BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Michael Crick

Archives for May 2011

Now for something completely different...

Michael Crick | 13:30 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

This is my last blog in this format.

I'm getting a new picture and a new biography, but the good news is that you still get me - here.

The rise of the Dinosaurs' Coalition

Michael Crick | 21:45 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

There is a new coalition emerging in British politics.

Fresh from their resounding success in defeating AV, many Conservative MPs have started talking to Labour backbenchers who also voted No in the referendum trying to form a new alliance to defeat the proposals to reform the House of Lords, announced by Nick Clegg yesterday.

The grouping are buoyed by their success on AV, and united by a strong element of hating Liberal Democrats.

Critics will no doubt call them the Dinosaurs' Coalition.

And judging by the response to Clegg in the Commons, this new backbench Tory-Labour coalition looks likely to succeed.

It reminds me of the old alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot which defeated Richard Crossman's plans to reform the Lords back in 1968.

As things stand, I just can't see how Clegg's Lords reform will ever get through the Commons, let alone the Lords itself.

The Beast of Bolsover roars once more

Michael Crick | 21:07 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

An amazing salvo from Dennis Skinner at Prime Minister's Questions today. It was vintage Skinner, of a kind we've not seen for 10 years or more.

Many believe the Beast of Bolsover has mellowed in recent years, following his heart troubles and problems in his personal life.

But not today. Dressed in red shirt and red tie, he thundered:

"In recession-hit Britain, the billionaires have gone up by 20 - an increase of 37% - in this first year of Tory rule. Whilst in the real world, inflation's going through the roof, thousands of blind people are having to march through the streets of London to hang on to their disability living allowance. What a savage indictment of this lousy, rotten ..."

Then his words were lost in the noise.

Whatever your politics, it was wonderful theatre.

Skinner plans to retire at the next election, and make way for a neighbouring Labour MP as the boundaries in Derbyshire are redrawn and the number of constituencies reduced.

Indeed, Skinner originally planned to retire at the last election, but then heard rumours that the Labour high command was planning to parachute the former Conservative Quentin Davies into his seat. So he decided to stay put.

After the next election Skinner would have been a possible contender to become Father of the House, having served as an MP since 1970. Others to have lasted that long include Michael Meacher, Ken Clarke, Gerald Kaufman, and the current Father, Sir Peter Tapsell (an MP from 1959 to 1964 and then from 1966 until today).

But Skinner is not interested in what he sees as a minor form of patronage.

The other question is whether Dennis Skinner will write his memoirs. He's been talking to publishers, and a possible ghost-writer, Les Scott, but is worried as to whether they'd sell or not.

Boundary changes boosting Labour membership

Michael Crick | 20:21 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ed Miliband often boasts of how tens of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party since the election - all evidence of his "new generation", he says.

I must admit I have always been rather sceptical about the figures, but perhaps they're true.

One Labour MP told me tonight that the prospect of serious battles with Westminster colleagues over the reduced number of seats, has prompted the more organised and far-sighted to embark on local membership drives to help their own selection.

I can't think why that hadn't occurred to me before.

Essex police confident of quick progress on Huhne

Michael Crick | 18:56 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cabinet minister Chris Huhne has contacted Essex Police offering to help them
with their inquiry into allegations he tried to evade punishment for speeding,
his spokeswoman said tonight.

Earlier Essex police announced that they are starting to interview key individuals relating to the claims that Mr Huhne asked his then wife Vicky Pryce to accept penalty
points for speeding on his behalf in 2003 - claims Mr Huhne denies.

That presumably also includes Mr Huhne's ex-wife Vicky Pryce, and maybe the anonymous judge cited by the Daily Mail today who was allegedly told by Ms Pryce back in 2004 that she had taken points for Mr Huhne.

For any prosecution to work, though, it will first have to be established that a speeding offence took place.

Essex police say their official records only go back to 2006. And the DVLA in Swansea have also told Newsnight that their records don't go back as far as 2003, when all this is alleged to have happened.

But Essex police are confident they will soon know if a speeding offence did occur.

"I think it will be established whether or not an offence was committed," a police source told me tonight. "There are ways and means of getting things off computers... We are trying to find a data source to identify a particular offence."

Was Huhne restricted by M11 road works?

Michael Crick | 16:57 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Some of the press speculation about Chris Huhne in recent days has focused on whether he was the victim of a 30 mile an hour speed restriction on the M11 which had been imposed because of road works.

