Friday 30 January 2009

A smile at last from Broon.

Big laughs as Big Gordon's phone goes off at Davos while he's droning on about the world in 2009. Click through to see it.

The odd thing is that, off-script, the Prime Minister instantly lights up the room but then goes back to his dour public image just as quickly. His aides should call him more often.

Thursday 29 January 2009

A good day to bury bad news.

While all the hoo-ha is going on over the £33 billion Scottish budget or, as Margo MacDonald accurately described it, the allocation of the block grant from Westminster, the Scottish government has quietly released its booze bill for the last year.

You can see it in its full glory here and decide for yourself if you accept the plea from Ministers that they spent considerably less than the last lot on hospitality.

I'm disappointed that at the Christmas media reception esteemed colleagues in the Scottish parliamentary lobby only managed to slosh £471 of booze down their gullets. These people didn't join the lobby to show such restraint. Equally I'm impressed that the Justice department managed to lose the invoice for a reception for Sheriffs and JPs. Whose round was it?

Update: Some wag has told me that the "media reception" was actually the bill for drinks with my good friend Alan Cochrane but I don't believe that, the figure's still too low.

Angus of the Glens swats a Clegg away.

Herald sketch for Prime Minister's Questions

WANT to know why the LibDems are languishing at 16% in the polls, four points lower that when Nick Clegg became leader? The answer lies in the question, which is something Mr Clegg doesn’t seem capable of framing.

It is tough being leader of a minority party, and making an impact at Prime Minister’s Questions is not easy. But with the two big boys slugging it out on the economy there was yesterday what tacticians call “an opportunity”.

The government is deeply embarrassed over allegations that four Labour peers were willing to pocket cash for amendments. It has brought “sleaze” to Mr Brown’s doorstep. So, naturally, Mr Clegg got up in parliament and attacked the Tories.

When it came to his turn Mr Clegg asked the Prime Minister if it was right that peers “in the Upper House can use their status as nondomiciled, non-residents to get out of paying their full taxes here in this country?”

Eh? Political watchers guessed it was a reference to the Tory peers and funders, Lords Ashcroft and Laidlaw, but not many other people would. For Mr Brown the answer was as easy as the embarrassment was deep for Mr Clegg. “Yes, of course it’s not right,” concurred the Prime Minister as Clegg’s shot at goal went way wide.

Sitting next to him, Chris Huhne, who could have been leader instead of Clegg but for 511 votes, stared straight ahead, knowing he must display no reaction.
Others did though. My goodness, Charles Kennedy, like the ghost of Tom Joad behind the Serjeant at Arms, was trying to catch the Speaker’s eye after that. I bet he didn’t want to ask why Question Time is in Fort William this week without him on the panel.

But who would pin the Prime Minister down on the brewing scandal in the Lords? A Tory tried but he bounced off the baying praetorian guard led by Dennis Skinner.

Then SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson, a tie the length of a Lossiemouth runway and his hair combed like an Aberlour distillery man on the way to church, rose to his feet.

“In 1997 the Prime Minister said he relished the prospect of abolishing the unaccountable and unelected members of the House of Lords,” thundered Angus of the Glens, as if he had been watching Braveheart (again).

“Why is it after 12 years of a Labour government we still have an unelected chamber, double standards on financial disclosure and no way of removing peers who break the law?”

In a nutshell he laid the problem at the feet of the Prime Minister, who expressed indignation and hid behind the ermine reforms trailed by the Lords leader in another place earlier in the day.

The Commons cheered Mr Robertson and Clegg twisted on his seat to see the reaction on the face of his nemesis. Mr Huhne stared straight ahead, inscrutable. Angus of the Glens looked pleased with himself though, as minority party leaders are when they do their job properly.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

English happy with Scots funding - they must be "confused" say SNP.

Some mirth in Room Two of the Press Gallery, the Scottish and Welsh room, on the (belated) arrival of the SNP response to the British Social Attitudes Survey, trailed in the news last night as showing "a third of people in England thought that Scotland receives more than its fair share of cash".

