Saturday, 31 March 2012

Ken Livingstone Lies To My Face From Four Feet Away

Disturbingly, I have just been called 'my love' by Ken Livingstone. To be fair he was probably a little disconcerted by being asked an awkward question close up in Hackney of all places, but you would have thought by now he would have come up with a more sophisticated response than a bare-faced lie.

I was in Ridley Road Market, a not particularly salubrious part of one of London's poorest areas, and suddenly lots of Labour campaigners - well maybe half a dozen or so had been prepared to come out and shout for the old fraud - were walking down the middle of the road between the stalls, holding up placards with Livingstone's delusional promises about lowering fares on public transport displayed prominently on them. For a moment I was transfixed by the sight of Meg Hillier on a megaphone spouting Ken's lies. Still, this is her constituency. Now they are her lies too.

But then, suddenly, there was the man himself, posing for a picture with his arm around a woman. Quite by accident I found myself face to face with the tax dodger himself. So, not unnaturally, I asked him why he doesn't pay his taxes. His response? 'I do my love.'

With only a month to go until the election, is this the best answer he can give?

George Galloway vs The Hitch

Given that George Galloway is an MP again, now seems as good a time as any to rewatch and enjoy him being given a good going over by the late, great Christopher Hitchens who was on fine and coruscating form.

If you have nothing better to do this weekend, then watch this video, and if anyone ever asks you what has been achieved by the information age then here is your answer. It exposes frauds and self regarding hypocrites like the new MP for Bradford West. Look what you have elected.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Return of Gorgeous (But Modest) George

The last week or so have given rise to doubts about the oft expressed notion that David Cameron is a lucky politician. It's said indeed that Dave himself is in a foul mood, although I have not yet heard of him throwing mobile phones at anyone. Perhaps he prefers to hang on to his and take it all out on angry birds.

Yet George Galloway's massive win in Bradford West will surely put the flicker of a smile on the PM's face and will relieve the pressure to write weekend articles about pasties and jerry cans and find some Tory politicians with non public school accents. Attendance at comprehensive schools and non Oxbridge universities would also be desirable - actually the above describes me, but that is pure coincidence.

The victory of Galloway is an unremitting disaster for Labour at a time when they are actually ten points ahead in the latest polls and have been enjoying the discomfort of the government even if they have declined to actually vote against many of the measures they are so critical of.

For once Galloway may have a point when he argues that voters are disenchanted with Westminster politics and the sort of stunts and opportunism we have seen this week. Indeed I have argued the same myself this last week. Seeing Forrest and Ed Balls in a Greggs shop waxing lyrical about steak bakes might even have been enough for me to hold my nose and vote for Galloway given the opportunity.

Of course there is a special kind of cynicism about Galloway's approach to politics. He is the classic Livingstone style say anything to get elected politician. Apparently he told the Muslims of Bradford West that he doesn't drink. I wonder if he told them he is circumcised too.
And how good an idea is it to set oneself up as a  special issue party catering to a Muslim population with an already pronounced separatist mindset? How good an idea is it for this man to set himself up as their spokesman and pander to the paranoia of a substantial minority and encourage it to grow?

Galloway has never lacked self belief and this victory will only feed that further. But he was up against a Labour Party which has this week been calling the government incompetent and yet could not win a safe seat against a government mired in scandals and intent on shooting itself in the foot. He exposed how empty the Labour Party is but he did it in an empty and dishonest way himself. That is what we have come to expect of him.

Galloway will enjoy his time in the spotlight and will relish the opportunity to sit amongst his former colleagues and rile their leadership. But after another three years in parliament will he stand for the same seat at a general election? Or will he seek more productive publicity opportunities elsewhere? Bradford West, you have been warned.

Oh and one final thought, the terribly progressive Respect party is led by a woman, Salma Yaqoob. So why doesn't she stand for parliament in one of these overwhelmingly Muslim seats? Could it be that many Muslim men wouldn't vote for her? Nice one, George!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Fuel For Thought

What exactly is a jerry can? Presumably it is one of those large and capacious containers that Newsnight displayed on the front of their set last night - I can't remember them ever using props before but I'm all for public service broadcasting educating us all.

When I heard the phrase jerry can I assumed it meant one of those small plastic petrol containers that many people own for taking down to the petrol station to fill up the lawn mower, or for use on those occasions when the car runs out - something that is probably more common these days given the price of the stuff. It seems however that I was wrong. Jerry cans - is this a politically correct term these days, have the Germans complained? - are much larger and better suited to anyone who owns a tank. It may not have offended the Germans but it did offend the health and safety Nazis.

Now presumably, had Maude used the correct name for these small one gallon containers and urged people to fill those rather than a jerry can he would not have embroiled himself in controversy, and some petrol stations, although by no means all, would not have found themselves under siege by anxious motorists. A poor choice of words was the real problem rather than the advice - after all, surely it is a good idea for motorists to stock up while the petrol is still flowing rather than wait for a strike to be called, even if we will be given a week's notice.

It is not being made clear, probably deliberately, why Unite is threatening strike action at all. What are their safety concerns? The pay of these drivers seems to be more than fair, generous even.

One can't help being reminded of Bob Crow when the fairness excuse is used. The RMT always uses it, at least when it can't hold us to ransom over the Olympics. But it's not holding us all to ransom and pricing hundreds of thousands off the Tube. Oh no. It's for our own safety.

If you watched the BBC's excellent series about The Tube, which finished this week, you were left with the impression of a workforce who are well rewarded and seem remarkably happy in their jobs. The programmes were filled with people who are happily ensconsed in roles they have held for decades in many cases watching as the rat race goes on around them. So why the hell do they keep going on strike?

And that may well be the real motive of this mooted fuel strike. The unions have been agitating for a general strike ever since the electorate had the temerity to elect Tories to government again. A tanker drivers strike would bring the nation to its knees in much the same way.

And that's why advising us all to stock up on fuel is perfectly sensible within reason. How were the miners defeated in the 1980s? By stocking up on coal well in advance so that the lights didn't go out. Certain unions are intent on causing as much trouble as they can and to hell with those who are denied the ability to go to work or who may lose work and money as a consequence of the selfishness of a minority. As it is revealed we may have slipped by a fraction of a percentage into a technical double dip recession, the last thing the economy needs is a strike that would cut national output even further.

Under the circumstances motorists would be well advised to keep their tanks brimming and to keep a can or two in the garage. Just don't stock up too much and don't do it in a jerry can. And while you're doing all of this take note that Labour are desperate not to have to talk about what their favourite donor is intent on doing to the nation. That would really be inflammatory.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Looking Pasty Over Pasties

Aha! said a Labour MP yesterday - putting on a northern accent to show how real he is but actually succeeding in making himself sound like a Monty Python character - a poshboy Tory Chancellor doesn't eat at Greggs. QED as far as a certain sort of leftie is concerned.

There aren't many Greggs shops in and around Westminster or over towards Kensington and Chelsea, although quite what this proves is hard to fathom. Greggs know their customers. It's why they site their shops where they do. The same is true of Poundland, pawnbrokers, cash loan shops and of course, another triumph of the Labour years, the bookies you tend to find in the places where punters can least afford to lose money.

I don't imagine that there are very many Labour MPs who eat at Greggs either, although some will be doing so for the next few days because they imagine this somehow proves something. It's not the healthiest option but it is cheap. And pasties fill you up. I have been known to frequent Greggs in my lunchtimes, but, given the choice and the money, I would choose a nice salad or perhaps sushi instead.

Given that George Osborne and indeed most of his advisers in the Treasury do not have to eat where the rest of us eat, they may well be unaware that Greggs, whilst calling itself a baker is not really one at all. The pasties they sell are not made on the premises, they are made in factories and sent out uncooked to shops where they are baked. How does that make them any different to McDonalds or Burger King?