On 15 February 2003 the Daily Telegraph reported that extensive road works would cause big delays on the motorway for the next two months - ie. covering the crucial date in the Huhne case, 12 March 2003.

In late February resurfacing work was due to start between junction 7 (Harlow), and junction 6 where the M11 crosses the M25.

The Telegraph article quoted David Lee, the-then Highways Agency project manager, as saying:

"This section of the M11 is in a poor state and close to the end of its useful life... Work will be carried out 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep disruption and inconvenience to a minimum."

"At night," the Telegraph added, "the motorway will be reduced to a single lane in each direction."

Black September for MPs as boundaries scramble begins

Michael Crick | 15:22 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Expect MPs to be very nervous this September. That's when the Boundary Commissions are going to make their provisional recommendations for the new, larger, Parliamentary constituencies.

The number of seats in the Commons is being cut from 650 to 600, and the size of seats being made more equal, which will require new boundaries to almost every constituency in Britain.

I have learnt that at a meeting a few days ago, representatives of the three main parties were told that the proposed new Welsh boundaries will be unveiled in the week beginning 5 September.

The new English boundaries will be announced the following week, starting 12 September.

The proposed new Scottish seats will be announced after the party conferences.

So expect frantic activity, rather akin to musical chairs, as MPs rush around trying to establish themselves in new seats, and maybe fight MPs from their own parties for nominations.

After the provisional new seats are announced, the Boundary Commissions will hold a series of hearings - "hearings" I stress, not the former system of enquiries.

Individuals and political parties will be able to make submissions to these hearings, but there will be no system of cross-examination as there was in the past at public enquiries.

And these hearings will devote very little time to each seat, since there will be up to five hearings, lasting just two days each, in each English region. I reckon that works out about six or seven constituencies a day - about an hour each.

The Boundary Commissions will take most of 2012 to consider everybody's submissions, and then revise their provisional boundaries. The revised seats will be announced around the end of 2012, or early 2013.

The final constituencies have to be decided by October, and agreed beforehand by votes in both Houses of Parliament.

And it must be far certain that both Houses will pass such a resolution.

Was Nick Clegg on Flight 7775 with Chris Huhne?

Michael Crick | 12:16 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

UPDATE AT 1652BST:

A spokesman for Nick Clegg has just told me that he "would not have been on the plane" - Ryanair flight 7775 on 12 March 2003.

The spokesman tells me that during the weeks that the European Parliament sat in Strasbourg rather than Brussels, Mr Clegg's routine was to travel back to Brussels where the Clegg family had a home, and then, if necessary, fly to London.

ENTRY FROM 1216BST:

Was Nick Clegg on Ryanair flight 7775 from Strasbourg to Stansted on the evening of 12 March 2003?

That's the flight under focus in the controversy over whether Chris Huhne got his then wife, Vicky Pryce, to take points for him on an alleged speeding offence on the M11 in Essex.

We know Mr Huhne was in the European Parliament that day, but didn't sign in the following day, Thursday 13 March 2003.

Mr Clegg, too, who was then an MEP, also attended the Strasbourg Parliament on the Wednesday, and voted at lunchtime, but didn't sign on there on the Thursday. Just like Chris Huhne.

So Mr Clegg, too, may have taken the late evening Ryanair flight 7775 from Strasbourg to Stansted.

So it's conceivable that Mr Clegg may recall whether Mr Huhne was on the flight too, or have some record of it.

On another matter relating to the flight, there's a newspaper report today saying that the UKIP leader Nigel Farage claims that both he and Chris Huhne were on Ryanair 7775 on the evening of Wednesday 12 March 2003.

This newspaper report doesn't tally with what Nigel Farage has told Newsnight.

On Monday Mr Farage told me that the late evening Ryanair flight to Stansted was regularly used by English MEPs when the European Parliament was sitting in Strasbourg in those days. It was not only convenient, but cheap.

And, he said, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) even supplied MEPs with free passes for the short-term car-park, right next to the terminal building at Stansted (worth £31.50 a day at 2011 prices).

When I first spoke to Mr Farage on Monday he reckoned he himself might have taken that flight that night, and he also recalled that Mr Huhne regularly took it too.

Mr Farage then went home, and went up to his loft and looked through his archives on Newsnight's behalf, and found that he - Farage - did in fact take flight 7775 on the night of 12 March 2003.

