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Archives for May 2010

No unity over unitary

Deborah McGurran | 15:14 UK time, Sunday, 30 May 2010

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Steve Morphew and Brandon LewisSo in this brave new world, how are the new MPs settling in?

The former head of Brentwood Council and the new Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth is Brandon Lewis.

"It's a privilege to work in the House. It's the best office in the world - although I'm working in the Commons library at the moment. It's quieter than the committee room," he says.

A number of new MPs who have expressed amazement to me lately that it seems to take up to four weeks to find them somewhere to hang their hat, but there it is...

Mr Lewis sees great opportunies for Great Yarmouth in the renewables sector, with its wind farm and the development of the outer harbour.

While Steve Morphew, the Labour leader of Norwich City Council, sees great opportunities for the Labour Party in the future.

"We're already working towards next year's local elections, which will include a two-thirds election in Norwich," he informs me.

Elections weren't held this year because a unitary council, approved by the Labour government, was in the offing. So the third of councillors that would have been elected this year weren't and they'll have to fight their seats next year, along with next year's lot. Geddit?

This unitary plan has cost millions already, and we're told by the Conservatives it will save £40 million by scrapping it. Mr Morphew insisted that the unitary plan would have saved £20 million in the long run.

But now we'll never know. Talk about political football. Not much sign of new politics here.

Talking of which, David Laws became the first casualty of the coalition this weekend, putting the alliance under yet more pressure.

Those tensions are evident whomever you speak to. Lib Dem loyalist Bob Russell has been transformed into a firebrand and now sits on the front row (not on the front benches much to his chagrin) proudly diplaying a bright yellow waistcoat - presumably to distunguish him from his distinguished Conservative colleagues.

I wonder whether his disquiet at the coalition was responsible this week for the breaking of his record. For the first time in a decade Bob Russell didn't get to table the first Commons motion of the new parliamentary term.

Normally he sleeps in the vote office to be first in the queue, but this time he was way down the list.

One wonders how long the alliance will last and whether it can go the whole term.

That's one thing both Conservative and Labour members tend to agree on, but only if they're out of earshot of the Lib Dems.

Fresh faces

Deborah McGurran | 17:56 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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Well, well, well, we have got a keen new intake.

Measuring up to their ambition would make anyone feel positively jaded.

Take Steve Barclay, the successful Conservative candidate for North East Cambridgeshire duly elected as MP, as his website declares.

He has joined the ranks of freshers in Westminster after studying history at Cambridge's Peterhouse, qualifying as a lawyer, serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and working in financial crime prevention for Barclays Bank.

Oh and did I forget to mention, he's a rugby player. Born into a rugby playing family (dad's a coach), his position is openside flanker - of course you know that's the number seven position - which means, I am reliably informed by the Rugy Football Union's website; "It should never be in the nature of No7 ever to give in, give up or settle for second best and this mental strength gives him a definite advantage."

Is that all?

"I think it's important that MP's have a business background, we need people with experience, people who want to be here and are engaged with the democratic process," he says.

It's a theme echoed by Michael Ellis, now Conservative member for Northampton North. He's had a criminal practice at the bar but has given that up, to sit in the House.

"Advocacy has a lot in common with working as an MP here," he tells me "so it stands me in good stead but I think politicians have to be 110% committed, so I shall just be doing the one job now."

Intriguingly, he is an expert on law relating to the monarchy; "just something I was interested in".

Naturally.

Whereas a penchant for opera is what enthuses Iain Stewart, the new Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South.

After studying Politics at Exeter University he became a head hunter for a recruitment agency and has been fighting for the seat for a decade.

"The expansion of Milton Keynes is a key issue," he says "it's reached the size it was planned for and there need to be a debate by the people and politicians who are there now as to what happens in the future, people there have a very postitive attitude".

And, so too, it seems, do the new intake into the Commons, who have given up thriving careers for public service.

Suffolk folk

Deborah McGurran | 17:45 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

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Bob Blizzard and Therese CoffeyYou could do a lot worse than Sizewell beach on a sunny May morning.

It's a significant seaside, for those of you who don't know, as it's the site of a nuclear power station and we were there to discuss the prospect of a new generation of reactors.

New Conservative Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey now represents the area.

She is following in famous footsteps, as the seat had previously been held by the Right Honourable John Gummer, an MP since 1970; a longevity I expect she would like to emulate.

