Friday, 26 June 2009

Rocket range consultation extended.

The consultation on the closure of the Uist range has been extended by 15 days, Radio nan Gaidheal is reporting.

The announcement, in a letter from the junior Defence Minister Quentin Davies to Alasdair Allan MSP, extends the public consultation to the 20th of July.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Westminster debate on Iraq inquiry.

I listened to most of the debate on the terms of reference for Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war yesterday and it was one of those intelligent, passionate, occasions that reminds you, after weeks of expenses and botched coups and personality politics - that parliament does sometimes serve as the cockpit of the nation.

The main news line was a concession that the inquiry will be able to apportion "blame" but the anger of most MPs who spoke was about how meaningless that would be if witnesses did not give evidence under oath. Andrew Mackinlay, very volcanic, was best in explaining why the oath was required.

It's one of these debates that's worth reading in full on Hansard (from column 800). I will again to see what Michael Mates was hinting at about dodgy dossiers and for what Clare Short said about cabinet discussions on the issue. They whet your appetite for what the inquiry will eventually reveal. If you don't have time here's a flavour from my notes.

Iraq inquiry debate - Herald 25/06/09

A golden opportunity to drain the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war from the Labour party and British politics has been lost by the government’s handling of the inquiry into the conflict, Gordon Brown was told last night.

Opening an opposition debate on the Chilcot inquiry, shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, said the government had made a "monumental mess" of the consulting other parties in setting up the inquiry. The original proposal for private hearings, the restricted membership and the timing - the inquiry is due to report back after the next election - was "utterly cynical and politically motivated" said Mr Hague.

Since announcing the closed doors inquiry last week Mr Brown had "engaged in a U-turn executed in stages" and had relied on Sir John to announce changes, rather admit he was "in the wrong", said Mr Hague.

In a further climbdown yesterday the government conceeded the inquiry can now apportion "blame" for the causes of the conflict. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said "The inquiry will have complete freedom to write its own report". Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry and would "deliver for the country an inquiry of insight and value" .

Sir John Chilcot has already said he believes it is "essential" that proceedings are open wherever possible but Mr Miliband angered MPs by leaving it to iquiry whether witnesses be put under some form of oath.

Malcolm Rifikind MP, who obtained a concession from David Miliband over apportioning blame, said it was disgraceful that no one with military experience was sitting on a inquiry into a war. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said MPs should also to be represented. "We are elected, we have to be accountable, why aren’t we on this committee? It is an opportunity to rebuild trust in parliament." Michael Mates MP, who sat on two previous inquiries into Iraq, made the same point.

Bob Marshall Andrews, a Labour anti-war MP, said the Prime Minister’s words on learning lessons from the Iraq war were "sophistry". The real issue, he said, was "whether this House and the British people were misled for the reasons for war."

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell argued full responsibility for the inquiry should rest with Commons, anything else was a deriliction of duty, and that demand was reflected in other contributions. He wanted to know about the legal advice for the war, the role of the cabinet and whether Tony Blair was, as reported, commited to military action as early as 2002.

David Winnick MP, said the inquiry would change nothing. "Those against, who feel strongly that the decision was wrong, will not change their minds". Glasgow Central MP Mohammed Sarwar intervened to say he had changed his mind. He voted for the war but "what we have learned since then has proved our fears right".

The inquiry was an opportuntiy to correct one of Britain’s biggest foreign policy mistakes and to examine the humanitarian costs, said the Glasgow MP. "The fear is that it will be some kind of whitewash, it must be used to build the trust and respect of the British people and our standing in the international community."

Clair Short, who quit the cabinet in 2003 over Iraq and now sits as an independent MP, said she was "stunned" that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had brought "such a concotted legal opinion" on the war to cabinet. Meetings of the cabinet on Iraq "were little chats rather than proper considerations of the options," she revealed. "I remain deeply shaken by the way the interpretation of international law was manipulated to fit the policy." The British system of government needed an overhaul to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated.

George Galloway, the Respect MP elected on an anti-war platform, said Iraq was a war crime, not just a blunder. He said: "The Labour Party’s membership has halved because of Iraq, millions left them because of the poison that this Iraq question has caused to pulse around the British body politic. If they did they would have used this opportunity for a grand catharsis and to finally leave Blair behind and have the kind of inquiry that is being demanded here tonight."

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour, was one of many MPs who made an angry call for evidence to be heard under oath. He said the government might win the vote but it had lost the debate. In the event the government's majority was cut from 62 to 39.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Speaker's progress

At 2.30pm yesterday Speaker John Bercow began his long, slow procession to win back the trust of the British public. With his chaplain, secretary and a trainbearer following behind he marched along the usual route to Central Lobby and then down to the Commons chamber.

Apart from the smile, which a day after his victory he still couldn't wipe from his face, the most noticeable thing about him was the blue patterned tie replacing his predecessor’s still white collars. The suit and tie, a badge of the decent man, is his symbol of renewal but he still wore the Speaker’s gown, so the overall effect was "mature student on the way to a graduation ceremony".

"I hear the gown had to be shortened for him," quipped one Labour MP who stood in the member’s lobby as the Serjeant at Arms came down the way bearing the mace.

But most MPs were out to defend Mr Bercow from bitter Conservatives who murmured that they will replace him at the first opportunity. "They are trying to undermine him from the off, the same as they did with Michael Martin, just because he isn’t an establishment figure," claimed one Labour MP.

The Tories have nicknamed him the "Me,me,me"aker"- his acceptance speech, after all used the word "I" 19 times and the words "me" or "my" 15 times.

John Robertson was the first to congratulate Mr Bercow. "I hope that you will receive a lot more good luck and goodwill than some of your predecessors," said the robust Glasgow North West MP. He might need it.

Because he wanted the debate to make swift progress Speaker Bercow asked others not to repeat the congratulations. As if his ex-colleagues on the Tory benches were about to! Sir George Young tried not to look upset but his eyes kept being drawn back to the chair that could have been his. He left after 15 minutes, by a side door.

But a powerful man is everybody’s friend and later many Tory MPs patted Mr Speaker’s shoulder, or shook his hand. They will have to get used to him, and the change that tie promises.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Speaker Bercow in the chair

The Commons chose it's new Speaker yesterday. How the day unfurled...

No mace across the end of the dispatch table, no sign of Speaker Martin, and no trace of guilt on the faces of MPs. But the sentiment of the infamous Matt cartoon of MPs - "As soon as I saw what I’d had been up to, I knew the Speaker had to go" - hung over them all

The final hustings for the election of a new Speaker, a convulsion of the expenses scandal, was an underwhelming experience, particularly for those of their colleagues who had to hear the recycled speeches of ten candidates from earlier events all over again.

There was a lot of talk from all of them about reform and tradition and getting a grip on expenses. But from the reception when Margaret Beckett rose to speak it was hard to believe this constituency of 600 or so, mostly male, mostly middle-aged parliamentarians would vote for anyone as outward looking and reforming as John Bercow promises to be.

The Labour whips’ Mrs Fix-it failed to find the traction and wit to please the House and Sir George Young, the Tory favourite, saw his jokes borne across the chamber on a carpet of laughter. Tradition looked like a safe bet. His was an assuring voice, compared to the shrill address of Ann Widdecombe. She did her work for parliament years ago by making Michael Howard unelectable. "Something of the night" sat only two seats from her, chortling as she recruited Dennis Skinner to her campaign.

In the Westminster playground Labour love John Bercow just ‘cos Tories hate him. Few MPs voted for the person who would make best Speaker, but the one who would spike the opposition best. Knowing who is friends were Mr Bercow opened his speech by mocking a patrician Tory rival - easily identified as the marble-mouthed Sir Partick Cormack - to ingratiate himself still further.

He sold himself as the next Thomas More when in fact he’s only the size of the next Napoleon Bonaparte. In the gallery his wife, Sally, the only person to have heard his speech more often than himself, nodded her head approvingly at the key phrase - "clean break candidate".

She is important to the chequered Bercow mythology. A Labour member since 1997, having previously been a Tory supporter, it is said she softened the far-right "repatriation" Tory into the beacon of liberalism he is today. In any case Labour MPs bought that story, forgave him his past, smiled, and put him top of the first ballot.

Sir Old of Old and Alan Beith and White Haired Tory said their bit and Sir Patrick entreatingly reminded it us it was Machiavelli’s birthday and, for no apparent reason, the eve of Bannockburn. Go figure - it won him only 13 votes. Sir Alan Hazelhurst, a sorcerer’s apprentice speaker for so long, listed practical spells to restore confidence. Parmjit Dhanda spoke to the heart, and the Twitter generation, but in response to his Obamasque challenge - "Do we get it?" - they all answered "no we don’t" and gave him 26 votes.

Four dropped out after the first round - Cormack, Dhanda, Lord and Shepherd - but it was impossible to say which direction the votes would be recast. Some thought Bercow had peaked at 179 votes and that the Conservatives would coalesce around Sir George Young on 112. All six remaining candidates stayed in the race.

At the next hurdle, with only Bercow and Young in triple figures, the others retired and it became a straight race. Now it was an exciting choice "between a Tory toff and a Tory socialist". Bercow, the Left’s tribune, was ahead on 221 but Young looked strong on 174 with over 200 votes up for grabs. Too close to call.

