Thursday, 30 April 2009

Gordon Brown’s month of bad movies

Ever felt you're "in the wrong movie, man"? Gordon Brown has appeared in a few turkeys in the last month.

2nd April
Iron Man - superhero G20 action film in which our hero saves the world - for a day.

12th April
All the PM’s men - Damian McBride emails smear Tories and shames Brown.

21st April
Blairwitch Project II - low budget, freakish performance from PM on MPs expenses reform.

22nd April
The Dambusters - budget bombshell 50p tax rate fails to dent national debt.

27th April
The man who wasn’t there - Pakistani president snubs Mr Brown.

28th April
Made in Poland - boring documentary on economics by Polish President.

29th April
The New Avengers - Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas defeat PM in Commons vote.

30th April
Passport to Pimlico Again - reform on MPs second home allowance dropped from Commons vote.

Coming soon...Summer blockbusters to look forward to:

MPs Expenses II - the scandalising sequel of one million MPs’ receipts being published.

Missing Identity - Cabinet to consider astonishing U-turn on ID cards, saving £2bn

European Cinema season - drubbing for Labour in Euro-poll and local English elections.

Mission Impossible IV - one more plot to replace Brown as PM.

David Cameron - Rosyth and Govan's £4bn supercarriers could be cut.

Interesting how the centre of political gravity is shifting at Westminster. Very few lobby journalists attended the Prime Minister’s joint statement with the Iraqi Prime Minister at Downing Street while plenty made the effort to grab a bacon butty at David Cameron’s 9.15am monthly press conference.

And there was a more intense focus than before on what Cameron’s plans in government actually are. He was asked specifically if he would cancel the £4billion contract for two Royal Navy super-carriers that are to be build on the Clyde and at Rosyth dockyard? The answer is that cancellation of the carrier contract cannot be ruled out.

"All the things in the defence programme, there is a very strong case for them," said Mr Cameron. "We need proper equipment, we need a well funded Navy and Army. But clearly when we are living beyond our means we need to review all commitments across the piece and ask what do we need to go ahead with. We’ll do it in a responsible way. We’ve said for some time."

Just to give this some context there is a bust-up going on behind the scenes between shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Shadow chancellor George Osborne. Fox has vowed to fight Osborne’s plans to cut £3billion more out of the Defence budget. All this will be covered over by a commitment to carry out a defence review on entering office.

What is up for consideration then Mr Cameron was asked? Means testing child benefit, for example, as David Davis suggested in an article for the FT?

"Clearly we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of poorest and the neediest or on the back of the NHS," said Mr Cameron in response. "Our argument is the longer Labour delays these decisions the worse they will be. Because they made such a mess the last time the IMF came in and cut everything. To avoid that happening again you’ve got to start cutting now in 2010 when the government is actually planning to increase spending by £30 billion. They’ve put everything off into the future and that is wrong."

I’d read that as everything being up for grabs except the commitment to match NHS budgets and maintain the overseas aid budget, which all parties pretty much agree on.

The two supercarriers be the biggest and most powerful surface warships ever constructed in the UK and they guarantee the future of the Roysth, Portsmouth, and Govan in Glasgow, creating 10,000 jobs at the peak of the programme in about 2011.

Once they enter service in 2014 and 2016 respectively they are expected to remain in the fleet for up to fifty years.

Ian Davidson, Glasgow South West MP has reacted immediately to the possibility that the Clyde-built carriers might be under threat. "Cameron and the Tories have got to come clean immediately about whether they’re planning to cancel the carriers. Thousands of Scottish jobs depend upon the carriers going ahead and the Tories need to make their intentions clear as soon as possible."

Ughdarras a' Phriomhaire ann an cunnart.

Mura robh gu leòr air aire a' Phrìomhaire eadar staid na h-eaconomaidh agus a-nis flu nam muc, thig e fo thuilleadh chuideim an-diugh - 's buill parlamaid gu bhith a' bhòtadh air planaichean airson atharrachadh a thoirt air siostam nan cosgaisean.

Tha na pàrtaidhean dùbhlanach agus na meadhanan air a bhith a' fanaid air planaichean a' Phrìomhaire - co-dhiù air mar a dh’ainmich e an naidheachd, ga chraoladh air Youtube ann an òraid a bha neònach air sgàth 's mar a bha e a' dèanamh gàire aig amannan nach robh iomchaidh. (Seo an clip.)

Ach a-nise, as dèidh a bhith a' call bhòt nan Gurkhas a-raoir, tha ceist ann mu dheidhinn ùghdarras a' Phrìomhaire. Thàining air am prìomh mholadh aige, airson suim airgid a phàigheadh dha na buill gach là airson thighinn chun na Pàrlamaid, a leigeal seachad gun aonta eadar na pàrtaidhean.

Tha taic ann airson cuid de na molaidhean eile aig a' Phrìomhaire airson cùisean a sgioblachadh ann an cabhag - gearradh chosgaisean buill pàrlamaid Lunnainn agus ministearan a tha a' fuireach ann an taighean a' Chrùin, mar eisimplear - ach chan eil airson cuid eile.

'S e an cunnart gun tèid a h-uile moladh a chur gu aon taobh. Tha gu leòr buill pàrlamaid airson gnothach nan cosgaisean dìreach fhàgail aig Sir Christopher Kelly a tha a' dèanamh rannsachaidh air a' chùis co-dhiù.

Ma thachras sin se buile mhòr a bhios ann do Mgr Brown, agus e air gu leor fhulang mu thràth an t-seachdain seo.

Tha atharrachadh air gach moladh, bho cheannard Comataidh nan Inbhean sna Cumantan, a tha a' cantainn gum bu chòir cosgaisean a bhith stèidhichte ann an dòigh neo-eisimealach mar a tha Sir Christopher an dùil a dhèanamh.

