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The Oxford Shuffle

  • Michael Crick
  • 16 Jun 08, 01:11 PM

A little noticed fact from last week's Conservative mini-reshuffle is that all three of David Cameron's most important front bench colleagues - George Osborne (Treasury), William Hague (Foreign Affairs) and now Dominic Grieve (Home Affairs) - went to Magdalen College, Oxford. I wonder if this has ever happened before in the history of British politics?

This quirk is a little unfortunate perhaps for a party trying to stress its new inclusivity under David Cameron. But then Labour failed dismally in its efforts to exploit the toff factor in the London mayoral race and in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

In my time at Oxford, in the late 1970s, Magdalen was the faction in the University Conservative Association (OUCA) which included most of the more right-wing Thatcherite members, and they ran a powerful machine in student politics. Left-wing Tories such as the Conservative's current immigration spokesman, Damian Green, were associated with Balliol.

A number of weekend papers have reported on the famous incident in the autumn of 1977 when a bunch of Magdalen men, somewhat the worse for drink, dumped Damian Green into the Cherwell River after he had visited the college one evening for dinner. And this gang of Magdalen hearties included Dominic Grieve, who has just taken over as Green's boss in the Conservative Home Affairs team.

I was editor of the Oxford University newspaper (also called Cherwell) at the time and recall running the story as a front-page splash (as it were). I'll try and obtain a copy of the article for the blog as soon as I can.


Will Labour stand in by-election?

  • Michael Crick
  • 13 Jun 08, 04:43 PM

So the big question is - will Labour stand in by-election?

I spent much of the morning trying to track down their parliamentary candidate Dan Marten, who is still apparently in his early 20s and a student at Hull University.

When I finally got through to him on the phone my first question was - "Do you support the government on 42 days?"

"No comment," he replied. "You'll have to speak to the Labour Party press office."

"But surely you can tell us whether you support 42 days?"

"No comment."

And so it went.. "No comment, no comment, no comment."

"And do you think Labour should fight the by-election?"

"No comment."

There was a time when parliamentary candidates used to hold opinions and weren't frightened of expressing them.

Catching up on some reading in Howden

  • Michael Crick
  • 13 Jun 08, 01:22 PM

crick203.jpgClearly the good people of Howden have the right idea about something. While filming there today I noticed their local library had a copy of an important book about one of Mr Davis's former rivals.

How will Murdoch fund Mackenzie campaign?

  • Michael Crick
  • 13 Jun 08, 11:48 AM

mackenzie203.jpgFormer editor of the Sun newspaper Kelvin Mackenzie has indicated that he's 90% certain to stand as a pro 42 days candidate in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election; caused by the resignation of David Davis.

And on the BBC's This Week programme he revealed that his old boss Rupert Murdoch had offered to back his campaign financially:

"Rupert suggested to me that if Labour didn't put anyone up, that I would run against David Davis, if that's the case - and Rupert says he's good for the money... I might well do it," Mr Mackenzie said.

But there is one problem with that.

Mr Murdoch is an American citizen and so under British law is not allowed to contribute funds to any UK election campaign.

Perhaps Mr Murdoch will try to channel his funds through his business - NewsCorp - but that would also be illegal since NewsCorp is also American

I suppose Murdoch and Mackenzie could try and fund the campaign through one of Murdoch's British subsidiary companies. But that surely would make a mockery of our laws for foreign funding of British elections.


42 days - oxygen of publicity?

  • Michael Crick
  • 11 Jun 08, 03:42 PM

The two opening speeches in this afternoon's debate on 42 days were not a great Parliamentary occasion which will stick in the memory. Both Jacqui Smith and David Davis were beset by and allowed far too many interventions from backbenchers. Despite the many personal phone calls from Gordon Brown to Labour backbenchers, and the many reported "bribes" to those who are thought to be wavering, it looks like the vote could be close.

It may all boil down to the Democratic Unionists, now led by Peter Robinson. Several DUP MPs sat listening to the opening speeches, and at one point I saw them gathered in a huddle at the entrance to the chamber.

One perhaps significant intervention came from the DUP's former mayor for Belfast Sammy Wilson, who suggested that the government's 42-day measure, the Parliamentary and public debate that would surround its use, would provide terrorists with, in Margaret Thatcher's old phrase, the "oxygen of publicity". Not what Jacqui Smith would have wanted to hear if she's hoping for the DUP's nine votes.

Questions that Sir John Lyon might like to ask Caroline Spelman on Monday

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Jun 08, 05:41 PM

1. What total sum did Caroline Spelman pay Tina Haynes (nee Rawlins) from her Parliamentary Staffing Allowance in the period 1997-98?

2. What were the exact dates of Tina Haynes's employment as constituency secretary, and the dates for which she was paid from Spelman's Parliamentary Staffing Allowance?

3. Was there a contract of employment, as a constituency secretary, or for her secretarial work?

4. What did this specify?

5. Was there a contract of employment for her childcare work, and what did this specify?

6. What paperwork, apart from letters to claim Tina Haynes's pay from Parliament, is there to prove Tina Haynes was really acting as Caroline Spelman's constituency secretary for that period?

7. Was Tina Haynes qualified in any way as a secretary? Did she have any typing/shorthand/filing/computer skills etc.

8. Was Tina Haynes a trained nursery nurse?

10. Had Tina Haynes ever worked as a secretary before working for Caroline Spelman, and has she ever worked as a secretary since then?

11. Has Caroline Spelman ever provided an employment reference for Tina Haynes, and did this highlight her secretarial work? Can we see a copy?

12. How many letters a week did Tina Haynes type for Caroline Spelman?

13. How many MPs' diary arrangements did Tina Haynes arrange for Caroline Spelman?

14. How many phone calls of a parliamentary/political/constituency nature did Tina Haynes make on behalf of Caroline Spelman?

15. Is it true that Tina Haynes was not paid any money for her childcare work from 1997-98? (The Conservative Party says she did the childcare for no pay but received free accommodation, use of a car and meals.)

16. Did Tina Haynes carry on her childcare duties for no pay after her secretarial work ceased in 1998?

17. Was Tina Haynes paid very much the same amount for her childcare work after 1998 as she was paid from the Parliamentary Allowance for her secretarial work before 1998?

18. Did Tina Haynes know that her financial payments from Caroline Spelman from 1997 to 1998 were solely for secretarial work and not for her childcare work?

19. Was the initial contact with Tina Haynes on the basis that she would be employed as a nanny, or as a secretary?

20. What the position publicly advertised? If so, where? Did Caroline Spelman find Tina Haynes through a childcare agency or a secretarial agency?

21. How was Tina Haynes paid for her childcare work from 1998 to 2002, and how much?

22. What extra childcare duties, if any, did Tina Haynes perform after 1998?

23. Did Tina Haynes continue to receive payment in kind after 1998 - ie free accommodation, use of a car and meals?

24. If Tina Haynes was also paid wages after 1998, what extra childcare work was she doing to justify this new remuneration?

25. Given that Caroline Spelman's youngest child was only two and half in May 1997, can Mrs Spelman confirm that all her three children were at school (or nursery or play-group) full time between 9am and 3pm, Monday to Friday, from May 1997 onwards?

26. Has Caroline Spelman ever told the Commons authorities that Tina Haynes also worked as her nanny in 1997-98? When did she tell them this?

27. What was Caroline Spelman's new constituency secretary, appointed in 1998, paid? How does that pay compare with Tina Haynes? What extra duties did the new secretary fulfil, and how many hours a week did she work?

28. Was Tina Haynes's name published anywhere as being her constituency secretary (though she was then called Tina Rawlins)?

29. When did Caroline Spelman have her conversation with the Chief Whip, James Arbuthnot about this issue? Has any record been kept of that conversation? Did Caroline Spelman explain to Tina Haynes why she would no longer be acting as her constituency secretary?

30. Did Tina Haynes look after Caroline Spelman's three children from 9am to 3pm during school half-terms and holidays?

31. How many hours per week in total did Caroline Spelman expect Tina Haynes to work for her during the period 1997-98?

32. Were Caroline Spelman's arrangements with Tina Haynes ever brought to the attention of William Hague, the then Conservative leader?

Tory candidate was bow-tie wearing presenter

  • Michael Crick
  • 4 Jun 08, 06:02 PM

howell203.jpgI see that the Conservative candidate in the Henley by-election, John Howell, is describing himself on his early campaign literature as "Previously a presenter for BBC World Service".

My BBC World colleagues here at Millbank had never heard of him, but they made a few enquiries and it turns out that Mr Howell was a business presenter on BBC World around 1994 and 1995.

The most remarkable feature of his presenting work, apparently, was that he used to wear a bow-tie. Click here to see him on BBC Breakfast News.

It looks like the Tory campaign will be something of an ex-BBC operation. Apart from John Howell the Conservative campaign is being run by senior Shadow Cabinet member Chris Grayling, who spent many years working in BBC news.

------------------------------------------------------

I'm sorry if anyone - including the candidate - found my comments unfair, one of the hazards of blogging. I've removed the offending passage.

Personally I have no idea if John Howell was a good presenter or not perhaps the best thing to do is to delve into the BBC archives and find a clip of him of at work - click here.

When did the Lib Dems last lose a seat in a by-election?

  • Michael Crick
  • 3 Jun 08, 05:02 PM

The answer to the question in yesterday's post is the 1957 Carmarthen by-election, which many Liberals regard as the nadir of their party's fortunes (they were left with just five seats in the Commons).

The wound hurt all the more for two reasons: 1) It was delivered by Megan Lloyd-George, daughter of the great Liberal Prime Minister, who had defected to the Labour Party before the 1955 General Election; and 2) One of the issues was the Suez war which the Liberal Party opposed but its candidate supported.

Prior to that there was the October 1934 Lambeth North by-election, also a loss to Labour. The last by-election loss to the Conservatives was the March 1926 Combined English Universities by-election.

If Mark Oaten is negotiating, his hand is very strong. A loss to the Conservatives at a by-election would be almost impossible for his party to explain away.

The Ronaldo Of Westminster?

  • Michael Crick
  • 2 Jun 08, 03:58 PM

oaten_ronaldo_203.jpgIs Mark Oaten trying to do a Ronaldo? One wouldn't normally compare the Lib Dem MP for Winchester with the world's greatest footballer. OK, they've both been embarrassed by the British tabloids over their private lives, but one would hardly expect the former Lib Dem leadership contender to score one goal a season, let alone 42.

No, I speak of the strange noises coming from Mr Oaten over the weekend to the effect that he may have to stand down from Parliament before the next election. He originally planned to retire from the Commons at the next election, and is currently negotiating with potential future employers. He now says his new bosses may require him to step down ahead of time.

Continue reading "The Ronaldo Of Westminster?"

Gordon, the Government and Everything

  • Newsnight
  • 2 Jun 08, 12:55 PM

gord2_203100.jpgNot since the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the number 42 caused so much discussion and confusion. But rather than being the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, Gordon Brown is hoping it will be one of the answers to two issues: combating terrorism, and getting his leadership back on track.

Writing in the Times today, he argues that extending the number of days that terror suspects can be detained without charge from 28 to 42 days is the "right way to protect national security". The proposal is backed by the police.

The vote, which is part of the Counter-Terrorism bill, takes place next week, and the prime minister hopes he will have persuaded enough potential rebels - and made sufficient compromises - to avoid defeat.

But as the whole issue of terror detention has generally been debated via the prism of Westminster, have ministers lost touch with the views of the country? Are the majority of voters actually quite comfortable with 42 days as a measure to help tackle terrorism in the UK? Or should opponents of the figure, concerned about potential infringements of our civil liberties, remain defiant in the face of Gordon Brown's resolve to stick to his principles and "do the right thing"?

Our political editor Michael Crick is at Westminster with his ear to the ground - he'll be blogging for us later this afternoon and reporting for tonight's programme.

Stay up to date with his blog, and let us know your thoughts on 42 days and whether this could be the last throw of the dice for Gordon Brown.

1968: "The Doors" mistaken for political extremists

  • Paul Mason
  • 28 May 08, 08:39 AM

doors_203152.jpgThe anti-Vietnam war demonstration of March 1968 was a turning point in post-war politics: it turned violent right in front of the world's media; the police were shown throwing punches into the faces of already arrested students, and in general losing control. The police files from that event are considered too sensitive to release. But Newsnight has obtained, under Freedom of Information, a stack of police files relating to the much bigger anti-war demonstration of October that year. Watch tonight: they tell a story of rising panic in the establishment: the creation of Britain's first bomb squad; an intelligence feedback loop between Special Branchand the press that ramped up the tension; and, farcically, the rock group The Doors being mistaken for a group of foreign revolutionaries...

Continue reading "1968: "The Doors" mistaken for political extremists"

Now that's what I call a by-election

  • Newsnight
  • 22 May 08, 01:52 PM


Simon Enright, Assistant Editor, Newsnight

byelection203x170.jpgThere's something about by-elections that make them irresistible - especially for journalists. It's that rare chance for the electorate to give the government a kicking, to make them listen, but not change the administration.

My first memory is of the local TV presenter, Austin Mitchell, putting down his microphone and knocking on doors in Grimsby. It was a marginal seat and a worried Labour government threw all their resources at holding it. Austin Mitchell did win, just - and is still an MP. But unnoticed, the voters of Ashfield in Derbyshire took against the government and handed that much safer Labour seat to the Conservatives. Needless to say that loss didn't feature so much on Yorkshire Telly.

For every party there must be a favourite win. If you're a Scottish Nationalist you won't forget the dramatic wins in Glasgow Govan - they took it twice in by-elections from Labour. Or for sheer television drama, Labour supporters surely can't forget the result in Dudley West that broke Peter Snow's Swingometer.

bermondsey203.jpgBut surely the by-election masters are the Liberal Democrats. Simon Hughes began the recent trend by turning yellow the safe Labour seat of Bermondsey, with what many remember as a brutally efficient campaign. The 80s, 90s and also in recent years have seen Liberal Democrats "Winning Here" in Greenwich, Eastbourne, Newbury, and most recently Sarah Teather in Brent East.

Could Crewe and Nantwich be the Conservative totem that marks a sea change in British politics? Maybe, but what really has been the most significant by-election result since 1945 and why? That's the challenge we're setting this lunchtime. On tonight's programme Liz MacKean will announce your favourite.

The end of economic niceness

  • Paul Mason
  • 14 May 08, 06:08 PM

Bank of England governor Mervyn King has warned that "for the time being at least the nice decade is behind us". He didn't accept recession was likely but admitted it was possible - even though the Bank's own "fan charts" do not give it even an outside, ten-to-one chance.

Coming on the same day as Gordon Brown's outline of draft legislation, the Bank's quarterly inflation report handily outlines the economic terrain on which the political battle of the next two years will be fought. And it's bumpy...

Continue reading "The end of economic niceness"

David Miliband responds

  • Newsnight
  • 9 May 08, 05:56 PM

miliband226.jpgOn Wednesday we asked what questions you would like to ask the Foreign Secretary David Miliband - and more than 175 of you responded.

During the live interview Jeremy used questions by Graham Nickson and LarsonsMum - and David Miliband agreed to respond to other questions online - which he has now done.
He didn't answer them all - but the ones we chose that we thought fairly represented the issues raised by you.



CLIMATE
1. roydosan wrote:
Why is the government persisting with biofuels? When there is so much evidence about the harm they cause, why do we need another review/enquiry into them, can you not just take the decision to ban them?


The simple answer is that biofuels have the potential to provide low carbon sources of fuel. That is not to say that all biofuels do - for example the science points much more strongly to sugar rather than corn based fuels. But the potential is serious. We are alive to the dangers and indeed the Prime Minster recently wrote to Japan's Prime Minister Fukuda (as chair of the G8) on the issue. As a result, a UN Taskforce has been set up. The Government has also called for Professor Ed Gallagher, the former CEO of the Environment Agency, to review the indirect impacts of biofuels. He will publish his review in June and the findings will inform Government policy on biofuels. In the meantime the Government is fully involved in the development of sustainability criteria for biofuels in the EU and at the wider international level. The UK is among the world leaders in this field. The Government is also providing some support for technology development for biofuels and is considering what further measures may be required.

2. emptyend wrote:
How is a low-carbon economy compatible with calling for more production from OPEC? Why has this Government been frittering away the inheritance of North Sea oil and discouraging further exploration by sharply raising North Sea oil taxes two years ago?


There is important difference between short term problems and long term solutions. As I set out in my speech on Wednesday the mismatch of supply and demand that leads to high oil prices needs to be addressed by containing demand (by finding alternatives). The Government is also in the short term working with industry to address North Sea oil and gas reserves. Through the successful PILOT forum, our licensing innovations and the fallow initiative we have seen both higher levels of exploration and development of reserves that would not previously have been realised. We are also working with industry to unlock the gas potential West of Shetland. Treasury officials are currently consulting with industry on whether there is a need for any special measures to incentivise development of marginal discoveries, including the currently "stranded" gas reserves West of Shetland.