His paperwork shows the plane was scheduled to leave Strasbourg at 22.25 French time, and arrive at Stansted at 22.55 British time.

The CAA have told Newsnight that it arrived, in fact, at 22.23, which was half an hour early.

But when I spoke to him yesterday Nigel Farage couldn't recall - quite understandably - whether or not Chris Huhne was definitely on the flight too.

He just thought it was quite likely, especially if Chris Huhne wasn't at the European Parliament the following day.


Twins reversed at Daily Telegraph

Michael Crick | 16:21 UK time, Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Yesterday the Daily Telegraph sports section ran an article giving ratings for every Manchester United player this season.

For the two Brazilian full-backs, Rafael and Fabio - who are identical twins - the Telegraph merely reversed the photo of one of them.

Mind you, the pair do look so alike that I, a keen United follower, couldn't tell you which one it was.

On the Huhne speeding mystery

Michael Crick | 14:38 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

Two hours ago Newsnight discovered that Vicky Pryce - Chris Huhne's now estranged wife - was due to address a seminar at the LSE on the evening of 12 March 2003. That's the date in contention in the Chris Huhne speeding mystery.

And the LSE has just confirmed to me that Vicky Pryce did actually attend the event - a City Alumni seminar, starting at 6.30pm.

The organiser of the event, Nat Holtham, confirmed to me that Vicky Pryce spoke that evening, and that the event would have lasted between an hour and an hour and a half.

"I remember meeting Vicky and seeing her," he told me.

"I had been pleased to discover that one of our alumni held such an eminent position in government."

In itself, this fact proves nothing, but it makes it pretty unlikely that Vicky Pryce could have been driving in Essex beween 6pm and 8pm that evening.

Newspaper claims that Mr Huhne asked someone to take his penalty points for a speeding offence in 2003 emerged last week following a newspaper interview with Ms Pryce.

The Lib Dem cabinet minister has denied the allegation, describing it as "simply incorrect".

Exam results not restricted by Data Protection Act

Michael Crick | 16:24 UK time, Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Great news. You may recall that last summer I complained that Oxford University had refused to tell what classes of degree each of the Miliband brothers has.

They couldn't tell me for "data protection reasons", the press officer said when I phoned him.

However, a reader, David Mason has been in contact with the Information Commissioner's office, the body which looks after the Data Protection Act. And they have told him that degree results are not covered by the DPA. Nor, it seems, are GCSEs and A-levels.

Tim Clarke of the commissioner's office has told Mr Mason:

"The publication of degree classes (and examination results in general) is a common and accepted practice and accordingly the DPA98 (Data Protection Act 1998) would not prevent this.

"However, the DPA98 still means that data controllers have to ensure processing is fair, and should consider carefully requests from students that their personal data is not published."

So a small victory for freedom of information.

Whether that makes Oxford University and other academic institutions behave any more sensibly is another matter.

We can only hope.

Election losses leave Lib Dems severely out of pocket

Michael Crick | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Last week's huge election losses will deal a huge blow to the Liberal Democrats financially.

For many years now the Lib Dems have automatically levied a 10% tithe on all their elected officials on the income they get from politics - councillors, MPs, MSPs, MEPs, and even government ministers.

The basic allowance for councillor varies between £4,000 and £9,000 a year, depending on the size of council, with many of them getting towards the upper end of the bracket. The party lost 695 council seats, so that means a loss of up to £625,500 a year.

Then there are the 12 Lib Dem MSPs who lost their seats in the Scottish Parliament, each earning more than £53,000 and one AM in the Welsh Assembly earning around £53,000. So this amounts to approximately another £70,000 in lost tithes to the party.

In all, I estimate the financial loss could be as much as £695,500 a year. Every year for the next four years.

And this comes after the Lib Dems suffered the huge blow last year of losing almost two million pounds a year in Short Money, the state subsidy paid to Westminster opposition parties. The overall effect on Lib Dem finances will be considerable, especially for a party which can't fall back on money from unions or big business.

On top of that the Liberal Democrats will lose paid staff - people working for council groups - and the two or so people working for each MSP. OK, much for their work has been constituency related, but don't tell me they weren't also doing lots of work for the party as well. And some of these staff were probably paying 10% tithes to the party too. If half do so, then that may lose the party thousands of pounds, if not tens of thousands.