Tha e a-rèir dè nì na Tòraidhean agus dè seòrsa taic a th' aig Mgr Brown taobh a-staigh a' phàrtaidh aige fhèin. Tha Mghr Brown ag ràdh gu bheil e airson saoghal a' phoileataics a ghlanadh ach ‘s ann a tha e a-nis dualtach buile eile a thoirt air fhèin, ‘s tha e air fàs fìor mhath air sin a dhèanamh.

An-dè chail an riaghaltas bhòt air na Gurkhas le na Lib Demaich agus na Tòraidhean a' tighinn ri chèile le reubaltaich Làbarach airson còirichean a thoirt do sheann Ghurkas thighin a dh' fhuireach ann am Breatainn. Ma chailleas e an dàrna bhòt an-diugh, tha ughdarras a' Phrìomhaire ann an cunnart.

Taing do Eilidh Dhubh

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Clegg wins it for the Gurkhas

The Commons is still reeling this evening from the shock defeat of the government on a Lib Dem motion, voting by a majority of 27 to allow all retired Gurkhas to settle in the UK.

The result was 267 votes to 246 with the Tories backing a Lib Dem motion along with 27 rebel Labour MPs. This is a huge victory for Nick Clegg, the first time a Lib Dem motion has won a vote since the Lib Dems emerged from the old Liberal party, I'm told.

However the vote is symbolic and will not automatically change government policy, although the Home Office may now find it impossible to resist demands for a radical rethink.

Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister is due to give a statement to the House later tonight, after the Sri Lanka debate and the statement by Alan Johnson on Swine Flu.

It's all go down here, you know. I've had my head wrapped around "Afpak", the new pejoritive term for the Afghan-Pakistani tribal regions all day so haven't had much of a look in.

I sat in for Prime Minister's Questions though which was one miserable minute after another for Gordon Brown. Really it was Nick Clegg's day, he tore into the Prime Minister over his "evasive" answers on the Gurkha campaign.

"What kind of an answer was that?," demanded Clegg. "It is the answer of a man who seems to know he is doing a shameful thing but has not got the guts to admit it or change it. It is the answer of a Government that has no principles and no courage."

Now, after the chilling sight of David Cameron and Nick Clegg celebrating together outside parliament, Brown is facing the possibility of the government losing the vote on expenses reform tomorrow.

He has already been forced to put on hold his plans to award them a daily allowance for attending parliament and no Labour backbencher I've spoken to is happy about voting for them.
There has just been a meeting of the Scottish parliamentary Labour party with the Prime Minister. The message we're getting was that the message to them was don't be distracted, stick to the big themes. Er, like Post Office part-privatisation?

No Scottish Labour rebels among those who voted against the government though we haven't worked out abstentions yet.

A total of 27 Labour MPs, including Keith Vaz and former Cabinet minister Andrew Smith voted for the Liberal Democrat motion. They were:
Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Ian Cawsey (Brigg & Goole), Harry Cohen (Leyton & Wanstead), Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North), Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central), Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Joan Humble (Blackpool North & Fleetwood), Glenda Jackson (Hampstead & Highgate), John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington), Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes), Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock), Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South), Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway), Julie Morgan (Cardiff North), Dr Nick Palmer (Broxtowe), Stephen Pound (Ealing North), Nick Raynsford (Greenwich & Woolwich), Andy Reed (Loughborough), Linda Riordan (Halifax), Alan Simpson (Nottingham South), Andrew Smith (Oxford East), Paul Truswell (Pudsey), Keith Vaz (Leicester East), Mike Wood (Batley & Spen)

Monday, 27 April 2009

Climate Change protest in the Commons

Four environmental protesters have glued themselves to a statue in the Houses of Parliament, in a historic echo of the suffragette movement.

Three young women and a man, wearing red sashes, have stuck their hands together to form a chain around the statue of Viscount Falkland, just yards from the Commons chamber.

The Commons authorities have closed that access to the Central lobby and when we looked down the corridor the paramedics were urging the four to be quiet while they worked out a way to remove them.

The protesters, from the group Climate Rush, say the protest is against last week's decision to allow a new generation of coal-fuelled power stations.

One hundred years ago today,27 April 1909, suffragettes chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen's Hall in the Houses of Parliament.

Margery Humes chained herself to a statue of Viscount Falkland. The police report recorded that 'slight damage was done to the spur of the Falkland statue to which Miss Humes was attached.'

The chains were removed with bolt clippers. This police report to the Serjeant at Arms remarked that 'the clippers turned out most valuable in this case.' What do you use on superglue?

MPs expenses - Brown to wave white flag?

The row over what expenses to replace with what expenses continues to rumble on into another week here at Westminster. It looks like a new compromise might be on offer from Gordon Brown by the end of the day.

Mr Brown's idea of a daily allowance in exchange for turning up just isn't getting any traction at all, even with his own backbenchers. Nick Clegg, perhaps anticipating a new deal, has put forward a simplified set of proposals - bareboard rent or mortgage interest payments plus council tax - which might look more acceptable.

I've mentioned before that Labour backbenchers are also angry about the transfer of their staff to the Westminster pay roll without so much as a breath of consultation. One told me that if a private company had announced a transfer of employees conditions by You Tube the government would have expressed outrage. Tupe by youtube is what they're calling it.

My own personal expenses dilemma. The oven has packed in at home. A replacement from John Lewis will cost over £400. If I could claim that on expenses. would I?

Friday, 24 April 2009

Expenses reform on the rocks

Gordon Brown’s rushed plans to reform Westminster expenses, including replacing the controversial second homes allowance with a daily attendance fee for MPs, looked doomed last night as the prospect of an even greater expenses scandal began to loom large.

With the opposition and Labour backbenchers declaring the plans unworkable the chances looked slim for Mr Brown being able to instigate reform before being engulfed by huge political crisis when four years worth of MPs expenses are being published under a Freedom of Information legislation in July.

MPs have already seen drafts of the intended publication and the Labour whips office has reportedly warned the Prime Minister that when some MPs expenses claims are laid bare resignations, and by-elections, will be inevitable.

Mr Brown’s sudden, eve of Budget, announcement that he wanted to make the expenses system simple and cheaper received a broadside from Sir Christopher Kelly, the chair of Committee on Standards in Public Life, who yesterday began his own investigation into reform.

