Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Tartan Army not racist, but some Scots are

Mixed news for Scotland's reputation as a tolerant nation this afternoon.

First, the good news, the Tartan Army has been cleared of any suggestion of racist behaviour following the banana-throwing incident during Sunday's friendly match against Brazil.

The good old Daily Record reports that a German teenager was responsible for throwing the offending fruit when Brazil was awarded a penalty (dive!) during the game at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Arsenal has said.

Brazil forward Neymar, who scored both goals in his side's 2-0 win, complained after the match that he had been the victim of racist abuse, a claim strenuously denied by the Scottish Football Association and the Tartan Army fans' organisation.

The banana was retrieved from the pitch by team-mate Lucas Leiva during the game.

An Arsenal statement today read: "After consultation with the Metropolitan Police, Arsenal Football Club can confirm that a German teenage tourist has admitted throwing a banana onto the pitch during the Brazil v Scotland international friendly at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday."

And the bad news...Racist incidents in Scotland have increased by 10% in a six-year period, new figures show.

Statistics released by the Scottish Government showed there were 4,952 racist incidents recorded by the country's eight police forces in 2009/10, compared to 4,519for the 2004/05 period.

Race hate victims were most likely to be of Pakistani origin, with 48% of all those targeted in 2009/10 classed as Asian. The vast majority of race hate perpetrators - 96% - were classed as white British.

The majority of victims, 75%, were men. Men and women aged 26 to 35 were most likely to be targeted. Most incidents, 32%, took place on the street but they were also likely to take place in a private house, 19%, or in shops, 18%.

Of the perpetrators, most were men aged 16-20 followed by men under the age of 16. Girls aged under 16 were most likely to commit racist acts, followed by those aged 16to 20. About 47% of all perpetrators in 2009-10 were aged 20 or under and around 23% were under the age of 16.

Semi in Swansea looks like Nazi dictator

Can you imagine being the picture editor walking into the Daily Mail news conference with this little story tucked under your arm?

Who are we bombing Libya for?

Big day in Westminster with up to 40 governments attending the London conference on Libya.

The Prime Minister is greeting US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton about now but,just as importantly, he is due to meet Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for Libya's rebel National Transitional Council.

Earlier Foreign Secretary William Hague also met with Jibril, whom he invited to London but not to the conference.

Jibril is the de-facto Prime Minister of the National Transitional Council in Libya, already recognised by French President Sarkozy as the legitimate government of the country.

He was a Gaddafi government minister until recently, and as head of Nedb (National Economic Development Board) he promoted privatization and liberalization of Libyan econony and looked after US and UK investments in the country. He is, in that respect, a man we have already done business with.

While the question of what will happen to Gaddafi, and whether he will be offered an exit route, is dominating the morning agenda less is being asked about would replace him.

There was a sobering piece in the Guardian yesterday by Simon Tisdall which raised some awkward questions about the transitional council and the ragtag army that is racing down the road towards Tripoli.

He quotes various experts on the tribal and religious make-up of the Gaddafi opposition. Here's one of the key passages:

Eastern Libya also has a different religious tradition from the rest of the country and this was reflected in the rebels' transitional council, argued Andy Stone, a columnist on the Nolan Chart website. "This is no Solidarnosc movement," he said (referring to the Polish trade union-led anti-communist movement).

"The [Libyan] revolt was started on February 15-17 by the group called the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition [an umbrella organisation founded in London in 2005]. The protests had a clear fundamentalist religious motivation and were convened to commemorate the 2006 Danish cartoons protests which had been particularly violent in Benghazi." (The 2006 protests had turned into an anti-Gaddafi demonstration).

Stone went on to claim that much of the eastern Libyan opposition to Gaddafi was rooted in the region's strong Islamist tradition which resulted, for example, in a large numbers of eastern Libyan jihadis taking part in the Iraq war (second in number only to Saudis) and support for the al-Qaida-affiliated, anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, many of whose members had fought in Afghanistan.

