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Archives for July 2010

Coalition faces Lib Dem revolt on free schools

Michael Crick | 18:39 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

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September's Lib Dem conference in Liverpool will be a pretty tame affair, I predict, since most Liberal Democrats are still on cloud nine over the fact they are now in government for the first time in 65 years.

The biggest controversy, I reckon, could well be over a motion denouncing Michael Gove's radical policies on free schools and academies.

The resolution has been specifically picked by Lib Dem conference organisers for a substantial debate.

First, it calls for local councils to keep their role in the "oversight" of the provision of state schools. This is quite contrary to Gove's strategy of greatly reducing local authority involvement in education.

And second, the resolution urges Liberal Democrats not to get involved in Michael Gove's cherished new policy of free schools.

Given how important local councillors are in the structure of the Liberal Democrat Party and the prevalence of teachers in the party, there must be a pretty good chance that the motion will be passed.

The motion is the work of Peter Downes, a retired headmaster and Lib Dem councillor from Huntingdon.

I first encountered Downes more than 40 years ago when he was an incredibly dynamic French teacher at my old school, the fee-paying (and highly selective) Manchester Grammar School.

Downes subsequently became head of Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, which was widely acknowledged to be one of the best comprehensives in Britain. And Downes became a prominent champion of state, comprehensive, and non-selective schools.

Indeed, it always puzzled Peter Downes (and slightly miffed him, I suspect) that his former MP in Huntingdon, John Major, sent his own children to a nearby private school instead.

Yet Hinchingbrooke was by most measures a better school than the one Major chose for his kids, and certainly a lot cheaper.

It's a sign perhaps of how much the Conservative Party has changed in the last few years, that recent leaders, such as William Hague and David Cameron, have both committed themselves to use the state school system.

Le Figaro's strong attack on Cameron's speeches

Michael Crick | 18:35 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

Le Figaro delivers a strong attack in its main editorial today on David Cameron's speeches this week on his eastern travels.

'Après avoir révélé au grand jour sa préférence pour la Turquie plutôt que pour l'Europe, David Cameron remet les pieds dans le plat en accusant ouvertement le Pakistan de double jeu dans la guerre en Afghanistan...'

I will let readers translate for themselves. And reflect on the phrase "remet les pieds dans le plat".

Who will be Lib Dem candidate for London mayor?

Michael Crick | 15:07 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

Lib Dem bigwigs in London would ideally like to decide on their next candidate for mayor this autumn, which would give them an 18-month run up to the next election in May 2012.

The trouble is that the only real name to declare so far is Lembit Opik. But many Lib Dems are concerned that he's become too much of a comic figure in recent years - hence his shock defeat in Montgomeryshire at the general election.

Opik, who's since taken to the comedy circuit, argues that if Boris Johnson can be mayor, then so can he.

Another possibility might be Susan Kramer, who stood for the job in 2000, but she's an election "loser" too.

What's more she might be hoping that the controversy over Zac Goldsmith's expenses might give her a chance of regaining her seat in Richmond.

So how about Duwayne Brooks instead, some Lib Dems are asking.

"That's a familiar name," I hear you say. "Where have I heard of him?"

Brooks was the teenage friend of Stephen Lawrence who witnessed his brutal murder by a gang of racist thugs in Eltham, south London, in 1993.

In a by-election last year, Brooks was elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lewisham.

But after their experience with Brian Paddick in 2008 some Lib Dems may conclude you need substantial political experience, more than a familiar name and a good reputation, to succeed in mayoral elections.

First time brothel creepers

Michael Crick | 13:06 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

Simon Titley, the editor of Liberator, the magazine for Liberal Democrats' grassroots trouble-makers, has a wonderful line in his next edition, on the current attitude of party activists towards the coalition:

Their "demeanour", he writes, "resembles that of first-time clients in a high-class brothel; feeling gratified but somewhat soiled, and unsure who's been screwing whom."

All to play for between Milibands in leadership contest

Michael Crick | 22:00 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

The first extensive poll on the Labour leadership contest suggests it's still all to play for between the two Miliband brothers.