3. Tabasco1 wrote:
It will fall to you, Mr Miliband, to present the UK case to the Chinese and Indians that they should not build coal-fired power stations without operational carbon capture technology fitted from the outset. As it is your government is planning to give the green light to unabated coal-fired power stations in the UK. If this policy is not reversed, will you not - to use Nye Bevan's phrase about negotiations with the Soviets - be going into the conference chamber naked?


As energy prices continue to rise and energy security becomes both a foreign and domestic policy priority across the countries of the world, nations are increasingly turning to coal as a flexible, cheap and secure energy option. The IEA has predicted that by 2050 global energy demand will have increased by around 50% with significant portions of that coming from the emerging economies of India and China and based around their considerable reserves of coal. We will not be able to get a global deal on climate unless we can find a way of letting India, China and others continue to burn coal. As the Stern Review identified, carbon capture and storage is the key technology to allow us to continue to use coal. This is one reason why the UK's work on carbon capture and storage is so important. We are working towards the world's first commercial-scale demonstration project of carbon capture and storage on post-combustion coal. This should pave the way for improvements and cost reductions in this technology, making it more attractive and accessible for economies such as China and India to take up.

4. rdrake98 wrote:
What's the best book you've read that puts the case, from a scientific point of view, that global warming isn't a crisis that needs the attention of policy makers? If you cannot name such a book, what is the best book on policy that argues that even if the view presented by the IPCC to policy makers is broadly correct, most of the current suggested policy measures are likely to be futile or counterproductive?
What was the best argument that you read against increased production of biofuels at least a year or more ago?
If you have trouble answering the last, don't you think you should soon have better answers to the first two?
Lastly, if books on science are too hard, are you still sure it was wise to say that you would not even watch the documentary "The Great Global Warming Swindle" when it came out in March of last year? (There were some excellent scientists on it. Of course the argument was a little simplified, as you'd expect in such a documentary. That's the why the initial questions were about the best books.)

I have just read Nigel Lawson's book arguing against the conventional wisdom on climate change - so that is the most recent. He is not a scientist but summarises the argument against. I think the IPCC and other books - the non scientific summary in The Weather Makers is good - outweigh his arguments. The Great Global Warming Swindle interviewed some impressive scientists - but since the programme aired, some of those scientists have been making it known that they were misrepresented, taken out of context, and misled on the purpose of the programme. For example, Professor Carl Wunsch, from MIT, has said he was "completely misrepresented" by the programme.

5. bookhimdano wrote:
Why are up to 50% of planning applications for solar panels being turned down? Why have the micro generation grants stopped? Why have taxes been raised on vegetable oil to make it more expensive than diesel? We have hundreds of acres of empty roof and garden space for panels, windmills and heat pumps yet the planners obstruct citing it's 'out of character'. Well they didn't have those things 100 years ago so of course it's 'out of character. How mad is that.


The situation isn't as mad as you suggest! Recent changes to planning requirements for microgeneration mean that from 6 April 2008 the majority of micro-generation technologies are covered by permitted development, with the exception of Air Source Heat Pumps and Wind Turbines. This means the majority of technologies will not require people to apply for specific planning permission. Microgeneration grants have not stopped. The Low Carbon Buildings Programme Phase 1 household stream, with the remaining £10 million budget, was recently extended to June 2010 for new applications or as long as funds are available, whichever is sooner. We are currently seeing a steady flow of applications and the programme is making good progress. There's more information on this at www.lcbp.org.uk.

6. Considering how much utility bills and basic living costs have already risen, how will private companies be prevented from passing on the costs of reducing their carbon footprints to the public?

We've got a number of initiatives in place to help people who are seeing their fuel bills increasing -- including providing grants for vulnerable people through Warm Front, increasing the Winter Fuel Payment, and most importantly the obligation on energy suppliers to improve the energy efficiency of their customers' homes. From this year, energy companies will have to double that effort. Between now and 2011, we're requiring them to spend around £3 billion on everything from low energy light bulbs and insulation to helping people install microgeneration -- both cutting emissions, and the fuel bills of millions of people. Every pound invested by energy companies to date has benefited their customers by at least £9. I'd encourage anyone interested in this, or in accessing other grants and advice on cutting their energy bills and the environmental footprint of their homes, to call the 'Act on CO2' advice line.

BURMA
7. PaddyN wrote:
Can I ask David Millband, MP, what the government plans to do to help the poor citizens suffering in Burma from the recent cyclone? I offer my deepest sympathies all those affected by the terrible catastrophe unfolding in Burma. The scale of the devastation is truly staggering. M y heart goes out to the many thousands of people who have lost their loved ones, their homes and livelihoods.


The government has made an initial pledge of £5m which will go towards meeting immediate needs including food, shelter and access to clean water. A UK emergency relief team will travel to Burma as soon as possible, and we are working closely with aid organisations on the ground. Getting aid through to those who are in desperate need is our top priority. We are using all channels to urge the Burmese Government to grant unrestricted access to the international relief effort. We are determined to do all we can to save as many lives as possible.

ISRAEL
8. georgemclean wrote:
What are David's views on the idea of a single, secular democratic state of Israel/Palestine rather than the two-state solution that has been pursued for so long now?

I support a two state solution as do the majority of Israeli and Palestinian leaders and people.

ZIMBABWE
9. rayall wrote:
Zimbabwe - when is the Brit govt. going to get cross with the failure by "Africa" to DO anything about Mugabe other than support and applaud him. In particular Malawi and South Africa - especially Mbeki with his No crisis in Zimbabwe, Allow transit of Chinese arms and refusal to allow subject to be raised in Security Council. By all means let Africa deal with their problems provided they do something in face of killings and lootings by ZANU PF.

We are pursuing a three step process: 1) Support for democratic movements in Zimbabwe; 2) Encouragement of African leaders; 3) And international mobilisation through the UN. President Mugabe has not yet stolen the election and it is vital that he is not allowed to do so. The greatest responsibility falls on African leaders but we all have a role to play.

David Miliband on Newsnight

  • Newsnight
  • 7 May 08, 11:59 AM

miliband_nn_203203.jpgTonight Jeremy will be talking to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband live in the studio after he delivers what promises to be a radical speech on transforming Britain into a low-Carbon economy.

He argues that this is the only solution to the problems of spiralling energy and food prices as well as water shortages.

But will the shift to low carbon economy mean difficult decisions for all of us - especially the government - about how we live our lives?

If you have a question you'd like to put to David Miliband on this, or any other issue relevant to the Foreign Secretary then please let us know.

Read David Miliband's answers here.

Bury lass goes to heaven

  • Newsnight
  • 2 May 08, 10:26 AM

During his report on the local elections in Bury last night, Newsnight's Political Editor Michael Crick recalled a rhyme about the town his grandmother used to tell him.

By popular demand - here it is:


I dreamt I was dead and to heaven did go,
Where did you come from? They wanted to know,
I said I'm from Bury,
And St Peter did stare,
He said step inside lass,
You're the first one from there.

Watch Michael's report here.

THE FAMILY ROBINSON

  • Newsnight
  • 24 Apr 08, 07:01 PM

The new Register of MPs Interests, published today (24 April), lists 106 MPs who employ their wives, husbands, or other relatives, and pay them from their Parliamentary Staffing allowances.

This is the first time MPs have had the opportunity to declare this, though it won't be compulsory to do so until 1 August. Until then, it's still voluntary whether MPs register such details or not.

A lot of MPs seem to have delayed registration, perhaps because it's such a sensitive issue.

Perhaps the most glaring omission so far is the Speaker Michael Martin (who employs his daughter as a constituency case-worker), which may not go down well with his critics when he is officially overseeing the enquiries into reforming the whole expenses system.

Other omissions include Margaret Beckett, who employs her husband Leo, and Sir Ming Campbell who employs his wife Elspeth.

peter_robinson.jpgSeveral MPs are revealed to employ more than one relative, whilst the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, and his wife Iris, who is also an MP, have turned politics into a real family business. Peter Robinson himself employs both their son and daughter-in-law, whilst Iris Robinson employs another son, and their daughter. So six Robinsons in all are paid by Parliament in one way or another. I can see headlines along the lines of "something Family Robinson" in tomorrow's papers.

It's also interesting to see that the former Conservative leader Michael Howard employs his wife Sandra as a part-time secretary. I'm surprised she has the time with her new novel-writing career. (I've just read her first novel, Glass Houses, by the way, and rather enjoyed it.)

Last February, when this issue first blew up over the Derek Conway affair, Newsnight identified 96 MPs who employed relatives (see past blogs). Many on the Newsnight list have yet to submit their details on this to the official register, but equally the register published today has furnished us with 56 more names. So the total of names is now 152; by 1 August that total could well reach 200 or more.

The new names are:

Janet Anderson
Ian Austin
Adrian Bailey
John Battle
John Bercow
Clive Betts
Graham Brady
Russell Brown
Paul Burstow
Richard Caborn
William Cash
Sir Patrick Cormack
Stephen Crabb
Claire Curtis-Thomas
David Davies
Paul Farrelly
Paul Flynn
Michael Foster (Hastings)
Cheryl Gillan
Robert Goodwill
James Gray
Sir Aan Haselhurst
Michael Howard
Adam Ingram
Michael Jack
Diana Johnson
Robert Key
Julie Kirkbride
John MacDougall
John Mann
Patrick Mercer
John McFall
Elliot Morley
Kali Mountford
Andrew Murrison
Mark Oaten
Richard Ottaway
James Paice
Nick Palmer
Bill Rammell
Angus Robertson
John Robertson
Iris Robinson
Peter Robinson
Lee Scott
Dennis Skinner
Jacqui Smith
Graham Stuart
Ian Taylor
Matthew Taylor
Don Touhig
Andrew Turner
Mike Weir
Betty Williams
David Wilshire
Phil Wilson

Blogging - a new era

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Apr 08, 05:49 PM

blog203.jpgAs many of you who've used the BBC's blogs will know, it has for some months been a deeply frustrating experience, not just for you but for us too.

The point of blogging about our programmes is to have a swift and informal conversation with our viewers. That's impossible if it takes hours to get your comment or our response through.

I'm relieved to say that as of yesterday we have a new system which should be much more robust and which I hope will usher in a new era of blogging for Newsnight.

One change is that in order to comment you'll need to register by filling in a simple form.
Once signed up, you'll be able to comment on any BBC blog using the same login.

Many of you have already commented on how it's working and one or two have suggested it's designed to introduce more censorship.

That's certainly not our intention. The aim is to encourage much more open discussion about the programme and much more interaction with the programme-makers. I'm sure it isn't perfect and that you'll let us know how it could be improved.

Thanks very much to all those contributors - the Bob Goodalls, Barrie Singletons, Mistress76UKs and many others - who have persevered through all the blog problems. Apologies for all the Error 502s, and welcome to the new era.

Blog fix imminent

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Apr 08, 04:32 PM

Blog closed temporarilyFrom 1800 this evening (UK time), we'll be doing some essential maintenance to the blog. As a result of this, you won't be able to leave any comments on our blog posts from that time until Thursday morning and the comments function on all old posts will close. We apologise for any inconvenience.

The work will fix the very frustrating problems we've encountered for some time now with the whole comments system.

From Thursday a new system will be in place - this will mean you will need to complete a simple registration form in order to post a comment on the blog. Once signed up, you will be able to comment on all BBC blogs using the same login. There will be more details in the morning. In the meantime - if you wish to comment on the programme you can email us via newsnight@bbc.co.uk.

More postal votes not sorted

  • Michael Crick
  • 15 Apr 08, 06:37 PM

crick203.jpgOn the programme last Friday I told the extraordinary story of the by-election in the Corporation of London last week - in the quaintly named ward Farringdon Within.

When the votes were counted on Wednesday night it was found that 179 people had voted, and the victorious new councilman won with a margin of 27 votes.

But then, astonishingly, on Thursday, 62 postal votes turned up late where normally they would only expect one or two postal votes to be late. Because the votes were late, they couldn’t be counted and the Corporation didn’t even know if they could have made a difference because under election law the votes can’t be opened because they’re not valid.

Sources in the Corporation suspected the postal votes had been held back by the Post Office as a result of dispute in which the Corporation was accused of not paying it’s Free Post bill. On Friday the Post Office fervently denied this to Newsnight, insisting that they never withhold people’s post.

Now the farce continues another batch of 58 postal votes turned up late on Monday and a further 11 this morning (Tuesday).

So, in all the Corporation received 131 late postal votes so far, compared with the 179 that were deemed to be valid – and remember the winning margin was just 27!

As you can imagine top lawyers are now trying to sort it all out, but it is another shining example of the breath-taking inadequacies of the postal voting system.

Blog problems - a solution is nigh

  • Newsnight
  • 10 Apr 08, 11:40 AM

blog502error.jpgAnyone who regularly reads the Newsnight blog will know that we have suffered from a series of technical problems for some time now. Comments disappear, the dreaded 502 'not available' message appears, and multiple copies of comments get submitted in error. (More on the problems here.)

Well, to much relief (not least here at Newsnight), a solution is about to be unveiled.

In the very near future the comments system that causes all the problems is being replaced by a BBC-wide system.

Under the new system, anyone wishing to leave a comment will need to sign in - a relatively swift and painless affair that comes with the added bonus of enabling you to leave your thoughts on blogs and message boards across all BBC websites.

Finally, we hope to revamp and relaunch the whole Newsnight blog shortly, with more bloggers, more variety, and the odd bit of video thrown in. But one step at a time...

We'll update you on the changes next week.

Your questions for Brian Paddick

  • Newsnight
  • 4 Apr 08, 07:23 PM

paddick203x100.jpgNewsnight is hosting a debate on Tuesday between the main candidates in the race for London mayor.

What questions would you like Jeremy Paxman to ask Brian Paddick?

Your questions for Boris Johnson

  • Newsnight
  • 4 Apr 08, 07:21 PM

boris203x100.jpgNewsnight is hosting a debate on Tuesday between the main candidates in the race for London mayor.

What questions would you like Jeremy Paxman to ask Boris Johnson?

Your questions for Ken Livingstone

  • Newsnight
  • 4 Apr 08, 07:16 PM

ken203x100.jpgNewsnight is hosting a debate on Tuesday between the main candidates in the race for London mayor.

What questions would you like Jeremy Paxman to ask Ken Livingstone?

With a Little Help From My Friends

  • David Grossman
  • 19 Mar 08, 02:36 PM

heather203x100.jpgIf like me you share the twin obsessions of the Beatles and American politics, you might enjoy this example where the two "Come Together".

It seems that the woman whose evidence was branded “inaccurate but also less than candid” in places "wholly exaggerated" or "make-belief”, who may have attempted to defraud her husband over the mortgage on a property and has "an explosive and volatile character" and who could provide no evidence of her claim of giving 80-90% of her income to charity does have a couple of things going for her.

Heather Mills has two celebrity video character witnesses proudly displayed on her website, Richard Branson and Hillary Clinton.

It's been said of Senator Clinton that she reminds too many men of their first wife. Being on the side of Heather Mills won't help dispel that impression.

Watch the endorsement for yourself here.

Ghosts of Slough

  • Michael Crick
  • 18 Mar 08, 06:58 PM

slough203x100.jpgWhilst my fellow political journalists all flocked to Ken Livingstone’s campaign launch in London, I took the train to Slough for a far more interesting story, largely ignored by the Westminster pack, and which I therefore had almost to myself.

There was much jubilation in the Slough Labour Party after an election court disqualified a local Conservative councillor, Eshaq Khan, for corrupt and fraudulent election practices.

Mr Khan was found to have secured his election last May by registering at various properties around his ward more than a hundred “ghost” voters – people who didn’t exist or weren’t entitled to be on the voting register - and who then, of course, voted for him.

Criminal trial

Khan was also accused by the judge Richard Mawry of perverting the course of justice by getting several witnesses to commit what the judge called “blatant” and “bare-faced perjury” during the recent election court case to try and save his skin.

A criminal trial now looks likely. Three men have already been arrested and police inquiries are continuing.

The judge also awarded costs against Khan. The Conservative Party won’t say if they’ve agreed to pay them - which strongly suggests to me that they have. Lord Ashcroft may race a total bill of around £500,000 for the party.

Richard Mawry’s judgement may be great news for Labour in Slough, but it will be less welcome to Labour nationally.

Mawry, you may recall, was the judge who presided over the Birmingham election fraud case in the spring of 2005, when he compared Birmingham to a banana republic and was scathing about this government’s introduction of postal voting on demand.

'Disastrous experiment'

After that notorious case ministers tried to tighten the rules on postal votes, but Mawry claimed today that these changes had made little difference and that voting fraud was an easy as ever. Indeed, if anything, Mawry’s judgement today was more scathing of government policy than it was in Birmingham three years ago.

