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Archives for February 2008

Make a million by helping the poor

Nick Robinson | 16:32 UK time, Thursday, 28 February 2008


I wonder how those on the left who yearned for Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair would have felt if they'd known that he would adopt a policy recommended by a former investment banker which would invite multi-national companies to bid for a share of a £1bn market to help get the unemployed back to work? That was what James Purnell, Brown's new work and pensions secretary, confirmed today was his policy.

Gordon Brown and James PurnellToday, on a visit to a job placement centre in Newham, I asked Purnell whether he was happy for people to get rich helping the unemployed. "Yes" he answered without so much as a blink.

Purnell, one of the young ministers promoted after Peter Hain left the cabinet, is a Blairite and a Freudian. I refer not to Sigmund - the father of psychoanalysis - but to his great grandson David. It was the report of this former banker which called for the provision of job search, placement and preparation to be privatised and incentivised so that private companies and voluntary organisations are rewarded for how successful they are both in getting the unemployed back into work and ensuring that they stay there.

David Freud recently told the Telegraph "We can pay masses - I worked out that it is economically rational to spend up to £62,000 on getting the average person on Incapacity Benefit into work". He went on to say that "somebody will see a gap in the market and make their fortune''.

The FT reveals today that many people have already made their fortunes this way including, intriguingly, the wife of the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd whose former company Ingeus now operates in the UK.

What has happened to Freud's report tells you a lot about how Gordon Brown has changed from the pretender to the throne to the occupier of it and even in the months since he's been in No 10. Freud was commissioned by Tony Blair and the minister he trusted to reform welfare, John Hutton. Gordon Brown, as chancellor, fought against its proposals. As prime minister he sidelined them to focus instead on the promotion of skills.

The Tories saw their opportunity and embraced Freud whole-heartedly promising that they would implement his reforms. No sooner had they done so than Gordon Brown discovered that no-one was a greater admirer of the ideas than he was.

Old Sigmund would have had a field day with Gordon's Freudian slip.

Speaker's dilemma

Nick Robinson | 08:22 UK time, Wednesday, 27 February 2008


A dilemma faces the Speaker and the cross party group of MPs on the House of Commons Commission. Should they accept last night's Information Tribunal ruling which ordered the publication of a detailed breakdown of MPs’ second home allowances or fight it in the courts?

Gordon Brown speaking to MPs in House of CommonsA senior Commons source told me that they were ready to accept the need to breakdown expenses by category - heat, light, rent, furniture… etc. That, though, is not what's being ordered. The tribunal want the receipts to be made public so that the prurient will be able to know who went to Ikea and who to Harrods for their sofa. It will also reveal the addresses of MPs unless there are specific security reasons not to.

More worryingly for some it would reveal who had made regular and profitable use of the lax rules which allow £250 claims without receipts and £400 per month for food which, the tribunal hearing revealed, could be spent on an iPod rather than lasagne without anyone knowing. Although the ruling applies only to a handful of high profile MPs - some of whom have now left the Commons such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson - it would swiftly be used as a precedent to apply to all in the Commons.

There are only two possible escape routes I can see. Firstly, FOI campaigners tell me that the Commons destroys financial records regularly rather than keeping them for years. A legal delay may mean that the receipts and the lack of them can no longer be revealed. Secondly, in certain circumstances, the Speaker has a veto on FOI requests. It does not appear to apply in this case but that's what lawyers are paid for, isn't it?

I've caused a stir

Nick Robinson | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 26 February 2008


If you ladle it out, you've got to take it, as the old saying goes.

My post yesterday has provoked 52 MPs (and counting) to sign the following Early Day Motion tabled by Peter Kilfoyle:

That this House deplores the innuendo of the blog of Nick Robinson, the BBC's lobby correspondent; calls upon him to substantiate the imputations he makes in his blog concerning the Speaker and hon. Members; and also calls upon the BBC to publish a full, itemised account of the expenses of Mr Robinson, in the name of transparency and accountability of public funds."

Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle on a BBC TV programmeMr Kilfoyle posted his comments below yesterday's blog in which he describes as "outrageous" the suggestion that some MPs are too afraid to condemn the Speaker because he'd abuse his position in the chair to punish those that did.

My aim yesterday was to not to imply that the Speaker has or would abuse his position but to explain why the public statements of support for him did not represent the mood of all MPs.