"It is these same religiously and ideologically trained east Libyans who are now armed and arrayed against Gaddafi. Gaddafi's claim that all his opponents are members of al-Qaida is overblown, but also not very far off in regard to their sympathies. Anyone claiming the eastern Libyans are standing for secular, liberal values needs to overcome a huge burden of proof," Stone wrote.

British diplomats, Tisdall notes, counter that it is overblown to claim that the rebel movement is dominated by Islamists. Most Libyans, like most people all over the world, are secular and tolerant says a former British diplomat quoted by Tisdall.

Let's hope he's right. It would be bad news to be bombing the road to Tripoli on behalf of al Qaida.

Yes to AV will wipe away Cameron's smile

It's an old trick, if you're throwing a party always hire a small room and invite double the number of people it can hold.

As a result it was so packed at the launch of the Yes to AV campaign in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster this morning that the audience had to practice synchronised breathing.

I stayed long enough to confirm the platform line up - Ed Miliband for Labour and Charles Kennedy for the Lib Dems, who now regains his proper mantle as a Lib Dem that the public recognise and, more importantly, like.

Caroline Lucas for the Greens was there, Shirley Williams and other leading Lib Dems also attended. But cross-party unity on the issue was somewhat undermined by the absence of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Miliband has refused to share a platform with Clegg, advising him to lie low during the campaign so as not drive voters away. That doesn't help one of Miliband's core messages - not to turn the AV vote into a referendum on Nick Clegg.

It first instinct of many Labour voters is to use the AV referendum to kick Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems for joining the Tory cuts.

AV is the price Nick Clegg demanded for joining David Cameron. Opponents say a Yes vote would help the Lib Dems rebound back from their current low polling.

The Lib Dems might recover somewhat but their leader is already beaten by the betrayal of so many promises. Clegg is political husk looking at single figure support in UK and Scottish opinion polls.

Apart from agreeing that Elvis is the King, you would rarely find Iain Martin, Daily Mail's new columnist, and I reading from the same political script

However, his column is spot on in identifying the danger for David Cameron in a Yes vote in the referendum.

As Iain explains, Cameron is against a fairer voting system and every No vote makes his PR grin even wider.

But a Yes vote means the Tory party wakes up on the morning after the referendum realising they have changed the British constitution - just to please Lib Dem coalition partners they regard as political toe rags.

Tories will take out their anger on David Cameron who, if there is a yes majority, will become a serial loser.(He didn’t win them the general election either).

A Yes result would make life uncomfortable for the Tory leader. Having "sold out" on the voting system Cameron will find it harder to keep the lid on simmering right-wing discontent in his own party. The plotting will begin, the coalition will creak, Cameron will be looking over his shoulder for the knife in the back.

More importantly the Prime Minister will be on the wrong side of history.
Ed Miliband, who backs a yes vote, will look at the Lib Dems and ask them just why they are in bed with the Tories when really Labour represents progressive politics.

A Yes vote is a winner for Labour, and exposes the divisions in the Conservative LibDem coalition.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The fisherman's wife and the cruel sea

The highlight of yesterday's Westminster Hall debate on the coastguard station closure plans was undoubtedly a speech by Sheryll Murray, the Conservative MP for Cornwall South East.

The wife of a Cornish fisherman, she made an impassioned plea against the closures, drawing on her personal experience of living in fear of the ocean for 25 years.

Then, with terrible irony, came the news this morning that her husband, Neil Murray, has died in an accident aboard his trawler.

Murray, an experienced fisherman, was apparently drowned while fishing alone on "Our Boy Andrew", 24 miles off the Cornish coast.

His wife's words in the Westminster debate, uttered while he was on his last voyage, stand as heartbreaking testament to the danger of the sea and her own bereavement.

She concluded her speech:"The sea can be the most beautiful place in which anybody can spend their time, but it can change quickly-believe me, I know after living for 25 years in fear of seeing the sea change overnight or within hours. One thing my experience has taught me is that we must have respect for the sea at all times. If we lose that respect and believe that we can beat the sea, we are finished.

"While I welcome the extension to the consultation period, when the Minister looks at the responses, I urge him to ensure that he does not lose respect for one of the most dangerous but beautiful elements in the world. If he does, not only will he let down fishermen's wives such as myself, the wives of sailors and other users of the sea, such as our young people, but he will let down the whole nation."