The problem, he said, was not just the “disastrous experiment of postal voting on demand”, but the extremely lax system of electoral registration in this country.

“Great Britain’s system of voter registration may well have been a quaint but harmless anomaly while personal voting was the norm but the introduction of postal voting on demand has made it lethal to the democratic process.”
Roll-stuffing, as the Australians call it, “is childishly simple to commit,” said Mawry, “and very difficult to detect.

'Decent choice'

To ignore the possibility that it is widespread, particularly in local elections, is a policy that an ostrich would despise.”

Above all, he criticised the belief by many Labour people that making it easier for people to vote, though postal ballots, would boost voting turn-out.

What really boost turn-out, he argued, was giving voters a decent choice. He pointed to the 85% turnout in last year’s French presidential election (where there’s no easy postal voting) as a good example of this and concluded: “It’s not how you vote that brings out the voters. It’s the choices you are given.”

In speaking out so boldly, Richard Mawry is surely becoming something of a pain in the neck for this government, rather like Elizabeth Filkin and Sir Alistair Graham.

But he should be careful. They both lost their jobs.

A test of Wills

  • Michael Crick
  • 17 Mar 08, 03:40 PM

I’ve just finished a thriller written by the only remaining member of the government to have published a novel (at least by my reckoning). The novelist in question is Michael Wills, a Minister of State at the Justice Department, who, for some strange reason, writes under the name of David McKeowen (especially odd when he then identifies himself as Michael Wills on page one).

Wills’s first novel Grip is not about politics in any way, but a thriller about what happens to a middle class family when their son suddenly finds himself owing £30,000 to a violent drug dealer. It doesn’t pretend to be great literature, but is certainly an excellent read, examining the psychologies of each of the different players. It would make a great film or TV drama. He has also published a second thriller, Trapped, and more books are on the way.

Michael Wills, a distinctly Brownite member of the government, claims to have had six careers in his adult lifetime. Looking at his Who’s Who entry these seem to be: diplomat, TV producer, businessman (as founder of the independent TV company Juniper), MP, minister, and now novelist.

Parliament and British politics boasts a surprising number of novelists over the years – from Disraeli and John Buchan to Jeffrey Archer and Iain Duncan Smith – and Winston Churchill even published a novel early on in his career. Other novelists to have held ministerial office since Labour came to power are Helen Liddell, Chris Mullin and Peter Hain.

My complete list of British politician novelists runs to 41 names, as follows, but I’d love to know of any that I’ve missed:

Rupert Allason (MP)
Jeffrey Archer (MP)
Joe Ashton (MP)
Stuart Bell (MP)
Melvyn Bragg (peer)
John Buchan (MP)
Winston Churchill (MP)
Philip Collins (adviser)
Julian Critchley (MP)
Edwina Currie (MP)
Bertie Denham (peer)
Benjamin Disraeli (MP)
Michael Dobbs (adviser)
Iain Duncan Smith (MP)
Walter Feinburgh (MP)
Maurice Edelman (MP)
Peter Hain (MP)
David Hart (adviser)
Roy Hattersley (MP)
Douglas Hurd (MP)
PD James (peer)
Boris Johnson (MP)
Stanley Johnson (MEP)
Robert Kilroy Silk (MP)
Helen Liddell (MP)
Bob Marshall-Andrews (MP)
Chris Mullin (MP)
Amanda Platell (adviser)
Lance Price (adviser)
Barbara Rendell (peer)
Tim Renton (MP)
Brian Sedgemore (MP)
Martin Sixsmith (adviser)
CP Snow (minister/peer)
John Stonehouse (MP)
Michael Spicer (MP)
David Walder (MP)
Ann Widdecombe (MP)
Michael Wills (MP (as David McKeowen))

CURRENTLY WRITING:

Chris Bryant (MP)
Alastair Campbell (adviser)

Educating Cameron

  • Michael Crick
  • 17 Mar 08, 03:13 PM

BBC colleagues who accidentally overheard David Cameron last Friday evening, while rehearsing his speech to the Conservatives’ (so-called) Spring Forum in Gateshead, were struck by the important role which the Shadow Education Secretary – and regular Newsnight Review panellist – Michael Gove played in the proceedings.

gove_203.jpg“He was really cracking the whip,” I’m told, in advising Cameron very forcefully on using softer language. Gove advised him, for instance, to refer to “mothers and fathers” rather than “parents”, and how it was best to avoid an old-fashioned phrase like “creeds and colours”.

Michael Gove has long been identified as a rising star on the Conservative front bench, a moderniser and close ally of Cameron, but my colleagues were surprised at how much the Tory leader was happy to defer to his education spokesman. Until now it had been thought that Steve Hilton was Cameron’s chief modernisation guru. Although Hilton was among those listening to David Cameron's rehearsal, he said very little in comparison with Gove.

Location, location, location

  • Michael Crick
  • 14 Mar 08, 02:23 PM

This is the season of the spring conferences (although they all take place in winter), but this year all three major parties have been rather unfortunate in the locations they've chosen.

First Labour went to Birmingham where the party has been accused of massive fraud in postal ballots. Then last week the Liberal Democrats went to Liverpool where they run the city council - unfortunately for them, that council was recently declared by the Audit Commission to be one of the three worst financially managed local authorities in England.

And today, the Conservatives are holding their conference in Gateshead, where the party hasn't had an elected councillor since 1996.

Worse still, one of the last Conservative councillors in Gateshead was a gentleman by the name of Derek Conway - the Conservative MP disgraced over his misuse of parliamentary staffing allowances to employ members of his family.

The 'John Lewis' list revealed

  • Michael Crick
  • 13 Mar 08, 08:30 PM

I previously detailed the famed 'John Lewis List'. The Commons authorities have now published the guideline of what expenses MPs are allowed to claim.

Here's the link:

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/HofCClaimsGuide.pdf

To lose one MP...

  • Michael Crick
  • 13 Mar 08, 04:53 PM

It was only a few days ago that I observed here that, remarkably, we now had six independent MPs. And now we have a seventh with the resignation from the Conservative whip (or sacking, depending on how you tell the story) of the MP for Castle Point, Bob Spink.

spink203.jpgThe word among Tory MPs is that Mr Spink will soon join UKIP, and certainly he has very similar views on Europe and other matters. But last night Mr Spink told me that he is a Tory and will continue to sit on the Conservative benches even if he is no longer taking their whip. UKIP will no doubt do their best to lure him in, as it would be quite a coup to secure their first Westminster MP, though they already have several lords and MEPs.

Mr Spink's departure means that David Cameron has now lost four MPs in the last few months - Quentin Davies, who defected to Labour, along with Andrew Pelling, Derek Conway and Bob Spink who have all left amid a variety of personal problems. Conservatives will no doubt argue that they are glad to get rid of most, if not all, of these people, but it doesn't look very good.

Surely a party aspiring to be our next government should be gaining MPs, not shedding them?

"One can live down everything except a good reputation"

  • Michael Crick
  • 12 Mar 08, 02:42 PM

Crick as WildeA few weeks ago Newsnight approached the film director Ken Loach for an interview for one of my films about the split inside George Galloway's Respect party - Loach himself is a keen Galloway supporter.

But Loach was reluctant to be interviewed by me, described me to my producer as "The Oscar Wilde of Television Centre" - quite complimentary in some ways, though friends find it hard to see what Loach was getting at.

In response, my daughter Catherine couldn't resist drawing this cartoon...

Dummy update

  • David Grossman
  • 10 Mar 08, 07:00 PM

I earlier reported the shock news that Madame Tussauds had no plans for a Gordon Brown waxwork.

Well, Number 10 insist that Mr Brown was invited to sit for a Tussauds waxwork as recently as March 3rd. Apparently the Brown team was contacted by Madame Tussauds' global head of external relations, Nicky Hobbs who writes, "I am honoured to tell you that The Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown, has been selected to be honoured by the Tussauds team and be amongst the very select group of people that are made into wax figures.

"We choose our figures from detailed public surveys, and he has been a hugely popular choice amongst local Londoners and tourists from around the world.

"On behalf of our creative team I would like to ask for a sitting to obtain detailed measurements, a sitting takes up to two hours. I would send a team to a location of Mr Brown's choice and to suit his schedule if he is happy to sit. We realise Mr Brown is of course incredibly busy, and we would hope to agree on a sitting date that falls within the next six months."

Curious.

Gordon's no dummy

  • David Grossman
  • 10 Mar 08, 05:48 PM

Tony Blair's waxwork dummySounds like a good headline for the PM? - well not really. It seems that the people at Madame Tussauds don't think Mr Brown is enough of a draw to bother making a waxwork of him.

Public relations manager Ben Lovett tells PA news:
"At the moment we have no plans to make Gordon Brown.

"We are going to wait for a general election to see what will happen because
that's the ultimate test of public opinion.

"We are always continuing to monitor public opinion so if there's a surge of
support then we will reconsider."

Sadly for Mr Brown's ego it seems Tony Blair's waxwork is still drawing the crowds.

More on pavement politics...

  • Michael Crick
  • 10 Mar 08, 02:54 PM

There was a little unease amongst the Lib Dem high command at my presence at the conference on Friday. Political editors tend to shun the gatherings so there must be something juicy, they thought, to tempt me to take the three-hour train journey to Liverpool at the end of what had been a very bad week for their leader Nick Clegg.

But the story - juicy or not - almost failed to make air on Friday night when my producer was trapped in the lift for well over an hour at the Lib Dem run City Council's brand new conference centre.

Another example of the good old Liverpool tradition of dirty tricks?

CaravanTalking of which, and following my story on Friday about Liberals adding laxative to the milk-bottles outside Conservative HQ on polling day, a veteran Lib Dem councillor gave me another good 'dirty tricks' story dating back to the Manchester Exchange by-election in the early 1970s. The Conservatives had no base in the constituency, so they set up their campaign headquarters in a caravan on a piece of wasteland. Liberal activists soon noted, however, that the Tories failed to guard the vehicle each night - instead they just locked up and left. So one enterprising Liberal, without announcing his identity, procured some Labour posters from the Labour HQ, and in the middle of the night plastered them all over the Tory caravan.

You can imagine the Conservatives' fury the next day. So angry were they that they forced Labour's north west regional organiser to go through the humiliation of scraping the posters off the caravan one by one with a knife. Smirking Liberal activists kept their distance, of course.

Or so the story goes...

Spot the missing word

  • Michael Crick
  • 10 Mar 08, 11:39 AM

ken203behind.jpgStrange, I thought Ken Livingstone had returned to the Labour fold at the last mayoral election in 2004, having been expelled and fought as an independent in 2000.

But the word "Labour" appears nowhere on the home page of his website, though there is a small red rose - the Labour symbol - tucked away down at the bottom.

My BBC colleague Rhodri Jones has done a more extensive search, and the only mention of 'Labour' he can find is in Livingstone's biography, where it says he served as a "Labour councillor".

Running for Liverpool

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Mar 08, 12:31 PM

Liver birdToday I'm in Liverpool for the so-called spring conference of the Liberal Democrats (but it is of course still winter). Although I come here regularly to watch my team play football, it's years since I have done any political stories in this city - though in the eighties I seemed to be here all the time covering the activities of militant.

Liverpool is the home of the modern Liberal revival, where in the 1970s Sir Trevor Jones developed the idea of pavement politics where council candidates dwell on voters' extremely local concerns, such as wobbly paving stones. Jones and his younger lieutenant Chris Renard (now Lord Renard) are probably the two most formidable party election campaigners of modern times in this country - and in Liverpool they managed to replace the Conservatives as the main opposition to labour. Indeed there hasn't been a conservative councillor here for a couple of decades. What happened in Liverpool has subsequently been repeated in other big northern cities, such as Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle where the Conservatives have also been almost wiped out of local government, which poses a huge obstacle to David Cameron's ambitions.

But politics in Liverpool has always been different to anywhere else, focused on big name personalities, more American boss-style than anywhere else in Britain. And Liverpool politics - like the city itself - is often extremely rough, but invariably comes with a huge dollop of wit.

My favourite political story from Liverpool - which I've never managed to stand up - involved a Liberal activist turning up at the Conservative HQ very early in the morning on a polling day and injecting the milk bottles on the door step with laxative.

Talk about running for office. Talk about pavement politics.

After the night before, part II

  • Michael Crick
  • 6 Mar 08, 08:36 PM

Apologies all round today from many Westminster journalists, me included, after we slightly over-stated the size of last night’s Labour rebellion on holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. There were, in fact, 28 Labour rebels, not 29. I and everyone else, it seems, had forgotten that the Liverpool MP Bob Wareing has been thrown out of the Labour Party and now sits as an Independent.

In fact, it must be many decades since there were quite so many ‘independents’ in the Commons, of various shades. As well as Wareing, we’ve got the Wyre Forest MP Richard Taylor, and the MP for Blaeneau Gwent, Dai Davies. All three are full Independents.

On top of that, Clare Short is now 'Independent Labour', while on the Tory side, Andrew Pelling and Derek Conway, because of their different misdemeanours, are now obliged to sit as 'Independent Conservatives'.

So six Independents in all.

In addition there’s the strange case of George Galloway, who officially sits as a Respect MP, even though the Respect Party which elected him, and which he led, has now expelled him, and he represents a different Respect Party.

After the night before

  • Michael Crick
  • 6 Mar 08, 05:31 PM

Tim Montgomerie of Conservativehome.com has written with details of an internet poll of 1,529 Conservative members, asking them:

"If the European Constitution (the Lisbon Treaty) has received Royal Assent and been adopted by the other 26 member states BEFORE the election of a Conservative Government, the Conservative Party should hold a retrospective referendum on the text.

76% agreed with that, and only 18% disagreed.

I can never understand why pro-referendum campaigners, especially Conservatives, don’t make more of the pledge which David Cameron made in The Sun on 26 September last year, in which he said:

“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.”

Not much wriggle room there. After all, it was a “cast-iron guarantee” on “any EU Treaty”. Perhaps the only excuse for watering down this commitment is that it was written amidst pre-election fever, and the widespread belief that Gordon Brown would call an election within a few days. Yet it was hardly off-the-cuff, or to an insignificant audience. It was a signed article to the newspapers three million or so readers.

Long on integrity?

  • Michael Crick
  • 5 Mar 08, 10:36 PM

So the government won a comfortable majority of 63 in its efforts to stop a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Conservatives emerged for once as the most united party on an European matter, whilst the Lib Dems, normally at one on EU matters, saw a quarter of their MPs defy the whips.

It was a lively debate, and my favourite moment came when Peter Lilley tried to compare the Foreign Secretary David Miliband with the corrupt and long-deceased former governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. Long was once asked by an aide how he would explain to people why he'd ditched an election pledge. "Tell 'em I lied," Long is reported to have said.

When Lilley said Miliband and his colleagues didn't even have the integrity of Huey Long, the deputy speaker said it was un-Parliamentary language and he should back down at once. "I withdraw that remark," Mr Lilley duly said. "They have the integrity of Huey Long."

After the laughter had died down, Mr Lilley was forced to withdraw that comment too!

Lib Dem resignation

  • Michael Crick
  • 5 Mar 08, 11:33 AM

Nick CleggI hear that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has already accepted one resignation from a front bench member over the issue of holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

All right Jack?

  • Michael Crick
  • 3 Mar 08, 10:13 PM

Gordon BrownGordon Brown looks set for some embarrassment when the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party meets next Monday (10 March 2008) to pick a new General Secretary following last autumn’s resignation of Peter Watt over the David Abrahams proxy loans affair. The Prime Minister’s candidate is David Pitt-Watson, who was recruited by the party from the City of London in 1997 and spent a couple of years as Labour’s finance director and assistant general secretary, when he was credited with helping turn round Labour’s finances. Yet most of Pitt-Watson’s career has been spent in the City, where until recently he ran Hermes Focus Asset Management, and where he has built a reputation as a leading advocate of greater activism by shareholders. Pitt-Watson, who’s been rejected for the post in the past, was also a significant financial backer of Gordon Brown’s leadership election. He is seem by the Prime Minister and his allies as having sufficient business brain and enough of an independent background to shake the party up following its recent funding scandals, but also to sort out the party’s mounting debts once more.

Continue reading "All right Jack?"

Let sleeping peers...

  • Michael Crick
  • 3 Mar 08, 05:11 PM

Sleeping peerMuch amusement in the BBC office at Millbank this afternoon as we all watched the television feed from the House of Lords, and observed a leading Liberal Democrat peeress sitting - or reclined - right behind her party colleague Lord Thomas of Gresford as he spoke at great length in a debate on immigration.

Lord Thomas's arguments obviously required the utmost concentration.