A Yougov survey for The Sun tonight has David Miliband on 54 per cent of Labour's Electoral college, and Ed Miliband on 46 per cent.

This is the first poll to survey ordinary Labour Party members and trade unionists who are entitled to vote because their unions are affiliated to the Labour Party.

Yougov have then added in the known preferences of MPs and MEPs to reach their final tally in the electoral college.

Yougov reckon the brothers are split 50-50 among party members, and 56 to 44 for David among trade unionists, subject to the usual margins of error.

And the polling firm reckon David is winning 55 to 45 among MPs and MEPs, though this still involves big uncertainties about the second preferences of MPs whose first preferences are for the other three contenders, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham.

David Miliband will be reassured to know that he's eight points ahead, but Ed Miliband will reckon he's still in with a good chance, simply because David Miliband was bound to start with a greater recognition advantage, and there is still about a month before people start casting their votes.

Now Ed Miliband needs to translate the endorsements he's received from big unions such as Unite into votes among their grassroots members.

The AV mystery

Michael Crick | 01:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

Nick Robinson's BBC documentary on Thursday, '5 Days that Changed Britain' (9pm, BBC Two) doesn't help much in solving the mystery of the AV-without-a-referendum promise.

As I explained in my blogs earlier this week, this lay at the heart of the coalition negotiations.

In tonight's programme David Cameron denies misleading Tory MPs, whilst Nick Clegg says it was "an offer that might have been made" by Labour, though not directly to him.

These are the relevant exchanges:

Robinson to Cameron: "Did you mislead your MPs by saying Labour will give them voting reform without a referendum?"

Cameron: "No, because I was absolutely certain in my own mind that was the case. And I had, I think, good reason to be certain...A number of people had told me what was - what they thought was - going on and conversations that were taking place about AV without a referendum.

"And also I'd had a conversation with Nick when I'd argued very vigorously that you couldn't do alternative vote without a referendum - it would be wrong."

And Robinson to Clegg: "But, but if Conservative MPs think they're being mislead into backing a referendum because you told David Cameron: look we can get this changed without one, you're saying that's wrong?"

Clegg: "The perception, which I think was accurate, was discussions are out and it might have been an offer that might have been made and might have been considered. In answer to your direct question was it ever formally made to me, no it wasn't formally made to me."

So where does that leave us? Very confused.

If you put a gun to my head and insisted that I explained what happened, then I do now suspect that in an unguarded moment Gordon Brown (or some other Labour figure) did mention AV without a referendum to Clegg or the Lib Dems, but not - as Clegg says - as a formal offer, just a suggestion perhaps. (Both sides should have known, though, it was an offer Labour probably couldn't deliver, as Labour MPs would never have agreed to it.)

Then, Clegg may have over-egged the position, and the strength of his hand, and what Labour had said, while talking to the Tories. Quite understandable in the circumstances.

And in turn Cameron may have failed to probe with Clegg how strong Labour's 'offer' was, simply because he knew he had to offer something to the Lib Dems on electoral reform, and needed some stick to bring the Conservative Party into line.

All in all, if my theory is true, then it's one of those cases which reflects quite badly on the leaderships of all three parties.

Alternatively, of course - the cock-up version of history - it may just have been a series of terrible misunderstandings.

'Grandstanding' senators

Michael Crick | 18:13 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

It's fascinating to see US senators blow their tops over the refusal of the former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to appear before a Senate committee to answer questions over the Lockerbie affair.

It naturally prompts the question about whether any Westminster select committee at Westminster has ever got a US government official - or former official - to appear before them for a good grilling?

When asked today, the clerk of Commons committees couldn't think of any examples. The nearest similar case he could come up with is when several European MEPs appeared before a committee some years ago.

The former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Mike Gapes, says his committee never tried to interview a US official during his time, and would never have dreamt of doing so. Not even during all the rows about the Iraq War.

"These senators are just grandstanding," Gapes told me.

Police commissioners - battlegrounds for party politics?

Michael Crick | 18:09 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Will the elections for new police commissioners, outlined by the Home Secretary Theresa May earlier this week, become battlegrounds for party politics?

