Talking Politics
  • Constitutional reforms, it turns out, are much easier to defend than emergency Budgets.

    By Alex Stevenson

    While George Osborne was sweating before the Commons' Treasury committee, Nick Clegg was enjoying a much easier ride in front of the political and constitutional reform committee.

    The deputy prime minister, by way of a warm-up for his 'away day' crisis talks with Liberal Democrat malcontents later, had deigned to pop in to the Commons to receive a light grilling. In the end he was barely toasted, establishing the upper hand by congratulating the select committee members for their election.

    He was patronising to Tristram Hunt, the most swashbuckling historian to have ever graced a library, when it came to the 1832 Great Reform Act. Hunt wanted to know whether Clegg's reforms were purely "utilitarian" or whether they need "some more poetry".

    "Any reform programme can do with a bit more poetry," Clegg said condescendingly. "It is a mixture of idealism and pragmatism." Like most

    Read More »from Clegg as patronising as Osborne was defensive
  • The sense of separation has been growing for some considerable time. MPs are now rarely representative of anyone or anything but their own political class.

    By Ted Cantle

    I used the idea of 'parallel lives' in the Cantle report to government in 2001 on the race riots in the north of England to illustrate how different communities from the same area had entirely separate social and cultural lives. I do not think it is stretching a point too far to apply this to the 'Westminster bubble' and to the parliamentarians who spend most of their days closeted with their own kind, surrounded by advisors, media commentators and lobbyists.

    The reason for the expenses 'scam' - made possible through the support of the whole House in order to find a surreptitious way of boosting pay - was not so much a loss of a moral compass, as some MPs claimed, but rather the complete loss of connection with the electorate. Contempt of the public of course goes deeper. Gordon Brown's 'bigoted woman' gaffe showed

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  • In a time of cuts and "unprecedented" efficiency savings, questions about money are never far away for Andrew Lansley's groundbreaking reforms of the NHS.

    By Alex Stevenson

    Today marks the culmination of six years' work as shadow health secretary for Lansley. He is finally implementing many of the ideas which have underpinned much of his rhetoric during that time - scrapping targets, increasing choice, "liberating the NHS from the old command-and-control regime".

    Lansley could never have anticipated the wider environment within which those reforms would take place. Yes, the Department of Health is spared the budget cuts of other departments. But there are still up to £20 billion of cuts scheduled for the next four years. There is much pain to come.

    "The reality is there is no more money," the white paper says. "Difficult local decisions" will be required. Net cuts in terms of total staff are "inevitable" in the next five years. There will be "significant disruption".

    At the same time,

    Read More »from Health white paper struggles to square the circles
  • The great bank levy escape?

    Don't mention the levy, the bankers are whispering. They might have got away with it.

    By Alex Stevenson

    Three weeks have passed since George Osborne's emergency Budget turned grim foreboding into bitter reality. The chancellor announced to an uneasy Commons his plans to slash departmental budgets by at least a quarter.

    Now Whitehall is busy with 40% cutting contingency plans and the summer fever of a comprehensive spending review.

    But while the rest of the nation reels at the sheer extent of the austerity agenda, the City's great financial institutions are quietly breathing a sigh of relief.

    Bankers knew they had to pay a price for their misdemeanours - the sheer greed of the financial system was, after all, what got us into this mess in the first place.

    "I think it's an outrage," Nick Clegg told before the general election, "a complete economic and moral outrage the way the greed of the bankers of the City of London has basically held a gun to the head of the rest of

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  • The OBR mask is crumbling

    Sir Alan Budd's departure sheds light on the fake independence of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR).

    By Craig Berry

    It emerged this week the OBR head has left after only three months in his post. The government claims Budd was only ever a short-term appointment - but if so, why is there no successor in place?

    Admittedly, Budd is 73 years old, and his CV suggests he is far more suited to an advisory role rather than actually managing a government agency. Yet there is more than a whiff of spin in the government's response.

    What is equally likely, if not more so, is that Budd has finally realised that the OBR's independence is little more than a political gimmick.

    As I argued in a previous piece, the creation of the OBR didn't represent a commitment to independent forecasting with government economic and fiscal policy. Rather it was an attempt by George Osborne to create his own Bank-of-England-independence moment (straight from the Gordon Brown playbook), while

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  • Numbering high on the list of Sights We Thought We'd Never See, John Prescott's entry into the Lords was a surprising affair in more ways than one.

    By Alex Stevenson

    How utterly improbable. A few years ago we would have placed rather long odds on this happy occasion. Surely it was less likely than the party political funding dispute being resolved, or the number of women MPs outnumbering the number of men, or Sir Menzies Campbell taking up tap-dancing.

    All that "flunkery and titles", as Two Jabs once famously put it, was not for him. He told the Mail two years ago that he was utterly uninterested in being "sidelined" by being shunted into the upper House.

    And yet the 72-year-old, apparently under pressure from his wife Pauline, has finally relented. He is now a peer of the realm, Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull, and in A1 position to enjoy "all the rights, privileges, pre-eminences" and the like which being a baron confers. The mind boggles.

    Pauline was looking delightful prior to

    Read More »from Post-pugnacious Prescott embraces the flunkery
  • Will the terror inquiry be a whitewash?

    David Cameron's decision to launch an inquiry on the allegations about British collusion in torture seems open, but there are problems under the surface.

    By Ian Dunt

    David Cameron's statement to the Commons on possible British collusion in the torture of terrorist suspects was another perfectly delivered example of why the prime minister excels at these tasks. But delve beneath the surface and problems start to emerge.

    The inquiry

    The inquiry is to be chaired by Sir Peter Gibson. Anti-torture activists are extremely concerned about his role, given he continues to act as intelligence services commissioner and has done since 2006. Given that he has already been responsible for security services scrutiny for several years, most do not expect him to take an altogether different stance on the matters now before him. Sir Peter is also able to define the terms of reference for the inquiry in combinations with relevant ministers. The broad sweep of the inquiry was still much more generous than

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  • Who benefits from Clegg’s reforms?

    Clegg's announcement of a raft of constitutional reforms prompted angry outbursts in the Commons. But who benefits, and will anything really change?

    By Ian Dunt

    Jack Straw's rage was palpable as he responded to Nick Clegg's statement on constitutional reform in the Commons yesterday. Despite having put a referendum on AV in its manifesto, Labour was opposing the vast majority of what was contained in the package. Why?

    Constituency sizes: Straw reserved special disdain for the proposal to equalise the size of constituencies. The number of MPs will be reduced from 650 to 600 and each seat will have roughly 75,000 electors. Special exemptions were made for the Orkney and Shetland and Western Isles constituencies, which have roughly a third of the number of constituents of most seats, but not for the Isle of Wight. The reason Labour MPs are so incandescent with rage at this proposal is that they are the main losers. The party had retained a distinct electoral advantage for several decades

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  • The desecration of the welfare state is the price we must pay for the return of civil liberties.

    By Ian Dunt

    The new 'You Freedom' website, where the public is encouraged to suggest how to improve the country, has three options: 'restoring civil liberties', 'repealing unnecessary laws' and 'cutting business and third sector regulation'.

    The association between civil liberties and business regulation is a false one. Freedom for the individual is quite different to freedom for an organisation, such as a company or a government - both entities which can easily extinguish individual freedom unless their powers are severely restricted.

    But the coalition is desperate to present a coherent policy agenda, and the word freedom works particularly well. By associating the Lib Dems' concern with civil liberties and the Tories' desire to cut back on business regulation, Cameron and Clegg can secure a narrative. And to the two former-PR men, a narrative is worth its weight in gold.


    Read More »from To bring back British freedom we have to sacrifice the welfare state
  • Solving the 2010 election riddle

    The general election results baffled us all. Now, after the dust has settled, its winners are trying to work out exactly why the electorate proved so fickle.

    By Alex Stevenson

    It's 22:00 BST on May 5th. The team is braced for 19 hours of political ecstasy - this is, after all, the climax of years of build-up. Yet there's a strange opening. The exit polls put the Lib Dems falling back to just 61 seats, turning the story of the campaign - the Nick Clegg-driven surge in the polls - to dust. Surely, we asked ourselves, they've got it wrong this time?

    In fact this apparently loopy poll was spot on. The Lib Dems got four less than expected, taking four seats; the Conservatives two more than forecast, on 307; while Labour held three more seats than predicted, taking 258. The pundits' scorn, including that of, appeared to have been very much misplaced.

    In the days after the final results were in and Britain's first hung parliament since the Second World War was confirmed the

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