Time dragged on rumour and sigh until 8.30 pm when stone-faced Tory backbenchers took their seats and it was clear who had won. They found themselves unable to cheer when his majority of 51 was announced, or when he was "dragged" to the chair by his supporters. Only when the symbol of parliament and the Queen’s authority, the mace, was in its place did they rise reluctantly with other sides to applaud the Speaker-elect.

As The father of the House, Alan Williams, declared him the new Speaker Nadine Dorries injected "Labour" before the title, displaying the partisan venom that ran just below the surface of what was ostensibly a contest of reformers.

So it was that a 46 year old public affairs consultant, the son of a London taxi driver, replaced a Glasgow sheet metal worker as the symbol of Commons renewal. Just as Mr Martin was the first Roman Catholic to hold the office Speaker Bercow became the first Jew to sit on the Speaker’s alter.

The first task of this pledged reformer is to ask the unelected head of state, the Queen, for permission to become the Common’s Speaker. It is one tradition he is unlikely to overturn.

Monday, 22 June 2009

That Speaker ballot paper in full

Hats off to Tom Harris, Glasgow MP, for filling in the quiet hours before the Speaker's election begins.
On his blog Harris has produced a redacted version of the ballot paper with every name blocked out except Margaret Beckett's. No Labour whip in operation, states Mr Harris emphatically. Have a look at:

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The work of Winston Smith

Winston Smith, the anti-hero of George Orwell’s fictional 1984, spent his unrewarding days squirreling away in the Ministry of Truth editing news articles, erasing history and sending the results down the truth hole for updated publication. Several Mr Smiths must have been at work late into the night in the palace of Westminster altering and censoring the expenses claims of MPs over the last year.

Yesterday was meant to be a moment of truth after a torrent of leaked claims against MPs but it became simply another black day for British politics. A sea of black ink covered many pages of what MPs were claiming over the last four years and were only forced into publishing after a lengthy legal battle over Freedom of Information legislation.

The expenses claims and supporting receipts feature large blacked-out areas so it is not always clear what has been obscured. The names and details of people and companies to whom payments were made using expenses have also been removed, and correspondence between MPs and the Commons fees office has been deleted. Some pages are simply blacked out in their entirety.

The expenses of 646 MPs expenses over four years is huge amount of data. Some 1.2 million documents were posted online at 6am yesterday for the public and hapless journalists to plough their way through. The vast volume of censored information meant that there was little in the first trawl of the documents to add to the dramatic revelations of the Daily Telegraph over the last number of weeks.

However the documents could claim further scalps. Last night list of 180 MPs who are ready to pay back up to £500,000 of expenses was the expected to result of the release of the information.

The blacked out documents, while they hid much of the truth about what public money is spent on, stood as testament to the incredible work that Telegraph the newspaper had undertaken in sifting through the scanned, sometimes hand-written, receipts.

The result of the redacting exercise means that many of the MPs’ personal details have been censored. There are no addresses for MPs’ homes, making it virtually impossible to identify the practice of "flipping", changing the designated second homes, had the Telegraph not published its uncensored versions of the claims. Sir Peter Vigger’s claims for a £1645 duck house, the most notorious of the MPs’ expenses, or Elliot Morley’s claims for a mortgage overpayments would not have seen the light of day were it not for the leaked information that shook Westminster to the core.

Heather Brooks, the freedom of information campaigner who spent five years fighting for the right to see MPs expenses said that the whole exercise had been discredited. "I have seen some of the original documents and avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor in what was deleted," she said.

Officially the reason for the blackout, like censored wartime letters, is to maintain the security and privacy of MPs. Gordon Brown argued that the transparency had to be in line with security but David Cameron took the high ground again, calling for a common sense approach to the situation that would allow more information to be made public. However, the Commons authorities indicated that the next batch of documents, for 2008-09, will be published in the same blacked-out condition.

Mr Cameron made a further effort to paddle out of the mire engulfing Westminster by writing a cheque for nearly £1000 to the Commons authorities. The figure was an overclaim on his mortgage which he realised by checking his bank statements and includes the £680 he had already agreed to repay for repairs to his constituency home, which including clearing wisteria and vines from the chimney, replacing outside lights and resealing the conservatory roof. The Tory leader claimed a total of £82,450 on his second home allowance over five years.

The Commons authorities spent more than £140,000 on the abortive effort to avoid revealing details of expenses, before finally being defeated in the High Court in May last year. The process of scanning and editing all the receipts from 2004-8 has cost a further £2 million. It took 13 months of work to get into the blacked out version that Big Brother would have been proud of.

Yesterday was not entirely without its rewards. We learned that Tony Blair billed the public for roof repairs costing £7000 just days before he stood down as an MP.

We learned that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne billed the taxpayer £47 for the purchase of DVDs of a lecture he gave - about saving the taxpayer money. Mr Osborne nearly had the bailiffs at the door over unpaid bills, something he had in common with Alistair Darling who tested the patience of Scottish Power and Edinburgh City Council over unpaid bills.

David Cameron billed £150 for losing a Tory party pager in 2005, 99p for a staple remover and £10.99 for a book of historic speeches. Dominic Grieve, shadow Justice secretary claimed £55 to replace a lost key for a garden shed. He wasn’t the only one lost. Bob Ainsworth, now Defence Secretary, charged £550 for a sat nav as did Michael Connarty, although his model was cheaper at £349.

Lembit Opik claimed £20 for "the mother of all wigs" for a charity event and Angus MacNeil, the crofting MP, charged £17.98 for wellingtons, all the better to visit his constituents in. Several Scottish MPs were caught supporting two or more different football teams in their constituency with advertising hoardings.

Alex Salmond’s expenses revealed how the public purse had paid £14,000 for legal advice on how to impeach Tony Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

The legal advice was taken from Matrix, Cherie Blair’s legal chambers and Mr Salmond’s spokesman said it was "perfectly justified". Labour peer Lord George Foulkes, who also sits in the Scottish Parliament, has asked John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards at the Commons, to investigate what he called a "party political stunt".

For a short time an invoice for a child to attend a nursery in Portsmouth mixed into Mr Salmond’s invoices set Holyrood ablaze and seemed to indicate that the First Minister might have some explaining to do. But the Fees office quickly apologised for the error and Mr Salmond was left holding only an invoice for a cake stand which his aides insisted was really a nest of tables in disguise.

Winston Smith’s supervisors at the Ministry of Truth would not have allowed such a simple clerical errors to occur. History would have been altered to make the receipts read like they ought to be read .

But those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it and by redacting so much information politicians are simply going to be put through the wringer again by the Daily Telegraph who for weeks now, have held all the cards.

Ouch - an apology to all drummers, and Pete Wishart

In a newspaper article I recently described Pete Wishart MP as a "former Runrig drummer" when even I remember him as the keyboard player for the Highland band. Don't know how that slipped through Pete - more hurry, less speed. Apologies to him and the rest of the group.

For days poor Pete was the butt of all the drummer jokes in the world that SNP Central could come up with, until some party wag pointed out spare a thought for all the drummers who are now the butt of Pete Wishart jokes.

Anyway, he's having his revenge - going around telling everyone I'm from Stornoway.

Scottish task force for Hebrides range.

Listening in to First Minister's Questions while poring over the details of MP's Westminster expenses.

I see that Mr Salmond has announced a taskforce, under the guidance of Enterprise Minsiter Jim Mather, to face up to the 125 proposed job losses at Hebrides Range.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

MoD confirm 125 job losses at Range Hebrides

This just in, more in the Herald tomorrow and on my Herald blogsite.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed plans to cut 125 jobs at the Hebrides missile range in South Uist and to control firing operations remotely from a rival Welsh base at Aberporth.

The loss of 125 jobs, about one in six of the workforce in the Southern Isles, will have a devastating effect on the Western Isles economy. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the development agency, estimate that the knock-on effect of redundancies will double the number of local jobs losses.

The cuts will be made over a four year period during which QinetiQ, the private contractor running Range Hebrides, plans to move the command and control centre for missile firing to the Aberporth range in west Wales.

The military also plans to withdraw its permanent presence from St Kilda, the world heritage site in the Atlantic, that houses a tracking station for missiles fired from the South Uist coastline. The military have had a presence on South Uist and St Kilda for over 50 years. In addition the West Camp at Balivanich in Benbecula, which houses visiting army deployments, is to be reduced.

The QinetiQ facility at Kyle of Lochalsh, which operates the underwater testing range at North Rona and Raasay, is to lose 20 jobs around 2012 as a result of rationalisation.

Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for the Western Isles, put an emergency motion to the Commons yesterday, calling for a debate. He told the chamber: "South Uist and North Uist and Benbecula cannot cope with this level of cuts. In a major city like Glasgow the would be the equivalent of six to seven thousand jobs gone at the stroke of a pen. To an island community it is infinitely worse - it means depopulation or employment opportunities that after eight hours away by ferry."

He added: "An entire community has shaped itself to fulfil its needs of the range, a service and sacrifice which entailed forgoing many opportunities. The MoD through QinetiQ cannot walk away leaving chaos and a vacuum behind.