Do the Tories have a problem with being out of touch? Only in their own minds. Sure there are an awful lot of public schoolboys and girls in their ranks but then the same is true of the Labour front bench. The biggest problem is one that affects all parties. When people enter parliament, particularly when they do so having never done proper jobs but having spent their lives in politics or on its periphery for decades, the fact that they don't visit low cost comfort food shops is the least of their worries.

Anyway we live in a connected world these days. If and when governments make mistakes or do things that are ill advised they get to hear about it extraordinarily quickly as they have discovered this last week. The Tories are suffering in the polls because people have somehow got the idea that they are rich and out of touch. Yet it's only a few weeks since Forrest was given a kicking by the listeners of Five Live for being similarly out of touch. It's just a different kind of out of touch.

The sort of metropolitan socialists of whom Forrest is typical are no more likely to know about the joys of Greggs or the every day worries of the people who vote for them than are Dave or George. You only have to look at the report into last year's riots written by the same sort of people to see the divide between the world they think they know because they are asked to write reports about it and the real one that the rest of us live in. We are being ruled over by people who either don't frequent Greggs or people who think that saying they do makes them one of us and that it would be terribly bad form to point out that the popularity of these shops might explain our current levels of obesity and heart disease.

PMQs - The Recess Edition

No PMQs this week as our MPs have headed off for Easter. I wonder why these recesses always start on Tuesdays. Dave will of course be mightily relieved not to have to be facing questions about with whom he has been dining. There was always the chance that Flashman would have emerged as he pointed out that it is only a couple of weeks since Forrest turned up in a Rolls Royce at a football match, having pulled a sickie to avoid having to talk to the great unwashed of the NHS, in order to get a nice tasty donation from a millionaire. Perhaps said millionaire will now be giving a bit extra since the top rate of tax has been cut.

Today Dave, instead of heading off down the road to parliament, has been talking to some schoolkids about sport. It was not revealed if they paid for dinner, but would probably have settled for a McDonalds. There's one just down the road near Trafalgar Square.

Anyway, this recess lasts until 16th April and the next PMQs will be on 18th April.

You can look back on the year to date here or I'll see you back here in three week's time. Feel free to visit in the meantime however and enjoy the wealth of other content this increasingly popular blog provides. You are part of a growing band. I'm practically a cult hit.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Dave The Secret Sceptic?

Amidst all the furore surrounding dinnergate yesterday, did we perhaps miss the most important and potentially encouraging part of the story? One of the donors invited to sup with Dave and Sam also funds a climate sceptic group. Thus the prime minister at the head of what was going to be the greenest government ever is dining with someone who feels that climate change/global warming is all a lot of fuss over nothing.

Perhaps Dave is one of us after all. Still, he probably ought to go and hug a polar bear to make amends. Or is this his way of stopping Lib Dems from speaking to him?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Publish and You Won't Be Damned

Given that the prime minister predicted before the election that donations and lobbying would be the next big scandal in politics, you would think that Downing Street would have been better prepared for the story sparked by yesterday's Sunday Times story and the resignation of Tory fundraiser Peter Cruddas. Yet, as with so many stories recently, the Downing Street spin operation seems determined to distance itself from its Labour predecessors by looking hopeless, slow and incapable of coherent argument.

Yes we all know that political parties need money and Labour is in no position to be sanctimonious on this issue - not that this will stop Forrest for whom sanctimony is his default response to everything - but the solution is to be open and honest about who donates money and who gets to sup at Dave and Sam's dinner table. Trying to fall back on the privacy of the PM and his right to private dining arrangements looks and is absurd. He is the prime minister dining in a public building. The sort of privacy most of us might expect on such occasions ended the moment he stepped through that front door two years ago. It goes with the territory. Trying to argue otherwise just makes it look like they have something to hide.

It is of course perfectly true that ministers and prime ministers meet people on an almost hourly basis who will try and influence policy. Some do so in relaxed and convivial circumstances, others do so with civil servants present. Most of us have to content ourselves with heckling them if we see them in the street or else send them a letter. If you've ever tried that you will know how pointless it can seem.

But this is why the public are suspicious of the rich being able to buy access denied to the rest of us. It is why transparency is the only solution short of public funding of political parties which would also arouse suspicion and resentment in these straitened times. The moment this story came out Dave should have published a list of those he has met and what they have donated. Then again, given his prescience on this issue, perhaps he should have done that the moment he walked through that black door and before he invested his own money in a brand spanking new kitchen, the better to cook for donors and friends alike.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Signs of our Times

This is the first in a new series about signs I have spotted on my travels. Some are witty and clever like the one above, others are bizarre and others reveal how spectacularly poorly many residents of these isles speak our native language.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

London in the Spring

The clocks go forward tonight, a time that for many denotes the beginning of Spring. For once however this is happening in league with the appearance of the sun in our skies. And, this weekend at least, we can feel it too. Cue the first What a Scorcher! headlines or stories about which exotic locations around the world we are beating in the temperature stakes. Still, George Osborne will be pleased that it gets him out of the headlines.

Anyway, to celebrate this annual ritual I went out with my camera, not a camera phone but a proper one, which makes me rather old fashioned I know. The results are here. They are currently running adverts exhorting the British to take a holiday at home this year, this is my contribution. London is lovely when the weather's like this. The trouble is we have to wait six months at a time for spells like the one which sees us basking in temperatures better than those on Bondi Beach.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Drowning Post Budget Blues With Cheap Alcohol

Is there a degree of panic in government ranks in the wake of the Budget? Did Yvette Cooper have a point when she argued in the Commons this morning that bringing forward the announcement about tackling binge drinking and a consultation on minimum alcohol pricing from next Monday was to get Dave and George off the hook, change the story and avoid them having to answer more awkward questions about militant grannies and further incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail and their elderly and really quite cross readers?

In response to Yvette - who was resplendent in her leather boots again I couldn't help noticing - Theresa May issued a non denial denial, and so we can be fairly sure that her opposite number had hit the nail on the head. Next to her by the way was Chloe Smith, the younger, Tory version of Yvette. I couldn't see if she was wearing leather boots but she definitely should.

Anyway, I digress. This government is wobbling on the Budget and panicking in the face of disastrous newspaper headlines which Osborne should have foreseen. It's been a bad, bordering on a catastrophic week and there are clear signs that perfectly reasonable measures on pensioners earnings may not last. This wobbly, leaky, panic prone government needs to get a grip. It's high time the PM took a less relaxed approach to leadership.

It should be noted that May also had a point when she argued that Labour's relaxation of our drinking laws should bear a lot of the blame for the epidemic of binge drinking and lawlessness our city centres are currently suffering. When taken alongside the bookies that have sprung up in the poorest areas of our cities, you have to wonder if Labour have completely lost touch with the people they used to represent and claim to be standing up for. Or are these measures the modern and progressive opiate of the masses?

Is minimum alcohol pricing a good idea? Well, probably. If you have ever had the misfortune of tasting any of the ultra cheap alcohol on offer in supermarkets and off licences, or indeed the ultra strong lager consumed on our streets by certain people I'm sure I don't need to describe to you, then you can readily see that these are drinks consumed not for pleasure but as a quick and cheap route to stupefaction. It's a classic example of what a market can do if unregulated. There is clearly a demand but should shops be allowed to service that demand leaving the consequences to society? I'm no defender of a nanny state but when some are prepared to drink these vile chemical concoctions purely to get hammered before taking their frustrations out on the rest of us, there is a point at which a responsible state should intervene.

But whilst minimum pricing will have some effect it is unlikely to end the problem. Drunks and substance abusers can be very determined. The British have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, something peculiar to us and in evidence for many years, long before cheap supermarket alcohol hit the aisles - our MPs see this in their own subsidised bars after all. Are they going to bring an end to that subsidy for their own good I wonder.

