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Archives for February 2010

The real Gordon Brown

Nick Robinson | 18:02 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010


So, it's official.

There is no bullying inside No 10. The prime minister was not warned about it and there is no need for an inquiry.

So said the cabinet secretary this afternoon. So, that, surely, is that.

Well, it might be - if it hadn't taken almost two days and three very carefully-drafted Whitehall statements for Sir Gus O'Donnell to make that clear. What's more, his latest statement still leaves open the possibility - the likelihood, indeed - that he did talk to Gordon Brown about his behaviour towards his staff as Andrew Rawnsley still insists.

What's more, the founder of the National Bullying Helpline is still sticking to her story - if more than a little shakily - in the face of criticism about the way she's behaved. Her charity has, she says, had calls about a bullying culture inside No 10.

As a result, the public has heard a good deal more about a pretty open secret in Westminster - the fact that their prime minister has a ferocious temper which some find very uncomfortable to deal with.

Interestingly, after a relentless day in which all sides have fought to secure a political advantage, both the prime minister's friends and his enemies say they want the same thing - for voters to see the real Gordon Brown.

Is that a bad-tempered boss who takes things out on his staff or, like many before him, a leader so passionate and driven that he often gets angry with himself and others? On that, you may not be surprised to know, they don't agree.

Remember Jennifer's ear?

Nick Robinson | 13:30 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010


A long long time ago in the run-up to the election of 1992 the Westminster village worked itself up into a frenzy and even gave a name to it - "the war of Jennifer's ear". I sense that Labour are trying to recreate something similar in the row about Gordon Brown's alleged bullying which, inevitably, some are already dubbing "bullygate".

Gordon BrownWay back then a Labour Party election broadcast which was based on the case of two little girls who had treatment for glue ear - one privately, one in the NHS. For three days, the election campaign was dominated by charge and counter-charge about whether the cases were genuine and about how the identity of one of the girls was leaked to the media. At the time Labour thought the row was good for them. Later many in the party concluded it had been at best a distraction and at worst highly damaging as people focused on how the party had behaved and not on the issue of the NHS that might have moved votes.

So it is that Peter Mandelson - who you may recall was rather heavily involved in that 1992 campaign - is now claiming that there is a "political operation" to undermine the prime minister. He has yet to say what he means by that or to provide any proof of it.

There are private nudges and winks that Christine Pratt who runs the National Bullying Helpline is a Conservative supporter. She denies any involvement with the party, although Ann Widdecombe and a Tory councillor are among the patrons of her charity and that charity has been endorsed by David Cameron.

Separately there are questions - which I wrote about last night - about whether she has risked breaching the confidentiality of those who call her helpline. Today one of her patrons resigned in protest at her actions. There are also questions about whether she uses her charity to channel business to her and her husband's company.

Finally, under enormous pressure, she has been unclear about the details of the complaints her helpline received.

All interesting and well worth pursuing - which we are.

All, however, distracts from the central issue of Gordon Brown's behaviour.

This morning the prime minister's official spokesman repeatedly failed to deny the claim in Andrew Rawnsley's book that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell had spoken to Gordon Brown about his treatment of staff, instead simply stating that:

"The role of the Cabinet Secretary is to ensure the Civil Service supports the Prime Minister to the best effect and that the Prime Minister is getting the best out of the Civil Service".

He continues to insist that this conversation did not amount to a "verbal warning".

Is Lord Mandelson suggesting that the "political operation" he claims exists involves not just Andrew Rawnsley, the Labour Party and civil service sources he quotes extensively and the Observer which serialised his book but also the National Bullying Helpline, the BBC, ITV and Sky which ran her claims last night and, presumably, the Conservative Party as well?

Update 1610: Peter Mandelson has pointed out that in 1992 he played "absolutely no role" in Labour's national campaign and spent it campaigning in Hartlepool. I am happy to clarify.

No 10 questions helpline in Brown 'bullying' row

Nick Robinson | 21:35 UK time, Sunday, 21 February 2010


It was inevitable. The woman who told the BBC her National Bullying Helpline was called by three people who worked with the prime minister is now at the centre of a political storm.

