BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for September 2010

All power to Yorkshire

Michael Crick | 11:29 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

Has power within a political party ever been so geographically concentrated?

Rosie Winterton, the MP for Doncaster Central, was yesterday appointed by Ed Miliband as opposition chief whip, a post she's due to hold for the next five years. Miliband himself is MP for Doncaster North (and is, incidentally, the sixth successive Labour leader to represent a mining seat, or former mining seat).

Meanwhile, the posts of shadow chancellor and shadow home secretary are likely to be held by two other MPs who represent seats in that swathe of the Yorkshire coalfield between Leeds and Doncaster.

Yvette Cooper is MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, while her husband, Ed Balls, represents Morley and Outwood.

This area has seen perhaps the two worst corruption scandals of Labour history - the Poulson scandal of the late 60s and early 70s, and the Donnygate affair of the 1990s, which saw at least 21 Doncaster councillors convicted of fraud and other crimes.

Ed Miliband and his colleagues should remember the kind of political communities they represent and which picked them as the "New Generation".

A murky deal in the Labour leadership vote

Michael Crick | 10:21 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

One thing that puzzled me about the lists showing which Labour MP voted which way in the leadership contest, is why Gordon Brown's former parliamentary private secretary (PPS) Jon Trickett placed Ed Balls as his first preference.

This was odd given that Trickett came out prominently for Ed Miliband a few weeks ago, and this week has been acting as a key member of the Ed Miliband team, involved in the talks with David M.

The answer involves a murky deal with the Deputy Speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, who was a Balls man. Hoyle agreed to switch his second preference from David to Ed, in return for Trickett voting Balls first and Ed Miliband only second.

Hoyle was keen to boost the overall Balls vote, and Trickett's move made no difference to the outcome since his support was transferred to Ed Miliband in the final round.

The gap between Ed and David Miliband in the final vote was the equivalent of about five MPs switching between the brothers, so the Trickett-Hoyle pact would account for 20 per cent of that result.

When the Commons returns the week after next, Deputy Speaker Hoyle may find Labour's newest backbencher not the most compliant of members.

David and Ed

Michael Crick | 16:12 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

So, having lost to his brother, David Miliband has decided to leave frontline politics, just as I suggested in this blog on 14 June.

The role of young families in modern politics

Michael Crick | 12:22 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I blogged earlier this year about the trend of having a lot more high-rank politicians these days who have young children. We've got all three party leaders with young kids, the last two Prime Ministers, and so on.

There are at least three important trends at play here - the decline in age of our leading politicians, who now reach the top in their 40s (or even 30s); the fact many people have children a lot later in life; and the fact men are expected to have a much bigger role in childcare.

In the past politicians had kids when they were ordinary MPs, and the children had become teenagers, or even left home, by the time their parents reached the highest levels. If they did have young kids then their wives, or nannies, would look after them.

When Gordon Brown was in Number 10 his youngest son used to climb into the prime ministerial bed in the middle night. What effect did that have on a man who was already famous for going without sleep? And what was the effect on the way we were governed by Mr Brown?

If David Miliband steps down from the Shadow Cabinet then family commitments will undoubtedly play a major role in his decision. He's endured years of highly intense activity - from being Foreign Secretary, then the election, then the leadership campaign.

His family have been the victims, and it's not unreasonable that he might want to devote more time to them - even if other family pressures draw him in a different direction.

The role of young families in modern politics needs further attention.

More Lib Dem coalition abstainers revealed

Michael Crick | 11:40 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Lib Dem MP John Leech told a Fabian Society meeting in Manchester last night that he was one of three Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on the setting up of the coalition.

Previously it was thought that only one MP, Charles Kennedy, had abstained when Lib Dems met in May to approve the setting up of the coalition.

Mr Leech said that as one of three Lib Dem MPs not to vote for the government, he was "absolutely not shutting the door" to a future coalition with Labour.

Leech, a fairly low-profile MP, confirmed that the second MP was Charles Kennedy, but refused to name the third. But he did add it wasn't either of the regular Lib Dem rebels in the Commons in recent months, Bob Russell or Mike Hancock.

In The Night Garden

Michael Crick | 16:49 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

As soon as a I first saw a small model of the children's TV character Igglepiggle I was astonished by his remarkable resemblance to David Cameron. The eyes, the mouth, the hair... even, in a way, the colour.

