BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for December 2010

Coalition pledge for state-funded primaries dropped

Michael Crick | 12:30 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A very senior Cabinet minister has told me that the Coalition has now scrapped its radical plans to pay for primary elections to choose party candidates in 200 safe seats.

The full Coalition Agreement last May said: "We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targetted at seats which have not changed hands for many years."

The money would have been allocated to parties which now have seats in Parliament, according to their shares of the vote in May 2010.

So the state would have paid for primaries very similar to those held by the Conservatives in Totnes and Gosport before the election, each of which cost the Tories around £40,000.

The primary plans have now been dropped on cost grounds. But there are also political motives. Some Coalition figures fear that MPs chosen through the primary process, such as Sarah Wollaston in Totnes, may have too much personal independence from the party whips.

Cameron orders Cabinet to join Oldham campaign

Michael Crick | 21:30 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

David Cameron has told every Conservative member of the Cabinet to campaign in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, a very senior Tory source told me tonight.

The prime minister - very unusually for a PM - has already confirmed he plans personally to campaign for the Conservative candidate in the by-election, and it is thought he will do so in the New Year.

But the Conservatives have faced wide suspicions that they are deliberately soft-pedalling on the by-election so as not to embarrass the Liberal Democrats.

But the prime minister's orders to his Cabinet colleagues to join him in Lancashire may allay the fears of Tory activists that their candidate is not getting proper support from the party high command.

Tony Howard

Michael Crick | 11:25 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

The death of Tony Howard is especially sad news for Newsnight.

In the 1990s, when Tim Gardam and Peter Horrocks were our editors, he was a very regular contributor to the programme. His film reports and studio analysis added a great historical perspective to the events of the time.

"What happened today reminds me of the Labour Party conference in 1963, when Harold Wilson told Richard Crossman ..." he would say with great authority.

Tony had an extraordinary memory for detail and anecdote, and for drawing historical parallels, and his contributions did a lot to spice up Newsnight's political output.

Like many journalists and writers, I owe a lot to Tony personally. He was editor of the New Statesman in the 1970s when I started subscribing to it as a schoolboy. It was a great magazine in those days, highly readable and vital to anyone interested in politics.

Tony developed a highly talented young team around him, both political and literary - encouraging and nurturing superb writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and James Fenton.

In the same spirit, Tony started a student column in the Statesman in 1976, soliciting contributions from the universities. So I immediately submitted what turned out to be my first ever article in the national press, though in truth it was radically rewritten by Patrick Wintour, another of Tony's young NS recruits.

Years later, in 1992, when Tim Gardam appointed me to the Newsnight reporting team, it was partly on Tony's recommendation.

Tony loved being in the company of young people, enthusing them with his wisdom and experience, encouraging and helping them to get into journalism and politics.

Presidents of the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, and university political clubs, could always rely on him to accept their invitations to speak. When I invited him to the Oxford Union in 1979 there was a mix-up over which side of the motion he was speaking on, but he happily proposed the opposite argument to that which he believed.

And later we sat up late in the steward's house at the Union talking politics. Indeed, I think he was the first Union guest to stay overnight on the premises.

One of Tony's most successful proteges was the novelist Robert Harris, who invited him to Cambridge as president of both the University Fabian Society, and then of the Union.

Less than a decade later, when Howard was deputy editor of The Observer, he got Harris appointed as the paper's political editor.

But Tony's career never quite reached the journalistic heights which he deserved. He would have been a brilliant editor of a national newspaper. But the opportunity never came.

Few Fleet Street chairs are available for serious men of the Left, and the two obvious papers for Tony - The Guardian and the Observer - tended to keep their editors in place for many years.

He had to content himself with running the New Statesman, and later the Listener, and then his deputy role on the Observer.

Still, it left Tony with more time for his articles, columns and book reviews, his many radio and TV broadcasts, and for his own books, which included biographies of RAB Butler, Richard Crossman and Basil Hume.

He also helped Michael Heseltine with his memoirs, Life in the Jungle.

I will miss him. So will his many Newsnight colleagues over the years.

The best route to high office in British politics?

Michael Crick | 17:51 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

Eric Pickles is a rare example of a local government leader to have reached the top in Westminster politics, and the first in a Conservative Cabinet in modern times.

Pickles led Bradford City Council in the 1980s, as a revolutionary Thatcherite who tried to show local government could be run very differently from the policies of the Labour Left.

The only three other Cabinet ministers I can recall who were council leaders were Herbert Morrision, David Blunkett and Geoffrey Rippon. There must surely be others, but I can't think of them right now.

