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Archives for September 2010

David Miliband interview

Nick Robinson | 17:00 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010


I've just interviewed David Miliband. Here it is.

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Not so happy families

Nick Robinson | 20:36 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


David Miliband has spent the week insisting that this is Ed's week in a way which ensures it hasn't been. Tonight his angry muttered remarks to Harriet Harman - caught on camera - have made sure that, even on the day of Ed's speech, David is making the news.

When Labour's new leader declared that the Iraq war was wrong, he and other former ministers who voted for the war ­- Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Andy Burnham - sat stony faced. Not so Harriet Harman. Seeing her clap, David turns to her and angrily demands to know "you voted for it, why are you clapping?"

If ever evidence were needed of why David will, almost certainly, leave frontline politics tomorrow this is it. He, and many others, deeply resent the way in which Ed - who wasn't an MP at the time - used his rather less than public opposition to the war to win the party leadership.

Ed tries to shed 'Red'

Nick Robinson | 17:52 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


In order for Ed Miliband to stand before his conference as leader he had to have the ruthlessness to take on and defeat his own big brother.

Ed Miliband


In order to beat the other David - David Cameron - he showed today that he had the ruthlessness to dump much of his own party's recent past.

On the banks, civil liberties, immigration, tuition fees and the big one - Iraq - Labour, he said, had lost its way. It is what he knows many of Labour's lost voters want to hear, and many potential future coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats too.

The line this conference liked best was "Red Ed? Come off it". Much of their new leader's speech was designed to challenge that nickname. Thus, he accepted that painful spending cuts would have to be made and warned the unions not to launch waves of irresponsible strikes.

However, talk of closing the gap between the rich and the poor, of taxing the rich more and increasing the wages of the poor may well persuade the papers to stick with Red Ed.

It was a speech which only a new unknown leader could make. Soon he will have to spell out more of what he's in favour of and less of what's against.

A break from the past

Nick Robinson | 14:22 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


So the new leader of the party formerly known as New Labour is to condemn the Iraq war.

Ed Miliband


His planned speech declares that it was "wrong" to invade and, as Labour leader, he had to be honest with the nation and say so. "Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not have sufficient alliances and because we undermined the UN."

This is no huge surprise. Ed Miliband has consistently said at hustings that if he had have been an MP in 2003 he would not have voted in favour of the war. In a letter to Lib Dem voters, he said "I believe the argument is being conclusively won that we must recognise the profound mistake of the Iraq war."

However, it is significant that it is being said from Labour's conference stage by their leader and is something David would not have said.

Why David Miliband still matters

Nick Robinson | 19:00 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


This is Ed's week. So David keeps saying. After all, Ed won and David lost.

So why then is David Miliband's future obsessing this conference?

It is because David is much more than just a man defeated by his little brother and the favourite defeated by the outsider.

He is the standard bearer of those who fear that Ed Miliband will take his party to the left, will find it harder to say no than yes to his backers in the unions and will abandon the gains made in the New Labour years.

David is also the man who could stop Ed Balls becoming shadow chancellor. David would stick to Labour's plan to halve the deficit. The other Ed is pledged to abandon it.

So this is more than mere family soap opera; more than a voracious media filling a news vacuum at a conference where the speeches are being given by people who will soon be out of their jobs, talking about policy that may soon be re-written.

David Miliband's future and Labour's are inextricably linked.

The clash

Nick Robinson | 17:06 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Something tells me that when the Miliband boys were at school, they probably weren't punk rockers - but surely they will be remembering today the lyrics of that great single by The Clash to help them solve their dilemma, Should I Stay Or Should I Go. Just in case, here's a reminder: "If I go there will be trouble / And if I stay it will be double".

Miliband brothers and The Clash

Ed and David Miliband (above) and The Clash (below)

PS: David says he's not made his mind up whether to stay or go. Here, in summary, are the arguments on both sides:

    • Party unity
    • Loyalty to his brother
    • Politics is bigger than any man

    • Party unity (the media will never let the Miliband split story die)
    • Loyalty to his family (Louise and the boys)
    • There is more to life than politics

No wonder he's taking his time to decide.

Miliband tete-a-tete

Nick Robinson | 12:09 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


David Miliband's call for unity and pledge of no more cliques, factions and soap opera certainly didn't sound like the language of a man preparing to walk away from the shadow cabinet. Yet, so far, he refuses to say whether he'll stay or go.

After his speech this morning, and the warm reception for it, his wife Louise was in tears behind the stage. Her brother-in-law Ed hovered awkwardly, I'm told, as David consoled her. Then the two brothers went into the green room for a tete-a-tete which lasted nine minutes. Aware that the cameras were waiting for him, David returned to the hall to watch Alistair Darling's speech. When he emerges he will be asked why he won't make his future clear.

David Miliband - 'I'm on my way out'

Update 1225: Pursued by a vast rolling pack of cameras and reporters, David Miliband refused to answer questions about his future. As he fought to get through, it was perhaps unwise to keep saying: "Come on guys, I'm just on the way out."

David's future

Nick Robinson | 22:40 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010


A friend of David Miliband has told me that he is contemplating not running for the shadow cabinet - a decision he must make by this Wednesday.

David Miliband and Louise Shackleton


Both privately and publicly the man who was defeated for the Labour leadership has refused to answer journalists' questions about what he will do next. Colleagues insist that he has yet to make up his mind.

David spent most of today away from the conference with his wife Louise contemplating his defeat.

After reports that he'd left Manchester altogether, he returned to the bar of the main conference hotel insisting that he wanted to do nothing to distract from his brother Ed's first full day as party leader and joking that he'd had a nice day - enjoying a sleep-in and not having to write a speech.

His friend says that if David chooses not to stay in front-line politics - and at this stage nobody knows, perhaps not even the man himself - it will not be because he is sulking but because he wishes to give his brother the space he needs and to bring the Miliband pyschodrama to an end.