My three-year old daughter, Isabel, will no doubt be devastated this evening when she learns that the series in which Iggle Piggle appears, In The Night Garden, is not being recommissioned by the BBC.

Was this wise? One wag suggested to me this afternoon that the BBC has simply caved in to pressure from Downing Street.

A senior government source told Newsnight:

"I think the right response to this is 'No Comment', but as any good journo knows, sometimes you just have to follow your instincts."

A heated row in the conference stalls

Michael Crick | 12:28 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

I've just witnessed a heated stand-up row in the conference stalls area between John Prescott and Martin Kelsey, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union rep in the Home Office, the civil service union not affiliated to Labour.

Prescott was vigorously defending Labour government's record and private finance initiatives (PFI).

Prescott said the last government had created one million public sector jobs. Kelsey argued that most of them had been farmed out to the private sector.

Lord Prescott may be feeling especially upset today after the unions gave him only tiny support yesterday in his unsuccessful battle to become Labour Treasurer.

More on David for shadow chancellor

Michael Crick | 22:18 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ed Miliband is desperately keen his brother accepts the job of shadow chancellor. As I reported earlier Ed Miliband plans to offer his brother the job in next few days.

"He must accept it," one of Ed Miliband's senior advisers told me tonight. "He has to accept it."

Otherwise the Ed Miliband team know their choices for shadow chancellor are very limited - especially given the nature of today's result.

The other option would be Ed Balls. But that would entail a significant shift in economic policy - to the Left.

And today's result, effectively decided by the unions, against the wishes of Labour MPs and members, means that Ed Miliband will have to shift to the Right, and away from the unions, to answer Conservative tants of 'Red Ed', a poodle of the unions.

"It's a desperately complex knot," said my source.

There was speculation that the shadow chancellor job might go to Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls' wife.

But many might perceive that as almost the same as appointing Balls himself.

Alan Johnson may not want the job, and many think he would not have the economic credentials to match George Osborne.

Another possible option, Liam Byrne, might not win election to the shadow Cabinet given the huge number of candidates who plan to stand.

Ralph Miliband urged Ed not follow in David's footsteps

Michael Crick | 19:27 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

One of the friends of the Miliband family to whom we spoke while making Thursday's film, said that as a teenager Ed always looked up to David. He admired him so much that he always wanted to follow in his exact footsteps.

When Ed starting thinking about university, their father Ralph Miliband urged him to go somewhere different from David.

"Why not try for Cambridge, or the LSE, or perhaps another university?" he suggested.

But Ed was adamant he wanted to go to Oxford University too.

"So why not try for another college at Oxford?" Ralph Miliband suggested to his youngest son. But Ed was adamant that he wanted to follow his brother to Corpus Christi College. And to read the same subject, Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

And he did.

And this year, by standing for leader of the Labour Party, has followed his brother again. And beaten him.

Where was the Milibands' mother?

Michael Crick | 19:22 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

I am told by a family friend of the Milibands that their mother Marion Kozak flew to New York earlier this week and will be there until at least next weekend.

In the circumstances I can't say I blame her. Friends say the last few months have been a real "strain" and she has said that life would have been a lot easier if the boys had become academics rather than politicians.

David to be offered shadow chancellor

Michael Crick | 18:44 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010

I'm told by a source in the Ed Miliband team that the brothers held several secret meetings this week, once it became clear that Ed would win.

David was "unhelpful and very upset", my source says.

David will be offered the job of shadow chancellor, though the Ed team are not very confident that he will accept it.

One reason why the brothers were talking on the assumption of an Ed win is because Ed Miliband and his team expected a much more decisive victory.

An MP in the Ed Miliband campaign tells me they had predicted exactly the PLP section vote, and quite closely the Union and Affiliates section vote, but they were disappointed with the Members section vote, as their figures had shown them winning more among ordinary party members.

This might explain why several senior Ed Miliband supporters I've bumped into this evening have been looking pretty glum.

Not to have a majority of your MPs or party members - and to depend on union votes - leaves Ed Miliband in a very exposed position.

Ironically, he'll have to spend much of the next few weeks distancing himself from the unions and showing he's not in their pocket.

Ralph Miliband's far reaching influence

Michael Crick | 19:55 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

In almost every leadership election of the two main parties since 1994 I've done a profile for Newsnight of the leading contender, or contenders.