I'd probably be hauled up before the Lords authorities if I were to name names. So I won't. And I'd be in big trouble next time I visited Edinburgh and bumped into her husband, a prominent Scottish journalist.

Canvassing For Livingstone

  • Michael Crick
  • 3 Mar 08, 02:13 PM

ken203blog.jpgI am amused to see that several prominent artists have donated works to Ken Livingstone’s re-election campaign for London mayor, among them Banksy, Anthony Gormley, Jeremy Deller and Marc Quinn. The works are due to be auctioned this Thursday at the Aquarium Gallery. A new form of canvassing, I suppose.

I trust, however that Mr Livingstone and the Labour Party will be registering these donations with the Electoral Commission. So far there’s no sign on the Electoral Commission register that Ken Livingstone is even running for London Mayor, let alone of any donations to his campaign.

I was also interested to see that the Sunday Times yesterday followed up my story on Friday about Labour failing to register with the Commission the cut-price work performed by their advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. In line with what Saatchi’s Communications Director Eleanor Conroy told Newsnight last November, she told the Sunday Times on Friday that the work is “heavily discounted because we are so keen to work on it and so passionate about it … We give them a massive discount.” But later Ms Conroy changed her tune, as she did with Newsnight, and said “it is not a discount”. All very odd.

But the law is clear. And discount of more than 10% has to be registered as a donation. And “massive” sounds to me, like it was more than 10%.

Should Labour have declared Saatchi work as donation?

  • Michael Crick
  • 29 Feb 08, 03:20 PM

Saatchi and Saatchi's Not Flash, Just Gordon posterIt's a great mystery. You'll recall that last summer the Labour Party announced - with some glee - that they'd recruited the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi to work on the next election campaign. It was heralded as a great coup for Gordon Brown at the time - Mrs Thatcher's favourite advertising agency was now working for Labour. And Saatchi and Saatchi worked frantically for their new political clients in late August, September and early October. The account manager Robert Senior and his colleagues came up with the clever slogan, "Not Flash, Just Gordon". And you can imagine the intense frustration and dismay amongst the Saatchi and Saatchi team in their offices in Charlotte Street when GB suddenly decided there wouldn't be an autumn election after all.

Continue reading "Should Labour have declared Saatchi work as donation?"

Hold on Mr Blair

  • Michael Crick
  • 28 Feb 08, 04:54 PM

Sir Ian BlairThe Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair seems a bit miffed that neither the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, nor the Commons Privileges Committee referred the Derek Conway case to him for a possible criminal investigation. One former MP who is a barrister tells me there may be strong constitutional arguments why the police couldn't pursue this case.

Technically parliament itself is a court of law, and so Derek Conway has been tried and convicted by Parliament, and so if the police were to investigate Conway and he ended up in an ordinary criminal court, he would effectively be tried twice, and one court would be challenging the verdict of another. Article nine of the 1689 Bill of Rights - the article which establishes Parliamentary privilege - says: "That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament." So any outside court considering the Conway could therefore be deemed to be questioning what Parliament has already decided.

No doubt some constitutional anorak will tell me that my former MP friend has got it all wrong, and that this is all bonkers. But maybe not.

Jones the sneak?

  • Michael Crick
  • 28 Feb 08, 10:42 AM

Gordon Brown outside Number 10 Downing StreetI said some weeks ago that we'd be able to assess the importance and success of Gordon Brown's new chief adviser Stephen Carter, if he manages to bring in a few more high-powered people to beef up the Downing Street staff. The word for some weeks has been that Brown has been negotiating to appoint Clive Jones, the former head of ITV News and the Regions, to overhaul Number Ten's communications strategy.

All very amusing, for Clive Jones was once David Cameron's boss at Carlton Television, where the Tory leader worked as Director of Communications. Indeed Jones could soon be doing for Gordon Brown, what David Cameron did for him.

How satisfying for Brown to think that he employs his opponent's former boss. Indeed Jones could be just the man to advise all about David Cameron's strengths and weaknesses.

"And," one mischievous Labour MP has suggested to me, "if David Cameron ever had a drugs issue in those days, then Jones may know all about it".


UPDATE
I have now been told by a senior Downing Street source that the story is 'rubbish' and that Clive Jones is not joining Number Ten.

Wish I'd taken a punt now, really - on the Rock!

  • Paul Mason
  • 18 Feb 08, 08:31 AM

Two weeks ago I appeared on Newsnight to talk about the bids in for Northern Rock. I went as near as I could to suggesting that the pullout of Olivant, leaving Branson plus the in-house "bid", left the Rock very close to Nationalisation. The reason? Both bids effectively only offered half a billion of new money in return for the government removing risk on 24bn worth of debt. Of course only Treasury people could be privy to the deep inner mathematics of the bids but even a jackass such as myself could work out that this possibly did not represent best value for taxpayers' money.

I had strong belief there and then that it would have to be temporarily nationalised. Why? For a reason you can't stake your reputation on: the tone of voice of everybody in government I spoke to betrayed their despair at the non-appearance of decent bids from the private sector. When I asked Downing Street that night: "are you planning to nationalise the Rock" the reply was "Treasury matter, Paul" - as in Father Jack Hackett's famous all-purpose brush off "That would be an ecumenical matter..."

Continue reading "Wish I'd taken a punt now, really - on the Rock!"

Three key tests for David Cameron

  • Michael Crick
  • 8 Feb 08, 06:08 PM

cameron20330.jpgQuietly, and barely noticed, people in the political community are starting to contemplate a change of government, and to prepare for it. Government political advisers are putting out feelers for jobs in the private sector. Left-leaning think tanks, lobbyists and PR firms who’ve all thrived in the years of New Labour, are starting to re-orientate themselves, trying to recruit more staff with Conservative backgrounds, all in readiness for the day they will have to prove their worth under a Cameron regime, and show strong personal links with his likely team of ministers.

But personally I am far from convinced that David Cameron will emerge from the next election as Prime Minister – if you put a gun to my head I’d say it’s still only 50-50. Despite Gordon Brown’s troubles (and continuing gloom in the Labour ranks), I know that many leading Conservatives privately share my doubts about their prospects.

It’s that 2008 doesn’t yet have the feel of the years 1994 to 1997, when the newly elected Tony Blair inspired a genuine popular enthusiasm for New Labour, which by 1996 became a widespread assumption that Labour would return to power. Whilst many of the public have severe doubts about Gordon Brown and the Labour government, they aren’t yet convinced that David Cameron is the answer, or has the answers.

And whilst the Tories are ahead in the polls, they aren’t yet matching Tony Blair’s huge double-digit (often more than 20 per cent) leads of the mid-1990s. And remember the huge bias in the electoral system which means (depending on which analysis you trust) the Conservatives have to get between six and ten per cent head of Labour simply to win an equal number of seats.

To persuade me that David Cameron is on his way to Downing Street let me pose three tests.

Continue reading "Three key tests for David Cameron"

Kite non-runner

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Feb 08, 04:51 PM

Caroline FlintIf ministerial careers depended on their popularity amongst Labour backbenchers, then Gordon Brown’s new housing minister Caroline Flint would be in deep, deep trouble.

There has been an outcry amongst Labour MPs in the last 48 hours about Ms Flint’s speech suggesting that people who live in council houses could be evicted if they don’t actively look for jobs.

This idea went down extremely badly with Ms Flint's colleagues, even though many of them accept – as Jackie Long reported on Newsnight – that this was merely a kite flying exercise.

“There are four kinds of policies in politics,” a former Labour cabinet minister told me (barely able to hide his disbelief at what Ms Flint had said), “the best policies are those which both make sense and are popular. Then you’ve got policies that don’t make sense but which are popular, and then there are policies which make sense but are unpopular. The worst of all are policies like this - which are neither sensible nor popular.”

Nothing fishy here

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Feb 08, 12:48 PM

Plasma screen tvI went to a hearing of the Information Tribunal this morning where the Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke and a couple of Sunday newspaper journalists were trying to get the House of Commons authorities to release more details about what MPs can claim on their additional costs allowance.

This is the money they get for having to occupy a second home, either in London or in their constituencies. They are reimbursed not just for rental or mortgage interest costs on their second home but also a general household expenditure, including items of furniture.

We heard from Andrew Walker, Director General of Finance and Administration, who argued that providing more detail would be an invasion of MPs personal privacy.

A well known Oxford Street store will no doubt be delighted to learn that that the Commons finance department keeps what Mr Walker calls a “John Lewis list” of reasonably priced items. TV sets for instance, which are neither luxury/top of the range nor “the bottom end of the market”.

So Mr Walker’s department would be unlikely to accept a claim for a plasma TV, he told the tribunal, and claims for iPods are rejected on the grounds that iPods are regarded as a personal items, but he said fish tanks “may be claimable”. Although he did know of one case where a claim for a fish tank had been rejected.

If only the BBC accounts were as understanding as this.

Two things I hate about British media coverage of the US elections

  • Michael Crick
  • 6 Feb 08, 03:12 PM

Hillary woos the middle classesFirst, the use of the term “middle class voters”. The trouble is that “middle class” in America means a very different group of people to the British “middle class”. In the USA “middle class” essentially means “middle income” – the average Joe – people we in Britain might term “lower middle class” or “upper working class”. But the “middle class” in Britain are essentially the top half of the population - the better off, people in professional jobs, who own their own homes and so on. This difference explains why American politicians, Democrat and Republican, frequently win cheers for saying “we’ve got to do more for middle class voters”, whereas any politician who said that in Britain would be taking a huge risk. They would be condemned as elitist, and accused of neglecting the less well-off. So talking of "middle class" people in the the American context becomes confusing and meaningless for a British audience. It's better, if talking of the American "middle class", to use the term "middle income".

Second, can we please stop referring to Hillary Clinton merely as “Hillary”? Calling politicians by their Christian names implies an element of favour or intimacy. It’s dangerous and should always be avoided by independent journalists and especially broadcasters. Would we have called the 1980 presidential race a contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronnie? Of course not. OK, one needs to distinguish Hillary Clinton from her husband, so she should be called “Hillary Clinton” or “Mrs Clinton”. And the same argument applies to the Labour and Conservative contenders in the current London mayoral election, who are often referred to in the media as “Ken” (Livingstone) and “Boris” (Johnson). It’s terribly unfair on the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick and all the other candidates.

The latest score...

  • Michael Crick
  • 4 Feb 08, 10:09 PM

Here's Newsnight's latest list of MPs who employ members of their families, or have done so recently. Our named total is now 96, though we know the overall figure is probably around 200, maybe more.

David Cameron said on Friday that more than 70 Conservative MPs employ relatives. Nick Clegg has said there are around 12 Lib Dems. Labour has yet to give us an official number but "sources" say today their "best guess is between 90 and 100".

So to add to our initial list of 79 - already supplemented by Martin Caton and the Speaker Michael Martin - we can now add the following 15:

Peter Atkinson
Julian Brazier
Janet Dean
Nadine Dorries
Sharon Hodgson
Phil Hope
Lindsay Hoyle
Chris McCafferty
Denis Murphy
Bill Olner
John Pugh
Laurence Robertson
Geraldine Smith
Bob Spink
Hugo Swire

Are the two remaining Northern Rock bids enough to stave off nationalisation?

  • Paul Mason
  • 4 Feb 08, 06:41 PM

I don't think so. The Treasury said today that any private sector solution to Northern Rock has to offer the taxpayer a "demonstrably better" outcome than any nationalisation. Let's be clear, (as I always say to finance geeks "as if for an idot") what the economic stakes are:
- Northern Rock owes the government 24bn pounds it can't pay back...

Continue reading "Are the two remaining Northern Rock bids enough to stave off nationalisation?"

Relative satisfaction

  • Michael Crick
  • 1 Feb 08, 06:39 PM

It’s nice to see that all three of the major party leaders now seem to be adopting a proposal I made more than four years ago to the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer – that MPs should have to state of the Register of MPs Interests if they employ any members of their families.

Michael CrickI made the proposal in the autumn of 2003, during the so-called Betsygate episode, when I passed on to Sir Philip serious allegations I had received form senior Tories to the effect that the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith was employing his wife Betsy as his secretary, and paying her from his Parliamentary allowances, but, it was alleged to me, she was doing little or no work. After a long and extensive enquiry the allegations were dismissed, and Sir Philip concluded that Mrs Duncan Smith had in fact been working for her husband on parliamentary business.

I made my proposal for greater disclosure because I suspected – despite the judgement on IDS – that there was a significant amount of abuse by MPs in this area. If MPs had to say publicly if they were employing their spouses, children and so on, then, I reckoned, they might think twice about allowing them to do little or no work. Other people have gone further than me, arguing that MPs ought to declare the names of all staff employed from public funds.

My suggestion was roundly ignored – by Sir Philip, by the Standards and Privileges Committee, by the Speaker and the Parliamentary authorities, by the media, and by MPs and the political parties.

Now, with today’s scramble by the party leaders to outdo each other in transparency on all this, I am having to revise again the number of MPs who were employing family members. On Wednesday night I said it could be up to a hundred. Last night, when Newsnight published its list of 79 names, I said it was probably well over a hundred. But on today’s evidence it looks like it could easily be as many as 250. David Cameron has said the Conservatives now reckon more than 70 of their 193 MPs employ family members – almost 40 per cent - while Nick Clegg says there are at least twelve Lib Dems.

parlynight203.jpgNewsnight’s list of 79 names has now crept up to 81, with the addition of Martin Caton, and the Speaker Michael Martin, who employs his daughter Mary on a part-time basis. Of our 81 names, 47 are Labour, 25 Conservative, 8 Lib Dems, plus the Speaker. And given the figures David Cameron and Nick Clegg have produced today, we can calculate that the very minimum number of MPs who employ family members is now 140. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think the Labour total could eventually climb from 47 to 150, hence my new estimate of around 250.

David Cameron says the Conservative front bench will all have to declare the own circumstances on this by 1 April. Fine – but why wait two months? Why not tell by 12 noon on Monday?

MPs who employ relatives

  • Michael Crick
  • 31 Jan 08, 07:44 PM

Here's Newsnight's latest list of MPs whom we think employ one or more of their own relatives. This is based partly on lists published in the Daily Mail and the Times today, and partly on our own research. There are several other names we've been given, but not been able to confirm, so they are not posted here. After conversations with MPs today I'm inclined to think the total number employing relatives could be well over 100. Of course the vast majority of these MPs will be employing their relatives quite legitimately, and they will deserve every penny they get, if not more.

Nick Ainger
Kevin Barron
Margaret Beckett
Sir Stuart Bell
Hilary Benn
Sir Paul Beresford
Colin Breed
Malcolm Bruce
Angela Browning
Alistair Burt
Lorely Burt
Dawn Butler
Sir Menzies Campbell
Christopher Chope
Michael Clapham
Paul Clark
David Clelland
Derek Conway
David Crausby
Ian Davidson
Philip Davies
Quentin Davies
David Davis
Jim Dobbin
Jeff Ennis
Mark Fisher
Caroline Flint
Hywel Francis
Roger Gale
Ian Gibson
Linda Gilroy
Chris Grayling
Peter Hain
Mike Hall
David Hamilton
Stephen Hammond
Tom Harris
Oliver Heald
David Heath
Kelvin Hopkins
Eric Illsley
Alan Keen
Stephen Ladyman
Bob Laxton
Edward Leigh
Tom Levitt
Ian Liddell-Grainger
Martin Linton
Peter Luff
Andrew MacKinlay
Eric Martlew
Sarah McCarthy-Fry
Tommy McAvoy
Patrick McLoughlin
Andrew Miller
Michael Moore
Malcolm Moss
Albert Owen
Owen Patterson
Mike Penning
Mark Pritchard
John Redwood
Linda Riordan
Dan Rogerson
Adrian Sanders
Jim Sheridan
Andrew Smith
Angela Smith
Sir Peter Soulsby
Anthony Steen
Howard Stoate
Gary Streeter
Desmond Swayne
Mark Tami
Dari Taylor
Ben Wallace
Alan Williams
Iain Wright
Sir George Young

Ton up on MPs employing relatives?

  • Michael Crick
  • 31 Jan 08, 12:10 PM

parliament203blog.jpgMuch speculation at Westminster over how the Sunday Times originally managed to finger Derek Conway in the first place. Their original article, on 27 May 2007, not only specified how much he was paying his son Freddie, but also managed to quote how much three other MPs were paying their wives to work as staff - Malcolm Bruce, Nick Ainger and Sir Stuart Bell.

Many Tory MPs think the Sunday Times must have had a mole inside the Fees Office, the Commons department which pays MPs staff. But there's another theory. Notice that the four MPs named by the Sunday Times had names starting with A, B or C? Perhaps someone in the Fees Office simply left a sheet of paper of MPs 'A to C' on a photocopier, or some similar mishap. Stranger things have happened.