The only way this problem will ever be properly addressed is to hit people with on-the-spot fines for drunkenness and stop free treatment on the NHS for those whose injuries have come about due to their excessive alcohol intake. I knew a girl once who, drunk after a dozen pints of lager, decided on the way home to go into a derelict house (as you do), fell through a skylight and broke her back. It may be an extreme example but these costs impact on us all and on the overstretched NHS. If people had to pay for at least part of having their grazes, scrapes and broken limbs repaired rather than act with impunity they might think twice.

Worth A Tax Break, Gromit?

The Chancellor pledged this week to keep Wallace and Gromit where they belong with some welcome tax breaks. The latest feature from the team that brought you that daring duo is out today: The Pirates! In an adventure with scientists! It's an intriguing if slightly odd title I think you will agree, but if the clips above are anything to go by then it looks like this is a tax break George will not be regretting.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Osborne's Each Way Bet Budget

Why are pensioners treated as a protected species? Why all the fuss about the so called granny tax?

Pensioners can be wealthy too. Many of them do very nicely. Many of them continue working, thanks to recent legislation, well into their sixties or even seventies. Many of them rattle around in large houses or flats which the Lib Dems would like to have called mansions to be taxed accordingly. Those that don't, those who rely on the state pension and little else, will be unaffected by Osborne's measure and indeed will be better off.

Pensioners have actually been doing very well of late thanks to the various parties fear of them as a lobby group. That's why we as a nation give all pensioners a state pension, free bus travel, a winter fuel allowance and free TV licences once they reach the age of 75. Pensioners use the NHS more than any other group and the parties are currently arguing over what we are going to do about their care needs. Perish the thought that they should have to sell their houses to help fund this.

And what about those houses? Many pensioners will own their own homes bought years ago and now worth a tidy sum, a privilege increasingly denied younger generations who cannot and may never be able to afford it. If pensioners have not got on to the housing ladder they are given priority for social housing and will, in most cases, already occupy such homes and have done so for years. Some will have bought them at discount rates.

But all of this, particularly when younger generations are being asked to pay for it in addition to paying their own tuition fees and many other things their parents and grandparents got cheaply or for nothing, makes it hard to see why they should also get a special higher tax allowance. Because that's what this is. It's not a new tax, it's asking pensioners who earn more than £9,000 a year from whatever sources to start paying tax at the same time as the rest of us, a process that will happen gradually. To read the headlines you would have thought Osborne had proposed a tax on their Werthers Originals.

On the news yesterday, as the detail sank in, we got the old 'we've paid in all of our lives' line in the vox pops. But how much have they actually paid in? They will probably get most of that back in state pensions alone, before we factor in the cost of educating their children, policing their neighbourhoods, looking after them when they become unwell and then caring for them in their twilight years. Politicians only have themselves to blame for this remarkably common notion. What most people pay in bears no relation to what they take out. It doesn't come close.

Forrest, in contrast to his PMQs performance, had a good day in response to the Budget. But then he was in his comfort zone. Labour are very good at being outraged and self righteous. But this is the party that held the upper rate of tax at 40% for their entire period of office - the 50% rate kicked in once they had been kicked out. They did that for the very good reason that it raised more money from the so called rich. They also  progressively (in the true sense of that word) allowed more and more of the so called squeezed middle to be sucked into that tax bracket. It was stealth taxes like that which started the process of squeezing many years ago. Osborne to his shame continued the process yesterday.

Overall this was no big deal as a Budget, whatever the silly headlines about a granny tax are saying. There wasn't much Osborne could do. This process of equalising allowances for all taxpayers however is actually one of the encouraging things about it. There were hints that he means to do the same with Corporation Tax too. If this leads to the kind of flatter tax regime many of us have been calling for - probably long after the next election of course - then it is a welcome development.

The granny tax is not a tax at all but it is a sure sign that George Osborne is not the political genius some say he is. It's a very Brown-like trick. It was slipped in with barely a mention. I support the idea in principle but the way it was presented was disastrous.

And, for all that I support cutting the 50% rate, I wonder if they would have been better to just cut back to 40% and have done with it. They are going to get a kicking for this as expected, a gamble they have been prepared to take, but it is unclear if they will reap the economic dividends. All things being equal, a lower top rate of tax should raise more money and boost the economy by encouraging more risk taking and the retention of top talent and companies. But is this cut far enough? Have they taken the political pain for no economic or fiscal gain? Hopefully the cuts in Corporation Tax will make the difference.

Maybe it is because of Coalition politics, but Gordon Brown is still looming over the economic debate in this country. This most disastrous of prime ministers was also an appallingly bad chancellor. Yet he is still defining the economic terms of debate. We still all too readily accept his prescription for poverty. We are still doling out his ridiculous tax credits instead of just stopping taking the money in the first place. And we still have a debate about an upper rate of tax which confiscates nearly half of someone's earnings because of a failed politician's political chicanery dressed up as principle.

Instead of having the confidence to simply make the argument for lower taxes being a driver of growth and entrepreneurship and a better way of lifting people out of poverty through good old fashioned hard work, the government cut the top rate but raised other taxes to compensate. It's still squeeze the rich and to hell with the consequences for the country. The consequences, unless we are careful, will be fewer rich people who pay most of the taxes in this country and who actually provide the funds to pay for our pensioners who think they have paid for it all of their lives.

It wasn't a bad Budget but it wasn't as good as it could or should have been. Osborne took a gamble but it was an each way bet. It was a Coalition Budget, one that had Lib Dems waving their order papers. That tells us all we need to know.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

There's No Such Thing As A Giveaway Budget

I'll write more about the Budget tomorrow when I have had time to digest it all. I'll leave the detailed analysis to those who are better qualified and resourced than I.

I feel it incumbent upon me to point out however that there is no such thing as a giveaway Budget. The government does not have money to giveaway, it is our money which they confiscate by force of law and through threat of imprisonment, often before we've even received it thanks to PAYE.

What it can do is deliver a take less away Budget, in other words they allow us to keep more of what is ours anyway.

When the usual suspects complain about the government giving money to the rich it is nonsense. What they are doing is allowing the rich, or the moderately well off as is the case in the vast majority of these instances, to keep more of their own money which they have worked for and earned. Governments do not have a god given right to take our money to spend on their priorities or, more accurately, to atone for their own mistakes and folly. This is why Osborne's measure to send taxpayers a breakdown of how they spend our money is such a good idea. Ultimately the only money the government gives away is in benefits. That's why it eats up such a lot of the budget and needs fundamental reform.

PMQs 21st March 2012 - The Pre Budget Edition

Dave's back from his love-in with his pal gor blimey Barack (or was it Dick Van Dyke?) and it is back to the grind of Westminster politics and that annoying little lad who keeps asking him impertinent questions in that strange whiney voice of his but is too far away to biff or bash as they would have done in Dave's Eton days. They even made him sit next to the nauseating little twerp, whom even his party are complaining about endlessly, whilst they listened to that tedious speech by the Queen and watched Speaker Bercow make a toadying arse of himself in front of the nation. Still, at least he didn't interrupt her mid speech to tell everyone how important it was that they paid attention and kept quiet.

On the plus side I have heard rumours that, since last week's cosying up, there are calls for D and B to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. At the very least there are talks about a romantic film about them starring Jennifer Aniston.

Nevertheless the PM could be forgiven for having post summit blues - like post holiday blues but without the need to go on a crash diet or visit an STD clinic - such is the contrast between last week, full of 19 gun salutes, lavish dinners and George Clooney and this week which was about privatising roads, negotiating with Lib Dems and finally getting the bloody NHS bill through parliament.

Today's PMQs is of course overshadowed by the Budget, probably the worst kept secret or whole series of secrets in governmental history. They aren't leaks though of course. Perish the thought. What we are being treated to are trails of what is to be revealed. It's rather like those interstitial bits between the programmes on the BBC, you know the ones they tell us that viewers like for signposting future programming, as opposed to say picking up a newspaper or looking at an EPG.

