Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Blair air eiridh a-ribhist - cunnard neo cuideachadh?

1998 -Blair aig fosgladh drochaid Scalpaigh, coiseachd air burn

Tha e air èirigh a-rithist. Tillidh Tònaidh Blair gu poileataigs Bhreatainn an-diugh agus e gu bhith a' toirt seachad òraid ann an Trimbton Colliery, san t-seann roinn phàrlamaid aige Sedgefield.
Sin, dh'fhaodadh tu a ràdh far an do thòisich an iomairt airson New Labour bho chionn ceithir bliadhna fichead air ais.

Tha e air tilleadh nar measg airson òraid a dhèanamh, airson taic a thoirt dha Gòrdan Brown, am fear a phut a-mach à oifis e bho chionn trì bliadhna (bheil cho fada sin bhon dh' fhàg e?).

Chan eil fhios agam an e òraid neo searmon a gheibh sinn - neo a bheil diofar eadar an dà rud a-nis airson Tònaidh Blair - ach chan eil ticead ri fhaighinn airson an "gig" seo.

Tha dùil gun toir e slaic pearsanta air Dàibhidh Camshron. Tha an Camshronach a' dol timcheall, a-rèir cuid, a' toirt a chreids gu bheil e air atharrachadh mòr a dhèanamh air a' phàrtaidh Tòraidheach, air a ghlanadh a-mach 's e air a chur air ais ann am meadhan poileataigs na dùthcha.

Uill, tha fios aig Tònaidh Blair mu dheidhinn atharrachadh a thoirt air pàrtaidh. Thog e na Làbaraich bhon an lar agus thug e crathadh orra mar New Labour mus do bhuannaich e taghadh.

Cha do rinn Camshron càil coltach ri sin ach tha e a' dol timcheall a' cumail a-mach gun e oighre Bhlair a th' ann - "heir to Blair" mar a chanas iad.

'S e chanas Blair gu bheil Camshron faoin, gu bheil esan eòlach air dè dh' fheumas tu dèanamh airson pàrtaidh a thoirt gu ìre airson oifis, agus nach eil Camhshron faisg air an sin.

Tha Blair connspaideach, gu h-àraid am measg luchd-taic nan Làbarach fhèin, air sgàth cogadh Ioraic gu h-àraid, agus mar sin tha beagan cunnart ann e a' tilleadh mar seo.

Ach cha do bhuannaich e, cuimhnich, trì taghaidhean dìreach le taic treubh nan Làbarach. 'S e an rud mu dheidhinn Blair gu bheil e a' tarraing bhòtairean bho thaobh a-muigh a' phàrtaidh.

Agus cha bhi e na aonar tuilleadh. Tha iad a' cur an t-seann chòmhlain air ais ri chèile. Mandelson, an Caimbeulach, sin Alasdair am pìobaire; Blair air vocals agus Brown ag amas air na drums le dhòn dùinte.

Mar sheann chòmhla rock tha iad a' dol air ais air an rathadh airson aon turas eile - le John Prescott a' dràibheadh a' bhan.

Bidh iad an dòchas gu bheil fonn neo dhà air fhàgail a nì a' chùis an turas cuideachd.

Taing Eilidh Dhubh

Post debate Nelson provocative as usual

I disagree with Fraser Nelson on so many things but ever so often he hits the nail on the head.

I had expected his blog - "Osborne's silent victory" - to be a paean in defence of the indefensible. the accepted political wisdom is that Osborne didn't do well yesterday at all and did not shine in the debate.

But as Fraser rightly points out neither did he make a fool of himself and that is, in its own way, an away win. Unpersuaded voters might not think him the demon oik that Labour want to portray him as.

It also reminds me that there could be a difference between the developing media narrative of this campaign - tightening polls, underdog Brown fights back, Tories not assured, hung parliament in the final act - and reality.

Some of the commentators today are still writing about tightening polls when in fact they are opening up again.

All of the plot lines above may be played out but something quite different might be taking place in the country

Monday, 29 March 2010

Polls -gap widening but still looking hung up

An Independent poll tonight has Tories steady on 37%and Labour down two points to 30% and the Lib Dems on 20%, up one point. Other parties are on 13%.

This leaves David Cameron 31 seats short of an overall majority in a hung parliament.

Ironically that's about the size most of the experts thing Cameron will achieve as a majority.

There's not much to add on the Chancellors' tv debate, if you saw it for yourselves.
All three men looked nervous at the beginning of the first big tv debate of the election but the encounter ended without any of them making a major slip up.

Vince Cable, sainted for his foresight in seeing the economic crash coming, managed to draw some applause and a laugh or two for attacks on the “pinstriped Scargills”, his term for the bonus-rich city bankers.

Darling, whose solid reputation is now one of Labour’s prime assets, showed a flash of political anger and the steely determination that took him and the country through the worst crash in a generation.

Sure enough Osborne’s tax cutting promise, to be paid for by shaving £6 billion of "waste" from public spending in the coming year, came in for a mugging from the more experienced players, Darling and Cable.

Darling said: “You have not got a single penny in the bank to pay for that. You are going to be forced to cut even deeper or put other taxes up to pay for that.”

Vince Cable simply mocked Osborne saying: “I thought your tax priority was taking millionaires out of inheritance tax “

Osborne, who had looked tense and pasty at a morning press conference, managed to come through by referring constantly to his boss David Cameron rather than himself. He only sneered once, when Cable landed a blow against the rich who will benefit from Tory inheritance tax plans.

Last night the Tories took pride from the fact that the debate was mostly about their tax cutting proposals - but the one-two jab from Darling and Cable left the policy floored and Osborne’s credibility exposed.

Osborne ripped but tax cuts could play with voters

George Osborne's offer to cut taxes out of efficiency savings that have still to be identified properly is being hammered here at Westminster this afternoon, and yet...

Alistair Darling, in some pre-bout sparring ahead of the 8pm debate tonight, has accused Osborne of making it up as he goes along.

"George Osborne has panicked and is making policy up on the hoof," said Darling. "On the Tories' own figures, they've made a £28bn tax promise over the next Parliament, but not a single one of their savings is in the bank. It's paid for on a wing and a prayer."

Flaky, opportunistic, the oldest trick in the book - promising a tax cut in an election campaign might be all these things but beyond the beltway, outside Westminster, it might play.

With our close-up focal range we hacks forget that lots of voters will pick this up simply for what it is - a promise to tax them less.

The Tories weren't pulling away from Labour by promising tough love - cutting the deficit and public spending immediately - so they've changed direction over the weekend and lurched for a tax-cutting offer.

Sure, you can say they're rattled, but that isn't to say that the strategy won't work in the polls. Once again, it's a question of credibility and I'd say that's going to the biggest issue in the no-holds-barred debate between Darling, Osborne and Cable tonight.

The Lib Dems would usually place themselves in the middle of a three-way debate as the sensible alternative but I suspect that it will be a tag-team of Vince and Alistair against George tonight. The boy has a lot to prove, and there's an election riding on how he performs.

Dan and Dan - The Daily Mail Song

Great, gentle ribbing here from Dan(and Dan, thanks to Paul at Never Trust a Hippy.

Speaking of hippies did anyone see Duncan Campbell's atmospheric recollections of Goa and the hippy trail in the Observer yesterday, joss sticks and all. Go wash that petiole oil out of you silver locks Duncan.

