BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for April 2011

Land of the free thwarts freedom of information

Michael Crick | 11:57 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011

President Barack Obama's decision to publish his full birth certificate, in order to thwart critics who question whether he was born in the US, is an interesting example of differences between Britain and the United States of freedom on information (FOI).

People frequently praise America as a shining example of the best of FOI, but this case shows it's not quite all it's cracked up to be.

Such a row could never have occurred in Britain because birth certificates have long been publicly available here (for a small fee) - and that was true long before the landmark Freedom of Information Act in 2000.

In America concerns about privacy often trump FOI. While researching a book some years ago, I even discovered that in California it's possible to have a secret wedding, with no public record of it having taken place.

Crazy. But true.

Will Lansley swap jobs with Hammond?

Michael Crick | 19:22 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

My understanding is that David Cameron doesn't want to do a ministerial reshuffle this spring or summer. He values continuity, and would like to leave his first big reshuffle until the spring of 2012. That would mean that every minister had been given two years to show his worth, and therefore less humiliation for those who are sacked.

The big, big problem, though, is health. Especially if Andrew Lansley has to make big changes to his reorganisation of the NHS. And if the polls still suggest the Tories are in huge trouble on the issue.

One idea being mooted among Conservative MPs today, and perhaps being considered in Downing Street, is a simple straight swap - between Lansley and the Transport Secretary Philip Hammond.

Hammond is considered a safe pair or hands, good on TV (as his should be after his numerous appearances in the past), and likely to master the technical detail and economics of NHS reorganisation. And moving Lansley to Transport would avoid humiliation for a colleague for whom David Cameron has had huge respect since they worked together in the Conservative Research Department twenty years ago.

Such a swap could be presented as part of a new, fresh approach to health.

It would also avoid the kind of extensive reshuffle which will be quite difficult in a Coalition, and which Cameron wants to avoid for now.

But would it be a good idea to out the somewhat discredited Lansley in charge of another hot potato, the High Speed Rail Link.

Another possibility for the Health Secretary is simple to replace Lansley with the Culture Secretary. "Jeremy's got very little to do these days, except swanning around at sporting and cultural events," says a senior government source. "He's made the big decisions now, on the BBC and Sky. Give him health, and then we'll really see what he's made of."

Blair and Brown almost left off Olympics VIP list

Michael Crick | 19:14 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

It's not just the royal palaces who seem to have forgotten our last two Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

If the men who ruled us for 13 years are seething about not being invited to the Royal Wedding they can console themselves with the thought that at least they are on the VIP list for next year's London Olympic Games.

Only just, mind you.

It's amazing how powerful men can so quickly be forgotten.

For I'm told that originally the bureaucrats who drew up the Olympic VIP list took the same view as palace officials, and overlooked the two former Labour PMs.

That's despite the fact that Blair flew to Singapore to help clinch the London bid in 2005, and Brown sanctioned the financial investment. And both men take a big interest in sport.

Fortunately the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt spotted that their names had been left off the VIP list, and quickly insisted that they both be added at once.

So, unlike ordinary mortals, they won't have to worry about being successful in the ballot for tickets.

Unpublished list reveals Royal Wedding guests

Michael Crick | 17:40 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

In addition to the politicians on the published list of guests for the Royal Wedding, I have learned that there are also several other politicians on the much longer unpublished list of the bride and groom's personal guests.

Two are MPs, both are Conservatives. They are Nicholas Soames a long-standing friend of Prince Charles, and Rory Stewart, a former tutor to Prince William.

And there is also the former Labour Welsh Secretary Lord (John) Morris, who was invited through being a knight of the garter.

Two other knights of the garter who are former Tory ministers, Lord Carrington and Lord (Richard) Luce, have both been invited, but I've not yet discovered if they're going.

So by my reckoning the party tally of definite attenders is 12 Conservative politicians - Cameron, Osborne, Hague, May, Clarke, Hunt, Alex Fergusson (presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament), Boris Johnson, Judith Warner (Lord Mayor of Westminster), Soames and Stewart. There's just one Lib Dem - Nick Clegg. And three Labour - Ed Miliband, Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, and Lord Morris.