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Osborne's budget draws Scottish battlelines

The dust is just beginning to settle on the budget but the Scottish battle lines are already drawn.

Osborne's fuel duty stabliser has meant to keep the lid on rising petrol prices, an unenviable task, and it has been roundly slated by opponents for being ineffective against his own VAT rise and inflation.

The idea of a stabiliser, originally an SNP plan, was that the Treasury itself would take the hit from reducing pump prices as it collected more revenue from the rising cost of oil barrels.

Osborne decided not to do it that way and instead he hit the North Sea oil companies with a £2bn tax on their rocketing profits. There is a stabiliser element - if the price of a barrel goes below $75 the tax won't be collected.

The effect has been sensational with predictable anger from oil and gas producers, who claimed the tax hike on their production would damage a vital UK sector.

The move also threw a spanner in the SNP election machine that was primed to whine for a fuel stabiliser between now and election day in May.

Having been granted their wish the SNP’s John Swinney compained bitterly that "Scotland’s North Sea" resources were funding the fuel cut. Osborne's tax on oil revenues would be enough for a 50p reduction in petrol prices in an independent Scotland, sat some naive nationalist economists, conveniently forgetting that an independent Scotland would have little else other than oil revenues to fill the Treasury coffers.

Michael Moore, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, declared himself delighted with the SNP reaction. He said: "This shoots a fox the SNP was keen to run with. All the time we said we would listen as a government and we’ve been able to put in place a 1p cut in place of Labour’s 5p rise in prices."

As it happens, I had a chat with the director of a North Sea oil supply company this week. As long as oil is over $100 a barrel he reckons they have a licence to print money in the North Sea, giving Aberdeen and it's environs that soaraway spin that the rest of Scotland doesn't feel.

Whatever they are the oil companies are not the "squeezed middle" that Osborne, Miliband and everyone else is chasing.

Osborne also promised to look allowing Northern Ireland to set a different corporation tax to allow the Province to compete across the border with the Irish Republic.

That woke up SNP MPs who want Scotland to be able to set a lower level of business tax from the rest of the UK. Another debating point on the long road back to Holyrood.

Blair's Liberal interventionism vindicated

A bit late to the feast with this one, but here is Dan Hodge's interesting re-assessment of Tony Blair's most controversial legacy - Liberal interventionism. It's over on the Labour Uncut site

Katy Clark, the lone voice against war

Katy Clark MP, Labour North Ayrshire and Arran, was the only Scottish voice against the Libyan intervention in the Commons debate on Monday. Along with 12 other MPs she voted against the government motion.

Here's her contribution to the debate from Hansard . Not as articulate as a Galloway but she has the left analysis and the same "war and oil" sentiments as the former MP does.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Rafale vs Typhoon - welcome to the arms bazaar

No matter how well intentioned the Ministry of Defence briefing this morning somtimes felt like it was descending into a powerpoint sales pitch for lazer-guided weaponry.

The generals told us how stand-off missiles, fired from miles away are "accurate to within four metres", while they emphasised the restraint and the intelligence of the British forces.

They were, incidentally, also more on the ball about the mission statement, to protect civilians, and not to decapitate Muhammar Gaddafi.

War is always good for business, I thought, as we went through the capabilities of the various instruments of destruction, and business is always in competition for orders.

I suspect from the arms industry's point of view one of the most, er, interesting commercial competitions over the skies of Libya in the coming days will be between France's Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

The Rafale is France's own version of Eurofighter, developed after the Eurofighter project nearly fell apart in 1985. Ironically, the French wanted a version of the jet that could take-off and land on carriers, something the British saw as un-necessary at the time.

Now, after a savage defence review that scrapped the Harrier fleet and mothballed the second Super-carrier, Britain is having to retro-fit the Super-carrier design to enable cat and trap landings and change the Eurofighter to fit.

We all expected the Tornados to be in action over Libya but, as far as I'm aware(I'm not a defence expert, mind), this is the first combat deployment for the Typhoons.

