Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Government of all the Commissions

Straight from the the Coalition press conference on their programme for government.I counted the words "commission" or "review" twenty three times in the Con-Lib Coalition document as David Cameron and his colleagues outlined a brave new world that will keep committee rooms in Whitehall fully occupied for years.

There are also lots of promises and commitments in the programme for government, but they all come with the rider that reducing the deficit is the top priority for the government.

There's a big green box at end of the 34 page document that states the "deficit reduction takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement". It translates the rest of the agreement as: "we'd like to do this but..."

That page also acknowledges the devolved nature of government and recognises that many of the decisions and policies of this new government now apply to England only.

So lots of the health, crime and policing and education policies in the coalition won't apply to Scotland, although you will find that some run parallel to Scottish government priorities.

For example, there's agreement with the SNP on reviewing alcohol pricing and banning the sale of alcohol below cost price - the big minimum pricing row in the Scottish parliament.

Safely parked are issues like the West Lothian/English Votes question and the fossil fuel levy in these timeless reviews and commissions.

Perhaps I'm being too cynical about the Cam-Clegg partnership. Both men, when they speak, appear seriously committed to trying to achieve change in the political system and in working in what Cameron referred to as "the national interest".

Their respective parties hate them for getting on together so well, and the fracture lines we've seen develop around the Tory 1922 committee last night may well become deeper fissures.

There was a beautiful moment at today's press conference which gave a glimpse of one of the biggest cracks at the top of the coalition being papered over.

It came as Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, stood up to say he fully agreed with George Osborne on deficit reduction being the number one priority.

While Vince was lovebombing the chancellor Nick Clegg, seated, allowed himself a tiny, quick smile at Danny Alexander, his chief of staff, sitting in the front row. It was if to say - look at Vince, he's doing what we told him to do.

Osborne just sat their with his hang tough face on, listening to the man who had the audacity to try and stop him being chancellor in the first place. Clegg could learn from Osrborne about keeping the iron mask on at press conferences from now on.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

That Scottish Westminster government in full

Thanks to the Guardian wall chart I can now see the scale of the Scottish influence in this new government. The last cabinet resembled the Earl of Bute's infamously Scottish-stuffed government of the 1760s. This new lot of rulers are more discreet in their Scottishness, but they're still there if you look.

Top of the tree is David Cameron himself. The Prime Minister's father was born at Blairmore House near Huntly in Scotland. Blairmore was built by his great-great-grandfather, Alexander Geddes, who had made a fortune in the grain business in Chicago, and had returned to Scotland in the 1880s. More is made though of Cam's royal ancestry these days than his Scottish connections.

Danny Alexander, as Secretary of State, is Scotland's direct representative at the top table, with a seat in cabinet and the ear of the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

David Mundell, the sole Scottish Tory, is parliamentary under-secretary of State at the Scottish Office, a more junior role but his ambition had to be sacrificed once the coalition talks began. He does not attend cabinet.

The only person more disappointed that Mundell will be Ben Wallace, the Lancaster and Wyre MP and former MSP, who saw the Scotland Office as his route to greater things. I don't think he was given a position yet, though he may be a parliamentary private secretary to a Minister.

The Advocate General for Scotland is Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who we remember in the Scottish parliament as Jim Wallace, the former deputy first Minister in the coalition government. Again, in this role he does not attend cabinet.

Speaking of disappointments his coalition prize will be a blow for the criminal lawyer Paul McBride QC, who had been tipped for the job after defecting to the Tories in 2008.

Lord Strathclyde, the clue is in the name, is Leader of the House of Lords and was born in Glasgow. His late father, Sir Tam Galbraith was MP for Hillhead, but died in 1982 triggering the famous Roy Jenkins win in the by-election

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary and Somerset MP hails from an East Kilbride council house, a state education and Glasgow University, so there's another strong Scottish thread.

Michael "the Cove" Gove is a proud Scot, born in Edinburgh and raised in Aberdeen by his adoptive parents. He worked at the Press and Journal as a trainee, and was on strike there for several months, before prospering down South.

As Education Secretary his means his brief does not extend to the north although his understanding will.

Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Minister, was born in Edinburgh, the son of W. G. G. Duncan Smith, a Royal Air Force Group Captain highly decorated in World War II. His father is buried on the west coast, near Kyleakin. By dint of his conversion to the social welfare agenda on his visit to Easterhouse we could also count him as an honorary Glasgwegian.

Alistair Carmicheal, the Orkney and Shetland MP, is the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, effectively the deputy chief whip of this coalition.

The ancient post in the English Royal Household used to come with white rod, as opposed to the black rod, but in modern times, the Comptroller has become a less prominent position in British politics.

The responsibilities for the Royal Household are now purely nominal, except being occasionally called upon to act as an usher at Royal Garden Parties but no invitation to cabinet.

That's six Scots in cabinet and two others in government. Although there is only one Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell,there are some other Scots scattered around the Tory benches.