What's more, many of the 695 Lib Dem defeated council members were effectively full-time councillors, using their council allowances to work all day, every day in politics, partly as councillors and partly as Lib Dem organisers and campaigners. Without their council seats and income, many will now be obliged to go and find full-time work elsewhere. Their state-subsidised labour will hence be lost to the party.

Last week's defeats involved more than just a political loss for the Lib Dems, but the party was also weakened in terms of money, manpower and organisation.

Conversely, Labour will gain from having another 800 councillors, since the party also extracts cash from his it's elected councillors, though not quite on the scale with which the Lib Dems organise it

Downing Street's misnamed garden

Michael Crick | 13:26 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

This week, the first anniversary of the formation of the coalition, is seeing a torrent of articles and broadcasts referring to the "Downing Street rose garden".

This is rapidly becoming one of the great myths of history.

As I have said before, it is not a rose garden, though it's possible there are one or two roses in it.

Certainly, I've not seen any roses in any of the pictures of the great Coalition event, and not had the pleasure of visiting it since. And it's always been called simply the Downing Street garden.

People are obviously thinking of the White House, which does have a rose garden. Full of very nice roses.

Whither David Laws?

Michael Crick | 22:21 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

The Commons Standards and Privileges Committee will meet tomorrow morning to consider the Standards Commissioner's report on the former Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary David Laws.

It's taken the commissioner almost a year to produce his report. I'm told that the document is long and complicated, and that the committee may not be able to resolve it tomorrow. "There will be lots of discussion and lots of questions," one source told me.

Laws resigned as a minister last May, after just weeks in office, after it was revealed that, contrary to the rules, he had failed to declare that his landlord - to whom he was paying rent claimed from Commons expenses - was his gay partner.

I understand that the Laws story, and the issues it raises, are a lot more complex than was revealed in the media at the time of his resignation last May.

I have been advised that it may take the committee more than one meeting to decide whether it endorses the commissioner's report, and indeed whether to impose any sanction on Mr Laws.

All of which may leave a question mark over Mr Laws future, and whether David Cameron will be able to bring him back into government anytime soon.
.

Is Dorrell bidding to rescue Coalition on health?

Michael Crick | 17:11 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

The speech from the former Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell in the Commons this afternoon received approving nods from both sides of the Coalition benches.

From the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his colleague Oliver Letwin, but also from two of the biggest critics of the bill - the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, and the Conservative former GP Sarah Wollaston.

Mr Dorrell, who now chairs the Commons select committee of health, was speaking in support of the Coalition's health bill, though his committee has also published substantial criticisms of it.

In his speech Andrew Lansley briefly confirmed there would be "substantive" changes to the Health and Social Care Bill, yet strongly gave the impression in his rest of his pugnacious performance that he plans to stick to his guns.

Should David Cameron feel the need to move or sack Mr Lansley, or should the Health Secretary resign, then Mr Dorrell might be a good replacement politically. He's a fresh face; he's experienced; he'd be unlikely to rouse strong opposition; and his promotion from the backbenches would avoid a big ministerial reshuffle.

Mr Dorrell would be one option. Another, as I suggested a few days ago, would be to swap Mr Lansley with a Cabinet colleague, such as the Transport Secretary Philip Hammond.

Another strong contender for Mr Lansley's job would be the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. His name is certainly being pressed by one figure close to the PM. Not least because it would give the Tories a chance to see what Mr Hunt - a probable future leadership contender - is made of.

New chairman Patten rejects BBC car

Michael Crick | 16:21 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

The new chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, has rejected the idea of being chauffeured around by a full-time BBC car and BBC driver.

Lord Patten was told this week that he was entitled to both perks as part of his new high-powered job.

But to everyone's surprise - and amusement - Patten suddenly announced that he preferred to go by public transport. He knew the locations of underground stations and bus-stops, he told colleagues.

A specific salaried BBC driver had even been designated to do the job, and will now be assigned to another BBC big-wig.

In rejecting a full-time driver, Lord Patten is following in the footsteps of the former Labour minister Chris Mullin, who turned down his government car.

"Unlike him, I have a Freedom Pass," Patten told me today. "I occasionally use a cab but why would I need a chauffeur?"

A source close to the driver estimates Patten's decision may save the BBC Trust as much as £100,000 a year.