She hails from Liverpool, still supports Liverpool Football Club and is a doctor, of chemistry, not of medicine, like the party's former leader Margaret Thatcher.

"There's only two of us with PHDs in chemistry in the House of Commons (the other being fellow East Anglian Dr Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge). I am hoping to push forward the science agenda," she told me.

"Research and development and agriculture are two areas I'm interested in. I also support water aid."

Dr Coffey had brought along her 12-year-old rescue dog Rizzo, a collie cross, who was so keen to be in shot, she had to be taken for a walk.

Bob Blizzard, who has always supported development at Sizewell, is now the former Labour MP for nearby Waveney.

"My priority is to find another job," he smiled but he was not amused by Conservative plans to review spending pledges made by Labour.

"These scorched earth allegations that we had a huge spending splurge before we left power are just nonsense. It was vital that we resuscitated industry - that's down to government."

I wonder what he has made of George Osborne's plans announced this week, in this new political era.

The times are changing

Deborah McGurran | 17:35 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010

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Eric Pickles

Norwich's unitary authority was, only a few weeks ago, being welcomed by the then Labour MP for Norwich South, Charles Clarke.

How different things are now.

Eric Pickles' flat vowels announced yesterday: "It's over. It's not going to happen. We'll take the necessary measures to stop it. My message is very clear - to chief officers and to councillors - do not waste the public's money by spending any more on this."

That was just one of the policy pronouncements from the coalition government.

Some flesh on the bones of sentiments expressed over big society, small government and austerity.

So it looks like the proposals for ecotowns, like Rackheath outside Norwich, will now be vetoed.

Housing growth will now be determined locally.

Norwich City Councillor and former Labour member of the now defunct regional assembly, Steve Morphew warns: "there's an awful lot of councils out there who won't want any growth or any new housing at all. So we're likley to find a housing shortage, or infrastructure problems, which will be caused by by having no regional directional guidance."

Other changes include a council tax freeze and there's a question mark over a new 24 million pound control centre for the new regional fire service In Waterbeach near Cambridge. The new government says it's against merging the county forces but the implacable Mr Pickles says he hasn't made a final decision.

The amount of detail in the document, just nine days into a new administration, is impressive.

Nevertheless, much of it is a turning back of the clock to the way things were before.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as it works. The proof of the pudding will be in whether the housing waiting lists diminish in the future.

Young Guns

Deborah McGurran | 17:50 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

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Last week's tumbleweed moment is over. This week it's all systems go.

Although our new intake have yet to find their offices they're certainly finding their feet.

Priti Patel, the new Conservative MP for the new seat of Witham isn't too phased, as she has worked round Westminster before for Conservative Central Office.

"I will be campaingning to save Witham High street. It's on its knees and I want to support the independent traders who, I think, have had a raw deal," she tells me.

" Although we recognise that the finances aren't good it doesn't mean nothing can be done."

"It's schools and education," says Richard Fuller, the new Conservative MP for Bedford, who squeezed in with a majority of 1,353.

"We have a change from the middle school system to a two tier system and we need to know if the money is there to go ahead with it."

"And then there's the Bedford bus station", he sighs,"and I am in meetings this week about the fate of the Civic theatre ..."

It's all go for these new faces.

George Freeman, new Conservative MP for Keith Simpson's old seat of Mid Norfolk, was also all fired up.

He's been promoting the Norfolk way, a vision for a high tech future to revive rural economies for some time now.

"Now I can finally put it all into practice," he enthuses.

He explained his plan for a new rail network with spurs to King's Lynn and Cromer.

There may be no money but if ambition alone counted for anything this lot could go far.

Lamb... to the slaughter?

Deborah McGurran | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

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Norman LambIf it all goes wrong - blame Norman Lamb.

As the newly-appointed parliamentary and political advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, it is his job to work quietly behind the scenes to ensure his party and the Conservatives don't fall out.

"I'll be working from the cabinet office, attending meetings to make sure that the coalition works effectively," he explains.

"Inevitably two parties coming together is going to cause tensions, this (coalition) is unheard of in the post-war period. We are in new territory here, we've got to make sure that it works effectively."

It is an important job and a very clear promotion for the former Liberarl Democrat health spokesman.