There will be many in police circles - and no doubt politics too - hoping they don't, and that the job attracts independent figures, free of strong party ties. People like Ray Mallon, perhaps, the former policeman who became mayor of Middlesbrough.

Labour refused to tell Newsnight this week whether they plan to contest the commissioner elections on a party basis. It's a "hypothetical" question, their spokesman insisted.

"I couldn't say for sure," said a Lib Dem spokeswoman, "but it seems logical that if it goes ahead we would be putting people forward."

And the British National Party is certainly planning to go for the new posts.

"When the time comes of course we will be doing so," the BNP spokesman Paul Golding told us.

"As the only party that is truly tough on crime we would definitely putting up candidates to such posts and would anticipate that due to our crime policies our candidates would find much support."

And if the BNP stands I suspect that will force the hands of other parties, simply through fear that independents, with the benefit of no party machines, might be beaten by the BNP.

So the commissioner elections would then become another round of party warfare.

DUP's Sammy Wilson responds

Michael Crick | 18:02 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Today the DUP MP Sammy Wilson issued the following response to my blog on Monday:

"The ongoing payment of allowances to a party that refuses to turn up to Westminster and represent their constituents is nothing short of a national scandal. In opposition, the Tories made all sorts of promises on this front. Now they are in government they need to take decisive action. There can be no half-measures. Sinn Fein should not be in receipt of one penny piece of allowances related to Westminster unless and until they take their seats in the House of Commons and actually start representing their constituents.

"The comments from Michael Crick today seem to indicate that the Tories plan to remove Sinn Fein's equivalent of Short Money. That does not go far enough. There are other issues such as office accommodation in the Palace of Westminster that will need to be looked at.

"Sinn Fein should never have been granted office facilities or any allowances in the first place. Any attempt to continue any sorts of payments whilst Sinn Fein refuse to meet their obligations will be opposed by the DUP," Wilson said.

Eurosceptic, Brokeback Coalition - whatever next?

Michael Crick | 17:55 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The vast majority of politicians go through the whole of their careers without ever coming up with a memorable phrase, or a term that gets into the political lexicon.

But my old friend Tom Fairbrother points out that David Davis can be credited with two.
First, Davis claims to have invented the term Eurosceptic, back during the Conservatives' internal wars over Europe in the 1990s.

And now he's come up with the term Brokeback Coalition - though he denies doing so - a term which I suspect will be with us for many years.

Whatever next?

IDS's fight for change

Michael Crick | 17:52 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

I'm told that when David Cameron gets back from India on Friday, he'll almost immediately join the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, to launch the government's long-awaited consultation document called 'Twenty-First Century Welfare'.

Poor old IDS has been in a really grumpy mood, I hear, over the last few weeks.

For life as a Cabinet minister hasn't been quite as easy as he'd envisaged, and he's had a real struggle getting colleagues to approve his new document, and let him deliver the revolutionary change he was talking about when he came to office in May.

"I'm only here to deliver change," was the thrust of what IDS said when he was appointed.

But since then IDS has been involved in what one fellow minister diplomatically calls "lively discussions".

I understand that colleagues told him to go away and rethink and refine several of the radical proposals he wanted to include - many of the ideas drawn up the think tank with which he was closely associated in opposition, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).

These include the CSJ's scheme for Universal Life Credit. This would be a new benefit for people on low incomes, which would replace a whole raft of other benefits and credits - including housing benefit, council tax benefit, disability living allowance, working tax credit and child tax credit.

But members of the Cabinet's home affairs committee were pretty sceptical about Universal Life Credit and told him to go away and come up with alternative ideas as well.

"Nothing's been watered down," says one of my DWP sources. "It's more a question of 'Don't go too fast.'"

In a time of economic stringency, IDS was always likely to run into trouble trying to revamp the welfare system.

The trouble with a lot of IDS's revolutionary ideas for getting people off welfare is that though they save money in the long-term, there are inevitable extra up-front costs.

IDS's position reminds me of Frank Field back in 1997, another man asked to "think the unthinkable" on welfare. That all ended in tears when Field was sacked in 1998.

