Tuesday 21 December 2010

Michael Moore in tapegate doo-doo now

The Daily Telegraph tapes story is rolling on with many twists and turns. Here's the latest Scottish angle, concerning Michael Moore, filed for the Daily Record:

Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is the latest government minister to blow the lid off the cosy image of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition

Talking to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters Moore has described the nightmare of introducing policies that he has no belief in

Moore said the coalition decision to cut Child Benefit for higher-rate taxpayers is "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do"

Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP Moore also admitted the increase in tuition fees for English students to a maximum £9,000 was “a car crash”.
He described the Lib Dem u-turn on student fees as "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this..., a train wreck"

Moore was also quoted as saying the coalition had "marginalised" the Conservative right wing, who, he said, "hate us with a passion - and I can't say it's unreciprocated".

He insisted that Lib Dem ministers "remain passionately Liberal Democrat"and said some Conservative ministers were "on a different planet" .

He said fellow Scot Defence Secretary Liam Fox "probably couldn't stay in the same situation for very long" if they were discussing a wide range of policies.

Moore is one of a string of Lib Dem Ministers taped in their constituency surgeries by undercover reporters criticising coalition policy.

The candid confessions, led by Business Secretary Vince Cable, exposed the sham of co-operation that Tory leader David Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg present in public.

Moore told undercover reporters he was tortured by the decision to increase student fees despite an election promise not to.

He said: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this. I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly." Moore said the move was "deeply damaging" to Lib Dems.

The comments were published after a dramatic day that saw Business Secretary Vince Cable humiliated and stripped of some ministerial responsibilities after he told the same undercover reporter he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch over the media tycoon's bid to take over BSkyB.

Cable left David Cameron and Nick Clegg furious after he bragged to a blond female reporter that he could bring the Government down by using the "nuclear option" of resigning if Conservative colleagues pushed him too hard.

Cable kept his job but was stripped of the responsibility of judging on the News Corporation bid to take over BSkyB.

Sacking him would have destabilised the coalition but keeping him left Tory backbenchers thinking Cameron had no authority as Prime Minister.

Labour described him as a lame duck Minister who should walk the plank.

Other Lib Dem Ministers fell for the same trick as reporters posed as constituents.
Business Minister Ed Davey said he was "gobsmacked" by the decision to cut Child Benefit, and Pensions Minister Steve Webb said he had written to Chancellor George Osborne seeking changes to the policy.

The Child Benefit cut which will hit couples where one partner earns just over the £42,000 higher-rate threshold but not those with two partners earning just below that level.

Monday 20 December 2010

Nick Clegg's Last Christmas post

Nick Clegg's Christmas message to students.
From these clever people at Designiscentral for the STUC's "There is a better way" campaign.

Ah, the cuts, this only shows half-frame. Click through below for a better view

Thursday 9 December 2010

AP flash on Charles and Camilla

Student protesters attack car containing Prince Charles and his wife Camilla
LONDON (AP) - Angry protesters in London have attacked a car containing Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
An Associated Press photographer saw demonstrators kick the car in Regent Street, in the heart of London's shopping district. The car then drove off.
The prince's office had no immediate comment.
Protesters angry at a huge tuition fee hike are fighting with police and smashing windows in London.

How the Scot LibDem MPs voted on tuition fees

This is the picture of how Scottish Lib Dem MPs voted in the tuition fees debate, according to PA.

Menzies Campbell
Mike Crockart
Charles Kennedy
Alan Reid

Danny Alexander
Alistair Carmichael
Jo Swinson
Malcolm Bruce
Michael Moore

John Thurso

Robert Smith

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Wikileaks reignite Megrahi controversy

The Wikileaks revelations have lapped up onto Scottish shores again tonight with the claim that Libya's Colonel Gaddafi threatened the UK with "thuggish" reprisals if the Lockerbie bomber was not released from Greenock jail.

The leaked cables from the US Ambassador in the UK in 2009, show that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was privately “shocked” by the fierce American reaction to the release of the Abdul Basset al-Megrahi, leaked US documents reveal.

The latest Wikileaks cables, private dispatches from US diplomats in the UK in 2008, show that the SNP ministers found themselves “out of their depth” when the release of Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds created a firestorm of protest in the United States.

The US view is clearly that the UK government played the SNP into releasing Megrahi, leaving Salmond empty handed and feeling the heat of US outrage. Salmond expresses himself shocked and claims that the SNP "played straight" over the release of Megrahi and did not expect the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton or the former head of the FBI to condemn him.

The latest revelations came as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London on an international arrest warrant in relation to allegations of rape in Sweden.

Megrahi, who continues to live with his family in Tripoli, returned to a Saltire-waving hero's welcome that sparked protests from the US government and families of the victims of the downed Pan Am flight 103.

The US Consol in Edinburgh at the time wrote to Washington: "The Scottish government severely underestimated both US government and UK public reaction to its decision … Alex Salmond has privately indicated that he was 'shocked'."

The revelations come as a sharp reminder to the SNP of the fury they faced when Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill decided to release Megrahi, who is suffering from prostrate cancer, on compassionate grounds.

The Wikileaks cable reveal the UK government feared an even harsher reaction by Libya against UK interests if the convicted Lockerbie bomber died in jail.

According to the Guardian the message US diplomats received from Jack Straw, then justice minister, was that although Megrahi might survive up to five years Salmond and the SNP were nonetheless inclined to release him.

A cable states: "Megrahi could have as long as five years to live but the average life expectancy of someone of his age with his condition is 18 months to two years. Doctors are not sure where he is on the time scale."The Libyans have not yet made a formal application for compassionate release … but HMG believes that the Scottish may be inclined to grant the request, when it comes, based on conversations between … Alex Salmond and UK justice secretary Jack Straw.

The Americans concluded that UK Justice Minister Jack Straw succeeded in manoeuvring MacAskill into granting a "compassionate release" to a storm of protest in August 2009 and that the British ambassador in Lybia expressed “relief” at the outcome. I'm sure some cable somewhere will reveal that Jack Straw privately expressed a wry smile.

Firewalk with me, Clegg tells his MPs

The Lib Dem MPs are meeting right now to discuss their position on increasing tuition fees for students in England.

Outside committee room 11 in the Commons we've just been given a briefing on what Nick Clegg told the meeting at the beginning.

He said he would have preferred if the Lib Dems had "walked through the fire together" on Thursday's vote but he now accepts that this will not happen.

He said he was proud of the "great strength" the Lib Dems had shown under pressure in recent weeks and that there was no animosity despite strongly held opinions.

The meeting goes on for another two hours, we expect, and the outcome will probably be the same as it was at the beginning, with those determined to vote against doing so. Maybe some of the abstentions will be persuaded that if they're going to take pelters anyway then they might as well do so standing by their leader.

Others may have read the detail of the YouGov poll on voting attitudes to the Lib Dems and the tuition fees issue.

Candidates standing for the Scottish parliament next May will be punished at the polls if their Westminster MPs vote for higher tuition fees in England, according to a new opinion poll.

The YouGov poll found that people voted Liberal Democrat in the General Election, 49% would be less likely to back them again in the Scottish Elections should they back an increase in fees.

Eleven Scottish Lib Dem MPs are under pressure not to back the Tories by voting for a rise in tuition fees on Thursday.

Students are furious that Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge against student fees during the election but could now go back on their word.

Treasury Minister and Inverness MP Danny Alexander is backing party leader Nick Clegg in voting for fees. But former leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy have voiced opposition. Edinburgh West MP Mike Crockart is considering resigning as a parliamentary secretary in protest over the issue. Others may abstain from the vote in an attempt at party unity.

The poll also revealed good news for Scottish Liberal Democrat candidates. Should their fellow MPs vote against higher tuition fees, with 47% of those undecided voters stating they would be more likely to vote Lib Dem in the Scottish election.

The poll, commissioned by NUS Scotland and UCU Scotland, also found that overall 52% of people oppose the government’s plans to raise tuition fees, with only a third supporting the proposals and that 60% of Scots who voted Liberal Democrat in the General Elections oppose the increase in fees;

Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland, said the fees increase would mean over £40,000 of debt for any Scottish students wanting to study in England and a drastic reduction in public spending on university teaching salaries which would slash the Scottish Government’s current budget.

He said: "The proposed changes to loan arrangements will strip tens of millions from the student support budget in Scotland which we already know is inadequate, and higher fees elsewhere will fuel calls for English students who vote in Scotland to pay much higher fees to avoid a cross border flow of ‘fee refugees’. These proposals are bad news for Scotland.”

Monday 6 December 2010

Lib Dem Highland meltdown over tuition fees

There is no formal pairing system operating in the Commons - when two opposing MPs arrange to miss a whipped vote to negate their absence. But if Inverness airport is shut by snow for the next few days then we might be granted one in the crucial tuition fees debate this Thursday.

Imagine the scene in the VIP cabin in departures at Dalcross this morning as Danny Alexander (Treasury, for) and Charles Kennedy (Lib Dem, against) wait patiently for their delayed London flight to be called.

The two Highland MPs, with neighbouring constituencies, represent the fight for the soul of the Lib Democrats, a battle of power against principle. Kennedy, with a Highland Liberal tradition behind him, has said he'd find it hard to support the move to triple tuition fees in England, after signing an election pledge not to do so.

Alexander, who would be admired in Brussels for his technocratic passion, has no real political heritage to fall back on here and can only be driven further into the embrace of the coalition by this week's events.

