David Cameron

The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.

So, is Andy Coulson off the hook?

Just a matter of days ago there seemed to be no way for Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, to save his job. The growing clamour and drip-feed of testimony to his involvement in the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal was, a very short time ago, threatening to suck the life out of his Downing Street career.

Yet here we are, 21 days after the New York Times re-launched the story, and still Coulson shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

The story itself is a fairly unpleasant and unsettling one. The essence of it is that, during Coulson’s time at the News Of The World, the paper’s journalists (allegedly) frequently and systematically hacked into the voicemail accounts of a large number of celebrities and public figures in pursuit of a scoop. Many of these figures have launched legal actions against the NOTW and, in some cases, the Metropolitan Police for their apparent lack of concern in informing those whose phones may have been hacked. (Coulson denies any wrongdoing, or indeed knowledge, of any illegal practices which may have taken place during his period as editor, although he did resign in 2007 following the jailing of his Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman.) It is further alleged that strong links between the NOTW and the Met have led to a less than thorough investigation into these allegations. Much of the background to this story can be found on The Guardian website.

The Guardian does rather seem to be ploughing a lone furrow on this story, although there has been a certain degree of follow-up from The Independent and the broadcast media. Beyond that, there are large chunks of the print media who simply haven’t gone anywhere near this story.

And why would that be, you might ask yourself? Is it because this alleged large-scale criminal activity is a complete non-story? Unlikely, I would suggest. If there was the merest suggestion that the BBC had been up to these tricks the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the entire Murdoch stable would have been all over this story like a rash – and rightly so.

Is it because the right-wing press don’t want to rock the boat for their new friends in Downing Street? Possibly, and Coulson’s personal relationships with individual journalists may well have played some part in the dampening down of the story. But I still believe (perhaps naively) that most journalists know when they have to put personal and professional links aside in pursuit of the truth – unless of course, their very jobs are at stake due to pressure from above.

And this raises the other possibility: if phone-hacking really was rife at the News Of The World, how much of a leap of faith would it be to assume that it is common in other sections of what we used to call Fleet Street? Could certain newspapers simply be following the biblical directive to ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’?

Maybe new life will be breathed into this story when the various victims’ legal challenges approach their conclusions. It may even turn out that nothing can be pinned on Coulson from his time at the News Of The World. But this whole episode currently reveals the lack of will for the truth from large sections of the media, and invites one to draw the very worst conclusions about the motives behind this failure.

William Hague – why should anyone give a monkey’s?

The stream of speculation, inference and behind-the-hand sniggering about William Hague’s personal life shows no sign of abating any time soon. His Special Adviser, Chris Myers, has bowed to the pressure and resigned, and certain sections of the press seem intent on keeping the ‘news’ cycle rumbling for as long as is humanly possible.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not in the least bit interested in the bedroom arrangements of the Foreign Secretary. The Cold War is over, and the threat of blackmail is not the national security issue it was back in the time of the Profumo Affair. Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it if you persist in reading some of Britain’s more questionable newspapers, but we do actually live in the 21st Century now, and it shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference whether someone is gay, straight or undecided. Hague has denied the rumours and, in a move which seems regrettable in the extreme, felt forced to reveal details of his wife’s recent miscarriage to demonstrate to the world that he isn’t a ‘non-playing captain’.

I’m not William Hague’s biggest fan. Perhaps it was his precocious appearance at the 1977 Tory conference when he was a mere boy, but to me he will always be a whiny little Thatcherite who went on to become one of the least effective Opposition Leaders this country has ever had, while actively encouraging the malign influence of Michael Ashcroft on the British electoral system. Having said that, the man deserves a private life.

Some (although certainly not all) British newspapers have a dubious reputation both at home and abroad when it comes to this kind of thing. The practices of self-regulated tabloid newspapers have long left a lingering bad smell across public life in this country, and are often coupled with the unspoken hypocrisy that the media rarely turns its gaze inwards. Perhaps that’s part of the hidden agenda with all this nonsense about William Hague. At the same time that this ‘story’ continues to do the rounds, it seems that only The Guardian has found the time or the inclination to scrutinise David Cameron’s combative Director of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Coulson, a former editor of the News Of The World, continues to be implicated in the disgraceful bullying and phone-tapping practices which occurred under his leadership but the media seems strangely reluctant to tell the story and, at the same time, ask whether he is a fit and proper person to be heading the Number Ten communications operation. It strikes me that Andy Coulson’s working practices are of direct relevance to his work on the government payroll, and that this is a story that needs to be told. Hague’s sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, would appear to bear no relation to policy decisions on Europe, the Middle East or the continuing involvement of British troops in Afghanistan.