Tonight I've done it rather differently, with a kind of family portrait of the Milibands.

The fascinating question is why two boys brought up committed left-wing socialists have turned out so differently.

One interesting observation comes from Robin Blackburn, one of the closest friends and colleagues of their late father, the Marxist Ralph Miliband.

Although Ralph would have been hugely proud of David and Ed, Blackburn reckons the true Milibandites in politics, the real followers of Ralph are not David or Ed, but overseas politicians such as the Brazilian Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim, who was one of Ralph's students and a regular visitor to the Miliband home in Primrose Hill.

And Celso is tipped for higher things still.

"The next president of Brazil may be a far more influential person than the next leader of the Labour Party," says Blackburn in an exchange we have been unable to fit in tonight.

"So don't count out Ralph Miliband," he told me. "He would have been proud of the two children he had, but he has MANY children, sons and daughters, but they are in Latin America, they're in South Africa, they're in India and Malaysia. That's where they are."

A sign of different times in British politics?

Michael Crick | 13:19 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

A rather bizarre event took place in the Cabinet room in Downing Street a few days ago. And a sign of these somewhat different times in British politics.

A Cabinet sub-committee was sitting around the Cabinet table discussing child poverty. Big deal, you'll say.

But the committee met not just Conservatives present, and Lib Dem ministers too, of course, but a couple of Labour MPs as well.

Nick Clegg was in the chair, and was joined by his party colleague, the Children's Minister Sarah Teather. Among the Conservatives in attendance were David Willetts and the Economic Secretary Justine Greening. But also at the Cabinet table were the Labour MP Frank Field and his colleague from Nottingham, Graham Allen.

Field is currently giving the government advice on poverty, whilst Allen is writing a separate report for ministers on early intervention.

This cross-party group was merrily engaged in amicable, constructive discussion, my source reports, as if the coalition contained three parties, not two.

A question of representation

Michael Crick | 15:29 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Perhaps the most worrying defeat for Nick Clegg in Liverpool this week came today against proposals to take positive action to try and elect more Lib Dem MPs who are black and from ethnic minorities. It could have big long-term implications for the future of the party.

This is a very big problem for the Lib Dems. None of their 57 MPs is black or comes from an ethnic minority, and the only one in modern times was Parmjit Singh Gill, who won Leicester South in a by-election in 2004, but lost it at the general election a year later.

Labour has made steady progress on this issue in the last 25 years, and the Conservatives, too, in recent years. Labour now has 16 ethnic minority MPs and the Conservatives 11.

A plan to oblige local Lib Dem constituency parties in winnable seats to include at least one person who is black or from an ethnic minority, was voted out this morning.

I'm told that Nick Clegg told a dinner given by the Pakistani High Commissioner a few days ago that his party was in the "last chance saloon" on this issue.

And the situation will get worse. Many of the Lib Dems' ethnic minority councillors represent inner-city seats where Labour is the main challenger, and therefore they are in danger of losing.

"The party has a long way to go before we are truly representative of society," Nick's Clegg's chief-of-staff Norman Lamb told me. "This is a classic liberal situation where the party doesn't want any interference in people's individual votes, but I think it needs to be nudged."

"We need action now," said Lester Holloway, a councillor from Sutton who proposed the measure (and is of mixed race). "Otherwise we are to find it increasingly difficult to sell the Liberal Democrat programme to black and ethnic minority communities in the cities. The image of the party will put off those voters."

And the Liberal Democrats continue to have a big problem with female representation too. Only seven of their 57 MPs are women - just 12%, compared with 16% of Tory MPs who are female, and 31% Labour.

Duwayne Brooks for London Mayor?

Michael Crick | 10:23 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

As forecast here a few weeks ago (though subsequently denied by him) Duwayne Brooks has announced he is seriously considering seeking the nomination for Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor.

He told me he's confident of putting together "a good team".

Lib Dem minister urges conference to stop reading Guardian

Michael Crick | 15:15 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

"Stop reading the Guardian," a Liberal Democrat minister told the conference today.

"It is a carrier of misinformation and lies," said the health minister, Paul Burstow, who was complaining about the paper's recent coverage of the government's health policies.

What ingratitude. The Guardian was the only daily paper to endorse the Lib Dems at the election, after much internal agony on the paper, and decades of backing Labour.

