BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for August 2010

Byrne canvasses colleagues

Michael Crick | 18:59 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Newsnight has learnt from more than one source that Liam Byrne claims to have approached all but nine of the 256 MPs of the Parliamentary Labour Party in his efforts to get elected to the shadow cabinet.

It's an extraordinary effort, if true. Given that all previous shadow cabinet elections (at least since 1945) have involved slates, I doubt whether anyone has ever personally canvassed a higher proportion of his Labour MP colleagues.

So, one can't fault Byrne for effort. Mind you, if he doesn't get elected something must be badly wrong.

A difficult summer for Iain Duncan Smith

Michael Crick | 22:21 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

It has been a difficult summer for Iain Duncan Smith. I understand that his long-standing arguments with the Treasury over funding his welfare reforms were essentially resolved at the "political" Cabinet at Chequers three and a half weeks ago.

The Chequers deal seems to be pretty much as reported by Iain Martin in his blog last Friday, and the FT yesterday.

IDS will have to find savings of £10bn by 2014, and the Treasury will allow him to take from these a ring-fenced pot of £2.5 or £3bn to pay for the up-front costs of his radical reforms.

IDS must be an extremely difficult colleague for Cameron to handle. Not only does he carry extra authority as a former leader, but welfare reform has become a personal crusade. He is unlikely to be restrained by other ambitions. Welfare is THE big thing for IDS, the one reason for staying in politics.

Many observers believe that of all senior ministers IDS must be the leading candidate to resign. That would be a big blow to Cameron since IDS would be a dangerous backbencher, a respected and admired figure who might rally critics on the Tory right.

So it was important to keep IDS happy. That is why Cameron intervened personally and persuaded George Osborne to keep IDS onside.

But IDS is still not entirely happy. DWP sources say he has been upset at the way Cameron sometimes makes announcements on welfare without telling him.

I'm told, for example, that when Cameron went to Manchester last week to announce a crackdown on benefit fraud, IDS was annoyed not to be told about the trip, though he had no quarrel with the policy.

Today's stories about restrictions on universal benefits, or so-called middle-class benefits, seem to come more from Liberal Democrat elements of the coalition than the Conservatives.

Indeed the junior Lib Dem pensions minister (and welfare expert) Steve Webb had a Parliamentary question last April in which he asked how much would be saved by raising the qualification age for Winter Fuel Payment from 60 to 65.

It showed the way the Lib Dems were thinking.

And the answer to Webb's question? £600m in the first year, though lower sums in later years and the female retirement age gradually goes up.

Indeed the Lib Dems pledged in their manifesto to raise the age for the allowance to 65 so as to pay for the payments to be extended to disabled people.

The latter idea is no longer a possibility of course.

Today marks the 100th day of the new government. What has surprised me is its sheer energy - particularly after ministers were involved in years of exhausting election campaigning - and the radical nature of what its trying to do.

But as we have seen with Michael Gove's free schools policy and with IDS's welfare plans, and many smaller measures, radical policies cost money.

And money is not what this government has got.

Miliband v Miliband

Michael Crick | 13:17 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

I bumped into David Miliband this morning and so asked for his reaction to his brother's comment last night about being up against "big money opponents".

He shrugged his shoulders dismissively and said: "The Labour Party needs big money to fight off Ashcroft."

Lib Dem Short Money response

Michael Crick | 13:10 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Some Liberal Democrats are blaming Newsnight for them losing Short Money, the state funding which opposition parties get to help for research and policy development.

You may recall that we reported a couple of months ago that the Lib Dems were hoping to do a deal with the Conservatives whereby they would carry on getting some Short Money, even though they are now in government. At the time they were clearly optimistic that some kind of agreement was on the cards.

Until it was publicly exposed by Newsnight, it seems.

"You cost us £2.2m and 30 jobs," a senior Lib Dem official grumbled to me this morning.

Duwayne Brooks to run for GLA

Michael Crick | 12:42 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Duwayne Brooks came up to me this morning and said that contrary to my blog of a few days ago, he is not going to try and become Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor.

