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.

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…

So what was that all about then?

I was astonished to find myself on the front page of the Western Morning News today as part of a curious ‘process’ story on the use of Twitter from Council meetings. I haven’t actually seen it myself, as I tend not to buy confused right-wing newspapers, but I have seen the online version. That’s right, it’s your basic slow-news-day hatchet job and I shouldn’t really complain because I’ve written far worse about other people on these very pages.

What was perhaps most surprising was that the news editor at this esteemed (Daily Mail owned) publication felt that publishing ‘tweets’ from a meeting that took place ten days ago was actually (a) news, and (b) worthy of the front page. What was less surprising was that the ubiquitous Tax Payers’ Alliance were wheeled out to foam at the mouth about… well, they weren’t quite sure really, but something was definitely an outrage. (I must confess to feeling slightly proud to have finally won my ‘TPA wings’.)

Life will go on and all of this will no doubt blow over in a day or two. While I’m still not entirely sure what the whole thing was about, I have at least learned one valuable lesson: beware the phone call from a friendly journalist on a slow news day.

See also: A Slow News Day

Esther for Luton – What’s that all about then?

I must admit to becoming more and more confused by Esther Rantzen’s ‘Independent’ candidacy for Luton South. For my sins I’ve recently started following her on Twitter and reading her website and, while I have to say she does her best to engage with her followers (up to a point, anyway), I couldn’t honestly tell you that I’m any nearer to understanding what she believes or why she’s descended on Luton.

I suppose it’s an attempt to catch a public mood in the way Martin Bell so famously did during the 1997 Election, but the situation is rather different in Luton South than it was in Tatton (now home to the lovely George Osborne, of course). Bell’s candidacy had a clear purpose, an obvious villain in Neil Hamilton and enough national media coverage to keep the unfolding drama at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the election campaign. So far Rantzen has none of these.

Bell’s clear purpose in 1997 was a crusade against sleaze, which had bogged John Major’s Tory government down so badly for the previous three years that it had ceased to function as an effective administration. Some may say that there is a comparison to be made with the current Labour government, but things are actually quite a lot different now. In 1997 the focus on sleaze was entirely directed at the Conservatives, and with very good reason. Aside from John Major’s ill-fated ‘Back To Basics’ campaign, which seemed to inadvertently blow the lid off an endless stream of ministerial affairs and auto-erotic asphyxiation scandals, a significant number of senior Tory MPs were found taking large sums of cash and ‘benefits in kind’ from a variety of foreign business interests. Libel cases collapsed, perjury trials ensued, and two high-profile Conservatives, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, ended up in jail. We’re not quite that far down the road yet and, for those who bother to look beyond the skewed media coverage, the MPs’ expenses ‘guilt’ is spread across the parties (in fact, it’s still the Tories who appear to come out worst).

Rantzen also lacks a clear enemy in Luton South. Bell had Hamilton, implicated in the ‘Cash For Questions‘ scandal, and there was high drama as the two men famously met in front of the cameras for the ‘Battle of Knutsford Common’. In contrast Margaret Moran, the sitting MP for Luton South, has bowed to the pressure in the wake of the expenses scandal and will not be Labour’s candidate in 2010. Had Moran stayed, Rantzen would have been able to ride the wave of media outrage and may even have seen the other parties withdraw, as Labour and the Lib Dems did in Tatton. Instead she has reverted to simply being a fringe candidate.

I suppose what troubles me the most is that I’m never quite sure what an ‘Independent’ actually stands for. Here in Cornwall there is a long tradition of Independent councillors, although their numbers have seen a steady decline over recent years. This label seems quite appealing to many people, particularly those who are disillusioned with mainstream party politics. “I vote for the man, not the party” is the refrain I often hear during local election campaigns. While this may initially seem like a seductive argument, it does beg the question: “what do Independent candidates actually believe in”? How would an Independent MP or councillor vote in, say, a budget debate in a hung administration? “I’d assess the facts and make the best decision for my area” is often the response, but how would any of the candidate’s residents have the faintest idea which way their representative would jump in such a situation? Electing an Independent is the political equivalent of giving a blank cheque to an individual MP or councillor. At least with a political candidate you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and all the others at least publish manifestos which are open to scrutiny during and after an election campaign.