"This is not something that should be left to politicians to sort out for themselves," said Sir Christopher at the launch of his review of the expenses system brought forward at Mr Brown’s request. He said the public "will have great difficulty accepting" Mr Brown’s key proposal to replace the £24,000 second home allowance with a payment for daily attendance, which has been condemned by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Talks between the three main party leaders on Wednesday evening broke up without agreement. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have their own plans to scrap the controversial second homes allowance and replace it with a pared down, transparent system.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that there had been "overwhelming support" for the majority of the proposals and that discussions would continue on the issue of the second home allowance.

Last night Downing Street said it was still the Government’s intention to put a package of reforms to a vote in the Commons next Thursday. Commons leader Harrier Harman hinted that a figure for the proposed overnight allowance would be presented to MPs after many government backbenchers registered fury at being asked to approve changes in allowances without knowing the detail of what they are voting for.

There is also considerable anger amongst MPs over the proposals to transfer their constitunency staff onto the Westminster payroll to lower costs. "The first my staff and I heard of this was on a Youtube video," one Labour backbencher told me. "If a private company had announced changes in employment conditions for thousands of people like this the government would be expressing outrage."

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Scotland - £500m of cuts of £367m efficiency savings?

The debate will carry on today but here's my analysis for the Herald of the disputed budget implications for Scotland

The key Scottish battleground in the budget is over what is meant by an "efficiency saving" and what amounts to a "cut" in public services.

Last night - as Mr Darling rested in Downing Street, his agenda for fairness delivered and the Conservatives calling the staggering levels of public debt the worst Budget ever - the SNP and Labour locked horns over what the Budget really means for Scotland.

The SNP government has been complaining long and loud that the efficiency savings demanded of it by the Treasury would mean that £500m would be cut out of the Scottish budget in the financial year, 2010-11.

This claimed Stewart Hosie, the SNP Treasury spokesman, threatens 9000 jobs in Scotland which depends disproportionately on the public sector.

Not so claimed Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, who described Mr Darling's statement as "right and responsible".

In fact Mr Darling went much further than the £5bn of efficiency saving already announced and said he wanted an extra £9bn to be taken out of the public sector. Public spending growth is to be cut from 1.1% next year to 0.7% from 2011-2012.

Regardless of which government is in power then, this will mean real cuts across the whole of the UK in services that voters really care about.

The Conservatives say they would have made £5bn in efficiency savings and given it back in tax cuts on savings, a move that would help many pensioners. This would be a fiscally neutral move for one year only. The focus in the future, George Osborne said, would be spending restraint - for that read cuts in services - rather than tax cuts.

The Scottish Government, which gets a block grant from Westminster, will have to feel the pinch along with every other part of country and it won't be nearly as bad as the SNP predict, Mr Murphy said yesterday. His figures showed that the net effect of yesterday's Budget was actually only a cut of £367m in the Scottish budget (out of a total of about £31bn) for 2010-11, and he called them "efficiency savings".

How was that worked out? Over the next two years the Scottish Government will get an extra £104m of funding through Barnett consequentials - pro rata increases in its budget - from announcements like the housing package, energy-efficiency schemes and funding for schools and colleges in England.

The Barnett money means an extra £79m this year and more than £24m next year on top of the annual capital budget.

In the disputed 2010-11 financial year the Scottish budget will be cut by £392m but gain £24m which comes close to an efficiency saving of £367m, according to Mr Murphy.

But John Swinney, the Scottish Finance Secretary, was scathing of these claims. Mr Swinney's asserted that the real "cuts" amounted to £500m. The £367m figure they can't agree on - Mr Swinney sticks to £392m - and claims Mr Murphy is not including a cut of £129m which Scotland "lost" when spending on the NHS in England was cut back due to underspending. This is a kind of "reverse Barnett" consequential and it brings the level of cuts back up to £500m say the SNP.

"We have an annual 2% efficiency programme across the Scottish public sector. Crucially, this is money that can be reinvested in services, whereas what the Chancellor has announced today is simply a crude cut," said Mr Swinney.

The dispute does not end there. Andy Kerr, Labour's shadow finance secretary, insisted that there was a Treasury deal to allow the use of End Year Flexibilities so that Scotland need not lose out, but the SNP Government pointed out that EYF involves Scotland's own cash, so this can hardly be called replacement money.

Even then Scotland is better off in real terms, said Labour. Andy Kerr produced a blizzard of statistics to suggest Mr Darling's announcement was one of milk and honey for his native land.

"Despite John Swinney's scaremongering the Scottish Government will have £700m more cash next year in 2010/11 to spend," said Mr Kerr.

Scotland is also getting an additional £260m of UK investment from the Budget, according to the Scotland Office. This comes in the form of £170m for JobCentre Plus, a £75m share of the strategic investment fund and £12.9m of family tax credits, which is an £20 extra a month for 540,000 schoolchildren in Scotland.

Labour say the overall budget increases each year in both cash and real terms. The SNP says the headline figures are worse than those previously announced and therefore a real cut.

"A cut is a cut when the Treasury itself confirms it," said Stewart Hosie. "Euphemisms like efficiency savings and squeezes cut no ice." Mr Murphy wrote to Alex Salmond yesterday offering to help the Scottish Government devise solutions that would not affect public services.

"We're certain this level of efficiencies can be found without affecting frontline services," said Mr Murphy. He has offered to meet the Scottish Cabinet as soon as possible to outline the Budget and is offering "the finest minds in the Treasury" to help the Scottish Government find the necessary savings.

The Scottish Government, the Scotland Office points out, have lower efficiency targets than Wales, Northern Ireland and the UK Government.

"The Scottish Government, has to behave like Scottish families and make some savings," said Mr Murphy. "The public will punish politicians for singing the old songs and making the old arguments."