Stop press: enough speculating. It's coming through that Michael Crockart, the new Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, has threatened to resign as unpaid parliamentary private secretary to Michael Moore in protest over the tuition fees vote.

It looks like the Lib Dem whips, headed by Alastair Carmichael from Orkney and Shetland, are putting the screws on MPs, to vote loyally or resign. Crockart has said that he will have no option but to resign in that case. It's a long time until Thursday though.

Interesting how the whole Lib Dem fight over tuition fees is being played out against a Scottish backdrop. Kennedy and Alexander, Crockart and Carmichael, not forgetting Menzie Campbell and Michael Moore - all finding themselves on opposing sides. Can't work out which side are the Covenanters yet.

Footnote: I don't usually post anonymous comment or respond, it's so much bolder to put your name to a strongly held opinion. But someone has posted: "Higher Education is a devolved issue. This is a solely English issue. What business is it of these interfering Scots? They should keep their noses (especially those with bright red ones) out of it!"

There are implications for Scotland in the tuition fees vote in that the Browne review recommended to cut two-thirds of the teaching grant paid by the Treasury to English universities once they start charging fees. This, Labour argue, could have a knock-on effect in Scotland, via the Barnett Formula, to the tune of £400 million.

Obviously there are the effects of student refugees seeking sanctuary from higher fees in the south putting pressure on places in Scotland. There is also the academic and financial standing of Scottish universities, which will not have the same level of student fees pouring in. Unless, that is, they introduce fees too, as Vince Cable recommended. I was right, don't respond to anonymous comment, you'll spend all day on it.

Naughtie to read weather for Kent countryside

Much hilarity this morning over Jim Naughtie's spoonerism on the Today programme at 8am.

Naughtie, had meant to preview an item on Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary but instead he said...

It's not the first time Hunt has heard that one. I'm sure, and he has taken it in good humour.

However, it does seem the mistake was too much of rude awakening for some listeners of Radio 4, who called in to complain. Just as well Naughtie didn't read that report about the snowfall in the Kent countryside.

Guido, indispensible as ever to the political blogosphere, is ahead of BBC i-player, on posting this play it again. Click here.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Britain covered in snow - official picture

Confirmation, were it needed, that it's snowing out there. The University of Dundee's satellite receiving station captured this image of a blanketed Britain this morning.

The picture was received at 1145 GMT on Thursday from Nasa satellite Terra, shows almost the entire country covered by snow, apart from bits of Argyll and Cumbria.

And there's me complaining that our Scottish lobby Christmas dinner has been postponed tonight for fear that people won't be able to get home afterwards. I thought that was the whole point of a Christmas night out.

Scottish MPs expenses from May to August

IPSA, the parliamentary expenses watchdog, has this morning published MPs expenses under the new transparency rules which Holyrood watchers will be familiar with.

There's a mass of detail in there and over £3m worth of claims.The IPSA website keeps crashing, but here we've complied the total expenses of Scottish MPs for the first quarter of the year.

The MPs are ordered by name, not by expenditure, and clearly some of them have not managed to make claims in the first quarter. If you want individual details dig into the IPSA site, and good luck.

Danny Alexander, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey,LDem - £4,995

Douglas Alexander, Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Lab - £7,534

Willie Bain, Glasgow North East, Lab - £2,636

Gordon Banks, Ochil and South Perthshire, Lab £7,040

Anne Begg, Aberdeen South, Labour - £12,542

Gordon Brown, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Lab - £2,532

Russell Brown, Dumfries and Galloway, Lab - £9,918

Malcolm Bruce, Gordon, LibDem - £6,734

David Cairns, Inverclyde, Lab - £1,808

Menzies Campbell, Fife North East, LibDem - £4,956

Alistair Carmichael, Orkney and Shetland, Lib Dem - £10,456

Katy Clark, North Ayrshire and Arran, Lab - £1,191

Tom Clarke, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, Lab - £7,772

Michael Connarty, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Lab - £8,416

Mike Crockart, Edinburgh West, Lib Dem - £9,187

Margaret Curran, Glasgow East, Lab - £3,029

Alistair Darling, Edinburgh South West, Lab - £4,207

Ian Davidson, Glasgow South West, Lab/Co-op - £0

Thomas Docherty, Dunfermline and West Fife, Lab - £9,956

Brian Donohoe, Central Ayrshire, Labour - £13,353

Frank Doran, Aberdeen North, Lab - £9,529

Gemma Doyle, West Dunbartonshire, Lab - £ 0

Sheila Gilmore, Edinburgh East, Lab - £ 1,845

Tom Greatrex, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Lab - £11,383

David Hamilton, Midlothian, Lab - £3,818

Tom Harris, Glasgow South, Lab - £1,513

Jimmy Hood, Lanark and Hamilton East, Lab - £6,039

Stewart Hosie, Dundee East , SNP - £10,530

Cathy Jamieson, Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Lab/Co-op - £4,324

Eric Joyce, Falkirk, Lab - £4,541

Charles Kennedy, Ross, Skye and Lochaber, LibDem - £917

Mark Lazarowicz, Edinburgh North and Leith, Lab/Co-op - £2,726

Angus MacNeil, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, SNP - £1,355

Michael McCann, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, Lab - £12,133

Gregg McClymont, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Lab - £783

James McGovern, Dundee West, Lab - £4,053

Anne McGuire , Stirling, Lab - £5,411

Ann McKechin, Glasgow North, Lab - £3,513

Michael Moore, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Lib Dem - £11,120

Graeme Morrice, Livingston, Lab - £6,500

David Mundell, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, Con - £13,262

Jim Murphy, East Renfrewshire, Lab - £4,908

Ian Murray, Edinburgh South, Lab - £11,382

Pamela Nash, Airdrie and Shotts, Lab - £0

Fiona O’Donnell , East Lothian, Lab £14,450

Sandra Osborne, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Lab - £8,432

Alan Reid, Argyll and Bute, Lib Dem - £0

Angus Robertson, Moray, SNP - £2,644

John Robertson Glasgow North West, Lab - £12,323

Frank Roy, Motherwell and Wishaw, Lab - £7,779

Lindsay Roy, Glenrothes, Lab - £10,039

Anas Sarwar, Glasgow Central, Lab - £1,012

James Sheridan, Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Lab - £9, 383

Robert Smith, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Lib Dem - £7,505

Jo Swinson, East Dunbartonshire, LibDem - £4,978

John Thurso, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Lib Dem - £13,948

Mike Weir, Angus,SNP - £10,824

Eilidh Whiteford, Banff and Buchan, SNP - £5,721

Pete Wishart, Perth and North Perthshire, SNP - £10,968


Daivd Cameron - £2,581
Ed Miliband - £2,066
Nick Clegg - £0
George Osborne - £582

Hague to update Commons on Linda Norgrove case

The Foreign Secretary will be making a statement in the House to update Parliament on the investigation into Linda Norgrove’s death shortly.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Whitehall civil servants face big freeze

It's all been a bit Elsinore in the Palace of Westminster over the last few days, but this morning the heating system in Room 18 of the Press Gallery was wrenched into juddering life.

Suddenly it's quite toasty and just as we're stripping off the layers in the newssauna word comes in, via a leaked e mail, that the entire Whitehall heating system has broken down. We're guessing the two events are not linked in any way. Our snouts tell us Number Ten isn't affected.

Paul Waugh has the story, and the leaked e mail, over on his new blog, The Waugh Room.

PM swats Miliband as "son of Brown"

That was a fairly emphatic win for Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions today. There was no hiding the gloom of the Miliband team or on the back benches, where Alistair Darling sat frozen-faded as his party leader tore into proposals to raise VAT and scale back welfare benefits.

The consensus is that Miliband chose the wrong jokes, the wrong lines and paid a big price for a weak rhetorical swipe at Cameron as a "child of Thatcher".

Quick as a flash, Cameron hit back: "I'd rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown". That wasn't his only win either.

The Cameron team where cock-a-hoop afterwards. One crowed, we're going to Zurich next week too. The thinking there is that Cameron, unleashed from the strictures of Westminster and the over assiduous preparation that goes into the half hour event, performs much better.

He flew back in from Switzerland at half-time in the World Cup bid so was only lightly briefed for the weekly tournament. And an off-the-cuff Cameron, being himself, is highly effective, as he proved originally in his defining speech to the Tory conference when standing for leader.

But while Miliband is left to lick the many self-inflicted wounds of the past fortnight - "blank page", two year policy review - Cameron ought to be careful too.

There's nothing more dangerous for a Prime Minister than hubris, says an wiser lobby colleague, who points out that Cameron unleashed has managed to insult the Speaker, the London Mayor in the last fortnight in speeches and has been charged by some commentators for failing to invoke the "dignity of the office" of Prime Minister.

Pride comes before a fall, and all that, but Miliband has to do better than wait for the Prime Minister to trip up.

Curran give unqualified backing for England bid

Labour’s Margaret Curran gave England’s World Cup bid Glasgow’s backing yesterday as the Prime Minister headed back to Switzerland to join Prince William and David Beckham do battle against the favourites, the Russians.

Curran, MP for Glasgow East, was the first member called at Prime Minister’s Questions and took the opportunity to give Cameron a tongue-in-cheek assurance that Scots back the England bid to bring football home.

“Can I give you Glasgow’s best wishes in the bid for England?” said Curraan, before adding after a pause: “And I mean that most sincerely.”

After the laughter had subsided in the chamber, Cameron replied: “I know she would never mislead this House so I know what you said was utterly sincere and I’m sure is shared by Members wherever they sit for in the United Kingdom.”

