Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More of a whimper than a bang

So, after months of doom-saying from the Tories and Liberal Democrats - backed by hysterical elements of the media, the new licensing bill came into force last week and...

...society didn't come to an end.

There's a surprise.

Predictably, only a thousand places in the UK have been granted 24-hour licenses and two thirds of those are supermarkets and the like. For the remainder, many will be hotels or casinos and only a handful will be pubs. Only around 1% of old license holders were ever expected to apply for a twenty-four hour license, but the true figure proved to be around half of that. I got my forecast for Birmingham a little wrong - I thought that a few might apply, but in fact, none of the 63 all-day licences have been granted to pubs. I'm not surprised - there's little commercial advantage in opening round the clock unless you actually want to attract alcoholics as your main source of trade. More likely, extended licenses are likely to be used to cover special events, such as major sports matches in other time zones across the planet.

What has been largely ignored by the press has been the new powers given to the police, council and ordinary residents to take action against nuisance venues. The police can close a problem bar for twenty-four hours - a huge potential loss to businesses often run on thin margins in a very competitive market. Local councils can draw up a licensing policy in the same way as they create planning guidelines and will be responsible to the local community. Residents can object to licenses and can even demand that the licensing committee review a decision if problems arise. (If you can dig it out, there was a very balanced article on the new Act in the Birmingham Post on Wednesday - sadly not in the online edition).

Curiously, this is one aspect of deregulation that those stern critics of business red tape in the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties (soon to be merged) can't stomach. This is actually a very good example of rights and responsibilities - the government has removed a set of 90-year old wartime restrictions to allow us to decide for ourselves how and when we drink. In return, those who sell alcohol have to do so responsibly or they will face losing their business.

The extension in hours won't make a lot of difference - the alcoholics always managed to get their booze from the supermarkets or during a lock-in with a friendly landlord. This isn't about enabling drinking round the clock, but about enabling communities to swiftly tackle shops that sell alcohol to under-age drinkers and to deal with pubs that cause local nuisance.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Own goal

Top marks to Birmingham City Council.

A tornado rips through one of the poorest areas of our city and the council eventually responded, even arranging a royal visit to the area.

Of course, they didn't feel it was appropriate for the Lord Mayor to lead an appeal on behalf of these local people, although Birmingham Foundation have since stepped in and raised £50,000 straight off. On the other hand, an earthquake in Kashmir prompted an unceremonious dash to launch a fund (not with an eye on those lovely votes at all).

Now, these people, many of whom can't afford house insurance, have been lumbered with average bills of £1800 to pay for the scaffolding supporting their houses. Excellent work from the 'progressive partnership' - the buzz-phrase used to describe the Liberal Democrat/Tory administration that is supposed to be in charge of our city.

Outstanding.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Fairytale policy making

I wasn't expecting Charlie Kennedy to come out and back Labour's tax policies. In an interview in the Guardian today, Charlie - with Vince Cable holding his hand after the council tax debacle during the campaign - compared the tax policies of the three major parties to
Goldilocks' three bears, with the Tories too cold on tax, his own party too hot, and Labour in the middle
Not for the first time, I sought advice on Liberal Democrat policies from my children, who confirmed that according to Goldilocks, if the Tories are too cold, the Liberal Democrats too hot, then Labour must be just right.

While this sounds the death knell for the higher tax plans of the Liberal Democrats - although Vince Cable seems determined to hang on to the plans for the 50% tax rate for high earners. Rather as forecast, this is the first of the vote-losing Liberal Democrat policies to bite the dust, with more possible as this paragraph reveals:
It may also stand by controversial pledges to drop student tuition fees, replace council tax with local income tax, and extend free personal care to the elderly in England - all mocked as hopelessly unrealistic and "middle-class welfare" by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. [My emphasis added]
As Kennedy notes, tough choices need to be made. One thing remains true though, if the Liberal Democrats are looking to fairytales for policy decisions, their future certainly looks Grimm.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Denying the denier

One more thing that annoys me about David Irving is that the media keep describing him as 'an historian.' He may be many things, but he's ceased to be one of us.

Historians should have respect for facts - they shouldn't ignore inconvenient ones or deny truths. They are free to make their own judgements and arguments about why things happened or to re-examine motives and challenge conventional ideas, but they aren't free to invent history. You're allowed to make mistakes and misread things, but you aren't allowed to lie.

Once you do that, you're off the reservation, removed from the roll, no longer entitled to call yourself an historian. Irving claims to be self-taught and I'd say the quality of the teaching shows.

So whatever else Irving might be, he's not an historian.
Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.
Mr Justice Grey, summing up of Irving -v- Penguin Books & Lipstadt
Not one of [Irving’s] books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. ... if we
mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.
Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History, Oxford University

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I'm sure there's a perfectly good excuse...

The new register of Members' Interests has been published, so time for the media to pore over local politicians' activities over the past twelvemonth and point out all those exciting foreign trips our elected representatives get to go on.

Perhaps they've missed a point. Here's the terms of reference:
The purpose of the Register is to encourage transparency, and through transparency, accountability. It is "to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in the capacity of a Member of Parliament...
2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc.
This is the section for registering outside employment, professions and sources of
remuneration (of more than £590 a year
Most importantly

...the obligation to register outside employment... is absolute
So, let's look at a few entries:
FEATHERSTONE, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) [LIBERAL DEMOCRAT]
2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
Councillor, London Borough of Haringey.
HANCOCK, Michael (Portsmouth South)[LIBERAL DEMOCRAT]
2.Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
Councillor and an Executive Member of Portsmouth City Council
Two MPs who also sit on the benches of a local council, for which they are appropriately remunerated. (Can you guess where this one is going, kids?). Curiously, John Hemming appears unwilling to admit that he is also a councillor for the fair city of Birmingham (much as we wish that it were not the case).