There is clearly a great deal of anger in the Commons about the reporting of questions about MPs and the Speaker's expenses. Perhaps I can tempt Mr Kilfoyle and, indeed, any other signatory of the motion to spell out in greater detail why. We'll publish them when we get them.

In the meantime, here's my suggestion for "some competing and, occasionally, overlapping theories" (to quote yesterday's post) for that anger:

1. MPs feel that they are victims of a "witch hunt".

Most MPs work hard, find juggling a job based in two different places far from easy and were appalled at what they regarded as Derek Conway's flagrant abuse of the allowances system. They hate any suggestion that "they're all at it".

2. MPs resent being at the receiving end from people who are often paid better than they are.

Many - though, by no means all - Westminster journalists are paid more than the politicians they report on. To add to the resentment journalism traditionally had very lax policing of expenses.

3. Many MPs feel that their pay is held back because of their public visibility.

The conventional wisdom at the moment is to say that MPs should not set their own pay. The problem is that even when independent reports - such as that from the Senior Salaries Review Body - have recommended pay rises both the Labour and Tory front benches have refused to back them fearful of the public response. The result, over the years, is that MPs have taken to granting themselves higher allowances.

4. MPs loathe the intrusion into their private lives that's resulted from increased "transparency".

Increased transparency was meant to be the solution to the so-called "culture of sleaze" but, instead, many MPs believe Freedom of Information has simply offered journalists and their political opponents a never ending supply of prurient enquiries about how they furnish their houses or how much they pay their staff.

5. Many MPs are angry that the criticisms on individuals are sapping confidence in Parliament as a whole and, therefore, in democracy.

And, I almost forgot, there is a sixth reason.

6. The Committee of MPs who are reviewing expenses has declared that it will establish a new system of allowances that will command public confidence.

This morning the Commons committee reviewing MPs' pay and allowances said it would complete its report before the House broke up for the summer and not in the autumn as originally suggested. The Members Estimate Committee, which is chaired by the Speaker, said in a special report that as "a first step" it had agreed to cut the £250 threshold for MPs submitting expenses claims without a receipt.

It said that "We are conscious of the need to establish a structure which will endure and will rebuild confidence," and would take independent advice on how to put in place a "robust and transparent process" for claiming and auditing allowances. Moves are already afoot to force MPs to declare if they are employing a family member.

Change is in the air.

Theories on the Speaker

Nick Robinson | 12:59 UK time, Monday, 25 February 2008


Michael Martin and his wife MaryWhy has the Speaker - whose problems were initially greeted with almost complete silence - suddenly got so many friends in Westminster? Here's some competing - and, occasionally, overlapping theories:

1. Michael Martin acts as shop steward for MPs and many fear that the media will come for them next.

Today the former trade union bruiser, John Spellar MP, declared that it was time to "stop this nonsense now" and insisted that his constituents had shown no interest in the issue of MPs’ expenses. It's worth noting that Spellar is now chairing the House of Commons advisory panel on members' allowances. He speaks for many.

2. MPs are scared to cross the Speaker.

When Nick Clegg became Lib Dem leader he said he'd represent the people's interests against those of the Westminster village. Today he told a press conference that "Worryingly, (it) looks like something of a witch-hunt against him," before saying that he trusted Martin to carry out the "complete overhaul" needed to the rules governing MPs’ expenses as soon as possible.

Clegg will have had to weigh up the consequences for him of attacking someone who influences the selection of speakers and amendments in the Commons as well as the reaction of his own MPs if their expenses become highlighted.

3. The Tories want the next Speaker to be one of theirs.

On the old "buggins turn" principle, the Tories expected Betty Boothroyd to be replaced as Speaker by a Tory MP. Michael Martin ensured that didn't happen. If the Tories plotted against him now Labour MPs may react by ensuring that the leading Tory candidate, Sir George Young, loses again.

We await words today from the Conservatives who, up until now are represented by the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis who remarked yesterday that "Clearly he has got problems". David Cameron is, I'm told, very busy.

4. Michael Martin is the victim of class-based sneering by elitist journalists.

If this was ever the case (Quentin Letts of the Mail is blamed for inventing the phrase "Gorbals Mick") it is a hard claim to sustain given that the Sunday Mirror has led the recent allegations against the Speaker and calls for Martin to go have come from papers across the political spectrum.

5. Praise may be the best way to persuade Martin to go.

Senior frontbenchers from both sides of the House have told me that the Speaker must not be driven from office by a media campaign but that he also must not stay on until the next Parliament. Thus, they argue, silence or support is, actually, the way to see the back of him.