Osborne gambles tax cut ahead of TV debate

Busy old Westminster morning - Tory press conference in Millbank Tower (on the very site that Tony Benn was born), MPs expenses, daily lobby briefing. Run, run, run.

George Osborne, facing the biggest moment of his political career in the Channel 4 Chancellors debate tonight, decided to start the day by upping the stakes in the election race.

Osborne announced this morning that the Tories would not go ahead with the 1p National Insurance rise that Darling proposes.

The shadow chancellor claimed he could fund this tax cut with £12bn of efficiency savings in government spending that can be delivered without harming frontline services.

Some £6bn could be made in this coming financial year 2010-11, he said, to make a start in reducing government borrowing.

A further £6bn of savings would also be made in the Departments of Health and International Development - but would be re-invested in the front line - and in the Ministry of Defence, although not until the next financial year.

The pitch is that seven out of ten working people will be better off under a Tory government.

But this isn't just a stab at vote-winning tax cuts, it's a question of credibility too.

Osborne is Labour's prime target in the election and they were fast out of the blocks claiming that you cannot fund tax cuts on efficiency savings you have not yet made.

Ken Clarke, who was on the stump with Osborne this morning, said as much only a week ago. Both Cameron and Osborne have said the same thing in the past.

A full Labour rebuttal is underway, describing this tax cut a back of a fag packet policymaking. Ed Miliband is calling this a "panicked move" that undermines George Osborne's credibility. "You can't fund a tax cut on the never never," says Miliband. Whatever happened to the priority of cutting the deficit, they ask?

It was a bold move by Osborne, but one that looks like blowing up in his face before this evening. The immediate questions from journalists were all on the same theme - how can you identify savings from efficiency cuts that have not yet been made?

While he was on top of his brief Osborne looked pale and pasty when he sat down, his natural pallor unfortunately. It's going to be a tense day for him and it will be interesting to see how much flak the NI tax cut can take before it reaches the TV studio tonight.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Dr Who, WH 1212 and a dalekproof jacket

Matt Smith with Karen Gillan and that jacket

Just back from doing some very enjoyable early morning radio with the newspaper and Stornoway legend that is Angus MacLeod.

Angus,the Times man who reviews the Saturday papers for Radio Scotland's Newsweek, was proud today of how he had persuaded his paper to put the Harris Tweed brand on the front page next to the picture of the new Dr Who, Matt Smith.

I have to share some of the credit, I declared. The association between Harris Tweed and Dr Who goes back to a Whitehall 1212 entry last July when the first publicity shots of the new timelord were released.

When I saw Matt Smith sporting a bow tie and what was simply described in the publicity then as a "tweed jacket" I immediately contacted the BBC press office.

This jacket, I asked, was it the enduringly strong Harris Tweed jacket hand-woven in the Hebrides, beloved of crofters and aristocrats for generations and now the talk of fashion houses across the universe?

Was it the mythical Harris Tweed jacket worn by the heroic George Mallory on his unsuccessful 1924 attempt to climb Everest? Was it, in short, the genuine, timeless, Harris Tweed article?

The press office kind of got my drift. Er, yes, vintage Harris Tweed they replied.

Since then, if you read today's Times, the phone has been ringing off the hook at the Harris Tweed Authority with Whovians phoning up asking for a copy of the tweed look. I fully expect Tom Harris MP, Glasgow South, to be wearing one on the election trail.

I've no idea if it really is Harris Tweed or not but according to the Times Matt Smith’s tweed has been identified as a Mackenzie “two by two” dogtooth, probably produced in the 1960s.

The label shows it was first sold by Dunn & Co. and the costume designer has tracked down a similar weave in Savile Row and made up five reproduction jackets for stunt wear, leaving the original for special occasions.

To which I say, don't they know how tough a Harris Tweed jacket is? Not even a dalek could exterminate one.

With a tweed jacket and a Highland woman by his side (Karen Gillan is being allowed to use her own Inverness accent) - this new Doctor, he can't be defeated.

Friday, 26 March 2010

If it's Friday, it must be Glasgow

I came north on the first train to take part in a BBC Radio Scotland radio discussion programme and check in with the powers that be.

Being in the company of (as they sat) Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Alexander, Annabel Goldie and Jo Swinson - all together in one room on the Clyde - is intimidating enough at the best of times. Then Brian Taylor walked in and we were all intimidated - although he insisted he was doing nothing of the sort.

But it was not until I arrived at Pacific Quay that it dawned on me that the live programme was being broadcast in front of a live audience. By then it was too late to back out, or even find a tie to wear.

But being a member of Her Majesty's press, and being at the end of the panel line up, is an easy gig compared to being a living, walking politician in front of an audience at election time.

I can't remember most of my answers to the questions, I just hope they weren't too flippant. But looking down the line as others took their turn I could see them calibrating every word and carefully assessing the impact of what they were saying.

They make it look easy, but like swans, they must be paddling like fury beneath that calm exterior. Nicola and Douglas were willing to spar so most of the action took place at the other end of the table.

The audience was no pushover either. There a lot of anger against the political class, impatience with the rhetoric that doesn't admit cuts in public spending are coming towards us like a freight train and plenty informed opinion on a whole range of issues.

Lots was covered, from the budget to the prospect of a hung parliament through to the "meow meow" epidemic, which I now know is called that because its chemical name contains "m-cat".

Some anti-politics sentiment in the crowd too, over expenses and sleaze. No one threw rotting fruit, at least. This election is too important not to take part, was my answer to that "curse on all their houses" questioner who would not put an x in any box.

It was fun, listen to Brian's big debate here. But hats off to the pros, answering questions instead of asking them - it's a lot harder work than it looks.

Gordon Brown - a political train journey

If it was Thursday it must have been Brussels - even though I only stepped on Belgian soil for less than an hour.

Everyone in the Westminster Press Galley came to work slightly exhausted yesterday after the political tension and drama of Budget day. However, I had to pick myself up and head for the Eurostar at St Pancras so that I could have an audience with the Prime Minister as he headed to the EU Council meeting.

"Call me Gordon, some people call me far worse things," he joked by way of introduction. He was brisk and businesslike to begin with but warmed up very quickly and, real pro, paused whenever there was a station announcement so that not a word would be lost.

He has a tough gig ahead of him but he's a tough politician and he looked up for the fight. There's a good edited version of the interview on the Daily Record site

The most interesting parts were, of course, not really about politics but the little windows he opened into his own life - about his boys blissfully missing out on the election and how his wife Sarah will definitely be on the campaign.

A bit that might not have made it in the edit was when I asked him about Alistair Darling, the frankest and straightest chancellor ever, and whether he would keep him at Number 11, if Labour won.

"Alistair's a great friend of mine, and we'll talk about these things," is all he would say.

Gordon Brown interview
from Torcuil Crichton, Brussels
Daily Record Friday 26th March 2010

After a huge global recession, with high unemployment and the battering he has had in the media – Gordon Brown ought to look as glum as Tony Mowbray, the sacked Celtic manager.

But as he hurried for the Eurostar train to Brussels yesterday the Prime Minister had every right to have a spring in his stride.

This week his chancellor, Alistair Darling, delivered a zinger of a budget speech that left the Tories in the starting blocks. Overnight the polls tightened, giving David Cameron just a two point lead. It really is game on for the election race of lifetime and Gordon Brown is ready for it.

Tomorrow, Saturday, Brown will be in Glasgow to address the Scottish Labour conference with a speech that could fire the campaign starting gun.