Strange really. And I swear I saw Mr Burstow briefing a Guardian journalist a few hours ago.

New measures on council finance

Michael Crick | 14:48 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

The news that Nick Clegg will announce this afternoon new measures on council finance, to allow councils to borrow more against future income, will be hugely welcome to many Lib Dems here.

Probably more so than for the Conservatives or Labour, councillors are the bedrock of this party. Hundreds of them are here this week, a substantial chunk of the conference audience.

And many of them terrified they will lose their seats next May, especially when the effects of cuts on local government become fully known in a few weeks time.

So anything that can ease the financial problems of local authorities is bound to be hugely welcome amongst Mr Clegg's audience today.

Why nobody will bother appealing to Star Chamber

Michael Crick | 17:34 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

Talking of the Comprehensive Spending Review, I was chatting to a Cabinet minister recently who was explaining how no minister wanted to be first to announce they had reached a deal with the Treasury.

Anyone who did so might risk being thought of as a soft-touch. The minister thought it more likely that several deals would be announced at once, with ministers falling over all at once, rather like a row of penguins.

And what about the so-called Star Chamber, the Cabinet's Public Expenditure sub-committee, which will adjudicate on cases where departmental ministers can't agree cuts with the Treasury?

The committee currently consists of ministers who either have small budgets or none at all, though departmental ministers will be added to the membership in due course once they have settled with the Treasury.

My ministerial contact told me that in the end nobody will bother appealing to the Star Chamber. It would be a waste of time, he said, since, like the medieval Star Chamber they would simply be "assumed to be guilty".

He suggested fellow departmental ministers on the committee won't want to allow any appeals against the Treasury through fear it would mean extra cuts in their own departments.

Who has settled in CSR negotiations?

Michael Crick | 17:29 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

This is the picture I've managed to put together so far from government sources of how ministers are in their negotiations with the Treasury over the huge cuts to be announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October 2010.

Virtually settled:

  • Ken Clarke at Justice, as I reported on Newsnight last Thursday

  • Eric Pickles at Communities and Local Government, though most of his cuts will have to be made by local councils

  • Francis Maude, Cabinet Office, though he has a tiny budget
  • Getting there:

  • Iain Duncan Smith at Work + Pensions, though a senior DWP told me this weekend that "not much is happening on that at the moment"

  • Michael Gove at Schools, though I'm told his final deal probably won't be agreed until the last minute

  • Chris Huhne at Energy + Climate Change
  • Far from settled:

  • Liam Fox at Defence

  • Vince Cable at Business, partly because they are awaiting next month's report from Lord Browne on university funding

  • .

    Last night's Lib Dem rally

    Michael Crick | 08:45 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

    Tim Farron was only a last minute stand-in at the Lib Dem rally last night, but still in good form. Two examples:

    "Now that Nick is Deputy Prime Minister, and only a few yards down the corridor from Andy Coulson, he doesn't need to check his phone messages any more."


    "Something I've got in common with many of our Tory colleagues: I joined my party because of Margaret Thatcher."

    Meanwhile, Nick Clegg at last night's rally:

    "It's great to see Liberal Democrat ministers speaking behind the despatch box - or hear them, in the case of Sarah Teather."


    "Eric Pickles is the only Cabinet minister you can spot on Google Earth."

    The Watkins v Woolas case

    Michael Crick | 08:34 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010

    I've just bumped into Lord (Chris) Rennard here in Liverpool, the celebrated and feared Lib Dem election strategist (depending on your point of view).

    He reckons this week's extraordinary election court case against the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Phil Woolas, will have a profound effect on British elections.

    Woolas is accused by his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins of making false statements in his campaign literature, which if proven, would breach the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

    That could lead to his disqualification as an MP.

    Rennard thinks that whichever way the case goes - whether Woolas wins or loses - candidates and agents will be a lot more careful about what they say about their opponents in future.

    He thinks it will become a regular feature of campaigns for agents to fire off barrages of letters to their opposite numbers threatening to invoke this part of the 1983 act, an act which has been pretty much ignored until now.

    The irony of the Watkins v Woolas case is that over the years the Liberal Democrats have probably been more guilty of dirty tricks - and false statements against their opponents - than any other party, especially in by-elections. So the Lib Dems might, in fact, lose most if the Woolas case significantly makes parties clean up their acts.

