Talking Politics
  • Ed Miliband is looking for the answer to all his problems in the unlikeliest of places: melodrama.

    The leader of the Labour party has had a troubled seven days since his last appearance at the despatch box. He was so lacklustre this time last week that, after the Sunday journalists had had their way, the Miliband leadership was in something approaching a crisis. A decent speech on Monday helped put off the critics. But nothing matters more, in the political world, than a decent performance at prime minister's questions. High stakes, indeed.

    This explains why the government benches laid into Miliband even before he had opened his mouth to begin. He would have been excused before staggering back into his seat, such was the wall of contempt hurtling at him. To his credit, he did not wilt. Instead, he gave an improved — if somewhat odd — performance.

    In previous sessions Labour aides have got their leader to adopt the scattergun approach, in which he tests Cameron with a series of

    Read More »from Ed Miliband’s unlikely peak of passion
  • It was the denouement we'd all been hoping for. But this wasn't comic; all three of the actors had more than a tinge of tragedy about them.

    There they were, finally, striding down the corridor of Guy's hospital in central London towards a rather awkward event. David Cameron and Nick Clegg were talking to each other with some semblance of cheerfulness. Shambling behind them, bringing up the ministerial rear, came health secretary Andrew Lansley.

    Entering the room, they faced a terrible prospect. Three podiums faced the television cameras, the snappers, the press, and — worst of all — the policy experts. Behind them were a horde of NHS staff, complete with stethoscopes and harassed expressions. They had got their way, after all. It was time to gloat.

    This trio have been through a torrid few weeks. But none have had it harder than Lansley, the man whose mood was summed up by one senior insider during the NHS 'listening pause' as "subdued". Cameron took the middle of the three podiums

    Read More »from Gloating and humiliation end the NHS reform saga
  • Photo: Thinkstock

    Benefit claimants will be on the receiving end of more stick than carrot under current plans. Time is running out for campaigners.

    The coalition's narrative is a simple one: New Labour's attempts to help the poor resulted in the benefits system becoming more and more complicated. Eventually, many faced a situation where it wasn't really in their interest to return to employment. Work didn't pay. So now the system is to be fundamentally overhauled. Labour's myriad benefits and pay-outs are to be simplified into one straightforward universal credit. Work will become worthwhile once more.

    "I want to see us focusing on the big wins of what we can do to make life better for people and make an incentive to work," says Debbie Stedman-Scott, chief executive of Tomorrow's People. Her charity helps those who are out of work get back into the workplace, and stay there. She points out the simplification of the system, workers being able to keep 35p in the pound and the transitioning off benefits

    Read More »from Hidden dangers of the coalition’s welfare reforms
  • Fire and rescue services are never more vital than when dealing with a national-level incident — exactly when the coalition's policies are hurting them most.

    That's the opinion of Roy Wilsher, at least. He's the man who headed the team Britain sent to Japan in the aftermath of that country's devastating earthquake. He led the emergency response to the Buncefield industrial fire, Europe's worst peacetime blaze. He's the chief fire officer at Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. He's the operations officer at the Chief Fire Officers' Association. And he's the government's strategy adviser when it comes to national, 'catastrophic' events. The kind when the country's fire and rescue services urgently need to share their resources.

    This can be problematic. Working together doesn't work out if firemen aren't using the same radios, or the same breathing apparatus, or any number of apparently insignificant differences.

    So there ought to be some kind of national-level coordinating going on,

    Read More »from The forgotten public service
  • David Cameron has taken to treating Ed Miliband with a sort of pitiable contempt. The Speaker had more of an impact than the man supposed to be giving him a hard time.

    It had started out so promisingly. In their first bouts Cameron versus Miliband seemed an evenly matched contest. The Labour leader appeared capable of genuinely winding Cameron up. The PM is at his worst when he is made to appear posh; Miliband was getting quite good at bringing out Cameron's innate uppityness.

    Since then, alas, the dynamic has changed. Miliband has become increasingly placid. He lacks bite. Yesterday, he barely managed to open his mouth.