Aboard the train he spelled out his simple message for Scotland: He said “There is no risk-free way of voting for another party and getting a Labour government.”

Brown has a vision for 100,000 new, high quality jobs in Scotland over the next five years, and he doesn't want to endanger that with the Tories or the SNP.

He is scathing of the SNP's voting record as part-time Tory MPs at Westminster. He said: “I believe the SNP MPs have voted two out of three times with the Conservatives since 2005. That exposes them as a party that would work with the Conservatives rather than Labour.”

He has reservoirs of optimism about Labour's chances in Scotland and about the future of his native country.

“We are the party that have plans for the future. I see 100,000 new, skilled jobs for Scotland in the next five years,” said Brown.

“We've got big investments in oil and gas, west of Shetland, we've got the low carbon investments,
the development of our creative industries and digital industries and our promise that we'll get broadband to 100% of the population, not just in the cities and not just the rich people.”

He added: “We've just had budget for jobs and growth. When we were able to announce that GE is bringing 1900 jobs to Britain in windfarming and when we look and the new investments in industries that produce healthcare goods we're a talking about a more diverse economy

“Scotland will become a greener economy, a knowledge-based economy and huge bio-tech economy. We'll be big in digital, strong in creative industries and advanced manufacturing.

“This is the Scotland of the future, where we've invested in science and universities an colleges so that we have strength for the future. People will not only have jobs, they will have skilled jobs and these will be the jobs for young people in the future.”

As for the immediate future he will still not confirm the date of the general election – widely expected to be May 6th. “I have to tell the Queen first,” he joked. He cannot even confirm his attendance at the historic Scottish cup semi-final between his beloved Raith Rovers and Dundee United next month. “I'll be supporting Raith Rovers in every way I can, I wish them well and I hope I can get to the game.”

You get the feeling that something called the general election campaign might get in the way of him attending the fixture.

Whenever it comes, Brown is primed for the fight and for the television debates that will dominate the three weeks to voting.

He said: “Look, I want these to be about policy. The debates will look at whose best of the health service, the economy jobs, industry , Europe and international relations - and people will be able to make up their own minds.”

He is confident about who will win the arguments: “I think people will find we have a policy and a clear view for the future. I think they may decide that the Tories, whatever else they are, are not ready for government.”

THE Prime Minister knows that after last year's Westminster expenses scandal that a lot of people are cynical about politicians, but he has faith that they will turn out to take part.

He said: “I think people know there is a big decision to be made, a big choice about the future. Lots of elections take place but this one is about what happens to the country over the next few years.

“People must decide which party is on their side - best for the NHS , best of jobs , best for industry, best for your children.”

He thinks that when people see what the Tories stand for they will be genuinely appalled and he thinks the SNP will be shown to have mismanaged the Scottish Government, or Scottish Executive as Brown insists on calling it. “I think, at a time when they could have made a difference, they have let people down,” he said.

He added: “I think when people know that the Conservatives would cut the child tax credit for middle class families, the Child Trust Fund for families with incomes over £16,000 they will be shocked. They have not made the same commitments as we have to front-line public services but at at the same time they are prepared to give the richest 3000 people in the country £200,000 each.

WHEN he married Sarah Macaulay, Gordon Brown said he had wed middle England, but Mrs Brown has proved a star in her own right, at Labour conferences and in Scotland at the Glenrothes by election in 2008.

Brown is happy to confirm that she'll be by his side on the road back to Downing Street in a few weeks time. He said: “Sarah will be coming around the country with me quite a lot and we'll be in Scotland quite a few times.”

That means leaving behind his growing lads – James who has cystic fibrosis and is almost four, and John who is now six and a half. Their dad hasn't explained the complexities of a general election campaign to them just yet.

“The boys know we'll be away quite a lot but I don't think they have much to say about it,” laughed Brown. “They're more interested in their toys and their books.”

IT has been a tough year for Gordon Brown – between party rebellions, bad polls and accusations of bullying his staff – but he seems to have come through it stronger. It is precisely when things get worse that he seems to perform better and that quality could make him the ultimate comeback kid.

He also seems to have learned about himself over recent months. He can admit, without prompting, to having made mistakes.

He said: “I am determined, strong willed. If you believe in what your doing you keep doing it. Not that you'll always get things right – we all make mistakes. But as someone said a soldier who makes no mistakes is a soldier who wins no battles. You keep going, you've got to be resilient in this job and there are pitfalls and challenges every day, but if you believe in what your doing, if you believe in a stronger, more prosperous society you work very hard to get it.”

He is certainly up for the fight, getting fitter and trying to keep to the exercise regime of running every day. But he has one aim in mind that he keeps returning to. “Since the beginning of the year everyone has been clear - this is the choice election. It's too big a risk to let the Tories make progress.

“The Tories haven't got the polices to help Britain. They got everything wrong in the recession, they made every single mistake any party could have made. We've done our best to keep unemployment low, to keep businesses afloat and keep mortgage repossession low.”

He said: “The Tories have nothing to say about industry in the future, about ordinary families and their needs”

Gordon Brown is not one to talk about hung parliaments, or deals with Lib Dems or, if after that barnstorming budget speech, he would keep Darling as chancellor, if Labour win again. He said: “Alistair's a great friend of mine, and we'll talk about these things.”

By now the train has come through the Channel Tunnel, we are in the Euro zone and heading towards a meeting of EU leaders to discuss the Greek financial crisis.

But Brown doesn't miss the chance to talk about the danger of the Tories. He said: “Their European policy is the same as 2001 and 2005, and what would happen to this area where 60% of our exports go if the Tories made advances? This Euro-scepticism shows that the Tories haven't really changed. They've had four years to change and they haven't changed at all.”

When he is asked what drives him on his political journey, one that could take him to a fourth Labour victory weeks from now, he looks out the window at the countryside.

He said: “All my life, since school in Kirkcaldy, university in Edinburgh and my time working in Glasgow I found you've got to fight for the things you believe in, you've got to be determined to win. For people who come from my background nothing comes without fighting for it, and you've got to be sure that you fight for the important things that matter.”

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Darling - the pirate of the Caribbean

For the Daily Record 25/03/10

No one ever had Alistair Darling down as an all-action hero but in one hour yesterday he went from being a silver-haired sea captain to a swashbuckling pirate of the Caribbean.

This was going to be a "steady as she goes" budget, as if being chancellor was like being a west coast ferry skipper.

But all the time, as he steamed through a budget for fairness, Darling put all the clear blue water he needed between Labour and the Tories.

He looked down at his charts and saw how the course he had set had taken Britain through the financial storm.

"Not everyone here supported the action taken. But with hindsight, it is even clearer that the right calls were made," said Darling. Across on the green benches opposite the Tories looked all at sea.

He gave some help to ordinary people, and made sure everyone knew the rich would be paying for it.

And he had some fun with the Tories too. He drew massive cheers from Labour MPs when he announced that he had signed tax information exchange agreements wih Belize – the home to Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative party’s "non dom" deputy chairman.

It was a political coup, a pirate raid that made Willam Hague’s bald head shine red like a lighthouse with embarrassment.

Hague it was, when he was Tory leader ten years ago, negotiated Ashcroft’s peerage on the promise that the billionaire funder of the party would pay taxes in Britain. We learned only a few weeks ago that Ashcroft reneged on that promise.

On the big question - the national deficit - Darling had some assurances for his other key constituency, the financial markets. He stuck to his promise that he deficit will be halved in four years.