Jeremy Paxman was sceptical last night about my suggestion on the programme that as many as 100 MPs could be employing relatives of one kind or another. The Daily Mail has a list today of 63 who do so, and just from memory I can add three others. So my estimate of up to 100 in all may not be as ludicrous as Jeremy seemed to think. A Sunday newspaper is doing a big survey, and the Tory whips have told their MPs to cooperate, so we may get a better picture this weekend.

Family favourites

  • Michael Crick
  • 28 Jan 08, 01:31 PM

The case of Derek Conway, the Conservative MP who has been reprimanded by the Commons Standards Committee for employing his son from the MP’s Parliamentary staffing allowance, highlights a problem I’ve been banging on about for several years.

When I last checked about three years ago, there were around 60 MPs - almost ten per cent of the total - who employed staff with the same surname. Now they won’t all have been family members and there would have been the odd coincidence of name, but the vast majority of them would have been wives, sons, sisters and so on. On top of that there will be many other MPs who employ members of their families with different surnames.

heffer203.jpgNow I’m not saying all these MPs are corrupt. Far from it. There are many MPs spouses who do a good job for them, and deserve every penny they are paid from public funds (and probably a lot more). The late Eric Heffer MP was always shadowed by his wife and parliamentary secretary Doris Heffer. According to the diaries of Giles Radice, Doris Heffer would sit in the front row of the audience when Heffer was speaking, saying "nonsense, Eric" if he said something with which she disagreed. A similar supporting role was provided to Brian Sedgemore, who late in his career defected from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. In his case, it wasn't 'the wife' who worked for him, but rather, 'the ex-wife', continuing her duties even after they had divorced.

But almost everyone at Westminster knows there is significant abuse of the system. They know there are many MPs who pay staffing allowances to relatives in return for little or no work, as seems to have happened with Derek Conway and his son. And the big increases in MPs staffing allowances in recent years have probably made the abuse more prevalent, enabling MPs to have enough funds to employ a genuine secretary and/or researcher at the same time as also funnelling money to a relative who does little or no work for their money.

I’m not saying MPs should be banned from employing relatives, a rule they have in the German Parliament, and the US Senate. In many cases it makes a lot of sense, and given MPs gruelling schedules, it may do a lot to keep some of their marriages going. But at the very least there should be a public record of which MPs employ relatives from public funds. But attempts I’ve made to secure such information through Freedom of Information requests have met with the response from the Westminster authorities that it can’t be provided to me for reasons of privacy and security reasons. Oh yeah!

Overall, British politics may be dogged by regular sleaze stories, but in reality there are few examples where I can think of British politicians abusing their positions for personal financial gain (as opposed to political gain). The employment by certain MPs of relatives who do little or no work is one big exception to this. The Parliamentary authorities should be more vigilant in putting a stop to it. An additional section in the Register of Members Interests on the employment of family members might help, causing MPs to think twice about whom they employ.

Reshuffle ruminations

  • Michael Crick
  • 25 Jan 08, 06:28 PM

Gordon Brown’s first government reshuffle, in the wake of Peter Hain’s resignation, was rather more extensive than it might have been, with a procession of ministers - James Purnell, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint simply taking short steps behind each other up the ministerial ladder. It must surely be hugely disruptive to the working of government when several ministers like these in complicated and sensitive jobs are only in post for seven months before they move on. It would have been far simpler surely, to promote Caroline Flint from minister of state at the department of Work and Pensions into the Secretary of State’s job and leave Purnell, Burnham and Cooper in their existing positions. By my reckoning Yvette Cooper is the ninth person to serve as Chief Secretary in less than eleven years of Labour government (Alistair Darling, Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn, Andrew Smith, Paul Boateng, Des Browne, Stephen Timms and Andy Burnham being her predecessors).

Yvette CooperNow with Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper we have the first married couple in a British cabinet in British history, though not, I suspect, the first lovers (suggestions anyone?). It would be interesting to know, though, how they will handle things when Balls goes to see his wife to negotiate future schools budgets.

The resignation of Bruce Grocott as government whip in the Lords sees the departure from government of probably the last remaining link with the Wilson government, since Grocott first acted as a ministerial PPS in 1975. More significant, Brown loses an experienced, battle-hardened figure who played an important role at the heart of the Blair regime (as Blair’s PPS). His replacement as Lords whip, Jan Royall was once extremely close to Neil Kinnock, having worked as his secretary and adviser for almost twenty years, in both Westminster and Brussels. More recently she was a key figure in the Brown leadership campaign, and I recall her at one campaign event fulfilling the rather unseemly task (for a member of the Lords, I felt), of kneeling on the ground, arms out-stretched, trying to hold back the pressure of reporters and cameramen.

Peter Hain faces the pressIn Peter Hain, the Cabinet has undoubtedly lost one of its more colourful figures. Hain has been a famous face for almost four decades, longer than anyone in government. He first made his name, barely out of his teens, with his chairmanship of the anti-apartheid campaign, which successfully blocked the 1970 South African test tour, sparking the famous headline ‘Hain Stops Play’. He’s one of the few Cabinet ministers to have written any books, and his long list of works even includes a novel – The Peking Connection - though I’ve yet to read it. (The only other ministerial novelist I know of is the Justice Minister Michael Wills, who’s recently published a couple of thrillers under the pseudonym David Mckeowen).

True, Hain had been greatly weakened politically by his poor showing in the deputy leadership contest, and by the subsequent furore of his donations, but he was one of independent voices in government, occasionally willing to show dissent with one or another aspect of government policy. He was one of the few people round Gordon Brown’s cabinet table whom I could imagine arguing with the Prime Minister or being willing to tell Brown when he was wrong.

With James Purnell (37), Andy Burnham (38), Yvette Cooper (38), Ed Miliband (38) and Ruth Kelly (39), the Cabinet now has five members under the age of 40, and two others, Douglas Alexander and Ed Balls who are only 40, making it surely the most youthful cabinet in modern times. OK, it makes the government look youthful and fresh, and these are all highly intelligent and able individuals, but what Gordon Brown badly needs are more wise old greybeards who have a bit more experience of real life than political advisers have.

People, in fact, like Peter Hain and Bruce Grocott.

Watch Newsnight coverage of Peter Hain's resignation on the Big Fat Newsnight Politics Page.

Text of Conservative Letter re Newsnight revelations

  • Paul Mason
  • 15 Jan 08, 06:51 PM

Lisa Klein
Director of Party Funding
The Electoral Commission
Trevelyan House
Great Peter Street
London SW1P 2HW
Tuesday, 15th January 2008

BBC Newsnight last night drew attention to three flights taken by David Cameron in October 2005 which were declared in the Register of Members’ Interests but not to the Electoral Commission.

Continue reading "Text of Conservative Letter re Newsnight revelations"

Latest from Conservatives on Cameron's flights

  • Paul Mason
  • 15 Jan 08, 06:42 PM

For those of you glued to your PCs over the issue of David Cameron's non-declared flights, as reported below and on Newsnight last night, the Conservatives have now responded, registering the Dewsbury flight and correcting the name of the donor on another flight. In future David Cameron will register all flights with the Electoral Commission. The text of the CCO letter below, and now, Mr Hain, about that 108,000....

Continue reading "Latest from Conservatives on Cameron's flights"

Cameron's choppers

  • Paul Mason
  • 15 Jan 08, 04:14 PM

Here at Newsnight we are currently engaged in a theological dispute with Conservative Central Office of the “angels on a pinhead” variety. Namely, how many members of the Conservative Party have to be in a helicopter before the trip falls below the eligibility criteria for registration as a donation with the Electoral Commission....

Continue reading "Cameron's choppers"

Happy families

  • Michael Crick
  • 9 Jan 08, 05:30 PM

One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was an excellent, highly readable, biography of Arthur Balfour by the American academic RJQ Adams (Read The Times review here). Not only was Balfour Conservative Prime Minister from 1902-05, he was still in Cabinet more than 24 years after leaving Downing Street, and – little known fact this – Vice-President of Manchester United. He was also responsible for the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle!’, a reference to his promotions from the Tory leader Lord Salisbury, whom Balfour succeeded as PM, and just happened to be Balfour's uncle.

Hilary Clinton’s surprise success in New Hampshire, and Jeremy’s interesting exchanges with the 19-year old Bhutto heir yesterday (watch it here), got me thinking again how about importance families still are in modern politics, even in the democratic age. If Hilary Clinton reaches the White House, and goes on to complete a second term, then America will have been run by either Bushes or Clintons for the whole 28 year period from 1989 to 2017 (with Bush Senior also Vice-President from 1981 to 1989).

Gordon Brown and Ed BallsIn Britain, Gordon Brown’s Cabinet has Hilary Benn, of course, the son, grandson and great-grandson of MPs, (and the father of one, too, in all probability, given that his daughter recently became a Labour candidate at the age of just 18). Then we have Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper; the Miliband brothers; and Douglas Alexander, the brother of Wendy, Labour’s new leader in Scotland. Indeed, a Cambridge academic David Runciman has recently argued in the London Review of Books that the Brown administration is a real “family affair” and reminds him of the era of the Pitts (Elder, Younger and various relations) in the late eighteenth century. (Runciman should know something about political genes. He himself comes from one of Britain’s most distinguished families, and is heir to the Runciman viscountcy - the first viscount sat in the cabinets of Asquith, Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin).

In some ways it’s obvious why family relationships should be so important in political careers – it’s in the blood, one meets important people at a very early age, one has the benefit of family advice, experience and wisdom, and there may be the odd bit of string-pulling too.

But there’s another factor, as well, I think, particularly in conservative societies like America and South Asia. Human beings seem to like dynastic government. Hence the prevalence of monarchies throughout history. Maybe there’s something psychologically comforting about being ruled by people who are related to each other. Perhaps we value genetic continuity.

It’s worth exploring. I’d love to do a TV or radio programme on it one day, but so far my bids have all been rejected.

Get Carter!

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Jan 08, 06:12 PM

So Gordon Brown seems finally to have appointed someone to fill the kind of “chief of staff” political advisory role which Jonathan Powell carried out so successfully throughout Tony Blair’s premiership.

Stephen Carter, who has just been made the Downing Street Head of Strategy, has an impressive CV, holding a string of four chief executive jobs by the age of 43: the big advertising agency J.Walter Thompson; the broadcaster NTL; the communications regulator OFCOM; and most recently as boss of the top business public relations firm Brunswick.

Continue reading "Get Carter!"

A question of age

  • Michael Crick
  • 7 Jan 08, 12:29 PM

So which British political party would select a leader who was 71? OK, John McCain hasn't won the Republican nomination yet, but for him even to be leading contender for the US presidency is in stark contrast to Britain, where our party leaders seem to get younger and younger. McCain will be 72 by the time of this November's presidential poll.

Continue reading "A question of age"

Welcome to the caucus circus

  • David Grossman
  • 3 Jan 08, 05:52 PM

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee in IowaThe State of Iowa cherishes its “first in the nation status” - it gets to start choosing the candidates who will eventually run for president before anyone else gets a look in.

Over recent years other states have tried to leapfrog Iowa and sneak into the process before them, but the Iowans are a jealous lot and have moved their caucus to the first week of the year. So there.

Continue reading "Welcome to the caucus circus"

No Raila, No Peace - where next for Kenya

  • Paul Mason
  • 2 Jan 08, 07:25 PM

Corrupt government, rigged election, violence - some of it ethnically motivated: Kenya's crisis has thrown up stereotypical images of an African conflict. But the country's present agony is the product of a fast developing economy, and massive aspirations to democracy, which have been dashed...

President Kibaki came to power in 2002 promising democratic change; investment flowed in, the middle class grew rapidly: but corruption was slow to disappear. Raila Odinga left the government in 2005 and formed the Orange Democratic Movement, harnessing the power of NGOs and grassroots organisations in a voter registration campaign. Until days before the election, Odinga was ahead in the polls; and he was ahead as the votes were counted...

Continue reading "No Raila, No Peace - where next for Kenya"

The Political Year 2007

  • Michael Crick
  • 21 Dec 07, 04:46 PM

osborne203x100.jpgIt happened in Blackpool, around 11am on Monday 1 October - not just the crucial turning point in the politics of 2007, but what could prove to be a decisive moment in the politics of this year, and perhaps this decade.

Until that morning Gordon Brown and Labour were riding high in the polls, with wide expectations that the Prime Minister would call (and win) a snap election in early November.

Indeed, over the summer the Conservatives were in such dire straits, following their spring row over grammar schools, that some people were wondering whether they’d really made the right choice when David Cameron was elected leader in 2005.

'Things will change'

And it was quite widely suggested that Cameron would have to move Osborne from Shadow Chancellor: Osborne was too lightweight, it was said, and Cameron should do all he could to persuade William Hague to take the job instead. Is there anything we can do to turn things round, Tories would ask me over lunch.

“Don’t worry, things will change,” I told them. “They always do. Brown’s honeymoon can’t last for ever.” And now I find myself saying the same sort of thing to Labour MPs.

George Osborne’s speech that October morning wasn’t a great oration in traditional terms - there were no great moments of rhetoric, no memorable lines. But it had an almost immediate effect on the political landscape.

His two proposals - to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £m, and to reduce stamp duty on house purchases - excited Tories in Blackpool and gave them new hope. More important, his tax plans grabbed the public imagination. Labour’s poll lead suddenly got narrower; Tory spirits rose markedly; and Gordon Brown had to announce there wouldn’t be an election, after all.

Labour has yet to recover from the-election-that-never-was.

A general malaise descended over the party; Labour ministers and backbenchers have spent the autumn in a demoralised daze, despairing about what Brown should do.

browng_203x100.jpgWeek after week David Cameron trounced Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions; big set pieces which were trailed as a chance for Gordon Brown to set out his great “vision” fell flat - among them the autumn Queen’s Speech, and the Prime Minister’s annual Guildhall speech on foreign policy.

In politics, failure tends to breed failure. Where the opposition parties and the media sense that a government is in trouble, then small crises become big ones, and ministers spent the autumn dogged by the woes of Northern Rock, the missing Revenue & Customs discs, and a new party funding scandal.

If George Osborne is a strong contender for politician of the year, he’s not without opposition.

On the government side, my nominee would be Jack Straw, the great survivor, who has sat continuously on the Labour front bench since 1981. Well before Tony Blair finally stood down, Straw took command of Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign, and handled it brilliantly, to the extent that all possible opposition was deterred or barred from standing - including David Miliband and John Reid.

Politician of the year

So ruthless and determined was the Brown camp in collecting nominations that the only other declared contender, John McDonnell, failed to get enough MPs to back him. Indeed, a little known fact was that with nominations from 313 Labour MPs by the end, Gordon Brown could boast that, excluding Irish members and the Speaker and his deputies, he had been backed by a majority of British MPs.

Other contenders for politician of the year must surely include Alex Salmond, for his success in becoming first minister of Scotland; those other great survivors Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, for finally agreeing power-sharing (and working together like life-long chums); and of course, the Lib Dem acting leader (after Ming Campbell’s resignation) Vince Cable, whose line about Gordon Brown turning from Stalin to Mr Bean was the most memorable Commons quote of the year.

vince_cable203x100.jpgCable impresses voters with his air of common sense of reasonableness, and in a TV studio has the disarming and attractive tactic of agreeing with about half of what his opponent says, before then gently explaining why the other half is rubbish.

There’s clearly a bit of needle in his exchanges with Gordon Brown - perhaps because Cable is a decent economist (who has excelled on Northern Rock). Maybe because the two men used to work together when they were both members of the Labour Party in Scotland in the 1970s, and they both contributed to the Socialist Red Paper on Scotland.

Nick Clegg will have great difficulty matching Cable’s performances in the Commons. The new Liberal Democrat leader launched his leadership campaign in Sheffield by saying his party’s new leader would need to take risks, but then, as front-runner, ran a campaign which did anything but take risks - nor, does his new front bench team announced just before Christmas suggest the kind of risk-taking he spoke of.

Risk-takers

Unless Clegg does shake up his party in quite a radical way, at the cost of annoying a few Lib Dems, then he’ll find it hard to win back voters at a time when the centre ground of British politics has become exceedingly crowded. One such risk (though hardly a great vote-winner) could be to drop ‘Liberal Democrat’ in favour of plain Liberal - the term he frequently he used during his leadership challenge, not, it seems, by accident.

George Osborne and David Cameron could tell Nick Clegg a thing or two about taking risks. I’m told there was quite a debate within the Tory high command over whether Osborne should actually announce his tax measures in Blackpool.

The risk-takers argued that the Tories had to do something to win back ground ahead of a likely election. More cautious heads argued that cutting inheritance tax might backfire, and that tax cuts were no longer a great vote-winner.

Ultimately the risk-takers prevailed, Osborne made his speech, and the story of 2007 took us in a very new direction.