At a pinch you could say it's four Labour if you include Sally Bercow, wife of the Commons Speaker (and the subject, incidentally, among Conservative MPs as to whether she will tweet "something inappropriate" from the Abbey).

Or perhaps five Labour people if you include John Bercow himself, as one senior Labour figure mischievously suggests I should.

MPs get room with a view of the royal wedding

Michael Crick | 16:20 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

If Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are feeling aggrieved over their lack of invitations to the royal wedding, they could perhaps find solace among Labour MPs at Westminster.

In particular those MPs with offices on the top floors of the new Portcullis House building overlooking Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey.

Among MPs who've invited colleagues to come and watch the proceedings as they unfold down below are the Chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee Graham Brady, and the Prime Minister's PPS Desmond Swayne.

Desmond Swayne tells me he has invited the members of the Everest dining club of MPs, which consists of members of that meagre Conservative intake of 1997, and expects about 10 of them to share his splendid birdseye view.

Calm down dear - a phrase worth repeating?

Michael Crick | 16:11 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A prediction. After David Cameron's advice during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) to the Labour front-bench MP Angela Eagle, to "calm down, dear", I reckon it's a phrase we'll be hearing again. And rather a lot.

Indeed, I suspect we'll be hearing it from Ed Miliband's lips pretty soon - the next time David Cameron raises his voice at PMQs. Which will probably be next week.

If I were Cameron at PMQs next week I'd think of some way of getting the phrase in first - something along the lines of "However, Mr Speaker, I mustn't get too excited. I must calm down dear."

I'll leave the precise wording up to them.

How Labour support for AV has waned

Michael Crick | 16:04 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

When the histories of the AV referendum are written - instant bestsellers, no doubt - the focus will be on the Labour vote.

In particular, the failure of Ed Miliband to give a strong lead to the pro-AV forces within the Labour Party, and above all the sudden switch among such a large section of the party.

Remember, it was actually Labour, not the Lib Dems, who first proposed the idea of a referendum on AV - in Gordon Brown's 2009 conference speech.

And remarkably, at an important meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in early 2010 he got the policy through with just three MPs voting against. Yes, THREE.

OK, supporting a referendum on AV isn't quite the same thing as supporting AV itself, but they come pretty close.

Now we learn that 131 Labour MPs are signed up to the No campaign, more than half the PLP.

How the world changes.

Queen about to overtake George III

Michael Crick | 16:14 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

There has been much comment today about the fact that Prince Charles has just overtaken the future Edward VII to become the longest-ever serving heir to the throne in British history. He has been waiting to take the throne more than 59 years.

On 13 May, by my reckoning, we will see even more important royal milestone achieved.

Queen Elizabeth II will overtake George III to become the second longest-reigning monarch in British history.

George III reigned from 25 October 1760 to 29 January 1820 - which is 59 years and 96 days. Or more acurately he was king for 21,644 days (including 13 leap days).

The Queen succeeded to the throne on 6 February 1952 (and has lived through 14 leap days) will reach her 21,644th day in the job on 12 May, I calculate.

Queen Victoria was the longest serving British monarch. She reigned between 20 June 1837 and 22 January 1901 - a total of more than 63 years, or, I calculate, 23,222 days.

Stop making new lords, political big-wigs urge Cameron

Michael Crick | 22:31 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A cross-party group of political big-wigs, including many senior members of the House of Lords, is calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to stop creating new peers.

Mr Cameron has created 117 new members of the Lords since becoming prime minister last May, a faster rate of elevation than any PM in British history.

What is more, this expansion has occurred at the same time his government has legislated to reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 members, from 650 to 600.

The group, who have put their names to a pamphlet called "House Full" published by the Constitution Unit at University College, London, includes the former cabinet secretary Lord (Robin) Butler, the former lord chancellor, Lord Mackay, the former Commons speaker Baroness (Betty) Boothroyd, the former lord chief justice Lord Woolf and Lord Stevenson, who used to chair the Lords Appointments Commission.

Other supporters include David Steel, Margaret Jay and Michael Forsyth, who are also peers.