    I attended the Woolas hearing for most of the day last Tuesday. It took place in the civic hall of the small Pennine town of Uppermill, in the Oldham East constituency. Woolas was pretty unconvincing in defending some of his leaflets - but given what the literature had said then anyone would have struggled frankly. And the MP was resolute in refusing to concede much to Watkins's barrister.

    The onus of proof is on Watkins, and most observers I spoke to on Tuesday thought Woolas would probably win.

    The judges originally said they hoped to produce a result by last Friday. But now the verdict has been put off until October, pending legal arguments. Which rather suggests the result is not actually clear cut. If the verdict had been obvious then surely the judges could have simply announced it on Friday.

    And the award for sheer refusal to give up goes to...

    Michael Crick | 13:56 UK time, Saturday, 18 September 2010

    I've now arrived in Liverpool for the Liberal Democrat conference, where we will no doubt be reminded this week of the value of persistence in politics.

    Indeed, if an award was to be made for sheer refusal to give up then it would surely go to David Shutt.

    Shutt first stood for Parliament 40 years ago - in Sowerby in 1970. Indeed, during the 70s he fought the seat four times altogether, losing every election. When part of Sowerby became Calder Valley, he then fought that seat twice as well, in 1983 and 1987.

    In 1992 Shutt finally got the message that the voters of Sowerby/Calder Valley didn't want him as their MP. But he didn't give up, and fought Pudsey instead. Pudsey fought back.

    So seven attempts and seven failures.

    But persistence pays. This May, the by now Lord Shutt was rewarded for a lifetime of effort to the Liberal cause when he was made Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, and deputy government chief whip in the Lords.

    The 25,000-word Lib Dem agenda

    Michael Crick | 12:47 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

    The editor of The Liberal magazine, Ben Ramm, has just pointed out that the agenda for the coming Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool runs to 25,000 words, going into the minute detail of policy discussion.

    "But," Ramm adds, "it does not mention 'cuts' on one occasion."

    And, he concludes: "The Liberal Democrats are a party in denial."

    The first Miliband book?

    Michael Crick | 16:23 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

    I am delighted to learn that two friends and former colleagues are teaming up to write what will probably be the first book on the Miliband brothers - with emphasis, of course, on whichever brother wins.

    Allegra Stratton was my first producer when I became political editor of Newsnight and she went off to achieve great success on the Guardian.

    Lance Price worked for me when I edited the Oxford University newspaper Cherwell back in 1977. He later become a political correspondent for the BBC, and then worked as deputy to Alastair Campbell in Downing Street. He's been planning such a book for a couple of years now.

    It's not easy writing a biography of a newly elected party leader. They'll be hindered by a combination of deference towards the coming man, and fear of upsetting him. It's only after the event that people start opening up.

    And in the case of the Milibands, their poor mother Marion Kozak is very protective of the family privacy, as I have discovered whilst making a family profile which is due to be broadcast on Newsnight over the next few days. Yet I have come to the view that Mrs Miliband is probably a more important figure in the boys' background than their famous father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband.

    Price and Stratton are being quick off the mark. It was 18 months before James Hanning and Francis Elliott published the first biography of David Cameron. And Iain Duncan Smith has yet to have a book written about him - the only post-war Leader of the Opposition of whom that is the case.

    Why youth may be important in Labour leadership election

    Michael Crick | 11:32 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

    I am anticipating the Labour leadership election result with mixed feelings. For the result may undermine my first rule of leadership elections - that the winner is usually the youngest candidate.

    Between them, the three main British parties have held 19 ordinary leadership elections since the war. By that I mean proper elections, either amongst MPs or a wider electorate. And I don't include contests which involve a sitting leader simply being challenged, such as John Major v John Redwood in 1995.

    Nor do I include the two contests where someone was elected unopposed - Michael Howard (2003) and Gordon Brown (2007).

    Four of the six Conservative elections saw the youngest contender win - John Major (1990), William Hague (1997), Iain Duncan Smith (2001), and David Cameron (2005).

    The exceptions were Edward Heath (1965) and Margaret Thatcher (1975), though Thatcher was younger than her main opponent Willie Whitelaw.

    Labour scores four out of seven - Hugh Gaitskell (1955), Harold Wilson (1963), Neil Kinnock (1983) and Tony Blair (1994). The exceptions were James Callaghan (1976) (though he was younger than his main rival Michael Foot), Michael Foot (1980), and John Smith (1992).