Brooks was the best friend of Stephen Lawrence, and witnessed his horrific murder in 1993. In 2009 he was elected a Lib Dem councillor in Lewisham.

He may not have ambitions to become mayor, but he tells me that he does hope to run for the Greater London Assembly next time.

Ed Miliband criticises brother's "big money backing"

Michael Crick | 22:31 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Ed Miliband has criticised his brother's "big money backing" in an appeal to supporters to give his campaign one final push.

"We are now within touching distance of winning this election," Ed Miliband claims, just two weeks before party members start receiving their ballot papers. "But we are still up against opponents with big money backing ...".

It's funny how he uses the word "opponents".

That's primarily his older brother David, of course, who is known to have received more than £324,000 in declared donations, much of it from the old Blair-ite types who used to fund New Labour.

Ed Balls, however, has received £131,000, including one gift of £100,000 from the novelist Ken Follett.

Ed Miliband, in contrast, has had barely £61,000 so far - less than a fifth of the total of his brother.

Ed Miliband claims to have 4,000 volunteers helping his campaign and to have received financial support from 700 people. His email appeal to every supporter to give him an extra £30 each states the hope that he can recruit another 7,000 donors.

And, in another clear dig at his brother, Ed Miliband writes:

"Clearly, for Labour to win again, we cannot simply settle for one more heave with the old dogmas and expect our lost voters to return to Labour as if the mistakes that drove them away in the first place had never been made. We cannot win those voters back with the same old New Labour tunes. We need to put values back at the heart of our party."

More on the intriguing tale of Cable running for Mayor

Michael Crick | 14:58 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Some readers have interpreted yesterday's blog on Vince Cable as me saying Cable will run as coalition candidate for London Mayor.

Perhaps I didn't make myself clear, but I wasn't intending to say that at all.

I was merely saying that David Morden's suggestion that this was being discussed in Downing Street was quite intriguing, since it would have an number of attractions for the leaders of both coalition parties.

Personally, I think the chances of Cable actually running for Mayor are pretty slim.

The government's new adviser on social mobility

Michael Crick | 18:02 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

It is perhaps not surprising that Alan Milburn should have become the government's new adviser on social mobility.

Look at these exchanges between David Willetts and Mr Milburn in a Commons debate on the issue in June of last year:

Willetts: The right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) is also in the Chamber, and he is leading the independent review. The work that has been produced, both originally by the Cabinet Office's strategy unit--that was on social mobility as a whole--and more recently by the panel on fair access to the professions, is excellent. The amount of empirical evidence assembled in those reports is fantastic, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is the right man to push forward this agenda.

Milburn: It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). At some points in his speech, his insight and knowledge were in danger of creating a progressive consensus in the House; then, however, he lapsed into criticism rather deeper than I would have expected from him.... One of the things to strike me, following the contribution of the hon. Member for Havant, is that in one sense there is a progressive consensus nowadays in the House. All parties have come to the view that ensuring that Britain is a mobile society is a perfectly legitimate objective--and, indeed, a priority--for public policy.

Data protection gone mad?

Michael Crick | 17:17 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

One of the reasons I refuse to give money to any Oxford University appeal is that the university authorities are always insufferably pompous when it comes to giving out details of people's degrees.

Today I rang up to ask what class of degree David Miliband and his brother Ed both have.

Oh, we can't give you that "for data protection reasons", the press officer told me.

This is data protection gone mad.

Both Milibands want me to employ them - or at least me and 40 million other people to employ them. By standing for leader of the Labour Party they are hoping to become prime minister, and so become the ultimate public servant.

So I'd like to know about their qualifications for the job.

What's more, they were both educated at great cost from the public purse. The public has good reason to know what happened to our money.

There was a time when educational qualifications were regularly published. Oxford degrees would be published in the University Gazette - indeed I've kept my copy of the Gazette just to prove I got an Oxford degree!