Doorstepping in Dorset

  • Michael Crick
  • 17 Dec 07, 04:24 PM

Conservative logoIt’s not often these days that I get to do an old fashioned doorstep - not now I’m meant to be a respectable political editor. Last Thursday, however, I travelled down to Poole in Dorset to call on a man who intrigued me - one of the biggest Conservative Party donors of recent years.

Continue reading "Doorstepping in Dorset"

Questions for Harriet Harman

  • David Grossman
  • 29 Nov 07, 07:21 PM

Harriet Harman is STILL fundraising for the deputy leadership election that finished on the 24th June.
Why? I'm told her campaign vastly overspent the donations received during the contest. One of her team told me they were "deficit financed".

harriet_invite203x100.jpgShe's holding a fundraiser at a nightclub in Leicester Square in London next Wednesday. The invitation says:

"This is the last opportunity to raise funds towards the cost of our very successful campaign"

My question is simple - where will the money raised go?

Clearly it's not for current expenditure since the contest finished long ago. If the campaign is paying back loans, then those loans should have been reported within 30 days to the electoral commission.

The Electoral Commission's entry for Harriet Harman only records one loan arrangement - an overdraft facility for £10,000 with Nat West taken out in October 2006.

This lunchtime I filed a series of 11 questions to the Labour Party - I'm still waiting for a response
Here are the questions:

1 How did Harriet Harman fund her campaign for the deputy leadership election?

2 How much did the campaign cost to run in total?

3 Is the loan for £10,000 pounds from the National Westminster Bank taken out on the 3rd October 2006 the only loan she has entered into to fund her campaign?

4 Why is she still raising money for a campaign that finished on 22nd June 2007?

5 Where will the money go that is raised at the event planned for 5th December 2007 at Sounds Nightclub in Leicester Square?

6 If the money raised at this event goes towards settling campaign debts, where are the required records of those debts?

7 Did she borrow money in her own name for the purposes of the campaign without declaring it to the electoral commission as a loan?

8 Did she borrow money against any assets owned jointly with Jack Dromey for the purpose of funding her campaign?

9 Why is Harriet Harman using her office in the House of Commons as a base from which to raise party political funds, in contravention of Parliamentary rules? (the initiation for her fund raiser on the 5th December invites people to send donations to Charlotte Montague at her office at the House of Commons)

10 Is Charlotte Montague’s salary paid from Harriet Harman’s MP’s allowances?

11 If Charlotte Montague is paid from Harriet Harman’s MP’s allowances why is she working on Harriet Harman’s campaign from Harriet Harman’s office at the House of Commons? Why has she not registered this in the relevant register of interests for MP’s staff?

Three unanswered questions for Jon Mendelsohn

  • Paul Mason
  • 28 Nov 07, 12:55 PM

mendelsohn_brown.jpgDavid Abrahams’ dramatic call to Jeremy Paxman, in the middle of Newsnight ( watch it here), leaves Labour’s Larry Whitty with some very specific questions to address in his forthcoming inquiry. I was told categorically last night, by a Labour spokesperson, that Jon Mendelsohn had never solicited money from Mr Abrahams since he had become Gordon Brown’s chief fundraiser. Yet within minutes of Newsnight running that Labour response, and Geoff Hoon repeating it, Mr Abrahams was on the phone quoting a letter – he says handwritten, Mendelsohn says typed – from Mr Mendelsohn, which he says was an implicit request for cash.

Continue reading "Three unanswered questions for Jon Mendelsohn"

Well, well, welfare reform...

  • David Grossman
  • 26 Nov 07, 04:51 PM

brownsleeve203.jpgToday's announcement about welfare reform took me a bit by surprise, but not because of the content. (The Conservatives say the government has just re-announced the same old stuff in order to try and regain the initiative).

No, I was surprised that there was any announcement at all.

Before I put out my film on welfare reform in Wisconsin (watch it here, read the blog here), I checked with the press office at the Department for Work and Pensions whether the government had any plans to announce anything new in the near future.

I was told that nothing was in the pipeline. Just to make sure the press officer said he'd check with his boss and call me back.

An hour later he did call back - and told me that I shouldn't expect any announcements until the New Year...

Lib Dems leadership special

  • Newsnight
  • 19 Nov 07, 05:22 PM

Nick Clegg and Chris HuhneOn Tuesday's Newsnight the two contenders for the Liberal Democrat leadership go head to head.

The race caught fire over the weekend after Chris Huhne's team dubbed his opponent "calamity Clegg" in a briefing paper. Mr Huhne then accused Mr Clegg of "flip-flopping" over policies. Mr Clegg has lodged a formal complaint with senior Lib Dem officials.

So, Tuesday's hustings promises to be a lively affair.

What do you want to hear from the two candidates? Post your questions and comments and we'll feed as many as we can into the debate.

And don't forget, there's loads more on the leadership race on the Big Fat Newsnight Politics Page.

Sorry, Mr Sleeper!

  • Newsnight
  • 8 Nov 07, 02:51 PM

speaker203100.jpgLib Dem leadership candidate Chris Huhne publicly apologised to Speaker Michael Martin in the Commons today. Why? For suggesting during his appearance on Newsnight on Tuesday that the Speaker had nodded off while Gordon Brown was on his feet.

But it seems it was far too rowdy for anyone to get forty winks during the debate that followed the Queen's Speech. As Mr Martin himself confirmed: "it was too noisy to fall asleep that day."

UPDATE: Thurs 8 Nov 17:24 - we now have the video. Watch the apology here.

Welfare - The British Position

  • David Grossman
  • 7 Nov 07, 04:45 PM

The Conservatives think the public mood on welfare has changed. The big shift they think has happened as a result of last week’s revelations about the numbers of foreign workers employed in the UK over the past decade. The current official estimate is 1.5 million. Parliamentary answer 18 July 2007

frank_field.jpg
Over the same period it appears that the number of welfare claimants has fallen hardly at all. According to the former welfare reform minister Frank Field:

"The economy has been growing each quarter since late 1992 but the numbers of working age claimants moving into work has been modest. I calculate the numbers have fallen from only 5.7 to 5.4 million. The government asserts the total is 4.7 million. The independent Statistics Commission has been asked to arbitrate.

"Yet, whatever the outcome, the spotlight will be on the failure of the £84 billion welfare to work programme.”
Frank Field MP - Daily Telegraph 3 November 2007

The big question that the Conservatives now think the public is asking is a simple one:

“How come all these foreign workers can find jobs in the British economy when so many British people seem stuck on welfare?”

Before the clock ran out on him Tony Blair was desperate to push through changes, perhaps sensing that he hadn’t done enough on welfare reform in the past. He appointed David Freud to propose radical reform. Mr Blair predicted this review would throw up some pretty difficult political challenges for the government.
blair203.jpg
He told the House of Commons Liaison committee on 6 February 2007:

“When we publish David Freud's Welfare Reform Programme.......there will be some quite difficult proposals in relation to how people come off benefit and into work - lone parents, people on incapacity benefit and so on.”

So it proved. The Freud report recommended a radical shake up of the welfare system. Contracting out welfare to work programmes to all sorts of organisations, including private sector providers, who will be paid by results.

Gordon Brown’s government has so far not fully embraced the Freud Report - Peter Hain MP, the Work and Pensions Secretary told an audience in September:

“I have yet to be convinced that David’s specific proposal based around 11 regional contacts, thereby replacing a one-size-fits all state monopoly approach, with a one-size-fits all private monopoly approach is the answer.” Peter Hain MP 12 September 2007.

Wisconsin

This kind of welfare reform is already commonplace in the United States. Wisconsin led the way in the mid-90s.

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Under the then Republican Governor Tommy Thompson the state cut out cash welfare benefits almost entirely, instead the money was spent on helping people find work. In his conference speech this year David Cameron praised what had been achieved in Wisconsin:

“....where they've cut benefit roles (sic) by 80%, and the changes we will make are these: we will say to people that if you are offered a job and it's a fair job and one that you can do and you refuse it you shouldn't get any welfare.”

Having seen the Wisconsin system in action I have a few thoughts on the chances of introducing it in the UK:

1. In America it only worked because both parties signed up to it. Although the idea came from the Republican Party, it took Bill Clinton, a Democrat trying to connect with working class Republicans to sell it nationwide.

It is the first law of public service reform that the People who think they will lose out under any change usually have more motivation to make a lot of noise.
This includes not just the recipients of welfare under the current system but also the public sector employees (and their unions) who administer the current system. If all political parties are signed up to the changes then there is less chance that one or other party will backtrack in the face of hostile headlines.

2. In America the politicians managed to change the way the public thought about welfare. It was no longer seen as cruel or mean to cut someone’s welfare in order to force them to get a job. In fact thinking changed 180 degrees. It was actually seen as cruel to keep someone on welfare a day longer than necessary. The only way out of poverty is through work, not bigger, more generous handouts. Although many British voters have started to ask questions about welfare it’s by no means clear that the link in the public’s mind between cutting benefits and “meanness” has been broken. If people suspect that the motivation for welfare reform is purely to save money it becomes a far harder political sell. It only worked in the US because voters became convinced it was a better system for everyone including the welfare recipients themselves.

3. The American system relies on a huge and well-resourced charitable sector. In Wisconsin I went to the amazing Open Door Cafe at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. Here volunteers provide over 200 hot meals a day, six days a week for homeless people. It appeared to me that many of the people who use the service are not really in a position to get a job however much the welfare system “incentivises” them.

They have in the jargon “multiple barriers to work” for example mental health problems, drug or alcohol dependency, and are often illiterate. Someone needs to help these people if the state withdraws from providing a universal right to welfare benefits. All British political parties say they want to beef up the voluntary sector in the UK but we are nowhere near American levels of charitable action.

What happens now?

The Conservatives are set to publish their proposals on welfare reform early in the new year.

The government’s green paper In Work Better off: Next Steps to Full Employment was published in July. The consultation period on it has just finished. It’s not yet clear when and even if the government will introduce a new welfare reform bill.

Watch David Grossman’s film about Welfare in Wisconsin here

Surely they haven't all got small children?

  • David Grossman
  • 6 Nov 07, 04:42 PM

Just two hours after MPs got back to work after the State opening of Parliament, the Labour side of the commons is all but deserted. I can only count three hon members in their places. I know the Government is promising a bill to bring in more flexible working...

The Brown award for bravery?

  • David Grossman
  • 6 Nov 07, 03:18 PM

As someone who has written many times about the importance of courage in politics Gordon Brown must have appreciated the bravery of Richard Caborn in the Commons today. It is traditional that the first two MPs who get to their feet after the Queen's speech have license to make jokes and generally poke fun at some of their colleagues.

Continue reading "The Brown award for bravery?"

What did Gordon say to David?

  • David Grossman
  • 6 Nov 07, 02:00 PM

browncameron_203.jpgThe Queen's speech has been delivered - so far so much as expected. All eyes on the Commons for the clash between Brown, Cameron, Cable et al this afternoon. One thing that I hadn't expected was the way that Gordon Brown and David Cameron walked from the Commons to the Lords. Tradition dictates that the two main party leaders saunter in side by side and chat amicably. Some wondered whether the current PM would be able to stomach a chat with a man he doesn't really think all that much of.

Continue reading "What did Gordon say to David?"

The BIG Immigration Debate

  • Newsnight
  • 6 Nov 07, 12:38 PM

immigration203x100.jpgIn a broadcasting first Newsnight and Radio 5 Live will jointly host a live discussion on immigration this Thursday.

Senior politicians from all the main parties have been calling for a serious and considered debate on immigration - this is what we shall be doing.

Newsnight's Gavin Esler will be speaking to an expert panel, and Radio 5 Live's Richard Bacon will be taking your views by phone, text and email. Both will be putting questions to the three main parties.

We want to start the discussion now and want to hear from you. What would you like to say to the three parties?

Do you think we have benefited economically from migration? What effect, if any, have you seen on public services in your area? Should there be limits, and have we as a society gained culturally from immigration?

Let us know what you think..

Your guide to the James Purnell fake photo non-scandal

  • Newsnight
  • 5 Nov 07, 03:59 PM

Doubtless you cynical lot all thought it was terribly funny when the newly enthroned Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell, his lips still moist with admonitions to the media not to make stuff up, was caught being photoshopped into a photo pretending to show him visiting a hospital along with a group of MPs.

The truth was that he turned up late and had to be photographed separately.

Here's the original press release of the event and here's the rather crudely doctored photo that was released along with it.

doctored1.jpg

Fortunately for Mr Purnell there was no proof that he knew of the deception. He had posed for the photograph, he said, under the innocent impression that it would be presented seperately. It was all a terrible misunderstanding with the hapless hospital trust.

At this point we must pause to praise Tameside Hospital, whose interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act make them a model of openness and integrity, and strong contenders for the National Transparency Award, if such a thing exists.

They promptly offered up every piece of evidence requested of them in this strange case, allowing puzzled hacks to get nearer to the bottom of things.

So courtesy of the FOI Act, here is Mr Purnell, posing on his own so that he can be dropped into the photoshopped image.

purnellalone.jpg

The width of the shot leaves us in little doubt what was in the photographer's mind for the photo. But the positioning of Mr Purnell right in front of the camera would have given the unfortunate minister no clue about those intentions. Scandal rating: low

Then the hosptial also told us the name of the photographer, a very nice chap named Matt. Great, we thought. A potential whistle blower.

Michael Crick got onto him on the phone, but Matt rather wisely decided he didn't need the hassle of talking to us on camera. But off tape, he really wouldn't put his hand on his heart and say the minister knew that he was going to be doctored into the pictures. Scandal rating: still low.

However, he did mention that there were some other pictures taken inside the hospital. So thanks to FOI, here they are.

insidedoctored.jpg

As you can see here the photoshopping of this picture is markedly worse than previously and could have fooled no-one.

purnellaloneonstairs.jpg


There's also another shot of Mr Purnell posing solo here. This time he is standing away to the left, but possibly still not far enough offset for him to question the fact that the camera is not pointing straight at him.

We also got a second doctored photo taken outside, without the hospital chief executive present, which uses the same shot of Mr Purnell. All very entertaining but still no story for us though.

Then an apparent breakthrough. The papers cleverly FOI-ed all the emails between the hospital and Mr Purnell, which you can read here, here and here. Had we been beaten to the headline?

One email was sent almost a month before publication to Mr Purnell from the hospital's chief executive, saying "I was pleased we were able to catch the photographer so that we could 'drop you into the photographs'."

Precisely what that meant we don't really know. Why the quote marks? In any case Mr Purnell's reported response to the newspapers was that he hadn't seen that email until it was too late.

The same goes for the email containing the photographs themselves, sent a couple of days before the press release went out.

Scandal rating: embarrassing, but hardly a hanging offence

There was one last chance to get a story, and justify the hours wasted on this (in this journalist's spare time, licence payers will be pleased to hear).

We FOI-ed the read receipts on the emails. If we could show when those emails had been opened and read and by who, that might at least suggest more detail of who in Mr Purnell's office knew what and when. Or something.

Anyway here's the FOI response. A big fat zero. No such receipts exist. Mr Purnell's version of events stands up to the closest scrutiny we could manage. His scalp remains firmly on his head and not on our wall.

Still, maybe there's a web article in it.

Photographer: Matt Priestley

Newsnight gets its hands on doctored photo

  • Newsnight
  • 19 Oct 07, 05:20 PM

A minister and a doctored photo - it was just too hard to resist.

purnell1.jpg
Standing at an odd angle at the edge of a group of MPs in Manchester last month - there's something just not quite right about James Purnell's appearance.

The reason is - he wasn't there.

He had arrived late - after everyone else had gone - and then agreed to have his photograph taken in the same spot - but was adamant that he did not agree to the images being merged.

The trust held up its hands - admitting it had doctored the photo- but it refused to release the staged photo of James Purnell.

purnell2.jpg

We wanted to see the original photo and sent a Freedom of Information request asking for a copy. To our amazement we got it.

Not the biggest exclusive we've ever had, but we're rather proud of it.

The question remains, did he know how it was going to be used? Let us know what you think...

Tough tasks ahead for 'distant' Lib Dems

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 07:19 PM

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, assesses the problems facing the Liberal Democrats in the wake of Sir Menzies Campbell's resignation.

Sir Menzies has complained about always being asked about his age. Doubtless this was both irritating and debilitating. But in truth his age in years was not his problem. It was rather that in his manner he seemed from a different age - and as a result distant from the public he was seeking to represent. And in the end it was apparent inability to reach out to the wider public that was his undoing.

When last month MORI asked, as it does every month, how satisfied people were with how Sir Menzies was doing the job of Liberal Democrat leader, 11% more people said they were dissatisfied than satisfied. But that was not the most telling statistic. Rather it was that despite having been in the job for 18 months, as many as 41% could not say whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied.