"There is surely a social and economic responsibility here. Over and above the social and economic responsibility the Hebrides range is best for purpose in Britain. There is no equivalent in Europe to Range Hebrides. For the island the range is too important."

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Rannsachadh Cogaidh Iorac

Tha mòran mì-thoileachas ann an-diugh an dèidh dhan Phrìomhaire innse gum bi rannsachadh neo-eisimileach ann air a' chogadh ann an Iorac. 'S e gum bi an rannsachadh sin ann air cùl dhorsan dùinte, 's nach ann gu poblach, as motha a tha a' dèanamh dragh.

A-rèir a' Phrìomhaire, ann an Taigh nan Cummantan an-dè, 's ann a' coimhead ri na leasanan a dh' fhaodas a bhi air ionnsachadh a-mach à cogach Iorac bho dhà mhìle sa h-aon suas chun an là an-diugh a bhios an rannsachadh aig Sir John Chilcott.

Bidh an rannsachadh a' coimhead ri planadh, am fiosrachadh a bha aig Breatainn mu dheidhinn riaghaltas Shaddam, an cogadh fhèin, mar a dhèilig an t-Arm ri Iorac as dèidh làimh agus mar a chaidh an dùthaich ath-thogail. Leanaidh e co-dhiù bliadhna, 's e sin as dèidh an ath-thaghaidh choitchinn, agus bidh an teisteanas air fad air a chluinntinn air cùl dhorsan dùinte.

'S an dragh a th' air na pàrtaidhean dùbhlanach, na teaghlaichean cuid de na saighdearan a bhàsaich agus gu leòr air beingean cùil a' Phàrtaidh Làbaraich 's e nach tig an fhìrinn a-mach mu dheidinn nan adhbharan airson a' chogaidh.

Cuimhnich cho connspaideach 's a bha e ann an dà mhìle 's a trì - cogadh mì-laghail airson smachd fhaighinn air ola neo cogadh airson deachdaire cunnartach le armachd mòr-sgrios a leigeal.

S e an argamaid aig Mgr Brown agus a riaghaltas gum biodh rannsachadh poblach fada ro chosgail agus gum biodh e a' ruith fad bhliadhnaichean agus nach biodh luchd-fianais cho fosgailte 's a bhitheadh iad ann an coinneamh phoblach. 'S sin a dh' ionnsaich iad bho rannsachadh Franks air cogadh nan Falklands ach tha Dàibhidh Camshron, ceannard nan Tòraidhean, a' gealltainn gun atharraicheadh esan na riaghailtean nam faigheadh e a-steach as dèidh nan taghaidhean.

Aon riaghailt nach atharraich 's e sin aig a' cheann thall nach tèid an coire a chur air duine sam bith airson a' chogaidh agus mus faighnich sibh tha Tònaidh Blair deònach fianais a thoirt dhan rannsachadh.

Sin as coireach gu bheil daoine cho feargach fhathast. Bha cogadh Iorac cho sgàineach ann am poileataigs agus beatha Bhreatainn 's gu bheil daoine air gach taobh an inntinnean a dhèanamh an àrd mus tòisich rannsachadh sam bith.

Tha cuid ann nach bi toilichte le rannsachadh sam bith agus cuid eile, san riaghaltas gu h-àraid, a bhios toilichte an rud fhaighinn seachdad agus tionndadh air falbh bho chuspair cho connspaideach 's a th' air a bhi ann am poileataigs Bhreatainn bho chogadh Suez.

Le taing do Eilidh Dhubh

Speaker hustings - place you bets

Quickfire sketch of yesterday's hustings for the Speaker of the House of Commons.

It was 3pm in the Big Brother household and there was nothing more controversial than the Iraq War to discuss in the main room, so the programme-makers decided to hold a competition to see who was best at making a short speech.

Ten of the housemates took part in a hustings for Speaker candidates which, despite being televised, drew a live crowd willing to stand around in a hot room to form an audience for the cameras.

The last time the Attlee Suite was so packed was when Alicia Keys gigged here, but that was a long time ago when Barack Obama was being talked about as the next David Lammy.

In the crowded contest to see who the best speaker was, there could be no greater contrast than between Sir Patrick Cormack and Parmjit Dhanda, who sat next to each other. Sir Patrick, a rotund, clubbable Tory who lists his hobby as "fighting Philistines", has one of these mellifluous voices that the voice-over artist for Wind in the Willows would willingly gargle several barrels of port to achieve. He sounds lovely and posh for a boy born into modest circumstances in Grimsby.

Parmjit Dhanda, whose parents came from India to become a cleaner and a lorry driver, was not even born when Sir Patrick entered parliament in 1970. In "plain, blunt English" the Labour MP spoke about pushing the pendulum to swing away from the Commons to the people.

"At the current rate of change it will take 100 years for this place to be representative of Britain," he said.

He was right. This is an election to become the Speaker, not a speaker, so being young, ethnic, good-looking and straight-talking, Dhanda has no chance. He may not be Speaker next Monday, but he's on the way to being someone.

For a TV audience, most of the candidates were the Rt Hon embodiment of men in grey suits, beset by scandal and bewailing their love for the chamber and the mother of parliaments like the Lost Boys of democracy.

The part of Jade Goody (RIP) was played by Ann Widdecombe, possessing as she admitted herself some of the "vulgar qualities" required to connect with the public.

No speaker could be the Angel Gabriel, she said, but she promised a self-denying ordinance not to appear on Have I Got News For You for the year she wants the job. If she could control Merton and Hislop then the chamber of the House of Commons should be a doddle.

In keeping with the times, everyone promised "reform" and none more so than John Bercow, the former right-winger so loathed by fellow Tories that Labour MPs will vote for him in revenge. He styled himself the "clean-break candidate", an agent of overdue change and reform - that word again.

The Conservatives now want Margaret Beckett, the wise old owl candidate, as the "stop Bercow" ticket, but you'd have to have the mind of Machiavelli and the soul of Simon Cowell to calculate that outcome.

If this were a TV programme, there would be an old-fashioned telephone vote, but this is Westminster so they are using a novel system to vote for the new Speaker, one they've never used before - it's called a ballot box.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Hebrides Range jobs threat

I had a weekend tip off that Qinetiq, which operates the Hebrides range on South Uist and Benbecula, is about to start cutting staff. Locals say 120 jobs are at stake, which is a phenomenal figure, about a sixth of the total workforce in the Southern Isles. The MoD say that talk of "mothballing" the base is scaremongering. There's an announcement on Wednesday but here's what we know so far, from the Herald:

Plans to drastically reduce operations at a missile testing range on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides with the potential loss of 120 full time jobs would sound “the death knell” for the economy of the islands, local politicians have warned.

Islanders were last night bracing themselves for an expected announcement by the Ministry of Defence that it plans to dramatically cut civilian jobs at the missile testing facility on South Uist and neighbouring Benbecula, robbing the Southern Isles of one in six local jobs.

QinetiQ, the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence which runs the Hebrides base on a “long term partnering agreement”, is understood to be leading the process that islanders fear would see the facility being run on a “care and maintenance” basis.

Under the proposal much of the research work could go a rival range in Aberporth on the west coast of Wales and the Hebrides range would be re-activated two or three times a year.

QinetiQ, a major international defence contractor, currently employ a total of 250 contract and local staff at Hebrides range and is the largest private employer in the Southern Isles chain, stretching almost 50 miles from from North Uist to Eriskay.

Last night Angus Campbell, the local council leader said that mothballing the facility would be have a “drastic effect” on the islands working population of approximately 650 people.

“You must remember 120 jobs in the Hebrides is the equivalent of several thousand jobs being lost in the central belt of Scotland,” said Mr Campbell.

The proposals, which will be unveiled on Wednesday, form part of a five year contract evaluation undertaken by the Qinetiq. Mr Campbell said: “We will be contacting the company, the MoD and the Scottish government first thing on Monday morning. We don’t want to be too negative but if the figures are as high as 120 then it will have a significant knock on effect on the Uists economy.”

QinetiQ would comment in detail ahead of an announcement to base staff on Wednesday but the MoD dismissed suggestions that the base was going to be mothballed or closed as “scaremongering”.

An Mod spokesperson said: “There are changes ahead but we plan to continuwe operations at the Hebrides for the foreseeable future.”

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil said if the job losses were confirmed it would spell aa devastating and unforgivable blow by the Labour government to the islands.

“To lose 120 jobs in the islands would be like Ravenscraig for our community,” said Mr MacNeil. “The Uists are already a fragile economy. If the Labour government has any commitment at all to supporting island jobs and maintaining island populations, they must understand that. Large scale job losses in the Uists are not something this community could easily bear.”

The range has been an integral part of the Southern Isles economy since it was established, against initial local opposition, in 1958 as a rocket firing range.

It has been used to test and evaluate future weapons systems ranging from missiles to unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that are deployed with increasing frequency in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The military, which ran the base as RA Range Hebrides, regard it as unique facility because of there are relatively few constraints on firing from land to sea on the Atlantic coast and because the local population co-operate fully with the military to achieve its objectives.

A large part of the base is on land owned by the community-run company Storas Uibhist which warned that it could withdraw its support if the base was reduced to a skeleton staff with two or three bursts of activity during each year.