There are several substantial council leaders in contrast, who have failed to make much impact at Westminster.

Jon Trickett, Graham Stringer, Louise Ellman, George Mudie, Clive Betts, Bob Laxton, James Plaskitt, Peter Soulsby, Alan Whitehead, and Ken Livingstone are all examples of Labour MPs who previously ran major councils but never did much (or anything) as ministers.

Margaret Hodge, the former Islington leader, spent most of the Blair-Brown years as a minister, but still never made Cabinet.

Again on the Conservative side Christopher Chope and Paul Beresford never managed to transfer their council leadership into Cabinet office.

Where senior politicians have served as councillors - such as John Major, Vince Cable, John Redwood and Peter Mandelson - their local government service has generally been pretty brief.

The message seems to be that if you want high office in British politics being a ministerial special adviser is by far the better route - as David Cameron, both Milibands, Ed Balls, Jack Straw, George Osborne, and Vince Cable (again) all show.

Names in the frame for Oldham East and Saddleworth

Michael Crick | 14:54 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

Labour is due to select its candidate for the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election this Sunday.

The favourite seems to be Afsal Khan, a former Lord Mayor of Manchester. His daughter fought Bury North in May (and might also have been a contender in Oldham, but the Khan family seem more disciplined than the Milibands).

Some will argue that an Asian candidate will help Labour counter charges that Phil Woolas's campaign in May was racist by deliberately raising fears amongst white voters.

Another contender, I'm told, is an Anglican vicar, Gwenda Manco, from Rochdale, who is 56. Her supporters say she's untainted because she's never fought an election before.

Stories from the vote

Michael Crick | 18:16 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

A prominent Labour MP claims he heard a Tory whip shouting "kettling of Lib Dem MPs this way". Not the best way to make friends, perhaps.

And the Lib Dem MP for Argyll and Bute apparently put his head into the Labour lobby several times, then went away again several times, and kept coming back before finally, at the third or fourth look, voted with Labour.

Tuition fees have become a vehicle for 'coal-sceptics'

Michael Crick | 12:05 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

We need a new word to describe Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who have misgivings and doubts about the coalition.

Let's call them "Coal-sceptics" for the time being, but that's not quite right.

Today's votes on tuition fees will see a strange alliance of such people - MPs on the Lib Dem left, and on the Conservative right, but also other Coal-sceptics too.

Peter Bone's remarks last night are fascinating. He's the right-wing Conservative MP who looks like Sven Goran Eriksson, and who says he's thinking of rebelling:

"This isn't about coalition fees. It is about politicians saying one thing to get elected and a different thing when they are in government... I am a Conservative, I am not a coalitionist."

The tuition fees vote has become something of a vehicle for those in both parties who don't like the Coalition, or who don't like Cameron and Clegg.

Hence the presence of David Davis and Philip Davies in the No lobby tonight. And Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, who had doubts about the coalition.

It's also about other issues - general backbench dissatisfaction with the establishment - see yesterday's 1922 committee revolt over IPSA - and also about the new generation of MPs more aggressively asserting their rights over the executive.

More than half the potential Tory rebels tonight were first elected in May.

We are witnessing strange developments here. But can anyone come up with a better term than "Coal-sceptic"?

My ex-wife Margaret suggests: "Scoaleptics" Pronounced skoa-leptics. Or how about "Co-phobes"?

How the tuition fee rebellion stacks up

Michael Crick | 20:08 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The government does seem to be surprisingly edgy about tomorrow night's vote, even though the figures still suggest the Coalition should win quite easily.

"I went to see David Willetts about one or two minor reservations I have," one Tory MP told me, "and the whips were all round me like flies." I couldn't believe it, and I support the policy."

As well as the pubicly declared Tory No votes and abstainers, I know of at least two women Tory MPs who are thinking of abstaining, and are talking to ministers and whips tonight about assurances. There are several other names of possible Tory rebels/abstainers which I still have to check. Mark Reckless and Jason McCartney are both among those mentioned, and who have yet to respond to my text messages. "I'm amazed at one or two of the names I've heard," one former Conservative minister told me.

My list of Tories who won't vote for the policy, or who will or may abstain, has now reached a dozen. A Tory friend tells me he knows of at least three others. Of course several of those will be brought onside over the next 24 hours.

Meanwhile Vince Cable was being grilled by MPs and peers at a meeting of the Parliamentary universities group tonight. They were partoicularly concerned about an imminnt report from a Cambridge academeic which will reveal that most universities plan to charge the maximum 9,000 fee. It's becoming known, I'm told, as "the race to the top".