And schools would proudly publish O-level and A-level results in the local paper. And the kids involved were usually delighted.

Not now, it seems. People's public exam results and university degrees are all a matter of personal privacy, even if they were educated at public expense.

What a licence for people to lie and cheat!

Go ahead. Claim you've got a first class degree from Oxford University, for the university won't deny it - "for a data protection reasons" of course.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a book on Jeffrey Archer in which I exposed his bogus educational qualifications, and I managed this partly thanks to a helpful and friendly Oxford University press officer reading out Archer's old application form line-by-line over the phone.

That wouldn't be possible now. I'd be stymied by data protection rules, and Archer would probably get away with the lies he told to get into Oxford.

By the way, David Miliband's Who's Who entry says he got a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

But I've no way of checking that.

Ed doesn't mention his class of PPE degree. Which rather suggests that either he didn't get a first, or is being very modest about it.

Is Vince Cable going to run for Mayor?

Michael Crick | 15:07 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

David Morden (which may or may not be his real name) has posted a highly intriguing story in the comments on my last blog (which he has also posted on Labour List).


He suggests that people in Downing Street have been overheard discussing the idea that the Lib Dem Business Secretary should be encouraged to run for Mayor of London. As a coalition candidate, he implies.

What a neat, clever, wheeze, for, as David Morden suggests, it would use "one stone" to kill several birds.

First, it might resolve the Vince problem. Cable is widely thought to be deeply unhappy in his new job as Business Secretary.

Second, it would resolve the Lib Dem problem of finding a decent candidate for Mayor.

Other names in the frame are said to be Lembit Opik, Duwanye Brooks, and the recently ennobled former TV presenter Floella Benjamin, none of whom is likely to be a winner.

And - whisper it gently - it could solve the Boris problem, or at least to some extent.

Boris Johnson has yet to confirm he's running again, and with the government likely to be pretty unpopular by May 2012, he may prefer to give it a miss and get back to Westminster.

And it might help cement the coalition, though perhaps undermine Simon Hughes's claim yesterday that there would be no election pacts between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

UPDATE at 17:11: On the Cable for Mayor theory, a Lib Dem minister has just texted me: "I can't see Vince wanting to be Mayor! Or indeed wanting to stand for Mayor!"

Andrew Roth: Ace compiler of biographical details on MPs

Michael Crick | 12:10 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

I was saddened to learn of the death of Andrew Roth, the ace compiler of biographical details on every MP. When I was 16 I remember spending what was then a ludicrously large sum of money on the latest volume of his excellent Parliamentary Profiles book. He knew everything about every MP.

Many years later I visited his home in Cricklewood a couple of times to make use of his amazing cuttings archive on biographies I was writing. He had thick envelopes on every MP, cuttings dating back decades. It was a biographer's goldmine.

And as I spent the day photocopying all the material I wanted, he would entertain me with a stream of gossip about MPs past and present, much of it never published.

I do hope some way is found pf preserving Andrew's wonderful library. When you are doing research proper newspaper cuttings beat electronic databases any day.

Far-reaching effects of proposed boundary changes

Michael Crick | 11:10 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

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Last night on Newsnight I reported on how the government's plans to radically redraw the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies are meeting opposition in all sorts of places - from Labour Liverpool to the Conservative Isle of Wight.

The government is proposing two big changes in one. First, the number of MPs will be cut from 650 to 600. Second, they plan to make constituency sizes much more equal - with the exception of two small Scottish offshore island seats, all constituencies will have to be no more than five per cent bigger or smaller than the average quota, currently calculated to be around 76,000.

The survey by Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool University carried out for Newsnight, shows that the net effect in terms of distribution of seats will be a lot less dramatic than many Labour people fear, and many Conservatives no doubt hope. The Tories would lose 13 seats, Labour 25 and the Lib Dems seven.

So the Conservatives would in effect be 12 seats better off in comparison to Labour than they are now. But they would still be seven seats short of an overall majority in the Commons.

