Wednesday 27 May 2009

Cameron- populist or political radical?

Herald 27/05/09

Tapping into the widespread public anger over Westminster expenses the party leaders have started battling it out over who can be toughest on their errant MPs and who can be most radical in reforming parliament. Yesterday David Cameron called for a radical redistribution on of power "from the political elite to the man and the woman in the street." Many of the ideas are not new and if implemented the proposals could change politics, sometimes in some unexpected ways.Herald 27/05/09

Fixed term parliaments

Choosing the date to go to the country is the ultimate privilege of the Prime Minister and gives a huge inbuilt advantage to the government. David Cameron would consider ending the right of Downing Street to control a general election but he combines this with strident callsfor an early election. Not everyone in the Conservative Party is convinced by the new rhetoric and in 2007 Mr Cameron himself talked about the disadvantages of a fixed term parliament after Labour changed leaders without a new mandate.

Fixed-term parliaments do make it difficult to get rid of governments but standing orders at Holyrood allow for an interruption of Scottish Parliament’s fixed four year cycle. A Scottish government could be brought down only if two thirds of MSPs vote to dissolve parliament. If no other First Minister can be chosen within time, and the expectation is this would happen, then there would be an early general election. The Lib Dems have consistently supported fixed terms for Westminster and it was a Labour party policy until 1992. Canada, which has a similar system to Westminster, changed to fixed term parliaments in 2006 but the Conservative government flouted the rule, called an early election - and won. The lesson seems to be that changing the rules does not change the culture of politics.

Reduce the number of MPs

Mr Cameron has previously wants to cut the number of MPs by at least 10 per cent by redrawing of constituency boundaries. The average electorate in Conservative-won constituencies was 72,950 against Labour’s 66,802 and evening out the number of voters per constituency would, it is estimated, favour the Conservatives by about 20 seats.

Mr Cameron would require legislation to reduce the number of MPs and would be open to the charge of gerrymandering. The process, involving Boundary Commissions in four nations and public consultation, would take two parliamentary terms so the effort, to get rid of 60 MPs, would be considerable. An unwanted by-effect is that smaller party groupings are easier to control by the whips. The Boundary Commission for Scotland completed a review of Westminster constituencies in 2004 and a review is not due for about six years. The Tories say that the average number of voters per constituency could be different in each national Boundary Commission area. Making the Scottish constituencies in Scotland bigger would make a Tory revival even harder as their vote is spread across the country.

Increase voter power

Mr Cameron wants to give voters the chance to have proposals backed by large petitions debated by the Commons. Downing Street already has an e-petition site, following the pioneering example of the Scottish parliament site. Westminster petitions have no legislative standing but a huge petition against road tolling led to the policy being dropped like a hot potato. In Holyrood the petitions committee considers requests from the public and can feed into the legislative process. Mr Cameron says he would also open up parliament by sending out text alerts on the progress of bills and lifting the ban on viewing proceedings on YouTube. Debates and committees can already be viewed on the parliament website.

Electoral reform

Mr Cameron called for more "open primaries", used in parts of the US, where election candidates are chosen by all local people not just party supporters. This might reduce the power of trade unions and local party machines but opens the door to media influence and rich candidates outspending rivals to reach more of the electorate. MPs all admit that local parties, politically engaged and responsive to the public mood, are a more effective control than the wider constituency. Mr Cameron came out against Proportional Representation, the Constitutional "big bang" that some on the left, including Alan Johnson, feel would coalesce Labour and Lib Dem against Conservatives.

Boosting the role of Parliament

Mr Cameron has an ambition to curb the whipping of votes when MPs consider bills line-by-line at the committee stage. MPs would also be handed the crucial power of deciding the timetable of bills and be allowed to choose the chairmen and members of select committees. These were recommended by Ken Clarke’s democracy commission. Committee members are currently chosen by whips, in proportion to the size of parties, and the chairs are elected by the committees themselves. When the government whips tried to remove the late Gwynth Dunwoodie as chair of the transport committee they sparked a parliamentary rebellion. But how one party could stop whipping (controlling which way its MPs vote) and not give an advantage to other parties is a mystery. Mr Cameron also proposes

limiting the use of the royal prerogative which allows the prime minister, in the name of the monarch, to make major decisions without the backing of Parliament. Gordon Brown is already making sweeping changes in this area in the Constitutional Renewal bill, but Cameron says he would go further.

