Tag Archives: Politics

This week’s media selection: London advances on digital, retreats on financial; Budget politics; “clicktivism”

Evening Standard: Tech City boss: Britain can now follow London’s success

The new CEO of London’s Tech City, Gerard Grech, said that Britain can now cement its place as a global player in digital technology and entrepreneurial industries. Tech City has grown from 200 digital companies at launch in 2010, to 1,300 today. Grech will work on the “four Ps”; policy, partnerships, promotion and programmes, and will relay entrepreneurs’ concerns to government.

The Independent: New York replaces London as financial capital of the world

New York has over taken London as the world’s leading financial centre as the City’s reputation has been hurt by banking and market scandals, uncertainty over EU membership and the referendum on Scottish independence.

The Times: Osborne’s Budget gives the Tories new hope

Former Conservative Home editor, Tim Montgomerie, argues that while George Osborne may not have conquered Britain’s economic challenges he offers the best policies.

FT: Tories should not expect an election dividend

In contrast to Tim Montgomerie, University of Essex professor of government, Anthony King, argues that voters are more impressed by the squeeze on their real incomes than by Osborne’s triumphalist rhetoric. What makes matters worse, is the electoral system, which requires the Tories to be at least 11 points ahead in order to win a majority.

FT: Web activists tear down corporate walls

Large corporations are being forced into climbdowns by partly by social media and “clicktivism”. Twitter and Facebook are turbocharging critical messages as never before, making it harder than ever for companies to control the terms of public discourse. Companies are being dragged into a new world of “private politics”, which is led by activists, not government. This is forcing them into positions on issues that are only tangentially related to their businesses.

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This week’s media picks

From a selection of media stories: Labour gives itself a little bit more definition. Do senior Tories think they will fail to win the next election? Here comes the Budget…

FT: Political risk rises high up the agenda in boardrooms

Business leaders are feeling under pressure on a range of political/policy issues, eg energy prices, immigration, Scottish independence, EU membership, the “debacle” over airport development, or the “complete failure to deal with planning”. As one FTSE chairman put it: “It is so difficult to know whether the rhetoric is reality.” (A perennial problem when it comes to politics.)

FT: City on alert for Labour’s political reckoning

Recent bank bonuses seem to have emboldened shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, to tolerate, or is that, promise, a bank bonus tax. Labour is hoping to raise up to £2 billion, which would be used to fund its job guarantee for the young jobless. This may harm Labour’s business credentials, but will it be a vote winner?

FT: Ed Miliband: Europe needs reform but Britain belongs at its heart

In a further attempt this week by Labour to define its political positioning, its leader, Ed Miliband outlined his stance on the EU. He committed Labour to holding an in-out referendum, were there to be a further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, something which is unlikely in the next Parliament. He conceded that the EU’s reputation is at a low ebb, and that “if Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain.” To this end, a Labour government would seek tougher EU rules on immigration and foreign benefits claimants.

Guardian: Have Boris, Gove and Osborne written off the 2015 election?

Conservative Home editor, and former Tory MP, Paul Goodman, argues that the outbreak of infighting among senior Tories over the future leadership of the party betrays a lack of confidence in David Cameron’s ability to pull off a majority election win in 2015. By contrast, whatever the views of senior Labour politicians on Ed Miliband’s leadership, they are doing a good job at keeping them private. The more that Conservatives ventilate their problems publicly, the more likely that they will help Ed Miliband win.

 

Daily Telegraph: Budget 2014 announcement: What to expect

George Osborne will deliver the 2014 Budget at 12.30 Wednesday March 19. Here are some of the things to look out for, not that any of this has been pre-briefed, of course…

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

Autumn statement gives Lib Dems seven-year itch

George Osborne’s autumn statement generated a lot of discussion about its economic implications, with much gloom and foreboding. But it will also have significant implications for the politics of the coalition, particularly for the Liberal Democrats.

The coalition was founded on the basis of a fixed five-year term. It was coupled with a five-year economic strategy that would see the elimination of the UK’s structural deficit in time for an election in 2015. This all seemed like neat political and economic symmetry.

The Conservative Party took a deep breath and gave up the notion of governing on its own. The Liberal Democrats, grateful for their first experience of power in 90 years, clutched their garlic and joined forces with a political party whom many regarded as bitter enemies.

It would be a rough ride at times, as the Liberal Democrats found out over tuition fees, but it would be a five-year project at the end of which the two parties would go their separate ways and face the electorate.

