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.