Oh yes. I forgot. There is a sixth reason articulated by the prime minister this morning.

6. "Michael Martin has been a very, very good Speaker."

Take your pick.

Citizenship: Why bother?

Nick Robinson | 09:39 UK time, Wednesday, 20 February 2008


Union Jack above government buildings in Whitehall, LondonWhat's the point in becoming a British citizen? Yes, you get a passport and access to consular services. Yes, you get the right to vote. But what else? The answer is - not much.

Thus many immigrants choose never to become citizens and never to go through the English tests, the citizenship ceremonies and all the rest of the things dreamt up by politicians to foster integration.

Changing that is, I'm told, is at the heart of today's Green Paper on citizenship.

I'm off to a citizenship ceremony to find out more...

Watch Nick's report on citizenship

Led a little astray

Nick Robinson | 08:50 UK time, Tuesday, 19 February 2008


Having been led a little astray by a quote in Hansard is a useful reminder to me that the official record of House of Commons business is not a verbatim record of what MPs actually say.

MPs and their staff are able to inspect the words which the Parliamentary transcribers faithfully record and then to suggest "improvements". It is the job of Hansard editors to clarify the meaning of what an honourable member said whilst ensuring that no changes to the meaning are allowed to slip through.

A colleague reminded me of an old verse that captured the spirit of Hansard well:

And so while the great ones depart to their dinner,
The secretary stays, growing thinner and thinner
Racking his brain to record and report
What he thinks that they think that they ought to have thought.

It's been claimed (though never to my knowledge verified) that before being accepted as a Hansard scribe, applicants used to be forced to listen to one of John Prescott's speeches and to write down what they think he was trying to say.

Clearly, in the case of Alistair Darling's quote, the Hansard scribe thought that the chancellor was agreeing with a backbencher attacking nationalisation and no-one in Darling's office objected. Perhaps because that was the impression he wanted to convey, albeit not what he actually said.

The online revolution may protect us in future since the uncleaned up version is now published on the day of debates on the Parliament website before being replaced by the cleaned up official version the following morning.

He didn't say it - quite

Nick Robinson | 20:15 UK time, Monday, 18 February 2008


The answer is "No".

The answer, that is, to the question I posed earlier today when I asked "Has Alistair Darling announced a policy that he has previously accepted will 'lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre with... the chancellor cast in the role of undertaker'?"

Alistair Darling leaves Millbank studios in London after a round of interviewsThis quote has been discussed and debated all day - on my blog, when John Humphrys interviewed Alistair Darling this morning and in my question at this morning's Prime Ministerial news conference. It was deployed by the Tories at their news conference and in the House of Commons.

The words were those of Jim Cousins, the Labour MP for Newcastle Central (home of Northern Rock) who condemned the Lib Dems' policy of backing nationalisation for Northern Rock in a question to the Chancellor in November last year:

"Does my right hon. friend accept that the policy of nationalisation would lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre, with my right hon. friend the chancellor cast in the role of undertaker—and that only by finding a successor business to grow on those jobs, assets and reputations can we offer any real prospect of the taxpayers getting their money back?"

Source: Hansard, 19 November 2007

According to Hansard (the official record of House of Commons business) the chancellor replied:

"I agree with my hon. friend" before continuing "It is regrettable and surprising that the Liberal Democrats never seemed to support our earlier proposals to keep Northern Rock open. It would also, however, be a mistake to shut off all other options and simply go for one at this stage; that does not seem to me to make any sense at all."

Except he didn't quite say that. The tape of the exchange has been on my blog for some time but I've only just had time to listen to what some of you have clearly heard for yourselves. Hansard does not - for once - accurately reflect what was actually said. What Mr Darling actually said was:

"I agree with my honourable friend that I think it is regrettable that the Liberal Democrats who never actually seemed to support the proposals we made earlier to keep Northern Rock open and I think that's regrettable and very surprising but I think it would also be a mistake to shut off all other options and simply go for one at this stage that doesn't seem to me to make any sense at all."

In other words, he was agreeing with the attack on the Lib Dems and not the characterisation of nationalisation as "a slow lingering death" with him as "undertaker".

No-one from Team Darling's complained that their man's been misquoted but he has. So, let me say sorry.

Of course, had he been actively considering nationalisation at that stage he would, I suspect, have responded rather differently and in a way less open to misinterpretation.