A sudden eruption of outrage at 1922 committee

Michael Crick | 18:36 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

There was a sudden eruption of outrage at a meeting of the Conservative 1922 committee this afternoon over the new MPs body, Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

The subject wasn't even on the agenda, but MPs started expressing their anger almost spontaneously.

Their fire was directed at the leader of the House Sir George Young, from MPs complaining that they are losing thousands of pounds, many of them from the 2010 intake.

"The place suddenly went mad," one MP told me.

Among the two dozen or so who voiced their anger were Adam Afriyie and Nadine Dorries.

The talk of Westminster this afternoon

Michael Crick | 18:28 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The talk of Westminster this afternoon was not tomorrow's vote on tuition fees, but the sight of Ed Balls at a children's party dressed as Father Christmas.

"There he was ringing his bell," one Labour MP told me, "it was frightening."

And the children, I'm told, were expecting lots of expensive goodies from Mr Balls.

Who will rebel on tuition fees tomorrow?

Michael Crick | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

First an apology. It seems I got it wrong about Lee Scott. I seem to have misunderstood or misheard what a Newsnight colleague told me, and he may indeed rebel on tuition fees tomorrow.

If so, it will be quite a move as he is PPS to Philip Hammond. Four other known Tory rebels are David Davis, Philip Davies, Julian Lewis and Andrew Percy.

And it's still unclear how Bob Blackman, who, like Scott, also signed the NUS pledge, will vote.

So we could see as many as six Tory rebels, may be more, though still not enough to worry the whips.

What's most interesting is the politics of these rebels. David Davis, Philip Davies and Julian Lewis are all distinctly on the Right, though in different ways.

Whereas among the Lib Dems it's mainly the more left-wing MPs who are unhappy. Which rather suggests the discontent reflects wider factors too.

Ben Wallace's tuition fees pledge

Michael Crick | 11:56 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Ahead of a Commons vote tomorrow on the government's controversial plans to increase tuition fees, and following my blog yesterday with photographs of the Tory MP Ben Wallace which appear to show him holding a copy of the NUS pledge on tuition fees, I have been sent this better picture of Ben Wallace holding the pledge which does indeed suggest that he amended it, as he says:

I've also been sent the following email exchange between Robbie Pickles, Union President of Lancaster University Students' Union and Ben Wallace.

From: LUSU President
Sent: 06 December 2010 12:29
Subject: NUS Pledge

Dear Ben,

The NUS have been in touch with me to confirm that you signed the NUS pledge to oppose "any rise in fees under the current system". I wanted to let you know that we have confirmed that you did indeed sign this pledge, with the caveat above, and that as far as we at Lancaster are concerned this pledge still stands.

This pledge was not connected with Conservative party policy, with any particular constituency or with any specific agenda. It was a personal pledge from you that you would oppose this.

As the tuition fees vote comes ahead of any proposed changes to Higher Education this is indeed a rise under the current system. There is no possible counter argument to this and should you attempt to pretend this is not so we will be certain to hold you to account. I am sure the local/national press would be very eager to hear why you feel that this pledge no longer applies...

I look forward to seeing you voting against a rise in fees on Thursday as promised.

- - - - - - - - -
Robbie Pickles
LUSU President

From: WALLACE, Ben
Sent: 08 December 2010 11:43
To: 'LUSU President'
Subject: NUS Pledge - reply Ben Wallace MP

Dear Robbie,

Thank you for your email and thank you for confirming I did not sign the NUS pledge. I did indeed pledge to oppose the fee rises under the current system but Lord Browne's report proposes many of the changes I campaigned for, - more support for students from poorer backgrounds, a proper Graduate starting salary before paying money back, and a duty on universities to provide much more information to students about what they get for their money and the likelihood of graduate employment in their chosen sectors. I also see that the Coalition Government has added a new £150 million national scholarships program which could offer a free first year for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

As you will know the regulations being put to the House on Thursday are not for now but for the future year 2012/2013. The Government by then will have implemented the legislative changes Browne proposes. So when the fees come in to force the new system will be in place. It matters not which order the two legislative instruments come to the House.