Until a couple of weeks ago, however, this problem was not terminal for Sir Menzies. While down on the 19% average poll rating he had inherited as leader, his party was still running at 17% at the time of his party's conference last month. Meanwhile the fizz had apparently gone out David Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives.

But the Tory revival following the party's successful conference produced a precipitate fall in Liberal Democrat support to just 12%. At the same time David Cameron's personal popularity was restored. It was now vital that the LIberal Democrats be lead by a popular personality who could make an impact. It is perhaps an indication of Sir Menzies' acute political judgement that he recognised that requirement - and that he was not the person best able to meet it.

Now the Liberal Democrats face two tough tasks. First, can they find a leader who can provide their party with a strategic direction and sell it to the public? The two main contenders, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, were both only first elected in 2005. Chris Huhne's leadership bid last time around apart, neither has had little chance to demonstrate that they have this ability.

Second, can the party put losing two leaders in two years behind it? Might the public not conclude that if the Liberal Democrats cannot agree who should be their leader they cannot possibly be trusted to run the country? Whoever wins the leadership will have to address that question convincingly if their victory is not to become a poisoned chalice.

Was Sir Menzies right to go?

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 03:58 PM

menzies203100.jpgFormer leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Menzies Campbell has told BBC News that he was "irritated and frustrated" at his treatment by parts of the media, claiming some of them were "obsessed" with his age. He stood down, he said, in the interests of the party.

Speaking to Political Editor Nick Robinson he said he regretted not being able to fight a general election as leader.

"I think our policies and our principles and our values would have been right at the very centre of the political agenda. What we call fair, free and green -- fair on taxation; free, dealing with this authoritarian Labour government; and green of course, putting the environment right at the very centre."

He also suggested that some members of his party should not have spoken out publicly in the way they had prior to his resignation.

So was Sir Menzies right to have resigned? Was the media overly obsessed by his age - or had he lost the support of key party members?

Liberal Democrats speak out

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 03:55 PM

Newsnight asked Lib Dems for their views on Ming's departure and the future direction of the party.

oaten66.jpg
Mark Oaten
MP for Winchester & the Meon Valley

And so we find ourselves in another leadership contest. We have been through this process all too recently, but the situation is quite different this time.

Ming is a casualty of the party being unsure of the future during a bad poll squeeze, than of any campaign by knife-wielding MPs. It is typical of Ming that he has chosen to resign on his own terms, rather than being forced into that position.

Blaming the party’s current problems on Ming Campbell’s leadership is unfair and over-simplistic. We are sadly mistaken if we think that all our problems will be solved simply by replacing him with a younger model. The truth is, the Labour and Conservative move to the centre ground has squeezed us out. We must now take this opportunity to force ourselves back onto the agenda.

I think an important aspect of this will be to make it clear what liberalism means in the 21st century. Shaking off its current weak associations and making it a relevant project should be priorities for us.

The party will also need to be prepared to take risks. We should now openly discuss the possibility of a hung parliament and the fact that we could find ourselves as kingmakers at the next election.

It is a real shame that Ming has decided to resign. Now, we have a leadership contest with two clear potential candidates in Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. Personally, I will be supporting Nick if he runs. I believe he has done an excellent job handling the tricky Home Affairs portfolio and had demonstrated that he has what it takes to take the party forward as leader.

Whoever wins will have a tough time ahead. But they can take comfort from the fact that the third party in British politics is robust and is likely to bounce back.


danny66x66.jpg
Danny Alexander
MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey

Sir Menzies is a class act. His departure from the leadership showed, as did his work while in it, his desire to always put the party first. Personally, I have been left with lasting concerns about ageism in the media.

The sad and frankly offensive preoccupation with Ming’s age had distracted attention from what really matters – policy and principle.

What’s necessary for the party now is not a change of direction, but an ability to reach out to new voters. Our tax proposals and policies designed to combat growing inequality certainly have the potential to appeal to hard working families on low incomes who feel let down by the Labour government and could never believe that the Tories would help them.

Reaching out to disadvantaged and disenfranchised people is both a moral responsibility and a huge political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats.

featherstone66.jpgLynne Featherstone
MP for Hornsey & Wood Green

As the dust settles on Ming's exit, the phones have been buzzing. Who's running? Who's riding? Shock receding - I observe the way things are going - and all I would say is that I am crossing my fingers that the herd instinct (well that's one way of describing it) that drove a great number of our MPs last time immediately into the Ming camp doesn't happen again.

Ming went (nobly I thought) because there was no way to put an end to the slings and arrows continually hurled at him despite his best efforts and he did not want the party to suffer damage over the next 20 months or so once Brown (AKA cowardy custard) called off the election.

The political world is harsh and unforgiving - and now those who thought Ming was the answer will look for their next best chance - whatever that is for them. Me - I'm sticking with the guy who had the balls to go for it last time, Chris Huhne. Chris had the big ideas (all the tax switch / polluter pays stuff) which all the leadership contenders adopted as the campaign went on. Chris set the agenda. That agenda is now party policy!

But the LibDem who would be king had better know where he wants to lead our party - and I use the term just on the basis of probability. Just wanting to be leader is not enough. So the next few weeks will be interesting - and an opportunity for our party to showcase our actually very attractive wares.

The two front runners are both hugely talented - and so we are blessed whichever one wins the race.

As to all those who have contacted me to run - I thank you - but
a) I am not insane and b) any running will be in the other direction.

horwood66.jpgMartin Horwood
MP for Cheltenham

I think Ming’s resignation has taken everyone by surprise. We owe Ming a great deal. He took on an incredibly difficult job following Charles’s resignation and his contribution has changed the party for the good.

Knowing Ming I am confident that it was his own decision, but it was one that was undeniably influenced a great deal by pressure from the polls and the media. It is a sad reflection of our society that such a distinguished political figure was put in this position almost entirely as a result of his age.

So I regret his decision but understand his reasons.

But we need to now look to the future. We need to build on our strengths and make sure that we continue our track record of developing radical and progressive policies. We must keep ahead of the other parties on core issues like the environment and social justice.

One of the most positive things that came out of the last leadership contest was that it generated a whole host of radical ideas from the Green Tax Switch to setting a clear timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. These have now been adopted as party policy and have helped mark out our position as the most forward thinking of the major parties.

But a lesson perhaps from Ming’s leadership is that we need to make sure that whoever takes on the job knows the media well enough to survive and thrive in a 24-hour news environment. Then I hope the media will look past the individual to the policies we need to transform British society.

Brown and Me

  • David Grossman
  • 11 Oct 07, 01:02 PM

gbdg_430.jpgNumber Ten say that the Prime Minister will be watching this weekend's the Rugby World Cup semi-final England v France at Chequers. As is well known he’s a keen fan of the game, having played in his youth and lost the sight in one eye after a Rugby injury. I actually sat in front of him during the England V Scotland semi-final of the 1991 Rugby World Cup. In order that I can show off a photo I have of this event I'm going to shamelessly borrow someone else's idea. (Well if Alistair Darling can do it...) Adapting a contest from Newsnight Political Panellist Daniel Finkelstein’s fantastic Comment Central blog, I want to launch a “Brown and Me” photo competition. Obviously this can’t be a real competition as we in the BBC are not allowed to run any for the time being. It will have to be a notional competition where everyone wins, even those who don’t take part. So send in your photos saying where and when it was taken. The best will appear here*.

*If there are no entries BBC Newsnight reserves the right to quietly drop the idea and never mention it again and probably blame Daniel Finkelstein for coming up with such a duff idea in the first place.

Welcome to the Big Fat Newsnight Politics Page

  • Peter Barron
  • 10 Oct 07, 06:36 PM

You know how it is - you do a whole lot of work with one aim in mind and then circumstances change. Do you junk it or go with it anyway? If that's possibly how Alistair Darling felt this week we at Newsnight second that emotion.

In anticipation of a snap election our web boys had been frantically busy on what was to have been called The Big Fat Newsnight Election Website. The idea was simple. We know that many of our website devotees are also big consumers of other political sites and blogs.

Our aim was to provide the ultimate, must-bookmark, one-stop election shop where those of a psephological persuasion could wallow happily for hours. Sadly some of our planned election wares will never see the light of day, but here we present a slightly slimmed down Big Fat Newsnight Politics Page.

Let us know what you'd like to see here, or send us a link. The fatter the better.

Partisan excitement no friend of cool calculation

  • Newsnight
  • 8 Oct 07, 11:59 AM

As non-election fever dies down, Psephologist Professor John Curtice offers a few observations about the outcome of the past couple of weeks.

Labour's early election project always looked a rather dubious enterprise. On average the party's lead over the Conservatives since Mr Brown became leader was running at around six points. That could well have been enough for a three figure majority. But it was not sufficiently far above the four point lead Mr Brown needed to be sure of emulating the 66 majority Mr Blair won in 2005. Just a percentage point swing or so to the Conservatives over the course of the campaign could have dashed Mr Brown's hopes of securing a “personal mandate”.

Continue reading "Partisan excitement no friend of cool calculation"

The pages of spin

  • Michael Crick
  • 14 Aug 07, 06:55 PM

campbell_nn203.jpgI owe an apology – of sorts – to Alastair Campbell. When his diaries came out last month, nobody had much time to read them. On the Monday of publication I managed about 200 pages (out of more than 750), and confined myself to reading about the early years of the Blair government. On Newsnight that night I expressed disappointment. There was nothing very new in the book, I said, and many of the stories sounded quite familiar, I said.

I’ve now read the remaining 550 pages, and done so rather more slowly and carefully than I did the first chunk. I want to modify my verdict. Although it’s true that there are no great bombshells, the diaries are a valuable addition to the growing history of the Blair years. They paint a fascinating, detailed picture of life at the heart of government – the tensions, bickering, and the relentless pressure. I was particularly surprised by Blair’s doubts at so many important moments, and his basic insecurity, so that he would be phoning Campbell every few minutes for reassurance. I can’t wait for the full versions to be published.

Campbell’s friendships are interesting, too. He was in regular contact with the former right-wing Conservative and fellow diarist Alan Clark, and also got on well with several other Tories - Nicholas Soames, David Davis and Michael Heseltine. But as a Manchester United fan, and biographer of Alex Ferguson, I was especially interested in Campbell’s close contacts with the United manager. Ferguson fed Campbell and Blair lots of advice in the run-up to the 1997 election, telling them that Labour was so well ahead in the polls that they should play it safe - as if they were winning a match 2-0 with only a few minutes to go. Let your opponents take all the risks, Ferguson advised, and open themselves up to giving away more goals.

Given the Labour spin doctor’s close friendship with Ferguson, I’ve always been curious as to why Campbell allowed both men to make essentially the same mistake. Ferguson told the world he would retire as United manager in 2002, but that announcement causing him nothing but grief, and he eventually changed his mind of course with only a few months to go (and is still in power at Old Trafford). Then in the autumn of 2004 Tony Blair famously announced a rough timetable for his departure as Prime Minister. Over the next three years that announcement also caused Blair huge trouble. Like Sir Alex, he deeply regretted it.

The lesson to any man of power: time your departure to come as a complete surprise.

Guess Gordon's Election Date

  • Newsnight
  • 13 Aug 07, 10:14 AM

Gordon's Election Date CalenderGordon Brown's refusal to rule out a snap election means the guessing game will continue - until his conference speech at least. And while the poll dance goes on, so all the parties must pretend they're ready and up for the campaign fight whenever it starts.

Newsnight is offering to help the Prime Minister make up his mind. We'll be taking our giant calendar (see right) to the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth and inviting MPs, activists and pundits to play Guess Gordon's Election Date.

And you can play online too. Simply tell us which day you think Gordon should go to the country - and, assuming you didn't just pick randomly, how you came to your conclusion.

The first possible date for a general election would be October 18. The latest would be mid-June 2010 - that's if the Prime Minister delays asking permission from the Queen until exactly five years after the last national vote. We've only put Thursdays on our calendar - every post-war vote has been on a Thursday - but there's no law against other days.

Illegal candidate

  • Michael Crick
  • 9 Aug 07, 03:50 PM

Tony Lit and David CameronA viewer, Dan Bindman, has written to say that the Conservative candidate in the Ealing by-election, Tony Lit, wasn’t even qualified to stand - at least not under Conservative Party rules.

As everyone knows, Mr Lit only joined the party a few days before he was unveiled as the Tory candidate in Ealing. Dan points out that under the party rules, a candidate must have belonged to the party for at least three months before he can stand for a Parliamentary election.

It’s all set out in the following document which one can download from the Conservative Party website here.

"Do I need to be a member of the Conservative party to be a candidate?" it asks in one of a series of questions and answers. The response: "We require everyone to be a paid-up member of the party of at least 3 months."
Mr Lit made much in his election literature about how he’d been personally asked by David Cameron to stand as the candidate.

Perhaps if the Tory leader had obeyed his party rules, and let the local association in Ealing pick their contender (in line with his commitment to devolving power), he would have faced a lot less grief.

Parliamentary Long Service

  • Michael Crick
  • 9 Jul 07, 10:49 AM

The death of Lord (David Renton) in May meant that, by my reckoning, only three MPs from the famous 1945 election are still alive - all Labour. In the last few months we have lost both Renton and Douglas Dodds-Parker, as well as John Profumo (who was elected under Neville Chamberlain in 1940, but lost in 1945). Those remaining are Michael Foot, John Freeman, and Francis Noel-Baker (two of whom, Freeman and Noel-Baker, now live overseas).

Denis HealeyDavid Renton, who served as MP for Huntingdon from 1945 to 1979 (handing the seat over the John Major), and then in the Lords until his death, could also boast of being the longest continuous serving Parliamentarian of the last century to have served in both houses - a run of 62 years. So who now takes the title of longest-serving Parliamentarian to have served both houses? At a guess I would say it was Denis Healey, who first elected as an MP at a by-election in 1952, served in the Commons until 1992, and has sat in the Lords ever since. But please let me know if anyone can boast longer continuous service to both houses.

But perhaps the most astionishing record is held by the former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington. He never sat in the Commons, but has sat in the Lords since 1940 - 67 years.

Reshuffle thoughts...

  • Michael Crick
  • 2 Jul 07, 12:20 PM

CabinetPerhaps the biggest surprise in the Cabinet reshuffle was former Newsnight producer Shaun Woodward as Northern Ireland Secretary, though I can't help feeling it's no longer really a full Cabinet job. Peter Hain, after all, combined Northern Ireland with Wales, and that was before Stormont got going again this May, which presumably means there’s now a lot less to do. Still, Shaun Woodward has offered to do the job for free. Given that he only quite the Conservative Party less than eight years ago, the recent defection of Quentin Davies (watch his Newsnight appearance here) and the promise of further Tory recruits, perhaps Mr Woodward’s real role is as minister to encourage defections.

And Gordon Brown displayed a certain ruthlessness in not placing two of his closest allies round the cabinet table. Nick Brown has to make do with being Deputy Chief Whip, having held the job of Chief Whip a few years ago, though he’s now been made Minister for the North as well, and claims to be happy. And what has Stephen Timms, formerly Brown’s number two as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, done to deserve demotion? He’s now lost his Cabinet place to become minister of state at the ludicrously named Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Then we had the rather underwhelming parade of “all the talents” – four people from outside politics who’ve agreed to become junior ministers: Sir Mark Malloch Brown, Sir Digby Jones, Sir Ara Darsi and Sir Alan West. They’ll all become lords, though it’s interesting that they’re all already knights of the realm, and both Malloch Brown and Darsi had agreed to join the Labour Party. Sir Alan West told me he hadn’t yet decided whether to join Labour (and given his Home Office security job he’s got more pressing things to consider right now), while Digby Jones insists (contrary to what I said on Newsnight on Thursday) that he won’t be joining Labour, despite Gordon Brown asking him to do so. Indeed, Sir Digby won’t even say if he’ll vote Labour in future, though once he becomes a lord, his ability to vote will be confined to non-Westminster elections.

The reshuffle of the lower ranks was extremely dull. Indeed, there are so few interesting changes and so few dramatic new names that one almost gets the impression that Gordon Brown was so diverted by the car bombs on Friday that he got fed up with the reshuffle and simply decided most people could carry on doing what they did before. There are a handful of appointments from the 2005 intake, such as Shahid Malik (the first Muslim minister), and the former Treasury civil servant Helen Goodman (a former girlfriend of Tory Education spokesman David Willetts), but the list is more notable for the unusual number of retreads – including Angela Eagle, Michael Wills and Joan Ruddock. And despite reducing the number of women in Cabinet from eight to five, Gordon Brown’s government now contains 38 women in all, which must be an all-time record.