The Lords now has 831 members, though only 792 are currently entitled to attend and vote. These figures are far greater than at any time since the reforms of 1999 when most hereditary peers were excluded from the upper chamber, and there were only 666 members.

"There is now a major concern that if appointments continue, the House of Lords will simply cease to be able to function," the group says.

The high numbers put a huge strain on resources, they say, make it difficult to manage debates and other business, and there are too many new peers who are unfamiliar with Lords culture, procedures and practices.

The group says a moratorium should be placed on new appointments until membership falls, through deaths, to 750 members.

On recent trends of about 15-20 deaths a year, that would entail a ban on new peers for five years or more.

"Until the size of the chamber has dropped below 750 eligible members, the House of Lords should simple be considered 'full'," the authors write. After that appointments should only be made to maintain the number up to 750.

This would mean that the coalition would have to drop its pledge in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement to make future appointments with the goal that membership of the Lords reflects the proportion of votes achieved by each party at the 2010 election.

That could require as many as 1142 peers, estimates the report's main author, Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.

Lib Dem MP: 'We have lost a generation of young voters'

Michael Crick | 20:50 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

There has been stinging attack on the Liberal Democrat leadership from the backbench MP Adrian Sanders.

"The Liberal Democrats are in trouble," he writes in the new edition of Liberator magazine. "The problem is not wholly electoral. Council by-elections where we have a track record and work hard show we can hold our vote...

"It is more a crisis of confidence and image, both within and without the party, and this will be far more damaging in the long term."

Mr Sanders adds:

"We now face the brutal realisation that we have fractured our core vote, lost a generation of young voters, and alienated thousands of tactical voters in seats where it makes the difference between electoral success or failure."

"The message on the doorstep before the election was often 'I support another party, but you seem to have more integrity and do more for local people so you have my vote.' Now it is 'I used to vote for you, you still work hard for your local area, but you are discredited and lied just like the rest of them.'"

He continues: "It seems like the leadership has done all it can to copy the method of governance of Labour and the Conservatives.

"Our grassroots has been effectively divorced from having input into what the party leadership does. What our ministers do is often driven by special advisers, who never have to face an electorate, and while some are very good and understand this, others seem to have a cosier relationship with journalists than the parliamentary party..."

"The lack of engagement between leadership and party is of some concern; I don't believe the leader spoke to our ministers in the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence before going for intervention in Libya, let alone sought out opinion among us humble backbenchers before any decisions were made."

And Mr Sanders goes on: "We need the leadership to start acting like the leadership of an independent political party that just happens to be in coalition, not the leadership of a coalition that seems to forget it has an independent political party to take into consideration."

When Boris wanted electoral reform

Michael Crick | 17:21 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

In recent weeks Boris Johnson has joined the No forces in trying the thwart the Liberal Democrats in the AV Referendum.

But the journalist Sonia Purnell, who is writing a biography of the Mayor of London - called "Just Boris" - tells me that in his days as an Oxford student in the 1980s, Mr Johnson was a big supporter of electoral reform.

In November 1985, while running for president of the Oxford Union, Mr Johnson spoke in favour of the motion: "This house has had enough of two party politics" he told Union members:

"There are two reasons why we should vote for a vote that counts...There is an overwhelming case for some type of electoral reform, some form of proportional representation.

"What sort of democracy is it where one party can get only 2% less of the vote than another party and end up with 100 fewer seats in the House of Commons?...

"People will point to places like Italy. For them, a change of government is like a minor reshuffle and it works. They have a standard of living higher than ours...

"[First past the post] causes a crude polarity, a Manichean dichotomy and is dividing the nation. The two old big parties are retreating into their heartlands and currying favour by adopting rigid politics...

"The ruthlessness of the current electoral system is forcing out views and opinions which we may not take seriously until it is too late...This motion is no more than a statement of fact - we have had enough of two party politics. The country has shown it in general elections, local elections and by-elections."

"The finale met rapturous applause," Sonia Purnell writes.

Mr Johnson was no doubt currying favour with the large number of SDP supporters in the Union. And his pro-PR speech helped get him elected.