Everyone does back the bid, originally a Labour bid the opposition spindoctors were eager to remind me, even if it only means the games will be easier to get to than teh 2014 tournament in Brazil. The decision on 2018 will be made tomorrow afternoon.

Monday 29 November 2010

Penguins -well, they would wouldn't they

Edinburgh Zoo's livecam in the penguin enclosure is getting mental numbers of hits and trending on twitter this afternoon. Have a look, the penguins are quite excited by the snow. But do it soon, it's getting dark.


Is it all working out for George Osborne?

Is George Osborne's cunning plan coming together? We're expecting the Office for Budget Responsibility to revise growth figures for 2010 upwards this afternoon, with growth projected to move from 1.2 % to 1.8%.

That may not sound like a lot but the effect could be to bring in £10bn of tax revenues. Osborne won't say that he'll change his deficit reduction plan on the back of that. But if the political waters get choppy he could now scale back ,for example, the extent of public sector job losses by close to 100,000, and that would have a huge effect.

The axe will still fall on benefits, spending and public service - with the economic crisis providing convenient cover for Osborne's ideological reform the state. But if growth takes care of half the deficit (as Darling always held it would and Osborne fully expects it to) then the cuts might not be quite so deep and voters could be left with the impression that tough-talking George isn't so bad after all.

In common with every other newspaper journalist in the land I've readily taken the line that the cuts are going to be " the deepest peacetime reduction in public spending" etc, etc. If the public in 2014 are left with the impression that we've been through the worst, and it wasn't that bad, and Osborne's tough rhetoric did the trick, they will be well disposed to the Conservative chancellor and his handling of the economy.

That's a nightmare scenario for Labour but the opposition has to base it's hopes on something more than the economy getting wrecked again. Osborne is a highly political chancellor and he will have been shaping a 2105 election winning strategy, and his part in it, every day since taking office.

A rider to this George conquers all thesis is that several economists don't think that growth this year is evidence that the economy is resilient enough to withstand the public spending cuts to be implemented next year. As Ken Clarke has pointed out, circumstances well beyond the UK chancellor's control could blow the econony off course. It could all go pear-shaped.

Another warming comes from Ireland, a subject Osborne will have to turn some attention to this afternoon when he reports to the Commons. The Irish economy grew in the first three months of 2010 as well - and promptly fell off a cliff. That's a political warning for Labour too. A month ago Ireland wasn't going to have a general election, now the government is facing the electorate in barely six more weeks. Is Ed Miliband ready for an crisis election, or does he need two years to think about it?

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Meanwhile, over in the Dail

"We're talking about here, an overdraft, if you like." - Taoiseach Brian Cowen speaking in the Dail on negotiations for an 85 billion euro bail-out loan from the International Monetary Fund and European Union.

"It's one hell of an overdraft..." - Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

Cameron close-up is stand-up funny

The only person to come out of the Prime Minister's press gallery lunch without a smile on their face was impressionist Rory Bremner. He might as well go hang his hat up - Cameron can carry off his own stand-up act with confidence, fluency and some wit.

Some politicians see a lunch speech to the collected journalists of the parliamentary press gallery as a daunting, nerve-rattling rite of passage. Cameron judged it right, piling in the jokes, dropping in one or two serious points, and batting any question put to him with some panache.

He had jokes at the expense of Mr Speaker, Silvio Berlusconi and, of course, Ed Miliband. I'll leave the punchlines to their owner.

He spoke about he wanted to run "a radical government not a managerial government" and his realisation, gleaned from Blair's experience, that he had a very short time in which to deliver before government itself swallows up the agenda.

He looked forward to the return of outcast Treasury Secretary David Laws "soon" and he promised to make the Tories electable in Scotland. "I'm not giving up," he said.

He turned high speed rail into the tonic for tackling the North-South economic divide and he revealed that "security" took up more of his Prime Ministerial time than "prosperity".

He did this, on a duck lunch, after PMQs, and with thousands of students milling outside parliament in an angry mood. And,for someone who is a very recent dad, he looked quite fresh. Damn him.

I've always suspected that Cameron closes the door of Downing Street every night and does a wee jig of joy - coalition or no coalition. Today's performance proves he's loving every minute of it.

Monday 22 November 2010

Here we go again

This has just come over the wires:

LISBON, Portugal (AP) - Portugal's prime minister says his country will not request financial assistance to cope with its heavy debt load.

Slugger on Ireland and Scottish independence

Here's Slugger O'Toole, Ireland's top political blogger, musing on Ireland and the case for Scottish independence. He has a lot of other things on his plate right now but interesting to see ourselves as etc...

All eyes on Irish prize

Like Ed Miliband, I'm back in Westminster after a fortnight off but the focus today is almost entirely on fast moving events across the Irish Sea

This morning's lobby was dominated by the question of how much and how soon Britain will be contributing to the bail out of the Irish economy. The negotiations are still on going in Dublin and it looks like our total could be a £7bn, taking in bilateral loans, EU and IMF aid packages.

Chancellor George Osborne explained it all pretty well on radio this morning and he'll be on his feet just after 4pm in the Commons, explaining it all again to the House.

The reasons for helping Ireland - our economic ties, the financial exposure of British banks and the symbiotic relationship of the Northern Irish economy - are all pretty easy to understand.

Our banks have £150bn of exposure to the Irish market - lent by financiers in the boomtimes and paid for us all in the hard times to come - so we have to get stuck in just to make sure that our own banks stay afloat. I've said it before, anyone who thinks the global financial crisis is over is kidding themselves.

Mark you there will be many Eurosceptic Tory MPs asking why we are involved in a Eurozone bail-out at all? This latest episode just exposes the European scar in the Tory party and there are plenty willing to pick at the scab.

There's John Redwood on television just now, presenting himself as the voice of reason, calling for a work out not a bail out with strict conditions attached. Tory Eurosceptics though would relish the chance to unravel any ties the UK has with the Eurozone.

Putting that hornet's nest in the Tory party to one side the prize for Osborne will be a rise in the levels of Irish corporation tax which could meet British corporation tax on the way down over the next few years.

Of course there are others with their eyes on the prize too and an economic crisis has just become a political one. The two Green TDs in coalition with Fianna Fail in the Irish government have just thrown the towel in and are calling for a general election. That means the ball's on the slates in Dublin with an election in the middle of January likely.

Note that Gerry Adams, the most calculating politician in the British Isles (in the geographical sense), has thrown his hat into the ring south of the border and intends to stand for the Dail.

Sinn Fein look like inevitable winners in an upcoming by-election but we can't read too much into that. While the Irish electorate may not be ready for Sinn Fein's brand of republican socialism - they like their cars and houses too much - Adams is never one to let a good crisis go to waste.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Bad weather, you soft Soothmoother you

I hear the Stornoway ferry is off again today - not the Shetland one though. It takes more than a force 8 to stop these guys crossing the Pentland Firth as this hilarious and horrifying CCTV footage from the only fixed point on the Shetland ferry demonstrates. Just watch the big guy in the stripey shirt go.

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone, Bob in particular, who has pointed out that this is not footage from the Shetland ferry - apparently the insignia on the lapels of the bartender is the giveaway. Can't believe the number of Shetlanders who are indignantly denying this is their ferry though, I'd be playing it to the hilt. The northern hoax is, it seems, a cruise ship in heavy weather.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Danny MacAskill - Skye cycling Wunderkid

WH1212 has been away from London, taking a break from politics and breathing fresh air on Lewis. I'm off for the rest of this week too but couldn't pass a keyboard without checking my mail.

Thanks then to the friend who knows I'm a Danny MacAskill fan and sent the link to his latest video, Way Back Home

Danny, from Dunvegan on Skye, took 20m Youtube hits for his first video of stunting across Edinburgh and that's led to greater things, like sponsorship from Red Bull.

Superb stuff here, which, if I can be a bit Jonathan Meades about it, combines the splendour of rural Scotland's poured concrete environment as well as it's natural beauty.

Its a longish video for Youtube, more than 90 seconds, but it just gets better as it goes on.

Thursday 4 November 2010

£2bn Trident delay makes Labour think again

While we're on defence costs, the debate on the Strategic Defence and Security Review continues in the Commons today.

Bob Ainsworth, Labour's last Defence Secretary, has been on his feet expressing real concern about the loss of the Harrier jumpjet fleet and accusing the government of blowing £2bn by delaying the Trident replacement.

Ainsworth said: "The decision to delay the deterrent again was a decision made for political reasons, made for coalition reasons, not made for industrial reasons or for reasons of capability.

"That decision on its own, if you take it out, no matter what the Prime Minister tries to say to the House costs this country billions of pounds. In excess of a billion pounds, I would say probably £2 billion.

"So for the purpose of keeping peace in the coalition for the next five years we have thrown away something between £1 billion and £2 billion."

He then dropped a huge hint that Labour might reconsider its support of the deterrent.

"My own party may well as a result of that... have to look at whether we maintain our position on Trident."

He added: "then we are going to have to think seriously about whether or not there is another way... of maintaining Britain's deterrent, without the huge cost cutting expenditure on the rest of our armed forces."

When he was challenged by the Defence Secretary Liam Fox on his apparent change of position, Ainsworth said that if Labour did not examine its stance on Trident it would be seen as putting its head in the sand.

Two carriers cheaper than one BAE bargain

You want two aircraft carriers, that will be £5.2bn. Oh, you only want one aircraft carrier, that will be £5.5bn.

That seems to be the sum of BAE chief Ian King's letter to Prime Minister David Cameron on the Royal Navy supercarrier contracts.