“They can’t pull out 120 jobs and think they can come and go as they please,” said Angus MacMillan, chairman of Storas Uibhist, that leases land free to the testing range. “That’s not going to happen, we could find a better use for the land.”

He added: “In the last 50 years the base has been able to operate because people have worked with the military - fishermen have stayed out of the firing line and crofters have kept their stock away when tests are being carried out.”

“The loss of so many skilled jobs will be traumatic for the families concerned and the community as a whole. It will put further pressure on the local economy that has suffered terribly in the recent economic crisis.'

Thursday, 11 June 2009

SNP dissolution debate

Last night's Commons debate, reported good old-fashioned style for the Herald.

The government easily defeated a motion calling for the dissolution of the Westminster parliament last night. The motion from the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, would have paved the way for an immediate general election but despite support from the Lib Dems and the Conservatives the motion was defeated by a majority of 72.

Opening the debate for the SNP the party’s Westminster leader Angus Roberston said an election was the only way to rebuild public trust and confidence after the expenses scandal.

"In truth the Government’s case against an election has nothing to do with the need to pursue Parliamentary reform or to manage the economy," he said. "It is pure, naked self-preservation in the wake of the worst electoral showing by the Labour party in 90 years."

There were no arguments against holding an election in the middle of an economic recession, India and America and Canada, had done so said Mr Robertson

"It’s clear the public believes that this Parliament is without legitimacy. It is without credibility and it is without trust," said the Moray MP, citing several opinion polls that showing public majorities in favour of an immediate election.

Responding for the government the reappointed Welsh Secretary Peter Hain accused the nationalists of being nursemaids to a Conservative government. "Tory votes support the SNP budget cuts in the Scottish parliament, The SNP in Westminster do the Tory’s bidding. The Tories and the nationalists would turn their back on the British people to suit their short term political ends. Only Labour will stay the course. We are standing firm."

Mr Hain scored a direct hit on Pete Wishart, the Perth and North Perthshire MP, when he claimed the real SNP agenda was to get Tory government and ride a wave of Scottish revulsion to undermine the Union. Mr Wishart said the last thing Scotland wanted was a Conservative government. "Is he then saying he prefers a Labour government? "asked Mr Hain.

William Hague, the depute leader of the Conservatives, said members of the government were living out their days in "an embrace of mutual terror" while the country faced huge challenges. "The question is whether these tasks are faced for the next 10 months by a twighlight parliament with a minimal and diminishing opportunity to pass legislation, with a divided government or best faced by a renewed parliament with a mandate approved by the people of the country."

The time had come for renewal: "To most people there is a clear and emphatic answer. One way to bring about legitimacy and authority and engagement is to consult the 44 million voters of this country and let them speak for themselves."

Betty Williams MP for Conway said she heard no policy from Mr Hague, only character assassination, and she decried "the boys club chorus" of nationalists who barracked the Labour benches throughout the debate.

Anne McGuire, Labour Stirling MP, attacked Alex Salmond for paying a "state visit" to Westminster to take part in "political theatre" when he could have been in Holyrood voting on reform of the rape law. The First Minister was not in the chamber at the time and made only one intervention in the debate. Mrs McGuire furiously recalled how the SNP "ushered in" the last Conservative government and the "darkest days" for the mining villages in her constituency. "The last time you did this it cost the Scottish people dear," said Mrs McGuire.

Towards the end of the three hour debate Russell Browne, Labour Dumfries and Galloway, said MPs had a duty to their constituents. "I thought that we might get an answer from the SNP on what they would prefer to see? The return of a Labour government or a Tory government?" Angus MacNeil, SNP, Na h-Eileanan na Iar, asked in return if Labour would have preferred an Independent Scotland to 18 years of Tory government.

David Heath, for the Liberal Democrats, backed the call for an election, saying the "collapse in respect" for MPs was a major reason for letting the public have their say. "We need to give the public an opportunity to back or sack every single one of us," he said. "I personally have no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government. I believe my constituents have no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government."

The vote was 340 against the motion and 268 for.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Sunday Sailings - the Hebridean debate

So quiet in Westminster today that we all feel a bit dazed. The journalistic adrenaline is still running but there is no resignation or reshuffle to feed it into. So we sit, grazing the internet.

On Facebook I came across one of my own articles being flagged on a pro-Sunday sailings site. The ongoing debate on my native island of Lewis about introducing Sunday ferry services from the mainland is coming to a head with Caledonian MacBrayne claiming, in a cowardly way, that they are being forced by Human Rights legislation to run the ferries against opposition from the churches and a large part of the population. Read Ian Jack's sympathetic account if you are not familiar with the background.

The debate has been played out several times before and although there are strongly held beliefs the reality is that there are already Sunday flights to the island. It was when they were introduced in 2002 that I went home to write this piece

This Sunday Herald article appeared on 27th October 2002, the day of the first Sunday flights, but in the seven years that have elasped the arguments have not changed. I recall speaking to the younger ministers at the time, Rev Iain Campbell and Rev MacIver, and forming the impression that a divisive argument over a public transport timetable was not the most vital issue confronting them , and that being released from its shackles they could better engage with the wider community. Maybe they disagree. See what you think and feel free to send some comments.

The Lost Sabbath ~ Sunday Herald 27/10/2002

HE is an old man now, the Rev Angus Smith, although still lean and straight, with bright, glinting eyes behind the trademark spectacles.Retired but still preaching in his 70s, he is the living embodiment of a Calvinist Scotland that may be all but extinguished as the first regular Sunday flights arrive in Stornoway today.

Nearly 40 years ago, in the summer of 1965, a young Smith lay down on the slipway of the first Sunday ferry to the Isle of Skye in a spectacular protest against a secular tourist invasion. To a Scotland shaking off a repressive heritage it was almost as dramatic as the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg church door. It was a reminder of its Presbyterian past still kicking and struggling against its future in one small, distant corner of the nation. Scotland never let Angus Smith forget that.

Images of his undignified removal by burly policemen earned Smith the sobriquet of the Ferry Reverend and ensured that Presbyterianism and the Highlands were, from that time to now, automatically linked to strict and unyielding Sabbatarianism.

Times change and Skye's economy now relies on the seven-days-a-week business of tourism but further out at sea, on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis to which Smith withdrew, the unbending religion he epitomises has held on. Despite the devil and the odds, and the combined artillery of commerce and globalisation, Lewis remains the last stronghold of Presbyterianism.

Its primary defence, as the fort crumbled from within, was an insistence that nothing moved in or out of the island on a Sunday. Controlling the island approaches allowed Calvinism to halt its retreat from Scotland at the very outer edge.

Smith's struggle against secularism can be viewed as a lifetime of rearguard actions. A few years after his ferry protest Smith left Skye, turning his back on the erosion of the island culture, the demise of its Gaelic language and the secular society that was born under the god of tourism. The Govan Gael went further west, to Lewis, where he became a firebrand preacher, his name and the enduring power of the church ensuring the island became a bulwark against idolatry.

In later life, Smith was central to one of those recurring schisms that beset Scottish Presbyterianism, splitting the Free Church asunder, diminishing its strength before he retreated again to the even more fundamental Free Presbyterian Church.

A prisoner of logic that does not allow him to speak to a Sunday newspaper, he does not much care to recall his moment of glory on the ferry slipway all those years ago. In a recent interview he dismissed the subject, saying it was God's work, and that he had to do it. He said: ''That was the past.''And as the undercarriage of the first Sunday flight to Stornoway touches the tarmac today, the Rev Angus Smith finally does enter Scotland's past.

THE Outer Hebrides, some 40 miles by ferry from the mainland, was the last place in Europe to be brushed by the Reformation. It was inevitable that it would be the last place where it would retain a grip. Beyond here is the wild Atlantic so now this unbowing religion must bend or face oblivion.

When the Roman Catholic Church lost its moral authority in Ireland in the 1990s following a series of scandals, its power over society evaporated almost overnight. Presbyterianism in Lewis, which has kept the ferries in port on Sunday and the windsocks redundant, has reached its own crossroads, its continuing dominance in question. Sabbath observance will become a matter of choice rather than a code of obligation.

The change is being absorbed quietly, the effect as yet unmeasured. After all, on Lewis the other certainties have gone. Crofting and Gaelic are weakened; Harris Tweed weaving hangs by an ephemeral thread; the fishing fleet cannot find crews to put to sea with. The oil industry, which sustained a skilled manual sector, now sucks young men and their families to the mainland and beyond in search of work while the local yard lies idle.

Religion, despite the Presbyterian churches splitting into ever-smaller factions since the Disruption of 1843, has been the only constant to outlast the 20th century. Like the persistent south westerly wind, the Sunday morning and evening services in every district blow about a quarter of the 26,000 island population through the church doors. It is difficult to believe that 200 years of religious tradition will be knocked out by the encroaching aircraft engines.

Each Sunday the airport flight path will take these aircraft in over the strains of Gaelic psalm singing in Back Free Church. The plain building towers above the village which looks across Loch a Tuath to the airport. In its shadow is the manse. Inside the Rev Iain D Campbell, a young, charismatic preacher, brews a strong coffee. He does not, however, serve up Calvinism-lite. He believes that Sunday flights are a straight breach of the Fourth Commandment - to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Sunday flights are a sin - one of many he must confront.