Freedom for local councils

Tory high command shrinks from calling this devolution but someone in Cameron’s office has been reading The Plan, co-written by Douglas Carswell MP, which advocates that the equivalent powers devolved to the Scottish parliament should be passed down to English councils. Cameron’s reforms sound more cuddly. Allowing councils to reverse Whitehall decisions to close popular services, such as a local post office. But voters do not like policy differentials across local boundaries, like health care in Scotland and England, and they tend to blame national government when things go wrong.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Glasgow East by election on the cards.

Itnow looks as if there will be a by election in Glasgow North East. Mr Martin's official spokesperson has just said that he will stand down as an MP too.

Here are the results from the 2005 General Election when Mr Martin stood as an independent. Where will the left vote go in a by election?

Speaker Michael Martin 15,153 53.3%
Scottish National Party John McLaughlin 5,019 17.7%
Socialist Labour Doris Kelly 4,036 14.2%
Scottish Socialist Graham Campbell 1,402 4.9%
Scottish Unionist Daniel Houston 1,266 4.5%
British National Scott McLean 920 3.2%
Independent Joe Chambers 622 2.2%

Majority 10,134 35.7

Turnout 28,418 45.8 +1.9 Speaker hold Swing -6.6

Speaker resignation latest

Earthquake in the Commons. Speaker Michael Martin, fatally wounded in yesterday's encounter with his critics, is to announce that he is to resign as Speaker this afternoon.

Gordon Brown was seen walking through the Commons cloisters just a few minutes ago. He may have been on his way to see the Speaker.

If the writing wasn't in the headlines this morning "Last Orders" said the Times, it was in the Votes Office.

As well as the usual order papers, which included that infamous motion of no confidence, the clerks had copies of an old procedure committee report from 2000-2001, entitled "Election of a Speaker".

"It's an old report but we thought it might become popular soon," said the clerk.
I know Sky tickertaped the news but it seems the scoop belongs to Bernard Ponsenby of STV. More later.

Martin to resign

Speaker to resign this afternoon.

Monday 18 May 2009

An Ambush In The House of Commons

Speaker Michael Martin faced down an unprecedented motion of no confidence in the Commons, but it was a close run thing. From the pages of The Herald.

Pathologists and crime writers tell you that few victims are killed with one clean cut. Murder is a foul business and it takes multiple blows, and fierce resolve, to complete the deed.

Yesterday came close to murder in Westminster. It was politics raw in tooth and claw, an assassination attempt so bloody and electrifying that the old hands here proclaimed they had never seen its like before.

The ambush on the floor of the House had been laid for all to see. The author of the no confidence motion, Douglas Carswell, sat on the far back benches surrounded by lieutenants, biting his lopsided lip, waiting. All attended as witnesses - party leaders and backbenchers - although if voters ask, no one saw anything.

Gordon Prentice struck the first blow, after Mr Martin’s typical, stumbling apology to the nation. When he was told the motion was out of order the blade passed to Carswell. One by one they were going to stand and strike. "When will members be allowed to choose a new Speaker with the moral authority to clean up Westminster?" he asked.

Some supporters booed and the Speaker refused a debate, adopted a patronising tone he would quickly regret. "Please give me credit for having some experience in the chair," he said. During the uproar that followed he sought out the bewigged clerks, the legal officers of parliament, who defined the motion as being in "remaining orders". It was a flimsy a shield as his speech has been against assailants who were coming at him from all sides.

In most walks of life people stab you in the back, in politics they stab you in the heart. David Winnick, turning into a Labour Mr Nasty, plunged his blade into the Speaker’s ribs. "Your early retirement, Sir, would help the reputation of the House," he declared to gasps. By the Speaker’s chair Keith Simpson, a Captain Manwaring, let out a whistle of amazement because Mr Martin , he was still standing.

