BBC BLOGS - Nick Robinson's Newslog

Archives for December 2007

Taking some time off

Nick Robinson | 15:49 UK time, Friday, 21 December 2007

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I am following Gordon Brown's example and taking some time off. I expect you'll hear from him again before you hear from me except, that is, if you tune into Cash for Politics broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on Saturday, 22 December 2007 or listen to it via the website.

Those who've criticised my reporting of “cash-for-honours” may be surprised by its tone. Those who've cheered me on may be disappointed. The programme hears from those who've given money, raised it and spent it about why they feel they're being traduced and continue to believe that the British system is cleaner than most. There are not new headline-grabbing revelations but, whilst justifying what they do and why, those interviewed do, I hope, reveal rather a lot.

As ever I look forward to your comments. Have a good Christmas and here's to another stimulating New Year.

A familiar recipe

Nick Robinson | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 18 December 2007

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One vote is enough, as the old saying has it. And certainly, if Nick Clegg impresses his party and the country, that will be proved right again.

There is, though, another if - if Chris Huhne (whose campaign, let's not forget, came up with the insult 'Calamity Clegg') really does mean to work with the man who so narrowly defeated him.

Together with the newly-invigorated and popular Vince Cable, these three men could make a highly-effective troika. But the fact that 10,000 fewer Lib Dems voted in this leadership election, compared with the last one, demonstrates how much more they have to do.

Today, having first cast aside the popular Charles Kennedy, and then the experienced Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dems have somewhat tentatively picked someone unknown and inexperienced, but with bags of energy and charisma.

It's a recipe that recently worked for the Tories and, once before, for the Lib Dems - with Paddy Ashdown. The party is hoping desperately that it will work for Nick Clegg as well.

Lunching with the governor

Nick Robinson | 10:13 UK time, Tuesday, 18 December 2007

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"He needs to learn that lunch can be a very dangerous occupation". So says a Whitehall source about Mervyn King. The governor of the Bank of England had two meals last week. One with the chancellor which, I'm told, was quite convivial. The other with the journalist Irwin Stelzer who has since reported the Bank of England's frustration at the government's inability to take speedy decisions to deal with the aftermath of the Northern Rock crisis.

Mervyn KingMinisters are said to be baffled by this complaint believing that the Bank was happy to take time to take the right decisions rather than rushed ones.

The two key decisions that need to be taken are:

• an extension of the guarantee to depositors - there's no disagreement here

• reform of the tripartite system so that it works in a crisis and not in peacetime

Today opposition members of the Treasury select committee are likely to want dine either on Mr King and his deputy, John Gieve or on their tales of government failures. Both men have been trained to say very little in public. They are now under extreme pressure to show that they can do just that.

Underlying all this is the issue about whether Mervyn King will get a second term as governor. Some in government would dearly love him to walk away but know that to deny him re-appointment if he wanted it would cause a crisis of confidence in the markets. This is not a problem that will be solved over a good lunch.

The Bank and the Treasury

Nick Robinson | 10:56 UK time, Monday, 17 December 2007

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If red lights aren't flashing in Downing Street today they should be. The signs of divisions between the chancellor and the governor of the Bank of England would be unwelcome at any time. They are of real concern in the midst of the, as yet unresolved, Northern Rock crisis. They should be truly alarming on the eve of what looks set to be the toughest year the British economy's faced in a long time.

Alistair Darling and Mervyn KingHow great, though, is the rift?

We know that Mervyn King and Alistair Darling differ on what went wrong before the Rock foundered.

We know that the Treasury is considering making itself rather than the Bank the key decision-maker before the next strikes.

We know that, according to the Sunday Times, the Bank wants to introduce its own fundamental reforms but believes that the government is "unable to focus because morale in the government is so low".

We are told that the well connected author of that article, Irwin Stelzer, had recently lunched with Mervyn King.

Now it would be surprising, perhaps even worrying, if there weren't some tensions between the Treasury and the Bank at a time like this. What will matter is how they're dealt with and whether the two men decide to resolve their differences amicably or discover they're irreconcilable.