One of my favourite questions to Independent candidates when they show up on my doorstep is “How did you vote at the last General Election?” It nearly always throws them off balance and none of them like answering it (most don’t even bother). But I don’t ask it simply to be awkward – I want to know what their political instinct is when they’re faced with a difficult situation. I tried to ask Esther the same question on Twitter yesterday but, after being quite a feisty debater up to that point, she suddenly went all shy and stopped engaging.

It will be very interesting to see how the campaign develops in Luton, and if Rantzen starts to answer the awkward questions and actually sets out what she believes in she may yet deserve to make an impact on the 2010 General Election. As things currently stand however, I really can’t see the point.

Caroline Righton – I hate to go on about it but…

Tory LogoI’m really hoping this is the last time I have to write anything about Cornish Tory Smear Queen, Caroline Righton. I absolutely have far better things to do on a Sunday than spend my time penning another rant about the struggling Tory PPC for St Austell and Newquay, but her steadfast refusal to apologise for her election team’s unedifying smear campaign against Stephen Gilbert means I can’t let it lie.
It started off ten days ago as (probably) a simple mistake, but Righton’s arrogance has compounded things to the point where an apology at this late stage is still going to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Had it been the other way round, the (Daily Mail owned) local press would have been baying for blood. As it is, because Ms Righton has refused to comment, they haven’t run the story (laughably for fear of ‘lack of balance’).
What this leaves hanging in the air is the question of what a normal fair-minded human being would do if they’d wrongly smeared someone else (accidentally or otherwise). The answer is that most of us would be horrified and would want to put things right at the earliest opportunity. Ms Righton, however, only responds with silence.
So please Caroline, I know you’re a Tory and you probably can’t help it, but do the decent thing, apologise, and let everybody move on.

What others have written:
Alex Wilcock: Love and Liberty
‘A Lanson Boy’ – The Curious Case of Candidate D**kh**d
Mark Pack: Caroline Righton: Will David Cameron Reply?
Andrew Reeves’ Running Blog
Matt Davies: Conservative Smear Campaign Or Just Stupidity
Norfolk Blogger: Caroline Righton – Hypocrite, Liar or Fool?
Chris Lovell: Caroline Righton Still Refuses To Apologise

‘D**kh**d-gate’ – The Return Of Tory Dirty Tricks

They’re not even back in power yet but already the Tories are starting to look like the sleazy, discredited political thugs we turfed out in 1997.

There’s an air of arrogance about them at the moment (even more than usual) which suggests that they feel the country’s twelve year aberration is over and soon they will once again be in possession of the thing that is rightfully theirs by birth: power. It’s not pretty to watch.

And here in Cornwall it seems the old-fashioned dirty tricks machine has been wheeled out in an attempt to help out Caroline Righton, former tv-am presenter and struggling Tory PPC, in her attempt to win the St Austell and Newquay seat at next year’s General Election. So far Ms Righton has done a blinding job of being completely invisible to the electorate (in stark contrast to her opponent, Stephen Gilbert) so, presumably on the basis that there is no such thing as bad publicity, ‘her people’ have embroiled her in that most modern of trends – ‘the Twitter Row’.
Righton recently emailed a number of target voters to express her shock at one of Steve Gilbert’s ‘tweets’. Steve’s update is (not so faithfully) reproduced in her email as: “[Steve Gilbert] was at meeting about regeneration of major town (declined by Tory PPC); Tory PPC at a publicity stunt (declined by me) – D**kh**d”.

Well, if that was true and Mr Gilbert had actually called her a ‘d**kh**d’ then I can understand why she might be so vexed that she’d want to email a whole load of people. The trouble is, he didn’t. The word was inserted at Righton’s end of things, as can clearly be seen by looking at Steve Gilbert’s Twitter feed.

Righton: Silent but...

Righton: Silent but...

All of this leaves two possibilities. Either an over-zealous member of Ms Righton’s campaign team added the word (for whatever reason) before it reached her, or she approved its inclusion in her email as a deliberate attempt to mislead voters in St Austell & Newquay. There’s a good chance it’s the former (I don’t think the Tories are stupid enough to think they can make things like this up and get away with it) but what is surprising is that, five days on, Righton has made no attempt to put this right. She could very easily have sent out another email apologising for the (hopefully honest) mistake and everyone could have had a laugh and moved on.

Instead she’s done nothing, and left the recipients of that original email under the false impression that Steve Gilbert has been going around calling her unpleasant names. Voters aren’t stupid, and the truth will come out in the end, but if Ms Righton’s people are going to put words into other people’s mouths, surely they can do better than ‘D**kh**d’.