Though I never got round to finishing his book The State We’re In, I’ve always admired Will Hutton. A former stockbroker, banker and economics editor before he took over at the Work Foundation his writing has always seemed equally independent-minded and well informed.

Yet I found his latest pre-budget piece in the Observer (20th June) both disappointing and unsatisfactory.

On Chancellor Osborne’s promised measures to implement an unprecedented cutback in public spending, Hutton has this to say:-

“If we are going to embark on such a course, there has to be a national consensus that it is right. What is proposed, if we are to believe the pre-budget speeches and leaks, is the closest to an economic scorched earth policy we will ever have lived through. If it is to work, we have to be prepared to accept not just enormous economic sacrifice, but to regard it as legitimate. There has to be complete honesty about why the measures are being taken. The reasons have to be unanswerable. The economics must be unimpeachable. The measures themselves have to be extremely skilfully implemented and seen to be fair.
This is not the case just now.”


I can agree to his last sentence, but the rest is plain dreaming. As an outline of how we might like politics to work, it’s a first-class wish list; as an analysis of how politics works at present it’s just unreal.

My guess is that George Osborne believes he’s got all his ducks in a row. The only disputes that have any traction just now are over the timing of the start of fiscal retrenchment and the timespan of its implementation.

Those disputes may prove critically important but opposition, in parliament at least, is hamstrung by Labour having sold a pre-election pass on reducing the deficit. Arguments about the ratio of spending cuts to tax rises have failed to catch light and there’s been an almost concerted softening-up of public expectations from ConDem cheerleaders in the media, think tanks and the Bank of England. Osborne’s latest stroke in recruiting former New Labour minister and arch-privatiser John Hutton to lead a review of public sector pensions is simply icing.

The direction of travel is set and will be stuck to; times of departure and overall journey time are secondary. As Osborne has no idea what obstacles he might meet, that’s inevitable. The advantage of exaggerated targets and timescales is to draw out the opposition he anticipates as early as possible and to allow himself room for tactical retreat where unavoidable.

Pressure on him to trim is as likely to come from his coalition partners as from public opposition. Where the material of his financial strategy rubs, expect more inquiries and commissions. Where a risk of deflection from his plotted course arises expect the confidence of financial markets to compel timely correction.

Neither national consensus, nor legitimacy, fairness, honesty, nor unimpeachable economics are necessary to impose enormous economic sacrifice; just power, resolve and tactical nous.

How far Osborne and Co. have these, we’ll see.

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Special pleading always seems invidious but what got my goat today were Government plans to do away with Child Trust Funds to knock £320m off the bankers’ bail-out deficit.

In part this was because I hadn’t expected to be directly affected so soon.

For the past few years, at birthdays and Christmas I’ve been putting a few quid into the Trust Funds of my nieces’ kids. There are 2 funds set up by their Mums just now. This will grow to 4 when the twins of a third niece get theirs. Another youngster is due by August, so all being well it’ll be 5 by Christmas this year.

They all live miles away, have plenty of toys already and I wouldn’t know where to start in getting them clothes for presents. Sizes, styles and designer brands are, for me at least, a mystery, objectionable or both.

In the past I’d probably have put a cheque in the post and left it to their mothers to use wisely. The money would have been spent not saved. Neither household has ever been flush with money; my eldest niece was until recently a lone parent undergraduate having to concurrently negotiate the student loan and benefit systems.

Child Trust Funds offered an opportunity to provide direct help for their kids’ future in a way they would probably not be in a position to do themselves for many years.

They also had the virtue of being untouchable by parents. I know from my own experience the stress that comes with unexpected and unavoidable bills and their capacity to wreck longer term financial planning, however well intentioned.

No parent raids their kid’s piggy bank unless they really have to. The desperation needed to discuss it with them if they’re old enough – because, after all, it’s theirs – and trying to explain it’s the only resource available, I find heart-rending. I took part in discussions like that myself – as a kid. Child Trust Funds help avoid those situations. They were and remain a good idea.

Tax-free savings accounts will continue of course; it’s just that they won’t be solely for kids’ benefit at 18 and untouchable for anything else. Trust funds will also continue, but I foresee no-one in my extended family, or anyone else I know, engaging a lawyer to draw up a deed to benefit their children at 18.

Financial planning is a world away from those whose low income means a hand-to-mouth existence; where loan applications, credit checks and servicing debt are abiding features of family life.