Pete Wishart MP, the SNP’s Westminster Constitutional Affairs Spokesperson, thinks this piece of non-news shows "a great deal of confusion exists in England about how Scotland is governed".

I know this won't please the Simon Heffers or the Daily Mail newsdesk but if two thirds of English people think that Scotland receives a fair share of UK cash doesn’t that count as an expression of Anglo satisfaction, not confusion?

"The reality is that Scotland more than pays its own way in the UK," states Mr Wishart. "That is proved by the most recent analysis in the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) report, which shows that Scotland had a budget surplus of £837 million in 2006-07, compared to a UK deficit of £4.3 billion."

Shh Pete, or you might persuade the other third of English people that they’re getting too good a deal from the Union.

Stooshie over drugs policy

There were angry exchanges in the House of Commons last night during the reading of the Welfare Reform Bill over the lack of co-operation between the Scottish government and the UK Department of Work and Pensions.

A fresh inter-governmental row is brewing over proposals within the bill to withhold social security payments from drug addicts unless they agree to undertake treatment courses. Although the benefits system is reserved to Westminster and the UK government makes policy for the whole of the country the Scottish Government controls drugs treatment in Scotland and it is using this area to block the UK government’s attempts to change the system.

In the Commons last night Stirling MP Anne McGuire, a former Pensions Minister, attacked that stance. "I cannot for the life of me understand why the administration in Scotland cannot see the importance of offering tailored support to drug users on benefits to help them get into work."

John Mason, the new SNP member for Glasgow East, intervened: "The Scottish government is very keen to work along with the UK government on these issues. The people choosing the fight have been the people in the DWP."

Earlier Work and Pensions Minister James Purnell accused the SNP of blocking the UK-wide policy by refusing to help Westminster collate all the relevant information. "The Scottish government’s policy is to oppose this on ethical grounds and our ethical position is that money should not go from the taxpayer to drug dealers it should be going to get people better."

Mr Mason asked the Minister to accept that the Scottish government was at the forefront of treating drugs. "We believe that it should be medical need whether people get treatment not whether they are on benefits."

Mr Purnell said people had to wait a year to get treatment because the SNP government had not invested sufficiently in treatment programmes.

In his speech Mr Mason said that the drug problem in Scotland had been managed in the past, not tackled. "People are now supported to get right off drugs which is the only answer." He added that the Scottish government "spent £29.5 million on drugs (treatment), rising to £32.5 million in the next year which is evidence of a clear commitment."

Monday 26 January 2009

The Weimar Republic on the Clyde

Just back from Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper, which is bit of misnomer. Sometimes you do sleep on the train but sometimes you just lurch your way through the night from Crewe to Euston. Anyway, I had a good time in Glasgow at Film 's Craic, a Gaelic tv mini-festival within Celtic Connections.

The late-night Celtic Connections Club, at its usual venue in the Central Hotel, was a surreal affair this year. The huge station hotel has been taken into administration, effectively it has shut down. But the ceilidh continues upstrairs in the cavernous Logie Baird hall, with some of the best bands at the festival doing a turn on stage to huge, appreciative audiences.

In the packed corridors, that look more than ever like a set from the Shining now that every second light bulb has been removed from the chandeliers, there are informal music sessions, flowing beer stands, arguments, greetings and the usual carousing.

There was no hot water, no heating and outside an economic hurricane was approaching but people were dancing and throwing money over the bar for pints of weak lager as if it were the last days of the Wiemar Republic. It was Bob Fosse's Cabaret meets Ceilidh, on the banks of the Clyde. Divine decadence, darling.

Speaking of decadent behaviour my Celtic cousin in the Press Gallery, Tomos Livingstone of the Western Mail, has spotted that RBS - that is we the taxpayers - have agreed to sponsor the Six Nations Rugby Tournament from the end of this upcoming tournament until 2013. The deal is worth £20 million over the next four years. With RBS some £28 million in red where is the money coming from, asks Tomos?

His blog, 07.25 to Paddington, is always worth a read.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

The return of Bagpuss

PMQ sketch, Herald Wednesday 21 Jan.