PMQs then was always going to be the not very calm bit before the storm. It would never be calm anyway but, since we all think we know what is going to happen, there was no need to wait. MPs could start shouting at each other early. The best part of the Budget is that when they do so at George Osborne it won't be Bercow doing the shushing thanks to one of those arcane traditions they love so much down there in the mother of parliaments. Instead it's his deputy, the rather more amiable and considerably less vain Lindsay Hoyle. It's a welcome relief. And anyway it's best that Bercow heads off to defend his wife from the attentions of Gordon Brown. Now that he has had a good look at Sally maybe we will be seeing him spending more time in parliament and even trying to get her the seat she so craves.

There have been rumours recently that Forrest is not reacting to the constant ridicule and abuse he daily receives with quite the insouciance he likes to portray. There was evidence of it here today. The first question from a Tory backbencher contained reference to Forrest's recent sickie when he was supposed to go to another one of those NHS rallies, cried off sick (although didn't seek treatment from the NHS) but then turned up a few hours later in a Rolls Royce to a football match to try and secure a donation. Dave took the opportunity to have a little fun at Forrest's expense, asking what it was about the millionaire in question that had appealed to him. All was jolly.

Forrest, it is fair to say I think, was not amused. He leapt to his feet. At first I thought he was going to burst into tears or stamp his feet and complain to teacher. Instead he chose to silence the House and change the mood entirely by asking questions about Afghanistan. He said nothing about the jokes at his expense and just ploughed, or should that be plodded, into the issue of our boys. It was odd timing. It is unusual for him to get to his feet on only the second question and did tend to confirm those rumours. 

Nevertheless Dave wiped the smile from his face and agreed with the right honourable gentleman. In fact, far from suffering from post summit blues he seemed in an agreeable mood all round. It was clear that Forrest was doing his reasonable, statesmanlike act ahead of his Budget response, a chance for him to say 'does the prime minister agree with me,' and for the prime minister to do so. Frankly, given that the parties all agree about Afghanistan anyway and we are not going to get a debate about this, it was a bit pointless and boring. The only note of interest was when Dave revealed that the Chancellor would have something to say about our Afghan adventure during the main event of the afternoon.

After a short break, Forrest was back. He asked about the response to last year's riots, specifically the payment of compensation. Dave was still in reasonable mode and mood. He agreed with Forrest once again, promised to look into the specifics of the case and put details of the government's response in the library. This was all becoming rather unnerving. At this rate the Speaker would have no excuse to stand up and shout at people. Where was the rancour? Where was Flashman?

 If this took Forrest by surprise he managed just about not to show it. Well, facially he did. He was betrayed however by the fact that, clinging to his script while he contemplated the more onerous task of responding to the Budget - where he would also stick to his script, but that's another story -  asked the same question three times. But Dave, perhaps still enjoying his post romance high from last week, just kept agreeing with him and being reasonable and helpful. Yes, he said, there were problems with the old riot act and that was why other measures had been taken. But he would look into the problems and deal with them. The Labour benches were nonplussed.

The best moment of a very low key session was when Conservative backbencher Nick Boles pointed out that Tories are keen on tax cuts and that taking the low paid out of tax altogether is a very Conservative measure. This blog agrees wholeheartedly.

And so did Dave, sort of. He couldn't agree too wholeheartedly because his other friend Nick was sitting next to him and he has already been romancing another leader in the last week. Upsetting his Coalition partner further was out of the question. So Dave made a joke at the Speaker's expense, calling it a kaleidoscope budget as per that speech we and the Queen had to suffer this week.

And that was it. All something of a damp squib as these pre Budget sessions have a tendency to be. It was a no scoring draw with both teams barely bothering to turn up. The big event was still to come. Still, at least it was a nice reintroduction for the PM following last week's more glamorous events. He's probably not pining for Barack quite so much after all.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Twist in the Budget Tale?

It's the Budget tomorrow, as you will no doubt be aware. There was a time when there was a purdah on these occasions, indeed people have resigned for letting details slip in the past, the very dim and distant past when London still had smogs and men wore hats. Of course there was also a time when Budget speeches went on for hours. They were not the short soundbites they tend to be now, full of cherry picked statistics, spin and shameless boasting. They were the start of a debate, a time for the Chancellor to set out his plans and make forceful arguments for them. Gladstone in particular used to practically batter any opposition into submission.

These days a good proportion of the announcements are pre-announced or heavy hints dropped. Sometimes this is because the government does not want its announcements drowned out by the headlines about dearer beer, wine and cigarettes or cuts or rises in taxes. It's also because Chancellors like to keep a surprise or two back for the big day. Gordon Brown was keen on this. He did love his big day and didn't want anyone to spoil it, even or perhaps particularly the First Lord of the Treasury next door. He liked to have a twist at the end. He was like the M Night Shymalan of politics, a comparison that works well actually because Brown's surprises got ever less surprising as time went on and his big budget epics became ever more contrived and desperate as he tried to relive past illusory glories.

So what can we expect from the boy George? Well we are now all expecting something on 50% tax. There have been other announcements about new ways of funding our roads, loans for small businesses and keeping shops open on Sundays for the Olympics (why this is even slightly controversial I can't begin to imagine - it's the busiest day of the week for many shops and should be made permanent).

So does all of this mean that Osborne has a trick up his sleeve? Is he going to do something radical and far reaching? Let's hope so. The economy seems to be doing better now and few people expect us to have entered a double dip this quarter. There are clear signs of optimism and, since I am not a politician, I shall stick my neck out and call them green shoots. But this is not to say that the economy could not do with a shot in the arm, the sort provided by tax cuts. We know that the Chancellor does not have much room for manoeuvre. But that makes creative thinking and radicalism all the more necessary.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Labour's Tax Hypocrisy

In the week of the Budget, Ed Balls, with all of the circumspection and delicacy we have come to expect of him, started to try and distance himself from Gordon Brown over the weekend. Why? Because the one policy Labour have at the moment is to try and have their cake and eat it. Consequently they are trying to lay all of the blame for our current debt worries at Brown's door and pretending, not only that it had nothing to do with them but that they have the answers, answers which don't look especially different from what was proposed under their previous leader. Balls, he tells us, was the one man willing to tell Brown he was wrong. Presumably then he set up camp in his mentor's office to save time.

Balls, over the last few months, has tried to take credit for what Brown got right - keeping us out of the Euro and that's about it really - and distanced himself from everything else. He even acknowledges that Brown is not going to go down in history as one of our great prime ministers. Yet Labour are still telling us that the Coalition is going too far and too fast on cuts and promising higher spending, all of it, it seems, funded by extra taxes on bankers. How is that different to what Brown was saying during the election? How many bankers do they think we have?

Generally speaking though this is an approach that the whole party is taking. It's the politics of facing both ways at once. Perhaps that's why someone tried to break into their offices at the weekend. It may have been some of their own workers who have been expressing their frustrations this last week and leaking to the media. They probably couldn't believe that this is their only strategy.

On Friday I wrote about the 50p tax issue. We all know what Labour will say, indeed are already saying even though nothing has yet been announced. Unfortunately for them, their already suspect credibility on tax (hence the distancing from Brown) is not helped by the candidate for the London mayoralty. Last week Forrest, on a platform with Balls, told reporters that Ken Livingstone had paid the tax that the law stipulates. This was true. Unfortunately however he was indulging in the very tax avoidance schemes he had condemned. He even said that people who engage in such activities should be denied the vote. So what does that mean for those who seek public office?

But it gets worse. Andrew Gilligan today reports that Ken may actually have broken the law by using his company to fund his election campaign and then set it against his tax. He has also been twice prosecuted for non-payment of taxes. Needless to say this is bad for Livingstone's prospects. But it can hardly be helpful in a week when Labour will shamelessly try to tell the country that the Tories are a party for the rich.