For example, my nieces wouldn’t know what to make of http://www.tom-brown.com; the website which provides “Your independent guide to private schools” and lists 8 options to “get the Inland Revenue to ‘subsidise’ your school fees”. It simply doesn’t apply to them. They want the best for their kids no less than anyone else but that means they’re vitally concerned that their local SureStart doesn’t close.

To provide my nieces’ kids with what, until May 6th, they could have expected on reaching 18; just to ensure they each receive an equal benefit from their Child Trust Funds will probably cost me an extra £1100 over the next few years. I’ll consider it money well spent.

Should I be around at the time to talk it through, I’m hopeful it’ll provide a useful part of their political education.

If they remain as inquisitive as they already are, I’m sure they’ll want to understand why it was that a government during their childhood decided it was wiser to feather-bed speculators and gamblers running banks and hedge-funds than to invest in them and their future.

Many people, including myself, resented the treatment of Gordon Brown in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election.

Academics and senior civil servants had made it plain before, during and after the vote that Brown would, by convention, stay in No. 10 until he could recommend to the Queen that someone (possibly himself) could command the confidence of the Commons and be invited to form a government.

Now I’m neither fan nor defender of the UKs arcane convention-based unwritten constitution, particularly its’ involvement with the head of one of the most troubled families ever to have escaped the attention of social workers. But the media treatment of Brown as a squatter in Downing St. was up there with that meted out to Kinnock in 1992.

For example, from The Sun:-
“A MAN aged 59 was squatting in a luxury home near the Houses of Parliament last night.
The squatter, named as a Mr Gordon Brown from Scotland, was refusing to budge from the Georgian townhouse in Downing Street, central London – denying entry to its rightful tenant. “

And from The Daily Mail:-
“From green-eyed Chancellor to the ‘squatter of No10’, Gordon Brown finally admits he can’t hang on to job he coveted for so long”

Though tempting, we can’t even blame Nick Clegg for this, although, following the first televised leaders’ debate, he did raise an issue of housing tenure:-

“It would be preposterous for Gordon Brown to end up like some squatter in No 10 because of some constitutional nicety.”

Or even David Icke:- “Gordon Brown is really a squatter”

No, we have to lay blame squarely at the door of the so-called Tory intelligentsia. After all, it was The Spectator, under it’s then owner/editor Harold Creighton which, back in March 1974, ran an editorial saying this about Ted Heath following the inconclusive general election of February that year:-

“The squatter at No.10 Downing St. has at last departed,”
“He clung with grubby fingers to the crumbling precipice of his power…”*

Seriously, some folk were so disorientated by the 2010 result that they were on the verge of crediting Sun or Mail journalists with originality.
_________________________________________________________________________________________

*Andy Beckett – When the Lights Went Out, Faber and Faber, London, 2009

I’m not sure I’m ready for months and possibly years of pundits spotting evidence of microscopic fissures in the LibCon coalition; it’s depressing, invariably disappointing and counter-productive.

Already the Independent has led with a “First cracks in coalition” piece and there will be many to follow in a similar vein. There are enough recalcitrant Tory backbenchers and Lib-Dem consciences about, only too happy to play the Grand Old Duke of York for their time in the spotlight, that the political significance of such wishful thinking will be missed.

Even Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy found the temptation impossible to resist when he led a piece on protests about Theresa May’s appointment, with;-

“A potentially fractious split has already opened up between Conservatives and Libdems over the issue of equality.”

Oh come on. “Cracks”, “splits”.

We’re not talking about some obscure Trotskyist tendency meeting in the upstairs room of an inner-city pub countering central committee edicts from genuine ideological conviction. These are politicians who already have their hands dirty; in fact they’re up to their elbows in it. LibCon MPs willing, never mind able, to bring down this coalition can probably be counted on a mittened hand.

And it’s directly into the hands of Clegg and Cameron that this approach will play.

Both are new young leaders about whom the public is uncertain. Had there not been that uncertainty neither would be where they find themselves. Both are untested. Cameron sees himself as the heir to Blair but his lack of a Clause IV moment leaves his authority questionable. Clegg has a third of his parliamentary grouping now sitting in positions they didn’t dare dream of.