David Heath, Lib Dem Commons leader, dipped his hands in blood, taking his time getting there with incantation. "Those who put us into this position by resisting reform cannot be the right people to lead us out of this."

Richard Shepherd played Brutus, raising his point in sadness. "Many out there will not believe we are serious about the changes that are necessary as long as you are in the chair."

Mr Speaker hid behind the rules again so Sir Patrick Cormack, a Tory grandee, tried handing him a loaded revolver. "What is at stake is the institution of Parliament and its integrity," said Sir Patrick. He compared the crisis to the "Norway debate", and you had to have a longer memory than Sir Patrick (he was 70 today) to recall that in the dark days of 1940 it led to Neville Chamberlain being ousted as Prime Minister.

As the warning resonated around the chamber. Sir Stuart Bell rose in defence of a friend and the traditions of parliament. "There has never been in the history of our land such an attack on the Speaker of the House of Commons," he said. "This House should calm itself down, should have a period of reflection and... " The rest was drowned out by catcalls but the line held.

One of Carswell’s seconds fired a damp flintlock but to no great effect. So the Speaker lives, hoping a promise of reform will see him through the storm to these calmer times. He retreated dazed and wounded, baptized in the red wine of war. But mark, if that debate is heard, fatal blows will rain down on Michael Martin.

Danny MacAskill - The Dunvegan Dynamo.

Hat tip to Sam Maynard for spotting this video of Danny MacAskill , bike stunting his way across Edinburgh.

Danny learned his skills on the hard streets of Dunvegan on Skye. The footage matches the standard of the stunts you'd see in a Bourne movie, fair takes your breath away.

Speaker Martin under pressure today.

Another week, another round of expenses allegations in the Telegraph and more and more pressure on Michael Martin to give up his post as Speaker.

Two things are happening today in the Commons. First, a motion from the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, calling on Mr Martin to resign immediately and for a new Speaker to be elected is being supported by more than half a dozen MPs.

Such a move is unprecedented in modern times, no Speaker has been removed since 1690 and before that they were usually told their time was up by having their head cut off.

Nick Clegg has joined the calls for Mr Martin to go , controversial that a party leader should join the fray, and indicative of where the Lib Dems are. Conservative outrider David Davies and Labour greybeard Charles Clarke (never a supporter of Martin's) have also added to the clamour for Martin to go. Whether the motion is accepted, debated or even voted on is a matter for the Speaker himself.

Mr Martin has his own plans, starting with a statement to the House on his own future which we expect will pre-announce, Tony Blair style, his departure at the next General Election. He wants to stay on to reform the rotten expenses system that he is being blamed for presiding over.

It's true that Mr Martin was a roadblock to transparency, he fought tooth and nail against the Freedom of Information campaign on expenses, but his Committee did propose radical reforms of expenses last year that were thrown out on a free vote.

He might also apologise for his outburst at Kate Hoey MP and Norman Baker MP last week when he attacked these independent minded MPs for questioning his handling of the leak that led to the scandal in the first place. Will that be enough to quell discontent. I doubt it but the Labour benches are in no mood to sacrifice Mr Martin for the sins of the whole House.

Zatoo now carrying BBC Alba.

Frustrated that you can't watch BBC Alba and type at the same time? Or just frustrated that you can't watch BBC Alba full stop?

I've just been introduced to Zatoo, an online television system, that allows you to watch live streaming TV from your computer. It works, as well as can be expected, and it has just started carrying the Gaelic channel which is currently only available via a Sky subscription or on that rare Freesat service.

When I tell people that the BBC channel isn't available on Freeview they laugh and ask, how does anyone watch it? Good question. Bizarrely, high viewing figures is one of the fences the BBC Trust has put in the way of the channel getting onto Freeview. Despite being available to only a third of Scots the channel is doing very well for itself in terms of audience figures.