It is below decks, in the big government spending departments, that the big savings will have to be made to pay off the debt.

Civil servants have to start bailing fast to keep the ship afloat. Some £11bn has to be cut next year, and another £30bn of cuts are to come after the election,whoever wins.

For two years, since the economic storm hit, Darling has been the steady hand at the tiller while economic storms and political battles have raged around him.

Other ministers have fallen, some have resigned, Gordon Brown has been pummelled, but Darling has sailed on into calmer waters, his reputation enhanced.

For an hour yesterday, while he hammered the Tories the Tories in his understated way, he was telling the voters he would take them safely to shore - it's steady as she goes with Cap’n Darling.

Tapping the polling data

Haven't looked at a poll in a while on Whitehall 1212. This is how the parties looked just before the Budget in the Metro Harris poll out this morning.

Conservatives have seen their support drop to 35%, down from 37%.

Labour are on 28% compared with 29% two weeks ago.

Liberal Democrats have dropped a point from 18% a fortnight ago to 17%.

In a general election, the result would lead to a hung parliament, with the Conservatives taking 299 seats, Labour 267 and the Lib Dems 51.

The Sun daily poll has the parties at Con 37%, Lab 33% and Lib Dem 18%.

Waiting for a Budget, sipping Buckie and musing

Everyone's at battle stations for the big day. Darling will have chosen his tie by now, rehearsed the lines and hopefully had something strong to steady the nerves.

He'll have to negotiate his way past civil servant strikers who are adding a bit of colour and noise to proceedings around Whitehall today.

Some details are already leaking out. No stamp duty for first time buyers; a staged introduction of the fuel duty increase - welcome news in rural Scotland.

There are hints of a heavy tax increase on alcopops and strong cider, which will play well for Labour in Scotland where they continue to oppose minimum alcohol pricing. Any chance of a tax on Buckie, the fortified Buckfast tonic wine that is the drink of choice in many Scottish towns?

The stong, caffine-boosted brew is blamed for much of the anti-social behaviour, crime and disorder in Scottish constituencies. Labour politicians regularly ask to have it banned.

In January a BBC investigation revealed that Buckfast was mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in the Strathclyde area of Scotland in the three previous years, equating to three a day on average.

One in 10 of those offences was violent and the bottle was used as a weapon 114 times in that period. Further, in a survey last year of 172 prisoners at a young offenders’ institution, 43 percent of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes said they had drunk Buckfast.

I'm sure it's not what the chancellor will be sipping before leaving Downing Street for the dispatch box. Duty on spirits and beers is likely to go up too.

The big thing is how to reduce the record deficit, which is slightly lower than expected because of the money saved from smaller than expected unemployment figures. Darling has given legal undertakings to do so in the next four years.

Forcing the banks into more lending, which Vince Cable has identified as the looming crisis that could cause the dreaded "double dip" recession, is also a big box that needs ticking. There are plans for a "peoples' bank" through the Post Office network and obliging banks to provide basic accounts for everyone.

He is usually so ultra-dry in his delivery but with the election, his own job prospects and, not to mention, the economic future of the nation in the balance I hope Darling will show a flourish of passion at half past twelve.

He's promised a "workmanlike" budget but there has to be some rabbit out of the hat. My guess - something for the poorest pensioners - a minimum income guarantee

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

In the thick of it, with Peter Capaldi

I'll be Tuckered...Malcolm Tucker (aka Peter Capaldi) makes sure that the Daily Record never again crosses a government Minister

Still recovering - not from the bollocking I got from Malcolm Tucker - but from the excesses of An Lanntair's 25th birthday party last weekend.

Peter Capaldi, actor, director and all round nice guy, was the guest of honour at the Stornoway art gallery bash and couldn't resist slipping into character when he met an "omnishambles" of a lobby hack.

Our own Local Hero, gallery director Roddy Murray, was in a band with Peter all these years ago. They're old friends and if you remember the ceilidh scene in Local Hero, that's Roddy doing the penny whistle solo as the Ace Tones keep the dance going.

Capaldi didn't really give me a cluster**** of expletives - it's acting dahling. He really is the sweetest man in the world.

BBC Alba - not on Freeview this summer

Disappointing news from the BBC Trust that it has decided to extend the timetable for the review of BBC Alba, the Gaelic tv channel.

This means that the station will not be available on Freeview when the Western Isles, where a large part of the audience is, goes for digital switchover this summer.

The BBC Trust, as I understand it, is quite happy with the channel content and its performance since they agreed to fund the joint venture with the Gaelic broadcasting authority, MG Alba, two years ago.

What the Trust is reluctant to do is drop a number of BBC radio stations from Freeview in Scotland to make room for the Gaelic channel.

The Trust was dragged slowly and reluctantly into supporting and funding the channel in the first place. It looks like the channel will have to go through the same process again until the BBC runs out of reasons, precedents and excuses to put the channel free to air on the digibox.

Here's the statement from Alasdair Morrison, chairman of MG ALBA.

He said: “Today’s decision is disappointing as we had hoped the BBC Trust was in a position to give the go-ahead for access to Freeview now.

“The success of the channel to date has been recognised and is not a factor in today’s decision. The only outstanding issue is the question of what services need to be universally available in Scotland. We will continue to work constructively over forthcoming months with the BBC Trust and the BBC to secure access to Freeview for viewers, which is fully in line with its function as a public service channel.

“We believe that access to Freeview is supported by the vast majority of people who responded to the BBC Trust consultation, BBC management and across the political spectrum in Scotland.

“The issue of impact on other BBC services such as radio needs, in our view, to be put in context. There will be negligible impact as virtually all the radio stations will continue to be available on radio and online.”

Monday, 22 March 2010

Sam Cam - top suggestions for baby names

Congratulations to the Camerons from across the political spectrum after the couple announced their pregnancy. Speculation has already begun on what the nipper will be called.

Boys Names

Benjamin - after Disraeli, the great Tory reformer
Tony - because he’s heir to Blair
Bullington - after the club
Borisina - after the mayor and good friend
Gordon - because he owes him everything
Gideon - George Osborne’s real name

Girl’s names
Annabel - not after Mrs Goldie, it’s granny’s name
Mary - the other grandmother
Margaret - after She who must be obeyed
Etonia - after the school
Timely - for the cynics out there

Cash for influence - taxi for Byers

Just back in Westminster on a Monday morning shuttle flight from Scotland. Plenty Labour MPs at the airport, ostentatiously waving their BMI boarding cards to prove they weren't blockade running.

I don't do the journey Scotland-London journey with the regularity of MPs but even I find it a pain to have to split time between two places, counting the minutes of my life wasted at airports.

It must have been a be particularly disheartening trip for Labour MPs this morning, having spent the weekend banging doors to get the vote out only to find themselves stuffed and undermined by Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt.

The three former Ministers have been exposed in a cash-for-access sting that has Westminster up to high doh. As I came in the screens were flashing that Harriet Harman, as leader of the House, is making a statement at 3.30pm.

I see Byers has referred himself to John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commission, as if that does anyone any good or persuades anyone that greed and stupidity were not the driving forces of this tawdry scandal.

Monday, 15 March 2010

What if the voters don't choose anyone?

Polls slipping for Cameron, Gordon Brown vows to go on and on, Lib Dems getting equal footing in the TV debates - are we in hung parliament territory?