    Part of the problem may be his penchant for short questions. These are presumably supposed to show him as a direct sort of guy. But the bleating tone he employs — that sort of rebuking regretfulness usually deployed by teachers at a moment's notice — makes it seem less impressive. "We read in the papers" that Cameron has scrapped sentencing discounts, he began. "Has

    Read More »from What teenage girls and David Cameron have in common
  • The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is the bad boy that came in from the cold. Under recent president Andreas Whittam Smith, it had the sense to change with the times and reconfigure its mission statement into something socially useful rather than paternal. It was a small liberal revolution. The Board was now there to make sure films were appropriate for their intended age group but not to decide what a grown adult could see.

    Torture porn, however, has forced it to go back to its bad old ways. Yesterday, it effectively banned a horror movie which would otherwise have probably gone unheard of: Human Centipede II (Full Sequence).

    It was doing so well. Gone were the days when Rebel Without a Cause was cut for encouraging teenage rebellion or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, a wonderful, lovingly-made piece of nonsense which can now be found in the comedy section of Love Film, was seized from a number of shops, forcing their owners to plead guilty to supply of an obscene article.

    Read More »from Torture porn has brought out the worst in the BBFC
  • The PM's attempts to distract us from his NHS concessions were staggering. Pointing the other way and shouting "look!" would have been more effective.

    A strange image struck me as I listened to David Cameron in full retreat on the coalition's NHS reforms — that of the view from a rocket ship as it jettisons one of its used-up lower stages on leaving the Earth's atmosphere. From black, the vast section of the spaceship falls away below. As it does so, the enormity of the distance between it and the ground is revealed. It's a hell of a long way.

    There were significant, real concessions on offer today. The 18-week waiting time target will be kept; hospital doctors and nurses will be involved in commissioning, rather than just GPs; and regulator Monitor will no longer be solely focused on promoting competition. There they were, desperately jettisoned by the prime minister. Those watching the process couldn't help noticing that these concessions were small-scale, really. Given how sweeping

    Read More »from Cameron on the run over his ‘precious’ NHS
  • Livid in the staffroom

    Teachers, normally placid and well-behaved creatures, are ready to strike to protect their pensions.

    Brows in the staffroom have never been so furrowed. Nothing riles teachers like a threat to their pensions. "It's one of the few things that really get people stirred up," one deputy headteacher admits. She says the mood is "livid".

    In local meetings, National Union of Teachers (NUT) members are claiming a cover-up. They think the government is covering up the real reason for the proposed increase in pension contributions, from 6.4% to 9.5%. Ministers claim a "black hole" exists in teachers' pensions; union leaders challenge them to come up with the specific proof. "I think it's the one thing they would strike over," the deputy warns.

    Staffrooms up and down the country are on the warpath. Balloting is taking place now among members of the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). The latter's decision to ballot is particularly surprising; the last time it did so for a

    Read More »from Livid in the staffroom
  • As Amnesty International celebrated its 50th anniversary, the opponents of human rights were busy trying to emasculate it. Amnesty faces a challenge more powerful and pervasive than any despot: the libel against human rights. It's a PR triumph, if you're into that sort of thing. This phrase, which has enjoyed universal goodwill since the Second World War, is coming to represent something negative.

    The latest chapter in the mission comes in the form of a Daily Mail-generated row on a prisoner who was granted the right to father a child from behind bars via artificial insemination, costing the taxpayer something around £2,000. As usual, it's worth trying to establish the facts of the case before leaping to judgement.

    Much anger has been directed at Ken Clarke who, as justice secretary, would presumably have authorised it. Jack Straw, who treated tabloids like scary monsters under the bed, always turned down this sort of request when he was in the job. It looks like Ken did too, given

    Read More »from Fatherhood for prisoners? Just another human rights libel
  • Many councils in 'no overall control' are turning out to be Labour-run administrations — in what could turn out to be a gamble for Ed Miliband's party.

    Part of the reason that the surprising result of last year's general election didn't raise many activists' eyebrows was that grassroots politicos are perfectly accustomed to coalitions. Of the local authorities which were contested in 2011, 55 ended up with no party having an overall majority. As the initial impact of the results settled in, we weren't able to assess who would finally end up in charge.

    It's taken a while, but we can now. Unlike in parliament, where a government stands or falls by 'confidence motions' and votes on the Budget, council administrations are much more vulnerable. "Numbers usually mean everything," Andy Sawford of the Local Government Information Unit thinktank explains. Those making these calculations have to take into account whether or not they can pass a budget, major decisions, etc, etc. Talks with

    Read More »from Hungry Labour prepared to gamble in hung town halls

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