This is Mr Murphy at his diplomatic best. There is little patience across Whitehall for the SNP trying to avoid spending cuts when everyone else has to grin and bear them.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Breaking news - Tamils lay siege to Parliament

Noise and excitement outside at 10.00am. The Tamil protesters in Parliament Square have broken out of their two week confinement and have rushed the gates of Westminster Palace. The gates are closed but from out vantage point here on the third floor of the press gallery we can see the stand off. It's noisy, not violent but it has stopped the traffic in central London.

What are they protesting about? War in Sri Lanka.

Budget preview - this much we know.

Inside the Treasury over the weekend Alistair Darling was said to be "in a good place". He's confident he can muster his arguments on Wednesday for increased public borrowing and continued public spending while the recession bites and that he can also sprinkle a some optimism over what will be a fairly grim set of national accounts.

In the maelstrom surrounding the next door neighbour’s e-mail accounts 11 Downing Street has been spared from much scrutiny in the run up to what will be a crucial budget.

The chancellor will have to be frank about revised borrowing figures for the next few years, having bailed out the nation’s banks and cut VAT in November how could he not be? But he will also state his belief that the recession could show signs of ending and that from the New Year things will improve. The economy, the Treasury now estimates, will shrink by 3.5% this year but grow 1% in the next.

There will be a little more hope than that 1% figure in the most important day in the parliamentary year. Well-placed advance pieces in the newspapers have laid the mood music for what to expect on Wednesday. There will be, as I report in the Herald today, a multi-billion sustainable energy package negotiated with the European Investment Bank to re-finance the onshore windfarming industry, most of which will be based in Scotland.

There will be a £2bn package for unemployed school leavers and graduates ensuring that apprentices can finish their training and that Britain will not be left with a lost generation coming out of recession.

There is expected to be a £50bn package of government mortgage guarantees to kickstart the housing market, more freedom for companies to carry back losses and defer tax payments and a massive increase in investment in broadband to give the UK economy an advantage when the graphs start going upwards at the turn of the year.

There will be breaks for the North Sea oil industry, with incentives for the development of hard to exploit fields that would otherwise be left under the continental shelf. As well as being a budget for recovery the chancellor will flash more green credentials with an extra half a billion pounds for green projects that could be as simple as insulation schemes but will create thousands of jobs at a time when unemployment is rising.

That’s the good news, as much as we know, out of the way. In all other respects this is going to be a budget of staggering figures. The financial world has been turned completely upside down since the Chancellor stood at the dispatch box last year and the economic situation means Mr Darling has no money to pull financial rabbits out of the hat on Wednesday.

The opposition is preparing the ground for a "day of reckoning" with Shadow chancellor George Osborne forecasting darkly "the longest recession that Britain has had since the Second World War." He said yesterday: "It is a truly dramatic moment when the economic carnage of the last 10 years is laid bare."

In contrast Mr Darling exuded hope and confidence in novel YouTube broadcast last night. In his video message Mr Darling said: "I want to make sure that we do two things. One is to help people now, through this difficult time. But equally importantly, we’ve got to prepare for the future, to ensure that we can take advantage of the upturn, of the recovery when it comes, and it will come."

The big faultline between the Conservatives and Labour is over borrowing and public spending. Mr Osborne would rein in spending, Mr Darling has to explain how he will pay for it. That will be the real trick on Wednesday, not just appearing confident, but laying out the repayment terms for the nation.

Vince Cable, who hosts his own alternative budget briefing today, has called for some truth about where the pain will be inflicted. Mr Darling will want to deliver both honesty and credibility, but the electorate may not thank him for it.

Friday, 17 April 2009

A budget speech of blood, sweat and tears?

Preparing for next week's budget speech Alistair Darling would do well to read the reaction to Ireland's tax-raising and spending cuts budget designed to ready the country for the long haul out of debt.

I've no doubt that the electorate here is ready for the same thing, regardless of who is in power, but as Fintan O'Toole pointed out in the Irish Times earlier this week you have to leave people with some hope too.

O'Toole says that the public mood in Ireland after the budget is "not seething outrage or wild anger, it is simple, down-home, dumbstruck despair".

He adds: "There is, quite plainly, nothing to look forward to. There is no narrative of pain and gain. The pain is up-front, obvious and laid out before us in an orderly multi-annual menu of misery. It is the future. But where’s the gain?"

Dare I say it but in London and in Glasgow over the past few weeks I've sensed that people are itching to start spending their money again, as if consumerism is a compulsion that we must feed. Last month's retail figures don't support my thesis but the anecdotal evidence is that people are saying "what the hell" and spending anyway.

That could be a false sense of the worst being over, when it might not be at all, but with Peter Mandelson cheering us on the nation should get back to shopping soon.

Mandelson, by the way, is fearless, or rather has nothing to lose. It is taboo for an elected politician to tell people to cheer up when joblessness is heading to three million - remember the Daily mail tirade Tom Harris MP received when he blogged on the subject. But Lord Mandelson is untouchable and knows that so much of economic recovery is going to be about consumer confidence and he's trying to instill some.

Will Darling be able to do the same thing, with a more subtle touch, next week? After a year of economic freefall it's a tall order to squeeze even a paragraph of hope into a budget speech but people will need something more than blood, sweat and tears.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

A Chabineat ann an Glaschu.

Chan eil fios dè cho cudthromach 's a tha gu bheil Cabinet Riaghaltas Westminster a' coinneachadh ann an Glaschu an-diugh ach tha e eachdraidheil, tha sin cinnteach.

Bidh seo a' chiad turas bho 1921, nuair a ghairm Lloyd George a Chabineat suas a dh' Inbhir Nis airson dèiligeadh le ceist Stàid Shaor na h-Èireann, tha Ministearan an Riaghltais air cruinneachadh ann an Alba.

Thòisich an riaghaltas air an “road show” seo bho chionn bliadhna, a' coinneachadh ann an ceann a deas Shasainn, na Midlands agus a-nis Glaschu.

Bidh iad a' muigh timcheall na dùthcha, a' coinneachadh ris a' phobal tron an là ach 's e an fhìrinn mu dheidhinn a' mhòr-chuid de choinneamhan a' Chabhineit gu bheil iad gu math sgiobalta agus goirid.