Sitting in a small television room, with his children's videos on the floor, he is realistic about the future. ''I wouldn't say the church is threatened but the ethos of the island which has given the church a large place in its life is changing,'' he says. ''We've been privileged, now we're in the same position as other Christians who have to worship God surrounded by the trappings of commercial culture.''

Under his preaching, Campbell has seen an increase in those committing themselves to Christianity but he freely admits the church's authority over island life is slipping. ''I'm in no position to control the social patterns of people as my predecessors might have,'' he says.

Campbell's work is cut out for him. In the Criterion bar in Stornoway, island football fans speak of finding £26 airline tickets that allow them to attend Old Firm matches on a Sunday and be back for work on Monday morning. And while the ministers stood in their pulpits, life outside the church door was changing.

ON any given Sunday in Stornoway, an indistinctive Coatbridge-on-Sea kind of town, you can order a weak cappuccino in a cafe, a Balti from a seafront restaurant or a pint in a hotel bar. That confounds some Hebridean cliches but the unspoken social pressure not to partake in these activities was, and still is, quite overbearing. The fear of offending parents, relatives and respected elders curtailed youngsters until they became conforming parents and elders themselves.

Yet, quietly attitudes changed. A BBC/Mori opinion poll in 2000 showed 62% of islanders wanted an all-week air link, with 32% opposing. The figures were completely reversed when people were asked if they wanted shops open on a Sunday, indicating there are aspects of the Lewis Sabbath, the quiet lack of commercialism, they wanted to keep special.

If so, they are kidding themselves. It will only be a matter of time before the local distributors agree to sell Sunday newspapers, then the petrol stations will open, then the shops, then much of what makes Lewis different from the rest of the UK will be gone. Outside one of the town's supermarkets, Murdo MacLennan tells me: ''Nothing will happen overnight but in five years' time the island will become the same as everywhere else. We stand to lose a lot.''

With footballing sideburns last fashionable when he was a 70s teenager, the Rev James MacIver might appear stuck in the past but his thoughts are on change and the upcoming communion season that involves him preaching morning and evening over five days. Communion of bread and wine is an entirely symbolic ritual in the Free Church, performed only twice a year and crucially without the power of transubstantiation attributed to it in the Catholic faith.

Communion is reserved for members of the congregation who have publicly committed themselves to God. Conversion, the curam, has turned many a wild man into a wise preacher but in a small community it creates a religious elite, divided from those who do not partake, are not saved.

MacIver sees the church's task as re-connecting with the broader community. Drugs, alcohol dependency, domestic abuse and divorce - the same social ills afflict the misnamed, tight-knit communities of Lewis as much as the rest of Scotland. MacIver thinks the unwanted Sunday flights will liberate the church from the millstone of Sabbatarianism that has divided it from its own people.

''Maybe people have the wrong image of the church, we are not a one-issue organisation,'' says MacIver. ''This is an opportunity for us to engage in the community, a time for looking at ourselves and taking stock. If they come to pass, Sunday flights won't break the church but it will make us stand and think about how we can better connect with people.''

Ole Petter Krabberod is troubled to his Norwegian soul. His problem is running one of the biggest fish farming operations in Scotland without adequate staff. The boss of Stolt Seafoods, confirms that along with 200 vacancies in the fish processing sector he can't attract people to middle management jobs on the island.''If we don't find the right people our whole operation is in jeopardy,'' he says. ''We urgently need new people, new ideas and new life on the island. We end up defending the quality of life here but that leads us directly to the Sunday issue. People want to play golf or play football with the kids if they come to live here and these things are not possible on Sunday. There is a lot of denial about the economic implications that has.''

Whether Sabbatarianism is responsible or not, what can't be denied is that depopulation is robbing the island of a future. In the last decade, the population fell by 10%, 70% of youngsters leave the island for higher education and do not return although there are a few exceptions.

Malcolm MacSween, a 41-year-old computer entrepreneur, has just moved his family and business to the island he left as a child. He sees a bright future in developing a software company here. ''I like having Sundays off,'' he says. ''We came from London to escape pressure and being on Lewis is like having a protective shield.''

Having the defences stripped away will cause pain for the hundreds who supported the Lord's Day Observance Society's letter-writing protest. At Loganair they may have weighed the objections instead of reading them but Scott Grier, the airline's director, insists the decision was not based on a letter-writing competition.

''We were impressed by the range of support too,'' says Grier, who thinks his 34-seat operation can see off competition from latecomer to the Sunday market, British Midland. ''The demand came from within the island as well as from outwith.''

AND so Loganair's little Saab aircraft will touch down in Stornoway today, either sweeping Smith's legacy out to sea or causing it to flex in the wind of the 21st century. LDOS is distancing itself from any repeat of the civil disobedience that marked the arrival of Sunday ferries on Skye. Nonetheless the Rev David Murray, the son-in-law of Angus Smith, plans his own legal protest in the airport car park, guaranteeing a Sabbatarian stereotype for the media who will disgorge from the first flight.

Other than that, you might think life will go on, people will sleep in, psalms will be sung, roast meats will be cut. But the Sunday flights will alter Lewis and its Presbyterian churches just as setting the clocks back an hour effects a perceptible change of light and atmosphere in the first few days of winter. The place will look the same but the shading of its social fabric will be altered, for better or for worse.

''It authenticates the mission of the church,'' says Iain Campbell, finishing his strong argument as I finish his strong coffee. ''We now have to take our message out into the world as we find it rather than the world as we would wish it to be.''

Tom Harris MP - the blogging buccaneer.

As I left the Commons last night, ruminating on Tom Harris's rather pointed question to the Prime Minister - "So answer me this, Gordon: Why do you think Cameron wants you to remain in post?" - I bumped into one of the Conservative spokesmen.

"He's survived," I said. "Oh yes, I'm happy with that," said the Tory.

I wonder what the blogging buccaneer of Glasgow South would make of that comment? I wonder too if his blog, one of the most candid and entertaining of MPs' online efforts, is what left him in a frame of mind to speak out?

Through his blog Harris is effectively in touch with the electorate two or three times a day, or more, updating them on his thoughts and opinions.

As a result he might have found it more difficult than his peers to maintain a silence on the leadership issue or to make a strangulated show of support during the event and then face his blog followers afterwards.

Is blogging the political antidote against hypocrisy. Tom, discuss?

From the corridor of power.

Dispatch from the first floor committee corridor last night actually, where every Westminster lobby journalist I've ever known, and a few more besides, camped out, waiting for the improbable sound of an execution. It didn't happen that way though. Here's how it played out in the Herald.

As Gordon Brown entered committee room 14, the Gladstone Room, there was a great round of applause for the man who led his party into two of the most disastrous electoral results in the history of the Labour Party. It was clear then that the whips and the ministers were in control and the plotters had lived up to their name as a herd of assassins rather than a phalanx of killers.

There was no petition, no daggers hidden in the folds of the senators’ clothes, but a tense atmosphere as hundreds of Labour MPs and peers sandwiched themselves together to decide the fate of their leader.

Their mood was depressed and apprehensive as they filled the room until it was no longer possible to open the door inwards. Latecomers tried to press in but it was useless. They had to stand with hundreds of journalists in the corridor attempting to interpret the applause banging tabletops as endorsement for the leader or the revolution.

In a meeting that lasted 100 minutes and heard from over 30 speakers, Mr Brown prevailed over his critics, of whom just a handful spoke, with a mixture of humility, passion and rhetoric.

He began by admitting that he was not the perfect leader. "I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses," he told his colleagues. "There are some things I do well and some things not so well. I have learned that you have got to keep learning all the time."

He pledged to face up to his failings - promised to use the talents of everyone, act in a more collective way and be more open and transparent - but he stuck to the mantra that has seen him through this crisis: "You solve the problem not by walking away but by facing it and doing something about it," he said. He was going nowhere.

Mr Brown listed four priorities for the party - sorting the economy, getting the political system right, delivering a vision for the future and unity. He bound his audience together by draping the Tories as the real enemy while promising a raft of policy announcements later his week.

"I am not making a plea for unity I am making an argument for unity," said Mr Brown as he talked about the lessons of previous Labour governments that had been brought down by an economic crisis followed by disunity. There was no ideological divide in his party. "There is no massive difference over policy," he said. "There is not a resignation letter I have seen that mentions a policy difference"

Turning to the economic crisis Mr Brown said "these are challenges you cannot duck and you cannot run away from".

Then the floor was opened. In the first meeting since the two crushing electoral defeats a lot of strong words being exchanged but Mr Brown managed to assuage anger over the breakthrough by the BNP , expressed by Lyndsay Hoyle, a Lancashire MP.

It was a hard meeting for Gordon Brown, were harsh things were said but seemed to absorb and listen as he had promised. Speeches in support were drummed with applause. Those who spoke against, including Charles Clarke, were listened to in silence. Barry Sheerman served his idea of a secret ballot but the idea was not taken up. Fiona McTaggart, Tom Harris and Meg Munn, Siobhan McDonagh - all former junior ministers - found courage to call directly on Mr Brown to go. The Prime Minister answered his critics: "You can change the leader but all the challenges we face in the economy and in politics will still be there."