Will IDS eventually feel obliged to resign if his colleagues carry on slowing him down?

David Cameron certainly couldn't afford to lose IDS, as he'd become a powerful rallying figure for the Right.

Brotherly battles

Michael Crick | 17:26 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

As the labour leadership contest boils down to a fight between the Milibands, there's increasingly speculation about who might get the other top Labour shadow posts.

In particular, what job does the winning Miliband give to his defeated brother?

I've written here before, that David Miliband might find it difficult to take a job under his younger brother, and might walk away from Westminster politics altogether. It's a view held by many other in politics, though I would add that David M couldn't really step down at once. He'd have to spend at least a year or two under his brother on the front bench. Otherwise it would look too much like slinging the toys out of the family pram.

Either Miliband risks charges of nepotism if he gives a big brother to his brother, of course. But whichever Miliband comes second will get a good vote and surely deserves a top job. Only then the compensated loser would become almost unsackable.

The Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle should be relatively easy because Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Alan Johnson have left space by deciding to stand down from the front bench.

But would either of the Milibands make Ed Balls chancellor? It's the job Balls has wanted for years, of course, and he has run a good leadership campaign, and enjoyed a good recent 'war' in the education brief against Michael Gove. But Balls is far from universally popular among Labour MPs.

A more intriguing possibility was raised by Will Straw in a seminar I chaired at the Institute for Government last night with the Newsnight politics panel. Straw suggested that Yvette Cooper might be the new leader's best choice for shadow chancellor.

It might be difficult for her husband Ed Balls to swallow that, but Cooper has performed very well in recent months, before, during and after the election. She knows her economics, of course, and she would remind people of the shortage of senior women in David Cameron's Cabinet.

What a turn of events it would be if this autumn was to see the two coming men of the later Blair-Brown era - David Miliband and Ed Balls, leapfrogged by close members of their own families.

An informal job interview in the park?

Michael Crick | 14:58 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

I was amused this lunchtime to see Robert Chote, the highly-regarded director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, having lunch with Rupert Harrison, George Osborne's whizz-kid economic adviser, at the Inn The Park restaurant in the middle of St James's Park.

Chote, who was chairman of the Liberal association when he was at Cambridge University, is a widely tipped as favourite to succeed Alan Budd as director of the government's new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). And he's never tried to deny that he'd like the job.

Although the OBR is meant to be an independent body, the directorship is decided by the chancellor.

I can't help feeling that Harrison was giving Chote an preliminary job interview.

Today's lunch seemed a pretty informal occasion, since Chote was not only displaying the top of his Calvin Klein underpants, but wearing garish purple v-neck top - mind you, that's a big improvement on the bright blue suits he normally wears.

A lack of slates in Labour Shadow Cabinet elections

Michael Crick | 11:39 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

I bumped into Chris McLaughlin, the editor of Tribune, last night, who pointed out that this autumn's Labour Shadow Cabinet elections may well be contested without slates - groups of candidates banding together. At least no slates seem to have emerged so far.

This must be a first in post-war Labour politics, and possibly ever. There were certainly well-organised slates of candidates on every other occasion in which Labour went into Opposition - 1951-64; 1970-74 and 1979-1987 - with Bevanites, Gaitskellites, Tribunites, the Manifesto Group, the Campaign Group and so on, all clubbing together to get their people elected.

The lack of slates in 2010 may reflect the lack of any great ideological division in Labour's ranks these days.

Or it may reflect the fact that only 25 per cent of Labour MPs have ever been involved in a Shadow Cabinet election before (so Chris tells me - I've not checked it).

Slates and political parties are a natural consequence of most democratic elections, since it's a lot easier and effective for candidates to organise together than to campaign as individuals.

So it's hard to believe that slates won't re-emerge in Labour's annual Shadow Cabinet poll eventually, either this year or in future.

Government departments make cuts proposals

Michael Crick | 10:13 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Treasury says that all government departments, except those whose budgets are ring-fenced (Health and DFID) have now come up with their proposals for 25 per cent spending cuts, as the Treasury has requested.