I'm too kind...

Nick Robinson | 15:29 UK time, Friday, 14 December 2007

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You know my trouble? I'm just too generous to the government.

Forgive me being a little slow but I've only just properly clocked yesterday's revelation that 11,000 illegal immigrants had been permitted to become security guards. Why am I telling you about it now then? Because it's dawned on me just how different these numbers are to what the Home Office claimed they'd be.

Weeks ago, when this problem was first announced, I listened hard to the Home Office briefings, I tried hard to treat the news calmly and I calculated hard what the figures might be. On the basis of this guidance - I wrote that "based on the outcome of checks made so far the worst case scenario could be over 8,000... Ministers insist that it is impossible to be more precise than they have been so far since they will only have accurate figures once checks are complete in December and say that 5,000 is still the best estimate at the moment".

Perhaps next time I should not listen to the official guidance and think of a number and then double it!

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Travel delays

Nick Robinson | 10:49 UK time, Thursday, 13 December 2007

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You're not going to believe this - and many in Lisbon certainly won't.

I'm told that the plane carrying the foreign secretary to that EU signing ceremony has been delayed by 2 hours. Officials say that they remain confident he'll get there in time. Reminds one of that old headline: "Fog over Channel. Continent isolated."

UPDATE 11:10: I've just heard that David Miliband has made it to Lisbon in time to sign the EU Treaty. What I'd love to know was whether he was telling the pilot and his driver to hurry up because, "I've got a treaty to sign" - or telling them, "don't worry, que sera sera".

Couldn't or wouldn't

Nick Robinson | 09:54 UK time, Thursday, 13 December 2007

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"I think you can see the priority I attach to attending this committee," joked Gordon Brown at the start of his first appearance before Select Committee chairmen this morning.

This is a change in tactic from the 'fuss about nothing' message that's emanated from Downing Street in recent days when they were asked why he, uniquely amongst Europe's leaders, could not arrange his diary so as to join Sarkozy, Merkel et al for the signing of the EU Treaty in Lisbon. When I put this to a Whitehall source recently he said "It's not a case of could not, it's would not".

A frosty reception

Nick Robinson | 18:48 UK time, Wednesday, 12 December 2007

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From the minute she left home this morning Jacqui Smith knew that this was not going to be an easy day. Flanked by her police protection team she caught sight of a message scratched into the frost on a nearby car windscreen. It read simply "2.5%" - the pay increase which was recommended for the police, which police in Scotland are receiving but which the home secretary insists that the police elsewhere cannot have. It's just a guess but I suspect that it wasn't a passing member of the public who was responsible for that wake up call.

Now the Police Federation have delivered their own frosty message. It reads even more simply and can be summed up in one word - "resign". In addition, they've called a ballot to consider whether the police should fight for the right to strike.

This sounds incredibly serious and politically, of course, it is but, let's be clear, this is also a sign of the Police's relative weakness because:

* It would take a change in the law to allow the police to strike and parliament won't agree to it - even in the unlikely event that the police demand it.

* The Police Federation say that working to rule or staying at home with what I now understand is called Blue Flu would be wrong and probably unlawful.

* Many MPs believe that the police have had been treated remarkably generously in recent years.

* And note the deafening silence of the Tories. David Cameron did not use any of his 6 questions at PMQs today to raise the police's plight, he has not called on the government to pay up and is not calling on Jacqui Smith to go. Instead the Tories have condemned the home secretary for treating the police with disrespect bordering on contempt.

Do not be misled into believing that this dispute is about £40 million of public money - peanuts for any government - or £200 for police officers - not peanuts but not huge riches either. Ministers are more worried about curbing inflationary pay deals than saving a few million. The Police Federation are more worried about saving the negotiation board which the government's pledged to scrap than winning a couple of hundred quid for their members.

The Police Federation's only industrial relations weapon is public opinion. Words - whether written in the frost or uttered at news conferences - are their truncheons. Today they were used to beat the home secretary around the head.