"It was his SDP-ish stance that meant he got the presidency at the second attempt," Sonia Purnell tells me.

Roll on 25 years, and Mr Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column seven weeks ago: "First-past-the-post has served this country well, and served dozens of other countries well."

Action Man Cameron gets his hands dirty

Michael Crick | 16:00 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

I revealed on Newsnight on Monday of last week that David Cameron planned to spend three days a week over the next month out campaigning - in the local and devolved elections, on the NHS reorganisation, and against AV.

I thought privately at the time that it was an extremely ambitious target for a Prime Minister, and that it would probably be unfulfilled.

But so far Cameron seems to be well on target, especially with his health events this week and last week, various other appearances, and today's controversial speech on immigration.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as Prime Minister were both a lot more sparing when it came to campaign appearances in the run-up to the various elections held every May.

But Cameron showed with his unusual trip (for a PM) to the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election that he's not one to stand on prime ministerial dignity, and is quite happy to get his hands dirty out on the campaign trail.

It suggests that his party still thinks Cameron is a campaign asset, of course.

But it also raises the chances of serious and very public differences of opinion with his Lib Dem allies, as we've seen today with the spat between Cameron and Vince Cable over immigration.

Tories lend phone bank to No to AV campaign

Michael Crick | 13:44 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Conservatives are reinforcing their efforts to secure a No vote in the AV Referendum.

From this evening their phone bank at the party HQ at 30 Millbank will be open to supporters who want to ring voters in the South East to urge them to reject the Alternative Vote.

An email sent out to Tory supporters this morning says:

"Our central London GENEVA call centre will be up and running again at CCHQ from tonight through to May 5th. Can you spare an hour or so to come in and help make calls?"

Alternatively, the Conservatives are offering to supply supporters with a set "simple script" and a list of phone numbers so that people can phone voters from home. They reckon phone canvassers can work at a rate of 20-30 voters an hour.

A bigger Lib Dem consolation prize if AV is lost

Michael Crick | 11:01 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

If the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum is lost then the Liberal Democrats have a fall back reform which could deliver them a far greater prize in the long term than the Alternative Vote. And that's reform of the House of Lords.

Most psephologists reckon that AV would have given the Lib Dems perhaps 15 or 20 extra seats at the 2010 election. And the Lib Dem gain from AV would be a lot lower if their support falls to the kind of levels currently suggested in the polls.

AV would be nothing like as rewarding as proper PR, under which the Liberal Democrats would have got around 140 seats in 2010. And contrary to what the No campaign have been suggesting, AV wouldn't give the Lib Dems a permanent place in government or mean that we will have coalition government for evermore. It only makes such outcomes a bit more likely.

In contrast, Lords reform could give the Lib Dems a lot more power in the long term - what might almost amount to a permanent veto on legislation.

The Coalition Agreement commits the parties to a new upper chamber that would be "wholly or mainly elected". That's now likely to mean 80% elected, but also, crucially, it is generally expected the new chamber would be elected under proportional representation (PR).

That would probably mean the Lib Dems held the balance of power in the new upper house on an almost permanent basis. So even if future governments had a majority in the Commons (thanks to First-Past-the-Post), they could only get legislation through the Lords with the approval of the Lib Dems.

OK, you can argue that neither this government, nor its Labour predecessor had a majority in the Lords, so they, too, have had to build consensuses among peers to get their bills through, and under Labour that usually meant Lib Dem support. But the Liberal Democrats' position would be far more powerful in a democratically reformed PR Lords.

First, in the current Lords the 93 Lib Dem peers have to compete for this balance-of-power role with a much larger group of 184 independent cross-bench peers. It depends on the detail of the reformed Lords, and presumably there will be some role for independents, but nonetheless the crossbenchers are likely to be a much smaller group in a chamber that is primarily elected.

Second, the elected nature of the second chamber will give it a greater legitimacy than now, and so it will be less likely to back down in disputes with the Commons (a reason many MPs are wary of making the Lords more democratic).