Labour’s elder statesman had been primed to speak in support - Gerald Kaufman, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett and Frank Dobson. Neil Kinnock made a passionate closing speech which as a huge personal endorsement for Mr Brown as a man of integrity.

On the other side of Westminster, in contrastingly modern setting, former Minister Stephen Byers chose to spit from a distance. "We need a leader who can lead and inspire at the next general election - Gordon Brown is not that leader," he told a rival audience. Ben Bradshaw, the new Culture Secretary, countered: "For those people here who want to change the leadership, you have got to have a candidate. Let’s get real about this, where is your effing candidate?"

As they filed out the marathon session veteran MPs said the party had peered over the edge and not liked what they had seen. "Division is the death knell for the any political party," said John McFall, Dunbartonshire West. "What’s at stake is the future of a Labour government, I think people realised that."

That was the reason why Glasgow South MP Tom Harris chose to speak out. He predicted Mr Brown would not lead Labour into the next election, so another botched autumn coup attempt looms. "My preference would be for Gordon to go voluntarily," said Mr Harris. "If Tony Blair had been Prime Minister when Labour polled 15% in a national election his position would have been untenable. For Gordon and his supporters to suggest that to win 15% and everything is fine is frankly baffling"

Monday, 8 June 2009

Brown - but not out.

Wiped out this morning (a bit like the Labour Party) after chasing deadlines all night while covering the EU elections. Each time we went to press the picture changed but I think the BNP breakthrough made it into the paper.

All eyes on the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting tonight but without a leader the rebels are likely to be repelled. All eyes on Lord Mandelson too, the signal for the end, whenever that might be, will come with a nod from him it seems. Here's what I made of it for the Herald:

GORDON Brown was last night donning armour for the fight of his life against his own back benchers after Labour was left humiliated and shocked by the BNP breakthrough onto the European political stage.

Labour backbenchers preparing to use the European election results as a springboard for a second assassination attempt against the Prime Minister found themselves strengthened as MPs projected the government’s low-end, third place showing onto their own constituencies and calibrated their view of Mr Brown as an asset or liability accordingly.

Rather than wait for a result, Mr Brown tried to regain the initiative with a stage-managed appearance on television yesterday afternoon which he used to deliver a "when the going gets tough…" message to wavering Labour MPs that he has the drive and resilience to withstand an anticipated back bench attack today.

Mr Brown gave a fluid, relaxed and humorous performance in front of party activists in London, which sought to counter the impression after Friday’s reshuffle that he was an exhausted man under pressure.

The PM, always at his best among supporters, kept speculation about his future off the airwaves for an hour and a half with a speech and a question and answer session with party members in Newham. He told an invited Labour audience that the difficulties over the economy and MPs’ expenses had been "a test not just of our character, a test not just of the government, it is a test of our beliefs". He said: "What would people think of a Labour government, faced with an economic crisis that is worldwide, that is hitting families in this country, if we walked away from them at a time of need?"

It was unlikely that the speech, just hours before the election in which Labour had just 16% support, a record low, (15% as it turned out) would be enough to stop a back-bench revolt. However, having lashed his strongest potential opponents to the Cabinet mast, Mr Brown’s supporters feel the rebels do not have a credible candidate to march behind.

Talk of an organised, online plot against Mr Brown remained just that and significantly John Cruddas MP, a leading left winger, backed Mr Brown, and his old foes, Blairites Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, withheld their backing for a revolt. Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, yesterday challenged the rebels to break cover and produce a list of names and a candidate. Without someone making a direct challenge to Mr Brown, it does not matter if the plotters get more than 72 signatories to a petition demanding he give up office.

His position is strengthened by the party rules that make it very difficult to shift a PM. Both sides know that, with the reshuffle complete and the 11 ministerial resignations dealt with, it is not enough for the rebels to put up a stalking-horse candidate or an old warrior such as Charles Clarke to trigger a challenge to the Prime Minister. Overnight the backbenchers hoped that the drubbing in the Euro poll would be enough of a scene change to allow cabinet members to drop their contorted declarations of loyalty to the leader.

Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s old flatmate and Lord Chancellor in his Cabinet, said he did not believe the party could unite as long as Mr Brown remained at the helm. He was sure there were potential candidates waiting in the wings. Nick Raynsford, a former minister who has called openly for Mr Brown to stand down, and is still regarded as dangerous by Downing Street, said that the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party would be an "important moment".

Earlier, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson cast doubt on the ability of the plotters to find a credible candidate. "It would require somebody to stand against him, somebody who is raising their standard and saying that they could do a better job, and we don’t have that person," said Lord Mandelson, who batted away suggestions in leaked e-mails that he himself had written off Mr Brown as not being an election winner.

That rebel flag bearer will not be Alan Johnson, promoted to the post of Home Secretary, or David Miliband, who stopped the revolution on Thursday night by refusing to back the resignation of his friend James Purnell. Mr Johnson protested his loyalty again yesterday and urged MPs to get behind Gordon Brown, warning that "regicide" would not unite the party. He said no politician was "absolutely perfect" but Mr Brown was the "best man for the job". Mr Johnson emphasised that he was "not driven by personal ambition", but to be the next leader he must keep his hand clean during any assassination attempt.

Lord Mandelson, who has garnered the title of First Secretary of State for his role in steadying the Cabinet, was at Mr Brown’s side all day yesterday as it emerged just how important he had been in quelling the rebellion.

The young Turks in the Blairite wing of the party take their cue from Mandelson. By good fortune for the Prime Minister, he was in Downing Street when the news of Mr Purnell’s resignation broke and was able to contact David Miliband and Alan Johnson almost immediately with a message warning them not to move against Mr Brown. The subsequent "not now" signal sent by Miliband to his lieutenants meant, his supporters concluded, he had accepted Lord Mandelson’s advice that a summer coup would make the pressure for an autumn election irresistible.

The implication the Blairites take from that is that the Labour conference in September will be the killing ground and the new leader would have until next May to prove themselves. Whether that is indicative of an even deeper plot by the Prince of Darkness or a bluff to keep the Cabinet at bay is unfathomable.

Mr Brown faces an incredible fight for survival tonight but if he makes it through to Tuesday without a direct leadership challenge then he could survive for the rest of the parliamentary session. Unless Lord Mandelson – of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council – decides to switch off the life support.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The counter-insurgency will be broadcast.

The revolution will not be televised, so Gil Scott-Heron promised us, but yesterday's counter-insurgency operation certainly was.

It was Tony Blair who stopped forcing soon-to-be ex-Ministers walk the green mile to their execution at a fireside chat with the Prime Minister. The hiring and firing is done by phone these days but the TV cameras and news anchors still pile into Downing Street for reshuffle day, a firing squad looking for a target.

The other end of the operation are the gazebos erected on College Green where the rolling news channels chew up and spit out ministers as quickly as they can be fed into the beast. Like an army laying in for a long siege the TV companies set up camera tents across the road from Westminster and government forces put them to good use - shelling the guerrilla army of backbenchers that lay in wait behind second home allowances across the capital.

The repression was running smoothly until a newspaper leaked online the written guidance for ministers appearing in front of the cameras. They were being instructed to express "disappointment" in James Purnell, "sadness" in losing colleagues and "focus" on the economy. It was very "in the thick of it" and you imagined the Tucker/McBrides of Downing Street mouthing along silently as the automatons repeated the script on air.

Others were mouthing off too, shouting words like "spineless reptiles" loudly at the television screens as the cabinet betrayed them again. The plotters had been watching television continuously since Big Brother came on at 9pm on Thursday night and were understandably fraught.

On Thursday night James Purnell's fame spread beyond his sideburns but what's the betting that within a week his name will be on fewer peoples' lips than the game show contestants? An overnight Che Geuvara of the rebellion, by morning he was cut down by David Miliband, who could have been rebel leader. Bananaboy proved the rule that in politics you never really have friends - though in the case of the Mandelson and Brown one must make an exception.

Lord Mandelson was out early pouring the syrup of defeat into the ears of radio and television audiences. A new leader would mean an instant election - disaster - and that stymied the rebellion. Say what you want but he's quality box office is Mandelson.

That's less than can be said for the other half of the ruling double act. Gordon Brown's Fantasy Island press conference in the afternoon veered towards YouTube II, with that frightening grin coming across his face whenever he was in trouble. "I will not waver, I will not walk away, I will get on with the job and I will finish the work," he warbled, but there were moments of real passion too.

Just then Caroline Flint woke with a really bad headache. She had been due to denounce the Prime Minister the previous evening but someone must have spiked her drink. All she remembers is putting on her best dress and getting ready for the cameras.

The next thing she comes to, doesn't have a seat in cabinet and has lost her dignity. It was pure soap opera watching her realise the price of calculation and betrayal. But that was the currency Gordon Brown worked in all day. Not great television but wildly unpredictable and highly addictive.

Friday, 5 June 2009

In the thick of it scripts go online

Allegra Straton, at the Guardian, has been doing a lot of the running on the Labour rebels story this week. She's just published another scoop online, the High Command briefing notes for Ministers, MPs and others who are being wheeled out in front of camera to defend the Brown regime.

We should all have a copy of this to hand as we watch, just to see if they stick to the script. Key words - disappointment.... sad ...challenges.