The North Norfolk MP is now effectively Mr Clegg's right hand man, responsible for spotting problems early and coming up with solutions before they become a problem (or a story).

"The job is about building relations between the two parties, keeping our parliamentary party on board and identifying potential challenges," he says.

That could be quite a headache. There are plenty of ideological fissures between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Mr Lamb will have to prevent them becoming cracks.

"Of course there will be real difficulties at times. We'll go through rough periods but if you go about it the right way, building relationships, we can make it work.

"But there will have to be give and take."

Less than a week ago many of Mr Lamb's colleagues were deeply unhappy about the prospect of sharing Government with the Conservatives and those who know the North Norfolk MP well would probably have expected him to be more at home in an alliance with Labour.

So has he completly sold out by becoming such a cheer leader for the coalition?

"For me, having to compromise on some things is absolutely worth it if we are able to achieve some of our real objectives. We could instead achieve purity in splendid isolation and achieve absolutely nothing. So it's a no brainer from my point of view."

Gritted teeth

Deborah McGurran | 13:09 UK time, Sunday, 16 May 2010

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Richard Bacon and Bob Russell

"I'm about as happy as a man who's football team's lost and who then goes back to his car and finds his tyre's punctured".

The words of veteran Lib Dem MP Bob Russell.

"I really have got to remember to stop myself having a go at them", laughs Conservative Richard Bacon, chortling over the new Lib Dem Scottish Secretary, Danny Alexander.

It is quite funny at the moment watching sworn enemies having to cosy up to one another through gritted teeth.

The pair joined us for the Politics Show, which was about the Con Libs, or is that Lib Cons? You'd think somone would decide.

The Colchester MP seems genuinely dicomforted, as do most Lib Dems we have spoken to, and he donned a bright yellow waistcoat and badge to demonstrate his colours.

It may take a little more than that these days.

"Some of us in due course may not hold the same view as the whips, we shall have to see," warned Mr Russell, who admitted he was sulking after not being preferred for Veterans Minister.

"I'm told for every member that's left another two have joined".

Richard Bacon admits that getting the two parties to work together is not going to be easy :"some people have gone off in a strop. On Monday and Tuesday I heard a lot of people voicing their doubts and concerns".

"What people need to remember is that in 2005 we still had fewer MPs than Labour did under Michael Foot. Doing it in one step was always going to be nigh on impossible and we nearly did it".

Bob Russell said he had already held a meeting locally to try to quell dissent. "One man who had come to rip up his membership card didn't" said the persuasive MP.

"I haven't had a formal meeting yet, I've spoken to people but there's no outcry," says Mr Bacon.

"Personally though, I don't see any problems with it".

Not so his Lib Dem colleague.

"But I respect the government of the country before party politics," Mr Russell sighed wearily.

The deal needs time to bed down and we need to stifle our laughter.

The defeat of Charles Clarke

Deborah McGurran | 16:46 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

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Before normal service is resumed and the business of government gets underway I'd like to cast your minds back to the eelction night itself, when we lost a figure who has loomed large on the political horizon in the east for many years.

It was quite an eventful night.

After doing an early bit of radio I headed down to the Norwich South count, arriving at around 11.

Plenty of media chums there to chat to, while the counters verified the ballots, making sure they are all right and proper.

12.30 and there's a tea break; it's 01.30 before they start counting again and as soon as they do, it's clear something is up.

Charles Clarke

We walk round the tables and can see votes piling up for former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and for Lib Dem Simon Wright, the young pretender.

This is one of the seats, along with Cambridge in our region, which has a four way split.

Support for the Greens was supposed to reduce the Lib Dem challenge but on the night, Norwich failed to go Green.

It looks close. Really close. But we can't quite believe it.

Charles paced the floor and settled with his family on the far side of the chilly St Andrews Hall, sipping coffee into the wee small hours as the winds of change blew.

We talk to Labour supporters and to the quietly confident Lib Dems, who also can't quite believe what is unfolding.

We stare at bundles of ballot papers piled in the middle but they're too higgledy-piggledy to tell.

His majority of 3,023 never looked secure and we suspect he has lost his seat.

Finally, at 0400 in the morning, a trestle table is brought out and all the bundles laid out in front of us.

We peer over the edge of the table but we can't see properly. There's 27 bundles and a small pile for each at the back.

Bundles are checked and checked again. Candidates are called and called again.