Denis LawInteresting to see a Manchester United fan, Gerry Sutcliffe, has been made Minister for Sport (though he also supports Bradford City). I hope he realises it’s a bit of an end-of-the-line job – how many sports ministers since the post was created in 1964 have ever gone on to anything higher? None, so far as I can remember. But perhaps Mr Sutcliffe can now do something about securing an honour for one of United’s all-time greats, Denis Law, who was also recently voted the greatest Scotland player of all time. In a world where even the most mediocre of footballers seems to get an honour these days, Denis hasn’t even had an MBE.

Cabinet brothers

  • Michael Crick
  • 28 Jun 07, 04:46 PM

David (left) and Ed Miliband"So you'll be the first set of brothers in Cabinet since the Stanleys," I teased Ed Miliband the other evening, referring to the speculation that he would soon join his brother David in the new Gordon Brown Cabinet. Ed Miliband brushed my question off, of course, but then, once the camera was switched off, enquired eagerly: "Who were the Stanleys?"

Answer: the two sons of the seventeenth Earl of Derby, who sat in Cabinet together in 1938, under Neville Chamberlian. Lord (Edward) Stanley, was Dominions Secretary, while his younger brother Oliver Stanley, was President of the Board of Trade. It is not a happy precedent, however, since Lord (Edward) Stanley died only a few months after taking the job.

A more interesting pair of Cabinet brothers served after the war, though not simultanously, since they were on opposite sides of politics. Earl of Listowel briefly served for four months as Secretary of State for India in 1947, during Clement Attlee's post-war Labour Cabinet, whilst his brother John Hare (later Lord Blakenham) held posts in the early '60s, in the Cabinets of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

One member, how many votes?

  • Michael Crick
  • 27 Jun 07, 12:47 PM

brownvote203.jpgGordon Brown pledged at the Labour conference in Manchester to introduce one-member-one-vote in the party's policy making procedures - the same method, he said, as used to elect the party leadership.

Er, some problem with that surely?

The leadership isn't really elected by one-member-one-vote. All Labour MPs had at least two votes - one as an MP, and one as an ordinary party member - and many of them had other votes as members of affiliated trades unions and socialist societies. Indeed one deputy leadership contender admitted to me that they had eight votes last week - as an MP, a party member, a meber of two unions, and four affiliated societies.

I'd be fascinated to know if anybody could boast of even more votes than that.

Shadowy cabinets

  • Michael Crick
  • 22 Jun 07, 10:46 PM

brown203smile.jpgThis week's revelation that Gordon Brown has been trying to lure Lib Dems into his government came as something of a relief to me personally (though let me stress that I make no comment on whether it's a good or bad thing).

On the day Gordon Brown launched his campaign at the start of May, Newsnight led the programme with a big story on this. Brown had spoken that morning of a "Government of all the talents", and I had asked him whether he was "ruling in, or ruling out", the idea of appointing "ministers from other political parties". He wasn't ruling it in, or ruling it out, Mr Brown replied. I got quite excited, as Brown's comments seemed to tally with things I had been hearing from Scotland, and comments he'd made on the Andrew Marr programme in early January. So Newsnight went big on it that night, with an opening headline asking if Brown was about to appoint Liberal Democrats as ministers (watch my report here).

The story was immediately rubbished, not just in the studio by our own Newsnight political panel (of all the talents), but also live on the programme by the pensions minister James Purnell who suggested we were daft to interpret what Brown had said in this way. And members of Brown's entourage subsequently made it clear I'd misunderstood - he was merely thinking of non-Labour people - people like Chris Patten and Seb Coe - in advisory roles, chairing commissions and that sort of thing.

Seb CoeStrange, I thought, what's so new about that? Don't people like Patten and Coe do those sort of jobs already? I had an uncomfortable few days, wondering if I'd been guilty of terrible misjudgement - and gross hype - in one of my first stories as political editor. It was especially worrying that nobody else in the BBC, or the rest of the media, had run with the story. So you can imagine that I felt a certain amusement last night when I heard young Mr Purnell back on Newsnight explaining to viewers what a jolly good idea it was for Mr Brown to approach Lib Dems, an example of his new non-tribal approach to politics etc. etc.

And, as I explained on Wednesday night, it now seems that even if there aren't any Lib Dems in Brown's new government next week, we can expect several ministers who aren't Labour Party members, or who may even be members of other political parties.

Mind you, this isn't going down very well in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Many Labour MPs saw the advent of Brown as their big chance finally to get a government job - feeling they've been unfairly neglected by Tony Blair - whilst existing ministers will be worried about holding on to their jobs. Even if Brown's administration were confined to Labour Party people, I reckon there would be bound to be a lot of disappointed MPs. Extending his ministry beyond Labour is bound to encourage the sense of resentment and disgruntlement.

Michael Crick is Newsnight’s Politcal Editor – you can read the recent Telegraph profile of him here.

Reid humbled

  • Michael Crick
  • 21 Jun 07, 06:42 PM

John ReidJohn Reid may be the great bruiser and hardman of British politics, but he doesn’t frighten everyone.

I hear that on the evening of the Scottish elections he and the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell went for a curry in Wishaw with a few Labour colleagues, ahead of going off to their local election count in Motherwell. After consuming a large main course the waiter asked if anyone would like a pudding. Conscious of the time, they all said ‘No’, with the exception of Dr Reid who specified that he’d like a single ball of vanilla ice-cream. A few minutes later the waiter returned with a bowl containing three balls of ice-cream, and the customary wafer. “But I asked for a single ball,” the Home Secretary complained. “F***ing eat it!” the waiter shot back.

Levy causes further embarrassment to government

  • Michael Crick
  • 20 Jun 07, 02:49 PM

Labour unexpectedly lost a vote in the House of Lords last night - on the Greater London Authority Bill - despite having won a vote on the same legislation earlier in the evening.

Lord LevyThe problem, I'm told, is that in the early evening far too many Labour peers went AWOL to attend the big bash held at Lancaster House to mark Lord Levy's standing down as Tony Blair's Middle East envoy.

As a result the government lost the vote by seven votes. Later in the evening, once most of the Levy revellers had drifted back to the upper chamber, the government majority was restored. Lord Grocott, the Labour chief whip in the Lords is normally a calm and patient man (as one would expect of a former broadcaster). But, last night, I'm told, he "was not best pleased".

Macavity was here

  • Newsnight
  • 30 Mar 07, 05:30 PM

brownoutline203260.jpgEveryone keeps going on about Gordon Brown having "Macavity the cat-like qualities"; a reference to T.S. Eliot's most elusive of characters. Lord Turnbull did it in a much publicised interview with the Financial Times recently, off the back of which the Guardian reprinted the whole poem. This week it was David Aaronovitch in The Times.

But way back in October last year when there was talk of political subterfuge, efforts to oust Tony Blair and a mass resignation of junior members of government which forced the prime minister to make clear - or clearer - his timetable for leaving office, Newsnight noted the chancellor's absence and made the comparison with Macavity. We even got the actor Bill Paterson to recite a little for us.

Now, we're not ones for saying "pah, we did it first"... we just thought you might all like to enjoy Mr Paterson's mellifluous tones once again. Watch him here.

Guido Fawkes apologises to BBC's Political Editor

  • Newsnight
  • 29 Mar 07, 03:03 PM

fawkes203shadow.jpgOn Wednesday's Newsnight the political blogger Guido Fawke's suggested that the BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson was the source of a story he featured on his blog about Downing Street having a second email system. You can see the film and debate here.

Guido Fawkes has since apologised and retracted his comments.

Nick Robinson noted Guido's apology on his own blog and gave his views on the blogger's original interview with him featured in the film here.

Political journalism - Guido Fawkes accuses

  • Newsnight
  • 28 Mar 07, 12:35 PM

Guido Fawkes blog imageOn Wednesday's Newsnight controversial political blogger Guido Fawkes explained why he believes political journalists are short changing the public.

He says because he does not interview politicians he does not have to worry about offending them and can therefore tell his readers more than the mainstream media does. He also challenges Jeremy Paxman over the reading of government statements and so-called "empty chairing".

Watch Guido's film and the lively debate afterward with the Guardian's Michael White - here - and having watched it, tell us what you think below...

Bullingdon and Blair

  • Michael Crick
  • 1 Mar 07, 05:22 PM

Why can the media no longer show that photo of David Cameron in the Bullingdon club?

Tonight Newsnight reveals the painting we've specially commissioned, an artistic alternative to the photo that legally we're no longer permitted to broadcast.

cameronpaint435.jpg

Two and a half weeks ago the Mail on Sunday published the first photo of the Conservative leader David Cameron as a member of the Bullingdon Club, the elitist Oxford University dining club whose public school members have become notorious over the years for vandalising restaurants and trashing students' rooms.

The photo, taken around 1986, showed David Cameron and several other Bullingdon members, including the young Boris Johnson, cockily posing for the camera in their £1,000 uniforms of blue ties, tails and biscuit-coloured waistcoats. The photo was published in several national newspapers two weeks ago, and commentators suggested that the scene of Mr. Cameron and his toffish chums was far more embarrassing to the Tory leader than the recent story about him taking cannabis at Eton.

But last week Gillman and Soame, the Oxford photographers who took the original Bullingdon picture, and who own the copyright, announced they were no longer giving permission for the media to use the photo (or indeed any other of their library of tens of thousands of student and school photos). The firm insists this decision was taken for commercial reasons and that they were not pressurised to withdraw the picture.

The alternative painting commissioned by Newsnight of the same scene as in the Bullingdon photo was produced by the Oxford artist Rona.

tbcrop_203.jpgAnd it's not just David Cameron whose been embarrassed in the past by photos in drunken Oxford University dining clubs dredged up from their undergraduate past. This photo of Tony Blair at a St. John's dinner in the 1970s has been published many times before, but tonight, Newsnight reveals for the first time the lower part of the same picture which until now has always been cropped off. We'll show the extraordinary gesture the future Prime Minister was making below the waist - a picture you'll never forget.

YOU CAN NOW SEE THE FULL PICTURE HERE

It's a menagerie out there

  • Martha Kearney
  • 8 Nov 06, 04:23 PM

So one of the most negative campaigns in recent US political history has come to an end. It certainly provided great material for David Grossman's piece last week (watch it here).

Although attack ads aren't allowed in Britain, the political parties certainly study what works on the other side of the Atlantic and we tend to see it in posters. Remember Demon Eyes? Or Michael Howard as Fagin?

chicken203.jpgDave the Chameleon was thought to be a bit too cute. One of my favourite US ones was when Republicans let loose a bunch of chickens at a Democrat barbecue because the candidate was "too chicken" to take part in a debate. Of course that idea was copied here by the tabloids when a giant chicken followed Tony Blair in 1997 because he didn't want to debate. A rival newspaper hired a fox to go after the chicken.

A giant chicken was also deployed when Conservative candidate Nick Hawkins went on "a chicken run" to find a safe seat. Then there were the giant groundhogs at the last election...

I am wasted on Newsnight when I could be writing a thesis about Giant Animals in Modern British Political Discourse. Anyway why don't you try your hand at a British version of an attack ad? Plenty of material these days.

Deconstructing the two-way

  • Martha Kearney
  • 10 Oct 06, 01:23 PM

jp_mk_203.jpgIf you have always thought that Jeremy and I just have friendly little unrehearsed chats in the studio, I am sorry to shatter your illusions. There is also no Father Christmas.

After Monday night's strange events, I thought I had better explain how it all works. A combination of time constraints (for God's sake, Martha, surely you can explain the entire government criminal justice policy in two minutes) and need to play in clips (that two minutes must include a clip of the minister and the opposition parties) means that some kind of orchestration beforehand is needed.

So I usually provide Jeremy (and more obedient presenters) with some questions in advance.

On Monday these were entitled "Idiot's Guide to the Two-Way". Maybe that was a red rag to a bull but anyway he got the order completely wrong and chaos ensued.

Perhaps you think the whole format is ridiculous anyway as one Tory backer told me at their conference in Bournemouth last week: "What's the point in journalists interviewing each other?" he understandably wanted to know.

I tried to explain that in political journalism you are often told useful and illuminating information "off the record" and a studio chat is the best way of getting that across. Well, sometimes.

Click here to watch the two-way

Tellytubbies not included

  • Martha Kearney
  • 2 Oct 06, 11:36 PM

So what's the big talking point here at the Conservative conference? Well, apart from the Tellytubby style set (see our menu shot tonight) and rows about tax, the bars and cafes are filled with battle stories from the front or "How I Got My Conference Pass". People have queued for hours and hours yesterday and today in order to get in. Children's Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, former women's cricketer Rachael Heyhoe-Flint and several MPs were among those forced to wait. Environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith missed a speaking slot at a conference fringe event when he was delayed. And the party chairman Francis Maude has had to cancel a fringe in order to hold an emergency meeting with the police. Shadow Cabinet ministers David Willets and Andrew Lansley were stuck outside (which doesn't say much for their profiles). Rumours are rife that Mr Lansley will have to sleep in his car because his hotel is inside the cordon.

If you do get stuck , then you wait inside the Pavilion theatre where there is a risk you will become an audience for a speech whether you want to be or not. Iain Duncan Smith the former leader decided that if people couldn't get in, he would bring his fringe meeting to them. IDS takes socially excluded message to the conference's excluded is the headline on one Tory website.

One line of spin is that the reasons for the delays is because the Tories are victims of their own success - there are 2,000 more people here than last year. Not sure that will wash with the increasingly restive lines.

What's in a speech?

  • Martha Kearney
  • 27 Sep 06, 07:53 PM

clinton_203.jpgOnce, politicians used to practise their speeches by filling their mouths full of pebbles to practise voice projection. Things have changed a bit since Demosthenes' time.

Nowadays politicians practise on autocue the night before in the conference hall. One year we all got a preview of Iain Duncan Smith's speech which was accidentally broadcast on our ringmain. The quiet man had cranked up the volume by mistake.

So as a form of political communication have speeches dated a bit over two and half thousand years? An old fashioned tub thumping style doesn't work well on television. Neil Kinnock who was one of the country's best orators in a hall was often disastrous on TV. His delivery was once compared to a tortoise trying to reach orgasm. And you must remember the Sheffield rally.

Continue reading "What's in a speech?"

Bed Bugs and brass bands

  • Martha Kearney
  • 27 Sep 06, 05:26 PM

trumpet_203.jpgDay Three in the Big Conference House and the strains are already beginning to show.

You may know that there is a certain amount of condition between ourselves and the Today programme.

On Monday (as Jeremy wrote) they were bombed by pigeon droppings. Now in a spirit of oneupmanship we've been hit by bed bugs.

Our cameraperson Julie - veteran of many war zones - was a bit surprised to be attacked by bedbugs in Salford. Morale was further lowered when the team arrived at work this morning slightly jaded after intense late night political analysis in the Midland Hotel bar to find a brass band practising loudly in our newsroom.

See how we suffer for you.

Continue reading "Bed Bugs and brass bands"

Disturbance levels

  • David Grossman
  • 25 Sep 06, 05:34 PM

Students of labour trivia will instantly notice that Cherie’s alleged comment (“that’s a lie”) is exactly the same phrase as that octogenarian peace protester Walter Wolfgang shouted at Jack Straw last year. You’ll remember his fate. The Labour party membership has rather taken him to their hearts and voted him onto the ruling National Executive Committee.

So why wasn’t Cherie slung out by Labour stewards this year? Well apart from being the wife of the PM, this year Labour has a far more nuanced approach to crowd control. We understand there are five levels of disturbance, each of which will elicit a different grade of response. I don’t know what they are, but here’s a guess:

Level 1 – looking bored
Level 2 – eating crisps or other noisy food
Level 3 – booing
Level 4 – swearing
Level 5 – suggesting Gordon Brown may not have the electoral appeal to win Labour a fourth term.

Whatever happens I can't see Cherie being the membership's choice for the NEC next year.

How now Brown crowd?

  • David Grossman
  • 25 Sep 06, 03:30 PM

cherie1_203.jpgHas Cherie stolen the show? – I can report the press here in a bit of a frenzy looking for Cherie Blair – it appears she has taken Gordon’s speech a bit badly. Especially the bit where he described how well TB and GB worked together.

“That’s a lie!” said Cherie as she headed for the exit of the hall.

There is an alternative version from Downing Street that Cherie really said “can I get by?”

Take your pick. Or are both versions wrong? What else might everyone’s favourite human rights QC have said as she left the hall?

Digital Dorothy

  • Martha Kearney
  • 9 Aug 06, 05:34 PM

fionabruce203.jpgWe are all getting a lot more letters and emails than normal because of the Middle East crisis; clearly an issue on which people do have strong feelings.

I perhaps should make it clear that generally we aren't getting secret instructions either from the Israeli government or Hezbollah as some correspondents have suggested.

In fact the only words in my earpiece come from Digital Dorothy. We no longer have a human PA in the gallery to give us timings because it's been automated.

Let me tell you a trade secret. Digital Dorothy who murmurs "two minutes to end of item" is, in fact, Fiona Bruce. We do obey.

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