How is it possible for a thin man to have such a large shadow? Next to George Osborne on the Conservative front benches yesterday sat Ken Clarke. That’s the “shadow, Shadow Chancellor” jibed the Prime Minister, which raised a laugh even from Mr Clarke who’s been around and back enough times to spot a scripted gag when he sees one.

There a trend for comebacks right now. Peter Mandelson is back in government we know, although his lordship was not hanging upside down from the rafters of the Commons chamber yesterday, as he has taken to doing during daylight hours on Wednesdays.

In our cinemas Mickey Rourke is back as “The Wrestler”, his body having worn better than his face in the intervening years. Now Ken Clarke is back on the Tory front bench, his body and demeanour completely unaltered by nine years languishing on the green benches, smoking cigars and generally having a good time.

If Saturday afternoon wrestling comes back to ITV, or if Ofcom allow them to start broadcasting it instead of regional news opt-outs, Mr Clarke could go for the part of Big Daddy. Yesterday he sat, where he has always thought he ought to sit, looking like the cat that got the cream. Actually, more like the cat from the children’s television series, Bagpuss.

How pleased he looked to be back in his old role as “the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical, saggy, old cloth cat in the whole, wide world”.

Bagpuss, although he has the title role, doesn’t play a major part in most of the stories as I remember. He is content to lie on his rug and listen to the songs the others sing as they identify and repair the “thing” that Emily brings in. That is just what Mr Clarke did as he watched the other characters sing and shout about the thing to fix this week, which was, as it is every week in the Commons, the economy.

On a rival channel a new superhero cartoon, imported from America, Obamaman, offers some hope. But the chamber, which had just 13 MPs present on Tuesday during the inauguration ceremony, was kind of Obama-ed out so Mr Brown’s opening bat about the president not urging his fellow Americans “let’s do nothing” only scored one point.

Ken Clarke chuckled but David Cameron wasn’t going to be beaten by a jokes as weak the British currency, even if the PM was laughing openly at him. He got back up and asked another angry question about the economy. Mr Brown did what he does every week now on the economy, what no good children’s TV presenter should do, he patronised Mr Cameron. “I think I should explain to him, and he has got the benefit now of having a new, shadow Shadow Chancellor to help him...” Cue uproar.

Ken Clarke liked that one too but the Slim Jim beside him, George Osborne, just stared at David Cameron’s script notes as the Prime Minister droned to an end. Sure enough there was a gag written there.

“I’m delighted he’s mentioned the Right honourable member for Rushcliffe ,” said Mr Cameron, all faux nonchalance. “The difference between this former chancellor (Bagpuss) and that former chancellor (the Shopkeeper from Mr Benn) is that this one left a golden legacy and that one wrecked it.” He shoots, and kicks Bagpuss into the back of the government net. That was worth two points surely.

“He’s failed to get the banks lending again,” said Mr Cameron now in his stride about the £37 billion recapitalisation and the bank crashes. “Simple maths, as things stand the taxpayer has lost £20 billion.”

That niggled Mr Brown: “They should really grow up. The point of the recapitalisation of the banks was to stop them collapsing. What is his alternative to the capitalisation of his banks?” Big mistake.

“If you‘re asking us questions,” quipped Mr Cameron, “have an election.”
His own side loved it. The mice in the church organ woke up, Gabriel the Toad burst into song and Professor Yaffle, the distinguished old Tory woodpecker waved his order paper around. Oh Bagpuss, what a lot of attention you can generate just by sitting in the shop window.

Tender Words

David Mundell MP, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, has today launched his Private Member’s Bill which will require all providers of goods or services in the UK which accept Bank of England notes to accept Scottish banknotes on an equal basis.

Personally I've never found this a problem, although many retailers think that Scottish £10 notes are the most frequently forged notes in the UK apparently. Outside the metropolis it is sometimes an issue though.

Between lunch and inauguration duties yesterday I interviewed Mr Mundell about his proposals:

TC: What is the bill about and why are you bringing it forward?