The Treasury has just released a copy of the letter which confirms what we were already being told - that breaking the contract to build two carriers would be more expensive than carrying on with construction, even if one of the ships is mothballed and there will be no jets to fly of the decks of the other until 2020.

The King letter also makes the case for 5000 jobs and the shipbuilding skill that will be retained by carrying on with the contract.

He acknowledges that there may be some "scepticism about some of this analysis" but King full square behind it.

King also has a fascinating sentence about not being able to present the carrier case to Cameron personally and he highlights the discussions he would like to have about military aerospace. This is an obvious plea for negotiation and a reference to the £3bn Nimrod MRA4 contract that was cancelled, leaving a huge gap not just at Kinloss but in Britain's maritime defences.

It seems every man jack was on the case to save the carriers, when in fact the contracts were so binding that they were assured anyway. Meanwhile the top brass at the MoD made a pathetic presentation on the Nimrod programmme which, I'm told, Cameron took one look at - £3bn spend converting ageing airframes, nothing to show for it - and binned.

Result - Kinloss closed, when the RAF had planned on keeping it open and closing the neighbouring Tornado base in Lossiemouth.

Call for parliamentary debate on rescue tug

Another great defence scoop for the Daily Record today which reveals that the HMS Astute, the nuclear sub that went aground on the coast of Skye, was damaged when it was towed off the shingle bank by the Coastguard rescue tug, Anglian Prince.

Late to the feast, but welcome nonetheless, is the call from Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil for a parliamentary debate on the threat to cut the four rescue tugs from their stations around the British coast.

MacNeil raised the issue at Business Questions in the House of Commons today.

“There is great concern about what the loss of the Anglian Prince could mean to the Hebrides, and the Coalition Government must explain why they plan to make this irresponsible cut," said MacNeil.

“It is only when a major event happens, such as the grounding of HMS Astute, that the value of the stand-by tug is realised. Huge oil tankers pass east and west of the Hebrides daily, and every few years a nuclear submarine seems to go aground - we can’t afford to lose the tug.”

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Cut-threatened Coastguard tug in action again

You don't need a coastguard tug for weeks and suddenly two emergencies come along at once.

Last week the Stornoway-based "Anglian Prince" was involved in pulling the £1bn nuclear-powered Astute submarine from a shingle bank in Kyle, today it may have to prove its worth again.

As I write the Stornoway Coastguard is co-ordinating the rescue of a cargo vessel drifting off the coast of the Isle of Rum.

The ‘Red Duchess’, a coal carrying merchant vessel, has suffered engine failure and is caught out in the Minch in south westerly winds of force 7–8.

The "Anglian Prince" based at Stornoway has been sent to the area, but is still some hours away. Meanwhile the Mallaig lifeboat has been launched and has a line on board in an attempt to arrest the ship’s drift.

The Coastguard rescue helicopter is moving to the location for any possible evacuation of crew if required.

Our brethren shield in danger's hour I hope, but the peril that the Red Duchess finds herself in proves again the need for Coastguard rescue tugs around the British coast.

The Anglian Prince is one of four Coastguard tugs that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has decided to cut as part of the comprehensive spending review.

My snouts tell me that the MCA, in their political naivety, put up the £5m a year running costs of the four tugs as a potential cut, thinking that the government would never accept anything so outrageous as removing the maritime and environmental insurance policy from Britain's coast

They hadn't reckoned on Mike Penning, the Tory transport Minister responsible for shipping, who said thanks very much and left the MCA reeling and the coast unprotected from September 2011.

Penning, MP for land-locked Hemel Hempstead, is standing by the decision and says it is not for taxpayers to fund salvage tugs.

He puts his faith in the private sector, demonstrating his scant knowledge of the shipping industry and flags of convenience vessels that ply the seas around Britain.

He said: “We need to look at the industry which is making its money out of the gas and oil fields,” he added. “They need to come up with a tug because they are the ones making all the profits and putting the environment at risk, not the UK Government.”

The tugs were introduced following Lord Donaldson’s report on the risks of coastal pollution after the Braer oil tanker spill off Shetland in 1993.

Although MCA figures show the Stornoway tug was deployed only five times and the Shetland vessel seven times between 2004 and 2009, the cost of not having them and facing the consequences of an oil spill or the loss of life is unquantifiable.

Politicians, despite how far up the ranking they go, rarely leave a lasting legacy behind them. I'm sure that Mike Penning wouldn't want, at the end of his parliamentary career, to be remembered as the Minister who could be responsible for a second Braer disaster.

The maths of arresting decline of Gaelic

I know the Barnett Formula is a real mathematical equation, but I'm staggered to come across this model which measures the shift from Gaelic speaking across to English bilingualism.

The formula, which explains how we all end up speaking English, comes from the Royal Society paper on bilingualism and the future of the Celtic languages.

The intriuging maths apart, the important caclulation in the paper is that to 860 people would have to become bilingual in Gaelic each year if the decline of the language was to be halted. That's a tall order despite the phenomenal level of interest and determination of Gaelic learners.

But it's not all up to learners to save the language. Here's the crucial passage for the remaining 65,000 Gaelic speakers:

"Intervention strategies may prove much more successful if the rate of intergenerational transmission of the bilingual strategy could be increased as well. Thus, for example, the number of English monolinguals required to learn Gaelic each year could drop down to roughly 440 if the rate of intergenerational transmission of Gaelic at home could be increased (c12 from 0.025 to 0.0125).

This means that beside the 440 new recruits to bilingualism, roughly 340 more children who live in bilingual households would have to be raised in both languages to stabilize the bilingual population at the current level. These numbers indicate that an increase in the rate of intergenerational transmission is a highly effective language maintenance strategy, although one that is also harder to achieve in practice."

Monday 1 November 2010

Gordon Brown back in the Commons

Gordon Brown returned to the political fray last night with an appearance in the Commons in support of retaining servicing work on the remaining Royal Navy supercarrier at the Rosyth dockyard.

The former Prime Minister, who has been seen in the Commons twice since losing May’s general election, spoke in a late night adjournment debate over concerns that Britain's one remaining carrier could undergo lengthy refits at the French naval yard at Brest.

The Commons was packed for Brown’s speech, which he started by paying tribute to the armed forces and the civilian defence staff “who work for the security and strength and safety of our country.”

With Armistice Day approaching he also paid tribute to the all those in the armed forces who gave their lives in the service of the country. In a reference to the conflict for which he was involved in as Prime Minister he said those who lost their lives in Afghanistan “would never be forgotten” .

Brown applauded Thomas Docherty, Dunfermline and West Fife MP, for securing the Commons debate and joked about “the above average attendance”. Before rising to his feet he had already been attacked by the new Tory MP for Portsmouth, Penny Mourdant, who reminded him of an assurance that the carriers would be serviced in their home port.

But Brown said Rosyth was the only location to build and service the carriers: “It is the only base that can assemble the aircraft carriers, the only base that can refit these carriers in the future.”

The former Prime Minister also wanted to be clear on why the £5.2bn carrier order for two carriers had gone ahead, although the incoming coalition government plans to mothball one and will announce plans tomorrow to share the maritime defence burden with the French navy.

He said: “These are military decisions, based on military advice for military reasons. If we are to maintain a global presence as a navy and as a country we will need these aircraft carriers for years to come.

"They are important in maintaining the 500 year role of the Royal Navy in being available to assist in any part of the world.”

Defence Minister Peter Luff said that Rosyth “and possibly overseas locations” would be looked at for the 36-week refit that the British carrier will require every six years.

Brown asked Luff why he could not give an assurance that the carriers would be serviced in the UK.

Luff replied: “I think it is extremely likely that they will, I cannot give a categorical assurance at this stage."

Earlier a senior defence official said : "No final decision has been made but I think you can assume that UK carriers will be refitted in Britain."

Kennedy - equalised constituences "a negation of democracy"

Against deadline I just had half an ear on the Commons debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and an excellent speech by Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy, who has more experience than anyone of the supersized constituencies that the government is proposing to equalize seats at 70,000 voters each, argued the proposals were a "negation of democracy" and against the geography and history of Britain's rural areas.

You have to listen very closely to Kennedy these days, almost every utterance is a coded attack on the coalition albeit well disguised as a highly polite, political interventions.

Towards the end of his speech he warned that voters who kept the Liberal flame alive in these far flung constituencies found it "absolutely incomprehensible in terms of their attitude as to why on earth in government Lib Dems have put their names to something like this that does not take into account the very special peripheral circumstances that their communities represent, and have indeed helped maintain from generation to generation."

He added: "It is never to late for governments to think again and we are going to divide this house to encourage them to do just that."

The Lib Dems want the AV part of the voting reform but the Tories won't deliver it without seat equalisation which will mean more constituencies weighed in their favour under the first past the post system.

Kennedy is having a good Westminster day. Earlier he delivered a beautifully loaded putdown to the Eurosceptic Prime Minister, who returned from Brussels declaring victory for a 2.9% budget increase that had been agreed to months ago.

Kennedy praised Cameron as “one long-standing pro-European... to another”.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Thank the Lord you're not Welsh

Scotland thinks it might have done badly from the cuts but Wales seems to have been taking a real battering under the Tory Lib Dem coalition from the very beginning.

Here's that Welsh slap in the face in full:

S4C budget cut by 25%, and most of funding to come from licence fee rather than DCMS

No defence training college at Saint Athan, thats £14bn down the drain and a much reduced defence footprint in Wales.

Severn tidal barrage is not happening.