The risk is still there

Nick Robinson | 17:58 UK time, Monday, 18 February 2008


"An economic calamity has taken place". So claimed the Tory leader today drawing, he said, on his own experience of working at the Treasury on Black Wednesday. Yet somehow, at least in Westminster, it's not felt like that sort of day.

Northern Rock branch in NewcastleOf course, nationalising Northern Rock is something this government did not want to do.

Of course, Gordon Brown hoped that the ‘N word’ would never again be used in the same sentence as ‘Labour government’.

Of course, the risk ministers are taking with vast sums of taxpayers money is still there.

That, though, is the point - the risk is STILL there - as it was last week and as it would have been even if ministers had today announced not the nationalisation of the Rock but its sale or, as the Tories recommend, putting it into administration.

There is clearly political damage to a government that's constantly proclaimed its capacity to deliver economic stability and reputational damage to Britain as a financial centre but the scale of this will not become clear until we know the answer to what is now the £100 billion question - how much, if any, of this unprecedented subsidy will actually be lost.

In other words, unlike on Black Wednesday, we do not know that billions have been lost. If they are, though, David Cameron will not be alone in using the word calamity.

Savage description

Nick Robinson | 08:38 UK time, Monday, 18 February 2008


So, has Alistair Darling announced a policy that he has previously accepted will "lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre with... the chancellor cast in the role of undertaker"?

That was the suggestion that led to a lively exchange between Darling and John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. It all stemmed from a quote I put on my blog last night which dates from the time the Lib Dems were being assaulted for daring even to think about the possibility that the Rock might have to be nationalised.

Alistair DarlingListen to the exchange or read below the fuller transcript of the question from the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, Jim Cousins, and Alistair Darling's reply:

“Jim Cousins MP:

‘The whole House will have noted that the Liberal Democrats have as much regard for the 5,500 employees of Northern Rock in the north-east - and the 6,500 nationally - as they had for the job of their former leader.


‘Two or three faces in public, 10 in private - that is the policy of the Liberal Democrats.

‘Does my right hon. friend accept that the policy of nationalisation would lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre, with my right hon. friend the chancellor cast in the role of undertaker - and that only by finding a successor business to grow on those jobs, assets and reputations can we offer any real prospect of the taxpayers getting their money back?’

Alistair Darling MP: ‘I agree with my hon. friend. It is regrettable and surprising that the Liberal Democrats never seemed to support our earlier proposals to keep Northern Rock open. It would also, however, be a mistake to shut off all other options and simply go for one at this stage; that does not seem to me to make any sense at all.’”

Source: Hansard, 19 November 2007

So, Darling was careful not to rule nationalisation out but not at all careful about appearing to agree with a savage description of a policy he has now been forced to adopt.

Return to the 'N' word

Nick Robinson | 23:28 UK time, Sunday, 17 February 2008


Imagine, just for a second if you had suggested to Gordon Brown, before he became prime minister, that he would nationalise a bank in his first year in No 10. He would have laughed, then snorted but, if you'd persisted, you might have seen the colour drain from his face.

The N word - nationalisation - is so toxic to Brown's generation that they never wanted it to be heard in the same sentence as the Labour Party again. That is, no doubt, one reason he has delayed so long before taking this decision.

Before Christmas, when the Lib Dems were alone in advocating nationalisation, this was how it was discussed in the House of Commons:

"Jim Cousins (Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central):

'Does my right hon. friend accept that the policy of nationalisation would lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre, with my right hon. friend the chancellor cast in the role of undertaker - and that only by finding a successor business to grow on those jobs, assets and reputations can we offer any real prospect of the taxpayers getting their money back?'

The chancellor: 'I agree with my hon. friend.'"

(Source : Hansard, 19 November 2007)

Now, to be fair, the chancellor did not rule out nationalisation then and now argues - with independent advice - that it is the best option for the taxpayer.

So, what will be the price to be paid - political, reputational and financial for today's decision?

Political damage will be:
• very serious for the chancellor who, whether he is to blame or not, is now associated with the first nationalisation in decades and the first run on a bank in over a century
• serious for the prime minister who has been forced to adopt a policy it's clear he was desperate to avoid and took months before taking
• the damage to the Labour Party is unpredictable since it may turn out that the N word is not half as toxic as was assumed.

So the key will be...

Reputational damage:
• the, as yet, unmeasurable damage to the reputation of London as the world's premier financial sector which, if serious, would lead to...