The news that David Miliband is even contemplating stepping aside from front-line politics is likely to lead to both his friends and his recent opponents urging him to stay the course.

What will David do now?

Nick Robinson | 18:07 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010


That is the question which now hangs over this Labour conference.

Last night, David Miliband shrugged off questions about his future by insisting that this was "Ed's day". Ed responded by saying that it was up to his brother to talk about his future - a line he repeated this morning.

I assumed then that this was simply a formula the two had agreed when they met some days ago to discuss how they would handle the result whichever way it went. However, I am now told that no-one knows the intentions of the man who lost the leadership.

David left the secure zone around this conference to check in to a hotel where he could have more peace and quiet. Ed is said to be "giving David time to take a deep breath with his family to consider his future".

So, here's what is clear tonight:

• It would be a devastating blow to Ed Miliband if his brother simply walked away

• Unless David specifically requests to stay put, he needs to be offered a move from his current job as shadow foreign secretary

• David cannot easily be made shadow home secretary given that crime was one of the few policy areas that divided the brothers in the leadership contest. Ed endorsed Ken Clarke's promise to reduce the prison population. David regarded it as a political open goal for Labour.

That leaves the job of shadow chancellor. Appointing Ed Balls to the job would infuriate Alistair Darling - given Balls's criticism of Darling's promise to cut the deficit in half in four years - and the party's remaining Blairites.

Giving the job to Yvette Cooper - who is, of course, Mrs Ed Balls - might seem to be a neat solution, but it would look like a ruse to keep Balls out of the job.

Only by appointing his brother to the job could Ed avoiding upsetting David and the Blairites. What's more, Ed Balls couldn't protest if the man who very nearly won the leadership became the shadow chancellor.

There was one straw in the wind today. It was what Labour's new leader said about that deficit.

During the leadership campaign Ed Miliband gave nudges and winks that he might re-examine the party's approach to the deficit. David gave his backing to the policy the party put forward at the election.

Today Ed moved towards David's position when he made it clear that he wouldn't oppose all the government's cuts and acknowledged that there would have been public-sector job losses if Labour had won the election.

Defining Ed

Nick Robinson | 10:54 UK time, Sunday, 26 September 2010


Define your enemy before he can define himself. That is what America's army of paid political strategists teach their clients.

When I read Ed Miliband's article in the Sunday Telegraph, I thought he'd learnt that advice. It talks of appealing to the mainstream, the squeezed middle and those who work hard and want to get on.

However, Ed Miliband spent much of his first full-length TV interview raising in order to rebut the things his enemies say about him.

Thus, he told us that he was not "Red Ed", not "Bob Crow's man", not planning "some lurch to the left" and kept saying "you don't need to be left wing..." to back his ideas. Oh yes, and he confirmed that the "era of New Labour is dead".

Labour's new leader needs to define himself in the minds of the British electorate soon. If he doesn't, focus groups will soon report that he's that bloke who defeated his big brother but keeps saying he loves him, and insists he's not Red Ed, and not the unions' man, and...

It's Ed

Nick Robinson | 18:19 UK time, Saturday, 25 September 2010


It was close: eye-wateringly, stomach-churningly, nail-bitingly close.

But one vote is enough. Any politician will tell you that and Ed Miliband won by many more votes than that.

He won it thanks to having the nerve, the chutzpah and the sheer ruthlessness to take on the favourite and the candidate of the party establishment who, just to complicate matters a tad, happened to be his big brother.

He won thanks to a promise to a party weary of battles between Blairites and Brownites to end the New Labour era, to disown the Iraq war and to reconnect with Labour's traditional working-class supporters.

He won thanks, though, to an electoral system which meant that people's second and third preferences count as much as their first and thanks to union support. His brother David won the first three rounds of voting and won more support amongst MPs and MEPs and ordinary party members.

What clinched the contest was the votes of union members - a fact that will be deployed ruthlessly by his political enemies.

That is just one of many hurdles Labour's new young leader will have to cross.

The first, though, is to repair relations with the man whose forced smiles turned to barely suppressed tears - the man who had been told he was his party's next leader for many years now - his brother David.

PS I can now pause to wipe the egg off my face. After the first round of voting I rashly said that it looked as if David might have done enough to win (his figures outperformed the recent polls). That's the perils of live telly for you.

Update 19:15: David Cameron called Ed Miliband from Chequers tonight to congratulate him on his victory.

The call lasted around three minutes. The prime minister told the new leader of the opposition that people would tell him that his was "the worst job in the world" but that it was not that bad. David Cameron promised to keep Mr Miliband in touch with matters of national security.

Ed Miliband responded by saying that he would lead "a responsible opposition" which would work with the government where they could.

The two men talked also about their families. David Cameron's fourth child was born a few weeks ago and Ed Miliband's partner Justine is expecting a second child in November.

Calling all ministers

Nick Robinson | 17:05 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


If you're a cabinet minister who still hasn't agreed to the cuts Team Osborne are demanding, the news is that you can now try your luck with Brother Pickles.

Eric Pickles


I speak of the coalition's hard man, Eric Pickles. He's just agreed the cuts DCLG will make and has, therefore, won his place on the Star Chamber - the final court of appeal for departments that can't do a deal with the Treasury. He'll sit alongside George Osborne, Danny Alexander, Frances Maude, William Hague and Caroline Spelman (who's the other cabinet minister who's also just signed up to a cuts plan).

Pickles has already won himself a reputation in Whitehall for the gusto with which he has attacked what he sees as over-spending and waste. On arriving at his new department, he let it be known that he was less than impressed with their purchase of a two-storey "Peace Pod" costing over £70,000.