Neither would find anything more helpful than to emerge from the first period of their coalition with their reputations enhanced by their tough but successful handling of intra-party dissent for the greater good of the strong and stable government they’ve offered the country. The recalcitrants sounding off before they’ve even heard the first Queens Speech seem happy to oblige; writing their own names in the Whips’ black books even before parliament is in session.

Anyone opposing the coalition should be concerned to stop any narrative about the effectiveness of its leaders gaining traction. Cameron made the wrong call on the credit crunch and has flip-flopped since, but despite a poor campaign and election result he played a good hand well to reach No.10.

We should acknowledge this, but deny his legitimacy.

He lost the election just like the other two main parties and is as much an ‘unelected’ PM as Gordon Brown was because he failed to lead his party to a majority in the country.

Shifting attention from his actual failures to so-called cracks and splits that, if they exist at all, will count for nothing in the long run is premature, mistaken and bad politics.

Ménage a deux….

May 14, 2010

Maybe the paucity of some journalists imaginations meant it was inevitable that post election negotiations between political parties would be represented as a dance of courtship. Wouldn’t haggling with a spiv over a crash-damaged second-hand motor have been closer to the mark? Or an eBay auction?

The lazy-option analogy was taken beyond any notion of straightforward dowry bargaining intended to yield a Commons majority and threw up some dire sexism, well highlighted here by Libby Brooks.

In what may have been a pointed reference to Cameron’s heralded post-S.28 modernisation of the Tories or perhaps just a prod at Clegg’s, would-you-guess, liberalism, the Evening Standard went beyond the rollercoaster courtship.

“A VERY CIVIL PARTNERSHIP” was their headline of 12 May with the principals looking, apparently, “boyish and relaxed” as they announced the new politics of their coalition government. I know, I know.

Like me, I suppose many folk will not yet have attended a civil partnership ceremony.

I wanted to test the analogy so I looked up what the Registration Service offers, by way of words of commitment, to those seeking legal recognition of their relationship. What I came up with were these:-

“(Dave) and (Nick) now wish to affirm publicly their relationship and to offer to each other the security that comes from vows sincerely made and faithfully kept.”

Measured, low key but fitting words of solemn commitment.

It came as something of a shock then, when I read through the pages of vows they had actually made to each other in cementing the future in politics they plan to share.

What is one to make of their proposed new, and now infamous, 55% requirement to dissolve parliament?

And this, of course is where the courtship leitmotif runs close to collapsing in on itself.

After all whoever heard of a prenuptial agreement designed not simply to protect the assets of the richest partner, but to stop either walking away without the approval of the other (whose conduct might well have been the catalyst)?

And after all, these youngish parents of our new politics; surely they ought not to need a vow designed to stop them double-crossing each other at the first opportunity for party advantage? My goodness, Dave sought to reassure the City with his male lineage; forefathers whose word was ever their bond.

Wasn’t it the Peoples’ Princess who complained there were three in her marriage?

Perhaps it’s escaped Dave and Nick that their ménage also contains another.

In days before the advent of new politics, it used to be called the electorate.

I just watched the Cameron Boy’s speech; the first from our newly unelected Prime Minister.

Successfully, in but a few carefully chosen words, he managed to plumb the depths of his shallowness. He doesn’t just ooze insincerity; he sweats it, like an over-lit, am-dram prima donna on an under-rehearsed first night.

Each time Brown rises from the backbenches, Cameron’s expensively tutored self-assurance will battle the unfortunate and corrosive truth that he’s an illegitimate, lightweight, loser.

That might be unfair; remember the Tory PPB on the Hung Parliament Party?

“Under-the table deals will be the order of the day and policies will be bickered over by those more interested in serving their careers than their country.”

That’s precisely what it said.

Now I never accused him of not being prescient; though it does strike me, given the figures, that it’s rather more likely to have been a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sky’s the limit…..

May 11, 2010

Sports news just in – despite 4 goals in extra time, United can only draw with Chelsea and the 2011 FA Cup Final fails to produce a winner.

Let’s go over to Sky’s former political editor, Adam Boulton, who’s with Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline at Wembley.

Boulton “Sir Alex, your team failed to beat Chelsea this afternoon, so surely you must let them have the cup as worthy winners. They scored more goals today than in their last 3 finals and on goal difference this is their best cup run since Peter Osgood played No.9 for them in the 1970s. Your team on the other hand gave its worst performance for 13 years and let in more goals than for some time.”