Mary Macleod, the new MP for Brentsford and Isleworth, has a Dingwall connection and Iain Stewart, the MP for Milton Keynes South, was born and grew up in Hamilton. His dad was a computer systems analyst and hismum worked for Marks & Spencer. He went to Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow and stood in Rutherglen for the 1999 Scottish parliament election.

Any more Scottish connections on the government benches? Let me know by commenting or by e mail.

Peerie Bercow and pencils sharpened for first day

WH1212 took the weekend off to recover from the campaign/debates/election/coalition/government rolling news continuum and comes back to a Commons transformed.

Today is day one of the age, I suspect, old age of politics and it kicks off with the election of the Speaker after lunch.

John "Peerie" Bercow should be a shoo-in for the job he held before the election, although the Tories hate him because, well because he won with the votes of Labour MPs who wanted to annoy the Tories in the first place (childish, I know).

There are rumblings of a Tory vote against him but if his nemesis Nadine Dorries makes a move it will only be for the self-publicity it may gather. In fact with Ms Dorries leading the charge Peerie looks more assured by the minute.

There are no signs of a Menzies Campbell campaign or a Kate Hoey bandwagon. There may be abstentions but there is no sign of an ambush.

The morning is spent with people eyeing strangers in the vast atrium of Portcullis House and trying to work out if they are the new breed of MP or just the latest batch of eager researchers.

As they take their seats we will begin to recognise them, I suppose. Before Bercow takes the chair the presiding officer will be the Father of the House (the MP with the longest unbroken service) who is the Louth & Horncastle MP Sir Peter Tapsell. (He's one of these who loathes the idea of Speaker Bercow btw)

The MPs will then be summoned to the House of Lords by Black Rod where, after a lot of cap doffing, they will be directed to elect a Speaker.

Returning to the Commons John Bercow will indicate to Sir Peter that he is willing to be chosen as Speaker. He will then be proposed and seconded. Sir Peter will then put the question to the House that he takes the chair.

If enough MPs shout No there will be a Division. If John Bercow wins he becomes Speaker and takes over presiding over the House from Sir Peter as Speaker-elect and adjourns it to the following day. If there is a majority against Speaker Bercow the House is adjourned to the following day.

Assuming John Bercow has been confirmed as Speaker the House next meets at 3pm on Wednesday.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

English votes issue will not be extinguished

Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander also has responsibility for dampening what could become one of the most inflammable issues of the Lib-Con coalition.

Alexander has to set up a commission to consider the West Lothian Question - the old chestnut on why Scottish MPs should continue to vote on English legislation not affecting their constituents while English MPs have no say on devolved Scottish parliament policy.

A commission is usually code for kicking an issue into the long grass but the West Lothian Question is now more contentiously referred to as "English votes for English laws" and will be one of the angry flashpoints of the new parliament.

When Tory right-wingers want to radically reform education and public service provision in England, when they want to overturn the ban on fox hunting and when they argue for the construction of more nuclear power stations, they will wonder out loud why they are straddled with Scottish MPs who are so obstinately opposed to them.

These will be Scottish Lib Dem MPs on their own side and the ranks of Scottish MPs who make up a sixth of the Labour opposition. Some little Englander is bound to ask, wouldn't we be better shot of the lot of them and rule the roost in our own country.

Not that England voted Tory, look at the local government results or look at the regional share of the vote.

The Tory manifesto promised, in very mangled language, an investigation into the English votes issue but high command really want nothing to do with it. The Lib Dems think the whole idea of separating voting on geographical lines is a non-starter but many Tory backbenchers won't hold that opinion. One to watch, one more small headache for the red-haired Highlander.

Oh Danny boy, being pals no substitute for policy

Walking across the College Green late last night, after feeding myself to the media beast that is Radio Scotland, it occur ed to me that darkness had returned to the little square of grass opposite the palace of Westminster.

For the first time in a week the lights, the monitors and the cameras on the ramparts of the temporary media village, around which the world had spun, were switched off. The story was over and the circus was packing up to move on. The battered bronze Henry Moore statue will have the grass all to its lonely ownsome for the time being.

It was leaning against the base of the Moore sculpture a couple of hours earlier that the large holes in this new coalition's policy attitude to Scotland became apparent.

The typing terriers of Caledonian press corps managed to corner Danny Alexander, the new Scottish Secretary, in the media encampment for a few minutes between television appearances.

Admittedly Alexander, who negotiated the coalition deal with the Tories over four days and nights and was only four hours into his new job, must have been as exhausted as we all were.

But - oh, Danny boy - he did not seem to have a grasp of his Scottish brief and had no priorities fixed for the nation. He expressed the naive hope that the “spirit of inter-party co-operation” would save Scottish Lib Dems from a savage backlash for propping up the Tory.

He said: “This government was founded on the spirit of co-operation and with a radical programme for fairness. That spirit of co-operation should animate our relationship with the Scottish government.”

Alexander insisted that people want to see politicians working together. The rule of the worm, the squiggling line of audience approval in the television leaders' debates, is that voters prefer political jaw-jaw to squabbling. However, the rule of the jungle is not to give any quarter to political opponents in the battle for votes.