Each of the allied airforces will be out there to prove their gear is the is best in show.

If you're in the market for a multi-role combat aircraft Rafales cost about 70m Euros per unit, the Typhoon is about 90m Euros a go, and are available from the more reputable parts of the military-industrial complex.

Murphy - put Basil Brush back in his box

The main news-managed story today should have been brilliant British restraint in aborting a Tornado bombing run on a Tripoli target because intelligence reports that civilians were in the area.

Hats off to the professionalism of the Tornado pilots on their 3000 mile mission and the bravery of the eyes on the ground, or the drones in the sky above Tripoli, or a combination thereof.

But no, today's narrative is the continuing incompetence of the donkeys leading the lions into war. First William Hague, and then Liam Fox, managed to send mixed messages on whether Colonel Gaddafi himself is a target for assassination from 15,000feet. Just what the UK needs to hold the Arab League into the shaky coalition against the Libyan dictator.

Bad enough that Hague messed up his words but for Fox to do it, only to be countermanded General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, is kind of unforgivable.

Richards was quite clear about Gaddafi being: "No, absolutely not. It's not allowed under the UN resolution and it's not something I want to discuss any further."

Now Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy has weighed in big style, saying that Fox ought to be put back in his box. Murphy has just written on his blog:

"Perhaps it’s because I’m too well mannered but in all my interviews this morning on Libya I didn’t criticise any Government Ministers about some of their vague comments on Libya.

As most people will know, Labour supports the decision the UN has taken in resolution 1973 to protect civilian populations from Colonel Gaddafi’s terror.

We will be supportive but will also ask the serious questions that the country would expect the Opposition to be posing.

On my way out of one of my interviews I bumped into Sky News correspondent Sophy Ridge and I was more direct about some of Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s comments. She then tweeted that a Shadow Cabinet Minister had said that ‘Fox needed to be put back in his box’ – no prizes for guessing I was that Shadow Cabinet Minister.

Asked on Radio 5Live whether Colonel Gaddafi might be considered a military target, Liam Fox said “It would potentially be a possibility”.

I support the Government’s decision on Libya but I think Liam Fox’s comments are irresponsible in many ways. His view that the aim of our military effort is to bring about regime change is outside what is a very broad UN resolution. It is wrong but also counterproductive at a time when we are trying to maintain a broad coalition including Arab opinion to talk in such a way.

I agree with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who said, “If we start adding additional objectives then I think we create a problem”.

Gaddafi is a tyrant, but it is up to the people of Libya to decide what happens next in their country and not for any single foreign government. Our government needs to have one clear policy on this."

The case for war - the small print

Downing Street has just issued the Attorney General's note on the legal basis for military action against Libya. Here it is:

HM Government’s note on Legal Basis for deployment of UK forces and military assets
21 March 2011

Following the Prime Minister’s statement to the House on 18 March, this note sets out the Government's view on the legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets to Libya.

Under the Charter of the United Nations the Security Council is the organ conferred with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. In carrying out its duties the Security Council acts on behalf of Member States of the United Nations, who agree to accept and carry out its decisions in accordance with the Charter. Among the specific powers granted to the Security Council are those provided in Chapter VII of the Charter which is concerned with action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.

Security Council resolution 1973 (2011) of 17 March 2011 is annexed to this document.

In this resolution the Security Council has determined that the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The Security Council has adopted the resolution as a measure to maintain or restore international peace and security under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which provides for such action by air, sea and land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Provision for a No Fly Zone is provided for by operative paragraphs 6 to 12 of the resolution. Operative paragraph 8 authorises Member States that have notified the UN Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organisations or arrangements to take all necessary measures to enforce the ban on flights established by operative paragraph 6.

Operative paragraph 4 of the resolution also authorises Member States making the notifications so provided, and acting in co-operation with the UN Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.

Operative paragraph 13 of the resolution, in substituting a replacement operative paragraph 11 in resolution 1970 (2011), further authorises Member States to use all measures commensurate to the specific circumstances to carry out inspections aimed at the enforcement of the arms embargo established by that earlier resolution.