    The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have also elected the youngest candidate in four of their six elections - Jeremy Thorpe (1967), David Steel (1976), Charles Kennedy (1999), and Nick Clegg (2007). The exceptions were Paddy Ashdown (1988) and Ming Campbell (2006).

    That's 63 per cent.

    63 candidates fought the 19 contests, so if the results were random in terms of age, one would have expected the youngest to win 28 per cent.

    So being the youngest contender makes it more than twice as likely that you will win.

    And some of the youthful winners - Hague, IDS and Kennedy - triumphed over four older rivals.

    If you include Roy Jenkins' defeat of David Owen for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1982, the probability falls to 60 per cent.

    In the last 20 years, since John Major's election in 1990, the trend has been even more pronounced - seven elections out of nine, including all four Conservative leadership contests.

    That's a rate of 77.8 per cent. The two exceptions - the Scottish lawyer close friends John Smith and Ming Campbell - each lasted less than two years in office.

    These results would seem to suggest that British parties are increasingly putting a premium on youth and freshness when picking their leaders.

    So where does this leave us with the current Labour contest?

    Andy Burnham is the youngest contender, being just a fortnight younger than Ed Miliband. Burnham isn't going to win, of course, but Ed Miliband may well do so, and he is four and a half years younger than his brother, David.

    So the youth and freshness factor might still prove important in the Labour election, and may be decisive, although the strict result itself on Saturday 25 September 2010 will almost certainly undermine my rule.

    NB: My previous version of this blog mistakenly omitted Michael Foot, who was not a young winner. These figures above are now the revised ones. The trends are still clear, especially since 1990.

    Fond memories of the previous Papal visit

    Michael Crick | 10:16 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

    The Pope's visit today brings back fond memories of the previous papal visit, by John Paul II in 1982, when I was a very junior producer at ITN.

    To this day I kick myself over the biggest 'doorstep' of my career. During the visit, which lasted about six days if I remember correctly, there was a bit of competition among ITN reporters to see who could get close to the Pope and get a few words out of him. I recall Alastair Stewart, for instance, getting one successful exchange on the papal plane.

    Perhaps the highlight of his tour was the Pope's visit to Canterbury, the first papal visit to the Anglican cathedral since the Reformation, with symbolic pictures of the Pope greeting the then Archbishop Robert Runcie.

    Anyway, I was working with the ITN reporter Jeremy Thompson. We had to wait ages beforehand, standing alongside the route John Paul II was due to take as he processed out of the cathedral.

    "If you stand here, Jeremy," I advised our reporter, "then you'll be well placed to do a doorstep."

    Thompson didn't agree. He treated my suggestion with disdain, in fact, and insisted on sticking to his existing place. So I decided I might as well occupy the spot which I thought was much better. And I was right.

    Pope John Paul II left the cathedral and slowly walked towards me. Just at the split-second right moment I shouted as loud as I could: "Pope John Paul, how important has today been for you?"

    It was a slightly complicated question, perhaps, and probably not the correct way to address a pope.

    But it worked.

    "Very important," he slowly replied in his deep, distinctive Polish accent. Then again.

    "Very important."

    I was jubilant. I rushed over to the rest of the ITN team.

    "He spoke to me! I've got an interview with the Pope!"

    An exaggeration, maybe, but still, I'd got four words out of him, even if two of them were repeated. It was certainly more than I ever got out of doorsteps with Gordon Brown when he was prime minister a quarter of a century later.

    So we rushed the tape back to the edit truck, and eagerly watched the material. Sure enough, my question came across loud and clear, and you could clearly see the Pope answering it.

    The trouble was that our sound recordist had been standing with Jeremy Thompson and was too far away to pick up the sound of the Pope's answer, which was nothing like as loud as my question. The editor tried all he could to boost the sound, but nothing worked.

    My 'interview' with the Pope came to nothing. My moment of glory had fizzled away.

    But the episode did emphasise a few lessons of doing doorsteps: Choose your spot carefully, speak loudly, get the timing just right, keep the question simple, avoid confrontational questions if the purpose is just to get something, or anything.

    And above all, make sure the sound is being recorded.

    Labour looks set to start picking candidates

    Michael Crick | 22:59 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    The Miliband brothers, the only contenders with a chance of becoming Labour leader, both think the party should start choosing Parliamentary candidates this autumn for the next election rather than wait for the new boundary changes, which won't be decided until 2013, more than three years from now.