At PMQs a while ago David Cameron read out the department's staff magazine description of it as "a 21st Century... space of quality, air and light, where we can... relax and refuel in a natural ebb and flow". Pickles cancelled his department's £120,000-a-year contract for a private firm to provide its press office with press cuttings and he forced DCLG to share audit and IT directors with other government departments.

Colleagues may decide that they'd rather do a few rounds with the Treasury than wait for Pickles to offer them bandages and sympathy after an appeal at the Star Chamber.

One insider predicts that, in fact, no minister will choose to appear at the Star Chamber since ministers will be less likely to get sympathy from those who've already agreed to cuts than from the Treasury.

Official - Vince is not a Marxist

Nick Robinson | 23:07 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Business Secretary Vince Cable has told a fringe meeting in Liverpool that an advance release of his speech to the Lib Dem Conference on Wednesday has been "interpreted as an outburst of Marxism" and that he has "had to go round explaining that that's not what I meant".

The offending words - "I am shining a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour" - have guaranteed him an appearance on several front pages. They were meant to enliven the potentially rather dry announcement of a "wide ranging consultation of takeovers, executive pay and corporate short-termism".

They were enough to provoke the director general of the CBI, Richard Lambert, to condemn Cable's "emotional" language and to remark waspishly that he looked forward to hearing Cable's "ideas for an alternative" to capitalism.

Late tonight Cable and his advisers were seen huddled over a text and making amendments to it. Perhaps, he was drafting that explanation of what he means by the "murky world of corporate behaviour".

Intriguingly Downing Street officials have let it be known they did know in advance what Cable was due to say and were happy with it.

'I don't agree with Nick'

Nick Robinson | 14:05 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


If Nick Clegg had stayed in Liverpool - instead of heading Stateside - on the day after his leader's speech, he would not have liked what he would have heard.

Speaker after speaker this morning has criticised the coalition's deficit reduction plans. One called George Osborne the "reaper of death" and dubbed "simply contemptible" his statement that welfare was a "lifestyle choice" for some.

Another insisted that "what most threatens the vulnerable... is ill-timed and excessive reductions in public expenditure and investment". Rebel-in-chief Bob Russell declared that "I do not accept that cuts are fair - they are a contradiction in terms."

Nick Clegg being interviewed by Nick Robinson

The key anxiety here is that, far from holding the Tories back, Nick Clegg is urging them on to cut deep and fast. It was summed up by the delegate who called Clegg "Mini-Me". I put that worry to the deputy prime minister in an interview this morning. You can read the transcript below:

Nick Robinson: Deputy prime minister, why did you tell the country, the party, to hold its nerve?

Nick Clegg: Because I think these are difficult times and we all know that this government, frankly any government, that has inherited the mess from Labour, the huge black hole in the public finances, is having to take decisions which are difficult, which are controversial, which provoke anxiety in people and yes, will possibly provoke unpopularity for a while as well. But we are absolutely convinced that if we don't take difficult decisions now, we'll only be making life worse for ourselves and for our children and our grandchildren later. So that's why I think we all, not just the Liberal Democrats, we all need to hold our nerve, do the right thing for the long-term benefit of the country.

NR: Isn't there another reason why they're anxious here and in the country? They thought you'd hold David Cameron back. They thought you'd hold the Tories back. You're the one urging them on, saying: go on: cut, cut as fast as you can.

NC: Well, I don't think that's fair. I think what we've done together is said: look, let's have a five-year plan during which we deal with the deficit problems so that by the next general election people are confident that the debt problem has been sorted. And by the way, that five-year plan is longer than many deficit-reduction plans elsewhere in Europe where they've had their hand forced by panic in the markets.

NR: Before the election, you said, not now, not this year, don't risk the recovery.

NC: Well, what I actually said before the general election, constantly and consistently, was that the timing of deficit reduction needed to be governed by economics. And economics clearly has made it absolutely essential that this government shows that we're going to get on top of this problem, not as a sort of mathematical accounting exercise. Because if you don't - I think people need to be quite clear about this - if you don't, we end up asking our children and our grandchildren to start paying our debt interest on our debts, money which should be going on their schools and hospitals. It isn't a fair thing to do.

NR: But you made a very big claim yesterday. You said two heads are better than one. This is the best government we could have had, not the Lib Dems on their own or the Tories on their own. This is it. This is the right government to have. And what some people would say to you, if there's any purpose in coalition, it's for a party in the centre like yours to say to the Tories: woah there, not so fast.

NC: Clearly there's a lot of evidence, I think, of the way in which we've been putting our particular imprint on things. It was our plan, for instance, which meant that 900,000 people on low pay have been taken out of paying any income tax altogether in the first Budget. It was our push for decency in old age, dignity in old age that has given the triple guarantee to pensioners, that the earnings link will be restored or their pensions will go up by inflation of 2.5%, that we were absolutely adamant that child poverty should not be affected. We've increased child tax credit and of course other things beyond the deficit: political reform, civil liberties and so on. So I think the mix, but I think the point I was trying to make, is that when the country faces such acute difficulties and not just the deficit, the war in Afghanistan, the disadvantage of too many children not getting the fair start in life they deserve, sometimes, sometimes it's not a bad thing if politicians say: look, to deal with these problems, we've got to set aside our differences and govern in the national interest.

NR: But are you capable, are you ready, if unemployment goes up in Sheffield, the city you represent or elsewhere, to say: hold on a second, this is causing more problems than it's solving? Are you ready to be the restraining hand?

NC: We've already been very explicit, and I feel this passionately as an MP who represents constituents in Sheffield, that we don't repeat the mistakes of the 1980s. That's why we've been very very clear that, for instance, we won't cut further in investment in buildings and in infrastructure which happened in the '80s, which meant that we had these crumbling school buildings and hospital buildings.

NR: Forgive me, it's largely words at the moment. People see cuts coming. They see that they're on a scale not since the 1920s and they think: what on earth did we put him in government for?