The Attorney General has been consulted and Her Majesty’s Government is satisfied that this Chapter VII authorisation to use all necessary measures provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for deployment of UK forces and military assets to achieve the resolution’s objectives.

Friday, 18 March 2011

How Gaddafi fared in the last raid on Libya

Muammar Gaddafi has narrowly escaped being blown to bits by American bombers once before, when Ronald Reagan launched an airborne attack on Libya from US airforce bases in the UK.

After the Libyan leader was blamed for ordering the attack on the West Berlin disco that killed two US servicemen, Margaret Thatcher gave permission for 22 F-111 aircraft to take off from RAF Lakenheath and RAF Upper Heyford in England to exact revenge.

The raid on Libya on the night of 15th April 1986 was denied overflight rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of European continental bases, forcing the US bombers be flown around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings.

Gaddafi was forewarned by the Italian government and escaped the assassination attempt in the nick of time.

But his regime created a propaganda campaign about civilian deaths, including claims that Gaddafi’s “adopted daughter” had been killed.

Many of the US precision bombs did miss their targets, and Gaddafi emerged a strengthened figure, outlasting Thatcher, Reagan and three subsequent American presidents to date.

The one part of the event that could not be made up was that Libyan surface-to-air missile fire brought down one of the attacking F-111 aircraft, killing its two crewmen.

Cam heads to Scotland's khaki election campaign

Cameron is heading to Scotland this afternoon, before going to Paris tomorrow for a meeting with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and members of the Arab League.

The Prime Minister's speech to the Scottish Tories in Perth will be all about Libya, kicking off another khaki election campaign for Holyrood.

In 1999 Nato airstrikes against Serbia overshadowed the first Scottish parliament election, prompting Alex Salmond's "unpardonable folly" comments, after which the late Robin Cook declared him "unfit to lead".

In 2003, as Scots went to the polls, the Iraqis were throwing their slippers at fallen statues of Saddam Hussain. It looked as if the war was over and it was barely beginning.

There was a reprieve of sorts in 2007, although UK troops were still involved in engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today, as the UK is poised to take action against Gaddafi, Alex Salmond, now Scotland's First Minister, has welcomed the UN no-fly zone.

“The fundamental principle of international intervention is that it must be done under the authority of a United Nations mandate, and therefore I welcome the agreement of a ‘no fly zone’ with the clear legal underpinning of a Security Council resolution," he said, just now.

It is unlikely to be the last word on the subject in the seven weeks between now and the election result. It might be a khaki election, but it won't take the parties long to point out that there isn't much khaki left in Scotland after the Strategic Defence Review.

(I hear several returning officers, including the Western Isles, don't intend to hold their count until the Friday morning, so it will be seven weeks this afternoon before we get a total result for the Scottish parliament.)

Enter Prime Minister Cameron - the war leader

David Cameron will stand at the dispatch box today as a war leader, a changed man. He inherited conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but now he has taken the personal step to commit British forces to the frontline in another foreign field.

The beginnings of conflicts are fraught affairs and, as the old generals say, once you start bombing it's difficult to know where things will end up. Foreign conflicts have overtaken many British leaders in the past, in the recent past even, so this is a moment of personal danger for Cameron too.

After a very shaky political start Cameron has emerged ahead of the curve at the end of this week. His early insistence on pressing for a no-fly zone looked like the over-reaching ambition of an international amateur and the drafting of a UN motion, without the usual diplomatic daisy chain of phonecalls, looked almost designed to fail.

However, Cameron now looks like he has what he wanted - whether he wanted it or not. There is, Downing Street is saying, the possibility of a vote in the Commons today but you would expect, with a UN resolution in place, that the disgruntled Tories will fall in behind the leadership and that the opposition will be supportive.

Cameron will be unable to say exactly what will unfold over the next few days but he will be emphasising what Libya is not - it is not Iraq, it is not boots on the ground, it is not unilateral action outside the United Nations.

But if British lives are lost, in what the right-wing will say is a war that is not in British interests, then he could be in great trouble.

Eleven months into his premiership, exactly eight years to the day from that fateful Commons vote backing the invasion of Iraq, Cameron now really has to prove his mettle as a Prime Minister.

