the place where legislation is actually made into law. I do however entirely endorse the view of Fraser Nelson. Tax the bastards if we can't throw them in jail for corruption.

The same people who came over so sanctimonious over the excesses of banks and other businessmen should be hit with a windfall tax on their income from using this influence. They should also be hit with a windfall tax on their property portfolios built at public expense. Labour is keen to tell us they are taxing the rich and that only the Tories protect them. Here's a chance to hit the rich in their own party.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Things That Gordon Said

Since I'm having a few computer problems I thought I would put up some of my favourite 'Things That Gordon Said,' which were last featured back in January.

This one is a pearl:

'The myth that the solution to every problem is increased spending has been comprehensively dispelled...The level of public spending is no longer the best measure of effectiveness of government action in the public interest.'



Labour's Manifesto, 1997 (inserted at Gordon Brown's insistence)

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Money Well Spent?

So they're doing it then. The turkeys are voting for Christmas. BA's strike is a bizarre and ridiculous one as has been pointed out before. It does look increasingly like a fight for rather more than the limited changes that the BA management say they need. This is an attempt by Willie Walsh to draw a line in the sand and put an end to the militancy which has sullied the airline's reputation for years now and has meant that anyone wanting to take a holiday or trip during the busiest times thinks twice about using BA for fear of being the victim of the latest strike. Anyone can see that this is a situation that has to be addressed. A company in a cut throat industry is being slowly bled to death by its own staff. Walsh is right to withdraw their travel perks. If they continue to strike he should consider withdrawing rather more.

The Tories are making great play about this. They are right to do so and are showing a welcome bit of ruthlessness for a change after being on the receiving end of Labour's brand over Ashcroft - even including a leak of government documents. The bottom line on the strike and this disppute is this: If the unions are willing to call a strike in the run up to an election, what will they do in the months and years ahead when money is tight and cuts are having to be made? BA is a private company paying the penalty for its publicly subsidised past. The public sector will be next, probably starting with the railways. Yet this government cannot or will not take them on.

25 years since the miners' strike, this kind of head in the sand stupidity persists in the public sector, and this despite the fact that it has been on the receiving end of Brown's largesse. Now, even while Brown continues to increase public spending and public sector employment - thus massaging the unemployment figures - the unions are calling strikes. Yet Unite in particular are campaigning for a Labour victory. I was once invited to join Unite - or rather it's predecessor the T & G. I'm very glad I had the good sense not to entrust my money to an organisation whose leadership has lost the plot. 

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Friday, 19 March 2010

An Ex Computer

Blogging is going to be light for the next few days due to technical problems - my computer has died. It's lights have gone out. It is bereft of life. It is an ex computer.

 I feel like I have lost a limb.

I shall of course try to blog from time to time - I'm writing this in a spare moment at work -  and shall be beside myself if I am unable to comment on the Budget next week. I've contacted a repair shop but am prepared to consider the possibility that a new computer is required. 

In the meantime why not use this as an opportunity to catch up on my extensive back catalogue? There may well be some gems you have missed whilst trying to keep up with my prolific output.

Back soon.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

What to do with a Spare £20 Billion

The Times reports today that the government is likely to slightly undershoot its borrowing prediction for this year. It will now 'only' be borrowing £157 billion rather than £178 billion. Except there is a wide expectation that this extra money will be used for some election sweeteners - giveaways in other words.

I'm sure the speculation is probably right. But that doesn't make it right. This is not money the government has spare. It just means that our finances are not going to be quite as appalling as was first feared. But it's not extra money. It's money we now don't have to borrow. If then the government goes ahead and borrows it anyway, in a year when it has already increased spending when it should be making cuts or at least leaving spending standing still - a policy that would have been entirely reasonable given the fact that we keep being told that there is zero inflation in the economy -  it will finally prove that they have taken leave of their senses and are pursuing a scorched earth policy.

Even if you accept the argument that we need to maintain public spending to bring us out of recession, it is quite another thing to increase public spending now just because they have found a spare £20 billion down the back of the sofa. Is that what the man who used to call himself prudent would do? This is the same man who, sensibly at the time, took the receipts from the 3G auction which had raised £22 billion and paid down government debt.

The EU, IMF and credit ratings agencies are all telling the government to do something about our debt. This an opportunity for them to do the right thing and actually enhance their reputations. Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will want to spend it in a blatant attempt to bribe the electorate. If they do they will deserve all the opprobrium that will inevitably head their way. The public finances are a little less appalling than predicted - it's nothing to be proud of merely thankful for.

Yesterday Fraser Nelson in The Spectator produced some startling figures showing that Brown has not only continued his pre election spending splurge on borrowed money he has also hugely increased government advertising over the past few months. In other words he is using public money - borrowed money - to help him campaign for re-election. Not content with bankrupting his party and thus having to sell out to the unions he is also using our money in a thinly veiled propaganda campaign. The government now outspends any other  advertiser in this country. Why is the media not making more of a fuss about this? If ever you want proof that we live in an elective dictatorship (on non elected in Brown's case) this is it.

Gordon Brown, Prime MinisterThe End of the PartyServants of the PeopleGordon Brown: A Portrait of a Man