I took part in a Radio nan Gaidheal debate this morning on the subject just as Peter Hennessey,Professor of Contemporary British History, was on the posh radio - Radio 4 - on the same subject.

I suspect you'll find his summary of what might happen in the event of a hung parliament more enlightening if no more straightforward.

Hennessey was one of the people who recently helped Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell translate put the tacit understandings of custom, practice and precedent into a draft cabinet manual on the formation of a government.

Hennessey described the exercise as "moving the constitution from the back of an envelope to the back of code".

So, Prof, what happens if the Conservatives are just ahead in the number of seats but don't have enough for a majority?

Theoretically, and practically knowing Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister can where he or she is, in 10 Downing Street. According to Prof H the PM of the day does not activate the Queen until he resigns.

Before that happens he could face parliament and only when voted down on a Queen’s Speech, a motion of confidence, would he have to resign. So plenty of time to wrangle a coalition deal if the news monster and the markets have the patience for it.

Gordon Brown has, of course, the option of asking for another dissolution if he loses a vote of confidence, but the Queen does not have to grant that request. It would be reckoned that he had his turn.

Then the Queen turns to the political figure who commands most seats or is most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons - that would be David Cameron.

She offers the chance to David Cameron to form a government. If he loses a confidence vote, he can trigger a dissolution - another general election - and that would be granted.

Gordon Brown, at this stage, could still be leader of the Labour Party and go into another election facing Cameron. He said today he wanted to carry on and get a majority.

Hennessey reckons the parties would have to sort out most of the post-election mess themselves and that the Queen would just "give her good housekeeping seal of approval".

Then there would be all the back door negotiations with the minority parties to try and make a deal to stay in office.

Brown tried to lash up a deal with the Lib Dems in Scotland the weekend after Jack McConnell ended up with one seat less than Alex Salmond in the last Scottish election.

He wasn't successful at all that time but these Lib Dems with the most experience of negotiating deals - Jim Wallace, now Lord Wallace and Menzies Campbell who was sounded out in 2007 - will be the men to watch if it is a hung parliament. The SNP and Plaid have their shopping list, the Ulster Unionists their alliance with the Tories.

The door of Downing Street could be busy and watch out also for sales of wood varnish around Westminster. If it's a hung parliament they're going to be dragging Gordon out by the worn down quick of his fingernails.

Beanneachd leat a' Mhicheil

Michael Foot's funeral today. Here is former Tribune editor Mark Seddon's oration.

Also a link to Brian Wilson's tribute in the West Highland Free Press.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Three lions, and three cheers, for McKenna

I see that I'm not the only one in Scotland asking the early question - who will you support in the World Cup?

Kevin McKenna, one of my old editors, now columnist with the Observer, has picked up on the theme today.

Kevin has been as depressed as any other enlightened Caledonian by the appearance of "Anyone but England" t-shirts in Scottish shops.

He points out that for thousands of English people living in Scotland the usual anti-English boorishness during the football festival won't be "just a joke", and certainly wouldn't be seen that way if the joke was on Jocks.

I'm trying not share his pessimism. It's worth remembering, Kevin, that those who shout the loudest aren't always the majority.

The stats, as I recently blogged, show that far more Scots do support England if their own team isn't playing - 48% as opposed to the 34% who are in the "anyone but" camp.

It will be interesting to see this play out on the political high wire over the summer when (already looking forward to it) the election is over.

I fully expect Alex Salmond to send a message of goodwill to the England squad as part of the "civic nationalism" strategy, regardless of what the base vote might think.

Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, has not just one choice of who to support but two. His wife is English and his kids support both England and Scotland. But he is more likely to be supporting the hosts, South Africa, where he spent a large part of his childhood.

Who will other politicians be supporting? England expects...an answer.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Affairs of state, or the state of Zarkozy's affairs

To a packed Downing Street lunchtime press conference to hear Gordon Brown and Nicolas Zarkozy. None of us were there to ask about the effect of UK hedge funds on the Eurozone (okay the FT was). No, the big question of the day was what's going on with Zarko and Carla Bruni?

The internet and the British press have been awash with rumours that the French President and his glamorous, popstar wife are pursuing dangerous liaisons a mere two years into their whirlwind marriage.

The problem facing press was who would have the courage to ask? None of the French journalists could. One indicated to me that she would face the guillotine at home if she did. But she also assured us that Zarkozy would answer if asked, so pushing the Brits onto the frontline.

It was agreed the Sun would pose the question but in the actual event a French journalist, freelancing outside the pack on the other side of the room, got there first.

Zarkozy immediately rebuked the poor guy, who'd asked about the reports in the British press, for his "idiotic" question.

"You must know very little about what the President of the Republic actually has to do all day long,' he said.

"I certainly don't have time to deal with these ridiculous rumours, not even half a fraction of a second. I don't even know why you use your speaking time to put such an idiotic question."

Brown helped his wee friend out with a joke that he didn't believe a lot of what he read in the British press either. The two were on very warm terms, full of praise for each other. It's one love affair that shows no sign of waning.

Zarko, though showed his penchant for playing both sides. Even though he criticised David Cameron for his euro-sceptic stance in leaving the European PP he went on later to have talks with the Tory leader where it was all warm hugs and embraces all round again.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Alasdair Roberts and Mairi Morrison

To the bar of the Hackney Empire, the other night, for the musical genius of Alasdair Roberts and the irresistible charm of Mairi Morrison.

Lewis actor Mairi, who is a brilliant singer too, invited me along. Shamefully I arrived too late to hear her impromptu Gaelic set with Roberts.

I've heard the two of them join forces before, at Glasgow's CCA (The Third Eye Centre), and the effect is stunning. Alasdair is an ethereal guitarist and singer, that just clicks with Mairi's strong, bluesy vocals.

There's a plan for the two of them to record together sometime this year. It could be the beginning of something big.

Mairi, who starred in our sitcom Broadford or Bust among other things, just finished with the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Dunsinane at Hampstead Theatre.

David Grieg's play about what happened in Scotland after MacBeth was killed combines history with the current theme of military occupation and the ancient tensions between Scotland and England.

It has a razor wit that cuts both ways so it would be interesting to see which parts a Scottish audience would laugh at.

Not guilty, not in this dock - expenses MPs

A Daily Record dispatch from Westminster Magistrates Court where three MPs faced charges of false accounting arising from the expenses scandal.

Could there have been worse way of handling the court appearance than starting proceedings by asking not to stand in the dock? Anyway, on with the story

Three MPs tried to dodge the dock yesterday when they faced charges of theft from the taxpayer in the Westminster expenses scandal.

Livingston MP Jim Devine, David Chaytor and Elliot Morley attempted to put themselves above the law by refusing to enter the dock in the magistrates court, like other accused defendants.

They pleaded not guilty to charges of theft by false accounting. Their defence was that they should not be tried in a court of law, like other accused defendants.

Their solicitor then asked for them to be judged by the House of Commons authorities rather than endure trial by jury, like other accused defendants.

Their efforts to beat the rap, defy the court and dodge the dock in a historic trial of politicians didn’t work.

Their lawyer’s stunning plea at the beginning of proceedings that MPs should avoid the humiliation of the dock was refused.

District Judge Timothy Workman replied that it was “normal practice” for defendants to stand in the dock.

The three MPs then entered and stood in the well of Westminster magistrates court, behind empty chairs which they expected to occupy. But they were ushered by a court officer in the glass partitioned dock.

The door was shut behind them and the key turned in the lock - justice was being seen to be done.