A draft bill on Lords reform is promised before the end of May. However, many in politics are sceptical that the Lords will ever be reformed during this Parliament, not least because any such plans will meet stiff opposition from the current upper house. But if the Lib Dems lose the AV referendum then they are likely to press more strongly for Lords reform. And David Cameron is more likely to agree, so as to keep the Coalition going.

But many Conservatives will be applying counter pressure. Many Tories are upset with Mr Cameron for twice making what they see as huge electoral concessions to the Lib Dems - in granting equal billing to Nick Clegg in the TV debates, and then the AV referendum.

If the Lib Dems achieve the prize of a PR Lords, and hence a permanent boost to their strength at Westminster, then all of the current grief of belonging to the Coalition could prove worthwhile.

Cameron's commitment to female ministers target

Michael Crick | 12:38 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Prime Minister David Cameron is looking for another 17 or 18 women ministers. That's the implication of what Theresa May told MPs in a little noticed Commons answer in January.

Little noticed that is, except amongst Tory MPs who realise that the implications of what she said are huge.

Not many people may be aware of the fact that Theresa May, as well as being Home Secretary, is also the Minister for Women and Equalities.

On 27 January, during questions on her equality brief, Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle Central, asked her why there aren't more women in the cabinet.

May replied that: "The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that he has a commitment to ensure that a third of ministerial places are taken up by women by the end of the Parliament."

The original pledge to have a third women was made by Cameron in an interview with The Times in 2009, but most people assumed it had been quietly forgotten with the advent of the Coalition last year - not least because the Liberal Democrats don't help much in this respect since only two of their ministers are female (Sarah Teather and Lynne Featherstone).

Of the 94 ministers currently in the government, only 13 are women, which is just under fourteen per cent.

To bring the figure up to the third mentioned by Cameron and May would require another 17 or 18 women ministers.

That has two implications.

First, it will be difficult for Cameron (and Clegg) to sack any of the current women ministers, even though many Conservative MPs feel that people such as Caroline Spelman, Sayeeda Warsi and Cheryl Gillan are not the best performers within the government.

Second, it means that in any coming reshuffles, huge numbers of women MPs will have to be promoted, and very few men. That's extremely good news for the high-flying females in the 2010 intake, such as Claire Perry, Margot James, Tracey Crouth, Charlotte Leslie, Mary MacLeod, Priti Patel and Chloe Smith (who is currently a whip).

Sir Gus O'Donnell on football and politics

Michael Crick | 23:00 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has backed the campaign among many football supporters for the return of standing areas at major league grounds in the UK, so long as they are safe.

In an interview with a Manchester United fanzine, Sir Gus (a United fan himself) says of "safe-standing": "I like the idea. I mean the emphasis is on the 'safe' as none of us want to go back to the problems we had with the Hillsborough disaster. Certainly when you go to a Man United away game and you're with supporters who don't really sit down very much, let's be honest, the atmosphere's fantastic! So if you can find a safe way of doing it then most real fans would much rather be standing up than stuck in a corporate box.

"You've got to be sure about the safety angle, but with good design you can solve these problems. Civil servants are definitely not against it, I can tell you that. It is our job to implement policy as decided by ministers - we don't make decisions on these things.

"I think if ministers were keen and if you can crack the safety problems then personally, give people the choice. You don't need to make a stadium all standing, you can have seats and certain sections where people can stand up."

On a separate issue, Sir Gus criticises the habit of recent prime ministers to give their ministers very little time in the posts they fill.

"The average length of tenure for a minister is one year and three months," he says, "which is really short. I would love for that to be longer but ministers do tend to change... I'm very much in favour of trying to get ministers in and keep them as long as possible."

It's thought David Cameron is sympathetic to Sir Gus' views on this, and likely to hold much less extensive reshuffles than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did. Mr Cameron is said to think there should be much more continuity in ministerial offices.

On a lighter note, Sir Gus denies that he uses the initials GOD when signing civil service documents.

"Occasionally when there's only room for initials I'll put GO'D," he says, "but it's certainly not a habit."

Sir Gus has told friends that he expects to retire as Cabinet Secretary either towards the end of this year, or at the start of 2012.