NC: Well, let's be clear, first in terms of the scale. The scale that Labour was planning is already the vast bulk of what we're planning. Four-fifths of the departmental cuts in a number of Whitehall departments were already planned by Labour. They say 20% over five years - that's about 5% every year over four years. We say 25%, that's about 6%. The differences are significant but they're not as big as some people think they are. Any party that was in power now would have to take some difficult decisions but we've, you say it's just words, we've set up a billion-pound regional growth fund to be specifically targeted at places like this in Liverpool.

NR: You've scrapped the regional development agencies. These budgets are higher than that £1bn.

NC: Wel,l actually the net, if you really want to look at the budgets of the regional development agencies, which is a rather arcane subject, you'll find that, actually there was a net loss in the whole arrangement.

NR: I'm going to ask you about your role in government. Are you the guy, have you already been the guy who is in that room, in power, saying: stop, enough, I am a restraining hand on you?

NC: I am the guy in the room who is saying if we're going to do this and do it in a way that is acceptable and understandable to the British people, it's got to be done as fairly as possible and I think we've already shown in the budgets with some of the examples I've given you that we're trying to do that. And I think you'll see, for instance, in the Comprehensive Spending Round that yes, there's going to be bad news but there's also going to be good news. We're going to provide additional money to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, something I've been advocating for the last decade, so that targeted help goes to those children from poor families who aren't getting the help they need in the classroom. That is a progressive thing to do.

NR: Now, in some areas, you're pushing this coalition on. One seems to be green taxes. Do you want it to be more expensive to drive?

NC: Well, we've been very clear that in our coalition agreement that we think the overall portion of taxes which deal within environmental problems needs to go up a bit because it's actually gone down in recent years. Whether it falls on motorists, that's not, that's certainly not the -

N: It's important to people watching. Do you want them to pay more to drive their car?

C: I totally understand this. Nothing has been decided. It's not all going to fall on the shoulders of motorists. We've been very open in the Budget already, for instance, that we're going to reorganise aviation taxes which is a classic example but can I just make the -

NR: It might be more expensive to fly and to drive. Will it be more expensive to eat at your house, put the electricity on?

NC: Can I make the most important point of all: it's going to be less expensive to work. That's the thing that's gone wrong, that for far too long, there's been this incentive for people to stay on benefits and taxes on work have been too high. We're going to bring taxes on work, particularly low-paid work, down because what I want is a tax system which is good for the environment, but even better as an incentive for people to work because that's the route out of poverty, that's the route out of this recession.

NR: So it's a deal, effectively? What you're saying is: yes, you will pay more in green taxes, but we hope to give you some money back?

NC: Well, we're already giving people money back. We're giving 900,000 people the freedom not to pay any income tax at all.

NR: One of the delegates at this conference called you "Mini-Me". I think what she was saying rather crudely is: you look like a Tory, you sound like a Tory, at the moment, you're behaving like one. Isn't she?

NC: Well, I mean, I laugh, only because I feel very comfortable in my own skin as someone who is a Liberal to his fingertips. Anyone who knows my views on everything from Iraq, to civil liberties, to political reform, to reform of the tax system knows that what I represent, as leader of the Liberal Democrats is a long, proud tradition of radical, progressive liberalism and it's different to the kind of heavy-handed statist sort of approach of government-knows-best from Labour and it's different from the kind of Conservatism that the Conservative party's represented down the ages and I'm very proud of the fact that we're now able to implement those values in government.

NR: And have you yet had to say to David Cameron: "no"?

NC: Of course.

NR: "Not in a coalition government, not in my name, not with my party involved"?

NC: Of course, and he's done it to me. We both constantly have to say: now hang on a minute, this is not your government, it's not my government, it's our shared government and therefore we need to share it together.

NR: And you'd like to share the list of things you've said no to with the British public, no doubt?

NC: No, because I don't think it's, I don't the British public wants to see, you know, politicians constantly display their dirty laundry. I think what we're doing, which I think is a refreshing change, is say we don't agree on everything. We know that. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown disagreed on everything but they pretended they didn't. We're open about the fact where our disagreements are, but we work in a partnership government to overcome those disagreements and explain to people what we're going to do and then get on and do it for the benefit of the country.

A largely defensive Clegg speech

Nick Robinson | 16:53 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


Turn back the clock three years and Nick Clegg is not yet leader of his party.

Nick Clegg


Turn it back another three and he is not even an MP.

But you have to go back not six years, but six and a half decades, to reach the time his party was last in government.

In the circumstances, you might have thought this would be a moment for Nick Clegg to launch a wild celebration. Not a bit of it.

His speech to Lib Dem conference as Deputy Prime Minister was largely defensive.

"Stick with it," he told a country which he described as "anxious" and "unsure about the future" and a party which had "got used to being outsiders, against every every government that's come along".

The government's spending cuts would not - he insisted - be a return to the '30s or the '80s and were not driven by an ideological desire to cut the size of the state.

We will - he reassured his party - never lose our soul.

This was the speech of a man who knows that things - in the short term at least - can only get worse, but who wants party and country to keep their eyes on the prize.

Lib Dem conference: Has it all gone right?

Nick Robinson | 10:40 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


Liverpool: This Liberal Democrat conference reminds me of a story George Best used to tell about his fans' lack of perspective.

George Best in Marbella, May 1972

George Best in Marbella, May 1972

The football legend was at the height of his fame and fortune but on a run of poor form on the pitch. In a smart London hotel, he called room service to bring up some iced champagne. When the waiter arrived in the suite, he recognised Best, barely glanced at the beautiful, naked woman lying on a bed covered in cash and, as he opened the bubbly, asked earnestly: "Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?"

It's the question some Liberal Democrat activists seem to be asking, ignoring the fact that they're back in government for the first time in more than six decades and that they now have five cabinet ministers, despite having only 8% of the MPs elected at the general election.