The new Scottish Secretary’s first task in office was to phone the First Minister, Alex Salmond, and other party leaders in the Holyrood, for “amicable talks”.

But asked what his priorities were for Scotland he could give no timetable for the implementation of the Calman Commission on tax-raising powers for the Scottish parliament.

On the Barnett funding formula for Scottish expenditure, he said there was no fully worked-out agreement with the Tories to replace or update the system which is always a point of argument between the Scottish government and the Treasury.

He looked puzzled when we bowled him a question on the £200m fossil fuel levy which the Scottish government want released without the Treasury clawing the funding back from the Scottish block grant.

All he could offer was the hand of friendship, which rival parties have promised to bite hard on.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Danny Alexander and the bed of nails

Congratulations then to Danny Alexander who, though he turns 38 this Saturday, will still be the youngest Secretary of State for Scotland in living memory.

In fact he is so damn young that I can for the first time in my own short life deploy that crushing Scottish compliment: "Aye, I kent his faither".

Alexander senior - Di Alexander - earned tremendous respect across the Highlands for his campaigning and practical work on affordable housing. So, the new Secretary of State has quite a lot to live up to, even before he looks outside his family circle.

He has had a meteoric rise for someone who came to parliament in 2005. He chose wisely and hitched his wagon to Nick Clegg's star early on and became the leader's trusted chief of staff and the author of the Lib Dem manifesto.

As one of the negotiators of the historic coalition deal (funny how they all got jobs in government) and now a cabinet Minister he's already booked his berth as Lib Dem elder statesman in the years to come.

But as a Lib Dem Scottish Secretary in a Tory-led government he has his work cut out for him in the immediate future. He has been given, I reckon, the second toughest job in Scottish politics - the hardest being that of Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, who has to stand up and defend this coalition arrangement at First Minister's Questions tomorrow.

Everyone expects the Lib Dems to be slaughtered in Scotland for bearing David Cameron into Downing Street atop their eleven Scottish shields. Labour's Iain Gray accused them of making a Faustian pact with the devil. Alex Salmond just licked his lips.

Alexander's own Inverness, Badenoch, Nairn and Strathspey constituency, a three-way marginal this time, will become the hottest target seat in Scotland although he has increased his majority.

But the job of being Scottish Secretary in a hostile political environment has been done before. The late George Younger was given a miniature silver bed of nails by his diminishing band of Scottish Tory colleagues when he outlasted previous holders of the post.

Michael Forsyth seemed to enjoy himself in office, and managed some political flourishes, while being a political hate figure in Scotland.

I'm sure Lord Forsyth has his own thoughts on how the Tories can continue to govern Scotland with one MP. His English colleagues in the Lords will be wondering if the Tories could not have an overall majority in the Commons if Scotland didn't return 47 hostile Labour and SNP MPs.

Constitutional tensions will run through Alexander's entire tenure, but that kind of goes with the territory.

He comes to office bearing some gifts. He has agreement to implement the Calman Commission recommendations to increase tax-varying powers in the Scottish parliament. That's an about-turn for Annabel Goldie and her Scottish Tory MSPs, we assume.

His first order is to end the controversial detention of children at the Dungavel immigration centre in Scotland, which is the kind of civil liberties motif that might run through this coalition and was entirely missing from the tough security agenda of the Labour administration.

Money will the big argument. The Scottish block grant is already allocated for this year but there are big cuts coming down the road on top of the defence review, social security benefit cuts and everything else that's due.

The whole of Scotland, not just it's Secretary of State, will be lying on a bed of nails for years to come.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

41/28 - for Scots Lab MPs PR doesn't add up

People have openly speculated on whether we'll ever know what first drew Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to do a deal with the Conservative party.

However, going through the Daily Telegraph at the end of the longest day I found the simple explanation of why so many Scottish Labour MPs wanted to scupper any talk of a PR deal with the Lib Dems.

The Telegraph says that under the AV system the Lib Dems would now have 79 seats compared with the 57 they gained last week. The Conservatives would have 281 instead of 307 and Labour would have had 262 instead of 258.

According to the Electoral Reform Society if the single transferable vote was used in the General Election then the Conservatives would have had 246, labour 207 and Lib Dems 162.

A breakdown of the results showed that the regional imbalances that prevent the Conservatives and Labour being national parties would have been addressed.

The Conservatives would have had seven MPs in Scotland instead of just one, and would have had parity with the Lib Dems in Wales with 10 MPs each.

Meanwhile, Labour's share of the Scottish seats would have been reduced from 41 to 28, but there would have been gains in the south-east, the south-west and the east of England where they traditionally struggle.

That's what you read - Labour in Scotland would be reduced from 41 MPs to 28 MPs. End of argument as Tom Harris, the anti-PR, anti-coalition, stick in the mud Labour MP for Glasgow South might say.

But, as is becoming my mantra around the Harris judgement on so many other things, you have to say from a Labour point of view: "Tom was right".

Clegg - from third party leader to a heartbeat from power in one day

First take for the Record on a momenteous day for the Lib Dems, and the nation.