S e an eaconomaidh am prìomh chuspair air a' chlàr-ghnothaich, am buidseat cuideachd ach 's ma dh' fhaoidte gum bi coinneamh shònraichte eile aca mu dheidhinn sin.

Bid iad a' deasbad na h-àireannachd leis an naidheachd mu dheidhinn taic riaghaltais airson càraichean dealain agus cumhachd niuclasach ann an Sasainn a-mhàin. Cuimhchich gu bheil a' choinneamh a' tighinn 's Ministear a' Chumhachd, Ed Milliband, ag iarraidh air Riaghaltas na h-Alba am beachd air connadh niuclasach atharrachadh.

Dhiùlt iad a' choinneamh aca a roinn le Cabinet Riaghaltas na h-Alba - is feumaidh spèis a thoirt dha Alex Salmond airson feuchainn ri e fhèin a chur air an àrd-ùrlar gach là, ach chan ann airsan a tha na soilais phoileataigach an-diugh.

Tha ministearan gach riaghaltais a' coinneachach co-dhiù nuair a dh' fheumas iad, agus bha ceannardan phàrtaidhean na h-Alba aig dinnear prìobhaideach aig dachaigh Gòrdan agus Sarah Brown a-raoir. Bha iad gu math càirdeal ri chèile, chuala sinn, 's iad a' blasadh air bradan ròst Innse Gall.

Le taing do Eilidh Dhubh.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Eishken Windfarm

Overcoming thermonuclear IT problems of my own this afternoon to write some hard copy on Ed Miliband challenging the SNP government in Scotland to drop its opposition to nuclear power. Read it all in the Herald.

The standard SNP defence would be about turning Scotland into the "Saudi Arabia of renewables" but I'm told not to expect Energy Minister Jim Mather to make any annoucement on the outcome of a planning application for the controversial 53 turbine Eishkin windfarm proposal when he visits Lewis tomorrow. We'll see.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Madame Ecosse

Here's a preview of the Madame Ecosse documentary, a biography of Winnie Ewing that's being broadcast on BBC Alba tonight at 9pm and 10pm on Tuesday night. Sky channel 168 and Freesat 160. You can watch it on the BBC's i-Player as well. It seems a fine piece by Ishbel MacIver, and it is planned that it will be re-broadcast on BBC Scotland when Mrs Ewing reaches her 80th birthday in July.

Add - looks like I failed to get that video embedded. Will try again later.

Damian McBride - Day three.

The blogosphere and the traditional media are still going daft over the Damian McBride/Derek Draper e-mails. I've just finished doing a commentary on Radio nan Gaidheal about the story and because it's Bank Holiday Monday (no other news around) the row will continue to rumble through the day.

Although the story broke over Easter, when newspaper readership is almost as low as Christmas Day, Downing Street knows that if this continues to fester it will alter the perception of Mr Brown.

Just as the public changed their mind about the Prime Minister when they saw him first playing, and then dithering, over whether to call a general election in 2006 they won't be enamoured by this other side of his political personality.

The other danger, apart from the Tory counter-attacks, is that there are a large number of Blairite ex-ministers out there who were done over by the McPoison team around Mr Brown when he was a chancellor at war with the Prime Minister. Some of them will be sharpening their blades for revenge and an ill-disciplined party is something the Prime Minister can do without. So, expect that to be the story of the day. Alastair Campbell's four day rule - if a story produces nothing new in that time it moves off the front pages - still applies. The government will be desperate to move us onto something, anything, else and the Tories will be looking to stoke the embers.

There's a cabinet meeting in Scotland this week. The meeting in Glasgow will be the first of its kind in Scotland since Lloyd George summoned his colleagues to Inverness in 1921 to discuss plans for the Irish Free State. So, I guess we'll look at that too. Now less talk about work and more getting on with it. The tube system is being repaired this weekend so it's a walk to Westminster on what is a pretty grey day here.

Happy Easter Egg

Returning from Lewis we're used to smuggling black puddings through the El-Al training facility that is Stornoway airport security but this time we're back in London with eggs - chocolate easter eggs - the product of the latest venture from Voluntary Action Lewis.

Luxury Venezuelan chocolate easter eggs might not be the first business you'd think of starting in Lewis but why not? The company, set up in an old bakery in Stornoway is a social business that hopes to provide work for up to 15 adults with special needs over the next few years.

The chocolate factory on Westview Terrace is in its infancy so they produced 100 easter eggs as an experiment and through word of mouth had to increase output to 300. When we called on Easter Friday, just as they were closing, Anne Sobey was down to the last half dozen eggs. We took the lot - two white, two dark and two milk chocolate. What's left (they went to worthy causes) I'll take into the Westminster office this morning.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Video shows G20 police assault on Ian Tomlinson.

Blimey, the Guardian has just posted exclusive footage of Ian Tomlinson, who died at the scene of last week's G20 protests outside the Bank of England, being assaulted by police.

Tomlinson, who was a passer-by, suffered a heart attack and died at the scene. Eye witnesses said they had seen him pushed to the ground. The video seems to back that up and if so it will set the town alight.

Look on the Guardian website for details. Channel 4 news are also going to run it.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Meanwhile, back on the island

Whitehall 1212 is on its holidays in the Western Isles this week but just because we're at the island end of the London-Lewis nexus, and Westminster is on holiday, doesn't mean that politics has gone away.

After an early morning radio broadcast to the Gaelic nation on Geoff Hoon's troubles with housing allowances, now extending to Alistair Darling, I stop off at Stornoway airport to pick up my copy of the Herald.

The drome and the supermarket are the only two places to be sure of meeting anyone, church on a Sunday as well I suppose, as Stornoway town centre is abandoned since the recession swept away Woolworths.

