Talking Politics
  • From outright ignorance to devious calculation, the coalition's mixed motives have left its foreign policy open to criticism in its first 100 days. Dark undercurrents of domestic party politics might be to blame.

    By Alex Stevenson

    Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg recognised, very early on, the need to integrate Lib Dem ministers across the government. Influence is critical and the liberal scattering of ministers across departments dealing with international affairs was designed to help. But in foreign policy the recipe is not quite working. Lib Dem influence is virtually absent on the world stage, while on Europe and Trident it remains highly questionable. The extent to which Britain's third party succeeds in influencing the country's global stance is critical in a vital period of changing diplomatic and military stances. The stakes are high - for the country as well as the parties which seek to govern it.

    A 'grand strategy' foreign policy

    At its biggest scale, the most important

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  • Coalition’s first 100 days: The economy

    All this week examines the state of the coalition as it marks its first 100 days, beginning with the biggest headache of all: the economy.

    By Alex Stevenson

    The Conservatives had pledged to hold an emergency Budget within 50 days; it came with a week to spare. For many it was the moment when talk of spending cuts turned from unpleasant anticipation to grim reality. Benefits were slashed and plans to increase VAT, which rises to 20% in January 2011, were announced. The atmosphere in the Commons could not have been a more unpleasant mix. Angry Labour MPs shouted in impotence as queasy Lib Dems sat next to their cheering newfound Tory colleagues.

    Labour's warnings that spending cuts would hurt the recovery appear to have been vindicated. Last week the Bank of England's August inflation report lowered its predictions for 2011 growth from around 3.5% to around 2.5%, a huge reduction. It's the rapid pace of the reductions which proves so worrying to Patrick Stevens,

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  • Analysis: A guide to ministerial wriggling

    David Cameron's partial U-turn on alcohol minimum pricing is an early retreat to mid-term governmental wriggling tactics. Is nothing in the coalition agreement wholly safe?

    By Alex Stevenson

    Fifteen months have passed since the then leader of the opposition came out against chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson's backing of a 50p per unit minimum price. This, Sir Liam argued, would price problem drinkers out of the market while having only a limited impact on moderate drinkers. But - with a general election in the offing - Cameron wasn't buying it. He said it would hit "responsible drinkers" hard. With both Labour and the Conservatives opposing the move it seemed dead in the water.

    Which is why it is so strange, now Cameron is in No 10, he is prepared to humour ten north-west council chiefs thinking of introducing the measure. The PM told the Manchester Evening News he thought the idea was a "very good one" and that "we will certainly be looking at it very sympathetically".


    Read More »from Analysis: A guide to ministerial wriggling
  • In a demented PR extravaganza, Huhne and Warsi join forces to kick the Labour party while it's down.

    By Ian Dunt

    As Keyser Söze might have said, the greatest PR trick the coalition ever pulled was convincing the world that Gordon Brown is responsible for the deficit.

    It's not as if the financial crisis was a minor news story buried in the back pages, where only London's chattering classes noticed it. It was a pretty big deal, all things considered. Brown did many foolish and quite vacant things, but creating the financial crisis wasn't one of the. You might even say (rightly) that he should have imposed far more regulation on the banking sector, but the Tories were hardly biting at the bit demanding it. They're not even doing it now. The current government now like to remind us that Labour also grew the deficit in the 'good times', but those were the same good times when David Cameron was signed up Labour spending plans.

    It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and startling PR

    Read More »from Sketch: Huhne and Warsi shoot fish in a barrel
  • Keeping MPs’ emails public

    Dominic Raab's attempt to have his email removed from public view sounds trivial, but it has serious implications for internet activism.

    By Ian Dunt

    Activism takes less time nowadays. Once upon a time you had to go all-out, camping out by nuclear power stations, occupying student facilities, or perhaps just marching to Trafalgar square. Today, you set up a Facebook page.

    As any pub bore will tell you, the internet has changed everything. That goes for political activism as much as the record industry and bookshops. Emails have replaced letters, not just in personal communications or official communication, but also for political movements.