Once more, with feeling Minister.

The view from here - SNP press office.

You have to hand it to those looking through the far end of telescope lense at the SNP press office which last night, in the middle of the momenteous events at Westminster, celebrated the party's performance in a Glasgow Council by-election.


"The SNP have hailed the results of the Anniesland/Drumchapel by-election in Glasgow which saw a swing of nearly 10% from Labour to the SNP,“trumpted the press release. "Labour have suffered in this by-election".

If you open the Herald at page 6 today you'll see how Brian Currie reported the actual result with the headline: "Labour ousts SNP in Glasgow by-election".

Gordon's reshuffle jig - what now?

A cabinet reshuffle has been likened to three-dimensional chess but the solitary game every Prime Minister plays is not meant to be conducted under the pressure of the clock or with incoming gunfire from your own side.

Gordon Brown, if he slept at all last night, will have to unfurl a re-shuffle that isolates his enemies and demonstrates his ability to focus on the economy, constitutional renewal and communicates that he is still in control.

A reshuffle is not the only weapon at his disposal but by losing a cabinet minister a day he has to move quickly. The question is whose loyalty can he count on and who can he placate and keep on board?

The crucial decision hinges on the Treasury where Mr Brown wants to stamp his authority and replace Alistair Darling as chancellor with his long term ally and acolyte Ed Balls, currently the Children’s Minister.

Mr Darling is said to be resistant, preferring to return to the backbenches than move to another post, in what would be a crushing blow to Mr Brown even if, as looks likely, he staggers through Friday into the weekend.

There was widespread support for Mr Darling to stay in his job given the experience he has built up over the last two years in his steady handling of the financial and economic crisis. In the next three days Mr Darling, an old friend whose steadfastness in the economic storm has not been sufficiently been appreciated by Mr Brown, could deliver the final blow.

David Miliband, who does not want to give up the Foreign Secretary post to Lord Mandelson, swore his loyalty to Mr Brown last night, a move that might leave him unable to refuse anything that the Prime Minister may now offer him.

But if Mr Brown has been held to ransom by Miliband and Darling then he will look weak not decisive and Lord Mandelson, who has been Mr Brown’s mainstay since coming back into cabinet last autumn , will be dangerously hurt not be granted his heart’s desire and be appointed to the post of Foreign Secretary.

One sure winner look likely to be Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who crossed the floor from the Tory benches and now has the ear of the Prime Minister. He might be given the Communities and local government brief cabinet seat vacated so swiftly by Hazel Blear’s Communities or even the Home Office left empty by Jacqui Smith.

But Mr Brown's limited room for manoeuvre was demonstrated when John Reid and David Blunkett, who would have come back to cabinet as retreads, were both reported to have refused offers from the Prime Minister.

Louse Casey, the specialist in anti-social behaviour, could be an outside talent appointed to the government and even Sir Alan Sugar, who visited Downing Street yesterday, was tipped for a bigger role than he currently has as a business adviser. Baroness Shriti Vadera, currently a junior business and cabinet office Minister, could see her loyalty further rewarded.

Chris Bryant, who nailed his colours to Mr Brown’s mast, could be promoted from his post as deputy leader of the Commons. For those he cannot offer patronage the support of key cabinet survivors like Jack Straw will buy the Prime Minister more time to deploy his ultimate argument to backbenchers - the fear of an early election if he is replaced.

The polling day lull that descended on Westminster bought the Prime Minister’s supporters the advantage of being able to appeal to calmer heads

One senior Scottish Labour MP, often seen as being at odds with Mr Brown, said that on consideration the idea of replacing him as Prime Minister was "crazy". He said: "For a very simple reason, whoever replaced him would have to go to the country and in an early election it is very likely that the Labour Party would not be in power."

He argued that the party’s best chance was for the fiscal stimulus to do its work and allow the economy to recover. "It’s not about love Brown or hate Brown, anyone with any loyalty to the party, the economy and the country will stick with him because the alternative is to allow the Tories to start slashing and burning the stimulus package that has stabilised the economy."

Purnell - the cloaked assassin strikes.

Late night rewrites for today's Herald

GORDON Brown was bunkered down inside Number 10 last night watching his cabinet imploding as James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, uncloaked himself as a political assassin and became the third Minister to quit the government in as many days.

After a hiatus following the departure of Hazel Blears Mr Purnell, a rising Minister with a Blairite mantle , struck a deadly blow at the moment the polls closed in the European elections, telling Mr Brown he had to go for the sake of the party and the country.

In a resignation letter that spelled out in a few words the private thoughts of several cabinet Ministers Mr Purnell told the Prime Minister: “ Your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely."

He added: "I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning."

Mr Purnell pointedly said he was acting alone and not putting himself forward as a candidate for Prime Minister. The focus then moved to his close friend David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, who could rekindle his leadership ambitions and was tipped as the next resignation. Late last night Mr Miliband said he would not be resigning and described Mr Purnell's move as a mistake. John Hutton, the Defence Minister also backed Mr Brown, and Northern Ireland Secretary Sean Woodward, giving the Prime Minister hope that he might prevail.

Mr Brown, who was bracing himself against an unruly backbench revolt after a series of disastrous results in the English County Council elections and the European poll, was said to be in a "determined" mood as the chances of him surviving over the weekend diminished with each TV news bulletin. The coup, launched from inside the cabinet, was unprecedented in the Labour party and in recent political history.

Mr Brown, who was being backed by Peter Mandelson in Number Ten last night, could attempt a re-shuffle this morning. He is constrained by his need to attend the D-Day commemorations in Normandy on Saturday, giving the first regicide in Labour’s history an eerie echo of Margaret Thatcher’s political demise while she was in Paris.

Mr Brown’s fate overnight hung on three sets of numbers: the results from the County Council elections, the number of backbench signatures on an e-mail circulating among Labour MPs calling for him to go, and whether more cabinet ministers would break ranks and attack him.

At one stage yesterday a backbencher opposed to Mr Brown’s leadership accepted that he would resist an e-mail appeal unless the cabinet moved against him. Mr Purnell’s dramatic intervention gave the hotmailed petition more momentum. Shiobhain McDonagh MP, who called for Mr Brown to resign last year, said Mr Purnell's "bravery" would give Labour MPs the "courage and backbone" to sign up against the Prime Minister

Graham Allan MP came out immediately to back Purnell as replacement leader who would swiftly call a general election. Mr Purnell, 39 year old MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, was previously touted as leadership material and his reforms of long term unemployment benefits show his reforming, Blairite, credentials. His dramatic attack on the Prime Minister left him in poll position to take the crown if Mr Brown’s reign comes to an end, though he said he would not put his name forward.

Jack Straw indicated his backing for the Prime Minister late last night but it appeared that other Ministers were mulling their conscience and their e- mail in-boxes. The Conservatives quickly renewed their call for a general election to replace the "paralysed" government and the Lib Dems .

Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, who had been seen as the next cabinet resignation. remained loyal to the Prime Minister, who was himself described as being in a “determined” mood. He showed at Prime Minister’s Questions that he is capable of fighting his way out of a tight corner and his raw political skill could see him through a rebellion only to leave Labour divided and at war with itself.

According to the script of the unfolding coup, she was due to time her departure with the closing of the European and local government polls at 10pm last night. However she instead issued a pledge of loyalty. Ms Flint’s departure on its own would not be enough to sink the Prime Minister but Mr Purnell's coup de theatre was in a different league.

There were no indications during the day yesterday that senior cabinet Ministers, in particular Health Secretary Alan Johnson, had the appetite to take on Mr Brown but this morning the game had changed entirely.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Lifeline for Brown?

Has Tony Wright MP just thrown Gordon Brown a lifeline? Hat tip to the tireless Paul Waugh blog for digging this out during an election day lull in the Brown storm.

He reports that Tony Wright, the highly respected chair of the Public Administration Committee, has suggested a way that Mr Brown and the Labour Party can get out of this mess.

First, he accepts the Mandelson line that the plotters cannot get rid of the PM without then going to a general election, and none of them want that. Then he suggests the way out for everyone is for Mr Brown to pre-announce the May 2010 election as part of his plan to accept fixed five-year parliaments.

It lets the public know where they stand, stymies the Tories and focuses Labour MPs on their seats and the economy. No move is without risk, of course, but it could be part of Brown's survival strategy over the next week.

Everyone at Westminster appears to be waiting on the English County Council election results before making the next move. Still no sign of that letter against Mr Brown, the Scottish cohort of Labour MPs don't seen to have seen it at any rate. In any case no one will say anything faintly disloyal on an election day anyway for fear of being portrayed as some kind of Hazel Blears figure.

After the morning lobby we can report that the Prime Minister is in Downing Street in "determined" mood we can report, determined that is to focus on the economy and reforming parliamentary expenses. No comment on reshuffles or whether John Reid told him to stand down instead of accepting the post of Home Secretary for a second time.

Yesterday in parliament.

From the Herald

IT WAS not a funeral wake, that will come later, more like a large family gathering in the corridor of an old city hospital. The expressions of the Labour cabinet lined up on the front benches for Prime Minister’s Questions showed they were waiting for the worst but hoping for the best.