Christine PrattFirst, some are asking why Christine Pratt risked compromising the confidentiality of her callers.

Second, Downing Street is pointing out that they were never contacted by the helpline despite the fact that the Civil Service has "a no tolerance policy on bullying" and has "rigorous, well established procedures in place to allow any member of staff address any concerns over inappropriate treatment or behaviour".

Thirdly, Ms Pratt's motives are being questioned.

Some have pointed out that the helpline website shows a supportive statement from David Cameron and that it lists Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe as a patron.

However, the BBC has so far found no evidence of any political involvement by Ms Pratt or her charity.

South Swindon Labour MP Anne Snelgrove was an active supporter of the helpline but fell out with Ms Pratt over the MP's concerns that the charity might be being used to promote a business that advises companies on staff relations.

Nevertheless, Peter Mandelson's Department for Business continues to recommend the helpline to businesses.

Christine Pratt contacted the BBC after seeing Lord Mandelson's interview this morning defending the prime minister's behaviour.

Colleagues checked the status of the charity and questioned Ms Pratt's claims. We can't, of course, verify the truth of her allegations - merely report them and Downing Street's response to them.

By the way, the Cabinet Office has now issued an updated response to Andrew Rawnsley's allegations stating that "It is completely untrue to say that the Cabinet Secretary ever gave the prime minister a verbal warning about his behaviour".

Mandelson comments backfire

Nick Robinson | 19:04 UK time, Sunday, 21 February 2010


It is one thing to be accused of bullying by a journalist with a book to sell who has to rely on anonymous sources.

It is another for someone who runs an anti-bullying helpline to allege that they have been called by staff working directly with the prime minister.

It is no secret that Gordon Brown is not an easy man to deal with. The former cabinet secretary, Lord Turnbull, once accused him of acting with "Stalinist ruthlessness".

Indeed, in recent days and weeks the prime minister has chosen to admit to losing his temper, shouting at people and even to throwing things when frustrated.

However, the attempt of his close political ally Peter Mandelson to justify this behaviour as that of someone who was - in his words - emotional, passionate and demanding, has backfired.

It provoked tonight's claim, which Downing Street will find much harder to dismiss, even though no specific allegation has been made let alone proved.

Some will, no doubt, argue that how prime ministers behave matters much less than what they achieve.

They may point out that were Winston Churchill in Number 10 today, his habit of dictating letters to his secretary from his bath whilst supping champagne, would lead to accusations of sexual harassment and drinking on the job.

Others will argue that bullying - if it took place - is different from other personal behaviour. It is simply unacceptable.

Brown's behaviour

Nick Robinson | 12:30 UK time, Sunday, 21 February 2010


Too busy to get stuck into the detailed claims and counter claims of how the prime minister treats those he works with?

Here's my short summary:

Gordon Brown doesn't hit his staff - something not actually alleged in Andrew Rawnsley's book The End of the Party but which the PM was asked about and denied in an interview with Channel 4 last night.

The prime minister does, however, throw things when he gets angry. He said so in the same interview.brown226.jpg

So, is he a bully? Bullying, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

This morning his closest political ally Peter Mandelson declared: "I don't think he so much bullies people but is demanding... there is a degree of impatience about the man."

Finally, did the cabinet secretary investigate the prime minister's behaviour and warn him about it?

Last night a Cabinet Office spokesman denied an allegation that was never actually made when they stated: "It is categorically not the case that the cabinet secretary asked for an investigation of the prime minister's treatment of No 10 staff."

Indeed, Sir Gus O'Donnell did not ask for or initiate a formal investigation into Gordon Brown's behaviour.

Well, he wouldn't would he? No denial has been made, however, that Sir Gus - who worked with Gordon Brown at the Treasury - talked to No 10 staff himself and advised the PM to treat them better.

Was this an "investigation" and "a warning" or is that journalistic hyperbole to describe friendly advice to a politician from his leading official?

We don't and may never know.

So what is not in dispute here is the description of how the PM behaves, although Downing Street does dispute individual stories. The question is whether it matters.

The prime minister's friends and allies may dispute the details of particular incidents but, in general, they have chosen to publicly defend his behaviour as that of a demanding leader determined to do what's right.