David Mundell: The bill is about the vexed issue of Scottish bank notes being accepted in England and indeed elsewhere in the UK. It is an issue, sometimes just a perception, but it does annoy and offend many Scots that when they go to pay in England with Scots notes that the veracity and the legitimacy of their money is questioned.

What I want to do is make sure that any outlet, any retailer that accepts English notes or indeed Northern Ireland notes will be under an obligation to accept Scottish notes unless they have some reasonable suggestion that they are not genuine. It’s an attempt to clarify the issue for people using Scots notes but also for retailers as well. Retailers can be sure that if they accept these notes that they will be just as valid as any other.

TC : What actual obligations will the bill place on retailers?

DM: The bill will place an obligation on retailers to accept Scots notes where other notes are accepted. Actually, what we’ve discovered is that it is up to retailers what they choose to accept. People will have seen that some retailers don’t accept cheques, some don’t accept credit cards, some don’t accept notes above £50. We can’t make it the legal position that Scottish notes have to be accepted, what we can say is that if the equivalent English or Northern Ireland notes is accepted the Scottish ones have to be accepted as well. You could characterise it as an anti-discrimination measure.

TC: And one that gets around the very complex issue of what is legal tender?

DM: There are a lot of legal views on what is legal tender in different parts of the United Kingdom. Rather than get involved in a bill that is a wholesale re-appraisal of the legal status of currency I felt it was better to go forward with a short, simple bill which, with good will actually stands a chance of being enacted.

TC: Goodwill? What level of support do you have in the Conservative party and across the Commons for this idea?

DM: David Cameron is personally in support. He’s previously spoken in Scotland about the issue of Scottish notes being accepted. He sees it as part of the issue of mutual respect within the United Kingdom, and part of the respect agenda that he has set out in relation to how a Conservative government would govern in Scotland. But I hope that the bill will command wide support among individual members of the House of Commons and within different parties.

I’m not expecting a clear run from the Treasury, not the politicians, but the mandarins who are opposed to any change in the status quo. But I do hope members from all sides will support a measure that affects all Scots MPs' constituents.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

The History Man

For today's Herald.

FOR a world facing the most fearful economic storm in a lifetime, for a country weary of war, for a generation at an environmental crossroads, it was a day freighted not just with expectation but with a genuine sense of history in the making.

When President Barack Hussain Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in Washington shortly after mid-day yesterday he took command of a nation longing for change and a planet yearning for new stewardship.

By simply being who he is, by shattering the barrier of race and prejudice as the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama has become an American icon. He took his most solemn oath of office on the steps of the Capitol, the alter of American democracy built by slaves, clenching the same Bible used at the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the president who ended slavery.

In Washington the icy streets filled up before dawn with revellers from Tampa, Florida, from San Rafael, California, from sea to shining sea. They came to stamp their feet against the cold and shed tears of joy at the biggest inauguration ever. From the moment the subway started running at 4am the train carriages were standing room only. The inauguration drew up to two million people. Security was unprecedented as the capital braced for the logistical headaches of closing streets and bridges for the day and night party that was to follow.

Hundreds of thousands of people, swaddled against the cold, packed Washington’s Mall, stretching two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. It made for an awesome televisual image, a sea of people waving American flags on the cold, grassy mall for hours before Mr Obama was due to be sworn in. No camera had the focal length to take in the full panorama of the crowd that had come to be part of history.

Half a world away, in dusty schoolyards in Kenya, they roasted goat and danced barefoot for their own son. From Indonesia to Hawaii they celebrated their part in the Obama story. At the United Nations complex, overlooking the freezing Danube River in Vienna, someone wrote “Yes, we can” in giant letters in the snow.

And in Moneygall, a small village on the Offaly-Tiperrary border, the buildings were adorned in red, white and blue bunting because, as the Corrigans assured us in song: “O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’Hare and O’Hara, there’s no one as Irish as Barack O’bama”.

With a DNA pattern that is a scriptwriter’s dream the 47 year old son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas was sworn in with full ceremony a few minutes late and serenaded by Aretha Franklin and a John Williams score. As he did so, to deafening applause, he became a living symbol of emancipation for African Americans, whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic in chains and who for generations were bound in slavery then segregation.

