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”.