Talking Politics
  • We all get the narrative. After a year of demonstrating that the Liberal Democrats can work with the Conservatives in government - an operation which seems to have gone a little too smoothly - the Lib Dems have fallen out over the AV referendum campaign. That battering in this month's elections has underlined the need for a change. And so Nick Clegg has promised one: a more "muscular" kind of liberalism, where the Lib Dems push their weight around more. This is a new 'phase' of the coalition. No more Mr Nice Clegg.

    The most senior members of the party who are not actually involved in the government will have a key role to play. These are the party's middle-ranking MPs, who last year were tasked with presiding over backbench policy committees covering the breadth of government activity. After delays in setting the structures up, the co-chairs spent months trying to work out what their jobs actually were.

    These teething problems have mostly been resolved. Question-marks remain about how

    Read More »from Why Lib Dems won’t be bolshy
  • Once you step back from the cacophony of noise over Ken Clarke's ill-advised comments on rape, several arguments emerge. This is not about whether he doesn't understand raped women. This is about categories of rape, plea bargaining, the deficit and dirty politics.

    The most volatile issue is rape categories. Clarke's terrible mistake was to talk about "serious" rape, the implication being that other rape is not serious. That's a grave error, probably the worst of his career. But the argument that we can have different degrees of rape, as we have different degrees of murder, is not outside the area of acceptable discussion. It does not mean, as Labour's Yvette Cooper is arguing, that Clarke doesn't understand rape.

    Simply in terms of public safety, a husband who rapes his wife is different to a stranger who picks off women at night in dark alleys. Women's rights groups spent so long valiantly fighting for rape inside marriage to be made illegal (a relatively recent development) that they

    Read More »from Hysteria over Clarke’s comments is muddying the truth
  • The vagueness of 'sustainability' was once a whimsical criticism. It's now becoming critical as yet more barriers to unfettered business are removed.

    Journalists have long been suspicious of one of politicians' more irritating habits: using jargon to cover their real meaning.

    The 2009 Lexicon from the Centre for Policy Studies thinktank contained an entire list of contemporary newspeak, which claimed that buzzwords were deliberately being used to exclude those outside central and local government.

    One of the prime examples was 'sustainable', which Bill Jamieson — then executive editor of the Scotsman newspaper — said occupied "a lofty position in the towering hierarchy of buzzwords".

    It didn't matter whether the word was being used to describe 'sustainable development', 'sustainable transport' and 'sustainable housing'. In fact, it was its flexibility that made it so effective. Mr Jamieson said 'sustainable' was a word "whose very looseness and lack of clarity makes it a perfect prefix

    Read More »from An unsustainable standoff
  • The prospect of elected police chiefs is coming ever closer and the decision to review the Madeleine McCann case serves as a cautionary tale.

    Downing Street insists that David Cameron did not order Scotland Yard to review the McCann case. This was merely a request. It's naive in the extreme to pretend that the Met treats requests from the prime minister in the same way it treats requests from the public, but that's neither here nor there. Critics say Cameron has politicised the police force. This is correct, but it also serves to mask the reality of the situation. Cameron isn't unduly concerned with Maddie McCann. The tabloid press is. What Cameron is unduly concerned by is what the tabloid press thinks.

    The press long ago raised Maddie to a somewhat unsettling figure, turning her into an almost mythic being distilling society's sense of innocence. This is not an easy thing to write about. I am no less concerned for the fate of missing children than anyone else, but we must adopt a

    Read More »from Maddie case reveals the media’s power over the police
  • As the fight over NHS reform reaches its climax, the doctors' chief isn't in the mood for compromises.

    The campaigning had never been so intense. The British Medical Association, that venerable old institution defending the interests of doctors up and down the land, had never dug in its heels so hard. "What do you call somebody who won't listen to medical advice?" the posters read. "The secretary of state for health."

    This wasn't 2011. This was 1989, the last time the spectre of newly untrammelled competition loomed over the NHS. Ever since Kenneth Clarke introduced internal markets doctors have been fed up with the impact competition has had on the health service. What's happening today, according to the doctor sitting opposite, is "almost part of the same argument, the same battle if you like, the same disagreement on how best to organise and make the NHS run more efficiently".