The planes have all gone by the time I arrive but there's Donald John MacSween, the prospective Labour candidate for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar, along with Peter Peacock MSP, former Labour Minister and before that able leader of Highland Regional Council

Peacock bemoans the expenses row, saying it contaminates all politics. A stewart on the Inverness to Edinburgh train last week pointedly handed him a receipt for his breakfast so, the waiter said, he could "claim it on his expenses".

Mr Peacock wearily had to point out that he was a Scottish MSP and couldn't claim his breakfast back. One day, not far from now, the rigorous Scottish parliament expenses scheme will be applied at Westminster too.

Catherine Stihler MEP
joins us, like the first cuckoo of Spring, a sure sign that the European elections can't be far away. The Labour team are off around the island to press the flesh and raise their profile. Nice weather for it.

Of course that doesn't last long. By the time we make for coffee at An Lanntair, the island art gallery, the rain is back on. We're just getting onto the cullin skink when in pop a clutch BBC executives with some men in suits, whom we establish are members of the BBC Trust.

They must be up as part of their assessment of BBC Alba, the Gaelic TV channel, and whether it ought to be on Freeview. Bit of no-brainer that one. The Trust has made the new channel jump through all kinds of hoops and audience target stats to prove that it should be made available on Freeview, instead of Freesat or Sky channel 168 as it currently is.

The channel is scoring remarkable viewing figures despite its limited broadcast range. (My mother and sister's households, for example, which neatly cover the entire audience span from pensioner, through working mother and tweens don't have the access to the channel though both have Freeview equipment.)

If you do have access to BBC Alba watch out next Monday for my friend Ishbel MacIver's biography of Winnie Ewing, the matriach the modern-day SNP, which has been completed in record time. I'll try and get a preview clip us soon as.

Sad to hear on Gaelic radio this afternoon of the death of Neil McCormick, former SNP MEP and distinguished nationalist and academic.

More blogging during the week but now back to the stove. The old adage is true, sit on an island long enough and the whole world will come to you.

Friday, 3 April 2009

426 days and counting...

The Conservatives have installed a giant blue countdown clock on the wall of the election nerve centre in their London headquarters, I hear.

It is currently set to the last possible day that Gordon Brown can call an election - 10th June 2010 - which is presuming that the PM is playing the long game and that there are 426 days to go.

The clock can be adjusted at a moment’s notice. “It’s just to keep everyone on their toes and serve as a reminder that even if we go a full term there isn’t that long to go until there is an election,” said a Conservative spokesman.

Meanwhile in Scotland Annabel Goldie, the Tory leader, has taken the speaking clock approach, telling East Renfrewshire Conservatives at a lunchtime meeting that they were on “red alert” for an election. “You are now on the front foot campaigning to win a general election and the sooner it comes, the better,” said Goldie.

CORRECTION 29th April - The last possible date for a General Election is Thursday 3rd June 2010 it has been pointed out thanks Lucy. I can't recall if that makes the Tory countdown clock wrong or whether it was my mistake. Probably me.

Fred in parliament with Klondyke claim.

No, not Fred "the shred" Goodwin, but Fred "the cable" Hamilton came with his daughter Ruth for a ceilidh on the Thames at lunchtime. Fred works for the Hydro board and has been married to my cousin Chris in Ullapool for 20-odd years.

That Telford-designed town on the Scottish west coast, he tells me, is gearing up for the tourist season and there is an echo of the village's old Klondyke days in the bay with an Irish-owned vessel trans-shipping fish from Norwegian boats.

The factory-ship is the Ocean Fresh, a Norwegian-flagged vessel buying blue whiting from Norwegian boats that come and go from Loch Broom. The fish is frozen on board and auctioned over the internet for human consumption in China and Nigeria.

Back in the day, before the wall came down, Loch Broom used to be filled with dozens of rusty East European factory ships, processing mackerel for the good old USSR and the quay and shops used to chime with slavic accents.

Kenny MacKenzie, at the harbour office, tells me this operation with the Ocean Fresh is going well and, who knows, maybe next year the Klondykers will be back in force.

14 Nuclear Sub collisions since 1979.

UK nuclear submarines had been involved in 14 collisions since 1979, according to the Ministry of Defence

Angus Robertson, the SNP Defence spokesman and Westminster leader, has been doing a bit of digging on sub near misses and bumps since last month’s mid-Atlantic collision between HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant.

That was a disturbing enough incident, says Robertson, but when you look at the full list of accidents - including more than 200 fires aboard nuclear submarines over the past twenty years - things look grave.

These incidents are all public domain already, I think, but here is the full text of the parliamentary written answer:

Nuclear Submarines

Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) what collisions involving a UK nuclear powered submarine and (a) another submarine, (b) another naval vessel, (c) a private vessel and (d) a merchant vessel have taken place since 1979; (2) what grounding incidents involving UK nuclear-powered submarines have taken place since 1979.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The Royal Navy has no records of collisions between nuclear powered submarines and other submarines and naval vessels, other than the recent incident involving HMS Vanguard and the French submarine Le Triomphant.

The full list of incidents of collisions involving Royal Navy nuclear powered submarines for which the Royal Navy holds records is as follows:

HMS Superb grounding in the Red Sea in May 2008.

HMS Tireless struck an iceberg while on Arctic Patrol in May 2003.

HMS Trafalgar grounded on Fladda-chuain in November 2002.

HMS Triumph grounded in November 2000.

HMS Victorious grounded, while surfaced, on Skelmorlie Bank in November 2000.

HMS Trenchant grounded off the coast of Australia in July 1997.

HMS Repulse grounded in the North Channel in July 1996.

HMS Trafalgar grounded off the Isle of Sky in July 1996.

HMS Valliant grounded in the North Norwegian Sea in March 1991.

HMS Trenchant snagged the fishing vessel Antares in the Arran Trench in November 1990.

HMS Spartan grounded west of Scotland in October 1989.

HMS Sceptre snagged the fishing vessel Scotia in November 1989.

HMS Conqueror collided with the yacht Dalriada off the Northern Irish coast in July 1988.

All the vessels, apart from HMS Superb, which was decommissioned in October 2008, were repaired and returned to service.