Not all here have lost perspective. One conference veteran tells me that he had responsibility for security at the first-ever Lib Dem conference. The policeman in charge explained that the threat level was judged on a scale of one to 10 - the Lib Dems were nought. The man from the party pleaded in vain to be upgraded to at least level one.

Nick Clegg arriving at the ACC Liverpool

Nick Clegg arriving at the ACC Liverpool

No such worries these days. Now the Lib Dems, like their Tory and Labour big brothers, are protected by a ring of steel. Their leader is driven around in an armoured Daimler. The party matters in the way that it once dreamed of.

So why the fretting here in Liverpool? A few opposed this coalition in the first place, though most will, for now, follow Charles Kennedy's lead when he declares that, whatever his doubts, this arrangement must now succeed. Every one of Nick Clegg's predecessors has aired doubts, leading one Clegg ally to complain that they're acting like a father who can't bear to see his sons succeed where he failed.

Many have policy worries: about the cuts, of course, about free schools and about NHS re-organisation. This is inevitable in a centre-left party with a largely centre-right leadership.

The majority though seem to welcome being in government and to understand the compromises that that makes necessary. Their worry is how their party can get out of this coalition alive, without either being smothered by the Tories' embrace, or strangled by an electorate angry about it.

The answer coming from the leadership is clear: they're playing a very, very long game. Their aim is to silence, once and for all by 2015, the perennial election claim that a Lib Dem vote is a wasted vote and the party is one of protest and not of power.

They point out that, at this point in the last Parliament, David Cameron was not yet Conservative leader and the Lib Dems had three leaders to get through - Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and temporally Vince Cable - before they reached Nick Clegg. Their message is, in other words, that this may not be perfect but, as George Best found, it can feel pretty damn good and a whole lot better than what they'd expected a few years ago.


Always look on the bright side

Nick Robinson | 13:10 UK time, Sunday, 19 September 2010


In Liverpool...

Will Nick Clegg stop at nothing to rouse his party's storm troopers?

This morning he told Andrew Marr: "We are condemned to take some very difficult decisions."

Condemned is an interesting choice of word.

It is his answer to the majority who told pollsters ComRes that he had "sold out".

Clegg is replying, in effect: "I had no choice. I am duty bound."

Be careful what you wish for

Nick Robinson | 19:27 UK time, Saturday, 18 September 2010


En route to Liverpool.

Hush, hush, whisper who dares? The Liberal Democrat Conference actually matters. Journalists, lobbyists and, dare one say it, Lib Dems who long regarded it as, at best, an amusing aperitif at the start of the new political season and, at worst, a waste of time are now converging on Liverpool.

They're coming not just for the leader's speech and those motions on goldfish or pornography or abolishing the monarchy.

Yet the man who's made his party matter clearly feels the need to reassure rather than to celebrate.

Consider this list of Cleggisms from his first day at Conference :

Coalition isn't always easy ...
The nervousness has not disappeared overnight ...
[It's a] leap into the unknown ...
Walking through the door of power doesn't mean you lose your soul...

Cheer up, guys. You're in government for the first time in over six decades.

Or would you rather go back to debating those goldfish motions and hearing journalists grumble about being "made to go the Lib Dems"?

A candidate for cuts

Nick Robinson | 10:27 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


At a time when all the main parties agree on the need for cuts (albeit that they disagree on the speed, the scale and the programmes which should go) it is incumbent on all to identify at least some candidates for the chop.

So here goes. Let's cut the hyperbole.

In the past two days alone, I have read or heard warnings that planned spending cuts will cause civil unrest on the streets, lead to a recruitment boom for the Real IRA, ensure Christmas comes early for criminals, undermine the war effort in Afghanistan and allow the slaying of the first born. OK, so I made the last one up.

Under previous Tory governments - before the NHS was ring-fenced - public spending rounds were accompanied by shrill warnings of what was to come. Interesting that this time round the "shroud waving" is being led by the police and security forces.

Signs of things to come

Nick Robinson | 17:24 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


An angry Lib Dem MP succeeded in having the chancellor hauled to the Commons this afternoon to explain why he briefed the BBC and not MPs about a plan to cut £4bn from the welfare budget.

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Bob Russell made clear that:

"While I have no time for the welfare cheats, to try and blame this country's financial ills on that small category of the population, I think, is unethical"

before adding:

"I find it somewhat immature, this turf war between your office and that of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions."

The chancellor replied that his relationship with Iain Duncan Smith was "strong" and blamed Labour for the need to cut a welfare system which they had failed to reform.

Yvette Cooper for Labour attacked George Osborne for not being straight with the Commons - a charge she had to withdraw as "Unparliamentary".

It is a picture of politics for the next few months to come. Lib Dem unease, Tory attacks on Labour for causing the problem and - worth a few bob at the bookies perhaps - Yvette Cooper as the woman facing George Osborne at the despatch box.

As discussed here recently, whichever Miliband becomes leader may conclude that they can't live with her husband as shadow chancellor.

Another Winter of Discontent? Unlikely

Nick Robinson | 14:44 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


For more than 30 years, talk of strike action at the TUC Conference has been greeted by headlines warning about a repeat of the Winter of Discontent.

For more than 30 years, those warnings have proved to be wrong.

This year, they are likely to be proved wrong again.

Pickets keeping warm outside the main entrance of Felixstowe docks

Unions were stronger 30 years ago

The Winter of Discontent - in 1978/9 - was significant not because it was the high point for days lost due to strikes nor even because it was the only time the dead were left unburied thanks to strike action. It mattered because it triggered a shift in public attitudes to the trade unions which contributed to the election of a Tory government committed to using the law to limit union power.

Voters observed that the relationship between a Labour government and the unions had broken down. The consequences were both visible and distressing - not just those unburied bodies in Liverpool but rubbish lying uncollected in streets elsewhere. All this came after governments of both left and right had tried and largely failed to limit union power.