The Ipsos-Mori polling yesterday appeared to elevate Cameron above party politics - people like him but not his party - and that's where every Prime Minister wants to be. Finally finding his footing on the international stage, in the midst of what seems like an escalating international situation, might be the making of him.

But the domestic blowback of action in Libya could be massive. People will be stretching for the trigger of the fuel hose first thing this morning, and a spike in petrol prices might only be the first effect of the Libyan crisis. An unraveling of the Strategic Defence and Security Review could also be on the cards, given the amount of cut-threatened assets we are throwing at the situation.

The sheer uncertainty of the world viewed through the prism of 24-hour news could shake consumer confidence and economic recovery. The next quarter of economic figures come out the Wednesday before the Royal Wedding, which tonight feels like a distraction from grave matters rather than a focus for celebration

Meanwhile Barack Obama - hope, remember that - has come out of this week looking like a vacillating world policeman. It was only when the US finally threw its weight behind the UN resolution that things really began to move with, for diplomatic stage, very rapid speed.

Maybe the US felt it was more productive to hold back, so that there could be no anti-American coalition or maybe Obama was trying to get the US back to an era where it spoke softly and carried a big stick, but it seemed that America spoke with several diplomatic voice in the last week. From today, all the world leaders will be judged by actions, not words.

Lossie Tornados to the front as Harrier pilots mull p45

Time to fill the petrol tank, it looks like we're going to war against Libya.

We could be waking up tomorrow morning to the sound of gunfire, or at least the effects of precision-guided British weaponry being deployed against Colonel Gaddafi's surface to air missile batteries.

It remains to be seen if the dramatic adoption of "no-fly/any necessary measures" UN resolution will have any practical effect on Gaddafi's ground assault on Benghazi. But there appears to be little doubt about who will be delivering the hard message to the Libyan dictator.

Tornado ground attack aircraft, from the closure-threatened RAF Lossiemouth , are almost certain to be the first British assets used in any military operation against Gaddafi.

The Tornado GR4s, or their brother squadrons from RAF Marham, could fly from a military base in southern France or from RAF Akrotiri, in one of Britain's sovereign base areas in Cyprus, according to the Guardian's well-informed Richard Norton-Taylor

British aircraft and French jets could be in action in the next few hours, with Arab nations backing them and Nato forces and US aircraft in the next wave.

The Tornados have proved themselves in other conflicts but it was unclear whether the newer Eurofighter Typhoons would take part in an operation.

Two Nimrod RAF Reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Kinloss, granted a temporary reprieve from being literally cut to pieces in the defence cuts, will provide high level air cover and tankers would provide air to air refuelling.
(Correction - these are not from Kinloss, as Moray MP Angus Robertson has pointed out in a call from outside RAF Lossiemouth in his constituency)

Britain has two ships off the Libyan coast, and submarine-launched cruise missiles could be used to take out the Libyan air defences too. But where is the Ark Royal when you need her, or the Harrier pilots now mulling their P45s?

With a "hot war" in the offing the immediate political focus has to be on the mission and those putting their lives on the line. But to the sound of the thundering hoofs of war, these defence cuts decisions look pretty hasty.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Clegg cast as creature but Balls gets the monster part

The biggest theatre sensation in London just now is Danny Boyle's stage production of Frankenstein. Each night actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in a fantastic show.

Depending on which night you go to the National Theatre on the South Bank you get a different interpretation of the doctor and the creature as they vie for supremacy.

So, as we waited for curtains up on the first joint Ed Miliband and Ed Balls press conference this morning, we wondered who would play the part of leader?

They appeared in almost identical stage costumes, the purple tie of the senate. Each used his turn in answering the questions to talk as if he were the boss. Depending on when you looked up from your notes on reducing VAT on fuel or re-imposing the banking tax it was clear that Ed was in charge - whichever one of them was speaking.

There was no doubt who labour had cast as the creature though. Ed Miliband took quite a swipe at Nick Clegg. He advised the Lib Dem leader to "lie low" if he wants to secure a "yes" vote in the AV referendum on May 5th.

