BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for March 2011

Will any Tory MPs Back AV?

Michael Crick | 17:14 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

It's a question I've been asking for months now. Are there any prominent Conservatives who will vote for the Alternative Vote in the referendum? Probably. But will they dare to admit they are doing so?

Of senior ministers, Michael Gove is thought to be a possible Yes voter, but he has yet to commit himself publicly. And I have twice asked the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley how he will vote, and twice he wouldn't say. So two possible Yeses there.

David Mowat, the MP for Warrington South, tells me that he's an "agnostic" on the matter. He has yet to make up his mind, he says, and is not committed to First-Past-The-Post in the way most of his colleagues are. "I think the existing system tends to benefit the Labour Party," he told me today.

Mowat has a majority of 1,553 over Labour in Warrington, and recently said of his situation locally: "If we did have AV and we put Lib Dems second and they put us second, it would be very likely to give us a better result than we might achieve under first-past-the post. There could be a squeeze effect on Labour."

Sounds like a Yes voter to me.

Does the AV outcome depend on other Miliband engagement?

Michael Crick | 12:24 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Ed Miliband has finally decided to get married to his long-standing partner, but the future of British politics may depend on the Labour leader showing a lot more personal commitment in a very different, but equally symbolic way.

A senior member of the No to AV campaign has told me the referendum result could well depend on whether Ed Miliband "engages" with the issue, and gets actively and very obviously involved in supporting the Yes campaign. If Miliband's backing remains lukewarm, my No source claimed, then they are confident AV will be scuppered.

The No thinking is that if Miliband becomes very publicly associated with the pro-AV campaign, with lots of speeches, events and broadcast interviews, then it will give the green light for Labour supporters to vote Yes. Right now Labour voters are getting very mixed signals from Labour MPs, and the unions - and indeed overall those signals (especially the unions) are recommending they should vote No.

True, Miliband attended yesterday's Yes 2 AV event in London, alongside the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and the Green leader Caroline Lucas. But he made it clear at yesterday's event - as he has before - that most of his focus over the coming five weeks will be on the local elections, not the AV referendum. One of Miliband's senior aides has told me he "might" do "one more" AV event before polling day.

"Might"? "One more"? It's hardly the vigorous engagement that the No campaign fears.

Both the No and Yes camapigns think the Noes have a slight edge at the moment. And ironically both think that a low turnout will help the Yes campaign, as polls suggest that pro-AV people are much more determined to vote in the referendum. The higher the turnout then the more the hardline electoral reformers will have their votes countered by opponents and sceptics.

This is ironic because Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems fought ferociously for the referendum to be held on 5 May in order to boost the Yes vote with high turnouts in Scotland and Wales. Based on past turnout figures on election day we can expect a turnout of more than 60 per cent in Northern Ireland, over 50 per cent in Scotland, Wales in the 45-50 per cent area, and most of England where local elections are taking place may have a turnout in the late 30s. But both pro and anti AV campaigns think that the turnout in London, where there are no local elections, could be under 20 per cent.

If the AV result is close then we could see quite a post-result squabble over whether the result might have gone differently if there had been more equal turnouts.

Everyone agrees there's still everything to play for, simply because most voters don't even seem to be aware there is a referendum, let alone know how they'll vote.

The Electoral Commission booklets explaining AV to people, in a strictly neutral manner, should start dropping on the nation's 30 million or so doormats early next week.

Balls Up over Labour document

Michael Crick | 14:18 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Peter Hain has published a document today suggesting ways in which the Labour Party might beef up its structure.

His report states:"We had some great results in 2010, and deprived the Tories of an overall majority, against all the odds. What can we learn from new methods of community or political organising in places like Edgbaston, Gedling, Barking and Morely & Outwood, where Labour candidates over-performed compared with the national swing against us?"

"Over-performed compared with the national swing"?

In Edgbaston, fair enough. Gisela Stuart performed exceptionally there, with a swing against Labour of just 1.3 per cent. In Gedling, Vernon Coaker did remarkably too (suffering a swing of only 2.9%).

And Margaret Hodge hammered the BNP in Barking.

But Morley and Outwood, where Ed Balls is the MP? I think not.

Mr Balls almost lost the seat, and Labour suffered an adverse swing of 9.3 per cent, almost twice the national average of 5 per cent. Indeed, if Labour had suffered a 9.3 per cent swing across the country then David Cameron would be governing on his own right now with a handsome majority.

I wonder how Morley and Outwood crept into Mr Hain's list of over-performers? Don't get me wrong - I'm not accusing Mr Balls of adding his constituency surreptitiously.