It is being spun by the Treasury that Osborne's Budget is going to be a humdinger. Let's hope so. The political ground for the sort of measures we are already seeing being pre-announced, such as on varying pay rates across the country in the civil service, is looking very fertile for a Chancellor prepared to be brave and radical.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Pusillanimous Politics of 50%

It seems, if reports are to be believed, that George Osborne wants to cut the 50p tax in next week's Budget. Lib Dems have dropped their opposition to it but are still pushing for other measures 'to make the wealthy pay their fair share.'

I love that phrase. It is meaningless and nonsensical. The wealthy already pay more than their fair share as statistics about what the top 1% and 5% have shown in just the last couple of weeks - 27% and 45% of income tax respectively. The Lib Dems are apparently arguing that, if the 50% rate were to go, it should be replaced with another tax on the wealthy. But that would defeat the object. The 50% rate has to go because it is damaging the economy. Replacing it with another tax on wealth would just shift it and entrench the damage.

Politicians who demand the right to levy ever higher taxes on 'the rich' are essentially trying to buy votes with other people's money. It's nothing to do with fairness. Confiscating half of someone's income just because politicians have lost control of the public finances, cannot rein in public spending, have been unable to wean millions off benefits and have allowed an undereducated, underskilled, feckless underclass to develop is a form of tyranny and an economically illiterate one. It is anything but fair because it punishes those who work hard and fund the state by demanding that they pay even more. As I have pointed out ad nauseum, even if we had a flat tax system with everyone paying the same percentage of their income but the poorest paying nothing as now, the rich would still be paying their 'fair share' because 25% of £100,000 is 4 times more than 25% of £25,000. Aren't percentages wonderful!

The 50p tax was imposed on the nation by Gordon Brown in the dying days of his administration as a kind of scorched earth policy for the Tories. It was meant to entice them to promise to abolish it during the election, or else do so shortly after, having avoided the question, much as they did with VAT. The Tories did not fall into Brown's trap at the time but have effectively fallen into it since by not abolishing it. It was a win win strategy that has just kept on giving for Brown's successors. It was why I argued the government should have got rid of it immediately while Labour were still regrouping.

The 50% tax is a spiteful and dishonest policy that is damaging the country and raising little or no additional funds. It makes Britain uncompetitive at precisely the time when we need to be attracting and retaining the brightest and the best to generate wealth and jobs.

The government is still hesitating about this, not because they think this tax is fair or doing the economy good but because they fear the charge of being for the rich and rewarding their friends. When is this pusillanimous government going to start fighting for its principles and what it knows to be right? It is immoral for any government to help itself to half of someone's income based on the notion of fairness. It is damaging and destructive and punishes people who haven't done anything wrong and whom the country needs to pay our way in the world. Most of all, this tax makes Britain uncompetitive in a globalised world competing for the brightest and best. We cannot rely forever on the lure of London and England's green and pleasant land to compensate for the greed and incompetence of our politicians.

Having a large population of wealthy people in a country is a sign of its health and vitality, something to be celebrated. Labour is today telling all who will listen of the jobs they will create for young people by taxing banker bonuses. But those bankers are already taxed on their bonuses and heavily, meantime Forrest this week answered that Ken Livingstone's tax avoidance measures were perfectly okay - he was, said Forrest, paying what the law said he must -  albeit by judiciously sidestepping it.

The politics of envy and resentment, with just a dash of hypocrisy and double standards, is punishing, not the rich who can leave, employ expensive accountants or not come here in the first place, but the very people Labour and the Lib Dems claim to want to help. It is a simple and easily understandable argument to make. George Osborne and David Cameron should have the guts to start making it. After all, if the 50% tax is such a good idea, why did Labour only introduce it when they knew they were about to lose the election?

Gay Marriage: Just Legislate and Be Damned by the Faithful

It's not often I shall write this so I shall do so in italics: Ed West in The Telegraph has a point, why not have a referendum on gay marriage? It would certainly be a good way of shutting up the self righteous priests and bishops.

I can think of some excuses that would be used against the proposal, the cost, thin end of the wedge argument and so on.

But the real reason, the one that would never be acknowledged by our political class, is that they wouldn't have a referendum on this issue because they fear the great British public would vote against. It's why nobody ever asks us about capital punishment. There may be unanimity amongst the political parties about the pressing need for gay people to be able to get married but the public generally needs to have this sort of thing imposed upon them before seeing that it was all perfectly reasonable and even desirable and not worth making a fuss about.The polls have largely shown that we are pretty evenly divided on the subject. A referendum could go either way.

Let me be clear: I don't see why gay people should not be able to get married if they so wish. I fail to see why anyone can have any objection to it. The argument that this somehow undermines the institution of marriage is piffle, as Boris would say. Far from undermining it, surely allowing the entire population to participate would strengthen it?

What actually undermines marriage is when we allow the various religions to act as though marriage is their property, something over which they have dominion and a veto. Marriage is something which exists in most cultures in various forms. It is a basic human desire. It is a way for people to show their love and commitment to one another. It has evolved over time from something simple and born out of civilisation itself to a property transaction to the modern day ceremony which is an excuse for posh frocks and excessive drinking. The religious aspect, if it exists at all for many, is just so that there can be a nice backdrop for the pictures. But even that may be being evolved away. Where once it was something that only happened in churches, preferably pretty ones in quaint villages, it can now happen in town halls, register offices and more or less anywhere that applies for a licence, from hotels to stately homes to spectacular castles.

Intolerant and aggressive Christians are effectively trying to marginalise a large part of our population based on their own peculiar and illogical prejudices. If their imaginary friend so objects then presumably he will sort this all out when married couples head up to the pearly gates. You would think he would have more important things to worry about.

So should we have a referendum? Well no, actually. We have a parliament to decide these things and to make the laws of the land. The religious can object as much as they like and can refuse to participate as is their right, a unique privilege which their behaviour on this issue ought to bring into question. I believe that the British people, if consulted, would largely shrug their shoulders if asked anyway. It's one of our most endearing national characteristics. The trouble is all too many would regard this as nothing to do with them and they probably wouldn't bother voting, leaving the decision to a vocal minority.

It's therefore better to legislate and get it over with. In a few years time we won't understand what the fuss was about. The same is true on many supposedly totemic issues such as decriminalising homosexual activity in the first place, abortion, civil partnerships, Sunday trading and the like. The churches will come to accept it and eventually wear it as a badge of honour for how inclusive, liberal and tolerant they are. It's just fortunate they don't get to decide these things leaving it to more reasonable and rational people, with the possible exception of some Tory backbenchers.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Fat Blue Line

The news that our police officers are at last going to be forced to buck their ideas up and get on a treadmill or eat more salad is welcome and overdue. It seems that over half of male officers are overweight and a fifth are morbidly obese. A fifth! For women nearly a third are overweight. Those morbidly obese is rather better than their chip chomping male colleagues at just 2%, but that is probably just because women are more likely to eat salad or cottage cheese and eschew beer.

It's no wonder some police forces are looking at privatising some functions. Maybe they should start in the staff canteens and bring in Jamie Oliver. Now we can explain police tactics in last year's riots. They preferred watching them on television and arresting people later as they would never have been able to catch those lithe and youthful rioters. I suppose we can content ourselves that our fat blue line would be good in the event of the unions starting a programme of riots and disobedience. The police would be able to stand up to them if not chase them. Like weebles they would wobble but not fall down.

But seriously, how has this situation ever been allowed to arise? The police are our defence against crime and disorder. How confident should we be the next time they tell us that a dangerous criminal is on the loose and we should not tackle him ourselves but wait for the police to arrive? Would they then have to get their breath back?