Among the honoured guests were veterans from the civil rights campaign including former students who enrolled in Little Rock high school in 1957 to confront segregation. None of them would pretend one man can unravel the twisted legacy of America but all of them knew, as the voice of Luther King’s dream echoed off the walls of the Capitol, that this was their day in history.

As the page turned the outgoing President George W Bush left a note for Mr Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office, as is traditional. The theme of the message - which Mr Bush wrote on Monday - is the same as what he has said since election night: that Obama is about to begin a “fabulous new chapter” in the United States, and that he wished him well.

The unfinished business of the Bush administration thrusts an enormous burden onto the new President who comes into office with high expectations that he is on the track to succeed, that he is a President who can make history. After a nervous, slightly fluffed, swearing in the new president kissed his wife Michelle and his children and turned to the podium.

Previous Obama speeches have been exercise in dazzling, of-the-momemnt oratory that when panned afterwards for gold turn up few memorable nuggets. This one had a rock-hard message for America to pick itself up and head for renewal. His is a presidency born in a storm and in “a winter of hardship” he called on Americans to rise to the challenge. To the rest of the world he offered the hope of new leadership and to Amercian enemies, “on the wrong side of history”, he offered to extend a hand “if you are willing to unclench your fist,”

A gifted speaker, Obama had to both raise and contain the hopes of millions as he outlined a new course for the United States. He managed to do it with a dignity, a touching humility - these priceless intangibles of character - and with a confidence that drew on the spirit of America’s founding fathers.

Obama’s presidency puts Democrats firmly in charge of Washington. They will control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994. Though the new leader faces monumental challenges he has been granted a honeymoon, and perhaps even his victory, by the bitter legacy of policies left by George W Bush, who departed from the capital last night as one of the nation’s most unpopular and divisive presidents.

The change that America ached for has finally come but in the old words, having campaigned in poetry President Obama has to govern in prose. The challenge of being shepherd to the free world starts this morning but with most of the world, for once, giving its blessing to America.

No other age, no other nation and no other system could throw up someone as uniquely equipped to take America forward as Barack Hussain Obama. No one else could be so global in their inheritance and their vision and yet so able to inspire this patriotic, still-young nation on the next stage of its journey.

“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” Here he comes, the History Man.

Stornoway Black Pudding - latest.

The banking world might be going to hell in a handbag and Barack Obama might be about to make history this afternoon but at least some politicians have maintained a proper sense of priorities.

Rhoda Grant MSP is on her way to Brussels today to safeguard the good name of the Stornoway Black Pudding, the spicy marag sausage that is much admired and unfortunately much copied in an inferior way by mainland butchers

Rhoda, a Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, and Stornoway butcher Iain MacLeod are meeting today with the EU Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development to discuss geographical protection for the product. This would give it label protection on a par with Parma Ham and champagne.

Ms Grant is confident of success. "This campaign has already attracted enormous interest with over 1,500 signatures being collected," she says. "The benefits of geographical protection are that the pudding can't be copied and the brand's profile will be ensured and protected. It will also give the butchers concerned the opportunity to raise their profile and hopefully expand into new markets."

There are four butchers in Stornoway who produce the black pudding, which is acknowledged as a quality product and available in reputable retailers throughout the land. Do not be fooled by the mainland copy referred to a 'Stornoway style' black pudding.

I know what they mean.

The papers are full of global banking gloom this morning and particularly the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

I can't read German but I think we all get the gist of this newspaper headline.

Monday 19 January 2009

Raasay House in ashes

Terrible news in the Herald this morning about the fire that destroyed Raasay House in the early hours of Sunday morning. The 18th century mansion house, home to the Raasay Outdoor Centre, was in the process of being restored and was due to be handed over to the outdoor centre and the community in April. Now it stands a smouldering hulk.

The photos from Paul Camilli's excellent Raasay blog, Life at the end of the road, tell the whole story in dramatic pictures and the comments posted there express just how much of tragedy this is for the islanders and the many people who visit.