David Cameron became the first Tory Prime Minister of Britain in 13 years yesterday, borne into Downing Street on the back of Liberal Democrat votes.

The historic deal between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems bought Nick Clegg the post of Deputy Prime Minister, propelling him from the third party leader at Westminster to being a heartbeat away from running the country.

But the new government is set to usher in an Age of Austerity , with fears for savage cuts in budgets across Britain as the Tories hasten to pay off the national debt.

After an audience with the Queen, the formal kissing of hands ceremony, 43 year old David Cameron became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister in nearly two centuries.
Standing on the steps of Downing Street with his wife Samantha Cameron braced the country for "difficult decisions" ahead.

"We are going to have hard and difficult things to do," said Cameron as he prepared to lead the first coalition government in Britain into office since World War II.

He pledged that he and Nick Clegg would put aside party difference to work hard for the common good and for the national interest.

"I believe that is the best way to get the strong government that we need, decisive government that we need today."

Cameeron proimsed a proper and full coalition with the Liberal Democrats to provide strong and stable government for the country. Five Lib Dems are expected to be members of the cabinet and there will be Lib Dem Ministers in ever

"I think the service our country needs right now is to face up to our really big challenges, to confront our problems, to take difficult decisions, to lead people through those difficult decisions, so that together we can reach better times ahead.

The new coalition, dubbed a Government of All the Toffs because of Cameron and Clegg’s shared private school background, is ready to immediately wield the axe on social benefits like Child tax credits.

But it will legislate to protect civil liberties, scrap ID cards and reform the DNA database. There will be review of the Trident deterrent but a commitment to retain a nuclear defence system.

George Osborne was confirmed as Chancellor with Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable expected to join him as a Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the cabinet post in charge of efficiencies across government.

William Hague, deputy leader of the Tory party and a Eurosceptic contrast to the Lib Dems, was confirmed as Foreign Secretary and there was speculation on other posts.

Tory Michael Gove was expected to step aside from the education brief as Lib Dem David Laws took the cabinet post of Schools Secretary. The Scot also lost the Home Secretary post to a Lib Dem - that was expected to go to Chris Huhne.

The post of Scottish Secretary was set to go to Lib Dem Danny Alexander, the MP for the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. The 37 year old chief of staff to Nick Clegg faces the toughest job in Scotland where the Lib Dems are being blamed by all sides for letting the Tories back into power.

The Lib Dems have 11 MPs in Scotland compared to the one Tory, David Mundell. But Mundell, who fought a doughty election campaign, was expected to be rewarded for his efforts.

The smooth transition of power, which took barely two hours yesterday evening, came after another dramatic Westminster day of seesaw talks in which the Lib Dems negotiated with both Labour and the Tories to form a government out of last Thursday’s inconclusive general election result.

Gordon Brown finally accepted defeat in the late afternoon. He ended the New Labour era by conceding defeat on the steps of Downing Street five days after the election produced a hung parliament in which no party had an overall majority.

Speaking alongside his wife Sarah outside No 10 Downing Street, Brown said the job had been "a privilege" and wished his successor well.

Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister in June 2007 after spending ten years as his chancellor of the exchequer in one of the most effective, enduring but divided political double-acts Westminter has seen.

In an emotional farewell speech, Brown said he had "loved the job" and it had been "a privilege to serve".

"I wish the next prime minister well as he makes the important choices for the future," he said.

He added: "I loved the job for its potential to make this country I love fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just - truly a greater Britain.

"In the face of many... challenges up to and including the global financial meltdown, I have always tried to serve, to do my best in the interests of Britain, its values and its people."

His wife Sarah joined him for his brief statement which ended with the words: "Thank you and goodbye."

Then his two young sons, John and Fraser, joined their parents and walked hand in hand out of Downing Street to cars that would take them to the palace.

His departure came as the Tories and Liberal Democrats were poised to agree a deal to form a government after Labour’s own negotiations ended in failure yesterday.

As Brown went to Buckingham palace to tender his resignation the coalition deal was still subject to approval by a meeting of Lib Dem MPs and the party’s ruling Federal Executive.

If it is endorsed, without referring to the membership, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will start appointing Ministers this morning.

In return for taking the Tories into office, after 13 years and three terms of Labour government, the Lib Dems secured five cabinet seats and a minister in every Whitehall department.

The Lib Dems, who proved to me masterful negotiators, scored big in the talks and wrung several major concessions out the Tory party that was almost 20 MPs short of forming a government on its own.

The Tories have also given a pledge of a referendum on a weak form of PR, the alternative vote system, which Labour promised but the Lib Dems felt they could not deliver.

The coalition deal would introduce fixed five year terms for Westminster, a measure already in place for elections to the Scottish parliament.

But the downside of the deal is that a Tory and Lib Dem led Treasury, with George Osborne assisted by Vince Cable, could start drastic cuts in public spending as the country is just coming out of recession.

Big defence projects like the supercarriers being built in Labour held constituencies in Rosyth and Glasgow could be the first in line to be cut. If the cabinet post of the Scotland Office is filled up by a one of the 11 Lib Dem MPs returned last Thursday the party could pay a terrible electoral price for propping up the Tories in office.