Miliband said he would share a platform with anyone who would help him win the AV campaign. But he won't share a platform with Clegg, "because I don't think he will help us win the referendum".

There was meant to be a joint Labour, Lib Dem and Green event in support of the AV campaign this week but when Clegg tried to elbow in on Charles Kennedy's gig Labour called off. Labour spinners were gleefully describing Nick Clegg as a toxic brand in the AV campaign.

This performance looked as if was all going according to plan until Ed Balls decided to revert to monster mode and he claimed George Osborne would go so far as use the Japanese earthquake as an excuse for growth being downgraded.

According to the script, Ed Balls said: "The whole point about being Chancellor is to anticipate unforeseen events, to err on the side of caution. It won't be good enough if George Osborne stands up next week in the Budget and says the reason he has to downgrade his growth forecast is the cold winter, or the Irish bailout or because of the spike in world oil prices or the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake. If he had taken a more cautious approach to reducing the deficit and also acted to sustain growth then our economy would not be so vulnerable now to these unforeseen events."

Pointscoring and politicising the tragedy in Japan while the rescue efforts are still going on to find survivors has caused a gasp of predictable outrage from the Tory instant response team.

Oh dear, I don't think the Ed and Ed show will get the reviews that Danny Boyle had.

BTW: Frankenstein is sold out but my top London tip of the month: Go along to the NT at about 5.30pm with a good book. The second floor box office opens for returns at six pm, by which time there will already be a dozen people queuing. Be patient, keep the faith, and you might get great seats. We did this on the evening the play was getting rave reviews in all the London papers and managed to get in.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Westminster coastguard station debate postponed

A key Westminster debate on the future of the coastguard service has been postponed until March 24th - the very last day for the consultation on the closure of nine stations around the UK shoreline.

Government cutbacks to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would leave Scotland with one 24 coastguard station in Aberdeen and one daylight station in Stornoway or Lerwick, causing predictable outrage in coastal communities.

The Westminster debate had been scheduled for this Thursday afternoon but the Commons Backbench Business Committee decided it could be moved to make way for an all-day debate on International Women’s Day (which is today).

Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, is “livid” that the debate had been postponed until the day after the budget when it will be completely knocked off the news agenda.

He said: “The future of coastguard services is a matter of life and death and it is disgraceful that this debate has been ditched at just forty-eight hours notice. It must be unprecedented for a debate to be erased from the order paper."

MacNeil pointed out that none of the committee members represent coastal constituencies, so would care little for the postponement until the last day of the coastguard consultation.

The SNP Transport spokesman added: "We needed the debate now as promised, to vent and exchange views to inform the final consultation.”

Monday, 7 March 2011

Hague on the Downing Street washing line

That was the longest morning meeting of the Lobby in some time, and there where only two issues - Prince Andrew and the botched diplomatic mission to Libya on the weekend.

The whole session can be accurately summarised as Downing Street spending more than 40 minutes defending someone they think ought to be hung out to dry and then hanging out to dry someone the government would rather defend.

On Prince Andrew there was a solid line of support from the Prime Minister's official spokesman, no review of his role despite Downing St sources being extensively quoted in the press as "shedding no tears" if the controversial Duke gave up his role as UK trade envoy.

On the decision to send a "Johnny English" diplomat into Benghazi with a bodyguard of six SBS troopers - only to have them bound over by the Libyan rebels and dispatched back via HMS Cumberland - Downing St effectively dumped the blame on William Hague, the minister responsible.

Hague will get plenty pelters this afternoon when he updates the House on Libya, and it's being seen as another example of cock-up over competence in the Foreign Office in the handling of this crisis.

Anyway, it's a dry and sunny day in London, the first in ages, a good day to hang out the washing and Hague can usually handle himself well at the despatch box.

(If the Foreign Secretary is having a hard time can you imagine the ribbing the Jack Tars would have given the SBS brigade as they crossed the Mediterranean.)

Friday, 4 March 2011

What's the next discount Danny?

Hats off to Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury Minister, for delivering on his own personal pledge and the coalition promise to examine the case for a fuel discount scheme for remote islands.