I had a look around the outside of the building at New Year when I was on Raasay and the standard of workmanship on the window restoration alone looked exceptional. Lyn Rowe, the managing director of the outdoor centre, sounded determinedly optimistic in the Herald about rebuilding. Right now she, and everyone else, is just thankful that no one was injured in the blaze.

Raasay House has risen from the ashes before. It was burnt to the ground by Hanovarian troops in 1747 in retribution for MacLeod of Raasay's support for Bonnie Prince Charlie. When Boswell and Johnson stayed during their celebrated tour of the Hebrides in 1773 it had been fully rebuilt in a “neat modern fabrick”.

The new Raasay community hall, just completed along the road from Raasay House is a great example of a new building in “neat modern fabrick”. It looks amazing and, in common with most of east side of the island, benefits from stunning views of Skye.

A small point in the circumstances but with Raasay House in ashes, the Raasay Hotel currently without a licence and Raasay Stores giving up its off-licence service in September the island is in danger of becoming dry.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Ken "King of the Timelords" is back

Ken Clarke, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the biggest beasts in the Westminster jungle, is to return to frontline politics as Shadow Business Secretary.

The return of Mr Clarke to shadow Peter Mandelson, another “Timelord” politician brought back into government by Gordon Brown, brings to an end weeks of speculation about a Conservative Shadow cabinet refshuffle.

The appointment of Mr Clarke, at the age of 68, to replace Alan Duncan, is considered a high risk strategy for Conservative leader David Cameron. Mr Duncan will be moved to another senior post in the party. Caroline Spelman, the party chairman facing investigation into her use of Commons expenses, could be a victim of the reshuffle.

Mr Clarke carries an enormous amount of political and economic respect but his appointment will open a rift with Euro-sceptic Tory MPs who bitterly oppose him. Mr Cameron also runs the of risk alienating his friend and shadow Chancellor George Osborne although last night Conservatives were briefing that the deal to bring Mr Clarke in from the cold was done at the Shadow Chancellor’s insistence and the deal was sealed at his home on the weekend.

Mr Clarke brings the knowledge and experience of bringing Britain out of the last recession in the 1990s but he also has a reputation for causing trouble. He has been rejected three times as leader of the party because of his pro-European views.

The leadership and the new shadow business secretary have agreed to disagree on the issue and Mr Clarke will maintain a vow of silence. If so that would be an incredible feat that Mr Clarke has never maintained in his political career so far.

Mr Clarke was appointed to parliament in 1970, a year before George Osborne was born, and he took his first ministerial post in 1979. He held every major Cabinet post except the premiership before the Tories' defeat in 1997 and has been on the backbenches ever since.

Most recently he antagonised colleagues by endorsing some Labour policies, including Gordon Brown's move to cut VAT to boost the economy.

In a weekend interview with the Guardian in which he said he was "excited" by the prospect of returning to the front bench, Mr Clarke ruffled more feathers by questioning Tory plans to offer tax cuts at the next election, suggesting that to do so was “asking for trouble”.

Mr Cameron’s re-shuffle comes as two opinion polls re-enforced the Conservative lead over the government. A YouGov poll on Sunday put the Conservatives on 45 per cent up four points on last month, 13 points ahead of Labour who were down three on 32 per cent. A ComRes poll put the Tory lead at nine points.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Busy Bobby

Busy day for Lord Mandelson, starting very early on the Today programme and then facing the assembled ranks of the media at 8.30am to outline government plans for a £20 billion of loans to help small businesses survive the economic downturn.

Central to the long-awaited plan is a £10bn Working Capital Scheme designed to help banks lend much needed capital to small businesses. The government will provide guarantees on 50% of £20bn short term loans to businesses with a turnover of up to £500m.

He batted questions away easily and said he was determined that the scheme would not be abused. "I am absolutely confident that they will produce real results for UK companies," said Mandelson

With a theatrical flourish Lord Mandelson then introduced Mervyn Davies, the chairman of Standard Chartered Bank, who has been was appointed a new minister in the Business Department, which is becoming a branch office of the House of Lords. There are now three peers - Mandelson, Baroness Vadera and now Lord Davies - in its ministerial ranks.