But now the structural deficit will be with us until 2017. Thus, we now have a five-year coalition pursuing a seven-year economic strategy. The coalition parties cannot now plan to go to the country separately in 2015 claiming to have balanced the books. Treasury Chief Secretary and Lib Dem strategist, Danny Alexander, clearly grasps this, but his acknowledgement of the changed political dynamic is bringing out other Lib Dems in a rash.

Alexander appeared on BBC 2’s Newsnight following the autumn statement and said that the Liberal Democrats would fight the next election committed to the additional £15 billion of cuts in 2016 and 2017 that they had agreed with their Conservative coalition partners.

He said: “As a government we originally set out plans that would meet our targets a year early in 2014/15. But because of the way that economic circumstances have deteriorated we need to make this commitment for future years, so yes Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will work together in government to set out plans for those following two years and, of course, we will both be committed to delivering them.”

This caused consternation among some of his Lib Dem colleagues who are wary of being too closely allied to the Conservative Party. They are anxious to preserve their party’s independence and to go into the next election on a manifesto that is distinct and separate from the Conservatives.

We are all adjusting to coalition politics. All that Danny Alexander’s comments show is that he has adjusted better than some of his Lib Dem colleagues. It will be extremely difficult, not to say, implausible, for the Lib Dems to support an economic strategy that runs into the next Parliament, but cease to support it on the day that the next election is called.

As they enter the next election, both coalition parties will have to claim that their partnership has been a success. Having trumpeted the success of the coalition and tied it to an economic policy that will still have another two years to run, it will require fairly tortuous logic to tell the electorate that it must come to an end.

I wouldn’t bet against the next election producing another hung Parliament and another coalition. So Danny Alexander may well have put down a useful hedge that he can cash when negotiations for the next coalition open.

Of course both parties will stand on separate manifestos and fight their own election campaigns. We are some way from a repeat of Lloyd George’s and Bonar Law’s “coupon” election of 1918, when candidates who had the official support of the coalition were issued with letters of endorsement. But if we have entered a period of hung parliaments and coalitions, Danny Alexander will appear more astute than some of his Lib Dem colleagues are giving him credit for. The prospect of another five years in power could provide the balm to cure their itches.

In praise of special advisers

Special advisers have never exactly been viewed with affection. In the first episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker arrives in the Department for Administrative Affairs for the first time accompanied by his special adviser, but before they even reach his office, the adviser is bundled off unceremoniously into a cupboard. Oh, how we laughed.

We also laughed long and hard at the absurdities of Malcolm Tucker et al in The Thick of It. As a former special adviser myself across six different Whitehall departments I thought it was hilarious. On occasions, some of the scenarios were eerily familiar in spirit, if not in fact.

Of course, the truth is much more mundane. Real special advisers are not out of central casting, nor are they all in the mould of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan or Andy Coulson. Clare Short, who had two special advisers of her own, famously described them as the “people who live in the dark”. I took that as a compliment, as special advisers should usually be invisible to the public.

But they also are serious and conscientious providers of political, policy and communications support to ministers. And with the exception of the occasional Sir Humphrey, they are welcomed by civil servants. They are a valuable means for handling the more overtly political aspects of modern government and can help guide, though not instruct, civil servants on a minister’s thinking. As Sir John Elvidge former permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, quoted in Civil Service Live Network, put it: “special advisers who genuinely know the minds of their ministers – rather than those who ascribe their own thoughts to a minister – are invaluable, because ministerial time is one of the scarcest commodities.”

The origins of the special adviser role are opaque but arguably started to take form during Harold Wilson’s first premiership in the 1960s. He appointed Marcia Williams as his political secretary and complained later how the civil servants tried to marginalise her and keep her in an office far from his. No wonder she was rumoured to have been a source for some of the scenes from Yes Minister. He also sought independent advice on the economy from two Hungarian émigrés, Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh – referred to unaffectionately by civil servants at the time as Buda and Pest.

Gradually the use of special advisers became more established with codes of conduct and formal appointment as temporary civil servants. Their numbers grew steadily under the Major, Blair and Brown premierships. Although there was some carping at this, they are now a fact of political life.

David Cameron pledged opportunistically to reduce the number of special advisers but now that he is in government he may appreciate that they have their uses after all. He has now had to face this reality and sanction the appointment of an additional seven to serve junior Liberal Democrat ministers. This is another evolution, as previously they only served Cabinet ministers.

Perhaps now we can have a more mature discussion on the role and number of special advisers. If No 10 had had a stronger team of political and policy advisers, it might have avoided some of the damaging retreats and uncertainties on issues like NHS reform, sentencing policy and the stewardship of public forests. We may be a long way from the US where an incoming President brings in a top echelon of 2,000 appointees to run the government, but our system of government and policy making might just benefit from a little more light being shed on its inner workings.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?