And if we are being policed by a bunch of lard arses (will that get me arrested for a hate crime? Unfortunately for me I have a defective left leg and so might not be able to outrun the corpulent cops) is it any wonder they have become so bad at catching crooks and frequently don't bother even trying?

But the problem with our police forces, I would suggest, is by no means restricted to the fact that so many of them get about in patrol cars, not so much out of preference but through necessity - maybe ACPO will soon be investing in those mobility scooters for them - but the fact that far too many police officers are just not up to the job they effectively get for life, especially those who need XXXL uniforms.

The qualifications for entry are low and, once they pass the probation period, they never need look for a job again. Most are perfectly content to stay as constables. Most will see the slightest injury as an excuse for sick leave or office duties. Most will retire on a generous pension in their 50s. Quite a few it seems supplement their pay by selling stories to journalists and enjoy a cosy relationship with them.

I had occasion to speak to a local policeman earlier this year when I was assaulted. The experience did not fill me with confidence. This was not a blobby bobby but he wasn't blessed with much intelligence either. He asked me for the full back story to the incident and then decided I was giving him too much information for his two fingered typing to cope with. He told me that many of the e-mails he receives from senior officers are full of words he doesn't understand and made various remarks which were borderline racist before remembering himself and adding that of course he didn't think like that.

Our police forces are overstretched it is true and asked to undertake tasks that ought to be nothing to do with them. But they are also inefficient, stuck in the past and a powerful vested interest which has managed to persuade government after government that all they need is a few more laws and powers, new equipment and lots more money year after year instead of looking at their own practices and procedures and identifying new ways of doing things. When a new Met Commissioner was being sought last year they reacted in universal horror at the idea that the government could bring in someone from abroad who might introduce new ideas.

The fact that so many of them are grossly overweight proves that something has gone horribly wrong with the way this most vital of services is managed.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

PMQs 14th March 2012 - The B Teams Edition

Dave's in America being wined and dined and told how special he is whilst being given priceless photo opportunities with his friend Barack. He even got to ride on Air Force One. How Gordon would have loved that. Instead he had to chase the president through hotel kitchens, probably to ask him how he dresses so effortlessly and manages to keep his tie straight.

Left in charge then is Nick, words that strike fear into the hearts of Tories everywhere, albeit softened by his various ideas about taxes and in particular the so called Tycoon Tax  mooted at the weekend. What is that, we wonder. Does it hit people who smoke big cigars and have red braces? This is the Lib Dems differentiating themselves we are told. But we used to laugh at them before. Still, it's nice of them to give us all of this fresh material.

At this point I should offer an apology. Last week I wrote that Nick was coming up with these sort of barmy tax raising schemes as a way of offering some red meat to his supporters. In so doing I completely forgot to make a joke about sandals, tofu and vegetarianism. It was an obvious joke and I missed it. I humbly apologise. It won't happen again.

Happily, with Dave across the pond, we had a whole half hour of Nick so as to make amends for this omission. Lib Dems are the gift that just keeps giving for anyone with satirical desires. You would think that Forrest, with his gift for light humour, would want to be there. But no. As has become idiotically traditional, when the PM is away the opposition leader also sends in his deputy. It is apparently beneath their dignity to question a mere stand in. Yes, apparently Forrest has dignity. Who knew? 

When Nick is having a tough time of it, such as when the press are being beastly to him, students are burning him in effigy and Ed Balls is aiming one of his most boorish hand gestures in his direction, Clegg must content himself with the compensations of government: there's the big office, the grace and favour homes, the chauffeur driven cars and the opportunity to stare in close-up awe at Forrest's aberrant adenoids and permanent bed hair.

But most of all there is the Dispatch Box. This is no small thing. When Nick was the third wheel, the afterthought at PMQs, he had to stand there without any support. All he had was the yellow line on the floor to protect him from the braying and cat calls. Now he has a good, solid piece of weighty furniture to lean on and hide behind. Most ministers and indeed their shadows use it as a kind of crutch. For Nick in particular it must be a godsend. If only he could have one behind him too to protect him from backbench Tories like Peter Bone and his famous family who don't know if he is a goodie or a baddy.

Apparently it has been over a year since Nick last went into this particular bearpit. Fortunately however he has become rather accustomed to that sort of atmosphere in the last couple of years and, though clearly nervous, also managed to exude a calm authority. His opposite number however, who in the past has done well in these sessions, was awful. We have grown accustomed to the notion that prime minister's questions is actually anything but and yet with Hattie it was spot the questions, so determined was she to make speeches about how awful the Lib Dems are and what little difference they are making in government.

Hattie, perhaps inevitably, decided that unemployment was the subject of the day. Now to be fair, Forrest has been doing quite well on this issue in recent sessions and, thanks to the recess, didn't get to talk about it when  last month's figures came out. But his deputy was making very hard work of it and Nick brushed her away, refusing to take lectures from Labour which had also presided over a rise in youth and female unemployment starting when the economy was still doing well. He added that there were signs (not green shoots obviously) that the private sector was starting to take up the slack as hoped. So far, so impressive.

Hattie then, without the need to sit down and wait for a while as Forrest does, switched to Labour's favourite subject and the Lib Dem's most uncomfortable - the NHS.  But it was all so stilted and ineffectual, so many pre-scripted digs about Lib Dem travails. Yesterday in parliament Andrew Lansley asked his opposite number what aspects of the hated NHS bill he objected to and there was no answer. Labour, the opportunists, know they are opposed to the changes but cannot explain why. That was why Hattie preferred to make long rambling speeches and yah boo sucks insults about how the only thing the DPM stands up for is David Cameron when he walks into a room. It looked and sounded desperate as did her attempt to invoke Liberal history by talking of Gladstone and Lloyd George but now Nick Clegg. It did rather invite the response that Labour was now being led by a political pygmy in the shadow of Attlee and even Tony Blair. Clegg fluffed his line in response to these childish barbs in which he said that Labour had run out of money in government and in opposition was running out of ideas. But he had the better of the exchange and looked a good deal more competent.

And from there on in it just got better for him. Peter Lilley asked why his constituents should think that Lords reform was important when other issues were at stake and Clegg pointed out that governments are capable of doing more than one thing at a time, including the Tories beloved boundary changes. Nice one. But for the most part the friendly fire he might have feared from Tories was absent. Surely they're not learning to love Nick? After all it could have been Vince or Chris Huhne. Be thankful for small mercies.

And he even had a bash at modern socialism or the older dinosaur version as exemplified by Dennis Skinner who invited him as intemperately and brusquely as ever to say something about Rebekah Brooks. Nick preferred to talk about Ken Livingstone's tax affairs in response to another question. That's modern socialism for you, he said. Indeed, and, according to Forrest, when it's a Labour man, tax avoidance is just fine too.

All in all then this was a quietly impressive session from Nick. He might even have had a few Tories agreeing with him, something that hasn't happened since 2010. As for Hattie, she may have done her leader the service of making his party want him back. She was dreadful. Forrest pulled a sickie at the weekend, preferring to go to a football match instead of a less exciting engagement talking about cuts or the like. How very uncharacteristic for a man whose idea of fun at university was talking about Malawi. But in future he might be advised to cease standing on his dignity and turn up to these sessions to take on Nick. By the end the Lib Dem leader seemed to be rather enjoying himself and Labour won't like that at all.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Thrills of Our Night Sky

For months now you have been able to see Jupiter shining brightly, brighter than any star, in the night sky. Well for the next few days, as the video above shows, you can see it in tandem with our nearest neighbour, Venus. It's a spectacular and beautiful sight and one I highly recommend if, like last night, the skies are clear

Labour's Drought Problem

We all know by now Labour's line on the cuts. It is that the government is going too far and too fast and damaging the recovery. Of course they also tell us that they too would cut but don't say where, promise all kinds of goodies (much as Ken Livingstone, old school, dyed in the wool Labour of whom Gordon must be so proud) which they can't actually pay for and, when challenged about where the money would come from usually mumble something about taxing bankers. They have recently mentioned they favour taxing mansions too, or expensive flats which will be redesignated as mansions in the brave new world lefties like to dream of.