Plaid & Lib Dems consider using Woolas law against Labour

Michael Crick | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Plaid Cymru and their rivals the Liberal Democrats have joined in an unusual alliance to announce they are both considering legal action against Labour leaflets in the Welsh Assembly election in the Aberconwy seat in North Wales.

And the two parties are thinking of using the law under which Phil Woolas was famously disqualified as an MP last year - section 106 of the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

Plaid accuse the Labour candidate Eifion Wyn Williams of telling "lies" about the Plaid candidate, Iwan Huws, and his record as director of the National Trust in Wales.

Labour's leaflet in Aberconwy says:

"When the Plaid Cymru candidate became Director of the National Trust in Wales, he moved the HQ from Llandudno to Cardiff."

The leaflet adds:

"As soon as he left the Trust moved their HQ back to Llandudno. That's what he thinks of local jobs!"

Plaid insist however, that in March 2003 "Iwan Huws was appointed as the new Director of the National Trust in Wales. He was initially recruited to work in Cardiff but the Welsh HQ has always been in Llandudno and remains so...

"In 2006 Iwan Huws moved back to North Wales and was based in the Llandudno office. The Cardiff office was always a satellite office for the director. The Cardiff office no longer exists and the future of the Llandudno office is secure. So in fact , the trend was from Cardiff to Llandudno and not vice versa as claimed by Labour!"

The Liberal Democrats, too, according to a statement issued by Plaid, accuse Labour of making "categorically untrue statements about the Liberal [sic] candidate".

The Lib Dems have asked Labour to stop distributing the leaflets.

"Here we go again," says Elfyn Llwyd, the Westminster leader of Plaid Cymru.

"Labour spreading more lies. Clearly they haven't learnt anything from the bitter experience of the Oldham seat in last year's election, where their candidate was unseated unceremoniously and the courts upheld that decision."

A Welsh Labour spokesman said,"We have received correspondence from the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru and we will respond in due course."

Sale of Heath home gets provisional green light

Michael Crick | 16:49 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Charity Commission has given provisional approval to the sale of Arundells, the 18th Century former home of Sir Edward Heath in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury.

Heath, who was prime minister from 1970 to 1974, lived at Arundells for the last 20 years of his life.

Before he died in 2005, Heath arranged to leave the home to a charitable trust, together with a legacy of £5m for its upkeep, to enable members of the public to visit the property.

In effect, Heath wanted Arundells to become a museum, and a memorial to himself.

Alas, it seems that there was not as much public interest in Sir Edward as he may anticipated - nor in the former Conservative leader's interesting political career and personal life, or in his extremely attractive retirement residence.

Last year the trustees of the property announced that it was no longer viable to keep the building open to the public - even though visitors have to pay an entrance fee.

So the trustees closed the property to visitors and applied to the Charity Commission for permission to sell the site and use the proceeds for other charitable purposes specified in Sir Edward Heath's will.

The Charity Commission has now announced:

"We have now agreed a draft scheme with the trustees, which would give them the power to sell the property. Before we make that scheme, we will be publishing details of the trustees' proposal to allow members of the public to make representations. We hope to publish the proposals next month."

Meanwhile, the trustees of Arundells plan to open the building to the public on various days later this year to give people a final opportunity to visit the property before it passes into private hands.

I certainly plan to go there whilst I can.

An end to open primaries?

Michael Crick | 15:24 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

When David Cameron pointed out on Today this morning that the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world, prefers the First-Past-the-Post system of elections, John Humphrys pointed out that the US political system has primary elections too.

This, Humphrys argued, gives people more choice since supporters of the main parties get to choose the party's candidates.

Ah, Mr Cameron replied, but we are starting to get primary elections in Britain.

Yes and no, prime minister. The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties show few signs of holding primary elections to pick their candidates.

The Conservatives held 20 or so so-called primaries before the last election, whereby members of the public could turn up to a meeting and help pick the Tories local candidate.

I attended one of the first such events, in Battersea, and voted, and also filmed the evening for Newsnight. And in two or three seats, such as Totnes and Gosport, the Conservatives even conducted a postal ballot of local voters to choose their candidates.

But now the process has slowed down. A pledge in the May coalition agreement for the state to fund 200 primaries in safe seats, for all parties, was quietly dropped last autumn on cost grounds.

And when the Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston rebelled against the government's NHS reorganisation, Mr Cameron himself was so annoyed that he was heard to remark that it was the last time his party would conduct an open primary.

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