This set of circumstances is very unlikely to be repeated. The unions are weaker, the laws limiting their actions much stronger and the desire for that style of confrontation is simply not there.

The rhetoric this morning at the TUC was robust - dubbing the government's planned cuts "obscene", "reckless" and "lunacy" and pledging the "fight of our lives" against a "demolition government". However, the plans of most unions are, so far at least, much more cautious. Most union leaders know that they will only win a ballot for strike action if their own members' pay and conditions are directly threatened. They know that their enemies would love to portray the battle ahead as one between unions and the people rather than the unions and the people standing up to the government. That's why the TUC is talking of building a coalition against the cuts in which they hope people will recognise that, in David Cameron's phrase "we are all in this together".

For now ministers are desperate to sound conciliatory, promising to consult and work with union leaders who are expecting to meet both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in the next few weeks.

What the coalition should fear is not another Winter of Discontent (capital "W" and capital "D") but a winter in which unions, Labour under new leadership and those who fear the effect on their lives and livelihoods form their own coalition against the cuts.

Harsh reality of spending cuts

Nick Robinson | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


Listen hard in Whitehall and you'll hear the sound of ministerial squealing as ministers have to turn their rhetoric about tackling the deficit into the painful reality of spending cuts.

Although negotiations between the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions are far from over, George Osborne's letting it be known that he's confident of saving £4bn from the welfare budget which he told me today is "completely out of control". This is in addition to the £11bn of welfare cuts - to be made by 2014/5 - which he announced in the Budget.

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The Treasury says that the exact composition of the cuts is still being discussed but the chancellor told me he's targeting "people who think that it's a lifestyle choice to just sit on out of work benefits". When I challenged him to explain how his promise is different from that made by politicians of both main parties in the past, Mr Osborne replies "the money won't be there to support that lifestyle choice".

The chancellor also made it clear that arguments are still raging about whether more can be found by limiting payments to pensioners - such as the winter fuel allowance, bus pass and free TV licence - without breaking David Cameron's election promise to maintain them. The Treasury is pushing for any saving it can but the prime minister is concerned, I'm told, not to follow the example of George Bush Senior who proclaimed "read my lips: no new taxes" and then put them up.

The £4bn savings figure assumes no savings from these universal benefits which are paid to everyone of a certain age regardless of their income.

Combined with the earlier savings of £11b this is still a relatively modest saving - around 6% - on the annual welfare budget. However, the fierce arguments about saving less than £2bn from housing benefit shows how politically toxic welfare cuts can be.

Painful time for the PM

Nick Robinson | 17:16 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Anyone who's lost their father will know just how traumatic it can be. It feels like a rupture in the natural order of things. Dad is no longer there to give advice and perspective; to laugh with or - at times - at; and to be the head of the family.

Ian Cameron

Of course, anyone who's middle-aged knows that it could happen at any time. In that sense David Cameron is simply living through an experience many are painfully familiar with.

Very few, however, have lived through a few weeks as dramatic and traumatic as the prime minister.

Changing jobs and moving house top the list of stressful experiences. Add to these fighting an election, forming the first coalition in 50 years and having a baby and you feel weary just thinking about it. All this less than two years after the Cameron's buried their child.

So far, despite all this, David Cameron has looked relaxed as prime minister - able to relax, to switch off and to separate the personal from the political, say civil servants who remember how hard Gordon Brown found to do any of that.

He once said of his father that:

"You know the glass with him was half full.. it was overflowing... normally with something pretty alcoholic in it and this great sense of optimism. I think, I hope, I have got my sense of optimism from him."

Inevitably the next few weeks will be a period of grieving for David Cameron.

It will coincide with an intense period of decision-making which will determine the future of his premiership, his government and the country as he draws up a programme of spending cuts on a scale not seen for decades.

He is facing a massive personal as well as a political test. He will need all of his father's optimism.

When is a cut not a cut?

Nick Robinson | 11:02 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


David Cameron and George Osborne have taken a lot of flak for their promise to protect the NHS from spending cuts by ring-fencing its budget. The Tory right said it was a mistake, their coalition partners insisted pre-election that it was unwise and even Labour's Andy Burnham said he wouldn't do it (preferring to transfer some money into social care instead).

David Cameron watching X-ray examination in hospital

For the Tories the promise was a piece of political symbolism - evidence, they hoped, of the values of the "modernised, caring and compassionate Conservatism".

Like so many rows about spending this one may turn out to be rather artificial as evidence mounts that cuts in the NHS are coming and are needed merely to cope with going from huge spending increases to budgets that are flat in real terms.

Yesterday Gloria de Perio - a former colleague and now the new MP for Ashfield - quoted a a letter from Nottinghamshire County PCT to Kingsmill hospital in her constituency warning of cuts of over 8% next year in the budget for care. I'm told by those who know about the NHS that these sort of letters are the beginning of negotiations and not the final figure but it's evidence that even though the coalition will insist the NHS budget is not being cut it may not feel that way up and down the country.

The NHS has been told by its chief executive, Sir David Nicholson, that it needs to find between £15bn and £20bn of savings in the next couple of years.

A recent report from the Royal College of Nursing has identified at least 10,000 jobs under threat in just 100 NHS trusts.

PS. I've been travelling down the A1 sampling public opinion on public spending cuts. Tonight I report on the TV News at 6 and 10 from Letchworth, where I've asked people whether they would prefer bigger welfare cuts to allow less to be cut from public services.

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They're off...

Nick Robinson | 17:07 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


Cutting short MPs' holidays no doubt seemed like a good, populist idea a few weeks ago. It probably doesn't look that way now. The coalition has given its opponents a platform in the weeks running up to the party conferences.

Andy Coulson

Thus, on MPs' first day back, the home secretary was forced to answer awkward questions about phone hacking, the News of the World and Andy Coulson. It produced a good deal of heat but not much light.