Privately, many express their unhappiness with it but insist that the PM's weaknesses are more than outweighed by his qualities.

His critics say that Brown's behaviour is unacceptable and disqualifies him from being the nation's leader.

As ever, it is you who gets to decide.


Nick Robinson | 09:10 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010


A moment of re-appraisal. That is the phrase which Peter Mandelson uses to describe what Labour is trying to achieve. Thus Gordon Brown presents himself on television as a human: a father who mourns; a husband who loves; a leader who may be quick to lose his temper, but who is a leader nonetheless.

Simultaneously, Labour is seeking to portray David Cameron as an air-brushed PR man who will say anything in order to get to power. It is a strategy made necessary by a continual 10-point lead of the Tories over Labour ever since Gordon Brown became prime minister. Individual polls may go up and down, but that 10-point lead is fairly consistent.

After spending a week touring marginal constituencies, I'm spending half-term off. So enjoy the next few days, and I'll be posting again in a week's time.

Taking The Pulse: Harlow

Nick Robinson | 15:58 UK time, Thursday, 11 February 2010


KitKats... dog food... a loo brush... and don't forget the bath plug. That and so much more will all be on the ballot paper at this - the first - general election after we learnt what MPs were asking us to pay for.

Graphic of a ballot boxThe impact of the MPs' expenses scandal is unpredictable. Will it inspire people to punish wrong-doers, abandon the major parties, focus on more significant issues or could it lead some to ask the question "Voting - is it worth it?"

That is today's question in our totally unscientific quest to take the pulse of the British electorate.

We've come to Harlow in Essex - an important Labour/Tory marginal. This town's not been the focus of the expenses scandal although the local Labour MP, Bill Rammell, did have to repay over £2,700 for things he shouldn't have claimed for - a garden table and a suitcase - and things like newspapers and printing he claimed under the wrong heading. The talk around here is also of the recently-resigned Tory leader of Essex County Council, Lord Hanningfield, who is facing charges for his alleged abuse of House of Lords expenses.

I've been speaking today to members of the Harlow Allotment Association who - unlike Members of Parliament - have never been able to claim for the cost of their gardening. One or two cite the scandal as a reason for not voting. Most, who share their anger, insist, however, that voting is a privilege and duty and that you can't complain if you don't participate in choosing who runs the country.

Some of the more working-class crowd watching the greyhounds race at Harlow Stadium do mention expenses as the reason for not voting but more commonly I heard people express lack of interest in or knowledge of politics. The bookies there offer me odds on who'll win the election but it is anyone's bet how many will actually vote.

At the last election - long before this scandal - 8,000 fewer people voted here than in the election when Tony Blair first became prime minister and 17,000 fewer than when John Major was elected. In the country as a whole five million fewer voted in 2005 compared with 1997.

This is the last day of my tour of marginal constituencies. I've heard a huge range of opinions but have been struck by the widespread anger with Labour; the real uncertainty about the Tories; the willingness of a minority who once stayed silent to talk openly about backing the BNP but most of all I am struck by the depth of the decline in belief in politics and politicians.

It is a profound challenge to all those who believe that elections are the only fair, safe and decent way for the country to make choices, resolve debates and decide who wields power.

Update 12 Feb: Here's my package from Harlow.

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Taking The Pulse: Dudley

Nick Robinson | 13:33 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010


It's Wednesday so it must be Dudley.

On day two of my tour of marginal constituencies to take the pulse of the electorate we are asking voters their views on the question of whether "it's time to cut public spending".

Taking the Pulse logoWe're doing it here because Dudley in the West Midlands - just a few miles away from Birmingham - is home to not one but two marginal constituencies which the Tories need to win to gain a working majority.

This town has been making news recently for the wrong reasons. When the housing market began to crash it was reported to be the town where prices fell fastest. It was highlighted by the TUC as one of the towns where long-term unemployment has soared - they reported the numbers on the dole for more than 12 months increasing by two and a half times.

Unemployment has gone up by more than 3,000 in the past year. After the decline of the mines, the foundries and manufacturing, it is now the council and the hospital which are the biggest employers in the town. With nearby Birmingham council announcing 2,000 job losses today and warnings about a squeeze on NHS budgets whoever's in power, these are not easy times for Dudley.