The modern courtroom was packed with political journalists more used to watching the three familiar political figures occupying the green leather benches of the Commons.
The court officers were more used to seeing a procession of drunks, petty shoplifters and speeding drivers.

One court official said the MPs had been a bigger draw than Amy Winehouse, who was in the same court on assault charges last year.

Standing behind the glass screens the three MPs confirmed their names and each pled not guilty to the lengthy charges read against them.

Solicitor Julian Knowles entered a plea for their case to be heard in the Crown Court where he would argue that because of parliamentary privilege they should not face a court trial.

Knowles cited the 1689 Bill of Rights and said matters arising in Parliament must be dealt with in Parliament and all MPs should be treated the same.

Knowles said his clients would argue a criminal prosecution would be in breach of a fundamental principle of British law. He said: “To prosecute them in the criminal courts for Parliamentary activities would infringe the principle of the separation of powers, which is one of the principles which underpin the UK’s constitutional structure.”

He insisted his clients were not “saying that they are above the law” , only that their argument was against the process they faced.

The case is now being sent to Southwark Crown Court where it will be heard by Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC, the Recorder of Westminster.

The first hearing is due on Tuesday March 30th, which could be the day Gordon Brown goes to the palace to dissolve parliament and start the election campaign.

Last year’s expenses scandal is likely to be a huge election issue. Hundreds of other MPs were last month told to pay back a total of £1.12 million after an audit of their expenses claims dating back to 2004.

But the trial of three MPs, who are barred from standing as Labour candidates, during the campaign would fuel public anger again.

Tory peer Lord Hanningfield also faced charges linked to the Westminster expenses scandal and he appeared separately and also pled not guilty. Lord Hanningfield faces charges relating to his claims for House of Lords’ allowances.

All four have denied any wrongdoing but if found guilty they could face jail sentences of up to seven years.

Before appearing in court yesterday Devine, MP for the Labour-held seat of Livingston, said that he was an “innocent man” but the three MPs left court without commenting.

They were met by a media scrum and got into a waiting black cab accompanied by their lawyers and escorted by police officers.

There was a brief camera crush around the vehicle as posh protesters, clutching copies of the Tory-supporting Spectator magazine, hurled abuse, shouting “pigs” and “oink, oink”.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Knight to 58 North - Lewis chessmen debate

Widespread support in a Westminster debate yesterday for my idea to open a branch of the British Museum in the Western Isles.

I had to break away from affairs of state to attend the Westminster hall debate to make sure Angus MacNeil, the SNP member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, didn't purloin my plans and hitch them to his own demands for the famous Lewis chessmen returned to the Western Isles.

In a debate on repatriation of artefacts he did just that, but at least he gave credit to the Western Isles Museum service which enthusiastically embraced the British Museum of the Isles concept when I blogged on it a few weeks ago.

My fear now is that conflating the perfectly sound plan to franchise the British Museum brand in Lewis with the demand for repatriation of the chessmen guarantees the august institution will not touch either idea.

Angus welcomed the concept of a British Museum branch. Call it what you want, he said, as long as it brings the chessmen back.

Margaret Hodge, the Minister responding was in no mood to compromise and said the pieces must stay where they are. So long as we keep flogging the dead horse of demanding the pieces back that's how things will stay.

Moving them from one part of the British Museum to another part of the British Museum (which just happens to be in Lewis) just might work. Have you seen the model of the Trojan horse in the museum?

Salmond on TV, or maybe not on TV?

It says a lot about broadcasting in this United Kingdom that Alex Salmond has to come to London to make a big splash on the proposed leaders' television debates.

His joint press conference with Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones was packed out this morning. Always hold a party in a small room and double the invite list, that's what I say.

It was a bit of a Eurovision Song contest, double handed presentation, but the leaders got their point across about how they feel it is grossly unfair to exclude SNP/Plaid from three television debates being staged for Clegg, Cameron and Brown.

I feel their pain. These Thursday night campaign debates have the potential to suck up all the media coverage and commentary for the day preceding, the day of and the day after the event. That's the reality. The day before the debate in particular will be a viod of political message making. Voters in the US always use the "I'm waiting for the debate" excuse to rebuff doorstep campaigners and telephone canvassers.

So far the SNP and Plaid have huffed about legal challenges and reviewing their commitment to the BBC licence fee system but these were not what they wanted to focus on today.

They pressed the BBC on it's impartiality and responsibility to be a broadcaster to the nation as a whole. Salmond emphasised that the BBC had to understand the ramifications of their decision and how he would, from now on, portray the organisation as an English Broadcasting Corporation

Two key concessions though, ahead of meetings with the BBC and ITV. The principle the nationalists now want to establish is participation, not parity.

The SNP don't expect equal standing on a UK platform with the other parties but the right to point out that in Scotland, or Wales, there are other policies on offer.

The other point, and I think this is the first time Salmond has conceded this, is that he might not be the SNP representative in the UK debates, if it comes to participating.

"The key issue is participation. If it was made a condition that it would be people standing in Westminster we could discuss that," he told me.

It's a bit early to bury this argument about a debate but I got the feeling that the SNP has already started mourning the loss of campaign air time.

By the way - that new SNP slogan "More nats, less cuts". Don't they mean, as my pedantic colleague Mike Settle pointed out, More nats, fewer cuts. Given that there are up to nine political tv debates to be endured in Scotland there's room for a slogan that says: "Please! Fewer debates."

UPDATE: The BBC reaction statement prattles on about how it is organising subsequent leaders' debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after the big boys have had their party.

It ends with the key phrase: "We will continue to speak to the parties as we develop our plans."

Develop our plans? Nothing set in concrete then? Into that chink will rush a demand for Salmond and Jones to be on the flanks of the big three during the big debates.

WYSIWYG PM draws economic battle lines

Bit of a pitstop political morning. First down to Canary Wharf for a speech by Gordon Brown on the economy, then river boat back to Westminster just in time for Alex Salmond's press conference bashing the BBC.

A sprint from there (sorry to leave early First Minister) to the Commons for Prime Minister's Questions which proved to be a nuclear confrontation between Cameron and Brown.

People are reading PMQs differently - I think Cameron blew himself up with his synthetic anger but others in the room think that he won or at least drew in a high scoring clash for both sides.

Cameron had to come out fighting but Brown had prepared himself with a robust performance at his early morning business speech which laid the economic ground for the budget and the election campaign.

The business audience seemed more impressed with Brown than they did with Clegg or Cameron on previous occasions at Canary Wharf. I've got to say he delivers his speeches with the cadences of a pulpit sermon. Believe me, I've sat through enough pulpit sermons to know.

However, he had some good lines and what he has (and knows he has over the Conservatives) is a pretty clear economic narrative of where we've come from, what we've been through and where we're headed.

He can tell that story with some authority.He confirmed that the budget will be in a fortnight's time on March 24th and warned that the economic storm was not over.

He warned that "ideologically-driven" Tory plans for cuts risked tipping the country back into recession.

He announced an eye-catching pay freeze for senior public sector employees - doctors, judges and the like - that will save £3bn by 2014. And he turned the attacks on his character in recent weeks, insisting that he was the one with the character to see us through.

Key quote: "With me what see is what you get - for better or for worse. And the stakes are high, we dare not risk the recovery for our task above all else is to preserve and expand the jobs and lift the standards of life of the British people.

"We are weathering the storm. Now is no time to turn back. We will hold to our course and we will complete this mission."