Yesterday however we saw their line on a drought. It's the government's fault apparently (and bankers obviously) and the government should be going further and faster on measures to address it. I laughed hysterically when their spokesperson (sorry, I was too busy laughing to get her name) said that on Newsnight last night.

And this is the problem Labour face. You can't help feeling that they prefer being in opposition in many ways. It enables them to be so po faced about things you know they would be doing in government. It enables them to face both ways at once and apparently to be entirely unembarrassed about this. It enables them to point out the difficulties the government is facing as it tries to reach a compromise on the Budget and tax changes, conveniently forgetting the problems they faced when Gordon wouldn't talk to Tony despite the fact they were in the same party.

I passed Yvette Cooper (looking very foxy I must say - I can't help it) in the street yesterday and she had the look of someone who is enjoying tormenting Theresa May in the Home Office and on police numbers much as many of her colleagues are doing in their own respective roles. But their modus operandi is to oppose more or less everything the government says or does (with the sole exception of Afghanistan) now even including blaming them for our rain not making it from west to east. They do so with no reference to their own recent 13 years in power. They do so despite the fact that often it would be difficult or impossible for them to do anything different were they still in power.

Labour's economic policy, such as it is, is a nonsense and the public can see that. But on everything else, from the NHS to schools, from police numbers to our lack of rain they are trying to have it both ways and striding purposefully in their knee length leather boots (well, Yvette is) as they go from interview to interview promising Ken or Gordon style largesse with money they haven't got and notably failing to come up with any alternatives that don't require ever more spending. They bemoan the cuts and in particular benefit cuts and yet their own spending plans would have required cuts hardly different. Where would the axe have fallen? They won't say.

Ken Livingstone is actually a decent representation of where Labour are. The hypocrisy of the lying and serially duplicitous old fraud on the tax issue has been starkly revealed now that the mayoral election campaign is underway in earnest, but his promises of spending are as brazen and dishonest as those at national level. For now his colleagues in Parliament are getting away with their opportunistic and shallow diagnosis of the nation's ills without bothering to prescribe a cure. But, as an election draws closer, or the Coalition frays and runs the danger of collapsing, the focus will shift and Forrest and his pals will attract ever more attention and unwelcome awkward questions. They have a problem in a leader that looks hopeless and who the public doesn't like. But even those who look electable and very fine in their leather boots are running on empty when it comes to answers on the questions they are so good at avoiding.

We may or may not have a drought this year, although  the last time we had these kinds of warning at this time of year the west of the country was underwater three months later and people woke up under a leaden sky as their tents floated off downstream. Labour, the party that is now trying to paint the government as culpable for lack of water, is looking as shallow as our rivers and reservoirs.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Royalty Exposed

 Prince Harry is heading back from his tour of the Caribbean and South America in triumph it seems. It's getting the jubilee year off to a great start say the royalists and our fawning media. You might expect me to disagree, and I'm not going to disappoint you. But not necessarily in the way that you might expect.

I fail to see how this tour is doing anything that is claimed for it. Oh I'm not saying that Harry didn't do well. I'm not arguing that he didn't come across as a nice, decent, personable, gregarious and throughly agreeable and down to earth chap blessed with his mother's abilities with people rather than his father's. But these are hardly qualities unique to him or to royalty. Quite the opposite in fact.

Modern royalty has reached a peculiar place. In order for them to be accepted and to validate their privileged position they have to be seen to be hard working and as normal as possible, the exact opposite of what earned royalty their privileged position in the first place. They are now unexceptional, just celebrities in a world replete with them.  So what's the point?

That is why Harry did so well on his tour representing his grandma. He was a good looking boy out to charm, just as he does to the girls who throw themselves at him at Boujis nightclub in London. He was one of the boys when he needed to be and able to be serious on occasion when needed too. In other words he was like countless TV and film stars who do this sort of thing on promotion tours, say all the right things, smile when needed, express concern about the right causes, are nice to sick children and do wacky things so as to make the newspapers. The only difference between Harry and someone like David Beckham is that the only product he is selling is himself and his family.

So you see far from a triumph, what Harry and Kate and Wills are doing, especially Kate since she hasn't had the training we are always told is so vital, is show that this royalty nonsense is just a con. It is just celebrity with knobs on. Or should that be nobs?  We could just as easily have a head of state who is elected and, if we elected someone good looking and personable (as we would tend to do) we would have the best of both worlds. Look at Barack Obama.

What Harry has done this week is take away the mystery and mystique of royalty and shown it for what it really is. It's all smoke and mirrors, uber celebrities created by birth rather than reality shows. The major problem with it is that if you are lucky you get Harry, or you can bring in a Kate. If you are unlucky you get Charles or Andrew: nasty, arrogant, bumptious and tetchy and given to believing in their own uniqueness thanks to being surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear on a daily basis. This is a family that is being saved by its imported blood lines just in time. But there would be a much easier solution.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Jessica Ennis: Golden Girl

With the London Olympics getting ever closer, attention on our Olympians is becoming ever more intense. The swimmers are competing for the right to represent the country this weekend and some of our athletes are limbering up in Istanbul. Chief among them is our golden girl, the lovely Jessica Ennis. Some time ago I wrote this post about her. It is fast becoming this blog's most popular ever (see the league table down there on the right).

Sadly Jess lost her world indoor title by the narrowest of margins. The Pentathlon can be a remarkably cruel event. But our golden girl has come back from setbacks before and has shown the determination to prevail. Doing so in London will just make her ever more determined.

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

Jessica is said to be the golden girl of British athletics. It's easy to see why. She's a total babe. But she is also lovely, down to earth, hard working and supremely talented. In a world in which it is possible to become rich and famous for all of the wrong reasons, she has done it the right way. It would be nice if that were recognised.

If ever anyone deserves to become a golden girl in every sense of the word it is Jessica. At a time of austerity and when so many young people are struggling to make their way in lives she is a shining example of the rewards of hard work, dedication and refusing to let set backs set you back.

Messi: A Fair Swap For the Falklands?

I have had a great idea for solving the Falklands problem. Let's swap them for Lionel Messi in time for Euro 2012. The only flaw I can see to the plan is that, if Scotland votes for independence in 2014 they might demand their share.

Friday, 9 March 2012

White Heat

White Heat, BBC2's big new drama starts, sort of, in 1965 - the year I was born since you ask. The title presumably refers to Harold Wilson's famous speech in which he referred to 'the white heat of technology,' a speech that was actually made in 1963, but hey ho. It also starts many years later, when older and remarkably different versions of the same people begin to congregate in their old student home following the death of the man who had been their landlord, groper, lover, irritant and various other roles yet to be revealed. Those we have seen were telegraphed from the beginning. Subtle it was not.

Lately BBC Television has taken to trailing its new drama as 'original British drama from the BBC'. The trouble is it's not terribly original. It has all the usual elements, all of the stock stereotypical characters we have come to expect. The excuse for having such a conveniently disparate and representative group of people congregating together is that their landlord - a stock trustafarian leftie rebelling against the silver spoon he has spat out - is conducting a social experiment. Thus we get a nice, dramatic very PC cross section of the populace.

It's all very modern. It's actually a bit like the Channel 4 Newsroom - seriously, have you ever looked at the various reporters and presenters of Channel 4 News? It's like a box ticking exercise in inclusiveness, an HR man's wet dream. They even have an elderly man working on past retirement age who may be showing early signs of senility, so often does Jon Snow stumble over his words, talk when he's not supposed to talk or address the wrong camera these days.