The absolute deadline for his retirement is October 2012 when he reaches the age of 60.

Sir Gus may well be replaced by another Manchester United fan, Jeremy Heywood, the permanent secretary for the prime minister's department, but he plays down reports of a rivalry between the two men for influence within the Coalition government.

"Ha ha," he says to the suggestion of a rift with Mr Heywood. "The thing you should know is that we live near to each other and we travel in regularly, well every day, together. I hope we're both going to get to the Arsenal game together."

Lib Dems by-election parsimony exposed

Michael Crick | 15:11 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Figures released today show just how little money the Liberal Democrats spent on their by-election campaign in Barnsley Central last month, where they came a humiliating sixth, behind UKIP, the BNP and a local independent.

The spending limit for a by-election is £100,000, but the Lib Dems spent just £6,437.50, according to the official expense returns released to Newsnight by Barnsley Council today.

No wonder the Lib Dem candidate Dominic Carman was forced to the run the campaign from the boot of his car instead of a normal headquarters building.

Labour, in contrast, spent more than ten times that sum - £66,388.78.

UKIP were the next big spenders, with expenses of £30,574.38, the Conservatives spent £14,051.99, and the BNP a mere £3,845.

These sums may explain why UKIP overtook the BNP.

The meagre Lib Dem spending in Barnsley contrasts with the previous by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth where they came second after spending more than £93,000, not far off the legal limit.

Here is the breakdown of the cost per vote:

UKIP £30,574.38 - Jane Collins UKIP 2,953 votes = £10.35 per vote
Cons £14,051.99 - James Hockney Conservative 1,999 votes = £7.03 per vote
Lib Dems £6,437.50 - Dominic Carman Liberal Democrat 1,012 votes = £6.36 per vote Lab £66,388.78 - Dan Jarvis Labour 14,724 votes = £4.51 per vote
BNP £3,845 - Enis Dalton BNP 1,463 votes = £2.63 per vote

Sally Bercow's Westminster novel

Michael Crick | 14:52 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker John Bercow, is touting round a novel she's written called Westminster Spouses.

Mrs Bercow has been unusually quiet since the appearance a few weeks ago of the famous photo of her dressed in nothing but a bath-towel.

The reason, I'm told, is that she's been beavering away on her book.

MPs will be watching developments anxiously, no doubt. Will there be scenes of MPs having sex in the Commons chamber, or even in the Speaker's chair? (Though I imagine that would be quite uncomfortable).

If so, then it could prove hugely damaging to her husband's position, which has been considerably harmed by his wife's activities in recent months. The book is due to be published next year.

"You had to read quite a lot before there was any sex at all," says a friend who has read part of the manuscript. "And then it wasn't very good sex."

Meanwhile, Sally Bercow has condemned the decision by the Parliamentary Bookshop, opposite the Commons, not to stock the recent biography of John Bercow by my sometime Newsnight colleague Bobby Friedman.

The shop premises are rented from the Westminster authorities, and any profits go towards the running of Parliament.

The decision is "Establishment pomposity", Sally Bercow recently texted Friedman.

"Tis completely ridiculous that bookshop not stocking & nowt to do with us."

I'm very glad to hear that.

Fewer Lib Dems

Michael Crick | 20:30 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

A good sign of a political party's health, organisation and morale is the number of candidates they manage to field in the annual local elections, relative to each other, and also relatives to previous similar elections.

An analysis by the Conservatives shows that the Tories are contesting 93 per cent of the council seats up for grabs on 5 May, compared with 88 per cent at the last comparable elections in 2007. That's an increase of five per cent.

Labour, according to the Tory number-crunchers, are up even more, from 60 per cent in 2007 to 72 per cent, a rise of 12 per cent.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, are contesting only 59 per cent of possible seats, a drop of four per cent on their 2007 figure of 63 per cent.

I haven't had a chance to check these figures with Labour and the Lib Dems, but I'd be surprised if their results are significantly different.

Liberal Democrats to move HQ

Michael Crick | 18:02 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Liberal Democrats have put their Cowley Street headquarters up for sale - or rather the remaining five years of their current lease.