Under Stuart Wilks-Heeg's predicted figures the Tories would have four per cent fewer MPs than now, Labour 10 per cent fewer, and the Lib Dems would suffer most - with 12 per cent fewer MPs, even though they are backing the proposals under the Coalition agreement.

One should stress that Stuart Wilks-Heeg's calculations are inevitably very rough. Nobody really knows how the new boundaries will actually be redrawn and so precise predictions are difficult. And his reckoning is on the basis of the current first-past-the-post voting system. If voters approve the new AV system in the referendum scheduled for next May then the Liberal Democrats would be considerably better off.

But these boundary changes may have more far-reaching effects in all sorts of other ways.

First, the new boundaries won't be set in stone until October 2013, so the parties won't really be able to pick any candidates until then. Then will come a mad rush of musical chairs over the following 18 months, as sitting MPs scrabble to grab the smaller number of seats. Lots of MPs will lose out.

It will be interesting to know if the whole process will make MPs more independent-minded, in the hope this will impress local parties in neighbouring areas, or more loyal, in the hope that their parties' high command will somehow rescue them.

My guess is that it will make MPs less beholden to the whips, especially given that in 200 safe seats the government is going to pay for special primary elections of all voters for the sitting parties in those seats, just like the Tories had in several seats in the last Parliament.

Nor can any MP assume he is safe from the boundary redrawing process, apart from those for the two exempt seats, Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles. Even if a constituency has the exact number of voters to fulfil the new quota, it doesn't mean it will be left intact by the boundary commissioners.

Many seats of the right size will be affected simply by the knock-on effect of redrawing boundaries elsewhere. And under the process the boundary commissioners will no longer treat county boundaries as sacrosanct.

The other effect of putting off candidate selection for more than three years is that it also puts off that increasingly mentioned question - will the Conservatives and Lib Dems cement their coalition friendship with electoral pacts in certain seats, and agree not to stand candidates against each other?

Constituency politics for all parties is about to enter a period of fascinating turmoil. And don't rule out yet another set of boundary changes in the 2015 Parliament to take account of the 2011 census and the introduction of individual registration of voters.

Andy Street of John Lewis on Newsnight

Michael Crick | 16:01 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

On Newsnight last night, Emily Maitlis asked Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis Partnership, how much he was paid. Street said he wasn't going to announce the figure "on national TV", but also pointed out that it is freely available "in the public domain".

So I can reveal that Mr Street is paid £500,000 a year, and got a 15 per cent bonus last year.

Watch the interview in full here.

Areas earmarked for savings at MoJ

Michael Crick | 13:40 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Yesterday's story that the Ministry of Justice is discussing cuts of £2 billion in its £9 billion budget came as no surprise. That is of course, just below the 25 per cent figure the Treasury has demanded from every department whose spending is not ring-fenced.

It has been reported that the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is among the first ministers to agree a deal with the Treasury over his department's cuts. But it's not a simple as that, I'm told.

Clarke is himself a former Chancellor and knows the system.

"He ain't gonna be pushed around," says a senior MoJ source. "He was only willing to offer Danny Alexander ballpark figures."

The reason Clarke was reluctant to agree specific sums is that two big areas of MoJ policy are still up in the air.

First, there is a consultation on the future of legal aid. Second, there is Clarke's famous sentencing review, and he wants to await the outcomes of both before committing himself to the Treasury.

Nonetheless, I'm told the ballpark figure for legal aid cuts is around £600 million, rather less than the £700 million Clarke was originally demanding from the legal aid system. That's still a big share - more than 25 per cent - of the legal aid budget of £2.2 billion.

Other areas for substantial savings at the MoJ are, I'm told:

• An EU directive which comes into force next year which will enable the UK to deport 4,500 EU nationals back to the EU, thus freeing prison places. And the numbers we will deport are far more than the prisoners likely to be deported back to us

• Changing the rules so that prisoners on parole who breach their licences are dealt with by magistrates' courts in future rather than crown courts, as now

• Stopping employment tribunals becoming mini-court trials with lots of expensive lawyers

• Limiting the number of non-custodial immigration appeals that each refused immigrant can make

A PM question

Michael Crick | 12:05 UK time, Tuesday, 10 August 2010

I'm out filming today. And one of the towns I'm visiting has been the only Parliamentary constituency to return four different MPs who at one time or another served as prime minister. And they were pretty distinguished prime ministers too. Where is it?