But not all departments met the deadline of Friday 16 July, a Treasury spokeswoman told us. But she refused to say who which departments were late, coming up with that old "running commentary excuse".

And which departments bothered to come up with requested plans for possible 40 per cent cuts? Ken Clarke's Ministry of Justice seems to have been one of them, as I reported on 16 July - despite him having once been Chancellor.

Again the Treasury spokeswoman refused to say which ministries decided the 40 per cent question wasn't worth answering.

MPs set to cut Sinn Fein money

Michael Crick | 21:44 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

MPs are now expected to vote on big cuts in the parliamentary allowances which are enjoyed by the five Sinn Fein members of parliament.

Gerry Adams and his colleagues are currently allowed to claim the same allowances as other MPs despite the fact that they never attend the House of Commons on principle.

The Speaker John Bercow today announced he would allow MPs a debate and vote on the Sinn Fein allowances, a subject of considerable anger at Westminster. This is now expected to take place this autumn.

There is likely to be wide support on all sides of the House for cutting back on the money Sinn Fein members receive. This was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago.

One possible outcome is that Sinn Fein MPs will still be allowed to claim allowances which enable them to look after their constituents. But it looks likely that they will be deprived of travel allowances for trips between Northern Ireland and London.

It is also probable that they will now be barred from receiving Short Money, the state funds given to Opposition parties for research and policy work.

These decisons could cost the five Sinn Fein members hundreds of thousands of pounds a year between them.

Jack Straw to quit front bench

Michael Crick | 21:39 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

I am told on very reliable authority that the Shadow Justice Secretary Jack Straw wll not stand when Labour's new Shadow Cabinet is elected this autumn, once the party has elected a new leader.

Straw is known as one of the great survivors at Westminster, having enjoyed one of the longest front-bench stints in post-war British politics. He is currently the longest continuously serving member of either front bench in the Commons. He was recruited to Michael Foot's team of Opposition spokesmen back in 1980, thirty years ago, only a year after he was first elected an MP.

He joined the Shadow Cabinet in 1987, and has remained in either the Shadow Cabinet or Cabinet ever since. Straw ran the leadership campaigns of both Tony Blair in 1994 and Gordon Brown in 2007.

He has served under seven Labour leaders and acting leaders - Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Beckett, Blair, Brown and Harman. He was at times mooted as a future Labour leader himself, perhaps in a caretaker role.

Also stepping down this autumn will be the Shadow Chancellor Alistair Darling, the only other current member of Labour's Shadow Cabinet to sit in Cabinet throughout the whole of the Blair-Brown years.

AV and Brown's two secret meetings with Clegg

Michael Crick | 20:38 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

A pro-Labour source whom I trust, and who was working on the fringes of the coaliton talks says that to his knowledge Gordon Brown DID suggest to Nick Clegg at one point that it might be possible to push through AV without a referendum.

This source says Brown held two secret meetings with Nick Clegg on the Sunday. The suggestion of AV without a referendum was made at their first meeting. My source says Brown also suggested at these talks that it might be possible to go ahead with AV without a public vote and then have a referendum later on more radical and proportional electoral reform.

And, the source says, the two parties came close to a coalition deal at this point.

According to this source this suggestion was then withdrawn when Brown met Clegg for a second secret meeting late on the Sunday night.

So it now seems Labour DID make an offer, but that it had been withdrawn almost 24 hours before Cameron and Hague were using it to persuade their Shadow Cabinet and MPs that they had to make the dramatic move to offer the Lib Dems a referendum on AV.

Labour to oppose AV bill

Michael Crick | 19:31 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

Labour MPs were told tonight that it will oppose the government's bill to introduce a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Senior Labour sources tell me they have taken the decison on the grounds that though the party supports a referendum on AV, and it was in the party manifesto, the bill also includes boundary changes which Labour regards as gerrymandering.

If significant numbers of Tory MPs oppose the bill it may make it hard for the government to get it through Parliament, thereby endangering the coalition agreement.

Did Lib Dems mislead Conservatives in coalition talks?