Labour’s Scottish parliamentary leader Iain Gray said the Lib Dems had signed a Faustian pact with the devil himself.

He said: "Labour warned that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would only help David Cameron into Downing Street, and we were right. Scotland will pass judgement on them for this deal with the devil."

Gray added: "The great majority of Scots rejected the Tories at the election and the Liberal Democrats will pay in the months and years ahead for propping up David Cameron.

The SNP, smarting after being snubbed in the formation of an alternative progressive coalition, furiously blamed all the other parties.

Angus Robertson, the SNP Westminster leader who flew to London as a "negotiator" for the SNP delivered an angry judgement on a coalition. But senior Nats secretly welcomed as delivers them a big political mallet with which to bash the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Robertson said: "This failure will haunt the Labour Party in Scotland for years to come. Thanks to Labour’s animosity towards the SNP and their refusal even to talk to the SNP about an alternative, Scotland now has a Tory Government with a savage cuts agenda."

He added: "Unfortunately, the Lib Dems preferred a regressive alliance with the Conservatives, and Labour preferred to inflict a Tory government on the majority of voters who rejected such an administration.

Gordon Brown had to pack his bags and leave Downing Street for the last time after his audacious attempt to form an progressive alliance with the Lib Dems, that would have locked the Tories out of power, came to nothing.

Brown offered up his own resignation to broker a deal with the Lib Dems but senior Labour cabinet figures opposed the idea of a minority government coalition and the prospect of PR voting.

Yesterday afternoon he retreated to No 10 to discuss his situation with senior ministers, friends and wife Sarah. He was surrounded by his closest allies: Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson, Sue Nye, and Douglas Alexander.

Tony Blair, with whom Brown fought with bitterly when he was Chancellor for the rights to the leadership, was contacted on the phone.

Brown, Mandelson and Blair started the New Labour project, to reform the party into an electable fighting force, after a string of Labour defeats in the 80s and 90s and they ended it together yesterday.

Last night Tony Blair issued a statement paying tribute to Gordon Brown's dignity and leadership as his political career came to an end. There were no immediate plans for Brown to stand down as MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath where he has been MP for 27 years.

Brown had planned to stay in power until the summer if the deal had worked, earning himself a place in history as the man who won a historic fourth term for Labour.

However, Labour MPs and ministers reacted with anger to the attempted deal, saying they would prefer to be in opposition than in government with the Lib-Dems.

A friend of the Prime Minister said: "The deal with Clegg was just not do-able."
Lib Dem negotiators, who had opened talks with a Labour team yesterday after 48 hours of talks with the Tories, lost faith in the party’s ability to deliver all of its 258 MPs in tight votes that would deliver the Alternative Voting system.

The failure of the Lib-Lab talks was being blamed on several factors. Mr Clegg’s team asked for reassurances on tax and spending issues that Labour felt were not possible to deliver. On voting reform, Labour offered a referendum on an AV-plus system of voting in the next parliament, a time scale that the third party felt was too distant to be bankable.

Instead the Lib Dems handed the keys to power to David Cameron’s Conservatives. The deal was subject to the approval of a meeting of Lib Dem MPs last night and the it would have to be approved by the Lib Dems’ ruling body, the Federal Executive and possibly need the approval of the whole party membership.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron had another face to face meeting yesterday as Clegg came under pressure to make his mind up one way or another on a deal. The two men will be seeing a lot of each other from now on.

Tide turning towards the Tories

It's 3pm and the tide is turning again towards a Conservative and Lib Dem coalition. Lots of reasons why the topsy turvey talks are now coming back to where they started.

The Conservatives are, apparently, giving the Lib Dems virtually anything they demand - goodbye married couples tax break, hello tax break for people earning less than £10,000. Meanwhile too many in the Labour ranks think that a period of opposition is quite a good thing for them, and have undermined the Mandelson/Campbell/Adonis attempt to bring the Lib Dems aboard.

Andy Burnham, Jack Straw and others have called on Labour to "respect the results of the general election" and accept reality. You can't really describe that as Labour's oppositionalist instincts coming back to play after 13 years but I've spoken to plenty on the left who think this is a good time not to be in power. (They seem to have forgotten what 1979 heralded, 18 years of opposition, and are making a huge assumption that Labour could ever get back into power.)

With senior Labour figures torpedoing a possible deal they have denied the Lib Dems their best chance of transforming British politics.

The Lib Dems on the other hand, these Birkenstock traitors, will find themselves flossing the teeth of a Tory shark while being in office. It will be quite an uncomfortable place to be.

I dare say the hearts of many Lib Dems, many Scottish Lib Dems anyway, are not in this marriage, which might receive blessing in the next few hours. If it comes to pass and they'll find it hard to parrot their lines of loyalty in the days and weeks to come.

I've met at least one SNP MP this afternoon who was licking his lips at the prospect of a Tory/Lib Dem coalition running the Scotland Office.

So we could have the basis for a deal tonight, Cameron to the palace in the morning, a new Prime Minister and the cabinet posts shared out over Wednesday and Thursday.