Financial damage:
• a potential loss of business from the City with knock-ons for tax revenues and jobs elsewhere
• a loss of tens of millions in consultant fees for the sale of the Rock which ministers attempted but could not pull off
• the much talked of, though so far purely speculative, loss of billions of pounds in taxpayer guarantees if the Rock cannot pay them back. It may be years before the true scale of any loss is clear

In short, this is a day Gordon Brown would have done anything he could to have avoided but we do not know how well founded his fears were.

Cameron and deja vu

Nick Robinson | 10:05 UK time, Thursday, 14 February 2008


This is an article I've written for The Spectator magazine called 'What does David Cameron really think?'. It was also broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday, 16 February. From Friday, 22 February it can also be downloaded as a Radio 4 podcast.

He is the longest serving of our major party leaders. He could be prime minister next year. He has had publicity that many a politician would kill for. Yet how many voters can answer a simple question – what does David Cameron really think?

David Cameron visits Charles Dickens Primary School in London
That is what I have been trying to do for a documentary on BBC Radio 4. My producer Martin Rosenbaum and I have spoken to those who know Cameron best – his friends, his colleagues and a few of those who he’s crossed over the years.

Eighteen months ago we made a programme which asked the same question about the man who then looked set to be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street – Gordon Brown. Our aim then and now was to examine the values and the influences upon the man who would be Prime Minister rather than their policies. We’ve been struck by how much harder our task has been this time around.

Brown had been at the top of government for 10 years. Cameron has never held office. Brown had just had a vast compendium of his speeches published and, as a young man, had written a book outlining his political philosophy.

Not so Cameron. The non political influences on Brown – in particular, his father’s religious teaching and the impact of almost losing his sight – were already well documented. In comparison, much less is known about how Cameron’s background shaped him.

The influences on the Tory leader are, for many, summed up by just two photographs. The first shows a young Cameron strutting in tailcoats alongside fellow Old Etonian, Boris Johnson, in a portrait of Oxford University’s answer to the Bash Street kids.

Both are now bidding to prove that association with the braying boys of the Bullingdon Club is not a bar to high office. The second finds Cameron lurking in the shadows on Black Wednesday watching his boss Norman Lamont announce that he was giving up the costly struggle to keep the pound in the ERM.

Some Labour politicians dream of deploying these two politically toxic images to portray Cameron as a privileged young Tory toff who bears some responsibility for the economic humiliation of the Major years. Others fear that this strategy will be no more likely to succeed than Tory attacks on Tony Blair for his membership of CND.

They recognise that, important though they are, those images tell only part of the Cameron story. They do not explain the long political journey he has taken. In 1996 young candidate Cameron rallied his party Conference with a call for a return to a tax-cutting agenda and to fight Labour’s plans to tame the “British lion” and turn her into a “federalist pussycat”. A decade later Cameron, now as leader, was telling his party to embrace gay marriage, social justice and social responsibility.

There are three other images from the album of influences on David Cameron which help explain that journey. The first is of his wife, Samantha; the second is his severely disabled son, Ivan; the third is the face of defeat. Each contributed to converting him - albeit much later than many of his friends - to the idea of “modernising” the Tory party.

Samantha and David Cameron
Nicholas Boles, one of the earliest disciples of the need for the Tories to change radically, credits Samantha Cameron with “dragging” her husband “to see the world as she saw it”. Boles says she forced the Tory leader to understand that Section 28 (the ban on the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools) was “an attempt to stigmatise a particular group”.

The Tory Party had treated Cameron so well, Boles argues, that it took Sam to make him understand other people’s hatred of it. A surprising role, perhaps, for the daughter of a baronet whose job is selling £950 handbags.

It was the birth of their severely disabled child, Ivan, which forced the Camerons to live their lives as many others live theirs - dependent on public services. Night after night spent sleeping on hospital floors changed the man who’d come from a “rarefied background” says Ian Birrell who met Cameron as Deputy Editor of the Independent but befriended him as the fellow father of a very disabled child.

The experience did more than make Cameron a small c “conservative” when it comes to the funding of the NHS. It also filled him with frustration about its bureaucracy and fuelled his belief that the state needs to create the conditions in which voluntary organisations can thrive.

However, it took the Tory defeat of 2005 to finally turn Cameron from archetypal Tory boy to arch Tory moderniser. Danny Finklestein, the Times columnist, met Cameron when he was head of research at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square.