Alexander is confident that with European Commission approval of a 5p per litre discount scheme next month the price of filling up on Scotland's islands will become marginally more affordable.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, someone whose job definition is to spend less money, is letting £2m or more in fuel duty slip through his fingers to bring cheaper fuel to the islands.

Similar schemes already exist on French, Greek and Portuguese islands so the Treasury doesn't anticipate too many problems in getting all 27 EU member states to ratify the decision.

Alexander has delivered the scheme for all Scottish islands, from Shetland to the Clyde, as well as the Scilly Isles off Cornwall. The Isle of Skye, which is linked by a trunk road to the mainland, is also included in the pilot scheme.

As we've seen with other island discount schemes, no one thanks a politician for what they have just delivered but immediately the questions begin to be asked on what they will discount next?

Filling a petrol tank is at least £6 more expensive on the islands and the Alexander scheme goes about half-way to equalising the prices with mainland filling stations - if the reduction is passed on by retailers.

The Budget on March 23rd is likely to cancel the 1p rise in fuel duty that was due in April and the Treasury is still making very positive noises about the fuel duty stabiliser - a scheme that would see fuel duty decrease as tax revenues from rising oil prices increase.

Labour in office said the scheme was unpractical but as with all these things it's a case of political will, or political expediency. The SNP want to capitalise on the fuel issue in the Holyrood election but when it comes to practical solutions their fuel stabiliser scheme has been stolen by the Coalition. They are left making noise on non-starters like devolving fuel duty to the Scottish parliament.

It's early in the morning but I've already had comments from west coast mainlanders complaining about the equally high price of their petrol. If Skye is getting a discount, why not the west coast, they ask?

I suspect this is exactly the reason why Alexander insists Skye be treated as an island and included in the pilot scheme, just to highlight the anomaly of equally high prices in remote rural areas. Meanwhile, I expect the petrol station in Broadford to become just a little bit busier in the coming months.

Danny Alexander set to deliver island fuel discount

Drivers on all Scottish islands are set to receive a 5p a litre discount on their sky high petrol prices under a Treasury scheme.

Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury Minister, is "very confident" that his scheme will be approved by the European Commission and could be in place in a few months time.

With prices on filling up on the islands at least 10p a litre more expensive than in Scottish cities the discount will go some way to equalizing the cost of driving in remote areas.

In Glasgow yesterday unleaded petrol was available for an average of £1.295 a litre. In Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, the price was £1.429 a litre. On Colonsay,where Danny Alexander spent part of his childhood, the cost of diesel has now topped £1.63 a litre.

Inverness MP Alexander is to tell the Scottish Lib Dem conference in Perth today that the move will make a big difference for island communities that face the highest fuel prices in the country.

Alexander said: "I’m very proud that this is something as a government we’ve been able to take forward. I feel very confident that this is something we will be able to deliver."

All the Scottish islands will be included in the scheme - Orkney and Shetland in the Northern Isles, the Western Isles, the Inner Hebrides including Arran and the Clyde islands.

The Isle of Skye, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge is also included in the scheme, meaning that some mainland drivers will also benefit from the scheme. "In my opinion, Skye is an island," said Alexander.

The discount, which could cost the Exchequer an estimated £2m a year in lost revenue, is a personal victory for Alexander, and a rare example of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury spending money

He said: "This is something that I have campaigned on for many years. Everyone in the whole country is feeling the pressure of high fuel prices but it is also the case that in the remote islands the prices are the highest anywhere. It is right that the government shows that we are sensitive to this and take steps to help."

He added: "As a consequence of the informal discussions we’ve had with the EU Commission I think we can get approval for the scheme in the next few months."

After the Commission approves the scheme it will have to be agreed by all 27 EU member states, some of whom already operate island discount schemes in their own countries.

The Westminster government is under pressure to cancel the planned 1p fuel duty rise due to come into effect in April. Chancellor George Osborne is also considering a plan for a fuel duty stabiliser that would decrease the cost of petrol as the revenue income from the rising cost of a barrel of oil increased.

Any changes in fuel duty will be announced in the budget on March 23rd.