Welsh Assembly budget is cut by 11.4%, more than Scotland and Northern Ireland

The 40 Welsh constituencies being cut down to 30, in "an unseemly haste" say the Welsh Affairs committee.

The ultimate insult - no rural superfast broadband pilot - but worry not there is in Herefordshire which Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt seemed to think is in Wales.

The blog Devolution Matters has been on the case and Tomos Livingstone on 07.25 to Paddington monitors the daily devastation of our Celtic cousins.

Neglected, unloved, rumour is that the coalition will soon propose selling Wales off to Ireland.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

'Wur Scottish forests are not for sale

Does the coalition government really know what it's doing?

Caroline Spelman's plan to sell off half the Forestry Commission's 748,000ha of land as a contribution to Chancellor George Osborne’s attempt to cut public spending by £81bn runs into one small problem - about 443,000 of the hectares are in Scotland and not under her control.

The Foresrty Commission's English estate totals only 258,000ha, with an estimated value of £697m, of which just over 200,000ha is woodland. The commercial forests, the sitka spruce and the like, is alsmost all in Scotland.

The Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham dismissed the Spelman claim all Britain's national forests as "very unhelpful and totally misleading".

She said: "Decisions affecting the future of Scotland's national forests do not lie with Westminster but with Scottish Ministers. There is no review of Forestry Commission Scotland.

"The Scottish Government is committed to forestry in Scotland. We believe Scotland's national forests are a very precious asset. They provide employment, support the timber and tourism industries and have a major role to play in tackling climate change.

"There is an on-going review of the functions and operations of the Forestry Commission in England but I want to make it clear that this review does not and cannot extend to Scotland."

Ms Spelman is losing around 30 per cent of her £2.9bn departmental budget by 2015. She'll have to find her savings elsewhere.

Monday 25 October 2010

Brian Haw, peace protester, in hospital

I'd noticed that Brian Haw, the peace campaigner who has defied attempts to remove him from Parliament Square for nine years, had been missing from his post for the last few weeks.

One of the policemen at Carriage Gate, opposite the pavement protest, told me yesterday that Haw had been taken to hospital. The man himself confirmed this by text last night and referred me to Brian Haw TV, his website.

He writes: "I was admitted to hospital on 23rd September 2010, with breathing trouble. Tests show a tumour. I am having more tests, then treatment.

In my enforced absence, Babs Tucker is Captain of the Good Ship Parliament Square Peace Campaign. Please give her all the help possible.

I will be back and able to cry out again for those denied a voice."

Nine years in the open elements have obviously taken a toll on Brian. He's been supporting himself on crutches for most of this year. You can read about his 3000 day anniversary here and contact Brian Haw at his address: Co: Parliament Square, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA.

Friday 22 October 2010

Post mortem confirms Linda Norgrove died from fragment injuries

News from the inquest into the death of Lewis aid worker Linda Norgrove

Kidnapped Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove died of penetrating fragment injuries to her head and chest, an inquest has been told.

Ms Norgrove was killed accidentally during a US forces rescue operation in Afghanistan. The results of the post-mortem examination in England appear to confirm that she succumbed to wounds from a fragmentation grenade thrown by one of her would-be rescuers.

Detective chief inspector Colin Smith of the Metropolitan Police revealed details of the post-mortem examination at the opening of the inquest at the coroner’s court in Salisbury, Wiltshire, yesterday.

Her death was initially blamed on her captors but later details emerged that she may have been killed by one of the US Special Forces troops sent to free her.

A US special forces soldier is reportedly facing disciplinary action for throwing the fragmentation grenade believed to have killed her.

The handling of the news caused huge embarrassment for the US military and Prime Minister David Cameron, who called Ms Norgrove’s parents to apologise.

Ms Norgrove, 36, from the Isle of Lewis, was kidnapped by militants in the Dewagal valley in Kunar province on September 26.

She was fatally wounded during a high risk helicopter rescue mission in a remote valley on October 8.

A former United Nations employee, Ms Norgrove was working for the firm Development Alternatives Inc (DAI) at the time of her kidnap.

Based in Jalalabad, she supervised reconstruction programmes in the eastern region of Afghanistan funded by the US government.

Ms Norgrove’s funeral will be held on Tuesday at Uig Community Centre in Timsgarry, Uig, on the Isle of Lewis, where her parents Lorna, 62, and John, 60, live.

The Norgrove family said friends and everyone who knows them would be welcome. Rather than flowers, they requested donations to a charitable foundation they set up to continue the work Ms Norgrove was doing in Afghanistan.

Tha doigh nas fhearr ann

Who guards stranded subs - Nimrod does

The sub on the rocks off Skye and the Russian sub being off the Nato radar, which I wrote about this morning, have something in common - Nimrod aircraft.

The presence of at least one USAF Orion P3 subhunter at Kinloss is being linked to the search for a Russian Akula class nuclear submarine somewhere in the Atlantic. This is exactly the situation that critics argued would happen if the RAF Nimrods flying out of Kinloss were scrapped.

Simultaneously a Royal Navy submarine has run aground off Skye - Ross MacKerlich of Kyle was giving a fantastic eyewitness account to Radio 4 just now - stranding a nuclear reactor and 7800 tonnes of expensive, and secret, equipment on a rock. You can be sure that it won't just be tourists up there taking pictures this afternoon and consequently that every numberplate crossing the Skye bridge today will be cross-checked by the police and the security services.

But who guards these guardians? When a nuclear sub is approaching home base, or gets into trouble in home waters, a Nimrod aircraft usually provides a protective curtain by dropping sonar buoys in the sea along its course and listening for any approaching enemy submarines.

Without Nimrods they'll need helicopters or frigates to do the job, and if there is a Russian sub on the loose somewhere, unaccounted for, the task becomes even more urgent.

A Royal Navy spokesman has explained that the submarine was maneuvering at low speed, alongside a small when she grounded. The Royal Navy are awaiting a highly technical solution to the problem - high water at 7pm - so the sub can float off.

Isle of Skye - 2, Royal Navy nuclear fleet - 0

News is coming in from the Isle of Skye that the new HMS Astute, described to journalists earlier this year as "the uncrashable submarine", has, er, crashed.

That's the second submarine learner drivers have put onto the rocks around the Isle of Skye in recent years. It's a pretty big island, how do they keep hitting into it?

Looking at Ross McKerlich's pictures on the BBC Scotland website it looks as if the Astute became stuck on rocks just south of the Butec testing range in Kyleakin early this morning.

(UPDATE - the graphic on the BBC website now indicates the sub is north of Kyleakin, near the old Z berth at Broadford).

HMS Trafalgar sustained millions of pounds worth of damage when it ran aground on another part of the coast of Skye in 2002.

Having lost one of our own submarines it looks as if we've lost one of theirs too. There's a great story in the Daily Record today about how the US has lost track of a Russian Akula class attack submarine somewhere in the Atlantic.

One of the biggest question marks over the defence review earlier this week was how the Royal Navy was going to find Russian submarines, and so protect our own nuclear fleet, if the Nimrod replacements were cancelled?

We were told, in briefings, that other resources would be deployed - which we read as US satellite and underwater listening systems that litter the Atlantic. Now it seems the sub hunters are American P3 aircraft doing the job of the Nimrods. Except, it doesn't look as if they are doing it.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Scotland grant in UK spending league table

Here's the league table of the departmental winners and losers from today's Spending Review. The figure show how much each is gaining or losing in real terms (i.e. taking inflation and so on into account) between now and 2014-15.

It shows is that Scotland receives the 6th best deal and 4 of the 5 Departments that fair better spend money in Scotland (DfiD, DECC, DWP and MoD).

The Scottish Government budget is calculated using the Barnett Formula. Decisions by the UK Government such as protecting NHS spending in England and investing billions in the pupil premium in English schools have helped to increase Scotland’s overall budget allocation.

Int Dev 34.2%
Energy and Climate 16.2%
Work and Pension 1.5%
NHS health 0.3%
Defence -7.3%
Scotland -10.6%
NI -10.7%
Education -10.8%
Wales -11.4%
Transport -14.6%
HMRC -16.3%
Culture, Media -21.1%
Law Off Dept -22.0%
Home -25.2%
Justice -25.3%
Foreign -26.0%
CLG Local Goct -26.8%
BIS -28.5%
Env, Food and rural -30.9%
CLG Com -67.6%
TOTAL DEL -11.1%

Pilot superfast broadband for Highlands

Tons of spending review stuff written at a speed to match these fast and furious cuts - buy the Daily Record for coverage.

We'll be poring over the detail for weeks, I guess, but when I live-tweeted (do follow me @Torcuil )the announcement about a pilot superfast broadband scheme for the Highlands and Islands there was quite a response from the online Gaidhealtachd. Mostly cynical, it has to be said, but that's online life.

Unfortunately, I've been able to glean much detail from the Scotland Office or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport simply because the announcements are just that now, announcements.

Pilot broadband schemes are confirmed for the Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Herefordshire and Cumbria.

No specifics on where in the Highlands the pilot would be although there is a budget of £5bn to £10bn for each scheme, money left over from the BBC's digital switchover fund.

The pilot schemes aim to find the best technical solutions and population groups to provide superfast connections, according to DCMS.

Labour had a plan for a 50p a month tax on landlines to fund the roll out of superfast across parts of the country that commerce wouldn't reach.

I can't see how finding a technical solution will get any closer to attracting private suppliers to these areas where it's hard to get a return on investment. Inevitably the pilot scheme won't cover the whole Highlands and Islands area, so one community will be a superfast winner, the rest will be left at the end of a copper wire.