Retouching the picture

Nick Robinson | 10:41 UK time, Wednesday, 12 December 2007

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Gordon Brown's solo signing of the EU treaty will, after all, be caught on camera in Lisbon tomorrow. The prime minister's spokesman has clarified the matter and says that his boss "looks at me with incredulity" when told that the "will he/won't he" story is generating so much fuss.

Appearances matter in politics and diplomacy. That is why the Eurosceptic Sun newspaper originally reported the suggestion that the PM wouldn't turn up in Lisbon at all with such enthusiasm and why some of Britain's Euro partners were less than impressed.

Another dodgy donation?

Nick Robinson | 17:18 UK time, Tuesday, 11 December 2007

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Labour's secret donor has just spoken in public for the first time since the scandal broke. Sadly for Mr Abrahams all did not go quite to plan...

Choosing to make a donation of a large cheque in front of the cameras was, no doubt, intended to prove that Mr A is a generous benefactor of a host of good causes. Doing it at the opening of a hair-dressing salon run by an old friend in Hexham was, no doubt, meant to emphasise his commitment to the North East. And yet, and yet...

Mr Abrahams began his speech by saying that he was handing the money over in memory of a little girl who had died of cancer. After sharp intakes of breath, the shaking of heads and a tap on the shoulder by his friend who seized the microphone it was pointed out that Olivia Anderson, aged seven, was infact very much alive and that the money was being raised to help her and her family since she suffers from cerebral palsy.

The hairdresser went on to reveal that he'd been called upon to dye Mr Abrahams hair since he'd been in the public spotlight. It may take more than that...

Not captured for posterity...

Nick Robinson | 12:19 UK time, Tuesday, 11 December 2007

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The cameras will not record the moment that Gordon Brown signs the EU Constitution treaty.

The prime minister will travel to Lisbon this Thursday where other EU leaders will sign the European Union Reform Treaty but, tragically (sic), he will arrive too late for the signing ceremony. Mr Brown will be delayed in London by his appearance before select committee chairmen in the Commons and so will arrive only in time for lunch. Downing Street made clear today that he will sign the treaty then but, tragically (sic), the cameras will not record the moment for posterity.

Change of command

Nick Robinson | 08:53 UK time, Friday, 7 December 2007

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Poor Gordon. It just got worse.

The news that Daddy Rupert is making way for son James is not good for the PM.

James MurdochYou see, the man formerly known as Britain's most powerful tycoon was personally, if not always politically, sympathetic to the prime minister. Rupert Murdoch admires Gordon Brown's personal morality and his commitment to hard work. What's more, initially at least, Murdoch Senior was not taken with David Cameron.

Not so the man we will now have to get used to calling Britain's most powerful media tycoon. James Murdoch does not share his father's admiration for Brown or scepticism about Cameron.

What impact will this have? Murdoch Senior recently claimed that he did not shape the opinions of the Times or Sunday Times but acted as publishers always have towards The Sun and the News of the World. So, could this be the day that "It was Dave wot won it"?

Talking of Gordon…

My favourite story of the week comes from the studios of David Bailey where the daddy of all photographers was taking pictures of the PM for the magazine GQ. "Do you use ever use digital instead of film?" asked Brown's right hand woman Sue Nye. "Nah" drawled Bailey "digital's like socialism - it flattens everything out and makes everything the same". Bailey's laughter at his own joke was met, I'm told, by an explanation that that's not really what socialism was…

Avoidance strategy

Nick Robinson | 17:53 UK time, Thursday, 6 December 2007

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Remember I said that Labour's secret donor David Abrahams was staying silent? Not so. He can't - it seems - quite resist. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle he's warned the government that he will come out fighting if ministers start "hammering" him.

What's more he has finally spoken about one issue that up until now people have only dared to whisper about - the fact he's Jewish. The property developer says that he gave his donations in secret to avoid accusations of being part of a "Jewish conspiracy". Ironically, this was precisely the implication of the Telegraph's front page the other day which - let's just say - has yet to produce any supporting evidence (see old blog post).