Economic decline does not, of course mean that Dudley North - 106th on the list of Tory targets - is an easy win for David Cameron. Not least because the local MP - Gordon Brown's former adviser and close ally Ian Austin - is using his job as minister for the West Midlands to highlight the role government can and is playing in ameliorating the worst impacts of the recession. These include the car scrappage scheme and government task forces to examine how the region can become a world-leader in key sectors of the economy such as digital technology, low-carbon technology, advanced manufacturing - such as aircraft components - and medical technology.

Look at the voting figures in recent elections and you see the scale of the mountain David Cameron has to climb. At the last general election the Tories secured more than 3,000 fewer votes than they had in 1997 and they lost vote share too.

Dudley North general election results

As in my last stops Cardiff and Pendle you see that it is other parties who have benefited. Here, it is not the Lib Dems as in those seats but the so-called minor parties. The BNP got almost 10% of the vote at the last election, and once the psephologists crunch the numbers to work out the impact of boundary changes, are treated as starting this election in third place. UKIP topped the European election poll here and got almost 5% of the vote at the last election.

The neighbouring Dudley South seat is an easier target for the Tories. It would fall to them with just over the 4.3% uniform national swing required for them to become the largest party in Parliament. Perhaps its MP Ian Pearson knows something - he recently announced that he was quitting the seat.

The Tories were cheered by the council elections of 2008 when they gained four seats and secured a healthy majority of 17 over Labour.

Party strategists talk of there being four target groups which will determine the outcome in Tory/Labour marginals like this. The Tories need to win over "30-something home-makers concerned about debt" and those "at or near retirement" while Labour need to avoid losing the support of the "unskilled unemployed" and "former manufacturing workers" to the BNP, UKIP or to not voting at all.

In part three of our totally unscientific study of the electorate I speak to a couple who run a small business who disagree about whether cutting now would help or hinder the recovery, as well as others in Dudley whose votes will help shape the nation's future.

Update 11 Feb: Here's my package from Dudley.

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Taking The Pulse: Pendle

Nick Robinson | 17:58 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010


It's grim up North. At least, if you've been a Conservative in recent years.

Taking The PulseThe next stop on my tour of marginal constituencies taking the pulse of the electorate is Pendle, a seat that the Tories have not won for 23 years.

Yesterday, in Cardiff, I asked voters whether they wanted five more years of Labour. The answer was expressed with quite a lot of anger.

Today's question for the voters is: Do Conservatives understand people like you? The emotion this time was uncertainty.

Some electors here in the North insist that the Conservatives have never understood what they call "working people". Others can't forgive what they think Margaret Thatcher did to the North. Still others liked their fellow Northerner William Hague, and would vote for him if he were leader, but don't warm to David Cameron.

We've also been speaking to voters who do think the Tories are changing - and beginning, in fact, to understand the working class.

One theme came up with women we spoke to, including, tellingly, a single mother. They liked what Mr Cameron has had to say about the family. The same goes for some of those among the nearly one-in-seven voters in this constituency who are Asians and mainly Muslims. Equally tellingly, though, many say it is all they really know about what the Tories stand for.

As in Cardiff, electoral statistics tell a story of Labour decline and of Tory failure to take advantage. Between 1997 and 2005, Labour's vote-share here fell from 53% to 30%. However, the Conservatives lost votes: 165 of them in those eight years - though, thanks to a low turnout, their vote-share did creep up.

What gives Tories hope here is that they gained control of Lancashire County Council for the first time in almost three decades.

The message I detect on this part of my tour is that it is simply not enough for voters not to want five more years of Labour; the Tories have to do a great deal more to convince voters that they stand for something better instead.

Our next stop is Dudley, and the question: Do you favour spending cuts, and do you favour them now?

You can also see my film from Pendle on tonight's Six and Ten O'Clock News and we will add the video to this post.

PS. Thanks to those who pointed out that my figures for city councillors in the Cardiff North constituency were out of date. The current figure is 13 Conservatives, five Lib Dems and three Independents. And sorry for the error on the Pendle dates - now corrected.