If he had, he surely wouldn't have mis-spelt Morley!

Miliband first Labour leader in 20 years to attend Durham miners' gala

Michael Crick | 16:23 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

Ed Miliband, who will speak tomorrow at the TUC's big anti-cuts rally in London, has also accepted an invitation to speak at this year's Durham Miners' Gala (on 9 July).

He'll be the first Labour leader in more than 20 years to speak at the Durham gala, which was once one of the great events in the Labour movement calendar. Even though the Durham coalfield no longer contains any pits, the event still attracts tens of thousands of people to the centre of Durham on the second Saturday in every July.

The city's narrow streets are full of brass bands, miners' union banners, and Durham families enjoying a good day out. In the middle of the afternoon the National Union of Miners (NUM) and political leaders speak at a rally on the Durham Racecourse ground, known as the "big meeting".

The last Labour Party leader to address the Durham miners' annual summer event was Neil Kinnock in 1989. Before then every leader in Labour Party history had attended, either as leader (and PM in Attlee and Wilson's cases), or before they became leader.

And it was politically important that they went, for the Durham miners were once a major force in the land, and especially within Labour politics.

But Tony Blair managed to avoid speaking at the gala during the whole of his 13 years as leader, even though he was MP for a Durham mining seat, had once lived and gone to school in Durham, and regularly used to attend before he became Labour leader. Indeed Blair once described the gala as the "salt of the earth of the Labour movement".

But once he became leader Mr Blair seemed to decide it was too "Old Labour", and not the kind of event with which he wished to be associated. The first year Mr Blair declined to attend, 1995, he was instead preparing to go and visit Rupert Murdoch in Hayman Island in Australia.

The following year, 1996, he and his family used the gala weekend to visit the grand prix at Silverstone as guests of Bernie Ecclestone, who subsequently became a big Labour donor. The symbolism is wonderful!

Durham gala organisers used to invite Tony Blair every year, though with a growing sense of futility. Towards the end of Mr Blair's premiership, they say, he simply stopped bothering to reply to their invitations.

Nor did Gordon Brown ever speak at the gala.

So Ed Miliband looks set to revive an old Labour tradition, though his critics will no doubt say - as with tomorrow's TUC rally - that this shows he's too close to the trade unions, who got him elected Labour leader in the first place.

UPDATE at 1750 GMT:

My old friend Tom Fairbrother pointed out a "logical inconsistency" in an earlier version of this blog. I had mixed up "attending" the gala with actually speaking at it, and so have amended it accordingly.

Pro-Labour residents flock to Miliband's Q&A session

Michael Crick | 14:37 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

Ed Miliband's Question and Answer session in Nottingham this afternoon is meant to be with "local residents".

Labour seems to be up to its old tricks when it comes to such gatherings. No doubt the audience is made up of local residents, but they seem to be pretty pro-Labour local residents, judging from the first six questions.

One was from a CWU activist, another from a former councillor called Len, who admitted he'd actually been christened Lenin, and that his parents had called his brother Stalin.

Tories exploit Clegg's unpopularity to fight AV

Michael Crick | 11:01 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Conservative MP Charles Walker has given me a sneak preview of the design for a leaflet which his local party will shortly be distributing in his Broxbourne constituency in Hertfordshire.

It's always an interesting test of how much a party leader is an asset - either to his own side, or to their opponents - to see how much they feature in campaign literature of one side or the other.

Mr Walker claims to have chosen a pretty neutral picture of the Lib Dem leader, in comparison with many of the very unflattering pictures of Mr Clegg that were offered to him by the No to AV campaign.

But Broxbourne Tories are clearly exploiting Nick Clegg's unpopular image at the moment to boost the "No" vote. That won't do much good for coalition harmony.

And I imagine that as the AV contest hots up many of his Conservative parliamentary colleagues will be tempted to go a lot further, using the referendum to make public their views not just on AV, but on Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems, and the whole coalition project.

Nick Clegg can hardly complain, though, about such tactics. For years Lib Dem leaflets used to include a pretty unflattering picture of Tony Blair and George W Bush.

Government keeps MPs in the loop on Libya

Michael Crick | 17:36 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The government seems to be leaning over backwards to keep MPs informed on events in Libya.

Not only is Foreign Secretary William Hague likely to make another statement to the Commons tomorrow, but there could also be another debate on Monday, only seven days after the previous debate.

PM takes a swipe at Ipsa

Michael Crick | 17:18 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

It was interesting to see David Cameron today took another swipe at the MPs' expenses body Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) during Prime Minister's Questions.