The government's position is that the police and a select committee have looked into the hacking allegations and found no evidence that Coulson knew it was happening when he was editor of the News of the World.

The opposition states that the police haven't looked hard enough and it's time they looked harder - ideally, until they find something that forces the prime minister's close ally out.

That is why Andy Coulson's future now depends to a large extent on what the police now do. If they conclude that there is little new - in terms of evidence rather than journalism - in what the New York Times reported then Coulson can breathe a sigh of relief. If, on the other hand, they do find new evidence, re-open their inquiry and take Coulson up on his offer to be interviewed, life could get very uncomfortable for him.

Yates of the Yard has long and painful experience of being dragged into a lengthy and costly inquiry which pitted the Met against the government of the day. My hunch is that he's unlikely to relish the prospect of having to do so again.

Even if I'm right, David Cameron will now face questions on this at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. If he'd left the Commons holidays as they were he could have avoided them for weeks.

Waste not...

Nick Robinson | 08:38 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


A new BBC poll demonstrates why politicians love to promise to cut waste and inefficiency but fear promises to cut anything else.

Budget box

It asked people what portion of their taxes are used in ways that do not serve the "interests and values of British people". The answer was 46p in the pound. (since that's the average of 1,000 people's responses some thought the figure much higher).

The poll confirms that there is a clear majority in favour of "taking steps to reduce the government's budget deficit and debt". 60% back that proposition.

Below is a piece I wrote about public attitudes to cuts for the Mail on Sunday.


It's the debate the country never had. The one we should have had at the election. It will soon be time to make the choices that could have been made before polling day but which our political leaders feared to discuss openly.

It's now clearer than ever that the party leaders went through weeks of campaigning and a historic series of televised debates without spelling out the "tough choices" they're so fond of talking about. Instead they chose a narrow strip of territory to fight the same battle again and again.

Think back and you may just recall those days in March, April and May when we were told that what really, really mattered was whether £6bn in wasteful spending could be cut this year in order to avoid a tax rise. Given the scale of the decisions ministers now have to make it was the equivalent of having a punch-up about a fiver dropped on the floor while your house is burning down.

I recall Gordon Brown's white anger when I asked him repeatedly in an interview whether he was being straight with the public about the need to cut spending. Interviewers, I was told through thinly stretched lips should never question the prime minister's honesty. For months the "C" word wouldn't pass Brown's lips at all. We now know - thanks to Peter Mandelson's memoirs - the fury he felt when cajoled by Mandelson, Alistair Darling and others into letting that word - "cuts" - pass his lips. "Well, are you satisfied all of you?" he's said to have demanded. "We should not be in this place! Don't give me all this about spending cuts!"

Brown felt that to concede the case for cuts would give the voters a choice between "nice cuts" from Labour and "nasty cuts" from the Tories - a choice he felt would "kill us" .

David Cameron soon dropped talk of an "age of austerity" and spelling out painful choices when he saw that it was killing his poll lead. He used to brush away my requests for more candour by simply pointing out that he'd gone a damn sight further than the prime minister who, after all, had all the figures.

Nick Clegg who'd once warned of the need for "savage cuts" chose during the election to emphasise that he sided with Labour in warning of the risks of cuts now. In a post-election interview with me he admitted that he'd changed his mind about this before polling day but hadn't got round to telling voters about it until afterwards.

This lack of candour all-round has a legacy. By the time of the election the country - or at least the vast majority of it - had come to accept that the government had been spending too much, borrowing too much and had to start cutting. However, huge questions were, and remain, unanswered for most voters - how much should be cut, when should it start, how fast it should be done and, crucially, which programmes should face the axe?

George Osborne has voluntarily put himself into an economic strait-jacket - announcing targets for cuts and giving away his capacity to massage the Treasury's economic forecasts if he doesn't meet them. Between now and the announcement of his spending review on 20 October ministers are meeting behind closed doors to carve up a national cake that just got a whole lot smaller. Historians will note with interest the government's choice of the term "Star Chamber" for these meetings - inviting a comparison with the secret courts which once handed out summary justice on behalf of unaccountable kings. What is decided there will shape not just the immediate economic and political future of this country but people's lives for years to come.

Over the past few days I've been trying to engage voters up and down the country in the debate for a series of reports which will run on BBC News this week. I've been driving down the A1 - Britain's somewhat unglamorous answer to Route 66. I've been getting my kicks from Gateshead to Grantham and onto Letchworth. It's not quite, I must confess, as exciting as Amarillo and New Mexico but I've been fascinated by what I've heard.

Vehicles on the A1

What I didn't hear once is anyone argue that there was no need to cut or no cause to worry about the deficit. What I did hear again and again is deep anxiety about where cuts might fall and the impact they might have.

Going for a run - or in my case a wheezy jog - with Gateshead's Low Fell Running Club I heard a largely middle class crowd worry that cuts made too deep and too fast could damage the North East. Memories of the 1980s recession are still raw here. Dependence on the public sector still strong - almost one in three jobs is paid for by public money.

At an engineering firm in Grantham I heard workers worry that cuts might destroy consumer confidence bringing back the days not long gone when the talk was of firings not hirings. At a hairdressers down the road customers expressed their fears that the government might cut the wrong things. Some simply did not believe ministers' promises to protect health spending.

I asked buyers and sellers at a car boot sale in Letchworth whether they'd rather welfare be cut than public services. Most agreed they would but once I suggested that perhaps they might like to give up their tax credits or their free bus pass they became rather less keen.

The opinion polling confirms the story. The argument about whether to cut is over. Around three-quarters of voters tell pollsters that spending cuts are necessary to cut Britain's debt. The other arguments have, however, scarcely begun. If you ask people whether they fear that the planned cuts may be too deep the numbers start to change.