And then a Lib Dem supporter tells us they've got it. I file to the office and the declaration is made.

Yes, the official declaration is a minute or two after the people at the count find out.

No one had seen it on the doorsteps.

We accept the theory that the postal vote, recorded at the height of 'Cleggmania', may have played a part.

Charles Clarke takes it on the chin and concedes with dignity.

The voters have now decided Norwich is to be represented by the youngest Conservative MP, Chloe Smith, who was re-elected the following day and a fresh faced Lib Dem, Simon Wright.

We emerged at daybreak at the end of an era for Labour in the city.

The clock starts ticking

Deborah McGurran | 12:05 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

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Two hours later the tumbleweed moment at Westminster ended.

People in the corridors of power became animated again, like clockwork toys that had been rewound.

The cloisters that link offices in Portcullis House to the Westminster Hall end of the House of Commons echoed to purposeful footsteps once more.

I learn that some Lib Dems are "viscerally opposed" to the Tories.

It appears that it's to be a full coaltion - which comes as a surprise to most - with seats at the Cabinet table for the Lib Dems.

Conservative MPs tell me of their disappointment that after years in opposition many who anticipated ministerial office won't get it.

It seems to have been a case of hold your nose and jump.

Throughout the evening the wheels kept turning - Gordon Brown's journey to the Palace in the evening light, David and Samantha Cameron entering Number 10.

Extraordinary scenes on an extraordinary day.

And now local Cambridgshire MP Andrew Lansley confirmed as Health Secretary, something I know he has wanted for many years now, leaving Number 10 and shaking hands with Vince Cable on the way in.

I won a few bets on the outcome of this election but I would never have put money on that.

Whispers at Westminster

Deborah McGurran | 15:57 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

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Portcullis House c/o PA Images

A strange day in Westminster.

The coffee bar in Portcullis House, full of MPs with nothing to do.

A new batch of fresh faced arrivals, rushing about being inducted and everything else almost in slow motion.

Talking, talking everywhere but no one really knows anything.

This morning, I'm told, a Labour minister tells others that a Lib Dem alliance with Labour is untenable.

This morning's talks between Lib Dems and Labour seem to come to nothing so the office doors in the House of Commons are open but no work is being done.

Corridors are deserted and the few groups that there are have only one topic on their lips.

The Conservatives are strangely calm.

Keith Simpson

Conservative Broadland MP, Keith Simpson, tells me that they have their offer on the table and it's up to the Lib Dems to decide what they want.

They seem sanguine, even at the prospect of staying in opposition.

Now it looks like a flurry of activity as possibly a deal is struck.

The Lib Dems have a meeting tonight and the feeling is that we need a government and working with the Conservatives is the only way to get one.

The waiting may soon be over and work here and in the country will resume again.

Many would say not a moment too soon.

Limbo

Deborah McGurran | 18:40 UK time, Saturday, 8 May 2010

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Well, well, well.

Be careful what you wish for they say.

Did you get what you want or are you frustrated at the election result... or should I say non-result?

"Are we in a constitutional crisis?" one commentator asked an expert.

"Oh no," he replied, "this is commonplace in Europe where there are very few single majority administrations".

Well, someone should tell the markets, which plummeted after Thursday night's result.

Yes, it's true that there's been a coaltion in Scotland that has proved workable.

Yes, it's true that under proportional representation any number of possible combinations have and do happen.

And it's true that this is a truly interesting and different position for us all to be in.

You are waiting for the 'but' but what is it?

That an alliance between two opposing parties seems insincere and opportunistic? That we are used to a single party government delivered within 24 hours of an election and any unease is simply reactionary?

These are choppy waters we are navigating through at a time of huge financial stress. Decisions, made almost daily, need stability, of government, of economic policy, of interest rates.

This stasis we are being kept in must be resolved and soon.

Over to you

Deborah McGurran | 16:20 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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Voter

So, it's over to you.

During the past few weeks I hope I've given you a little more of an insight into this election campaign.

Now it's time for you to make up your mind.

This election has been different. Perhaps it's because we're in serious times. Perhaps it's the fall-out from MPs expenses. Perhaps it's the prime ministerial debates that have sparked an interest in changing the voting system.

It looks like you lot won't put up with a party getting a quarter of the vote but only a tenth of the seats any longer.

I've never known anything like this since since I started covering elections (and there's been too many to mention).