I met with the NUS leadership on the day of publication of the Browne report and they were fully aware of my position. Perhaps it does not suit the NUS agenda to let facts get in the way of a campaign? Labour started the tuition fees policy and whatever we may wish for that massive expansion of HE, often at expense of quality, means we have to try and reform the current system. Work still needs to be done but Lord Browne's new system goes some way,

I spoke with predecessor this morning who was present at the signing it may be worth you speaking to him,

Ben Wallace MP
Member for Wyre & Preston North

Putting us in the picture over tuition stance

Michael Crick | 19:14 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Following my blog about the Tory MP Ben Wallace denying that he signed the NUS pledge on tuition fees, I have been sent these photographs of Mr Wallace holding a copy of the pledge, with what looks like his signature.

Mr Wallace told me tonight:

"Look at the detail. It is amended and says: "under current system". The Browne report changes all that. Lancaster Uni confirm I did not sign the NUS pledge, but an amended system."

"I didn't like the old system because 15,000 was too low a threshold; poor student support was rubbish; and universities didn't provide enough information on what students get for their cash. Browne answers all that. I want more done to encourage science, but it will do for now."

Will more Tories join tuition fees rebellion?

Michael Crick | 12:30 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Will other Tories join David Davis in rebelling against the rise in tuition fees?

One Conservative MP has told me they are "thinking" about which way to vote on Thursday, and will consider the various concessions that are being offered.

The NUS has high hopes that other Tories might join Davis, and they claim four Conservative MPs signed the famous NUS pledge.

One of them, Lee Scott, told Newsnight yesterday that he will back the government.

Another, Ken Clarke's PPS Ben Wallace, has denied to me that he ever signed the NUS pledge (as they claim he did).

The NUS also hopes for support from Justin Tomlinson, who was active in the NUS in the late 90s, when he helped campaign against the introduction of tuition fees.

But Tomlinson told me last night that he, too, would back the government this week.

Lib Dems fund party with 10% levy on ministerial pay

Michael Crick | 10:14 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Nick Clegg and his 19 fellow Liberal Democrat ministers are giving around 10% of their ministerial salaries to the party.

I was the first to report - here last May - that the Liberal Democrats were fighting to keep Short money, the state funds given to opposition parties, which was worth around £1.75m a year until the Lib Dems joined the Coalition government.

The Lib Dems lost that fight, which meant the party had to make more than 20 staff redundant, though many of them got jobs in government.

Instead the Lib Dems have found a clever way of exploiting their new government status to make up some of the lost income - what's effectively a tithe on their new incomes.

"We are asked [to do it] rather than have to," one minister tells me. "Much like councillors in local authorities who are usually asked to pay something to the party if they get an extra allowance."

Indeed Lib Dem councillors and MPs have been paying a 10% tithe to the party for years (and in Harrogate one councillor lost the whip and was deselected for refusing to pay it).

So how much is this new source of income worth?

Cabinet ministers get almost £80,000 extra on top of their pay as MPs. Ministers of state get £41,000 more; and under-secretaries an extra £31,000.

So the 20 Lib Dem ministers collectively earn about £900,000 a year on top of their Commons salaries (or allowances as peers).

Ten per cent of that would be about £90,000 a year, diverted from their individual incomes to the benefit of the Liberal Democrat HQ in Cowley Street.

It's nothing like what they used to get from Short money, of course. But still, it's a start.

Merely a gaffe, not a spoonerism

Michael Crick | 10:08 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

As a former student of New College Oxford I must correct the claim that what Jim Naughtie famously said about Jeremy Hunt on Today yesterday morning was a Spoonerism.

It wasn't.

The Rev William Spooner, who was Warden of New College in the early 20th Century, had a habit of transposing the initial letters of certain words, and thereby developed what became known as Spoonerisms.

One of his most famous examples was his speech on expelling an undergraduate:

"You have hissed all my mystery lectures,
You have tasted three whole worms,
You must return to London by the next town drain."

Jim Naughtie, in contrast, merely replaced the 'H' in 'Hunt', with the letter 'C'.

That would only have been a Spoonerism if he had put the 'H' instead of a 'C' at the start of another word nearby - for example if he had called Mr Hunt the 'Hulture Secretary'.

But he didn't.

So it was merely a gaffe.

And potentially a Freudian slip.

Lack of Lib Dem rancour calls to mind a previous 'rancour'

Michael Crick | 17:54 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

There's been much talk today about the lack of "rancour" as Liberal Democrats agonise amongst themselves over how to vote in Thursday's Commons decision on tuition fees.

I can't help wondering if the ghost of Roy Jenkins has appeared?

Lord Jenkins, a former Lib Dem leader in the Lords, and before that leader of the SDP, and a Labour Cabinet minister, had a famous difficulty in not being able to pronounce the letter "R". It often came out as a "W".