One recent poll showed around two-fifths of people share that worry. Another showed that figure rising to well over half once people were told that the government planned cuts of a quarter in the budgets of most government departments. More than half of people tell pollsters they fear a second recession. These anxieties grow louder the further north you are, when you speak to women not men, and to those who work in the public rather than the private sector.

Those barely suppressed doubts and fears are the reason the politicians were so cautious at election time. However, in the past few days the debate has begun to open up again. Gordon Brown's old ally Ed Balls has warned that even the policy his party advocated at the election risked driving the economy back into recession.

Thus, there are now not two but three political positions on how soon and how far to cut spending - the government's, the previous government's and those who warn that that consensus is as wrong as those which led Britain to adopt the Gold Standard or join the Euro.

The argument is where Gordon Brown wanted it to be - not between nice and nasty cuts but between "deficit deniers" and "growth deniers". Privately, I've heard even Tory cabinet ministers wonder how wise it is to cut as far and as fast as they are committed to doing.

This is the debate the BBC is now trying to engage viewers, listeners and readers with. That's why they're staging 12 major regional television debates across England, sending me driving down the A1 and will air other reports and features. Bizarrely some newspapers and some politicians suggest that this is doing the government's work for them. Some ministers fear exactly the reverse. Naturally, politicians on all sides are nervous about a debate they didn't dare to have openly at the election.

Deep down, however, they know that this debate is long, long overdue.

Labour leadership: Divided on the deficit

Nick Robinson | 11:18 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010


At last a substantial issue has surfaced in the Labour leadership race. It's the deficit and how quickly Labour should pledge to cut spending to tackle it.

Ed Balls has come out fighting against not just the coalition's policy but the one which his own party fought the last election on. Cutting the deficit in half in four years is too ambitious he says. He urges his party to challenge the consensus and to answer critics who attack "deficit deniers" as "growth deniers".

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Alistair Darling's policy is still backed by David Miliband. Brother Ed meantime describes it cryptically as a "starting point"- hinting, although not spelling out, that he would, like the other Ed, re-write it.

Meantime, Tony Blair warns about the dangers of not tackling the deficit in language David Cameron must wish he could match.

Old opposition hands advise that it is never wise to spell out what you'd do in government years before an election. Messrs Balls and Blair have now made it hard to avoid. They have, though, created another problem.

If David Miliband wins the leadership contest it would be nigh on impossible to make Ed Balls shadow chancellor since they have publicly disagreed on the most important aspect of economic policy.

PS. After my apology earlier in the week I have a confession. I am involved in what some see as a BBC conspiracy to examine the most important issue of the day. I am travelling down the A1 making a series of films on public attitudes to spending cuts and how to deal with the deficit. They'll be broadcast next week.

William Hague's extraordinary statement

Nick Robinson | 20:34 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


This, says William Hague, is "the straightforward truth", in one of the most extraordinary statements I have ever read from a senior politician.

The foreign secretary admits sharing twin hotel rooms with the man he later appointed - at taxpayers' expense - as his special adviser.

Today Christopher Myers resigned his position.

Hague insists that "Any suggestion that his appointment was due to an improper relationship between us is utterly false" before going much further denying that "I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man".

Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague addresses delegates during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 08/10/2009

William Hague addresses delegates at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 2009

Friends say that Hague has got to the end of his tether with repeated rumour and innuendo that he's secretly gay and issued this comprehensive statement because he wishes to kill this story "once and for all for the sake of Ffion" adding that "we wish everyone to know that we are very happily married".

It goes on to reveal a sad, and up till now private, story about his marriage.

Ffion, it says, has "suffered multiple miscarriages" and the couple "are still grieving for the loss of a pregnancy this summer".

Hague knows that this is an open invitation to prurient media organisations to challenge the truth of his statement.

It is also an invitation for public sympathy. It is a story that, in tomorrow morning's papers, will rival the tales told by Tony Blair.

Blair book's message to Labour is clear

Nick Robinson | 17:51 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


There's an old saying: don't look in the crystal ball, read the book.

David Miliband and Tony Blair

It is clear that Tony Blair wants not just to write Labour's history but to help shape its future. The test of the political significance of his book is whether it marks the end of the journey he led his party on or helps to ensure that it continues?

The re-opening of old political wounds will be enough to make some refuse to listen to what their former leader says.

Many may bridle at his refusal to apologise for Iraq, to condemn David Cameron's planned cuts or to accept that the banking crisis has made the case for more government and more regulated markets.

There will, though, be some who do listen to the Labour Party's greatest communicator and unrivalled election winner.

His message to them was clear. Don't do what our party has always done and allow one election defeat to be followed by others. Abandon the New Labour path at your peril. In other words - though he never says so explicitly in his book or his interviews - vote for David Miliband to be our next leader.

PS. I will turn my attention to William Hague's extraordinary statement a little later.

Blair and Brown: An apology

Nick Robinson | 08:14 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I would like to apologise for my reporting of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the years they were together in government. Some said it was tittle tattle, others that it was speculation, a few dared to suggest that it was fabrication.

Gordon Brown and Tony BlairI now accept that I made mistakes. Things were worse - much worse - than I reflected at the time.

I did not report then but now can that:

• Tony Blair blamed Gordon Brown for starting the cash for honours row which led to the first ever police investigation into a serving prime minister

• Gordon Brown threatened to trigger that row if he didn't get his way on a policy which affects the pensions of millions of voters

• Mr Blair did renege on a deal to stand down before the 2005 election

• He did not sack Gordon Brown because he believed that "let loose" he might lead a left wing rebellion

• The PM turned to drink to deal with the stress of dealing with someone he regarded as "very very difficult" and "maddening"

• Tony Blair knew that Gordon Brown would be a hopeless prime minister

Tony Blair's memoirs remind me of Princess Diana's extraordinary Panorama interview. They confirm that what was reported about what happened behind the scenes was just the half of it.

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