Sir Alex “That’s fitba f’ya. They played errr…very well and with errrr….players out wi knew wi’d struggle at the back, but wi held them well, they didn’ae win.”

Boulton “Chelsea supporters are saying this is a blatant piece of gamesmanship on your part. Do you think British football supporters actually want you to have the cup? There is one team that won, they had more possession of the ball, more shots on goal, fewer yellow cards, fewer fouls, and even a goal controversially disallowed.”

Sir Alex “That mebee. They spent more than me on players too, but errrr.. they didn’ae score enough goals to win. What am I supposed to say to Chelsea – ye did’nae put away the chances you shouldha, errrr.. ye didn’ae score the goals ye said ye would, but here y’are anyway, take the cup? They didn’ae score enough goals to win it.
Adam, you’re obviously a wee upset that John Terry isn’ae running roond Wembley wi’tha cup.”

Boulton “No I’m not. Don’t keep saying what I think. Don’t keep telling me what I think. I’m fed up with you telling me what I think etc, etc…. ad nauseum.”

PS I’ve been told that Adam Boulton apparently has form for this sort of thing – see 4.00 onwards on the link below:-

Dreaming……

May 9, 2010

I had a dream last night and it wasn’t one like Dr Kings.

I was back in 1985 at the time of the miners’ strike. I was waiting tables in an Oxfordshire restaurant and had drawn the short straw of looking after the private dining room. A dozen smart, well-bred young lads had booked it for the evening and cook laid on 5 courses, including fish. The game had been brought by the customers themselves and I helped clean shot from some of the duck carcasses.

When I took out the oyster platters, the guests, well-oiled and a little rowdy by now were trying to outdo each other with stories of fame and fortune they had mapped out for their future selves. It hardly needs saying that none involved going down the pit. There were though, some colourful suggestions on what summary forms of justice they might dispense from the bench to striking miners and a unanimous regret that transportation to the colonies was no longer available.

As I brought in glasses of Monbazillac to go with the foie gras, the young man next to the head of the table engaged me. He was keen to share, somewhat slurredly and at length, the provenance of his shotgun that stood in the corner of the room. It was a Purdy over and under, based on a 1913 patent, handed down by grandpa at 16 or some such. From my periodic nods he was convinced I was riveted and understood his tale, but truly I was only half-listening.

What had caught my ear was an animated exchange across the table lower down.

Here, a slim fresh-faced youth with dirty blond hair and plenty of it was holding court to a spotty and dark, mop-headed fellow who the others referred to as “Oik”. It was deliberately pronounced and followed each time by a smug but short, almost snorting, laugh.

I half-knew in my dream that the term was familiar from somewhere, and recently, but it was impossible to place without breaking concentration and I was keen to follow the discussion.

They were arguing about the contingency reserve necessary to fund police deployments from the metropolitan force to South Yorkshire, Nottingham and Scotland. Dirty-blond was convinced it was crass and mistaken to cut government rate support grant from local councils in those areas to provide the money. Dark-haired Oik kept repeating, “rough justice”. His refrain was soon taken up by the others. Banging the table, some with spoons, some with glasses and one with a silver-plated champagne cooler they rhythmically chanted Oik’s phrase ever more loudly and quickly.

I withdrew to the kitchen and related this to cook. She crossed the tiled floor purposefully. From the range she picked up the bain marie with both hands then spat in the custard. She insisted on serving pudding herself.

I was allowed to take in the port which cook had decanted earlier and thankfully left alone. Purdy Boy was now slouched over his place mat. They were all in their cups. As I came away Oik and dirty blond were still at it. Oik stood, hit the table loudly with the flat of his hands, but before the others, startled, had chance to say a word, he lowered his voice, leaned across the table, looked dirty blond in the eye and said, calmly and unblinking –

“3 years, 4 at most, then I take over – take it or leave it Dave.”

If there was a response, I woke up before I heard it.

Sweating, I laid awake for an hour. I couldn’t get fixed in my mind, with any certainty, whether it was as farce or tragedy that history first repeats itself.

Election nights always bring out the worst in me. I used to hate going to the count when I stood in council elections; I hated defeat that much.

Not only could I always have done more and not let people down by losing, but election night etiquette demanded that I put on a front of graciousness when, certainly some other candidates were never only political opponents but enemies held in contempt. It’s very un-English to be a bad loser, but that’s what I undoubtedly was. All that magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat stuff was beyond me – it’s not a game, its peoples’ lives, and they matter.