The response to "progressive" cuts - lemon squeeze the rich

In an hour George Osborne's axe will come swinging down on the public sector. Half a million jobs, £83bn of budget savings, the end of social housing in England, the end of universal welfare benefits. This is all going to hurt.

No doubt the cuts will be described as "unavoidable", as Danny Alexander's briefing papers reminded him, "fair" and "progressive", a word you'll hear again and again as cover for what are really ideologically driven cuts process.

The last self-proclaimed conservative progressive was Herbert Hoover, the US President who response to the Wall St Crash was to cut the welfare budget and urge employers not to cut jobs or wages.(One good thing about Hoover - he ordered the feds to pursue gangsters for tax evasion and that snared Al Capone.)

On the other side of the ideological divide Jim Sheridan, Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, has tabled an early day motion calling for the top 10 per cent of tax payers to make a one-off 20% contribution.

His idea for fariness is in his EDM for a Recovery tax, which states:

"That this House agrees with Professor Greg Philo, research director of Glasgow University Media Group, that the UK's current financial deficit could be significantly reduced if the richest 10 per cent. of Britain's citizens paid a one off tax of just 20 per cent. of their personal wealth, which would not have any immediate impact on their quality of life; notes that 74 per cent. of the British public polled recently agree with this proposal; further notes that if this were to happen there would be no need for drastic cuts to public services and armed forces, and there would be less need for major job losses; and therefore calls on the Government to explore how this objective could be achieved, either on a voluntary basis or by legislation if necessary."

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Island lifestyle looks terminal for men

Updated at end with Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University, interview.

It comes as no surprise that Scotland, and particularly the west of Scotland comes top of the league in the shortest male life expectancy statistics released this morning.

But ranked 4th in areas with the lowest life expectancy at birth is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the hebridean constituency and the only rural area in the league table.

Get born in the Western Isles you can expect to live to 73 years and five months, two years longer than the poorest part of West Dunbartonshire.

The islands are ranked at 7th lowest in life expectancy at age 65. Adopt the Western Isles lifestyle and you can expect, on average, to live three months longer than someone in the most deprived areas of North Lanarkshire.

The stats aren't reflected in the female population either at age 65 or at birth. I'm not a health journalist, or a health professional, but something's going wrong here, either in statistical measurement, or in male lifestyles in what one would expect be one of the healthiest places in Britain.

The full report is available here and the extract below shows ranking, area, and life expectancy in years beyond 65.

Lowest male life expectancy at age 65, 2007–09

1 Glasgow City 13.9
2 West Dunbartonshire 15.3
3 North Lanarkshire 15.4
4 Inverclyde 15.5
5 Renfrewshire 15.7
6 LiverpoolNorth West 15.7
7 Na h-Eileanan an Iar 15.7
8 RossendaleNorth West 15.8
9 SalfordNorth West 15.8
10 HaltonNorth West 15.8

UPDATE: Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University tells me that there is no single factor responsible for low life expectancy figures in the islands.

The factors that affect the islands are the same as the west of Scotland - the cumulative effect of a historically high rate of chronic diseases,relatively low income levels, the 20th century legacy of rise and fall of heart disease.

"Harsh lifestyle" might come into it too, thinks Professor Hanlon, because the islands have never had particularly good health stats.

He was reluctant to single out alcohol abuse or cigarrete smoking. The fag stats are the same as the rest of Scotland and while consumption of alcohol is high in the islands it seems no more people drink themselves to death there than anywhere else.

That "no aircraft" carrier timetable in full

The MoD were all over us last night to give us the details of how Britain will have no jets flying off its aircraft carriers for the next ten years - despite spending £5.2bn on two new supercarriers being built at four naval yards.

The idea of briefing the media before the defence review today was probably twofold, to put out some more chaff ahead of the cuts in spending and to hope that some of the blame would fall on the last government for ordering the carriers in the first place.

Osborne seemed clear on the weekend that he would rather not have had to carry on with HMS Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales which will be assembled at Rosyth at a cost of £5.2bn. But the cost of getting out of the contracts meant it was cheaper to build both rather than one.

The Ark Royal, the Royal Navy flagship and the fleet of 80 Harrier vertical landing jets will be decommissioned with immediate effect. I'm sure that the wily Dr Fox will find a way of retaining some Harriers to fill the gap while we wait for the new, cheaper, joint strike fighter that can land in carrier catapult and trap system.

Anyway, the timetable for the Royal Navy’s "no aircraft" carriers looks like this:

2010 - The current aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, taken out of service with immediate effect.
HMS Illustrious, although a carrier, operates as a helicopter platform until 2014, then scrapped.
HMS Invincible is already in "extended readiness", or mothballed.

2014 - HMS Illustrious crew go to the new Rosyth-built HMS Queen Elizabeth for two years of sea trials.
HMS Ocean, another helicopter platform, currently in "extended readiness" comes back into service to fill the gap.

2016 - HMS Queen Elizabeth enters service, operating as a helicopter platform until 2019

2017 - HMS Ocean crew transfer to HMS Prince of Wales, the second new supercarrier, for sea trials. HMS Ocean retired or will carry on as helicopter platform if HMS Elizabeth is converted

2019 - HMS Prince of Wales enters service, equipped with catapult and traps that enable the new joint strike fighter to fly off its deck. But, operates as a helicopter platform for a year while flight crews are trained up

2020 - HMS Prince of Wales becomes a fully-operating strike carrier capable of facilitating US and French aircraft as well as British JSF aircraft.
One of the carriers , probably HMS Elizabeth, is put into extended readiness, effectively mothballed, after four years of service without an aircraft ever flying from its decks.

Monday 18 October 2010

Cost of keeping the lights on in the Isles

I'm told it costs half a million pounds a year to keep lights on in the Western Isles - that's the streetlamps, the orange sodium floods that keep Stornoway, Tarbert, the harbours, airports and the little-walked village roads lit all winter.

With the nights fair drawing in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council, is facing up to the prospect of funding gap of £5.5m in 2011-12.

Some £2m of cuts will be sought through efficiencies, that's shorter working hours and redundancies, and £3.5m through service cuts. Another £5.5m of cuts has to be found in 2012-13.

The council is currently consulting with on where the axe should fall at a series of public meetings, and they're open to suggestions. It's probably a step in the dark to suggest that all the street lights be switched off?

Street lighting has become such a political virility symbol in the islands that there isn't a councillor who doesn't measure their worth by the amount of light pollution produced in their ward.

The result is that there are over 6000 street lamps trailing through the Western Isles, about one for every four residents.

They're popular too, a whole generation has grown up not knowing what the darkness is or even seeing the night sky.

I was reminded of that when on a Northern Lights "hunt" to Iceland a couple of years ago. When the Dancing Men revealed themselves to us, atop a dark mountain, they proved to be dramatic, that is about as dramatic as the "Fir Chlis" we used to see over Broad Bay in childhood when the novelty was counting the small number of street lights during a night-time car journey.

But, hats off to the Icelanders, they are selling the darkness as a tourist attraction while at home we insist that the islands glow with an orange nightbelt from Minch to Atlantic coast. Other remote parts of Scotland promote themselves as Sky parks, where the stars can be seen free of light pollution, but I can't think of a better location in Britain than 58 degrees north to get close to the heavens.

There are safety considerations but even outside urbanised areas the roads are now mostly paved and pedestrians separated from car traffic. There's the crime argument, but housebreaking stats are about a fifth of the Scottish average on the islands and vandalism about half.

Switching the lights off altogether would save £500,000 a year but that would leave everyone, literally, in the dark. So, just switch off every second street light and save £250,000 a year? Okay, how about every third one, that's £160,000 saved? Here, look at this nice torch...

Scotland and the Spending Review

Stand by for a tidal wave of bad news about cuts this week. The national security strategy today sets out the context for the defence spending review tomorrow.

On Wednesday the Spending Review proper - the government have stopped calling it the comprehensive spending review - which will outline the scale of the cuts to come.

Then, on Thursday, we will wake up and life will go on much as it did before. The cuts will start biting until next year, 2011, and people will really begin to feel the pain next summer and into 2012.

But as Alan Johnson points out, this is the week that the cuts move off the spreadsheet and start becoming real job losses in the public sector. He has just finished outlining Labour's alternative - hammering the banks.

Scotland's share of the cuts could see spending going back to 2005 levels, if you calculate that £6bn will be taken out of the block grant over four years.

Listen to Alex Salmond at the SNP conference on the weekend and you'd think that there wasn't a spending cut to be had. He promises no increase in council tax, free prescriptions, matches Labour's pledge on a living wage for public sector workers...the list goes on as if there wasn't a stringency to be found, unless you're a police superintendent or health service manager.

Apart from an over-excited editorial in the Guardian today I don't think even the hall in Perth believed the Banff bluster Salmond maintained about Scotland being a social democratic haven from cuts in the next few years.

But his approach foreshadows how, I suspect, how all the main parties will campaign in the Holyrood elections next May. While dancing around the council tax freeze they will not spell out how they will handle the diminished block grant from Westminster.

That is, all the parties except the Tories whose very un-electability enable them to speak some truths on the scale of cuts to be had and some of the left field solutions that could meet them.

Previewing Wednesday in search form some silver linings for Scotland there's little glittering on the horizon. The aircraft carriers, which were as totemic as Ravenscraig, are to be built. But that only throws forward the future of Scottish shipbuilding jobs until 2013 or so. Campaigns for the next part of the joint yards order - the huge assault ships - start tomorrow, I reckon.

The RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Kinloss look a lot less safe but the defence footprint in Scotland remains substantial. What future for RA Benbecula,

The welfare budget, on which large numbers of Scots depend, is in for major cuts and child benefit for the well off is also to go.

The cold weather payments have been protected at £25 a week, we hear, at Danny Alexander's intervention, or rather thanks to some smart scrutiny and sharp press briefing by Labour's Ian Austin.

Also health spending has been ringfenced in England and Michael Gove has succeeded in ringfencing school spending in the Education budget, thanks in part to the £7bn "fairness premium" being attached to poorer pupils. All that should have the consequence of bolstering the Barnett consequentials for the Scottish block grant though, overall, the education budget could be slashed.

We'll unravel it all on Wednesday afternoon going into Thursday. No certainties except that you cannot pretend, as Salmond defiantly did, that the Scottish budget won't involve delivering cuts.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Cam and Petraues to discuss Norgrove death

The death of Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker killed in Afghanistan during a failed rescue attempt last Friday, will be discussed in Downing Street this afternoon when US General David Petraeus meets with Prime Minister David Cameron.

Petraeus is due at 3pm, and while there will be pictures of the arrival there will be no press conference. Downing Street assure us that the case of Linda Norgrove will be discussed during the long-scheduled meeting and that we will be given a read-out later.

It was Petraeus who called Downing Street in the early hours of Monday morning to tell the Prime Minister that initial claims that Linda Norgrove had been fatally wounded when one of her captors set off a suicide bomb belt were incorrect.

It seems more likely, from video evidence, that Dr Norgrove was caught in a blast when a US Seal threw a fragmentation grenade into the compound which exploded next to her.

The Foreign Office and Downing Street and will not be commenting on the Guardian's detailed account of the US special forces raid and are maintaining silence on the repatriation of Linda Norgrove's body.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Linda Norgrove rescue - Guardian's detailed account

Julian Borger, in the Guardian, has just published a startling, detailed account of the failed mission to rescue Linda Norgrove. You can read the story on the Guardian website and the extracted details are published below.

From the Guardian:
From interviews with well-informed sources, both military and civilian, the Guardian has put together this detailed account of the failed rescue mission.

Norgrove, originally from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, was seized on 26 September, when her car was forced off the road in Kunar province, near the Pakistan border.

Soon after her abduction, she was taken to a stronghold in a steep-sided valley 8,000ft (2,400 metres) up in the mountains of northern Kunar. But her kidnappers were being watched. US intelligence had a network of informers in the area and drones circling above. They were watching Norgrove's captors and eavesdropping on their radio conversations. All that intelligence was immediately passed to a British officer.

By late last week it was clear, according to sources, that Norgrove's life was in very grave danger. One group of local elders was calling for her execution, talking of killing her like "the Russian" some years before, an apparent reference to the long war with the Soviet army, in which captured soldiers were often slaughtered in horrifying ways.

The other option her captors were debating was shipping Norgrove to North Waziristan, the tribal territory in western Pakistan, which is almost entirely outside the control of government forces, and where it would be virtually impossible to keep track of the British woman and her abductors.

From the outset, there was little question that if there was to be a rescue mission it would be carried out by Seal Team Six, a secretive US navy unit used for high-risk counter-terrorist operations. Commanders considered the only other special forces qualified to carry out the assault were the US Delta Force and Britain's SAS, which had rescued a British-Irish journalist, Stephen Farrell, last year.

However, the SAS were too far away and did not have the MH-60, a Black Hawk helicopter highly modified for special forces night operations and just about capable of functioning in such thin mountain air. Furthermore, Seal Team Six had been operating in that area of northern Kunar for months. They knew the terrain and their adversaries.

The assault was launched before dawn on Saturday morning, when it was thought the insurgents would be at their most groggy. Landing the Seals some distance away and creeping of the compound on foot was impossible. There was nowhere flat to set down for miles around.

The only realistic option was for the US special forces to descend on the target compound out of the night sky, sliding down ropes, guns blazing. Far away, in the taskforce headquarters, the operation was being watched on six big screens, each showing a live feed from a different source — the drones, the helicopters and even the Seals' helmet cameras. It was not the sharp green clarity as portrayed Hollywood films – sometimes a feed would be lost as an aircraft made a turn for example – but the unfolding action was clear enough.

In the first few violent minutes, the plan seemed to be working. The six abductors holding Norgrove stumbled out of their huts into the central compound and were shot and killed. What the Seals did not see however, was one of the insurgents dragging Linda Norgrove out of a hut with him.

She managed to break away and lay down, hunched up in the foetal position – the safest thing to do given the hail of gunfire around her – but on that moonless night, the Seals did not spot her, even with their night vision goggles.

To the horror of the senior officers watching back at headquarters, the six big screens were lit up by a blast that seemed to come from the vicinity of Norgrove and the insurgent closest to her, and soon afterwards word came from the returning helicopters that Norgrove was mortally wounded. The operation had failed.

The immediate assumption was that the blast had come from a suicide bomb, as it is not unusual for insurgents to slip into suicide vests if there is a risk of attack.

Late on Sunday, however, the taskforce commander acted on a hunch and asked to see the video of the assault stored on the computer hard drive at its headquarters. Running through it again, he spotted one Seal, standing on the roof of one of the huts, toss something underhand into the compound. Four seconds later the screen went bright from the explosion. He called the team in and asked who had thrown a grenade. One man stepped forward.

Within minutes, the Seal Team Six commander was on a secure line to Petraeus with the bad news. It was 7.30am in Kabul, 4am in London, but Petraeus quickly made the call to Downing Street, where a defence aide woke the prime minister

Finally - two worthy gladiators for PMQs

Relief, and trebles all round, for Labour backbenchers this lunchtime. Ed Miliband had to score on his first outing at Prime Minister's Questions and the undisputed verdict in Westminster is that the new boy done well.

Relief for all political observers too - at least we know we're going to see an evenly-matched fight every Wednesday from now on.

I'm sure Cameron didn't know exactly what to expect from his new opponent but perhaps he should have been watching videos of his own performances in preparation rather than trying to second guess the Labour leader.

The Labour team haven't been asleep on the job in the five months since Cameron started standing at the dispatch box. We, in the press gallery, might not have taken these early outings against Harriet Harman too seriously, except that they allowed Cameron to fit comfortably into the role.

But Labour noticed that the Harman-style, of drilling calmly away at an issue, repeating the question if the answer has been flannelled, actually gets Cameron quite riled. He raises his voice, you keep yours calm, you look in charge. That's the theory, and it worked for Miliband, though the lisp, which people will get used to, sounded more pronounced.

Cornered, twice, on the fairness of the child benefit cut Cameron was in one of these damned if he did and damned if he didn't situations. Result, he hesitated a wee bit, enough of a chink for a blow to be scored. You win PMQs over the course of two seconds, although the ordeal last half an hour for the Prime Minister.

Cameron underperformed, by quite a bit for him, but he'll be better prepared next week, when the subject will inevitably be the spending cuts.

Monday 11 October 2010

Cameron reveals how Linda Norgrove died

It was a clearly shaken David Cameron who revealed this morning that Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker kidnapped in Afghanistan, may have been killed by a grenade detonated by her would-be rescuers.

Cameron's Downing Street press conference, his first as Prime Minister, was delayed for an hour while he took calls from US General Petraeus and then had that difficult phone conversation with John Norgrove, Linda's father, on the Isle of Lewis.

In front of the media Cameron was a bit nervy, and unable to answer all the questions relating to the incident. His discomfort stands as nothing compared to the distress of the family finding out that their daughter's death was not as they had first been informed.

It took 48 hours for the US Special Forces debrief to overturn their initial claim that Linda Norgrove may have been killed when one of her kidnappers triggered a suicide belt.

This is quite a test for a Prime Minister, to make a call for a rescue bid and for it to go wrong. Cameron said: "I will obviously go over in my mind 100 times whether it was the right decision but I profoundly believe it was."

There have been a serious of tough calls to be made throughout the weeks that Linda Norgrove was held. Could negotiations have been successful, what was the advice from the British military, where the parents asked for their approval of a rescue mission.
And why were lethal fragment grenades used instead of stun grenades used in other hostage rescues.

News that "something had gone wrong" in the rescue was known locally in the Norgrove's village on Sunday evening, so a picture of what had a happened in eastern Kunar must have been emerging by then.

William Hague, who sanctioned the rescue as Foreign Secretary, will be on his feet in the Commons at 3.30pm

Monday 4 October 2010

Scottish Tories look for a braveheart

At the Scottish Conservative reception this evening David Cameron sounded more like an insurgent than a Prime Minister. "I will stand with you, I will stand for you," he told a packed, if undersized, hotel suite. For a moment he was a veritable Mel Gibson/William Wallace for the Scottish Tories.

The talk was, as usual, about the conundrum of the Scottish Tories - how do they get elected? The man they're all looking to for the answers, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, who is conducting an internal review of the party, was in the room. But he maintains a solemn silence until he pronounces later this month.

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish leader, is the target of internal discontent but, believe me, she won't be moved easily unless there is a disastrous performance next May.

And why should she go? Goldie made quite thoughtful speech today about Scotland and the Big Society - the Phillip Blond concept of civic society taking the place of state provision which Cameron has grasped.

It's strange how ideas that the Tories can pick up and the national press will run with in London just don't get any traction in Scotland because they come from the Tories.

Goldie, who is facing a fight to stay on as Scottish leader unless the Tories improve their Scottish showing, acknowledged her ideas would be treated with hostility but she pledged to lead the debate on reforming public services.