Michael Crick | 15:29 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

A senior Labour source close to the coalition negotiations has just contacted me to suggest where the 'AV without a referendum' story may have originated.

"The idea of AV without a referendum was proposed to us by the Liberal Democrats," he says.

"It was in their first version of the Labour-Liberal Democrat agreement which they proposed to us. That's how it got on the table."

"But at no point," says my source, "was it ever countenanced that we could do it [AV] without a referendum. There was no enthusiasm about the idea that the Lib Dems put to us. And Gordon Brown was the most adamant of all the people in the room that it couldn't be done. So that was the end of the discussion."

There were two reasons, says my source. First, it would just have been wrong to make such a change without a referendum.

"Nobody thought you could go to the country and say we're now going to have AV without a referendum," the senior Labour figure says.

"Second, there's no way we could have got it through the Parliamentary party. It had been difficult enough to get Labour MPs to agree to AV WITH a referendum, let along without a vote."

"And we made that perfectly clear to Liberal Democrats in the negotiations."

In his recent memoirs Peter Mandelson also reveals that the Lib Dems' negotiator, Danny Alexander tried to get Labour to agree to AV without a referendum. The Lib Dems "worry" says Mandelson, "was that the referendum would be lost because voters might see a Lab-Lib pact as a self-interested stitch-up on both sides, so it might be better to avoid such a test."

But then Mandelson reveals that in a series of meetings between the Sunday and Tuesday, the Liberal Democrats "ended up agreeing with us that we should hold a referendum on the alternative vote system".

My senior Labour source can't explain the mystery of why David Cameron ever thought Labour had offered or agreed to such a proposal.

"Perhaps," my source speculates, "Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats simply said to the Tories that they had been discussing the idea with Labour."

Strictly speaking, that was true, of course. But my Labour source insists that at no point did Labour ever give any sign they would agree to the idea.

It's only speculation, but if the source's theory is true it would suggest that the Lib Dems misled the Tories, and that David Cameron and his colleagues failed to press them and failed to check whether Labour really had made such an offer.

It could turn out to be one of the great misunderstandings - or deceptions - of modern British politics.

Watch a special edition of Newsnight about the coalition government on Monday 26 July 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Was the coalition built on a lie?

Michael Crick | 12:43 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

Ahead of tonight's Newsnight special on the coalition (at 2230 on BBC Two) it is worth asking a big question:

Were Conservative MPs railroaded into accepting the coalition on the basis of a lie, or at best an unfortunate misunderstanding?

That's the allegation which has been swirling round among Tories at Westminster for several weeks now.

One Conservative MP - far from a right-winger - reckons David Cameron lied to the shadow Cabinet and his backbench MPs at least four times in the hours leading up to the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems on 11 May.

The big issue is whether the Conservatives needed to offer Nick Clegg a referendum on the AV voting system.

Mystery especially surrounds what happened on the afternoon of Monday 10 May.

I recall William Hague emerging from St. Stephen's entrance of the Commons with the surprising news that the Tories would now offer the Lib Dems a referendum on AV.

I suggested to Hague that the Conservatives were now merely matching Labour, who had been promising a referendum on AV since Gordon Brown's speech at the 2009 Labour conference, and included it in their 2010 manifesto.

Oh no, Hague told me, he understood that Labour was now offering the Lib Dems AV WITHOUT a referendum.

I must admit Hague's comment disconcerted me. I failed to follow it up, simply because I feared I was uninformed and that Labour had made this promise during the course of the day and I hadn't noticed.

And it's now clear from several government Tory sources that David Cameron told both his Shadow Cabinet that afternoon, and the meeting of all Conservative MPs that evening, the same thing. His argument was that they had to do something to catch up with Labour's offer to the Lib Dems of AV without a referendum.

But it wasn't true. There's no evidence that Labour ever offered the Lib Dems AV without a referendum. Indeed it's hard to see how the Labour leadership ever could have got Labour MPs to go along with such an idea.

Among those Conservative MPs who recall being told by the party leadership that Labour was offering AV without a referendum was Julian Lewis.