Australia's general election

Michael Crick | 10:06 UK time, Monday, 9 August 2010

So what was this year's biggest general election polling station in London - in terms of expected voters?

It opens at 11am today, in fact. In the middle of August.

Yes, it is at the Australian High Commission on Aldwych, off the Strand.

They are expecting more than 17,000 people to turn up over the next few days to vote in the Australian general election.

Voters can be supplied with ballot papers from each of the 150 constituencies.

Jack Straw announces he is standing down

Michael Crick | 18:03 UK time, Friday, 6 August 2010

As I revealed in this blog ten days ago, Jack Straw is standing down from the Shadow Cabinet this autumn, after 30 years on Labour's front bench.

The former justice secretary officially announced the news today.

Is public money being used to support mayor's re-election campaign?

Michael Crick | 22:53 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010


It is reported that Boris Johnson is planning to put another £81 million into his London bike rental scheme. But is the project, launched amid great fanfare last week, also part of a big effort to promote Johnson himself? Is public money, and millions more in sponsorship from Barclays Bank, being used to support the mayor's re-election campaign?

OK, it was inevitable that the bicycles would be called Boris Bikes (though it was actually Ken Livingstone who first proposed the idea).You can't stop the media seizing on obvious alliteration (and Ken's Bikes doesn't work so well anyway).

But this week Transport for London (TFL) have sent out free T-shirts to the first 1,000 Londoners to sign up to the scheme. On the front of the shirt is a picture of the bikes, the scheme logo and the heading 'Barclays Cycle Hire'.

Fair enough.

But the back of the T-shirt simply shows a cartoon of a cyclist who is obviously Boris Johnson - with unkempt blond hair, dark suit, flapping tie etc.

Indeed I know the cartoon is Boris Johnson because it also appears on the TFL website, only this time there's a bubble coming out of the cyclists head saying: "I call on Londoners to sign up and become pioneer members - Boris Johnson."

Perhaps 1,000 free T-shirts won't make much difference to Boris Johnson's election effort, and I can't imagine many people will actually wear them in public.

But TFL ought to be careful how they use the Johnson cartoon in future, and how they involve him in such ventures. They not only run the risk of falling foul of our strict laws on election spending, but also those which ban government bodies from using public funds to promote individual politicians.

Slough council leader charged with bigamy

Michael Crick | 10:28 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010

My favourite story of the week?

The council leader in Slough who switched from Labour to Conservative, and who has now been charged with bigamy.

Cameron and Berlusconi

Michael Crick | 18:21 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

David Cameron is off to Italy today to meet the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

About time too, perhaps.

Consider this remarkable fact. For his book on the Conservative leader, Cameron on Cameron, Dylan Jones asked Cameron in an interview conducted in March 2008: "What sort of relationship do you have with Berlusconi, and what do you make of him as a politician?"

"None at all," was Cameron's reply, "and I've never met him."

It was an extraordinary response, especially given that Berlusconi has arguably been the most successful centre-right leader in Europe over the last 15 years - certainly in terms of winning elections - and surviving. And yet more than two years after becoming Conservative leader, David Cameron still had not met the Italian leader, and had no relationship with him.

Yet in the same interview, Cameron said his relations with Angela Merkel were "very good".

TV debates: The next round

Michael Crick | 16:40 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Since the success of this year's election TV debates, it's widely been assumed that they are here to stay in British elections. Indeed I may even have said that myself!

But it won't be quite so simple next time round.