    David Miliband told the TUC hustings meeting on Monday evening he thought selections should go ahead, while Ed Miliband told me afterwards that he agrees with his brother on the issue.

    I understand the decision is likely to be approved when Labour's Organisation Committee meets in October, especially when it should have the backing of the new leader, be it David or Ed Miliband.

    And Labour's likely decision on this will now undoubtedly put the two coalition parties on the spot, and cause potential embarrassment between them.

    It was previously thought that the boundary review would mean that selection processes by all parties would be delayed for three years, until parties were sure of the exact geographical area of each seat. Otherwise parties would have to go through the selection process twice.

    But Labour stategists feel that the party will be severely weakened on the ground if they don't have an individual leading the party's constituency campaigning efforts. Hence they will pick candidates for seats, even though the seats are likely to change.

    Many Labour MPs have strong misgivings about doing this as it may boost the prospects of other contenders when the new selection process starts in 2013 to reflect the new boundaries and the reduction in the total number of MPs from 650 to 600.

    Now that Labour is pressing ahead with selections, the pressure will be on the coalition parties, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to do the same.

    That will inevitably cause tensions where candidates from one coalition party have been picked to oppose a sitting MP - or minister - from the other party.

    Is contest over for Ed Balls?

    Michael Crick | 22:57 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    Ed Balls was in good form at last night's Labour leadership hustings at the TUC conference, producing a string of jokes which rather suggested that he thinks the contest is all over as far as he's concerned.

    "I asked my office," he said, "why I'd got fewer volunteers this week. And they said they'd all gone back to school."

    "Not primary school, I hope," shot back his rival Ed Miliband.

    Lord Monks and the lady with the tattooed bottom

    Michael Crick | 15:46 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    I bumped into John Monks just now - the former TUC general secretary and soon to be Lord Monks (as he was recently nominated to the Lords).

    Like me he's a big Manchester United fan, and he was telling me that he'd persuaded the United manager Sir Alex Fergusson to sign a photograph for a female friend of his in America.

    The lady concerned is such a fanatical United supporter that she even has the mapping coordinates of the Old Trafford football ground tattooed on her bottom.

    I was tempted to ask Lord Monks how he knew that.

    International development secretary at TUC

    Michael Crick | 14:35 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    Talking of Andrew Mitchell I just bumped into him at the TUC conference in Manchester. Indeed I think it must be the first time a Conservative cabinet minister has ever dared to visit the TUC.

    Though I do recall one or two more junior Conservative figures visiting TUC conferences during the latter years of the Thatcher-Major government.

    "Andrew Mitchell is very welcome here," a senior TUC official told me.

    "Because he is the only minster who is not actually cutting anything at the moment."

    Development company review after expenses reports

    Michael Crick | 13:27 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    It was shrewd move by Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, to announce a review today into the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).

    This follows a special supplement in the latest edition of Private Eye containing all sorts of allegations and revelations about the CDC's work in recent years, including huge personal expense claims which seem out of place for a body which is meant to assist development in the third world.

    It is a pity that the Daily Mail may get all the credit to this review when the Eye has been making all the running on this story for several years.

    It is a situation which seems to reflect rather badly on previous Labour international development secretaries such as Hilary Benn and Douglas Alexander.

    Indeed, Andrew Mitchell should have announced his review into the allegations surrounding CDC, as soon as he took office last May.

    Two be fair to Mitchell he did raise his considerable disquiet about CDC whilst in opposition.

    A very senior Department for International Development (DFID) source told me this morning that Mitchell has "plans" which he has been "working on".

    And, I was told, we should expect action very soon.

    "October fruition," were the words used to me.

    UKIP deputy leader takes a pop at Prince Charles

    Michael Crick | 13:09 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

    It was interesting to see one of the Diana camp taking a strong pop at Prince Charles this morning.

    The Deputy Leader of UKIP Lord Monckton of Brenchley, a well known sceptic on climate change, wrote to the Telegraph today saying of the prince:

    "If he wants to speak further on global warming, let him renounce his claim on the throne first."

    Lord Monckton's sister Rosa, was Diana's best friend.

    What happened to the Eton PM holiday?