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Tebbit and Bercow - best of friends

To the Speaker's house for a reception in honour of several spinal injuries charities. Guest speaker - the Lord Tebbit of Chingford. Yes, the same Lord Tebbit who just a few days earlier said that Tories in the Speaker's Buckingham seat would have to cast around for who to vote for.

Bercow, standing as "Speaker seeking re-election" faces a challenge from UKIP's Nigel Farage in his seat and Lord Tebbit said that Tory high command had no right to instruct its supporters to give Bercow a free ride.

It could have made for a tense few glasses of wine last night but Bercow and Tebbit greeted each other like the old friends they are. Tebbit joked that he was surprised his invite to the grand Speaker's state rooms still stood.

Interesting to reflect that Tebbit regarded Bercow as a Tebbite once, cast in his own mould. What a long journey the Speaker has been on from the far right to the Crimson Drawing Room.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A polecat writes, and Tories outspun again

Do read Lord Tebbit's venomous blog on Lord Ashcroft before the week is out. The "semi-house trained" polecat continues to amuse and amaze with his hostility to Cam's Conservatives. He obviously loathes his fellow peer, the Lord Ashcroft.

It's been a long political day,from Blair's book to the SNP's licence fee strop, but I bet it's felt far longer for the birthday boy, Michael Ashcroft.

The Conservatives failed again to blow out the 64 fizzing dynamite sticks under the Ashcroft donations. They undoubtedly have a point about Labour hypocrisy on the issue of non-doms but they can't get their story across as effectively as Labour's narrative of rich, privileged Tories assuming that they can buy a general election.

The reason is simple. The Tories keep putting their spin doctors (good ones) to bad use, asking them to nudge journalists towards right wing comment sites. It's pretty ineffective, deploying bloggers as proxy attack dogs, although some of the poison inevitably drips into the mainstream media.

Labour, I noticed this week and last, just don't mess around when it comes to bare fist fighting. Word goes out that Mandelson is heading for the studios and we wait and watch, like war correspondents on the edge of a free fire zone, as has he delivers another devastating blow. The old phrase from home, "Eadar an dha shuil" - between the two eyes - effectively invokes the style and the effect.

When it's not Mandy it's Prescott or Johnson or, if they want to wound, a "more in sorrow than in anger" Darling. The Tories seem reluctant to put their money where their bruised lips ought to be - punching back against the other side's stories. This evening they were huddled, like characters in vampire movie, praying for dawn and Brown's appearance at the Chilcot inquiry to melt away the nightmare.

By rights there ought to be some kind of freelance Conservative Ned Kelly gang of MPs, firing off quotes and beating up on Brown. But I don't know if they've got anyone 'ard enough to lead a gang unless Bagpuss Ken Clarke rides to the rescue.

Much more this will Ashcroft story will contaminate the Cameron brand beyond Westminster tube station, which is its current penetration level.

From tonight's Channel 4 marginal poll it seems as if Ashcroft's £5.1 million hasn't been entirely wasted - the Tories are still ahead in the key seats that will decide the election - but only by two points. That's a bad slip, two per cent in a marginal constituency is a good sitting MP's personal vote. Some Labour seats will survive the outgoing tide.

Still, nine weeks tonight before the only poll that counts closes. A lot of shifting sand before then but from the signs of the tightening polls it's evident that something is moving out there.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot - a life woven into Labour history

Obituary for the Daily Record 04/03/10

Michael Foot, one of the great figures of the 20th century Labour movement, has died at the age of 96.

A lifelong campaigner for peace and socialism, Michael Foot led the Labour Party for three years in the early 1980s during one of the most turbulent periods in its history.

A natural left-wing rebel, he was more at home campaigning for causes he held dear that trying to control an "unleadable" Labour party in the 80s. But although he failed terribly in the electoral cauldron his plain, unfashionable refusal to compromise his principles drew respect from across the political spectrum.

Against an ascendant Margaret Thatcher Foot's Labour party lurched leftwards and senior figures broke away to form their own party, the SDP. His Plymouth connection ensured he supported the Falklands War, against his party's instincts, and he suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1983 election and quit as leader shortly afterwards.

But he lived to see his protege Neil Kinnock take on the hard left and witnessed the transformation of the Labour party into an three-term election winning machine under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister led the tributes, describing Foot as a “man of deep principle and passionate idealism”. Mr Brown said: “He was an indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs and whether people agreed with him or not they admired his character and his steadfastness.

“The respect he earned over a long life of service means that, across our country today, people, no matter their political views, will mourn the passing of a great and compassionate man.”

Foot died shortly before 7am at his home in Hampstead, north London. He had been ill for some time and had been receiving 24-hour care.

Born into a Liberal West Country family in 1914, one of four talented brothers, Foot’s life was woven into the history of the left in the 20th Century.

After witnessing poverty in Liverpool he joined Labour in the 1930s and worked as a journalist for left-wing journals the New Statesman and Tribune. He knew George Orwell, supported Republican Spain against rising European Fascism and decried Tory appeasement of Hitler.

Excused from war service he co-wrote “The Guilty Men”, attacking Chamberlain and the Tories before being appointed editor of the Evening Standard by the publishing magnate and fellow mischief maker, Lord Beaverbrook, in 1942.

He entered Parliament in 1945 in Clement Atlee’s Labour landslide. He held Nye Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service and subject of one of his many biographies, as his hero.

With his tremendous oratory skill Foot went on to become a great hero of the left himself, championing nuclear disarmament as a founding member of CND. He met with the Soviet leadership at the height of the Cold War and campaigned against British membership of the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum.

Tony Benn, his cabinet colleague and occasional nemesis,said: “He was one of the great figures of the Labour movement. I know he did not win the election, but the fact that he became leader and fought the election puts him in the top list of figures in the history of the party.

Foot first became MP for Plymouth Devonport in 1945 - which explains his demand for a taskforce to sail for the Falklands that Saturday morning parliament convened to debate the crisis - and went to become MP for Ebbw Vale and Blaenau Gwent. He was employment secretary under Harold Wilson and went on to become leader of the Commons between 1976 and the 1979 general election.

At heart he was a writer more than a politician and his passion for books, and for
Plymouth Argyle, never dimmed as old age took its toll

His election as leader in 1980, following Labour’s defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, saw the Labour almost torn apart by infighting, the SDP split and infiltration by Trotskyist Militants.

Gerald Kaufman famously described the 1983 party manifesto“the longest suicide note in history” and Foot was forced to quit as leader when Labour suffered its heaviest election defeat in 50 years, with just 27% of the vote.

Baroness Thatcher, who faced Mr Foot in many fiery clashes across the despatch box in the House of Commons, said she was “very sorry to her the news” of his death. In a statement released by her office, Lady Thatcher said: “He was a great Parliamentarian and a man of high principles.”

Lord Healey, who served as Foot’s deputy, also paid tribute. He said: “I was a great admirer of Michael’s. He was a brilliant speaker. Although we disagreed very much over policy, I was very glad to serve under him as deputy leader. I don’t think he should be remembered only for the 1983 election defeat, because he made a tremendous contribution to the Labour Party when its future was on a knife edge.”

Despite his brilliance as a speaker and his undoubted intelligence Foot did not possess the cruel instinct required for leadership. His shambolic, academic appearance, combined with the party's self-destructive mood rendered him unelectable.