What's really annoying is that when the BBC Trust review comes around in 2010, at the time of the digital switchover, it will only consider making BBC Alba available on Freeview in Scotland only , cutting off a pretty large audience in the rest of the UK.

I'm not sure if Zatoo viewing figures will count in that argument although I'm sure that the downloads from the BBC's i-player, the way I access more and more programmes, should. downloads from the BBC's own site should.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Morley suspended - will one political corpse be enough?

Gordon Brown has just thrown the political corpse of Elliot Morley over the walls of Westminster Palace. He is suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party, shaming in itself for someone with such a long career, but we don't know how long for yet.

Like the resignation of Andrew MacKay as David Cameron's unpaid parliamentary private secretary earlier today I don't think that it will do enough to satisfy public anger, or the synthetic outrage of the media.

There are parallels here with the Royal Family sitting it out in Balmoral, in a world removed from the mass of people caught up in hysteria over Princess Diana's' death.

It is taking a while for it to sink in that Westminster has been comprehensively bombed by the expenses revelations. Groping around for the hair shirts and the independent reviews simply is not going to repair the damage in the short or medium term.

For sure MPs are going to have to live on less from now on, despite their salaries having fallen a long way behind the private sector. There might be two consequences that affect democracy - politics might become a game for rich people, as Anne Widdecombe warned.

On the other hand the gravy train wreck might not make being an MP quite so attractive for the time-servers and machine politicians who have stood in the way of talented individuals winning nomination, if not office.

That's a debate for another time. The next few days we'll be sifting through the wreckage of the Westminster neutron bomb.


A subdued House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions for a change. After days of being flayed in the press over their expenses, MPs knew that the normal shenanigans, the absurd theatre we love so much, would not do.

Even Mr Speaker was on his best behaviour and the MPs sat on the benches like chastened schoolchildren outside the headmaster's office.

The reason was that, unlike previous scandals, there was hardly anyone left without mud on their clothes. No good throwing dirty moat water at the Tories because you might be hit back by a LibDem trouser press or a minister's tax bill.

As usual, some MPs had taken their paperwork into the chamber. Presumably some were writing cheques, on a sliding scale of repayment dependant on the size of one's majority or guilty conscience.

The running total in repayments is over £100,000 - more than it is rumoured the Daily Telegraph paid for the information in the first place. MPs were proving what value for money they were, at least for newspaper circulation.

There were no baying hyenas as a sluggish Mr Brown sought consensus from the opposition to accept reforms that David Cameron and others had already proposed. The PM has taken on the political pallor of Leonid Brezhnev, who had to be walked around to crank him into life before public appearances.

Mr Cameron was not going to give up his lead easily and widened the partisan divide, calling for the abolition of the £10,000 communications allowance and for fewer MPs.

That would save money, and sound good down the pub. The consensus had broken down. Mr Brown, not nimble, said these were matters for either another time and another committee.

To the viewing public, that looked as if the Prime Minister still didn't get it.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Foulkes gives BBC laldy

Feelings are running high around Westminster on the expenses scandal and now some politicians are biting back. Check out Lord Foulkes, George Foulkes, forcing BBC presenter Carrie Gracie to admit that she earns £92,000 for "harassing MPs".

Monday 11 May 2009

Order, order - "Some of us in this House have other responsibilities."

Trying to judge the mood of the Commons today is difficult - the mood swings between public contrition - displayed by Michael Gove and Gordon Brown - and private anger that everyone is being hung out to dry by "stolen goods", which is how most MPs see the material being published by the Daily Telegraph.

Extraordinary scenes in the chamber when the Speaker attempted to deal with the expenses farrago. He called on members to observe the "spirit of what is right" but he was steaming angry about the press leaks.

When the pro-hunting, pro-Boris, Labour MP Kate Hoey stood up in the chamber to say that calling in the police in was "an awful waste of resources?" she met the full wrath of the Speaker, Michael Martin.

"I listen to you often, when I turn on my television at midnight, and I hear your public utterances and your pearls of wisdom on Sky News. It’s easy to talk then," said Mr Martin.