I've already mentioned on this blog the problems that will arise if the next election is on the first Thursday in May 2015, as the coalition partners have pledged, since that will coincide with elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, scheduled by law for the same day.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are bound to argue that a three-way debate will be incredibly unfair to them in these devolved elections. And they well may prove successful if they take court action again.

The other big problem arises from the coalition itself. Will a three-way debate with all three leaders getting equal time be appropriate after five years of Lib-Con coalition? In effect you'd have two government leaders - Cameron and Clegg - against one opposition leader (probably called Miliband).

Labour will no doubt argue that's terribly unfair.

But it's hard to think of another format which would work.

New boundaries also posing problems for Labour

Michael Crick | 17:09 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The prospect of brand new boundaries is also posing big problems for Labour, quite apart from the likelihood that the party will lose seats as a result of the process.

According to Ann Black's account last month's National Executive meeting actually discussed the problem of not being able to pick candidates until the boundary review is complete.

One idea the NEC considered was instead to let local parties identify "parliamentary spokespersons" or "campaign leaders" for existing seats, to fulfill many of the between-election duties normally carried out by candidates.

But some MPs on the NEC were unhappy that these new local champions might then have an unfair advantage in the process of choosing new candidates for the reduced number of seats.

On the redrawing of constituency boundaries

Michael Crick | 16:54 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

There are several interesting aspects to the proposed reorganisation of constituency boundaries which have barely been explored.

First, why is the number of seats being cut from 650 to only 600? Before the election the Conservatives were talking about a ten per cent cut, down to 585. And the Liberal Democrats wanted to cut the number of MPs much further, down to 500.

Did David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide that such radical cuts would cause too much disaffection among backbenchers who stood to lose their seats in the forthcoming musical chairs?

The redrawing of boundaries also means that the selection of Parliamentary candidates for the next election has effectively been frozen for more than three years. Under the proposed timetable, it won't be until October 2013 that we know for certain where the new boundaries and seats are.

In recent times local parties have been keen to pick their candidates in target seats very early, sometimes within only a few months of the previous election. The thinking has been that the longer a challenging candidate is in place then the longer they have to get themselves recognised and established.

Unlike previous boundary reviews, where it was pretty obvious that many seats would be unchanged, this time almost any seat may be redrawn, except the small seats of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, which in a last minute deal in Cabinet committee have been exempted from the process of equalising constituencies.

The exemption of these northern Scottish island seats was not, I understand, originally planned by the Tories at all. The argument being that they are difficult areas geographically and it would add to the problems if they were extended onto the Scottish mainland. But before 1918 both seats were jumbled up with parts of the mainland.

The other last minute Cabinet deal was to limit any seat to 13,000 square miles, which is seen as a sop to the Lib Dems, and a measure to stop Charles Kennedy grumbling about the coalition (as his huge highland seat is just about that size).

Personally, I can't really understand the geographical size argument. The US states of Alaska and Montana, which are far larger than any British seat, manage within only one member in the US House of Representatives. Ditto Western Australia in the Australian Parliament.

Anyway, because the process combines the reduction in seats with the equalisation of sizes, and since in future seats will be allowed to cross county boundaries, the process is a lot less predictable this time.

And now, for the planned May 2015 general election, all the selection processes will be concentrated into the last 18 months of this Parliament - between October 2013 and April 2015.

That's very convenient for the two Coalition parties. For it means that they can postpone for three years any decision on whether to have any kind of electoral pact (something increasingly mooted at Westminster).

The Coalition partners might decide, for example, not to stand against each other's sitting ministers.

Without the boundary review, relations between the Coalition parties might otherwise have been quite fraught at constituency level once rival candidates started emerging.

The Conservative associations in Eastleigh and Taunton, for example, (the seats of Lib Dem ministers Chris Huhne and Jeremy Browne), might have been asking Conservative HQ within the next few months for permission to start their selection rounds.

Now the start of local Lib-Con constituency warfare should at least be postponed until the end of 2013 at the earliest.

I personally wouldn't rule out some kind of electoral pact in 2015. The two parties have done it before, most recently in a few seats in the early 1950s.

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