These are the people who will decide the fate of the Prime Minister over the next few days after two elections, to Brussels and County Councils across England, deliver a public verdict on him too. John Denham was looking skyward; Yvette Cooper scowling furiously; Hilary Benn grim-faced; Andy Burnham, grimmer still behind new spectacles. Alan Johnson, the man most likely, looked puffy eyed and distant. David Miliband was smiling, strangely, and at the other end of the bench Jack Straw and Nick Brown sat whispering to each other.

Thankfully, none of us know our fate but some of them had no inkling whether they would be in the cabinet in a week, (or a day it seemed at one stage), from now. The big question is who will be their leader, and who among them has the courage to strike?It is being called a "handbag coup", to be led, say the conspirators, by the female members of the government. Sure enough Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, sat as far away as was possible, on the short back benches, one behind Charles Clarke - which might be symbolic or just the outcome of the rush for seats in the chamber as MPs crammed in for the highlight of the political week.

Hazel Blears wasn’t there of course, having shot an arrow at the leader’s heart just a few hours earlier. Just when most people at Westminster thought they might get through a morning without a cabinet resignation Ms Blears left the government and Mr Brown dangling. Such a high profile act, on the eve on an election and just 90 minutes before Question Time could have been nothing less than attempt to wound and destabilise the Prime Minister.

A ragged cheer went up for Mr Brown as he entered the chamber. Two priests were on hand, above in the public gallery, in case the last rites were necessary but it was clear that whatever anyone else’s plans for him the Kirkcaldy boy will fight tenaciously. The event itself, as is often the case when politics pitches and rolls on a sea of high drama, proved to be less of a show than was billed.

Mike Weir - and when will an SNP MP have a better chance until next Wednesday to decapitate the government - opened by asking Mr Brown to go in the softest of tones. David Cameron failed to rise to the task too. Perhaps he thought he would only need deliver the coup de grace but Mr Brown is made of sterner stuff. Mr Cameron declared "the government is collapsing before our eyes" and few could disagree - except Mr Brown. Mr Cameron goaded the leader of "a dysfunctional Cabinet, a dysfunctional Government, led by a Prime Minister who can’t give a lead" and called, as he has done before, for a General Election." It is words, words, and words. We will get on with the action," said an angry Mr Brown, who has some fight in him even if the Labour party does not.

Cameron reverted to the instinct of an Eton bully - going for the weakest and attempted to drag the corpse of Alistair Darling across the floor. Mr Darling and John Hutton sat cross legged on the packed benches trying hard to look like two contented marmots snug in their burrow as Mr Cameron tried to dislodge the chancellor. That could prove a hard task, even for his boss, who made sure he used the correct tense - "is" - when praising the Chancellor. But twice Mr Brown refused to answer the challenge and say whether Mr Darling would be in his job in a week’s time. Who really knows - Mr Darling was reported to have made it known that he will not take the office of Home Secretary.

Nick Clegg took on the bedside manner of a straight talking doctor telling the patient he would never walk again. "He just doesn’t get it. His government is paralysed by indecision, crippled by infighting, exhausted after 12 long years," said Dr Kildare. Unfortunately he had sampled his own propaganda too much, proclaiming: "Labour is finished. The only choice now is between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats."It was the only thing that made Labour MPs laugh after a morning of political sabotage.

After cornering Mr Brown in his den in Downing Street the previous evening Ms Blears delivered her resignation to him at another meeting in his study at 9.45am. She was furious with the way her expenses claims had been branded "unacceptable" by the Prime Minister while the misdemeanours of male members of the cabinet had been glossed over. Having been left hanging, despite paying her capital gains tax with the flourish of a £13,000 cheque on television news, Ms Blears was determined not to become the cabinet scapegoat for the expenses scandal. Before she could be pushed this weekend she jumped, hoping to bring the scaffold down with her. It has to be said she did so with some style, sporting a brooch of a ship inscribed with the words "rocking the boat".

Her move aimed to destabilise the Prime Minister but Ms Blears seemed to have forgotten the tribalism that runs through her own veins. In the corridors government whips accused her of "treachery" against the Labour Party a day before the European and English County Council elections. A quick "smear operation" revived allegations about her capital gains tax repayments but her self-serving resignation never mentioned him and the damage was all one way. In his letter to the Communities Secretary, Mr Brown said he hoped it would not be long before she could return to government. It was remarkably gracious move by Mr Brown who maybe did not want to get into a fight with the assassin. She could still play a part next week by rising from the back benches to denounce the government Mr Brown should have sacked her from weeks ago.

No doubt the resignation of the local government minister on the eve of the local government elections will be blamed for the collapse of the Labour vote just as she was being fingered for leaking the news of Jacqui Smith’s departure as Home Secretary the day before.

Ms Smith, whose resignation was blethered out on Tuesday but bizarrely remains in office, did her best to shore up Mr Brown on television and squeezed onto the front bench at Question Time looking as if she was close to getting emotional. There will be no let up for the Prime Minister in the days to come.

The Guardian moved against him yesterday - "a small circulation Hampstead newspaper" scoffed a government loyalist who conceded that if it had been the Daily Mirror then the earth would have trembled. But the Labour tabloid shares the tribal instinct of the Labour MPs and regard betrayal of the party a crime on the a par with the taboo of regicide.

Other Prime Ministers have survived worse, for a time, and the pressure cooker effect of the rolling news coverage left commentators commenting on vapour trails as the day wore on. Lord Mandelson, who can look at a sheet of black paper and convince you that it is actually a photo of white paper taken without a flash at night, was sent into the coliseum to sooth the media beast.

That other piece of paper, an e-petition of Labour backbenchers calling on the Prime Minister to leave office, broke cover in the late evening but not everyone wanted to be party to it. "I don’t want to be the 24th name on a list that might only reach 27," said one backbencher displaying the characteristic lack of guts that has allowed Mr Brown to survive for so long. The cabinet look to the backbenches, the MPs want an Alan Johnson putsch but no one will move first.

An attempt to remove the Prime Minister needs seventy signatures attached to a named candidate and there doesn’t appear to be one person that can pull in that kind of support without appearing to be settling a score. Senior colleagues could go to Downing Street and tell him he ought to go, or there could be a Geoffery Howe style resignation speech from a Blears figure or Alistair Darling, who is Chancellor or he is nothing, after a reshuffle.

No other Minister resigned in the afternoon although in the febrile atmosphere a reshuffle rumour swept around Westminster with names like John Reid being mentioned. By then Ms Blears was on the train to Salford, from whence she came, Labour rebels were still not properly organised and Mr Brown was in Downing Street, a Prime Minister summoning his brute political strength for a fight to the death.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Blears goes = beginning of the end

Sorry about that - some technical hang up preventing me blogging the latest stage of disintegration of the Brown government.

I'd just come back after a six day break to ask, sarcastically, if much happened while I was off and "Sky sources" (give them credit) are reporting that Hazel Blears has resigned too.
She follows Jacqui Smith in quitting on her terms.

Her resignation statement is a bit of a stab at the Prime Minister: "I am returning to the grassroots (where I began), to political activism, to the cut and thrust of political debate.
"Most of all I want to help the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people, to remind them that our values are their values, that their hopes and dreams are ours too."

In Westminster-speak that means that Gordon Brown is not connecting with the British people and its beginning to look like a co-ordinated move with rumours of another resignation later this afternoon. That's if we get through the bloodbath that will be Prime Minister's Questions.

It will take more than one Guardian editorial and two or three cabinet resignations to shift Mr Brown. "It ain't over until he goes," says one of the old hands here and it could get worse and worse for Mr Brown over the next few days.

In the midst of this electrical storm I've walked back into its beginning to feel like a question of when not if Mr Brown goes.

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Monday, 1 June 2009

Short break in the Scottish sun

Waking up to Day 25 of the expenses firestorm but viewing it all from Edinburgh which, of course, is close up to the scandal not far a way.

I've been here for a few days and out and about in this t-shirt and shorts town the levels of public anger with politicians is still palpable. Not contempt, not cynicism, just outright anger.

Everyone laughs at how outrageous the Tory grandees have been but they're pretty cut up the Labour MPs whose claims are more within the scope of the costs of their own daily lives.

Gordon Brown is on the wicket on Radio 4 right now, after keeping a typically low profile for some days. He wants an national council for democratic renewal to lead the way in opening up parliament and scouring the scent of scandal out of Westminster.

"I've got to get on with the job," says Mr Brown who says he's the best man to clean up the political system. "It's not tenable though, says Evan Davis, who asks him, several times, if he will be persuaded to stand down.

"I'm staying on to do the job I need to do. I not arrogant or not willing to listen to people but I think I have the experience to get us through this economic downturn," says Brown rehearsing the line we'll be hearing again and again in the wake of the European and English local elections.

He adds that people know he's determined, that he works hard and that he won't let temporary setbacks derail him from handling economic recovery and cleaning up parliament over the next few weeks. He's not about to announce that he is going anywhere is he?

He defends Alistair Darling, who has been zapped by the Daily Telegraph today over double claiming his second home allowance, as a friend: "I don't think there are substance in these allegations, he assures me there are no foundations in the allegations," says Mr Brown.

My short break is over today and I'll be back at Westminster soon. Meanwhile, this bizarre sunshine...