Brown, you might expect, would stand down immediately and Harriet Harman, who has ruled out standing as leader takes over as caretaker. That could happen any minute now, unless Peter Mandelson has a fresh deck of cards to take to this game.

SNP - no invite to rainbow alliance

"Our plan does not involve the SNP," a senior Labour source tells me."It couldn't be clearer."

Reading the tea leaves from this morning's radio manoeuvres I wasn't holding out any hope anyway of the SNP being involved in the rainbow coalition that Labour and the Lib Dems are trying to lash together.

The SNP negotiation team - Westminster leader Angus Robertson and Stewart Hosie - have been in London since Sunday but so far the phone hasn't rung.

Douglas Alexander, Labour's campaign manager, sent them a pretty clear megaphone message in a radio interview this morning when he said the differences between Labour and the SNP are "too great" to involve the Nats in a coalition.

This is as much a signal to his own west of Scotland Labour MPs - who have a visceral hatred of the SNP - as much as to the body politic. Former Home Secretary John Reid has already said a coalition would be the self-destruct button for both parties and Tom Harris, Glasgow South, has made clear his opposition to PR.

Labour in Scotland has seen its hegemony in Scottish local authorities disappear since the Labour-Lib Dem coalition in the Scottish parliament introduced PR. There are Lib Dem and SNP cooncillors putting scooters on the lawns of Labour MPs all across Scotland and they don't like it. Two reasons there not to like coalitions or PR in elections, say Scottish Labour MPs.

Angus Robertson's smile was as wide as the Moray Firth yesterday when news of Labour-Lib Dem coalition talks came through, but the SNP "negotiator" might have just been happy because of the demise of Gordon Brown.

But while Brown has played a very clever post-election strategy to keep Labour in the game Alex Salmond booted the SNP off the park in the opening minutes.

He blundered by pushing himself forwards as the linchpin of a progressive alliance. In doing so he completely ruled out that the SNP would support the Tories. As Labour see it he has effectively boxed his party into a position where they cannot vote against a Labour-Lib coalition, if that is what comes out of today's talks.

As Paddy Ashdown said on radio this morning, a Labour-Lib Dem minority coalition will simply dare the smaller parties to vote down the government. The last time the SNP did that, in 1979, they had 11 MPs. They returned to Westminster after the election with just two.

"If they want to be part of a progressive alliance, that's great but they will not be part of a formal coalition," says the Labour source. "If they had 20 seats they might be players, but they have less than the DUP."

There is not even the mood in Labour to offer the SNP any kind of face-saving gesture, like the release of the £250m fossil fuel fund from the Treasury without a proportional reduction in the block grant.

There is even a hint from Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary, that Plaid Cymru can be brought aboard the coalition, so splitting the Celtic alliance. Tomos Livingstone, over a 07.25 to Paddington, will be better informed no doubt, but Hain did nurse the coalition deal between Plaid and Labour in the Welsh Assembly.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Brown, the Terminator, changes the game again

What an extraordinary day, and it’s not over yet. I’d just filed for the first edition of The Record as George Osborne tabled a counter-bid of a referendum on AV in a bid to keep the Lib Dems talking to the Tories.

Somehow, that might not be enough, and it risks splitting his own party on the issue while the Libs are being offered the world by Labour.

It is Gordon Brown, the Terminator,the man they could not kill, who has changed the game by pressing his self-destruct button to pave the way for a “progressive majority” that could ring in profound changes in British politics.

This is now a high-rolling poker game that is due to continue with another meeting of the Lib Dem MPs tonight.

Brown’s audacious 5pm announcement punched the Tories clean out of the ring as talks between David Cameron’s party and the Lib Dems to form a coalition showed signs of floundering.

Brown’s offer to start simultaneous talks to form a “progressive alliance”, involving Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Unionist and nationalists MPs, could usher in proportional representation voting.

The fair share voting system would change the political landscape of Britain and could see the Tories permanently out of power in Westminster.

While a minority Tory government led by David Cameron still remains an option, Labour’s serious counter-bid for power changed the game after two days of talks between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

Brown also offered the prospect of an elected House of Lords and a government that would prioritise Britain’s economic deficit as he sacrificed his own career to make the deal possible.

But nothing suits his career so well as the leaving of it. By opting to resign Gordon Brown acknowledged that he has to pay a personal price for a new kind of politics.

That alone made it possible for him to give up the office he had always coveted, and held for only three years, with his head held high.

Hague is up now and it is a referendum on Alternative Voting the Tories are offering. That’s probably as far as they can go on this, for now.

Hats off, by the way to Nyta Mann, who has spent the last week arguing with me that this is exactly how events would work out. Still a bit to go to your New Jerusalem darling, but things are moving in your direction.

Lib Dems struggle with their soul this morning

Westminster is cold and lively today in the expectation that there will be a deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

The voodoo incantation of the right wing commentators is that a deal is but a formality, but some of them have invested so heavily in Cameron that they can't consider the thought of him failing now, so read them with caution.