    He looks the part: neatly trimmed beard, excellent bedside manner, and a light-coloured shirt, which my

    Read More »from On the frontline of the battle for the NHS
  • The ideology of competition pervades the government's NHS reforms. So where can concessions come from?

    One thing is certain — something has got to give. Health professional groups, thinktanks and a large chunk of Liberal Democrat backbenchers are deeply concerned about the health and social care bill's unremitting backing of competition. The King's Fund, one of the most respected health thinktanks, argues that people with long-term conditions are the biggest challenge to the health service. These require a health service based on cooperation and collaboration between different services — what the jargon calls 'integrated care'. What happens when the different parts of the health service start vying against each other?

    All agree that competition in some areas can be useful. But this bill places too much emphasis on it, opponents say. The sheer weight of their opposition means concessions are going to have to be made — from somewhere. But as the government's 'pause' of its divisive

    Read More »from Where will the NHS reform concessions come from?
  • It must surely be the worst collection of jokes outside of a Russell Howard gig. Bad joke after bad joke after bad joke. Flashman references after Eddie the Eagle references after Michael Winner references. It was to politics what phone sex lines are to intercourse.

    There was no wit and there was no content. There was merely the conveyor belt of rehearsed jokes and quick stabbing motions that constitute PMQs under Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

    The Labour leader's tactics are now well understood. He began with that mock innocent first question which invariably starts: "How would the prime minister rate his progress on." The sentence ends with whichever policy area is causing Cameron the most grief, from tuition fees to the forestry sell-off. Today it was the NHS, not for the first time.

    Cameron did a Gordon Brown and started reeling off an impenetrable list of governmental achievements. When he mentioned the number of doctors, Miliband got in a rare effective response. "In case the

    Read More »from PMQs sketch: Cameron laughs off Clegg’s pain
  • What is it about betrayal that makes it such a potent source of drama? From cheating husbands on EastEnders, to double-crossing action movie bad guys, to the shouts of Everton fans when Wayne Rooney is on the pitch - betrayal is the stuff that stories are made of. It prompts a curious passion. It's for these entirely emotional reasons that the Liberal Democrats have become the most absurd Army of Darkness in political history and Nick Clegg is the new national bogeyman.

    Many people who are angry about spending cuts seem to have had a particularly satisfying night, constantly tweeting their delight at ever-worse Lib Dem local election results. They should ask themselves exactly what this morbid fascination with the Lib Dems has brought them. The Conservatives have actually increased the number of councils they control while the Lib Dems plunge new depths.

    Some anger is understandable. Lib Dem support for the Conservatives meant that an economic plan was implemented which not only did

    Read More »from Time to end the misguided attack on the Lib Dems
  • Photo: Electoral CommissionPhoto: Electoral CommissionHere are five intriguingly poised council chambers for your inspection, as local elections across England offer a tough test for both coalition parties.

    Local elections are famous for their individuality. This city has a "very nasty habit of going against the trend". That town "ignores the national picture". Local political history is nearly always far more important than what's going on in Westminster. And then there's the added complications of different ways of doing things — minority administrations here, coalitions there. England offers a hotch-potch patchwork of compromises and power-broking deals.

    Despite everything, some of the closest single-tier councils of all offer an interesting snapshot of the agonising decisions in Westminster which could follow today's voting.

    We've picked out five councils where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, clinging on narrowly, are facing intense pressure — both from the rejuvenated Labour party and from each other. They're all different,

    Read More »from Local elections 2011: Five key battlegrounds
  • Bob RussellIt had been another rather dull affair.

    With the prime minister declining to tell any Labour frontbenchers to "calm down, dear", as he had done last week, the latest edition of prime minister's questions was something of a relapse into business as usual.

    It was left to a certain Lib Dem backbencher to liven things up in the last two minutes of this week's instalment. Before then, alas, we had to wade through the usual fare.

    Ed Miliband, for all his admirable qualities, continues to find the PMQs mettle hard to grasp.

    He is all substance, not style. He is all coffee, not froth. These are usually good things — but not when it comes to the Commons arena on Wednesday lunchtimes. Then, Punch and Judy politics is what is required. We all know which role Miliband is playing.

    We were able to make allowances for Gordon Brown, whose distinct lack of charm often saw him retreat to endless lists. These traits were acceptable to him. But the magician Miliband? He spent this lunchtime triumphantly

    Read More »from PMQs: Gloating Tories are already celebrating

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