Update 10 Feb: Here's the Pendle package.

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Taking The Pulse: Cardiff

Nick Robinson | 14:51 UK time, Monday, 8 February 2010


I've escaped. I've left the sound and fury of the Westminster village - though only for a week - to take the pulse of the electorate.

Taking The PulseFirst stop: Cardiff, home of one of five Welsh constituencies [see note below] which the Tories need to win from Labour to have a chance of forming a workable majority in the House of Commons.

Since New Labour came to power, the electorate of Cardiff North - the residential and in places leafy parts of the Welsh capital - have mirrored the behaviour of the country as a whole.

Labour's support here slumped from over 50% of the vote in 1997 to 39% at the last election when, it's worth remembering, Labour won a third term with the lowest-ever vote share obtained by a governing party.

However, the Tories failed to gain from this decline, picking up just 227 votes in those eight years. Thanks to a lower turnout, their vote share crept up from 33.7% to 36.5%.

The reason? Voters who deserted Labour switched, in the main, to the Lib Dems - even though they are outsiders in this seat with just under 19% of the vote.

The Tories are hopeful of winning the seat, having topped the Euro poll not just here but in Wales as a whole. They have 12 councillors in this constituency as against Labour's three and the Lib Dems' six - even though in Cardiff as a whole, the Lib Dems control the city council.

Labour hopes depend on stressing the independence and hard work of the local MP - Julie (wife of Rhodri) Morgan - and persuading those Lib Dems not to switch to the Tories.

On each of my stops on this entirely unscientific test of public opinion, I'm posing a different question to get voters talking. Today it's the one Gordon Brown knows is the hardest his party faces after 13 years in power: "Do you want five more years of Labour?"

Cardiff skyline

It's clear how much trouble Labour will be in if that is what the election is seen to be about. While we were filming in a Cardiff gym, young, old and very sweaty circuit trainers lined up to answer in the negative and to express their anger about expenses, the economy, Afghanistan and/or immigration - which came up again and again, despite being barely mentioned in Westminster.

However, as the prime minister always points out, elections are choices and not referenda. One or two dared to say "yes", expressing their fears about what the Tories might do to public services.

MiskinWith Bosch having announced the loss of 900 jobs here and Cardiff council a further 300, minds are still on the recession. Gordon Brown would be cheered by the voices of young workers I heard in a growing Cardiff business, UPL. They expressed their fears about making a change when economic recovery was so uncertain, particularly as they had little idea what the Conservatives actually stood for - another theme that keeps recurring on this trip.

Tomorrow, it's the Tories' turn to face a tough question in another marginal they need to win: Pendle in Lancashire. You can also see my film from Cardiff on tonight's Six and Ten O'Clock News and we will add the video to this post.

Update 9 Feb: Here's the Cardiff package.

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Note: The Conservatives currently have three Welsh seats: Monmouth, Preseli Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West. Election experts calculate they need five more to gain a majority: Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, Aberconwy, Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South, Brecon and Radnorshire. They also have hopes of gaining Bridgend and Delyn and Montgomery - if a political asteroid hits the Lib Dem Lembit Opik. [Return to post]

Sir Thomas, Sir Paul, Sir Ian and Sir Christopher

Nick Robinson | 09:10 UK time, Thursday, 4 February 2010


Are you bewildered by the latest developments in the MP expenses scandal?

You needn't be. It's all really very simple.

Sir Thomas has asked around half of MPs to give money back - because, even if they followed the rules, the rules were wrong.

But Sir Paul says that Sir Thomas is being too harsh and that the rules were the rules.

Neither Sir Thomas nor Sir Paul writes the rules for MPs; that's the job of Sir Christopher - except, actually, Sir Ian is the man who really writes them.

Now Sir Ian is consulting on new rules that are different from the new rules which Sir Christopher wrote.

Sir Christopher has written to Sir Ian to say that he doesn't agree with the rules, but has no complaint about the way Sir Ian has done his job.

Meanwhile, Sir Stuart hints that Sir Ian and Sir Paul are right and that Sir Thomas and Sir Christopher are wrong.