There is no inevitability about anything happening today but there does appear to be a certain momentum. All the vocabulary coming from either side - stability, economic certainty - point towards some kind of agreement based around an economic agenda.

But if there is no PR deal that has the potential to freeze the hearts of Lib Dem MPs and activists, who have power of veto over Nick Clegg.

It might be Nick Clegg's instinct to go in with Cameron, and in many ways that is the easiest choice too. But are other Lib Dems willing to exchange voting reform for a "pupil premium" or a few cabinet seats?

In Scotland, for example, Cameron would be delighted to have a Lib Dem Scottish Secretary (g'wan yourself, Danny) and eleven bulletproof vests as public sector budgets are slashed. But do the likes of Kennedy, Carmichael and Moore want to spend their lives as sandbagging for the Tory garrison in the north?

Anyone who takes on the role of Cameron's Highlanders will reap an anti-Tory whirlwind in next year's Scottish elections.

The reason people like Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson, and Alan Reid came into politics is to reform politics. Cut a Lib Dem and they bleed proportional representation. That's why there still has to be a glimmer of light, albeit a diminishing one, that their hearts and their obstinate hatred of the Tories will drive the into Labour's half-clasped arms.

Oh, Clegg has just come out saying he hopes talks will be concluded sooner rather than later.

But everyone might be underestimating just how wily and clever Lib Dem negotiators are. They can quite legitimately exhaust talks with the Tories, or even put them on hold after they've reached a certain stage, to see what Labour can offer although that would have some parts of the media in apoplectic fits.

Last week Labour appealed to the Lib Dems to vote with their heads not their hearts, now Brown hopes that their Liberal instincts will take over. The big Brown bear is in his cave in Downing Street with a pot of golden honey, Lib Dem colours, marked voting reform.

It's doubtful that he can tempt Nick Clegg to come his way, there are no signs of serious negotiations. It would take some courage to go into a deal with the Brown bear, the stench of political death clings to him, the bones of allies and foes who've tried to deal with him litter his cave. Good grief he chews up Rochdale pensioners as a morning snack, what would he do to the Lib Dems?

But if Clegg wrestles with him he might, just might, imbue the Labour party with the courage to tackle Brown themselves. Brown's downfall, in or out of a deal, is regared as an inevitability but it might be as messy and unsightly as watching the Lib Dems struggle to sell their PR souls in exchange for power with Cameron.

The groundwork for the glittering prize, PR reform, is impossible to achieve in less than two years according to the naysayers. But then, has anyone seen an easy road to parliamentary reform?

A Lib Dem deal with the Tories is odds on and one with Labour is almost a mathematical and political impossibility. But there will be Lib Dems this morning, some of them the Scottish MPs who'll be in the frontline of trench warfare, who will be drawn to Labour, It would be a difficult deal, it would cause schism and heartache, but it might, just might, change politics for ever. After all, if the Lib Dems are not for voting reform, what are they for at all?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

"Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night"

I've never seen anything like it at a UK election. A massive, congo snake of people queuing outside my local polling station to vote this evening.

There's talk of turn out being close to 70 per cent, which would be phenomenal. (Mind you, my constituency is Bethnal Green and Bow where ballot stuffing means turn out could be 120%)

Job done, I'm reporting for duty at my Westminster desk and I realise I'm ending the campaign where I started it, and where I spent almost the entire time - in front of a computer screen and a television.

I've covered every other election on the road and I've been deeply frustrated this time to be flying a desk, or I was until I read Andrew Sparrow's excellent final dispatch on his Guardian live blog last night.

Andy's been typing about 14,000 words a day (I know, incredible) since the beginning of the campaign. Although he argued too that the best place to be was out meeting voters he's concluded that with rolling news, twitter, blogs, popping to a press conference and getting the occasional phonecall from the frontline he's been as close to the modern general election as it is possible to be.

Each election campaign I've covered has become more and more of a televisual event and this one, with the three live debates, the process has reached it's zenith. That means that you'd hardly know there was an election going on in lots of constituencies as phonebanks take over from door knocking.

But if the turnout at my polling station was anything to go by the television, and the momentous nature of this election, has boosted interest.

I'm also struck that after all that 24/7 media absorption - starting at dawn with Today/Aithris na Maidne and ending long after that crash edit into Newsnicht Scotland - I still don't know who will be the winner tomorrow morning.

I've read, watched, twittered, blogged, swingometered and seat projected my way through the last four weeks and, like everyone else, I end up clueless about how things will be a few hours from now. Exciting isn't it?

Tom Harris has already got the quote of the day from Bette Davis in All About Eve: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night".

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Reading tea leaves/polls at T minus 24

With just 32 hours to go before the polling stations open the 2010 campaign looks like going to the wire.

Wednesday's daily ComRes poll for the Independent shows party support had remained static with the Tories on 37 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent and the Lib Dems on 26 per cent. This would make the Tories the largest party but short of a majority.

This poll gives the Conservatives 294 seats - 32 short of an overall majority – Labour 251 seats and Liberal Democrats 74.