If you're interested, the rent is £225,000 a year. You can see the estate agent's brochure here.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping to move to new headquarters within the next three months.

The move is not for financial reasons, I'm assured, but because they particularly want offices were everything can be accommodated on one floor, rather the five floors they currently occupy at 4 Cowley Street.

"Cowley Street is a beautiful building, a glorious building," the Lib Dem Chief Executive Chris Fox told me, "but it's not suitable for the needs of 21st Century campaigning".

"We're looking to move to a single floor open-plan office. It's a real handicap when people are shut away in rooms on different floors. It's all about sitting together, working together."

Ah, so that's where the Lib Dems went wrong in 2010.

"They have been looking at several options," their agent, Richard Weller of Glinsman Weller, told me, "and they have a shortlist of three places, all properties where one would pay £30 to £35 a square foot".

How about moving into Millbank Tower, once the home of New Labour, and where Weller confirms several floors are currently available?

The Conservatives also rent a floor in the tower nowadays (for computer and ancillary work), though their front-line political operations are run from the adjacent building at 30 Millbank.

What better way to cement the coalition than for the Lib Dems to move in next door?

Alas, no. "Millbank Tower is not an option," says Mr Fox.

He wouldn't reveal where they are considering, though he promised me it would be a location where journalists can still doorstep people.

The bill 'with no friends'

Michael Crick | 12:12 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The interesting thing about the health "debacle", as Matthew D'Ancona described it on Newsnight last night, is "why now?"

Many cite the fact that the Liberal Democrat conference voted overwhelmingly against the plans three weeks ago. But that hardly spells ruin - nobody has taken much notice of the Lib Dem conference before.

After all, the same Liberal Democrat activists voted against Michael Gove's free schools policy last September, but that hardly imperilled his plans.

Too many people are analysing this problem as a straight Conservative-Liberal Democrat divide, but it is a lot more complicated than that.

Liberal Democrat MPs, in fact, voted en masse for the Health and Social Care Bill at second reading in January. Not one Lib Dem voted against, though two members, John Pugh and Andrew George, abstained.

The fact is there are now huge doubts within both parties, and there has been a simmering nervousness within ministerial ranks ever since last summer.

David Cameron himself ordered Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander to stress test the legislation last autumn. More recently George Osborne has had serious doubts. But it has taken a while for those doubts to surface, partly because many politicians simply were not familiar with what Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was doing.

One minister happily admitted to me he didn't "understand" the changes.

The forestry U-turn naturally made government strategists look around and ask what else there was which could suddenly bite them.

Government whips did a brilliant job on Monday afternoon disguising the level of scepticism among Conservative backbenchers.

The most powerful Tory critic Sarah Wollaston was absent - as I reported in an earlier entry - while David Ruffley, a right-leaning free-marketeer, voiced far stronger criticism in my package on Newsnight than anything expressed by the 20 or so Tories who asked questions in the chamber.

I'm pretty confident, though, that even without this two month pause Mr Lansley's bill would have got through its remaining stages in the Commons and Lords.

The political fears were more long term. Would it have led to the closure of district general hospitals, causing the "Kidderminster effect", as David Ruffley describes it, which saw a Labour MP lose his seat in 2001 over the loss of a local hospital?

Will Mr Lansley's measures cause a crisis in the NHS around 2013 and 2014, just in time for the next election? Mr Lansley's argument to Cabinet colleagues is that there'll be a crisis in the NHS if he doesn't make these changes.

One senior Downing Street adviser describes this as a bill "with no friends", and that's a dangerous position to be in politically.

Astute reformist politicians, from Abraham Lincoln to Tony Blair, understood the importance of preparing public opinion before making revolutionary changes.

This two-month pause is being presented as a listening exercise, but in reality ministers intend it to be the public and the interest groups who do the listening, as much as them.

And there must be huge doubts whether we will get the kind of "substantial" changes Nick Clegg spoke of yesterday (and on which he seems to be backtracking today).

Another of Mr Cameron's close advisers told me: "This is all about pausing to regroup in order to advance, rather than any kind of retreat. That's the feeling in our party."