The Croydon MP Gavin Barwell had asked him about the idea of moving a few government bodies to Croydon, which is only 15 minutes from central London by train, and rateable values are 60% lower.

A good place to move Ipsa, Mr Cameron joked.

Not good news for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which looks after MPs' expense claims, and is exceedingly unpopular with members on all sides.

There was an element of Mr Cameron currying favour with his backbenchers, of course. More seriously, the PM warned Ipsa a few months ago that they had until April to put their house in order. April is nearly upon us.

I have also been told that the Commons Public Accounts Committee is considering an enquiry into whether Ipsa gives the taxpayer value for money.

A chance for MPs to torment their perceived tormentors. That would be fun.

A packed Parliamentary Labour Party meeting on Libya

Michael Crick | 15:37 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

It seems to have been an interesting meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party this lunchtime to discuss Libya. Packed, I'm told.

To the surprise of many people, the Islington MP Emily Thornberry came out strongly against military action. On the other hand the veteran left-winger Michael Meacher was strongly in favour.

One of the most powerful speeches came from another veteran, Gerald Kaufman, who compared the situation to 1982 and the Falklands War, when unlike now, he said, Labour was "all over the place".

That, said Kaufman, to great laughter, was one of the "many reasons" why Labour lost the 1983 election.

Historic moment for the AV campaign

Michael Crick | 11:33 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

A historic ceremony will take place here at BBC Millbank in a few minutes time, in the office of the corporation's chief adviser on politics.

In the presence of representatives of the Yes and No organisations, and other broadcasters, Mr Bailey will toss a coin to decide which side gets the first TV broadcast in the campaign.


And the outcome is the following TV broadcasts on the following days:

Monday 11 April NO
Tuesday 12 April YES

Monday 2 May NO
Tuesday 3 May YES

Likelihood of TV debates at next election grows

Michael Crick | 13:15 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

The prospect of TV debates being repeated at the next general election has been given a big boost by the decision by the Welsh Assembly to ask the Westminster government to postpone the Welsh Assembly elections, due in May 2015, until May 2016 instead. This follows a similar decision by the Scottish Parliament earlier this month.

The decisions have been welcomed in Whitehall, and effectively mean that voters in the Scottish and Welsh election this coming May will know they are electing people for five years and not just four.

With the Coalition government's decision to fix the date of the next general election on 4 May 2015, there was the prospect that the 2015 elections for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies would fall on the same day as the next Westminster elections. That would have made it far harder to stage national TV debates without the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, and opened the debates to serious legal challenge from the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

Nonetheless, TV debates must be in serious doubt for the 2015 election if the Coalition survives until then. Ed Miliband would surely argue it would be unfair for him to be pitted against both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and that David Cameron and Nick Clegg would gang up against him.

And I can't think of an obvious way to resolve that problem.

Contrasting roles of Whitehall's most powerful mandarins

Michael Crick | 16:15 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government has done an interesting analysis of the different ways in which the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, and his colleague, Jeremy Heywood, the Permanent Secretary in Number 10 Downing Street, spend their time.

This is based on official diaries of the two men's activities from the last three months of 2010.

Sir Gus is not involved in the specifics of government policy that much, Rutter concludes, but in "representational activities", in his dual role both as Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, both in and out of government.

"But if you want to talk policy specifics," says Rutter, "you come to see Jeremy Heywood. Jeremy spends no time at all on representational roles, does no external speaking and does barely any official socialising.

But he is in frequent discussion on both general policy issues and on policy specifics."

Clegg caves in on Kennedy sharing platform with Miliband

Michael Crick | 15:16 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Nick Clegg has changed his mind and will now allow his predecessor as Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, to share a platform with Ed Miliband in promoting a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum.

The Yes to AV campaign had originally planned to hold a cross-party rally yesterday, involving both Ed Miliband and the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

But Yes to AV organisers refused to allow Nick Clegg to join the platform, even if, as he suggested, he simply spoke early on and then left the event. When Clegg learned of this rebuff he then refused to allow Charles Kennedy to join the event, as had originally been planned.

The Yes to AV campaign calculated that Nick Clegg is now so unpopular that he would no longer be an asset to their cause.

Charles Kennedy, in contrast, is perceived to be a relatively popular figure. Kennedy has made no secret of his doubts about the Coalition, and voted against the government over the rise in university tuition fees.

Nick Clegg has now backed down and allowed Kennedy to take part in the cross-party event, which has been rescheduled for 29 March 2011.

Update at 17:30:

One of Nick Clegg's senior aides has contacted me to say "it's not true that we stopped Charles attending. And it was Miliband who said no to the deputy prime minister, not the 'Yes' campaign."