They were part of a group of Tory modernisers who used to talk politics over pizzas. He says that labelling the Cameroons “the Notting Hill set” misses the point. They are, he says, “the Smith Square set” whose shared experience of defeat forged their politics and distinguishes them from the Tories who came before.

Opponents would, no doubt, add a fourth image of Cameron - the PR man. All these images may help explain the political journey Cameron has undertaken but they cannot predict its eventual destination.

And that is where friends of Cameron become rather hazy. Faced by choices about governing rather than political positioning they cannot spell out what he would do.

Take just, one example, Europe. It’s one thing to instruct your party to stop “obsessing” about the issue. It’s quite another to decide whether to betray your activists who believe you are committed to renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU or to pick a long, lonely and, potentially, futile fight with the European leaders you’ve fought so hard to join.

Put this or other choices on tax or climate change or social justice or social responsibility to a member of Team Cameron and they soon reply “Ah but he is a pragmatist”. In this sense he is not a moderniser but a tradition-aliser harking back to the days not just before Thatcher but before Heath and “Selsdon Man”.

Douglas Hurd, Cameron's predecessor as MP for Witney, says, with some proprietorial pride, that he is a young man who is learning on the job. Rest assured that between now and the next election Gordon Brown will work hard to flush out the answers that I failed to get.

Whilst making this programme I’ve had an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Fourteen years ago I struggled to pin down what another young opposition leader really thought. People said he didn’t believe very much at all. Pinning down Tony Blair proved so tricky in 1994 that Panorama scrapped its planned profile. It’s a mistake I vowed not to repeat.

Taking some time off

Nick Robinson | 17:04 UK time, Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Forgive the radio silence.

I've been spending the past couple of day polishing off a Radio 4 documentary called "What does David Cameron really think?" which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this Saturday at 11 am and after that time can be heard on the Radio 4 website and you can even podcast it.

Now I'm taking advantage of the parliamentary half term for a few days off with my family. Back next week.

Milk with your iPod?

Nick Robinson | 19:38 UK time, Thursday, 7 February 2008


The fact that MPs can claim expenses of £250 without a receipt has already been greeted with widespread incredulity. The fact we learnt today is likely to be greeted with even more. MPs can, apparently, also claim £400 a month for food without receipts.

This emerged at an Information tribunal where the man in charge of vetting expenses in the Commons was fighting to stop freedom of information campaigners revealing any more about them. How, the House of Commons director of resources was asked, could he know if an MP was using the money to pay for meat and two veg or an iPod? The answer was - he couldn't.

Andrew Walker's argument against publishing a breakdown of MPs' expenses was that this would offer voters a "peephole" into their private lives and would put people off doing the job at all. Bear in mind that what he was trying to block on behalf of the Commons was not the publication of individual receipts (eg chez longue £980) but for broad headings such as utility bills, furniture etc.

I, for one, do not want to spend my journalistic career worrying if an MP prefers Kellogs to 'own brand' corn flakes but I am amazed that many MPs don't appear to realise that the demand for more and more information stems from a view that their system of expenses is so obviously open to abuse.

There is a vicious circle at work here. The more voters learn about MPs' allowances and expenses, the more unhappy they become and the more many MPs want to stop them learning about their expenses.

Only the House of Commons can break that circle - by reforming themselves.

Tony Blair le president?

Nick Robinson | 11:22 UK time, Thursday, 7 February 2008


"Well, Huw, the exit poll in the Tuscany primary suggests that Blair is on course to be president. Junker looks set to hold his home state of Luxembourg...”

Tony BlairNow that might just compete with Clinton and Obama. This idle musing is provoked by my colleague Mark Mardell's blog about Blair for president of Europe and gives me the opportunity to invite you to hear the most entertaining Commons speech of the year to date.

Since Blair or any other candidate to be M Le President will not, in fact be elected by anyone, Hague imagined the scene at the EU summit when Brown realises he's thrown away the veto and can't block Blair's nomination and "the awful moment" when the president's motorcade sweeps into Downing Street. It's delicious and lasts only a minute. Cheer yourself up and watch it here.

What is David Cameron up to?

Nick Robinson | 14:21 UK time, Wednesday, 6 February 2008


David Cameron at PMQsToday at Prime Minister's Questions he labelled Gordon Brown a "hopeless dithering prime minister". The other day he labelled him "that strange man" in Downing Street. The leader who promised an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ has become more and more contemptuous in his attitude to the PM and, as a result, less respectful towards the office itself.