She suggested that voluntary organisations and third sector organisations should have a "right to bid" for a proportion of all social services and that councils be given financial incentives to contract out.

She said: "Scotland needs to drag itself into the modern world when delivering public services. No longer can we be stuck in the obsolete socialism of the seventies."

Most of Scotland will disagree with the idea that the state and local councils should play a smaller part in helping the vulnerable in society. But, considering that government budgets are going to be squeezed hard over the next few years, then there has to be some kind of innovative thinking going on about delivering local authority services

Raising the council tax - which seems to be as "inevitable" for Scottish Labour as the cuts are for the Con-Lib Dem coalition - shouldn't be the only solution on the table.

There are parts of what Goldie said that would fit into an Ed Miliband speech, but not an Iain Gray speech, which is a shame because Gray himself has lots of experience in what the third sector can deliver at a national and international level.

There's a whole other argument about the Big Society, a basically communitarian concept the Conservatives have mistaken as a right-wing idea. It's so not.

The so-called Big Society is writ large across Scotland where people have taken over local shops, post offices, petrol stations and whole landed estates. Here it's called the local community and it's what the Left should naturally support and organise around. It would be neglectful of Labour, particularly Scottish Labour, to cede that territory to the Tories.

Osborne - rainmaker and mythmaker

It doesn't matter what you think of George Osborne's politics, or even the unfortunate appearance of a sneer his features settle to when neutrally composed, he is the man making the political weather in the UK.

First, this morning the cuts child benefit from the rich, or at least those households where one person earns more than £44,000. Then, he announces in his conference speech that no family will, in future, receive more in out-of-work benefits than the average household income of those who are in work.

Eat the rich for breakfast and the poor for lunch seems to the be media strategy. It's hard to work out which announcement was meant to trump the day. The cut in child benefit - one of the cornerstones of the universal welfare state and a benefit paid directly to the mother - will affect 1.2 million people. And once you've taken away one universal benefit...look out winter fuel allowance, bus passes for English pensioners.

He could have waited until the comprehensive spending review to announce the cut, but he does it now. Why? Presumably to erode the concept of universality in time for more changes to benefit rules two weeks from now.

Meanwhile the other headline grabber, the cap on benefits to the level of an average family wage will affect some 50,000 claimants, taking an average of £93 a week of them.

The savings for the Treasury won't be huge but the symbolism of the gesture Osborne claims, is its fairness. The message is actually deeper - it is about building a narrative to scapegoat the poor to justify the cuts agenda.

Osborne isn't above pedalling myths about the unemployed to advance his case for dismantling the welfare state.

Anne McGuire MP caught him out last summer over an alleged £104,000 housing benefit pay out that he referred to in his budget speech.

The Stirling Labour MP pointed out, as Westminster Council did shortly after the budget, that no one was ever awarded such a sum in housing benefit. But the figure became common currency as a cover for cutting housing benefit.

The rates Osborne used in the budget speech were and example of what housing benefit on a five bedroom house in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London's most upmarket boroughs, would be - about £2,000 a week.

"It is what the rate would be," said a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions afterwards. "We don't have any figures on how many people are claiming that rate."

Yet Osborne used the figure to justify the squeeze the Housing Benefit budget and to create an impression that there is no alternative to his cuts agenda.

All said, though, it was another impressive performance by the chancellor. He drew easy dividing lines between himself and Labour and effectively bodyblocked the middle ground of British politics from any early challenge by Ed Miliband. He's a politician approaching the top of his game.

Tory conference - sunny side up?

Still wondering what the game plan is for the Tory conference, which is now into it's second day. David Cameron must have been really stung by Ed Miliband's taunt that he "was the optimist once" because he spent most of his Sunday morning, and all his weekend print interviews, trying to persuade us that it was sunny side up from now on and that Britain's economy was out of the danger zone.

There was no sign of Ken "Bagpuss" Clarke, one of the Conservative's party's most successful (lucky) chancellors, agreeing with him. He still fears a double dip recession which could be brought on by any number of factors.

But George Osborne, while he was announcing the end of universal child benefit this morning, also insisted that Britain was out of the danger zone.

I noticed Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley picking up on the "pessimism" line that Milband planted last week while interviewing Osborne. Mmm, it seems to be getting some traction.

Certainly plenty pessimism out there in the country Just anecdotal evidence here in Birmingham, where the media army regrouped for a final conference, brought news of three redundancies among friends and colleagues last week.

You'd think the Conservatives would spend the week toughening the nation up, not softening them up, for the cuts which are to come. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself here - George Osborne has still to address conference this morning.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Lessons across the Irish Sea from Ed Balls

Good conference rabble rouser there from Ed Balls, defeated in the leadership race but well placed to be rewarded with a top job - shadow chancellor is what he wants -in the shadow cabinet.

Education was his brief in the speech but he ranged across the Lib Dems, the disappointment of Michael Gove and, he couldn't help himself, the economy. After all, this was basically a job application and love letter to the leader, but it was a good speech.

There was an interesting passage about Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, which was being held up to Scotland not so long ago as the model of economic growth an independent nation should follow.

Here's what Balls said:

"We don’t need to go back to the history books to see the warning signs
over George Osborne’s economic policy - we only need to look across the
Irish Sea.

Two years ago, the Irish Government convinced itself they had to slash
public services and cut child benefits to get their deficit down as fast as
possible and reassure the money markets.

The IMF praised the Irish government for its "sense of urgency".

And what has happened since?

Recession turned to slump, unemployment at a 16-year high, 19 consecutive
months of deflation, consumer spending and tax revenues plummeting, and the
deficit worse now than when they started.

The Irish Economist David McWilliams said this week:

"It is like watching a slow car crash. The more they cut, the more the
economy will continue to stagnate.”

George Osborne used to say that Ireland has so much to teach us, if only we
were willing to learn.

Now he's the one ignoring the lessons.

Just imagine if Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown had listened to David
Cameron and George Osborne in 2008 – and not nationalised the banks, not
cut VAT, not invested in a new jobs programme – recession would have turned
to depression and unemployment would be much higher today."

A tartan-free Labour front bench?

Have you noticed how New Generation Labour has a new postcode? Ed Miliband is a north London boy, Hariet Harman tooks afer the Del Boys of Peckham, Sadiq Khan is Tooting's popular front and Ken Livingstone is old father Thames himself.

For almost two decades the Labour front bench looked like the Earl of Bute's cabinet - it was dominated by Scots. Now there is the prospect of the top of the party being what one MP described to me today as "a tartan free zone".

The list of shadow cabinet nominees will be out today at 5pm. The Scottish runners so far are Douglas Alexander, Jum Murphy, Ann McKechin, Tom Harris and Eric Jocye. Others may decide to put their name into the hat.

My veteran Labour MP, who remembers shadow cabinet elections of the past, knows what a complete lottery the whole thing is. "Some very senior ex-Ministers may find themselves very surprised," he said darkly.

Let me translate: he means that Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander - the main organisers of the David Miliband campaign - might find themselves being blamed for the failure to win.

Alexander is used to getting blamed for things he's not responsible for - like the November 2007 election that never was, and can look after himself. Murphy is too light of foot to be caught in the falling rubble of David Miliband's career.

Ed Miliband will need at least one Scot in the shadow cabinet, or be in the embarrassing position of having to co-opt someone to be the Shadow Scottish Secretary.

Ann McKechin's name has already been linked to the post but hopefully the leader will be spoiled for choice come October 7th. Even if all five Scots, or more (lets not forget people like Pat McFadyen), make it the top table it's undeniable that Labour's centre of gravity has moved south.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The conference speech - still the measure of the man

There comes a stage in the conference season, four long weeks from the TUC to the Tories, when you run out of toothpaste, you look at the greying spectre the shaving mirror and think your body has had enough punishment for one year.

Then your realise your task is no more onerous that reporting the most important speech of someone's life, not actually having to make it. Ed Miliband, the address all typed and dusted we're told, has to put in the performance of a lifetime today, no exaggeration.

It is fascinating that even in the short snap attention span of the wifi age, the measure of a politician is a how good they can convey themselves, their ideas and their policies in front of a live audience. A sermon to the congregation is still the most important communication tool the modern politician has to master.

If you wanted to know the difference that 1.3 per cent makes, you should have been in the hall for what felt like David Miliband's swansong yesterday.

Gone was the clumsy, awkward style of the past that was marked down as a weakness while he was a putative challenger to Brown. He spoke unscripted for 20 minutes, reminding Labour and the country what it has now missed out on.

The speech was so well received in the hall that he nearly had the Labour conference cheering for the British Intelligence Service. He didn't quite manage that, but roused them on the rebound with a reference to Oxfam.

He set the bar high but Ed Miliband is the family's great orator, much better than his brother.

And this is the big moment, when he truely does step out of the shadow of his brother David, and introduces himself to Britain. The hall will be behind him, hoping with bated breat that he can prove their collective decision was the right one.

In danger of overshadowing the whole event, in fact the talking point of this strange, subdued week in Manchester, is the Jacob and Esau struggle over the Miliband birthright.

It is just dawning on this conference, in the reflected light of the shaving mirror, the extent and the depth of the family and political schism that has been created by brother setting himself against brother.

The political ramifications have still not been worked through, and they will not end with a great performance this afternoon, or if David Miliband walks away from the shadow cabinet tomorrow, as he may well do.

As Isaac said to Esau, when he lost his birthright to his brother: "yet it shall be that when you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck".