Tuesday, 30 September 2008

End of the La

That's the day job almost over and what a day it has been. Even in the Birmingham conference bubble you we felt the brunt of the economic storm, hardly paying attention to what the Tories had to say all afternoon.

Looking outside for the first time today I see it's started raining in Birmingham. Dismal place I have to say, I haven't seen a blade of grass in three days in this concrete jungle.

Just one more thing to do - record a two-way with Michael MacNeil of BBC Alba for the new Gaelic television news programme, La ( which means Day). I do lots of punditry for Radio nan Gaidheal but this is my first time on their TV news. Hope you're watching Ma.


Cameron does gravitas

The Tory representatives are crowded around the Teletubby green BBC exhibition stand on one of the conference walkways. On-screen, and just a few metres down the hall, Andrew Neil is interviewing Philip Hammond, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

"Should people be scared Mr Hammond?" asks Andrew Neil. "I'm frightened, we've never seen anything like this." The audience lean forwards together for the response. Mr Hammond practices his best bedside manner:" I think we should be concerned..."

What politicians says at a time like this is crucially important but how they say it is just as vital. David Cameron had just come off-stage having delivered an object lesson in how to provide assurance with his own carefully weighed version of unfolding events.

Mr Cameron does gravitas even better than Mr Hammond, ladling on seriousness in a sombre speech to conference which sat mostly in silence for what was holding operation disguised as a sermon. Mr Cameron's emergency statement was designed to give the Conservatives breathing space in the news whirlwind that was now settling over the city of London and Wall Street.

With the ground moving rapidly around them the Conservative frontbench team are well aware that they need a new game plan. The image of the Conservatives free marketing, city loving, capitalists could leave Mr Cameron on the wrong side of the tracks as the credit crisis deepens.

In the Birmingham bubble the Conservatives have been saying contradictory things about the financial crisis, trying to blame the government for what voters see as a global problem, straining with their instincts not to condemn the markets while sounding stern on irresponsible profiteering. George Osborne went some of the way to telling people that he was on the side of voters against rich bankers on Monday and now it was Cameron's task to show them that he could be a man to provide assurance in a time of crisis.

Mr Cameron's tone was pitch perfect, his stature prime ministerial enough, his caution and offer of practical support an effort to make the opposition party relevant to what was happening

His key message was bi-partisanship, that the UK was not like the USA, that he would put aside any rivalry in Westminster to push through legislation that will protect savers if more banks go under.

Today Mr Cameron returns to the podium for his keynote speech but such is the uncertainty that his address will be drafted and redrafted. It will mean another late night to match Monday's crisis speech writing session.

News of the collapse of the Congressional bail-out deal swept through the conference hotel as representatives made their way to the evening receptions on Monday. The Dow Jones went down quicker than the drams at the Scotch Whisky Association reception. While Mr Cameron did his duty to the Scottish Conservative fringe circuit appearances later in the evening were curtailed. Being seen quaffing champagne while the world stood on the brink of a financial abyss would not be the done thing.

The party had briefly considered considered cancelling the conference but that would have been rash. Mr Cameron spoke to Mr Brown by telephone and offered support for the Prime Minister.

By yesterday morning orders for a new mood of bi-partisanship, and an end to attacks on the government, even extended to the Milibanana stands, life size portraits of the the Foreign Secretary that were being used to lampoon his efforts to become Prime Minister.

The banana stands were hastily removed from the conference foyer as Mr Cameron addressed the audience inside. It was as good a sign as the empty champagne bottles stacked outside that the pop had gone out of the Conservative party conference.

It was a near empty conference hall that awaited Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, who was pushed into a 1pm slot because of the rescheduling caused by the economic crisis. Wherever the party members where they weren't at a free lunch - the bill for that had just arrived on the world's doormat.

The party is so over- Tories Day 3

The Milibanana stands, life sized portraits of the Foreign Secretary that were used by the Tories to lampoon his leadership chances and to give away free bananas at their conference have now been withdrawn to match the new sombre mood sweeping the gathering.

Some journalists have snatched the remaining Milibananas, presumably to auction them on e-bay when the economic storm gets really tough. The bananas themselves have been put to good use though, recycled and redacted as fruit smoothies for members of the press.


My old Sunday Herald snapper colleague Chris Furlong, now with Getty Images, has just found the shot that sums up the day. It's an image of crate after crate of empty champagne bottles out the back of the Birmingham Conference centre. I didn't think we drank that much last night. You can see Chris's work on www.gettyimages.com/editorial

Monday, 29 September 2008

Tory Conference shorts

Flying visit

At least I was up early enough to spot him this week. Brian Wilson, former Labour Minister, was in the foyer of the Tory Conference early this morning having been involved in a 7.30am fringe meeting on Flying Matters, the pro-airports pressure group. “I came in under cover of night and I’m leaving as soon as I can,” explained Mr Wilson. I hope he didn’t read the Guardian on the way to the airport - the Tories have just promised to scrap plans for Heathrow’s third runway.

Put down of the day

Oliver Letwin to the Independent’s Steve Richards who claimed to have read all the Conservative policy papers and thought their education plans would cost more money.

“I congratulate you. You are the only person in England who has been reading our policy documents,” said Mr Letwin graciously. “Unfortunately you have drawn the wrong conclusions”

Barging in

No chance of Brian Wilson crossing the path of David Trimble, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who is at the Tory conference with an eye to being a member of a David Cameron cabinet.

Mr Trimble,a boating enthusiast, was thrilled when he heard the Tory conference was being held in Birmingham. He piped his wife Daphne aboard the Trimble barge and spent three days travelling to the event on their very own canal boat. All he has to do now is turn the darned thing around and get it back to its moorings in time.

Osborne calling Englandshire

Divided opinion on that George Osborne speech among my colleagues.

I sat at the front and thought that he was good on the gags and light on the policy. I suppose he had given us the meat yesterday in the tough fiscal rules he proposes for the money markets and for future governments.

The Tories have been building a good narrative on the last decade as being the ‘Age of irresponsibility” (copyright Gordon Brown) and blaming the Prime Minister for the global meltdown that has followed. Still, Mr Osborne didn’t sound that convincing when he set himself up as the person to solve all these problems.

M’ learned colleague disagrees - says it was unshowy and he had a rabbit in the hat with the council tax freeze for England. Admittedly he had a fine line to tread, having to appear serious in the middle of a global financial crisis, not to presumptive and, biggest danger, not better than the leader.

But my verdict is that he has not “sealed the deal” as the Tories say, although the council tax freeze will go down a treat in Englandshire. Just look at the effect that had on the vote at the Scottish elections. I’m waiting for a press release to drop from the SNP claiming the idea as their own, just as the fuel duty regulator was.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

All the world's a stage for Boris

Alistair Beaton, a Glaswegian, a writer and sometime speechwriter to Gordon Brown, is sitting in the media pen in at the Tory party conference in Birmingham.

“I’m a playwright who does a bit of journalism,” says Alistair by way of friendly introduction. I’m a journalist who does a bit of playwriting, but nothing like the brilliance of The Trial of Tony Blair or A Very Social Secretary, his satire of David Blunkett’s affair with Kimberly Quinn.

Alistair is here to research a comedy on the Tories that he’s writing for the Old Vic in London, where he lives.

The trouble is that sitting next to a playwright everything on stage takes the appearance of an artifice.

When the entire shadow cabinet troop on as background to William Hague’s speech it takes some time to convince yourself that Alistair’s play is not just writing itself in front of your eyes. More than half of them are unrecognisable so they must be extras in one of his creations. It’s a bit like the Pirandello play, Six Characters In Search Of An Author.

There’s a pause for a scene change. When the stagehands carry on a small, high table with a glass of water resting on it you think - my goodness it’s Dave Allen next. Actually, it’s Dave Cameron, the Geilgud of the Conservatives, who comes on to do one of his now famous unrehearsed monologues, the value of which is somewhat diminished by repeat performance.

The biggest cheer of the afternoon was saved for the Tories’ A list star, London’s own Boris Johnson, flush from his first run at a riverside theatre next to the Shakespeare’s Globe. Flashbulbs sputter, shutters click furiously, Tories rise to their feet for someone who has proved they can win big.

It is all meat and drink to Boris, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. He milks it forever until he realises he is in danger of having a Mo Mowlam moment, except with a better chance of a Bafta for hair and make-up.

Upstaging the leader wasn’t even in it. Foolishly David Cameron was in the stalls for the performance, reduced to non-speaking part with perhaps a chance of being glimpsed on camera. Boris had come to do “I came, I saw, I conquered” but he might as well have read the lines he rehearses in the mirror each morning: “I come here to bury Dave, not to praise him.”

Instead he paid tribute to fellow performer Arnold Shwarzenegger, who had been baffled by the Baffling One at the Tory conference in 2007 “This guy is fumbling all over the place,” the Californian governor was heard to say during a Johnsonian ramble, not realising that he was hearing Boris at his best.

“It was a low point to have my rhetorical skills criticised by a monosyllabic, Austrian, cyborg,” sighed Boris with that self-effacing humour that took him to City Hall and, should a routemaster bus do its duty on Cameron, could take him further still.

In spite of Arnie’s doubts, and tension up to the final reel, Boris was able to report that Ken Livingstone was “terminated”.

This is no time for triumphalism, said a beaming Johnson, as he paraded the successes of his first few months as London mayor and shamelessly plundered the credit for some of Ken Livingstone’s best ideas. He changed the Tory script, proving his seriousness, when he said he doesn’t recognise Cameron’s “Broken Britain” just a big problem - 27 kids have died violent deaths in London this year.

By now Boris was method acting away from his brief, slamming the government for regulating the City, saying the City Hall element of the London council tax will be frozen next year and claiming the 2012 Olympics will cost not a penny more, not a penny less.

When he said that I knew what I’d been watching was a fictional drama. Exit Boris stage left, pursued by a video camera.


Tory shortbreads from Birmingham.

We’ve all been there before. The countdown to a live television interview by the canalside in Birmingham and the cameraman asks Annabel Goldie to “take a step backwards”. Eeek, is all the leader of the Scottish Tories can summon in response.


Cross-dressing comedian alert - after last week’s encounter with Eddie Izzard who should be on the train to Birmingham but Paul O’Grady, looking very dapper and Ealing Comedy in an off white(beige really) suit. For some reason I’m only reminded of this encounter when I spy Bill Walker, former Perth and Tayside MP in the conference hall resplendent in his kilt. He could teach these boys a thing or two about dressing to look manly.


Quote of the day, from “David”, a pensioner invited onto the platform with George Osborne to discuss the economic crisis. “ When I ran a small business I went to the bank with a business plan. Now I look at the banks and I wonder if they have a business plan.”

Going to the Tories

The excuse for the train delay on the way back from the Labour conference was a good one - sniper on the tracks taking potshots at the train drivers - but there’s been no explanation for today’s delayed 08.36 conference express from London to Birmingham for the Tory bash. Where is Trains Minister Tom Harris when you need him?

Everyone on the conference circus looked a bit jaded as they stood waiting in Euston station for the platform to be announced. Only one more lap of the four week Whacky Races to go.

I only realised, after a former Scottish journalist kept me up arguing until 6am last week, how highly trained the Highland Light Media Infantry are for this lark. Years of reporting the National Mod, the annual Gaelic cultural festival, have left us robustly equipped as journalists to cope the rigours of late night drinking, conspiring, politicking and working all at the same time. Mind you, the singing is better at the National Mod.


I’ll be interested to hear what the Conservatives have to say about Scotland. I see the irascible Holyrood commentator Alan Cochrane is on the panel at a fringe debate tonight with blogger Ian Dale and David Mundell MP discussing the future of the Union under a Conservative government.

Cameron has his own Scots in exile close to him, Michael Gove and Dr Liam Fox, but strangely neither seem to have much of Caledonian hinterland to call on so how good their advice to the leader is I don’t know. The Conservatives are still a tarnished brand in Scotland and there are still very few winnable seats for them. In fact there are more winnable seats with an hour's driving time of Birmingham, venue for this week's conference, than there are in the whole of Scotland. If you were Cameron where would you concentrate your resources?

If it wasn’t for Irvine Laidlaw’s funding in the last few years, he gives about £200,000 and pays for the party spin doctors, the Scottish Tories might be in deep trouble.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The big speech

Big man, big speech, but was it enough to convince the voters to start listening to Gordon Brown again?

What an adroit move putting Sarah Brown out first to introduce her husband. At last,a flash of the new Labour stage management that caught everyone by surprise and delighted the party faithful. She received an ovation that Cherie Blair could only dream of. He kissed her, twice, on the lips, like an ordinary guy, and if she loves him the audience would love him too.

Then the man himself with his let's get straight to the point, I am not a celebrity, I have made mistakes, I'm not trying to be something I'm not, confessional that was aimed at turning his weaknesses into strengths. His reputation for economic mastery was to be a source of comfort in troubled times. He would be the "rock of stability and fairness upon which people stand".

It was stirring stuff to begin with and when he paused between passages he had a hang tough look of someone ready to fight his way out of the corner he was in.

Yes, there were a few digs at David Cameron parading his children for camera, and why not, Brown has had to be humiliating by the Conservatives often enough.

When he made one of the few jokes in an hour, it hit two threats, internal and external. "I'm all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice." If only he could have added the word "David" to the end it would have had brought the house down.

He borrowed heavily, echoing Sarah Palin's march on Washington and straight out of the Barack Obama book of oratory, "This is not about me, it's about you".

But it was about him and whenever he talked about "we" he made the point with passion, thumping his chest like a gorilla in the mist. "We did fix the roof when the sun was shining...we are the party of protecting homeowners... the poor will not go unheard at the UN tomorrow because we the British people will speak up for them."

When he spoke about the care he had received himself in the NHS his voice cracked with emotion, and he showed all the promise of his original billing as Prime Minister - not flash, just Gordon.

It may not have had the soaring rhetoric, and it may have had the rhythm of a sermon during the NHS passages but it was Gordon Brown - heart and soul. It was billed as the speech of his life and no one could fault him for effort. Conference rose, again and again, to give him an ovation.

And in the immediate environment it worked it's magic. Somehow the mass hypnosis, like a plot out of a Fu Manchu novel, that has held delegates in the Manchester conference bubble mute, blind and deaf to the dire state of the Labour party for four days continued to hold.

As they spilled out of the conference halls singing the leader's praises. Brilliant, commanding, substance, bins the rebels - the reactions were fullsome and freighted with relief that it had all gone well.

For the rebels it did not change fundamentals and out there, in television screen, on Arcadia Avenue, will it give the Prime Minister a lift in the polls or just a dead cat bounce at the bottom of the tallest electoral skyscraper Labour has ever fallen off? We will know after the Tory party conference.

In the final analysis there was only one audience that really had to be convinced by this speech - the 22 members of cabinet who will convene in Downing Street in a fortnight's time when parliament reconvenes. A month after that we will know the result from the Glenrothes by-election which is where the goalpost for calling time on Mr Brown have now been moved.

In a premiership that is being measured in 14 day blocks that seems like a lifetime away. For all that effort that is how little space the speech of a lifetime brought Gordon Brown in Manchester yesterday.

The real Labour party party

To the Guardian party, a rather ostentatious event for a local newspaper I thought, but they did have the good grace to invite me.

Lots of politicians there but who cares about them. I bump into the delightful Nancy Dell' Olio, of Sven fame, and hang out with her for a while.

"I read the Herald every day," the superflirt assures me between air kisses as we are introduced. "It's my favourite, the International Herald Tribune. We do interview sometime?" Who am I to disabuse her. "Yes Nancy, we do interview sometime. Ciao baby."

Then I spy Eddie Izzard and rush over to share with him my favourite Eddie Izzard gag. Eddie (we're firm friends now) played a gig in Stornoway once and in advance one of the tabloids did the predictable thing and phoned a Free Presbyterian minister for his reaction to this cross-dressing comedian arriving on the "deeply religious island".

Sure enough the paper got their headline, with the Protestant minister slamming Eddie as an "abomination".

The night of the gig, Stornoway Town Hall is packed to the rafters, loaded with expectation. Eddie totters on to the mike, his heels clicking in the tense silence, to deliver a killer opener: "That Reverend John MacLeod, who does he think he is - the Pope."

Eddie laughs, just as the crowd did, even though he's heard the joke before. Anyway, as I was saying to Nancy....

Monday, 22 September 2008

Scottish red eye dawn

Just out of the Iain Gray speech which took place at a bleary eyed 9.35am. Mr Gray had a train to catch so I had to bolt my Loch Fyne kipper breakfast and get over to the conference centre pronto. If you think that was early I see my old West Highland Free Press comrade, Brian Wilson, was due for an 8am appearance on the fringe to talk about food air miles. As the skipper Para Handy would say, "That's devotion for you".

It was a bit early for a rallying call to the Glenrothes ramparts but Iain Gray had a go anyway and he had one or two lines that will resonate beyond the party faithful. Here's the distilled soundbite version of what he said:

"In 1979 nationalist MPs opened the door and ushered Margaret Thatcher in to power. Thirty years later, and Nationalist MSPs are dusting off their doorman's cap, hoping to do David Cameron the same favour."

"Scotland's greatest resource is not its finite oil reserves. It is the limitless reserve of our people's potential.

"The people of Scotland don't want independence. They want the best chance to take the opportunities being part of Britain presents. They want a strong Scottish Parliament, standing up for Scotland's interests within the UK."

11.09 update - Rust never sleeps. The SNP have press released a comment on the "poorly attended" attended Iain Gray speech. What are they talking about, I saw at least one Labour MSP there and two Scottish MPs there?


Sunday, 21 September 2008

Labour Conference - Day One

Lie of the land

Two conversations on the train south to the Labour party conference in Manchester on Saturday. The first with a blunt engineer on his way back to Newcastle with his dog, Maximilian. He thought Gordon Brown might as well give up now. I can’t do the Geordie accent in print but he said: “You’ve got to feel sorry for him, but if ye can’t do the job ye might as well get out of the way for someone who can.”

On the Trans-Pennine express I spoke to two elderly widows who’d become experts at swapping electricity suppliers. “You have to do more maths than a university professor but it’s worth it,” said one. Get Age Concern to do the sums for you was the advice from her friend. They felt sorry for Gordon too.


Diverting journey

My journey south from Edinburgh might have been a long but not as diverting as one of my fellow islanders who was also at the launch of the new Gaelic channel, BBC ALBA, on Friday night.

Waking late in his Edinburgh hotel Calum Iain MacLeod dashed to Haymarket station to catch the first train to Glasgow that would connect with his flight to Stornoway. A robust figure, he jumped the barrier to get the next departing train. It was only when he was buying a ticket aboard that he was told the next stop was Carlisle.


Star struck

Spotted early on Sunday morning Sol Campbell, England internationalist and Portsmouth captain, in my hotel foyer. Wow - he has presence that strikes you down from 45 yards out and obviously drew the attention of Kate Hoey, the tricky former Sports Minister, who sidled up next to him.

Next I see Gordon Brown, with eight security guards outflanking him and Sue Nye, on the way to the GMex conference centre. Somehow, even in the sunshine, he didn’t exude just quite the same level of star quality.


Maybe Gordon had just seen the Glenrothes opinion poll that puts Labour and the SNP neck and neck for the by-election - both on 43% with a 14 per cent swing to the SNP. Very soon, someone is going to have to give Gordon Brown a road map and directions to the seat.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Today's photo


White Angel Breadline, shot by Dorothea Lange in San Francisco in 1933.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Scotch on the rocks

Finally make it down to the water’s edge for a dawn paddle only to be confronted by the Guardian’s answer to Adonis, Michael “Phelps” White, emerging from the ocean. Scooped again! But the water was fine and the most enlivening thing in Bournemouth since Tavish Scott’s speech.

Continuing the nautical theme the Scottish Lib Dems trooped down to the Bournemouth pier at 9am for a photo opportunity aboard the Waverley paddle steamer, which is plying southern waters far from its Clyde base.

Tavish was left high and dry though because there is no sign of the Waverley. It has apparently hit a rock called the Isle of Wight. Diligent research reveals that the Waverly actually bumped into Worthing pier, along the coast. The good news is that the pier was unaffected.

10.30 newsflash - the Waverley has arrived at Bournemouth, all paddles blazing, but it’s too late. Tavish Scott is holding a press briefing and a conference debate has started - on transport.

Newsflash 2 - the press conference is postponed as phones go crazy over the rumoured resignation of Scotland Office Minister David Cairns. It’s Scotch on the rocks in Bournemouth and Whitehall.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Lib Dem conference - Day Three

Still haven't built up the courage to go for an early morning swim in the English Channel but I wish some of the delegates would.

Why, oh why is there not enough deodorant to go around at the Lib Dem conference. The foyer of the Highcliff Hotel smelled more cabbagy than an old Aeroflot departure lounge last night and it wasn't even that packed.

"Some of these people haven't washed since Friday," said one wag, holding her nose. "Some of these people haven't washed since the SDP," replied a political veteran.


Lehman Brothers goes down for billions of dollars in the US mortgage market. Who says Alistair Darling was exaggerating now?


Someone fragrant in the hotel lobby in Bournemouth was Andrew Wilson, former SNP MSP and now a corporate affairs supremo with the Royal Bank of Scotland.

There's no point in pleading with him to come back to politics when the lure of a normal life, albeit it a frantic one with a young family, is so strong. "See you in ten years time," he jokes. Alex Salmond would just be coming up to retirement age about then, so the timing is right.

Still waiting for the big debate on Nick Clegg's tax cutting plans kicks off so, to kill time, the Scottish press corp torment Alasdair Carmicheal MP and George Lyon, prospective MEP, about the European Union. Or was that the other way around?

Orkney and Shetland MP Carmicheal has been appointed by Tavish Scott as his election co-ordinator in Scotland and his first big task is the European election campaign next June.

Alasdair resigned his post in the Lib Dem shadow cabinet over a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but he is insisted, as we teased him, that he was at one with the party over Europe.

George Lyon was keen to emphasis how he would make the EU work for the consumer by bringing down prices and regulating markets.

Did this also this mean that he would support dismantling the Common Agricultural Policy, the notorious agricultural subsidy system that swallows 47% of the EU budget, and provides support for farmers like George himself.

"There is no way I would support reduction in support to farmers in Scotland without similar reductions throughout the world," replied the past president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland.
Then he was off - he has a harvest to get in.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Harman to the barricades

Harriet Harman , class warrior in a reticulated giraffe pattern jacket, has just been speaking to the TUC Congress. Quite a lot of blow about her speech re-introducing the "class war" in this morning's papers and the broadcasters are looking at that as a possible line.
Emphasising the difference social class makes to your life chances in education and health is hardly class war, especially when you're talking in front of trade unionists who came to the political barricades to fight the battle against inequality.
In the policy part of her speech she announced an Equality Panel to see where the government has not made progress on wages, discrimination and fairness. She also had a real go at David Cameron - "he only wants women for one thing - their votes". Ouch. The Tories will have something to say on that and her claims that the opposition are "lurking around womens groups" like false friends.
Oh, and she let slip that Treasury Minister Angela Eagle, who is openly gay, is to "marry" her long time partner. Colleagues are getting very excited about this because the civil partnership, the first by a female Labour MP as far as we know, was meant to be "secret".
This is 2008, should we really be that excited? If Harriet has told the world before Angela wanted it announced I guess we should.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Not the Labour leadership contest

Good to see that not all Labour politicians are up in Birmingham today. Denis MacShane, one time Europe minister and keen europhile is down in Brighton after defending David Miliband and boxing Derek Simpson’s ears on air and this morning in a blog.

Heavy stuff, particularly on how the Foreign Secretary is denounced as a “Jew” in Moscow, but MacShane retains his dark sense of humour.

How do things stand in the leadership stakes, the press pack ask MacShane as he wanders the media centre at the TUC conference? “Pretty grim,” replies MacShane with mock gloominess. “The Social Democrats in Germany have just dumped their leader and are getting their Foreign Secretary to stand as Chancellor in next year’s elections.”

It takes a second for the penny to drop. “I’m just telling you the facts, telling you the facts,” says MacShane holding his hands up and smiling.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Bye, Bye Barnett

Plenty words on Scotland in that Brown speech, a draft of which was embargoed until now. The whole last third is about the strength of the Union, sweeping in everything from oil to Chris Hoy's three gold medals. (Hoy, to borrow the chancellor phrase, is getting p...ed off with being hi-jacked by politicians).

Its the usual Nat-bashing stuff from Brown until you come to a humdinger of a paragraph on the Calman Commission, currently examining the powers of the Scottish parliament.

Brown is due to say: “The Scottish parliament is wholly accountable for the budget it spends but not for the size of its budget. And that budget is not linked to the success of the Scottish economy. That is why we asked the Calman Commission to look at the financial accountability of the Scottish parliament”

Translated, it's the strongest signal yet that Brown has been convinced by the case for more fiscal autonomy for Scotland. It's not quite Devolution Max - a parliament responsible for raising and spending its own taxes - but Number 10 is not a roadblock to the development of devolution any more.

These lines about “a budget being linked to the success of the economy” look like the Prime Minister favours a system similar to the German Lander where federal parliament budgets are linked to the economic growth in their region.

The German system, on quick inspection, give the lander an incentive to grow their regional economy. In Scottish terms all this, I assume, would take place in a post-Barnett world. If you thought the Barnett formula for assigning the block grant to the Scottish parliament was complicated, hang onto your hat.

Scottish Labour MSPs feel the development of devolution is the needed to blunt the separatist sirens of the SNP come the next UK general election and the promised independence referendum. Long haul strategists in the SNP, who see independence as a process rather than one giant leap, may be pleased too.

Morning Lobby

Back from the 11am lobby briefing where - surprise surprise - the Prime Minister's official spokesman would not be “drawn on any of the comments from Charles Clarke this morning”. Don't worry there will be plenty return fire from other sources before long.

In case you missed it on Radio 4 this morning and in the New Statesman Mr Clarke has given the Prime Minister three months max to improve his scores before the cabinet drag him out of Downing Street. Otherwise its all over for the Labour party warns Clarke. Will the cabinet take heed of the former Blairite bruiser?

Mr Brown is off to Liverpool this morning and then on to Glasgow where he will make a speech that will not give too much attention to the biggest question of the day - how long does he think he got as Prime Minister?

His text of the speech, we understand, is long on analysis and short on policy. It will begin with an assessment of the global economic situation, how it is affecting every economy and every country but how the UK economy is better placed than it has been in the past to get through. There may, or may not, be some words on Scotland.

There's a bit on how the economic resilience will be backed up with interventions that will help British people through and then there's a blank bit which should have been the announcement on an energy efficiency package for this winter brokered between the government and the power companies.

Trouble is that the power companies are playing hard ball over offering a discount to poorer consumers so there is no announcement to be made yet. “Co-operative and constructive” is how the official spokesman described the talks, a euphemism that no one could use to describe Charles Clarke.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Affordable Housing claims

A few people have pointed me towards Alf Young's analysis of the Scottish government's £100 million boost for housing. Read it here:

What's in it for Scots? These housing measures in full...

Who wins in this re-arrangement of the housing market deckchairs announced by the Prime Minister this morning? "David Cameron," comes the answer from one of those oh so sharp political analysts that litter the press gallery corridor.

That’s as maybe and Mr Brown does not seem to have impressed even his own backbenchers with the housing package. Scottish buyers should be pleased though. The one year suspension of Stamp Duty will have a disproportionate effect in Scotland. By increasing the threshold to £175,000, the percentage of first time buyers who will not have to pay stamp duty will increase from just under 70% to just under 90%.

In our devolutionary age some of the measures only affect England and others are comparable to action already being taken by the SNP government in Holyrood. With some help I’ve done a compare and contrast.

First, the announcements that anyone trying to get on the housing ladder across the UK could benefit from:

A Stamp Duty Holiday for properties worth £175,000 or less.

This was floated, denied, speculated on all summer and then plucked out of the hat by the chancellor this morning. It applies across the UK but there could be a disproportionate benefit to the Scottish housing market where the average house price is £155,691. So, the average saving will be £1556 on each transaction and the market is still rising. Prices in Scotland were 4.6 % up in the second quarter of 2008 compared to the same three months last year.
In contrast, London house prices average £371,983 so the concession will have little effect there, so better to carry on renting in the capital and watch prices fall. In Wales the average price is £133,341, but that is in a falling market.

Income Support for Mortgage Interest

£100 million to allow Income Support for Mortgage Interest to kick in after 13 weeks of unemployment (currently 39) and an increase in the capital limit to £175,000, up from £100,000. This little known benefit to help those in unemployment maintain their mortgages will apply across the UK.

Help for First time buyers

A £300m shared equity scheme that will allow local authorities and housing associations to loan up to 30% of a deposit on a new house purchase to 10,000 first time buyers. No charge on the loan for the first five years.