"Let me put this to you and to every Hon Member in this House - is it the case that an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing? And the allegation is that that information was handed over to a third party to find the highest bidder for private information."

He gave her both barrels, adding: "I just say to you it’s easy to say to the press, ‘This should not happen’. It’s a wee bit more difficult when you just don’t have to give quotes to the press and do nothing else."

No one's ever seen the Speaker so angry off script, or so articulate. He even had a go at Norman Baker, the Lib Dem MP who has campaigned for expenses to be revealed. All in the Herald tomorrow.

Articles I wish I'd written No. 946

Ian Jack, one of my all time great journalistic heroes, wrote this great piece in the Guardian on Saturday that hit the nail on the head as far as Gordon Brown is concerned.

Brown says sorry.

Gordon Brown has just apologised, quite genuinely it seems to me, on behalf of all political parties for the scandalous state of the Commons allowances and expenses system.

It's a start, I guess. I've been so busy writing about the story in the Herald that there has been no time to blog . The Commons are preparing to get external auditors in to handle expenses claims from now on.

Mr Speaker is considering publishing all expenses as soon as possible but I hear that only 400 MPs have had copies of their receipts so far and that many will not have completed the editing process.

The cabinet meet for a political session tomorrow, to try an sort out a way forward. All parties have been shamed by the expenses revelations but Labour will suffer most, as a series of polls over the next few days will show.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Lumley - she's no Pasty.

If you thought it couldn't get any worse for Gordon Brown.. Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas are having another press conference today to report a "shocking and devastating development" in their campaign for Gurkha justice.

Ms Lumley secured a meeting with the Prime Minister yesterday and afterwards attempted to box Mr Brown into a decision he has not yet made - to give parity to all ex-Ghurkas and allow those who want to settle in the UK.

Subsequently the government has insisted that nothing has changed - that they will review some 1300 outstanding cases for UK settlement and that experience will form the basis for a review of policy before the Summer recess.

This is not the "new" proposal that Ms Lumley thought she had received. So, expect fireworks at four. It has six o'clock news written all over it and "another bad day" stamped on it too.

UPDATE - four out of five test cases on resettlement in the UK have been rejected by the government. That's whats leaving Lumley furious.

Lord Forsyth back on form.

Lord Forsyth, the last Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, is on his feet in the Lords having a good old go at the budget. Lady Thatcher is on the gangway below and Lord James Douglas Hamilton on the bench behind - a sight that would bring a tear to Alan Cochrane's eye.

Not a bad speech either. Lord Forsyth described Alistair Darling's budget as a "Billy Bunter postal order" and acuses Lord Mandelson of being "Peter in Never Never Land". The whole thing will be on Hansard later, and somewhere on the parliament channel or the website right now.

He predicts: "Exactly a year from now it will fall on David Cameron to sort out this mess left by a Labour governnment.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Purdey comes to Westminster.

Keith Vaz’s Home Affairs Committee is generally accepted as Westminster’s equivalent of a television chat show. Passing celebrities coming within the faintest orbit of the committee’s investigations are invited to give evidence.

They’ve had Cherie Booth on knife crime and Jesse Jackson on drugs so an appearance by Ab Fab star Joanna Lumley should have left members unphased, even if they had been passing around police Tazer gun beforehand Don’t ask, it’s that kind of committee. She certainly didn’t leave them unimpressed.

Joanna Lumley, the Gurkhas’s sweetheart, sat demurely on the public benches, waiting her turn as two Ministers poffered their excuses for not granting UK residency to the Nepalese fighting men.

The Commons had voted against their restrictive proposals so they tried their best to co-operate with the committee to find a way forward, without conceeding an inch.When the drab gents from the Ministry had departed she soothed the committee in breathless tones, befitting a TV goddess. The words were soft but deadly, clear and compelling. She was a hot-bobbed Purdey, not a shambolic Patsy.