Anyway, back to White Heat. 1965 starts to the background of the death of Churchill. Yet Churchill, I happen to know (the year I was born, lover of history etc) died in January of that year. So why were they all going to college and finding digs in January? Hey ho again.

We have Mad Men to thank for all of this of course. But all of the attempts to emulate that superb series (I admit my initial impressions were wrong) tend to miss the fact that it does not shy away from showing the 60s as they really were: the endless smoking, the daytime drinking, the casual sexism and misogyny. BBC series, always so good at recreating the fashions and the styles - you had to love Claire Foy in her miniskirt, not to mention the music - tends to eschew real representations of what we were really like for fear of offending people.

Perhaps the saving grace of this series, apart from its excellent cast, will be the fact that it is also set in the present. Paula Milne, the much celebrated writer of this grand project, clearly has a 21st century sensibility that has won the approval of the BBC. Maybe that, judging from the hints and knowing looks we saw last night, is where the real drama and conflict is going to be.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

More Silent Movies Please

I haven't had chance to see John Carter, the new mega budget CGI movie released in the UK tomorrow for obvious reasons. But my god it looks awful. Presumably, when they are promoting movies, the distributors choose the best bits: the scariest, most thrilling, funniest, most thought provoking or visually stunning. Yet take a look at the above and at the clips on the various review shows I have seen and you will see that this is just another great festival of big budget effects overwhelming the need for a decent script or indeed decent acting. One could be forgiven for thinking that the actors are themselves the product of some geek on a computer who doesn't really get on well with or understand other people, so stilted and wooden are the performers. Surely they must exist only in code?

This, we are told, is the 21st century version of Star Wars. Yet we have a 21st century version of that franchise, so frequently does George Lucas tinker with his most famous creation. And that is a similar tale, one of the technology overwhelming the story telling. If only someone had said to the writers and directors of John Carter what Harrison Ford said to Lucas: 'You may be able to write this shit down, George, but you sure can't say it.'

It's only a week since a silent movie swept the board at the Oscars. Could we have more of the same please?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

PMQs 7th March - The Post NHS Edition

It was earnestly hoped by all who saw Monday's debate about the latest EU summit (was this one an emergency one?) that this had enabled the Commons to get all of their horse jokes out of the way. In case you haven't heard, Dave rode a horse, a horse loaned by the Police to Rebekah Brooks. This was a scandal we were told, even if nobody could really figure out why. Tom Watson, fearless avenger against News International was on the case of course, writing to Number 10 and demanding answers about who knew what and when.

But the nation didn't seem to care. You could tell this by the quality of the jokes and the fact that Dave, spinning for himself since his underlings are so useless at it, got his retaliation in first and made a number of equine quips. He can probably stop worrying though, it is unlikely to hit him in the latest Gallup poll. Boom boom!

Of course such moments as these are an opportunity for Forrest to display his remarkable comic timing and gift for light ribaldry. It is these gifts that have made him such a hit with the British public as was displayed yesterday when he appeared on Five Live and was given a roasting, and I'm not talking about the affectionate sort that you see comedians and celebs give from time to time to their peers. So would Forrest be in the mood for some more horsing about? Or would he prefer to the PM about the NHS again, making it five weeks in a row? Wouldn't that be flogging a dead horse?

Sadly and depressingly, events in Afghanistan intervened anyway and the PM and his opposite number were obliged to talk about the presumed deaths of six soldiers only recently arrived in that hellhole we are apparently saving. Yet here in the cockpit of democracy there was a notable lack of questions about what it is that we are still doing there and what we are achieving. Yes the sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women is something for which to be grateful but what exactly are they dying for? To get out in 2015? Will the job be done? Or will their sacrifice almost inevitably have been in vain as the Taliban come back and reverse what little progress has been made and at such a high cost?

No such doubts were heard from either Cameron or Miliband and none from the backbenches. The PM told us that we need to restate exactly why we're in Afghanistan before murmuring the usual pie in the sky wishful thinking about it being in our own interests and helping to make the country more stable. He added after Miliband's second question a warning to the Taliban that they will never win on the battlefield. That may or may not be true. But then they don't need to. They just need to wait for us to leave, telling everyone that the mission is accomplished. As this blog has been arguing for some time, we either had to commit to the country for decades to drag it from its current medieval state or admit that our aims were unachievable.

The Commons, at least at first, was in sombre mood. But it was not performing its function of asking awkward questions either since all parties are toeing the same line. But Forrest got to do his statesmanlike pose before sitting down with four questions left.

That sombre tone lasted longer than usual, perhaps because the news was so new and the toll so great. Forrest sensibly took longer than usual to get to his feet for his second set of questions. Indeed he got his cue that normal service was resuming from Joan Ruddock, someone who manages to be even more sanctimonious than her leader, who asked whether the PM was 'truly proud' of taking benefits away from disabled children. This clearly angered Dave who shot back impressively that he had actually filled in the forms for the benefit that was being replaced and that the new system would be better.

As an aside by the way it would be nice if, as is being mooted, the Commons would relax the draconian restrictions of the way the House is televised and allow some new cameras in, reaction shots and wide angle shots after such moments. It would have been good to see how this played. It would have been good to see Ruddock's reaction. It would be nice for those of us at home to see the latest Ed Balls hand gesture rather than having to read about them so that the whole country can see what a nasty bumptious oaf he is and wonder what the fragrant Yvette ever saw in him.

Anyway, back to Dave and Forrest and Forrest's second set of questions. And, stop the press, he had found something else to talk about other than the NHS.

Last week Dave pointed out that Forrest was always talking about process and not policy with regard to our great national obsession and the evil Tories vandalism of it. So this week Forrest decided to go for a microquestion regarding a couple who would be losing out thanks to the government's welfare and tax credit cuts.

It is widely recognised that the government has largely won the argument on this issue. The public backs welfare cuts and the need to make work pay. Labour is its usual self on this, backing the principle but deploring the consequences as they make hay with every anomaly, every hard luck story. And that was Forrest's game today. He used his usual whiny sixth form debating voice. It's how I imagine most Guardian columnists speak, especially when they are complaining about how awful it is that people are poor and that all would be better if only the rich were taxed more and money spent on creating jobs by a wave of the Whitehall wand. I imagine it is when Forrest talks like this that it gives rise to the sort of comments he heard on the radio yesterday by non Guardian reading Labour voters who live in the real world.

Dave's defence could have been better if we are honest. His theme was generally sound, that cuts and tough decisions need to be made and that Labour is for cuts in principle but against them in detail. It would have been brave of him to extend the argument to one about weaning people off reliance on the state, a state that can no longer afford to subsidise people to live without working and that this fundamental realignment would be beneficial for the country and the very people Forrest should be standing up for. But Forrest's tactic of talking about one family and their hard luck story cut through such high minded and sound principles as it was intended to.

Ultimately this week it was Dave talking in broad brush strokes if not quite about process and Forrest getting down to the detail. Facing an opportunistic and dishonest opponent is clearly frustrating the PM and today it showed. He rounded off talking about that radio phone in and agreeing with the widely held view that Forrest would never be PM because he can't make decisions. He prefers, like the student politician he so sounds like, to rail about how unfair the world is and promise a better tomorrow without explaining how.  

As usual, once Forrest had finished his questions, Dave relaxed and rallied. His best moment was when he invited a Labour MP to come and join him at the Tory conference in Scotland to stick it to the Scots Nats. 

By and large you would have to call it another narrow win for Forrest and on a subject other than the NHS. He did it with his usual double standards and duplicity. But more importantly, though he had the PM flailing about for a decent response and reduced to insults as so often, he still fails to convince because he lacks the gravitas for his role, although his lack of alternative policies doesn't help. PMQs is of course largely ignored by the country anyway and so his recent successes are good only for bolstering his position with his own MPs. As the audience of Radio 5 Live showed, the country remains much less easy to impress. As for Dave, well he probably wishes they had talked about his horse riding instead.