Assessing the mood of the Liberal Democrats

Michael Crick | 15:48 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

The Liberal Democrats are holding their so-called spring conference in Sheffield today, and I would have loved to have been there.

My colleague Iain Watson will be reporting from Sheffield tonight. (I was originally going to the European Council in Brussels, but then Newsnight decided not to send me to that either.)

The conference will be a good chance to assess the mood of the Lib Dems as they meet only a dozen miles or so from their disastrous sixth place in the by-election in Barnsley Central last week.

I suspect, however, that the unhappiness will largely be confined below the surface this weekend - experienced activists know that any sense of party disunity is the best way to lose even more votes.

But if the Lib Dems do badly in the various elections in May, and lose the AV referendum too, it may be impossible to contain the discontent.

But one of the things the Coalition has going for it is the lack of potential rebel leaders. This applies equally to the Conservative right as it does to the Lib Dem left.

Nick Clegg is fortunate in how few heavyweight dissidents he faces amongst his own MPs these days.

Bob Russell and Mike Hancock, serial rebels who once shared a flat, are not regarded as heavyweight figures.

And one of the curious upsides to last May's disappointing general election result, when the Lib Dems lost seven seats, is that the casualties included several independently-minded MPs who might have become formidable critics of the Coalition, notably Paul Holmes (Chesterfield), Sandra Gidley (Romsey), Evan Harris (Oxford East) and arguably Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire).

The most impressive left-wing figure among Lib Dem MPs in this Parliament is the new party president, Tim Farron.

I remember interviewing Farron on Kendal High Street on the day he was first elected in 2005, and wondering why the party couldn't have found a better candidate, thinking Farron should never have been promoted beyond local government.

He has grown hugely in stature since then, boosting his majority in Westmoreland and Lonsdale from a precarious 267 to a whopping 12,264. He is rapidly become the darling of the party conference, an excellent speaker with a superb collection of jokes. And, over the last ten months, Farron has acted very carefully, rationing his criticism of Coalition policy to the big issues.

Ministerial resignations might provide other rebel leaders, and here the most worrying contenders for Clegg would be Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. Huhne's radical credentials are questionable, though I suspect the man who has contested the leadership twice during just six years in Parliament remains as ambitious as ever.

The other man to keep a close eye on is Charles Kennedy. Nobody really knows if he has overcome his drink problem (and alcoholism is never really cured), but he has long made clear his distaste for the Coalition. Kennedy remains very popular in the party at large, but been has careful not to voice his doubts very much since last May.

Some at Westminster believe that Nick Clegg will not be Lib Dem leader at the time of the next election, due in May 2015. A face-saving exit for Clegg would be Britain's European commissionership (currently held by Cathy Ashton), which becomes vacant again at the start of 2015.

It would enable Clegg to avoid the embarrassment of losing his seat in Sheffield (which has a heavy student population), and allow his party to make a fresh start with a new face, perhaps one untainted by personal involvement in the Coalition.

And I had to guess, I'd say the best bet for that fresh face would be Tim Farron.

Low by-election spend costs Lib Dems votes

Michael Crick | 15:45 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

I have just been told that the original budget for the Liberal Democrat campaign in the Barnsley Central by-election was just £5,000.

And there's no evidence it went much above that sum. It compares with a legal by-election limit of £100,000, and the £93,000 which the Lib Dems spent in Oldham East and Saddleworth. No wonder the Lib Dems came sixth.

I'll get the exact spending figures for Barnsley Central when they're received and published by the returning officer in a few weeks time.

Why Chris Patten got the BBC job

Michael Crick | 13:25 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Some interesting background on Jeremy Hunt's recent decision to pick Chris Patten as his preferred candidate to be the next chairman of the BBC Trust.

Hunt actually told the Culture Select Committee some months ago that he would prefer the next chairman to come from a non-party background. As a former Chairman of the Conservative Party, Patten doesn't exactly fit that description. But I'm told that after Hunt's statement to the Commons committee the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson told the Culture Secretary that the BBC would actually prefer someone from the same party as the government, on the grounds that such individuals tend to try and show their independence of their political colleagues.

That's partly why Patten got the job. Hunt felt that the other leading contender, Richard Lambert, would have been a Michael Lyons Mark II. Patten might lack experience when it comes to new technology, but the Culture Secretary felt that somebody who had stood up to Margaret Thatcher in the '80s, and to the Chinese government in the '90s, would be good at protecting the corporation's interests.

Play will reveal life at the Blair court

Michael Crick | 11:49 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I hear that the writer and journalist Sarah Helm, who is married to Tony Blair's former chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell, has written a play. It is described to me as a "thinly-veiled" account of life in Blair's court.