Information is not held centrally for the period 1979-88 and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what fires have taken place on UK nuclear powered submarines since 1979.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The records of fire incidents onboard UK nuclear submarines are not held centrally prior to 1 January 1987. Since this date the Royal Navy records provide the following information: 213 small scale fires, that are categorised as a localised fire such as a minor electrical fault creating smoke dealt with quickly and effectively using minimal onboard resources.

21 medium scale fires that were generally categorised as a localised fire such as a failure of mechanical equipment creating smoke and flame requiring use of significant onboard resources. Three fires occurred while the submarines involved were in naval bases, requiring both ship and external resources.

Taffia want diaspora vote on Assembly.

I love the Welsh for their sheer Celtic Chutzpah, if you can possess such a quality. They like pushing at the boundaries out there in the west in so many ways. The latest wheeze is to give people with a "partial" connection to Wales voting rights in a referendum on the Welsh Assembly.

This closely reflects an idea Stephen Khan and I first had in the pub when we came down to London. We thought of forming a Scottish exiles party for the Holyrood parliament. It never got past the second pint because we couldn't think of a better slogan than "no tax hypothecation without representation". See, it would never have worked.

But the Welsh are serious about it, or Lord Tristan Garel-Jones is at least. Betsan Powys, BBC Wales's answer to Brian Taylor and my old globe-trotting buddy from Eorpa days, is writing about it on her blog. Betsan dropped in to Room 2 earlier this week, looking fantastic, but before you could say ta ra she was gone again.

Tomos Livingstone on the 07.25 to Paddington has also penned on this, giving it an Alex Salmond slant. I won't even go there.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Trillion Dollar Man.

A quickfire sketch of Gordon Brown from yesterday's G20 press conference

Into the spotlight in the Excel Centre, a draughty aircraft hanger to which they had dragged the wreckage of the spaceship Global Economy, strode The Trillion Dollar Man.

Inflation, oil shocks and Raygun-omics have meant huge adjustments have had to be made since Lee Majors played the title role in the 1970s. Heck, even the name has had to be revised upwards from Six Million Dollar Man to One Thousand Billion Dollar Man.

But the new actor had taken the part of “a man barely alive” and said: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him”. Thanks to a unprecedented fiscal stimulus he looked genuinely “better, stronger, faster” . Well, better than Gordon Brown looked last week when he was 12 points behind in the polls.

The bionic fist (it cost $250 billion, a whole arm was beyond international agreement) looked as if it could do dozens of credit crunches to improve trade figures.

A pair of bionic legs ($500 billion and made in Japan and the EU) can support ailing economies. The best bit was the SDR (Special Drawing Rights) technology, which no one really understands, but seems to give more life to the new bionic man.

Unfortunately the special effects are the same as the old TV show. The actor runs at normal speed on a treadmill supplied by Barack Obama and the rest of the world economy is slowed down to make it look as if he is covering historic distances with ease. The electronic grinding sound effects (Thanks Mr Sarkozy) add to the tension and the whole thing is meant to instill confidence in voters and in markets.

It seemed to work, the graphs in the life support system in the FTSE, Nasquac and Dax, bleeped a healthy green colour after the show was broadcast.

This was a pilot episode - another one is being shot in New York later this year - so the plot was convoluted and the dialogue is still dire. Who really says “macro-prudential risks” and “expansionary policies” in real life? There was, we understand, a huge fight over the final draft of the script with everyone now claiming the credit. If it’s a success the show will be sub-titled in French and maybe even dubbed into German.

There could even be product tie-ins and the Chinese have promised to pay for them. There is talk of launching a Bionic Man toy in the UK election market this summer but obviously before making a final decision the producers will be be watching the ratings of this Trillion Dollar Man remake.

My cut out and keep G20 jargon buster.

SDRs - Special Drawing Rights. We’re working hard on a pithy definition and will bring this to you shortly. According to Robert Peston, BBC Business editor, the definition is "don't ask".

Sherpas - officials that shuttle from summit talks (geddit?) to communique drafting rooms where an army of scribes draw up the agreement.

Pool spray
- American in origin, half way between a press conference and a photo opportunity.

Renegade - West Wing in origin. President Obama's secret service call sign.

Beast - A cross-breed mammal with strains of Humvee and Essex Hen night limo. Bred as transport for the Main Man.

Groupies - Spain and the Netherlands. Invited even though they are not part of the club

Glamazon - Glamorous, statuesque woman, ie Michelle Obama.

I-pod - Frame for holding photos on the Royal mantelpiece

Communique - Multinational publishing phenomena capable of being read in several different way in several different languages.

G20 Shorts


In the sealed bubble, half world, that is the G20 summit at London’s Excel it is important to know the colour code and your ranking in it. Red is the colour of the plenary area where Ministers sit with the their “sherpas” and deputy sherpas, their close officials. Blue is the colour for the zone where the officials work drafting and where the press briefings are held.

Minty green, we kid you not, is the colour for the leaders lounge area where they go for quiet chats.

The media, all 2500 of us, are in the yellow zone, a huge draughty hanger where each country's reporters has its own section. The UK entourage is near the entrance, which is opens onto the bus garage means and the full icy blast of the Thames.

IMF funds anyone?

Is Stephen Timms MP, the mild mannered Treasury Minister the new Dennis Healey, ask the press corps?

The Treasury Minister announced the end of two eras, not often you do that in one day, at his G20 morning press briefing.

“We have moved beyond the era of stigma for accessing IMF,” he declared. By this he means that the IMF will be rebranded so that it is doesn’t cause a flight of capital when a country goes with a begging bowl for a bail out.

Does this, some mischievously speculated, open the door to the UK going cap in hand to the world’s favourite bank. Taxi to Washington for Alistair Darling?

Worse than being talked about...

Smile everyone. The most important part of these G20 conferences is the big “family photo” of all the world leaders. Yesterday they had to do it twice because Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, was taking a comfort break the first time. The really embarrassing news - it took officials two hours to notice that he wasn’t in the first photo.