    Michael Crick | 15:11 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

    I bumped into Lord (William) Waldegrave last night. The former Conservative Cabinet minister who is now the Provost of Eton. So, I asked, had he given the boys at Eton a full day holiday when David Cameron became prime minister? This is something I discussed on my blog last May, and is always the tradition at the college when an old Etonian becomes PM.

    Waldegrave admitted he had been badgered by some of the boys to do this, and indeed one or two of the better-informed boys reminded him that the college had been given a holiday when he, Waldegrave, was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, many years ago. Surely becoming prime minister is even more prestigious than that, the boys argued.

    But no, Eton boys went without their holiday this time, abandoning a tradition which was applied, it said, on the election of all 18 previous Etonian prime ministers.

    Waldegrave is a canny political operator and must have known that the sight of Etonians celebrating Mr Cameron's election would have done the new PM no good at all.

    However, Waldegrave says he did suggest to his opposite number at Westminster, Nick Clegg's old school, that they should have a holiday.

    Not a full day holiday though, just a half day.

    Chote gets the job

    Michael Crick | 13:56 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

    So Robert Chote got the job as head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. So the lunch he had a few weeks ago with adviser Rupert Harrison which I reported on here was obviously a great success, despite Mr Chote's appalling purple v-neck top.

    Bad news poll

    Michael Crick | 18:21 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

    Bad news for Andy Coulson, and for Scotland Yard.

    A poll by YouGov tonight shows 52% of more than 2,000 people polled think Coulson "should not keep his job" in Downing Street, compared with 24% who think he should stay.

    It's even worse for the police. Some 47% of those polled think the police did not "fully investigate" the "phone tapping affair", compared with just 14% who think they did.

    See the full poll by clicking here.

    Clegg's little gaffe in the AV debate

    Michael Crick | 21:56 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

    A small gaffe by Nick Clegg in the AV debate today. He was asked whether, as part of the government's big cull of quangos, they were planning to get rid of the Electoral Commission.

    "No we're not," the deputy prime minister replied, "at least not at present".


    Lord Strathclyde takes a break from Cabinet duties

    Michael Crick | 21:52 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

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    Whom did I spy letting his dogs Panda and Minnow water the grass on College Green, but the leader of the Lords, Lord (Tom) Strathclyde.

    He doesn't normally take the dogs out, he assured me, but his wife and family are away on holiday at the moment.

    So an important break from Cabinet duties. And the grass has needed a bit of liquid refreshment.

    Unfortunately Newsnight failed to get a shot of Strathclyde a few moments later carrying a small plastic bag. It appeared to have some canine content.

    Good to know the noble lord is so public spirited.

    The AV debate

    Michael Crick | 16:36 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

    Nick Clegg having a rough time on AV bill in Commons. Lots of interruptions. Lots of Liberal Democrat ministers, but not a single Conservative Cabinet minister on the front bench, though debate very well attended overall.

    Lady Thatcher still something of a hot ticket

    Michael Crick | 15:22 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

    For those who think Margaret Thatcher is no longer involved in politics, it's worth noting that the former PM will be hosting a small drinks party for 25 of the new Tory MPs early this evening. And I'm told she plans at least two further parties for similar-sized groups.

    It was Lady Thatcher's idea, I'm told, when she learned just how many new Conservative MPs there are, and also realised just how few of them she actually knows personally.

    Margaret Thatcher still seems to be something of a hot ticket. I'm told that of the 25 Conservative MPs who were originally invited to tonight's first drink party, 24 accepted. And the single one to decline only did so because they have to attend their mother's 60th birthday party.

    An intriguing picture caption in Blair's book

    Michael Crick | 15:42 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

    I'm intrigued by a caption in the Blair book, A Journey, for the famous ice-cream photo.

    It reads: "ice creams with Gordon on the campaign trail, 2 May 2005. I insisted on getting a flake."

    It is an odd thing to say. Is it a dig at GB? Or am I reading too much into it?

    An interesting snippet about Sir Cyril Smith

    Michael Crick | 15:12 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

    An interesting snippet about Sir Cyril Smith, whose death was announced today.

    In March 1974 Cyril Smith blocked Jeremy Thorpe's plans to join a coalition with Ted Heath - interesting in itself given the events of May 2010.

    And, as my friend Tom Fairbrother points out, it means that by LOSING the Rochdale by-election (to Smith) in 1972, Labour inadvertently propelled itself back to power two years later!

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