It is due to be performed in London later this year.

Sounds fun.

Tories count the Alternative Vote leaflets

Michael Crick | 10:12 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Conservative high command is keeping a very close tally, I'm told, of how many anti-AV leafets are ordered from Tory HQ by each local constituency association in the run-up to May's referendum.

The leaflets can be purchased at a cost of just £10 per thousand, I hear, which would work out at about £300 for a whole constituency.

A Conservative source in Downing Street source tells me:

"When our MPs in the tea room complain we're not running a good campaign, we can turn round and say: 'Hang on, your local party's only ordered 103 of our leaflets so far!'"

May by-election could be headache for Lib Dems

Michael Crick | 17:14 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

There's to be a new by-election in Leicester South, almost certainly on 5 May. The sitting Labour MP Sir Peter Soulsby is standing down to fight the election for mayor of Leicester, also to be held that day.

It will be a huge test for the Lib Dems, who won the previous by-election in the seat in 2004. Soulsby, a former leader of Leicester Council, then took the seat back for Labour in 2005. The Lib Dem MP for the seat between 2004 and 2005, Parmjit Singh Gill, is the only ethnic minority MP the Liberal Democrats have ever had.

In normal times the Lib Dems would have high hopes in the by-election. This time? Forget it. Indeed, they may struggle to come third, fourth or even fifth.

Sir Peter is, incidentally, a good example of how successful council leaders often fail at Westminster. He was overlooked for ministerial jobs by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.


Lib Dems' lack of effort in Barnsley

Michael Crick | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

An interesting observation from the editor of Liberator magazine Simon Titley, on the Liberal Democrats' performance - or lack of performance - in Barnsley Central. He has just emailed me to say:

"The Lib Dems did not put the usual mobilisation effort into the by-election campaign. Normally, when there is a by-election, Cowley Street bombards members and supporters with e-mails urging them to go and help, or donate money, or do phone canvassing from their homes. There was no such effort this time - there was not one e-mail from the party."

On the Lib Dems' slump in Barnsley Central poll

Michael Crick | 14:07 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

My colleagues in the BBC Political Research Unit have been working hard this morning, and they say that "since 1945 we can find no example of an English by-election where one of the main three parties fell as big a drop in terms of ranking as from second place to sixth place".

The Liberal Democrat candidate Dominic Carman was badly served by his party, and looked a forlorn, lonely figure when I visited Barnsley this week.

Normally a candidate will be accompanied by several helpers and an MP or two. Carman had no-one with him as he canvassed voters near the town market.

He was running his campaign from the "boot of my car", and, as we reported on Wednesday, his party didn't even have a campaign HQ. It will be interesting to see how much money they spent.

Carman's experience will hardly encourage Lib Dems to put themselves forward for other unpromising by-elections.

I imagine Lib Dem activists will also be pretty upset when they meet for their so-called spring conference next weekend - in Sheffield, only a few miles away.

On a totally different matter, Dominic Carman once wrote a brilliant biography of his father, the famous QC George Carman. He has also written a biography of the BNP leader Nick Griffin, though it has never been published.

Update at 16:20

Having said all that, I wonder whether people are getting slightly over-excited today about the Lib Dems performance, at the expense of ignoring the Conservatives' dreadful showing.

UKIP didn't just beat the Conservatives into third place, but managed to get almost 50% more votes than the Tories.

And the two right-wing parties - UKIP and the BNP - together got 46% more votes than the two Coalition parties combined.

Nick Clegg's no show in Barnsley Central

Michael Crick | 15:59 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

I'm in Barnsley Central today, on the last day of the by-election campaign. Indeed, it seems that I am the first national TV reporter to cover this contest - at least, that's what Labour and Conservative officials tell us.

That's perhaps not surprising when Labour looks set to walk it.

Both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates have been pretty much deserted by their senior colleagues. I was especially astonished to learn that Nick Clegg hasn't been here once to support his man Dominic Carman.

Yet Clegg is a South Yorkshire MP, and his seat, Sheffield Hallam, is less than 15 miles away.

The BBC's Political Research Unit has looked back as far as 2005, and certainly every Lib Dem leader since then has supported his candidate in a by-election, in most cases making several visits.

Can any reader tell me the last time any Lib Dem (or Liberal or SDP?) leader didn't go to support his candidate in a by-election?

Update at 17:23
And Charles Kennedy has just told me that he reckons he went to every by-election during his time as Liberal Democrat leader. So that takes us back at least to 1999.

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