Anyway, all you need to know - according to Sir Stuart - is that the Commons is putting its house in order.

I hope that's now clear. And it might be funny if it were not so serious. The expenses scandal has undermined the standing of Parliament, it has devastated the reputations of many individual politicians, and it has led to the largest number of retirements from the Commons since World War II - and still counting.

Today should have been a day when people could say "at least they are sorting out the mess". I fear that, as on so many other similar days, that is not how it will feel.

George Osborne's benchmarks

Nick Robinson | 10:16 UK time, Tuesday, 2 February 2010


Where will the growth come from?

George OsborneThat is the question the Tories are setting out to answer today when George Osborne proclaims what he will call "a new economic model for Britain". Business investment and savings must, he says, replace debt as the foundation for prosperity.

Osborne will set out eight benchmarks which, he claims, will allow people to assess Tory progress in government towards this goal. He will pledge to:

• Create a more balanced economy - ensuring higher exports, business investment and saving as a share of GDP

• Ensure the whole country shares in rising prosperity - by raising the private sector's share of the economy in all regions of the country, especially outside London and the South East.

The other six - for which I don't yet have more detail - are:

• Get Britain working

• Ensure macro-economic stability

• Make Britain open for business

• Reform public services to deliver better value-for-money

• Create a safer banking system that serves the needs of the economy

• Build a greener economy

The event - planned some time ago and before the latest GDP figures - was meant to highlight that there is much more to Tory economic policy than cutting public spending and the deficit. It will, however, provide a platform for journalists about the uncertain noises coming from Tory high command on the scale of planned cuts which I first highlighted last week.

By seeking to reassure the public that there will not be "swingeing cuts", David Cameron has acknowledged Labour's arguments that the wrong approach to public spending could pull the rug from under the recovery. He has ensured that the political argument is not simply about whether to cut and how, but also the effect on growth.

He and George Osborne are finding it harder to convince the public that there is a risk in "doing nothing" about the deficit. Expect them to start pointing not just to the Greek crisis, but also to countries like Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, which are embarking on deficit-reduction programmes.

He may be tempted to quote President Obama, who said the other day :

"It is critical that we rein in the budget deficits we've been accumulating for far too long - deficits that won't just burden our children and grandchildren but could damage our markets, drive up our interest rates and jeopardise our recovery right now."

However, only yesterday the White House declared that "getting our economy moving again" was a higher priority than cutting the deficit - so maybe not.

Electoral reform: Planned vote next week

Nick Robinson | 18:01 UK time, Monday, 1 February 2010


The BBC has learned that the government plans to ask MPs to vote next week on taking the first step towards changing Britain's voting system.

SwingometerThe move could mean that in future general elections - though not in this year's - voters would be asked to rank candidates by preference instead of putting a cross next to one name as now.

Senior ministers agreed today to propose an amendment to the Constitutional Renewal Bill to offer voters a referendum by the autumn of 2011 on scrapping Britain's "first past the post" system and replacing it with the "alternative vote" (AV) system. The cabinet is to be asked to approve the plan tomorrow, allowing Gordon Brown to unveil the idea in a speech he is delivering on political reform at lunchtime.

Under AV - the voting system used in Australia - every candidate is ranked on the ballot paper. If no candidate wins at least half of the votes, the votes of losing candidates are redistributed until a winner emerges with an overall majority.

The system is not a form of proportional representation. Indeed, in the event of a big electoral swing, it can exaggerate the majority that a winning party gets.

Gordon Brown backed AV at Prime Minister's Questions recently, claiming that "[g]iven the issues that have arisen about trust in politics, there is a case for every member of this House coming here with the support of more than 50% of the electors," but has met opposition from a sizeable group of Labour MPs who fear that the move could be a thin end of a wedge leading to full PR - which could undermine Labour in its traditional heartlands.

However, a growing number of ministers have argued that a vote on a referendum will expose the Conservative Party as opposed to political reform and will woo Liberal Democrat voters and Lib Dem MPs whose votes might be needed in the event of a hung Parliament.

Even if the Commons votes for a referendum on AV next week, the measure is very unlikely to become law as there is not sufficient time between now and the general election for it to pass through all its Parliamentary stages.

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