While speculation about Hague’s future is fostered in certain quarters, Coulson continues to set the government’s news agenda, largely untouched by a seemingly passive media who don’t see any problem. The Hague and Coulson scenarios both have one thing in common – both men should be judged on their professional actions alone. Something tells me that’s probably too much to expect.

The X Factor, Boring Politics and the August Blog Hiatus

The casual passer-by to this page might reasonably conclude that I have been terribly lazy throughout the month of August. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that my job (the one that pays the bills) is currently at full stretch with the height of the Cornish holiday season. I normally delight in telling people how easy my job is (loafing around behind the bar, making the odd sarcastic remark) but August is the month in which you could probably stretch it and say that I actually earn my money for once.

Of course, the traditional tourist rush isn’t the only reason I haven’t bothered to post here. As you will probably be aware, this blog is mostly (although not entirely) about politics, and the beauty of the free availability of blogging websites is that non-entities like me have every opportunity to vent spleen in a public forum about the poor misguided fools who aspire to run our lives.

The trouble is, after the General Election and the initial excitement of the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, politics has become rather dull again. The Coalition, while by its very nature containing some finely distilled elements of pure evil, is doing its best to be as insipid as possible. Pickles and Gideon only slither out infrequently, while even David Cameron seems to have temporarily parked the shrill, fat-faced toff act from the months leading up to the General Election. All of these things have served to keep my bile levels in a manageable state over these last few weeks. I can’t say this is a situation I entirely welcome.

The Labour Party haven’t helped matters much either. Their leadership election could have been a golden opportunity for a party, freed from the shackles of a long period in office, to capture the public imagination with an eye-catching and far-reaching debate over the future of the country and the role of the left. Fat chance. It’s been a bunch of dull people talking about dull things in a dull way. They could at least have organised some sort of nasty spat between a couple of the candidates but we haven’t even been given that pleasure. Deeply disappointing.

And so I find myself nearing the end of August with very little to write about. I can’t even summon any great sense of disgust about the return (tonight) of the single event that will over-shadow everything else for the next four months. I refer, of course, to the over-produced, overblown dung-polishing extravaganza that is the X-Factor. I wish it would make me mad, but I just don’t really care, to be honest. There’ll be bad auditions, heart-breaking back stories, manufactured spats between the judges, the annual assault on the Christmas Number One and the whole thing will be reported and tweeted about endlessly and watched by millions (although I won’t be one of them). But, to be honest, it’s part of the furniture now and Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts (Rage Against The Machine aside) at least spares us from Sir Cliff.

So I’m hoping that things will get back to normal before too long. Cameron, Gideon, Pickles et al will soon be back from their holidays (one pictures them all collectively attending some sort of giant reptile camp for the parliamentary recess) and my natural irritation levels will surely soar again. And who knows, the Labour Party might even do something hilarious and choose Ed Balls as their Leader. Here’s hoping…

Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

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The BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

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Nope, still can’t muster any love for the Tories

I’ve noticed a trend among some Liberal Democrats lately of assuming that, because the party is in coalition with the Tories, they should say nice things about the Great Blue Evil and even defend Conservative Ministers when the inevitable (and probably not unreasonable) accusations of madness and megalomania are levelled against them. Sorry to opt out of this love-in, but a Tory is a Tory is a Tory.

Let’s not forget the people we’re dealing with here: George Osborne, who simply couldn’t wait to crank VAT up to 20% and start slashing public services; Michael Gove, who has wasted no time in making a complete lash up of the schools rebuilding programme; Iain Duncan Smith, who brought back not-so-fond memories of his Chingford predecessor Norman Tebbit with his reworded ‘on yer bike’ solution to unemployment; Eric Pickles, who plans to fillet local government and bring back a good dose of Christian values to public life (except the one about bare-faced grasping, of course).

And then there’s Cameron himself, the craftiest and most slippery of them all, a man who – as far as I can tell – believes nothing at all and is more than willing to let the idealogues around him get on with their dirty business.

The Tories, lest we forget, are only in this for one thing: looking after the small minority of the population who hold most of the wealth. Much wind has already been expelled about the cost of benefit fraud, for example, but there seems to be little interest in tackling tax evasion which is estimated to cost the Treasury fifteen times more. No, far easier to leave your party donors alone and get your mates in the right-wing press to stick the boot in to the less well-off on your behalf instead. It’s like the eighties all over again – the Tories will never change because they have no concept of what the word means.

Yes, I know there’s a coalition here and that compromise is part and parcel of the deal and yes, I know some people from my party signed up to it. I also accept that the party leadership didn’t have too many options considering the parliamentary arithmetic and the need to prove that a hung parliament needn’t be a recipe for instability.

But I curse, pretty much on a daily basis, that the Tories were the only show in town. And whatever the arrangements, however much the coalition is supposedly a vehicle for worthy Lib Dem policies, I’m never going to be able to muster any love for the Tories.


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