Already has a Low Cost Initiative for first time buyers. A shared equity scheme helping people to buy on the open market operates in ten local authority areas - Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian, Perth and Kinross, Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, and Stirling. There is no charge on the loan and the owner generally pays 60-80% of the price of a home with the remaining stake funded by government..
The open market scheme is part of £250 million being spent over the next three years on shared equity new supply - enabling local authorities or housing associations to build new rent to buy properties

Help for those in mortgage trouble

£200 million mortgage rescue scheme for 6000 homeowners facing repossession allowing social landlords to clear the debts and rent back the homes to owners.

Ahead of the game with £25 million for the Home Owners Support fund. Run through the local authorities and housing associations to take over debts and rent houses back to defaulting mortgage payers.

Affordable Housing

A £400 million boost in the spending power of social housing providers including councils. This enables 5500 more houses to be built over the next 18 months by bringing forward investment from future budgets. It means the return of council house building in England after decades of decline with cities like Liverpool leading the way.

With the same budgeting trick £100 million is being used to accelerate the social house building programme next two years. One snag, some of the £40 million is expected to come from council budgets, already strained. By 2011 the Scottish government hope to spend £1.5 billion to create 21,500 new affordable homes. In Scotland a £25 million council house building support fund programme was announced to encourage local authorities to build new council houses.

So broadly the same measures seem to be in place in Scotland and England with the Scottish government having shown how nimble it can be to put all this is place early on. Both governments, you'll notice, are robbing future budgets to make their respective housing packages works. Who wins might be one question? Who pays is another.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Back on the croft

Decca Aitkenhead has popped up on the Guardian website with her account of the circumstances of the now famous interview with the chancellor.

"He seemed unfamiliar with the trick of appearing to open up without really saying anything," writes Aitkenhead. "Having decided to be more forthcoming, I think he was unsure about how to judge where to draw the line. He basically just told the truth - and far away from Westminster, it didn't seem that shocking."
Poor Darling, his comments are now being blamed for everything - from undermining the Prime Minister's Autumn relaunch to causing the pound to slide to a record low against the Euro and a two year low against the dollar.
Meanwhile UK mortgage approvals fell 71% in July, the the lowest level since records began 15 years ago, according to the Bank of England. None of this bode's well for tomorrow's relaunch aimed at reviving the housing market.

It’s bright but there’s a distinct Autumn chill running through the cloisters of Westminster palace this morning. The place is busier too, the sniffer dogs are back, some politicians are back - there goes Oliver Letwin with his wheelie case in tow - and you get the feel that the place is shaking off its summer torpor. Time then to start blogging.

Decca Aitkenhead is the toast of the Westminster lobby this morning, having caught the chancellor off guard at his Hebridean croft admitting that we are facing an economic crisis comparable to 1948. Lots of cheeky questions to the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman on who really is in charge of economic policy - answer, the chancellor - and continued speculation about Mr Darling’s job prospects.

Being Hebridean I was too busy feeling homesick over Murdo MacLeod’s pictures to notice what the plain speaking chancellor was saying at first in his Guardian interview. The consensus in Westminster now is that he gaffed by simply being too honest about the state of the global economy and the government’s troubles.

Mr Brown is off to Brussels today to sort out Russia at an emergency EU summit, and possibly sort out David Miliband too. It is the first time the pair will have met since July when the Foreign Secretary urged the Labour party, a la Darling, to renew itself. All this jostling will make for an interesting reshuffle.

Expect some news from Brussels about 5pm. Later in the evening Labour announce their candidate for the Glenrothes by-election which will come after the party conferences, that expected cabinet reshuffle, and the autumn relaunch which starts tomorrow with a package of measures to revive the housing market. Here’s the candidates shortlist just in:

Colin Davidson, 49, is a teacher in Bell Baxter High School and is chair of North East Fife CLP. He is an active member of the EIS, and works with a local organisation that allows young people from Fife to travel to America.

Kezia Dugdale, 27, is a parliamentary researcher and former welfare rights advisor. Born in Aberdeen she has run several voter registration campaigns and campaigned on housing standards. She has a degree in Law and a degree in Social and Public Policy.

Lindsay Roy, 59, is the Rector (head teacher) of Kirkcaldy High School. From 1990 – 2008, he was the Rector of Inverkeithing High School, and previously Depute Rector of Glenwood High School in Glenrothes. He is a past president of the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland. He lives in Glenrothes and is a Church Elder at St Columba’s.

The result will be known tonight but if you want a clue - Gordon Brown went to Kirkcaldy High School.