In 1976, Jenkins resigned from Parliament to become President of the European Commission, and his Labour colleague David Marquand also resigned his seat to help Jenkins in Brussels.

Jenkins addressed his fellow Labour MPs and tried to tell them he was leaving "without rancour".

Only because of his speech impediment, it didn't quite come out like that. Whereupon, Dennis Skinner shouted out to great laughter: "I though you were taking Marquand with you!"

Lib Dem by-election timetable

Michael Crick | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

Lib Dems reckon earliest possible by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth would be 13 January 2011.

Healey stands by his friend Woolas

Michael Crick | 11:53 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

John Healey tells me he is with Phil Woolas at today's appeal judgement as a "friend" not as a shadow Cabinet member.

A missed opportunity for R&R

Michael Crick | 21:00 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

To a seminar tonight for the launch of Anthony Seldon's latest prime ministerial book "Brown At Ten".

His co-author Guy Lodge told us of Gordon Brown's "best-ever joke", on the flight to Belfast to announce a deal on the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mindful of Tony Blair's much derided remark about "soundbites" and the "hand of history", Brown suggested saying instead: "I don't feel the hand of history on my shoulders, but I do feel Peter Robinson's hand in my pocket, and Gerry Adams' hand on my balls."

Lord Robert Skidelsky in the audience revealed that he'd advised Ed Balls in 2005 that Gordon Brown should not accept a move from Chancellor to the Foreign Office (as was widely suggested at the time), but instead go to the backbenches for while to think and recharge his batteries in preparation for assuming the leadership.

Ed Balls, says Lord Skidelsky, agreed with this advice. In the end of course, Brown stayed at the Treasury, and it would have been much harder from him to resign from there and become an ordinary MP again.

How Brown's premiership might have been so much more successful had he preceded it with a year or two of rest and reflection.

'No change' on Human Rights Act

Michael Crick | 20:44 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A spokeswoman for David Cameron told me tonight: "There is not a coalition change in position on the Human Rights Act. David was expressing his view which is long-standing."

Another possible fault line in the Coalition?

Michael Crick | 16:40 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Unnoticed perhaps, amidst all the hullaballoo over Ed Miliband's poor performance at Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron exposed another possible fault line in the Coalition.

The new Conservative MP Pritti Patel asked Cameron about the controversial Human Rights Act, passed by the last Labour government in 1998 to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into English law.

Cameron told MPs today:

"What we should be doing is replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. I've looked at this personally, long and hard, and think that there is no better solution than that and that is... we are committed to starting a process to look at that and see if we can remove some of the nonsenses that have grown up over recent years, and show that you can have a commitment to proper rights but they should be written down here in this country."

That's in line with Conservative policy at the last election.

And it won't please Lib Dems.

At the internal Lib Dem meeting which agreed the Coalition in May, both the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne and the Justice Minister Lord Tom McNally are reported to have threatened to agree to resign if the Human Rights Act is scrapped.

McNally told the Lords two months ago that if the act went then so would he.

Changes soon in Ed Miliband's staff

Michael Crick | 14:59 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Expect changes soon in Ed Miliband's staff. His press spokesman Katie Myler is leaving a week before Christmas to take up a senior job with the corporate PR firm Burson Marsteller, and Miliband is urgently considering her replacement.

Candidates include at least one Westminster journalist.

The Labour leader had better get a move on.

And I'm told there will soon be a new Labour Party Director of Communications, and also a possible third role, operating within the hierarchy between Miliband's spokesman and the communications chief.

On top of that, Ed Miliband will soon be appointing several policy specialists.

To work on the blank pages, no doubt.

Cameron wipes floor with Miliband at PMQs

Michael Crick | 14:56 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

David Cameron's quick trip back from Zurich was well worth it. He wiped the floor with Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions, absolutely hammered him.

It was a huge mistake for Miliband to taunt Cameron with a William Hague quote about the Tories front bench being the "children of Thatcher", for Cameron inevitably retorted that Miliband was the "son of Brown".

That had government MPs in rapture, and dismayed members on the Labour benches.

Why instead didn't Miliband raise the Wikileaks remarks from Mervyn King about Cameron and Osborne's lack of experience and tendency to think of things only in terms of politics?

One thing Ed Miliband needs to learn is to stop repeating so many of his phrases, and sub-clauses. I imagine he does it to make himself heard above the noise, and to add emphasis, but it makes him look hesitant, nervous, indecisive and weak.

But one piece of advice for Cameron. He should avoid looking a touch too cocky when he has the upper hand.

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