    Political organisers, be they presidential campaign strategists or grassroots pressure groups, have long noticed that their causes often have ample public backing but not enough inspiration to action. People may not agree with animal testing or the Afghanistan war, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're prepared to trudge outside in the rain to

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  • Analysis: Milk, Maggie and the media

    The free milk episode reveals some fundamental truths about the government's cutting agenda: policy matters, but what the public thinks matters most of all.

    By Alex Stevenson

    It's extraordinary that a political row nearly four decades ago has had such a powerful impact on the government in 2010. Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, paid the price for ending free school milk for the under-sevens with her 'milk-snatcher' nickname. The enduring memory of the incident is such that a future Conservative prime minister, many years later, is prepared to nip further cutbacks to free school milk in the bud - at the price of some considerable short-term political embarrassment.

    Public health minister Anne Milton was doing what junior ministers do every day: thinking up ways of improving government on their own, very limited, patch. Most of the time this involves an utterly menial aspect of public life. A £50 million budget on free milk for the under-fives is far from a big deal.

    Some of

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  • Simon Hughes' stint as deputy Lib Dem leader reveals the tactic the party will use to recover its support.

    By Ian Dunt

    In my more narcissistic moments, I imagine how pleasant it must be for Simon Hughes, whose every utterance prompts over-excited headlines about the end of the government. Maybe I'm alone in wishing my comments could end governments with such ease, but I doubt it.

    The latest bout of media frenzy came when Hughes distanced himself from David Cameron's comments about social housing. "It's a prime ministerial idea, it has no more validity yet, and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work and that's something clearly if he wants us to talk about we're happy to talk about," Hughes said. With so little hard political news around in the summer, journalists leapt on it with drooling headlines about government fractures, coalition splits and the impending doom of all concerned.

    But there was no silly season excuse the last time this

    Read More »from Comment: How long until we catch up with Simon Hughes?
  • Comment: The overcooked big society

    The coalition government has been dreaming up recipes for democracy: two spoonfuls of AV, a dash of participation here and a drizzle of direct management there. And the result? Cook it yourself, proclaims the government. Take power! Seize the cookbook! Make your own society! And make it a 'big society'!

    By Rebecca Burns

    David Cameron's 'big society' concept prompted complaints from both inside and outside Westminster that it was vague, incomprehensible or just plain "piffle" (as a certain mayor of London put it).

    As Conservative MP Rory Stewart explained on his blog, "Big Society isn't something you can get like a pot of money, or an officer: it's an approach". But even he admits "it's very confusing".

    A senior Tory was more candid: "The 'big society' is bollocks. It is boiled vegetables that have been cooked for three minutes too long. It tastes of nothing. What is it?"

    According to the coalition document, the goal is "to put more power and opportunity into people's hands". The

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  • Berlusconi: A beginner’s guide

    The most colourful - and controversial - leader in Europe is facing his worst political crisis just as David Cameron lands for a visit. How does Silvio Berlusconi get away with it?

    By Ian Dunt

    Could these be the final days of Silvio Berlusconi? His opponenets would do well to contain their optimism. The thrice-elected Italian prime minister always manages to crawl back from the wreckage. The last time centre-left leader Romano Prodi beat him, in the 2006 election, Berlusconi did not even bother to call him to congratulate him. Within two years, Prodi's government had fallen apart and Berlusconi was back, in a rather typical Italian political process of vulnerable cooperation and rushed disintegration. But with his majority in the Chamber of Deputies wiped out, a sex scandal about his use of prostitutes now the subject of a corruption investigation and even his closest allies increasingly concerned about his antics, perhaps we are finally seeing the last act in the morality play that is

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  • Pakistan will always "look both ways", whatever David Cameron says. If he had realised that fundamental truth perhaps his first major diplomatic gaffe as prime minister could have been avoided.

    By Alex Stevenson

    It must have seemed so straightforward. After all, India is the world's premium destination for voicing concerns about terrorism emanating from its post-partition rival. As head of a trade delegation seeking to establish a new special relationship, Cameron's mind was firmly focused on saying the right thing.

    So it must have seemed like there was only one option when news that Pakistan's ISI intelligence service had maintained links with the Taliban filtered through the wires. Surely this deserved the greatest condemnation. Cameron gave it: "We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world."

    This was short-term

    Read More »from Comment: Cameron must tone down his blunderbuss diplomacy


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