My guess is that he is thinking of that old American political strategists’ maxim "Define your opponent before he can define himself". In other words, he may be hoping that he can help form a negative impression of Gordon Brown which will stick fast in voters’ minds.

However, I recall David Cameron telling Tories to be aware that whatever they said would, in the end, tell voters as much about them as the person they were attacking.

Has he forgotten this or am I missing something?

The wisdom of hats

Nick Robinson | 09:17 UK time, Wednesday, 6 February 2008


pancakes.jpgMove over Jamie. This is a picture of the moment I and other TV journos launched our bid for TV cook stardom in the Parliamentary pancake race. Naturally, we journalists battered (sorry) the MPs although I seem to have lost my pancake.

majorturban.jpgI can't help feeling that I should have followed the advice of the best spin doctors never ever even to think about wearing a hat on camera. Tony Blair was very rarely snapped wearing one - perhaps scarred by that shot of him at Oxford in a straw boater. David Cameron refused to wear one even in scalp freezing temperatures on his dog sled trip to the North Pole. However, Gordon Brown was once caught in a Biggles helmet. And, do you remember (how could you forget) the turban that John Major once sported?!

Something's bugging me...

Nick Robinson | 09:20 UK time, Tuesday, 5 February 2008


Sometimes in this job you stumble into a subject about which you know very little and emerge, well, confused. Then you suddenly realise that this is entirely intentional. Clarity is sometimes the last thing governments want when handling tricky questions. So it is has been over the years with the issue of bugging MPs (or intercepting their communications which, I now realise, is very different). To be fair to the Justice Secretary Jack Straw if you listened to him very carefully and then read what he had to say several times the fog did begin to clear (a little).

So here goes:

Jack StrawThe "Wilson doctrine" does not ban the bugging of MPs. In fact, it bans nothing at all since Wilson's words were a masterpiece of civil service drafting which said, in effect, "we won't tap the phones of MPs... unless we do... then we'll tell Parliament about it... when and if it's safe to do so".

Two years ago the cabinet debated scrapping the doctrine. They tried to write a new, clearer set of rules. These would have allowing the bugging of MPs, like the rest of us, if this was justified by threats to national security or suspected criminal activity but protecting their dealings with a constituent and their conversations in Parliament itself.

This was abandoned, I was told by some of those involved, because the ambiguity inherent in the Wilson doctrine would have been revealed. It would, in the words of one source, have "opened a can of worms" ie ministers would have been forced to reveal that they had tapped the phones of those still, at that time, involved in the search of a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Another told me that the doctrine was helpfully vague and that the last thing ministers needed was a discussion of what was or was not allowed.

The "Wilson doctrine" does not ban all monitoring of what MPs say in private. Up until now I've used the word "bugging" rather loosely. The law distinguishes between intercepts (that's phone and email tapping to you and me) and eavesdropping (a bug in a public place).

The doctrine only relates to anything that requires a ministerial order ie intercepts and bugging which is carried out by the security services but not the police. This stems from the history of the doctrine which arose from fears that the security services could be used by government to target their political opponents.

Sadiq KhanSo, police bugging is not covered by the Wilson doctrine. Why, then, did Jack Straw condemn the bugging by the police of Sadiq Khan MP and order an inquiry into it? Ministers, I'm told, want to be sure that Khan, rather than the prisoner he was visiting, was not the subject of the bugging.

Khan was disliked by senior officers in the Met because of his role as a lawyer who'd represented black officers involved in legal actions against their bosses. His work as a civil liberties campaigner made him a thorn in the Met's side. As I reported last night, some police officers regarded him as "a subversive". However, there is, as yet, no evidence he was the target of the bugging and, indeed, sources in the police and security services deny it.

If the enquiry confirms this there will still be questions about whether the police should have continued their bugging operation once they realised an MP was involved and why ministers only discovered what was going on thanks to media enquiries and not from the police, prison authorities or their own officials who'd known for weeks, if not months.

One thing his case is likely to produce is some answers (yes, only some) and a little (yes, just a little) more clarity about what is and what is not allowed.

Bugging: 'Significant pressure'

Nick Robinson | 22:43 UK time, Monday, 4 February 2008


I can reveal the identity of the former police officer who says that he carried out the bugging of a prison conversation between the Labour MP Sadiq Khan and a terror suspect.