Abrahams maintains that all his money has been "earned legitimately" through hard work and that none of it has come from Israel, as has been alleged.

Turn of phrase

Nick Robinson | 16:43 UK time, Thursday, 6 December 2007

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Three cheers for Lord West. He spoke in the Lords this afternoon about his recent U-turn about extending 28-day detention without charge (see blogs past)

He told peers that he felt "scarred" by the controversy that erupted after he told the BBC he wasn't convinced that the 28-day period needed to be extended, and then rapidly appeared to change his view after a breakfast meeting with Gordon Brown.

To laughter from all sides of the House, the terror GOAT said: "What it means is that there's one firm of chauffeurs that actually refer to a U-turn as an Admiral West, which I find rather difficult!"

Surprise announcement

Nick Robinson | 11:55 UK time, Thursday, 6 December 2007

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Late last night the call went out that the home secretary was finally going to produce her proposals for extending detention without trial. This surprised and irritated Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who'd been expecting his report to appear first. A leaked draft report circulated last night in which the committee suggested that there was not yet evidence for an extension. Could the events be connected? Who knows.

Shami ChakrabartiWhat is clear is that the surprise announcement has destroyed an energetic behind-the-scenes operation to woo Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil liberties campaign group Liberty. This morning she accused ministers of abandoning attempts to build a consensus on the issue. She argued that there had been "a unique opportunity to end the arms race on terror laws".

Chakrabarti's role in this debate is crucial. It was she who pointed out a few months ago that the government's own civil contingency bill allowed detention without trial to be extended beyond 28 days for a further 30 if a state of emergency were declared. This was proof she, and later the Tories and Lib Dems, said that the powers were there if more than 28 days were ever needed. Ministers replied that to declare an emergency would be a gift to terrorists so they sought to achieve the same thing in new legislation without having to declare a state of emergency. That's where the talk of 58 days came (28 plus 30) which I reported a couple of weeks ago.

When that failed to woo the opposition, Jacqui Smith came up with the figure of 42 days. I've not yet heard the case for that figure as opposed to the previously mooted 90, 58 and 56 days. I suspect it's the whips’ best guess of what they might be low enough to minimise a Labour rebellion and get it through the Commons.

Another reason ministers may have rushed this out is - rather like with the speeded up announcements of cancer plans and sentencing reviews - to change the subject from party funding. The Guardian's front page splash today makes that tricky. It alleges that Labour Party officials helped draw up legal documents to allow David Abrahams to make secret donations exploiting what they regarded as a loophole in the law. So much for suggestions that only Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary who resigned was forced out, was to blame.

UPDATE, 02:40PM: Whitehall's finest insist that there has been no speeding up of recent government announcements. They've caught some of those involved on the hop and they've surprised specialist journalists trying to prepare coverage of them but, apparently, this is not because they were speeded up. Curious.

Blogger's block

Nick Robinson | 08:42 UK time, Wednesday, 5 December 2007

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It's come to something when a government is relieved to be announcing that it will instruct judges not to send criminals to jails when they are full. That, though, is how it is. The debate about policy kicked off by the Carter review of sentencing - indeed, any debate about policy - will come as a huge relief to ministers. I know how they feel.

I have had blogger’s block in recent days. Having mastered who David Abrahams is, which Janet is which and what the law says about permissible donors I found myself feeling curiously empty. Until Mr Abrahams says more or reveals the documents he claims to have; until some other player breaks their silence, this story is unlikely to move very far. Rules have clearly been broken. Yes, laws too but let's remember that this is currently a case of "cash for what?" In other words, it is unclear what was in it for those breaking those rules and laws other than an awful lot of delayed grief.

Yesterday the Tories initiated a debate on party funding. They threw allegations of law breaking at Labour MPs who in return threw back re-heated allegations about Ashcroft, Chinese donors and Asil Nadir. It all made me feel like taking a long shower and is something I shall remember next time a politician lectures me about undermining faith in politics.

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