These voting intention figures are identical to figures from ComRes yesterday – the first time during the election campaign that figures have remained unchanged. Comfort there for Cameron through the night.

But in a dramatic turn around the daily Yougov poll for the Sun showed the Lib Dem bubble had burst and that Labour, although second, would be the largest party at Westminster.

The poll gave the Tories 35 per cent (no change), Labour up two to 30 per cent and the Lib Dems falling four points to 24 per cent.

This would give Labour 277 seats, the Conservatives 269 and the Lib Dems 72 MPs and leave Westminster on a knife edge on Friday morning.

Remember, though, remember something quite different could be happening in the marginal seats and take note of this.

ComRes found that a third of people admit they may change their mind about how they will vote on Thursday, with Liberal Democrat voters being more likely than supporters of the other two main parties to switch.

I'm told that there's a Yougov poll for the Scotsman but it is embargoed. When they publish it, I'll link it.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Gordon Brown - speech of the campaign

Win, lose or draw these ten minutes in front of Citizens' UK in the Methodist Central Hall today will go down as Gordon Brown's most impassioned performance ever, and the speech of the 2010 election campaign.

It has everything - emotion, history, family, faith - even a protester mounting the stage.

You cannot make a speech like this every day, and the danger is that historically it may become an echo of another great Labour speech, Neil Kinnock's "I warn you not be ordinary..." on the eve of the 1983 election.

But let's leave history for later. This is him - Gordon Brown, heart and soul bared, fighting for what he believes.

These tea leaves in full - Tories still short

With just 48 hours to go the election race remains open, with most polls pointing to a hung parliament.

Three different polls tonight show slow deflation in the Lib Dem bubble and while the Tories are still ahead, they will not get an overall majority.

A daily ComRes poll for the Independent and ITV showed the Tories on 37%, down one point on the day, Labour on 29%, up one, and the Lib Dems on 26%, up one, and Others on 8%.

This poll would give the Tories 294 seats - 32 short of an overall majority - with Labour on 251 seats and the Liberals on 74. Close, but no dice.

Another daily Yougov poll, for the Sun, left the Tories 49 seats short of a majority despite being on 35%, with Labour and the Lib Dems on 28% each. This means a Labour-Lib Dem coalition could still outflank the Tories on Friday morning.

A poll by Opinium, for the Express, left the Tories on 33%, Labour on 29% and the Lib Dems on 28% - enough to make Labour the largest party in the parliament.

Bank holiday weekend polling is prone to more fluctuation we're told, which might explain why the Tories are low and Labour higher in the Express poll.

One final, and very important poll. The Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll of marginal seats showed Labour and Tories neck and neck on 36% , up one point for the Tories and down two points for Labour in a fortnight.

This would produce a 7% swing in support to the Conservatives from Labour compared with the last general election in 2005, that could leave Cameron with a slim, two seat majority.

The election is won and lost in the marginals, and this poll seems to indicate, for the first time, that David Cameron might sneak it home on Thursday night.

If there are higher than average swings in the marginals, if the Labour vote is not motivated to come out and if the Lib Dem election machine has not caught up sufficiently with Cleggmania to identify and get its potential support to the polls, then David Cameron will win - narrowly. On the other hand...

Labour’s Peter Mandelson insisted it was a dead heat to the finish post. He said: "This race remains a three-horse race, whatever David Cameron may claim. One thing is clear - the electoral arithmetic means only two parties can form the next government and give Britain its prime minister: Labour or Tory, Gordon Brown or David Cameron."

Big Society? Tell me again,what is that?

Labour has produced a quite witty viral video on what the Tory idea for a Big Society would mean in reality - public services abandoned to the voluntary sector.

If you go to the Labour website you can personalise it and send it to your mates who might be swithering.

Labour also gave us a preview of their final night election broadcast, fronted in England by tough guy Ross Kemp and in Scotland by Richard Wilson.

If Tutti Frutti had just been on TV Richard Wilson might have been a good idea but we automatically associate the actor with the term "one foot in the grave". (which is where...geddit?)

Anyway, in interior decorating news, polling evidence is mixed today, but there are figures coming through this evening showing that David Cameron shouldn't measure the curtains for Downing Street.

"It was me and my Da against the world"

Apparently it's Bank Holiday sunny in Glasgow today, though it feels like February on the banks of the Thames.

If you're at a loose end on the Clyde, wondering when you'll get round to washing the windows, you could do worse than listen to Robert Carlye's incredible podcast about growing up in Glasgow that's on the Daily Record website today.

There's an edited version in the paper but Carlye telling his own childhood story - abandoned by his mother at the three, of growing up in destitution with his father as life unraveled - makes for a very moving memoir. "It was me and my Da against the world," he says.

Carlye takes you on journey from the east end of Glasgow to the west, and from there to London and Brighton, weaving in how all that happened informed his work from Full Monty to Hamish MacBeth.

I don't often hang around for the duration of podcast but this is worth the listen all the way to the end, even the sentimental parts. And this is not a plug for the paper, or Johnnie Walker who sponsor the series, it's just a signpost to an extraordinary story.