A document seen by the BBC reveals that Mark Kearney, the former police intelligence officer at Woodhill high security prison, says that he came under "significant pressure from the Metropolitan police requesting that we covertly record a social visit between a terrorist detainee and a member of Parliament....The MP concerned was Sadiq Khan, the member for Tooting, and indeed the constituent MP for the suspected terrorist... I did record the visit but have never felt it was justified in these circumstances. The government has already ordered an inquiry into the affair."

Kearney's involvement emerged in a statement he drew up as part of his defence against criminal charges that he leaked stories to a local newspaper journalist. Sources have told the BBC that Khan, though not the formal target of the bugging, was of "significant interest" to the police, some of whom regarded him as "subversive". Mr Khan has chosen not to comment on the reports since his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. He won't be surprised that some in the Met are not fans of his given his role as a high profile lawyer and campaigner for civil liberties.

The Wilson doctrine, which was supposed to protect MPs from bugging, was drawn up after Harold Wilson was faced with revelations that the security service had bugged political activists including the young John Prescott, one of the leaders of the seaman's union.

The debate now will focus on whether political surveillance is returning, or whether MPs - like us all - should be liable to be bugged if there is a perceived threat to national security.

The government will not be helped by another revelation tonight. I've just been told that officials at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office were told weeks ago - in December of last year - about the bugging, even though ministers were not told until two days ago. Questions are sure to follow about why ministers - and therefore Parliament and the public - were not told.

Police decision

Nick Robinson | 13:37 UK time, Monday, 4 February 2008


Ministers, I learn, were not consulted about the bugging of a conversation involving the Labour MP, Sadiq Khan. The decision was taken by Thames Valley Police and Mr Khan was not the target of the bugging. A police officer who is facing disciplinary action was involved and, although his case does not centre on the bugging, he will claim that he had the approval of his chief constable.

The Justice Secretary Jack Straw will not confirm this detail in his Commons statement this afternoon but he will announce who is heading up an enquiry into the incident. In addition, he'll outline the government's approach to the so-called "Wilson doctrine" which bans the tapping of the phones of MPs and peers. MPs are likely to demand reassurances that the doctrine is not being interpreted in a narrow way so as to allow other forms of surveillances of MP beyond phone tapping.

The Wilson doctrine originates with the announcement in 1966 by the then prime minister that "there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament" following allegations that the security services were targeting political activists (included the then student leader and now Justice Secretary - Jack Straw). A number of you (see Richard M and Nick L) responded to my earlier post to say that this is why MPs are rightly a special case.

Competing on childcare

Nick Robinson | 11:48 UK time, Monday, 4 February 2008


Bring back Parkie. That's the cry from David Cameron today. No, he's not mounting a campaign to bring back the father of all chat show (although given Jonathan Ross's question to him about Margaret Thatcher you can see why he might). The Parkie in question is the park keeper who keeps the playground safe for your kids.

David CameronToday the Tories have launched their Childhood Review which is designed to tell the story behind the stats contained in the UNICEF study which showed Britain bottom of the league for children's wellbeing.

The Tory Review is long on narrative and very short on policy but makes no secret of that. It says:

"We are wary or producing too many policy responses. As the Government discovered with its Children’s Plan, the temptation is to fire out regulations and initiatives that may even harm the very causes they are trying to help."

The Review argues that the key problem is loss of trust - both in public spaces and in other adults. Hence the need for Parkie and others to protect public spaces such as playgrounds and the need to give him and other adults the power to care for and control children without the fear of being sued.

Ministers can and will insist that none of this is new. Gordon Brown is the first prime minister to publish a Children's Plan and to appoint a Children's Secretary of State who, significantly, is his closest political ally. They will suggest that the Tories are guilty of substance-free, uncosted political positioning.

Whether you believe that's true or think the Conservatives are taking a first step on an important journey, it matters that Labour and the Tories are now competing over who will best look after your kids.

Bugging and confidentiality

Nick Robinson | 09:37 UK time, Monday, 4 February 2008


Amidst the outrage in Westminster at the alleged phone tapping of an MP, no-one has really explained why MPs should be treated differently to, say, lawyers or doctors who have relationships based on confidentiality.

Sadiq KhanInterestingly not everyone is in favour of maintaining the so-called Wilson doctrine which bars the tapping of MPs’ phones. The bugging tsar (sorry, I mean, interception communications commissioner) Sir Swinton Thomas argued that the ban should be ended.

The former Home Secretary John Reid said in the past that the idea of dropping the ban was "worthy of deep reflection and more consideration".

Westminster should be on standby for voters incensed by the Conway affair to demand to know why MPs should be protected when they are not.

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