On reflection, Oliver Letwin may not have been the best person to carry out such a stress-test of Andrew Lansley's NHS plans. Reports from 2005 suggest that he originally thought Lansley should become Conservative leader.

Another small triumph for the whips

Michael Crick | 14:03 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Further to my item yesterday about Sarah Wollaston, I've been told about the occasion many years ago that the eccentric Scottish Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn was in the United States, and threatening to fly back to London and rebel against the government.

Then he rang his whip at the Commons to explain: "Actually, I won't be coming back just yet. I've been invited for dinner tomorrow night with the British ambassador."

Another small triumph for the whips.

The strange ways of politics

Michael Crick | 12:42 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

Will Richard Benyon win big brownie points in Downing Street over NHS reorganisation?

Richard Benyon? The Defra junior minister? What's he got to do with health? Let me explain.

The government's biggest Tory critic over the government's NHS changes has been Sarah Wollaston, the former GP who became MP for Totnes last May after famously being picked as Conservative candidate by local voters in an open primary in 2009.

Once elected, she soon became a vocal critic of the NHS changes, not least on Newsnight.

So much so, in fact, that I'm told that Prime Minister David Cameron was overheard to say in an unguarded moment in Downing Street: "I'll tell you what; we're not having any more open primaries!" And indeed the party's not having any more.

Dr Wollaston is a member of the Commons Select Committee on Health, and indeed with all today's attention to the NHS changes, and Tuesday's report from the select committee, one would expect to see the MP for Totnes a lot on our screens over the next 48 hours.

She certainly thinks the committee's recommendations would do a lot to improve the bill.

The only trouble is that Dr Wollaston has to welcome a junior minister to her Devon constitutuency today and tomorrow.

Yes, it's Richard Benyon. On a two-day ministerial visit to the green pastures of south Devon. And no doubt her party colleagues impressed on Dr Wollaston how discourteous it would be for her to not be in Totnes when Mr Benyon was there.

Even if, as parliamentary under-secretary at Defra, he is one of the most junior members in the entire government.

His visit will make it a lot harder for Dr Wollaston to do TV interviews.

It was arranged at the last minute, I understand, and had been postponed from an early date.

The tactics of campaign leaflet delivery

Michael Crick | 16:34 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

On Thursday, a batch of official Yes to AV leaflets arrived by post at my home, what I assume must be part of the official free Royal Mail delivery to each voter to which each side in the AV referendum is entitled.

Half the leaflet was an application form for a postal vote.

It wasn't the most efficient use of resources, however - the same leaflet arrived three times over - one to me, another to my partner, and a third to our lodger.

The No campaign plan to use their free Royal Mail delivery rather differently. A detailed leaflet will go out shortly to the first named person at each address on the electoral register around the country.

Then, much nearer polling day, they'll put out a second, more general leaflet to the second named person at every address. That way most households will get two different No leaflets, delivered at public expense.

It follows the practice of many agents and candidates in Parliamentary elections these days, where they sometimes exploit the free mailing facility using assumptions that some people might see as rather sexist.

Given that the first person at most addresses is a man, some agents and candidates use the free mailing to send them a leaflet on issues they think are likely to concern men - the economy, defence and so on.

Then they put out a second leaflet to the second named person which stresses what they see as more feminine issues such as health and education.

And some calculate that the third and fourth people at an address are likely to be young people, so send them a third free mailing on issues of concern to young people.

A record-breaking vote in Leicester

Michael Crick | 12:46 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

Nick Clegg is campaigning in Leicester today where voters in the southern part of the city will be involved in a what looks set to be a new political record on 5 May.

People will be given four different ballot papers, which is probably more than ever before at a British election. These ballot papers will be:

A vote in the Leicester South by-election.

Two or three votes in the local council elections (where some wards elect two councillors, and others three).

A vote in the AV referendum.

And a vote for the new post of Mayor of Leicester.

The first three decisions will be under the traditional first-past-the-post system.

The mayoral vote, however, will be the supplementary vote system used in all English mayoral elections, a variation of AV whereby people can give their first and second choices.

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