When the Guardian comes out for the Lib Dems and there's panic in the
Murdoch stable at the prospect of their tabloid backing the wrong horse, you know something's up.

Are you worried? Concerned over where to place your carefully aimed vote or is it a case of the least worst option?

What change could provide is a springboard for the smaller parties who struggle to get their voices heard?

It could also transform the political landscape for our Independent candidates, who often invest their own money in a conviction campaign.

Imagine how many more votes they would get under proportional representation when the spectre of a "wasted vote" would be removed.

This was supposed to be the Independents' election.

And in many ways it has been, with 12 candidates in Luton South adding to the colour and intensity of the campaign. There's a long and heroic history of Independent candidates leaving a trail of lost deposits over the years.

Inevitably, they face a tough struggle. The big parties have more money and more experience, an army of canvassers and big names who can be diverted to the key seats. In a tight election all of that can make a real difference.

At the simplest level, even election basics like close of nominations can bring issues for Independents, as Peter Turtill, one of nine candidates standing in Ipswich, pointed out.

There's a pro-swimming pool campaigner and Mr Turtill is campaigning for public rights of way to be maintained alongside other issues in a 9-way fight alongside all the major parties.

When nominations closed on April 20th it took a couple of days for the BBC website to get all the names up. Some Independents, without the party machinery to send out press releases beforehand, were the casualties.

The life of an Independent candidate would be a lot happier one should there be change this time.

Tough decisions lie ahead for whichever government is delivered by your votes.

Your difficult decision is right now.

Good luck.

The man with a plan - Gordon Brown

Deborah McGurran | 20:26 UK time, Monday, 3 May 2010

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The old warhorse powered into town today in full battle cry with less than three days to go.

Gordon Brown's cavalcade pulled into Basildon to cheers from the assembled bevy of supporters and Duncan Bannatyne, of Dragon's Den fame, lent a little celebrity stardust on a grey May Day morning.

Duncan Bannatyne

The Prime Minister made a short tour of a courier company in the constituency Angela Smith represented. She spent two years at his side as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

"I've got a plan for the future," he told staff. It involved low carbon businesses, digital investment, and a green economy.

He praised Angela Smith generously as "the most magnificant member of Parliament, one of the most hard working members of Parliament, putting forward the views of people in this constituency."

Echoes of a swan song? Huge boundary changes have left Ms Smith with a wafer thin majority.

Basildon, in its old form, was a seat that, since its creation in 1974, has been a constituency that has reflected the political colour of the Government of the day.

I got to shake hands with the PM - a surprisingly soft handshake, or maybe not so surprising when you consider the American candidate who actually strained his wrist in an election campaign.

"I am a man with a plan, a plan for the future" he told the assembled press.

"What about investment here in Basildon?" I asked, "it will be hit by the recession".

"I think there's a great future for Baslidon," the Prime Minister told me. It involved super fast broadband, bio technology, low carbon businesses, digital investment and a green economy.

The mantra continued - £6bn of cuts under the Conservatives, 'going back to the 1980's', the 'cancer guarantee'.

Well rehearsed arguments from a man in the final throes of the campaign. Too well rehearsed. Then off up the coast to the next eastern marginal.

In Ipswich he met up with Chris Mole.

"I want to get round the country during the last few days of this campaign to explain to people that we've taken the tough decisons, we've been through a global financial recession, I understand that people know this has not been an ordinary time but we have got the plan for the future and we are working to ensure there are jobs and the recovery is assured."

He talked about how Labour had invested in projects across the region like at the Quayside in Ipswich.

"This is an achievement of the people with the help of government investment. I don't want to see that investment taken away".

Of the MPs he's visiting today: "these are great members of Parliament we are talking about, people who have served the country with huge distiction and Angela Smith, Tony Wright, Bob Blizzard and Chris Mole are people that I am very proud of, they've all done a huge amount for their own constituencies".

In Waveney he describes Bob Blizzard as "a local champion". He says he will campaign "every minute, every hour, in the wind in the rain, in the sun, every day and every way".

The battle cry, war-weary or not, continues.

And why not Norwich today? Was it anything to do with the Norwich North by-election or the fact that he doesn't get on with the candidate for Norwich South, the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke?

"Not at all - I'm doing as many visits as I can - you may be surprised over the visits I do over the next few days."

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