Lord Mandelson shook the new Lord warmly by the hand in front of the clicking cameras, declaring the banker was happy to take the Labour whip. The Government would value Mr Davies’s expertise and experience in helping to tackle the current financial crisis he said.

A quick trot then across to the Commons and Committee Room 15 where he was in front of the Business and Enterprise Committee, some of whom had a thing or two to say about departmental accountability to the House of Commons. Short of holding a general election Lord Mandelson couldn’t think of any way to get Mr Davies’s talents into government quicker.

There was a good old ding-dong with Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle over the plans to bring private capital into the Royal Mail operation. The government faces a major rebellion on this with 66 Labour MPS having signed an early day motion opposing the idea - Dundee West MP Jim McGovern, who resigned as a PPS over the plan, and Michael Connarty among them.

Mandelson used the platform to send out the message that he opposed privatisation and to warn that the Tories would do worse than bring in a minority partner. "It (Royal Mail) will remain part of the public sector and in my view must do so if we are going to sustain the universal service obligation, the delivery to all parts of the country at one price."

I’ve left the committee hearing to write this but he’s still in there answering questions on subsidies to the car industry and toying with Tories on the committee played with the Tories on the return on Ken Clarke to the shadow cabinet. There’s a lot of speculation on Tory reshuffles not helped by David Cameron hailing William Hague as his number two. Politically that's a kick in the groin for George Osborne .

Anyway back to Mandy. After the committee appearance, where he looks to be swatting the questions away, he’ll look in on PMQs and he has meetings with these disgruntled Labour MPs on the Royal Mail in the afternoon.

Update - Mandy has popped up at PMQs, as he always does now, sitting in the Peers’ gallery. The first bout of the year was a bit of a re-thread all round. Cameron accused Brown of copying his policies on business loans, Brown accused the Tories of being the "do nothing party" and Nick Clegg popped up with some economic advice he had last given in November.

Mandy stayed on for an urgent question on his business loan plans and to hear Shadow Business Secretary Alan Duncan condemn his "contempt" for the Commons by leaking the plans last night, being interviewed about them at dawn, briefing the press in the morning and only issuing a statement to parliament. Water of a duck's back for the dark Lord.

Monday 12 January 2009

Baby debt from the Tories

I’m just back from the launch of the Conservative’s new poster on Labour’s “debt crisis” and pinch me if that wasn’t the false start of a Tory General Election campaign.

Several hundred supporters, journalists and camera crews were present for the grand unveiling in the cavernous hall of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Given that these billboards are usually launched on the side of a lorry in supermarket carpark it was a slick presentation with George Osborne and David Cameron hammering home the message that Labour has bust the bank and is “borrowing its way out of debt”.

The poster, about the size of a juggernaut, features a photograph of a baby and the slogan: “Dad’s nose, mum’s eyes, Gordon Brown’s debt - Labour debt crisis: Every child in Britain is born owing £17,000. They deserve better.” It will be shown at 260billboard sites across the country.

As the double act spoke a giant digital counter was projected onto a side wall showing “Labour’s debt crisis - live”. The figures whizzed up though £682,113,859,000 at the rate of about £20,000 a second while Mr Cameron explained that under the Conservatives the counter would go, well at a slightly slower rate.

Mr Cameron said that with national debt set to top £1 trillion in several years’ time the poster was an extremely powerful, important and responsible message. “Labour are getting it wrong. It’s easy for politicians to talk about tax rates and borrowing as if there was no tomorrow, but there is a tomorrow and it is going to be paid for by our children,” he said.

Cameron on television on Sunday said he thought the chances of a 2009 election were 50/50. Today the Conservatives looked as if they thought the odds had narrowed substantially. There’s a regular meeting of Labour MPs in the Commons tonight at which Mr Brown will probably put the troops on an election footing just to put the wind up the Tories a bit more.

David Evennet MP seems to be first off the mark with the campaign on his own personal website so you can watch it there along with the voters of Bexleyheath and Crayford.