The right wing press savaged Foot as party leader. He was viciously traduced for wearing what was described as a donkey jacket at a Cenotaph remembrance ceremony. It was, in fact, a fairly smart car coat and his wife Jill Craigie was deeply upset by the smear. Later, he successfully sued the Sunday Times over allegations that he had been a KGB agent.

Although his appearance might have been mocked, his command of an audience inside and outside the Commons was famed. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Simply to mention his name is to be taken back to an era when every politician needed to be an orator and command an audience.”

He was succeeded as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock, who took on the hard left and sowed the seeds of New Labour. Lord Kinnock, hailed him as a man of “courage and generosity of spirit and action” who saved the party's soul.

Lord Kinnock said : “He was letting himself into purgatory in becoming leader of the Labour Party in its darkest, grimmest hour. But if he hadn’t done it, I don’t think Labour would have survived as a political force, It was Michael’s courage and utter commitment to the cause of the party which enabled the party to continue in recognisable existence and to fight and win another day.”

Exhibiting the kind of solidarity the old Labour party inherited from the communist movement Foot never once criticised the three-term Labour government while Tony Blair was in office.

Though he might have disagreed profoundly with Blair he once told a dinner guest, no leader of the Labour party can do any wrong.

John Prescott said Foot was “the heart of our movement” and Alastair Campbell, whose wife Fiona Millar was a family friend of the Foots, said he should also be remembered as a “lovely man”.

He said: “Fiona went with Neil Kinnock to see him recently. She came away sensing he did not have that long to live. But at least he was still in his own home, the one he shared for so long with his wife Jill Craigie, and still surrounded by his books and his memories.”

Conservative leader David Cameron said Foot was a “very intelligent, witty, amusing and thoughtful man” adding: “ I’m obviously not old enough to have been in the House of Commons at the same time, but reading some of his speeches, (they) were incredibly powerful.”

First Minister Alex Salmond said he was held in highest regard across the political spectrum over many decades. “Michael Foot was a man of enormous principle, with a political career founded on a passion and commitment to the party and causes he loved. He was a remarkable and dedicated man My thoughts are with his many friends, colleagues and family. Michael Foot will be greatly missed, and his memory treasured by his party and the country.”

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described Michael Foot as a great parliamentarian, a great intellectual and a great idealist. “He always stood up for what he believed in, even if that meant inviting unpopularity at times. His intellectual integrity is an example to everyone in politics.”

Michael Foot 1913 - 2010

Michael Foot, in full flow, speaking in defence of the Daily Mirror, which had criticised the conduct of the war by the Churchill Government.

Jack Straw has just announced the death of one of the great figures of the Labour movement to the House of Commons.

Founder of CND, leader of the Labour Party in the dark days of the 1980s, Foot was also an outstanding journalist who edited the Evening Standard and the Tribune twice.As a writer, and as an orator, few could match him

He was one of the towering political figures of 20th century British politics but he was much diminished by having to lead Labour during one of the most tumultuous periods in the party's history.

Being a journalist didn't defend him from the ravages of a nasty right wing press, and particularly the myth that he wore a donkey jacket to the memorial service at the Cenotaph.

Jill Craigie, his wife, was very upset by the accusation. It was a perfectly good jacket but Foot had the ability to look dishevelled in anything.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

TV debates - numbing voters to the ballots

Count them - I have and I make it eight full-length television debates being broadcast in Scotland during the general election campaign.

Because separate arrangements have to be made for Wales and Scotland to give the nationalist parties a fair go viewers in these countries are being given an extra treat of double the political viewing time of people in England.

That could total 12 hours of repetitive mind-numbing, sorry crucial, political huffing and puffing before being allowed to put a cross in the box.

The SNP is complaining that it is being excluded from the debates. There must be more votes to be won in campaigning for fewer debates.

Here's that list in full:

Three x leaders debates on ITV, BBC and Sky

Three x Scottish leaders debates on STV, BBC Scotland and Sky

Two x proposed Treasury (Darling vs Osborne) and Business (Mandy vs Clarke)

Viewers will be sleep-walking into the voting booths after that.

But wait, I have to suffer for my language too. The BBC have just confirmed that they hope to stage a Gaelic debate on BBC Alba too. That's nine debates to be endured.

Monday, 1 March 2010

A tale of two polls - five and seven point gaps

We're all in danger of going poll mad. Two new ones tonight.

ComRes for the Independent - Con 37 (-1), Lab 32 (+1)

YouGov for the Sun - Con 39 (+4), Lab 32 (-3)

The first, Comres for the Independent, gives the Tories a five point lead but that would still leave Labour as the largest party

It's the narrowest margin in the monthly ComRes poll for The Independent since December 2008.

The figures, if the election were held tomorrow, would give Labour 294 seats, the Tories 277, the Liberal Democrats 46 and others 33.

Labour would still be 32 seats short of a majority and would have to rely on the Liberal Democrats for support in a hung parliament.

A YouGov poll for the Sun shows the Tories with a seven point lead. The same polling organisation showed a two point gap between the parties on Sunday, with the Tories on 37% and Labour on 35%.

Labour won in 2005 with just over 35% of the vote but the Tories only managed 30% and the Lib Dems a bit over 9% in that outing.

The SNP have been on pointing out that their reversal of fortune in the Ipsos/Mori poll for the Scotsman is actually a huge improvement on their standing at the 2005 election.

Here's their read out of Westminster voting intentions (change since 2005 General Election in brackets):

Lab: 34% (-6)

SNP: 32% (+14)

Con: 17% (+1)

Lib Dem: 12% (-11)

Other: 5%

Enough figures for one night.

Snap election? Will someone please decide

The ebb and flow of Ministers from Downing Street this lunchtime is being dismissed as just a regular Monday meeting of cabinet ministers - not a rushed roundtable to trigger the start of a snap election campaign.

Westminster is a bit tense because this is the last possible day that Brown could call a March 25th poll.

Going to the palace today would leave 17 working days (excluding the Northern Ireland Bank Holiday for St Patrick's Day) before an election. That's the minimum notice necessary under parliamentary rules.

We're all a bit dubious in the Lobby about anything really happening. It would, after all, require a decision to be made and Mr Brown is not famous for making these in a hurry.

Another Scottish opinion poll, tighter this time

New poll in Scotland in Scotland this morning which shows Labour on 34% compared to the SNP on 32% - a a direct reversal of the ratings in MORI’s poll of three months ago.

With this the SNP would win ten seats at the general election, three more than they have at present and better than predicted in yesterday's SoS poll. Labour, on this projection would win 37 seats — four fewer than in 2005.

No breakthrough for the Tories, who if they are lucky will get two MPs, doubling their representation in Scotland.

The Conservatives are trailing in third place on 17 per cent , according to Ipsos MORI, with the Liberal Democrats still further behind on 12 per cent. The Lib Dems would be down one seat to ten MPs.

All kinds of stats about Gordon Brown's standing in Scotland - good - and Alex Salmond's - falling. The SNP are seven points ahead in Holyrood voting intentions on 36% to Labour's 29% but we're not really concentrating on that in the immediate future.

Meanwhile The Scotsman has squeezed more data out of it's weekend poll to show that there would be more support for independence if the Conservatives win power at Westminster. According to YouGov 30% would be "more likely" to back independence in these circumstances but that kind of response has to be treated with caution.

Asked the straight question support for independence has fallen to 27%, about nine per cent in two years. John Curtice sums it up: "Support for independence remains in the doldrums"