And during the Commons debate on the Queen's Speech, on 7 June, he raised the matter with the Shadow Justice Secretary Jack Straw:

Dr Julian Lewis: Will the right hon. Gentleman [Jack Straw] confirm that in the course of the competitive negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as to which side was going to form a Government, his party offered the Liberal Democrats a deal whereby AV would be rammed through this House without a referendum?

Mr Jack Straw: The answer is no. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that a very significant proportion of Labour Members, including myself, would never have accepted such a proposition had it been put forward - let us be absolutely clear about that.

(Hansard 7 June 2010, cols 29-30)

Astonished to get that response, Julian Lewis then pursued the issue with Nick Clegg later in the same debate:

Dr Lewis: ..... He will have heard the answer that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) gave when I asked him whether it had been the case that the outgoing Labour Prime Minister had offered, during the coalition negotiations, to ram through the alternative vote without a referendum. I am not giving away any trade secrets when I say that Conservative MPs were told that that was the case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in a position to know. Were the Liberal Democrats offered by the Labour Party the alternative vote without a referendum? Can he set the matter to rest?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The answer is no. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was right. That was not offered by the Labour Party in
those discussions. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is right - I should know whether it was offered or not.

(Hansard 7 June 2010, col 44)

So where did the story about Labour offering the Lib Dems AV without a referendum come from?

There are several possibilities.

In their talks with the Tories did the Lib Dems over-egg, exaggerate, or even lie about what Labour had offered them?

That's certainly the view of at least one Conservative minister who is very hostile to the referendum.

Or did the Conservatives simply misunderstand what the Lib Dems said they were being offered by Labour?

Alternatively, did David Cameron and his senior colleagues simply invent Labour's offer in order to cajole Tory backbenchers into accepting they should offer Lib Dems the AV referendum?

There's one other intriguing possibility - which some Labour people suspect may have happened - that in a desperate moment Gordon Brown privately offered Lib Dems AV without an referendum, but failed to tell Jack Straw or any of his other colleagues or the Labour negotiators about his offer. In any case, Nick Clegg denied that in the Commons.

Meanwhile another of David Cameron's claims also aggrieves many Conservative MPs as they become increasingly concerned about the coalition.

In his meeting with Tory MPs on the Monday evening, David Cameron said the party had no option but to go into coalition with the Lib Dems, and that a minority government wouldn't be viable.

And yet only two days later, in the famous press conference in Downing Street garden (misnamed the Rose Garden press conference), Cameron claimed he could indeed have gone it alone, but much preferred a firm coalition with the Lib Dems.

"We could have had a minority government backed by a Confidence and Supply arrangement but thought this is so uninspiring, it might last for a month, six months or a year but it won't do what we want to achieve..."

As the arguments about AV and the coalition get increasingly heated over coming months, the mysteries of who said what during those few fascinating days may be worth a lot more examination.

Watch a special edition of Newsnight about the coalition government on Monday 26 July 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Zac Goldsmith's election expenses

Michael Crick | 10:24 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

Having watched Thursday's report on Channel 4 News raising serious questions about Zac Goldmsith's election expenses, and seen most of Goldsmith's extraordinary interview with Jon Snow on Friday, I must say the ITN investigation is highly persuasive.

I've been saying for years that candidates have been fiddling the election expenses system - since I first did an item on the subject for Newsnight back in 1997. And I once gave evidence on the scandal to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Indeed, I reckon that most serious contenders in close contests end up spending more than they are legally allowed to. But election agents have learnt the art of massaging the books, and hiding real spending. What's more, the major parties never complain about each other as they all know they're up to the same thing somewhere or other.

In the mid 1990s the problem got so serious that in big by-elections parties were sometimes spending ten or twenty times the legal limit. It was one of the great unreported scandals of British politics.

Anthony Barnett's report for Channel 4 News showed how Goldsmith's campaign in Richmond Park spent £14,000 on 272,000 election leaflets, an expense which in itself should have taken Goldsmith £3,000 over the £11,003 expense limit in that seat.

Goldsmith's excuse seems to be that not all that sum should be included since 62,000 of those leaflets weren't ever distributed.