Losing a political majority to the Tories, some of whom would struggle to fall off a log, is painful and it was to these I expressed that hurt; up close and in their face. Not proud of it particularly, but the situation and feelings were real and what was said was true. David Cameron will soon find a number of such individuals on his side in the House of Commons.

It seemed odd therefore, not to be able to muster any sympathy last night for some Labour figures defeated in yesterday’s general election. At one point the scale of swing in voting against Labour seemed determined by the losers past proximity to the cabinet table – a toxic cocktail when mixed with personal misconduct.

Although I’m pleased that a Labour meltdown to third place remained just wistful dreaming by the hired nibs of Barons Murdoch and Dacre, some held on who didn’t deserve to; Hazel Blears for one.

The results exposed some basic misconceptions: that Cleggomania, if you’ll excuse the term, was capable of producing a breakthrough for the Liberal-Democrats; that the BNP could win parliamentary representation; that the Greens couldn’t; that the Speakers seat could be successfully contested and that the ‘independents’ could harness a significant anti-politics vote.

These exposures offered some solace in defeat.

It’s difficult to maintain 130/70 bp however, when Witham – an erstwhile Essex oasis through the worst Tory years of the 1980s – elected, on new boundaries, a pro-hanging, female former lobbyist. When Geoff Hoon, ex-Labour Minister and treacherous idiot savant of failed leadership coups turned up as a (presumably) paid pundit for the BBC, it became impossible.

It’s also hard not to be relieved that David Cameron failed to win a majority. Some months ago I tweaked Roy Jenkins’ famous analogy and wrote that, though Dave had simply to carry the Ming vase across the drawing room without dropping it, each time he opened his mouth it drew attention to how soapy his hands were. It was good to watch outright victory slip through them.

There’s no escape though from the most unfortunate outcome of the voting.

The single UK politician capable of holding any ring either side of the Atlantic and navigating a course through ongoing and world-wide economic crisis, whilst selflessly keeping the lives of ordinary people at the heart of what he does, will no longer matter.

A good number of people who voted Tory on May 6th will likely regret it later but I fear that a far greater number who didn’t, or who didn’t have a vote, will have much, much more cause for regret.

A strange night; bittersweet and helter-skelter at the same time.

Cameron came first in votes and seats, but with 29 results undeclared has so far FAILED to secure an overall majority for his Tories.

Cameron says he’ll announce plans for a government that’s “strong and stable with broad support that acts in the national interest”. And Nick Clegg says he’ll talk to the Cameron Boy first because they have the most votes and seats.

So we have the ludicrous situation of the one political leader of a major party who has set his face against moving away from first-past-the-post (FPTP) – the central argument for which is that it produces decisive majority results – seeking to run the country from a minority position. And not a single comment on the hypocrisy from press or TV.

The stakes are high – what was presented to voters by the liberal media as a once in a generation chance for them to change our politics has in fact become a once in a political career chance for the overblown Nick Clegg to secure a shift from FPTP to some form of proportional representation.

If he succeeds he will make history, if he fails Clegg will be history.

And who can now resist some form of PR for the future.

In the East, where I happen to live, the Liberals and Labour polled just 88,312 votes less than the Tories 1,258,450. For this performance the two left/ liberal parties won 6 seats between them, the Tories 48 seats.

If Labour wants to succeed in England it can no longer depend on its loyal heartlands, some of which have been progressively weakened by the Liberal-Democrats in any case, whilst allowing vast regions of the country to become deserts. The Tories ongoing difficulties in Scotland evidence the scale of work involved in getting a desert to bloom after a wipe-out.

For Labour to become a national party in England requires PR. If May 1997 showed us anything, under FPTP, even with policies trimmed to keep onside a crucial few thousand voters in a portion of marginal seats, Labour can only become a national English party once every few generations. For the people
who Labour looks to represent and those who look to Labour to represent them, that’s not good enough.

But don’t hold your breath on this.

History shows that the only-ever-whispered Tory slogan down the centuries has been ‘concede to survive’. Cameron, if given an overall Tory majority, fully intended to cut MP numbers and reorganise – some say gerrymander – seats, to buttress future Tory prospects. Don’t put it past the Tories, therefore, to make concessions on PR sufficient to form a government with Lib-Dem support.

And don’t put it past Nick Clegg to bite.