A swell party

We are all a twitter this week, no thanks to Eric Joyce MP for posting his response to press inquiries on the 140 character limit social networking site. There was even a tweet, that’s a twitter update, from the G20 spouses wives dinner at Number 11 Downing Street on Wednesday night. Martha Lane Fox, the internet entrepreneur, posted on Twitter: “Not even sure how to begin 2 update what I feel at the moment, the most overwhelming and surreal night of my life.”

A dinner party with Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown, Dame Kelly Homes, Naomi Campbell, Gavin and Stacey star and writer Ruth Jones and the wives of the Turkish, Canadian and Japanese Prime Ministers could have been just that.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Live from the Locarno Room.

Was that Gordon Brown’s best morning ever? Isn’t it just all downhill from here for him? As he walked in to his press conference with Barack Obama the Prime Minister looked like a cat that had not so much licked the cream as been smothered by one of those aerosol cans of aerated UHT foam that teenagers inject into their mouths at parties. He was positively beaming from ear to ear.

The Locarno Room of the Foreign Office does over the top quite well enough but the government had insisted on sticking eight flags, four from each side of the Atlantic, behind the twin lecterns. The lights went up and Hilary Clinton walked in - remember her, she lost - accompanied by Bananaboy, our Foreign Secretary - he never tried. Then it was Baroness Shriti Vadera, her floral blouse displaying green shoots of recovery, and Tim Geither, the US Treasury secretary who put the frisk into fiscal stimulus.

Mr Brown began with a gushing welcome to the most popular politician in the world, bar Kim Jong-il the leader of North Korea, who is not attending the G20 but launching a test rocket instead. Mr Brown spoke about the special relationship, a”partnership of purpose”, being renewed and Mr Obama’s shoulder’s sagged a little, but only out of tiredness.

Mr Brown found the vocabulary to make the event relevant to people “anxious about their mortgages, their jobs and their family’s future” but it amounted to a thank you for saving my premiership, if only for a day. He is always a little clunky but he looked sincere and happy.

The President reciprocated with warm words, heaping praise on Gordon Brown’s leadership. He could have stopped right there but he went on to cement a friendship by talking about his breakfastime encounter with the Brown family’s dinosaurs in between discussions on Afghanistan. He called him Gordon and Gordon called him Barack. There was no doubting that the two men got on well during their two hour breakfast. They were relaxed in each other’s company in batting the media questions.

Both stressed today that they believed there was considerable “common ground” among the nations and an “unprecedented” agreement would be reached. Mr Obama, cool enough to swig from a water bottle without pouring out a glass, warned that the global recovery could not be built on American shoulders alone. “It can’t be just us in the engine room everyone’s got to pick up the pace,” said the President in a clear dig to French president Nicolas Sarkozy who is upping the ante by suggesting he was not happy with the way negotiations were going.

Mr Obama campaigned in poetry but he governs in prose, trying, I suppose, to lower the great expectations of him every time he opens his mouth. He pulled on the harpstrings of hope though. “Despite the current hardships, we are going to get through this. So you should plan sensibly in anticipation that this economy is going to recover. Young families are going to want to buy new homes and sooner or later that clunker of a car is going to wear out, so people will buy new cars.

"I would ask people to have confidence about their futures and that may mean in some cases spending now as investments for the future. Don’t short change the future for fear of the present.”

He might appear ponderous to us but Mr Obama can pull a soundbite out of the air with the grace of a butterfly hunter.

Invited to help out Mr Brown with some landslide victory advice, the president replied: “The only advice I would give Gordon Brown is the same advice I gave myself during the campaign, which is - every time, good policy is good politics.”
“If every day you are waking up saying, how can I make the best decisions to create jobs, help young people imagine a better future, provide more for the elderly, the sick, the vulnerable, sustain the planet, then the best part is you can wake up and look yourself in the mirror.

"And that I think is the kind of integrity Gordon Brown has shown in the past and will show in the future.”

Endorsements don’t get better than that. This could be a good few days for Gordon Brown, even though the agreement on the G20 "isn’t there yet” according to his spokesman. Sarkozy can be swung round and everyone will totter off to the Nato summit but after that it will be back to the grinding reality of being ten points behind in the opinion polls for Mr Brown.

I’ll tell you what though, Alistair Darling’s little noticed reduction in the business rate increase on Tuesday and the change in Gordon Brown’s rhetoric at the dispatch box on Wednesday, referring to potential Tory cuts in every constituency in the land, light up little red lights on the early election notice board for me.

Nothing definite yet but you can be sure the minute Airforce One is off the ground on Thursday evening Number 10 will be scrutinising the private polling. If Obama gives him a lift Brown will be considering a June election.


My man on the ground phones from the riot to say that you wouldn't know anything was going on unless you are right in the thick of it. Mostly it's people milling around he says, which seems to concur with other reports but not the dramatic frontline tv pictures.

A placard seen in the window of a London City office this lunchtime reads: "While you're rioting we're repossessing your house."

First joke of the RBS riot.

The Guardian reports an estimate of 20 hardcore troublemakers have broken into the RBS branch in the city and come out with computers and files. There is glass and blood but no sign of money. Apparently the vaults have been empty since Sir Fred left last year.

Obama to Britain: "Don't shortchange the future for fear of the present".

Brown and Obama press conference in the Locarno Room in the Foreign Office.

Just back and logged on after the Gordon Brown-Barack Obama press conference which in the eyes of Downing Street, went swimmingly. It was all very friendly, the body language was good, the special relationship is very much on. The two even had a "colgate" moment when they talked about swapping tips about treadmills, that's running treadmills not the daily grind of politics.

Obama, a tall skinny guy like he says himself, looked a little tired round the eyes but he spoke at length, and ponderously. Why use ten words when you can use one hundred seemed to the rule? He praised Brown. The Prime Minister looked like the cat that had been smothered in cream cake. This must have been the political highpoint for him.

Good start and no sign of trouble yet on the streets of what looks like a police state out there. Rushing to PMQs, more later. PS Like the picture?