That's seems an extraordinary excuse.

And in any case, why was a prominent environmentalist like Goldsmith printing so many extra leaflets, and destroying so many trees, when, according to his own evidence, he knew he could never legally distribute them?

Why no new Lib Dems for the Lib Dem think tank?

Michael Crick | 13:07 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010

To the summer party of Centre Forum last Monday, the think tank which is widely linked to the Lib Dems.

The highlight of the evening was a speech from Nick Clegg who spoke of the difficulties of watching the World Cup final the previous night whilst having a Dutch mother and Spanish wife.

Clegg revealed that he'd switched allegiance at half-time out of disgust for the aggressive Dutch tactics. When David Cameron texted to ask how he was getting on, Clegg said he texted back: "Coalition in the Clegg household is under strain."

The Centre Forum think tank is generally seen as the one pro-Lib Dem think tank in politics, though strangely they used tonight's summer party to announce several new members of their advisory board - including Andrew Adonis, Will Hutton, Danny Finkelstein, David Willetts and Andrew Tyrie. Strangely not a single Lib Dem name among them.

I can only conclude that the Charilty Commissioners must have been on to them. The Commission's rules are very strict about think tanks claiming charitable status. They must not be seen to be committed to any one party. Hence perhaps these new jobs for Adonis, Finkelstein and co.

Incidentally, Centre Forward recently changed its name from Centre Forum. Why the change? One reason, I was told, was that critics were always tempted to mock the old name as "Centre For .... Um".

It's the age of the young MP

Michael Crick | 16:19 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I have now bought the new edition of the Times Guide to the House of Commons - to add to all my other editions dating back 100 years.

And so I've been able to check just how many MPs are still in their 20s. The answer is now an astonishing 14, a higher figure than for any election in the last 20 years (and probably since the war). To the list of 12 names which I published here a few weeks ago I must add Alison McGovern (Labour, Wirral South, 29) and Andrew Stephenson (Cons, Pendle, 29).

So the final tally is ten Labour MPs elected under 30, and four Conservative.

What's even more remarkable is the type of seats these youthful MPs are representing. In the past very young MPs were usually elected in marginal seats, and places they weren't really expected to win. But most of the young Labour MPs, at least, are in safe seats. This suggests a whole new attitude by local Labour parties to picking candidates who are extremely young.

"No-ermine ermine" for animal rights champion

Michael Crick | 16:10 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Next Monday sees the introduction of a new Liberal Democrat peer Kate Parminter. But her elevation to the Lords could potentially have presented big problems for Lady Parminter, since it would be hardly right for a former officer of the RSPCA, and leading campaigner against animal cruelty, to take the ermine - or stoat fur.

However I'm told that when Parminter went to see the Garter Principal Kings of Arms recently to discuss her introductioin to the upper house, she was assured that Ede and Ravenscroft, who supply the garments for such occasions, would be able to save her from embarrassment.

Apparently, for conscientious objectors Ede and Ravenscroft have a special "non-ermine ermine".

Why you can't find a taxi in Durham

Michael Crick | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I was filming in Durham early this morning, a city which seems determined to make itself a national laughing stock by not having any taxis.

At least not when we needed one, at 7am this morning. My hotel tried to book a taxi for us late last night. They had no luck with any of the six local firms. My producer tried again this morning. No success. In the end we had to ask the Lib Dem politician we were due to interview to come and pick us up, which she kindly did.

Our new driver, Durham councillor Carol Woods, claimed it was all due to the failure to deregulate the local taxi market so as to preserve the stranglehold enjoyed by existing firms and their drivers. No doubt Labour councillors have a very different explanation. It had better be a good one. Very good.

And to think we're in a period of high unemployment. Obviously not in Durham.

Apart from all that, it's a delightful place, as ever.

(It was, by the way, the second time I've been given lift round Durham by a local politician. The first was by the young Tony Blair, 20 years ago.)

Gordon Brown is back

Michael Crick | 17:00 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

A rare sighting. I've just seen Gordon Brown walking through Portcullis House here at Westminster.

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