Lumley is, after all, a battle-hardened politician - the only person actually brave enough to wave a sharp instrument near Mr Brown’s, er, Schools Minister. Like a good politician she made every word count. She vowed to "stick to her guns" and fight on for parity of pay, pension and settlement rights for all Nepalese soldiers who have served British Army.

She revealed she had written to Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue three times and received only one reply, from a secretary.Great beauty can be a curse but Ms Lumley uses her grace and her looks to great effect. She was self-effacing about being a pensioner, she turned 63 last week, to drive home the point that Gurkha WWII veterans would be too old to settle in Britain. At one point she feared she might be mumbling (she is not a trained actor) simply to allow MPs to assure her she wasn’t. She flattered these "brave" Labour members who had rebelled last week. Mr Vaz didn’t even blush at that, he probably thinks he is brave.

She delivered a stirring rallying cry and namedropped a member of the Royal family as a supporter without breaking confidences. That was about five news stories in as many minutes, all dropped in with cut-crystal, faux bewilderment. "I do not know what we have to do. I don’t know where else we have to go," she said. "We have gone to the High Court, we have gone to the press, we have gone to the people and to parliament. Where do we go to?"

Beside her sat Lieutenant Mada Gurling, whose father had served with Ms Lumley’s father in the 6th Gurkha Rifles. He confirmed that the economic effect of migrating Gurkhas would be minimal on Nepal and she said Gurkha officers like him, many of whom qualify for admittance under the new rules, would refuse to come to Britain if their men were left behind.

The government had fired its volley first, claiming the economic effect on Britain would be devastating. Kevan Jones, a Junior Defence Minister, feared allowing all the Gurkha soldiers in would open the door to a huge pension bill, £1 billion initially, plus annual payments of £500 million."Political populism doesn’t change the facts," said Phil Woolas, the Home Office Minister, only slightly humbled by the Commons vote to meet a debt of honour.

Ministers had inflated both the number of Gurkhas hoping to come to Britain and the cost, Ms Lumley said. Labour MP Martin Salter revealed the Government’s own estimates put the cost at as little as £425 million. Ministers were quoting the highest possible estimate of £1.6 billion, he said.

"We think scare tactics have been employed here. We stick to our guns and say ‘Equal rights for Gurkhas and parity with Commonwealth soldiers’," said Ms Lumley. She said it gently. "It doesn’t seem very extreme when you say it like that," she purred. Utterly charming and, as the government already knows, totally lethal. The MoD shouldn’t mess with Purdey.

Monday 4 May 2009

Brown - his femine side.

Ben Brogan, (once of the Herald parish) is blogging from his new berth at the Telegraph on how a Cabinet Minister tells him: "Downing Street? It’s like one big homo-erotic gang-bang these days."

Before you rush over to his blog for salacious details the point Mr Brogan is making is that Brown’s Downing Street looks like a male cabal, completely out of touch with the nation and its own party. Jackie Ashley takes up the same theme in a doom-laden piece for the Guardian, talking about the "old mates" circle that surrounds Brown - McBride, Watson, Wheelan and Balls.

Given that he won’t step out in front of a London bendybus coming down Whitehall, how would Mr Brown rid himself of this idea that his Downing Street is macho cabal bonding over football and blind to any political nuance?

One move might be to copy the example of the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, when it comes to that inevitable summer re-shuffle.

Mr Zapatero, a self-declared feminist, made equal rights a centrepiece of his first term in office, passing a law making it compulsory for electoral lists and even company boards to be composed of at least 40 per cent women.

In his second term, which started last year, he appointed more women than men to the cabinet. Shortly afterwards I was in Majorca and reading the newspapers over several days, well looking at the pictures, it appeared that Zapatero never seemed to move unless flanked by not one, but two female members of his cabinet.

Every picture sent the message that women mattered in the cabinet and in politics. I suspect though, that the message was successful because you felt Zapatero meant it.

1979 - All over again

If you're absolutely stuck for something to do on the Bank Holiday, or you're stuck in work like me, the BBC Parliament channel is showing the 1979 election night results programme in its entirely. Sobering viewing for jostling Ministers, I would think.