HEMMING, John (Birmingham, Yardley)
2.Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
I am Senior Partner of John Hemming and Company; a software house.
Sole trader of MarketNet and Music Mercia International (part of John Hemming Trading).
Now we know that he has made an issue of not taking a salary, preferring to donate his salary as deputy leader to charity in return for some positive PR - as detailed by Unity over at Talk Politics a few months back.

Remember that phrase, though...
...the obligation to register outside employment... is absolute
Over to you John.

There's probably a perfectly good excuse.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ID cards help to fight terror

Well, no. They don't.

It appears that not even the Security Service like the idea unless the cards are unforgeable - which they won't be.

The truth is that whatever security measures you put onto those cards, someone will find a way round it because of the value of having access to something that is considered absolute proof of identity.

The case for the massive public investment in a huge (and probably ineffective) bureaucracy is fading by the day. Will this policy survive?

Open government (unless it proves embarrassing)

The keys to the future are... Open, accountable, decentralised governance

The City also needs to be less secretive so people can express their views as to policies that affect them and have real consultation...

Only the most geekish have sought out the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2004 local elections. I'm not even convinced that many of the LD councillors have even read it. Certainly, their behaviour as lapdogs for the Tories suggests that they don't give a damn about ending secrecy. Odd, for a party whose local leader (yes, him) once bravely faced the threat of disqualification as a councillor for leaking commercially confidential information, but attempted a public interest defence.

How times change.

Following hard on the heels of their embarrassing climbdown over releasing the Blunderground report (and my sources tell me that what was released was a cobbled together document combining two reports and thus apparently worth £300,000), the council have refused to release information on the proposed casino on top of the Wheels park in Birmingham despite a Freedom of Information Act request from the Birmingham Post.

Apparently, they've also been sitting on another request from the paper for information on the library since the end of August - a clear breach of the terms of the FoIA and the council's own code of practice. So, perhaps the Post should crack on with the next stage and lodge a complaint with the council before complaining to the Information Commissioner. Just the threat worked last time.

You see, the exemption that the council have claimed isn't an absolute one. Absolute exemptions are simple and are generally confined to national issues - things that would affect national security or the economy, for example. While an appeal to the Information Commissioner can still be made, I'd suspect that very few will get past that particular line of defence. However, there are a number of qualified exemptions available under the Act and they are subject to a public interest test. Simply, this asks if the public interest is better served by release or by the information being withheld.

Whatever the outcome, it would be interesting to see the judgement of the council being tested.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

David Blair Cameron seems to have nicked our branding.

Top marks to the monkey.

Curious...

Why has John 'Yellow Tory' Hemming started turning on his former political friends by sourcing dumb quotes from Tories-past?

Is he preparing the ground for life after the collapse of the shaky Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition that attempts to rule our city? Will the Liberal Democrats abandon ship before the 2006 local elections to try and put clear water between them and their former best friends?

Although the feeling may be mutual....

At the Cameron/Davis hustings in Solihull the other night, David Cameron told the following joke...

Q: If a Labour candidate and a Lib Dem candidate stood together on the edge of a cliff, which would you push over first?
A: The Labour candidate. After all, business comes before pleasure!

Hat tip to Guido for the link. Nice to see some cross-party agreement...

Last Respects

A couple of weeks ago, in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London, in only slightly more time than it takes a Returning Officer to announce the results of an election count at a General Election, an election petition in the name of Samuel Stephen Hunter was withdrawn. Nobody was found guilty of anything but in Court No 12, in front of not one but two High Court Judges – Mr Justice Stanley Burnton and Mr Justice Jack presiding – the legal curtain was gently brought down on this insignificant, but rather squalid affair.

The end of this action itself warrants nothing more than the smallest of by-line in rich and colourful history of political corruption, the contaminated political earth from which it sprang does however warrant closer attention.

Very little is known and will probably be ever known about Samuel Stephen Hunter and why he brought this action; as he is a student of ‘limited means’ it is unlikely that his share of the legal costs incurred – a figure running into tens of thousands of pounds - will ever be recovered and whole episode might constitute Mr Hunter’s entire claim to fame as he sinks back into well deserved obscurity, his job having been done in absentia.

It is a further curiousity that Salma Yacoub, the RESPECT candidate who challenged the sitting MP and who has now become a ubiquitous spokesperson for the Birmingham Central Mosque, very publicly supported the petition - indeed, it was reported that she and RESPECT were championing the cause, now seems to have no connection with the petition at all. (The link to the original Times story appears to have been erased from the RESPECT website, but remains in the Google cache) Indeed, she wasn't in court either. Perhaps, as predicted here, there were too many skeletons in their own closet or perhaps the petition was simply without foundation.

In the wider public world, Roger Duncan Godsiff (the Labour Party candidate), who was duly elected to serve the people of Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath at the last General Election, can continue with the job he was elected to do unhindered.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Greasy polls

You may remember that earlier in the week, the Sun ran a poll claiming 90% support for the 90 day detention period. This was done through that reliable measure of public opinion, the phone-in poll. I trust that I don't need to explain to you, my faithful readers, what a load of cobblers phone-in and internet polls generally are - Bob Worcester describes these (often profitable) exercises as 'voodoo polls'? Self-selecting and wonderfully easy to fix. However, when Sion Simon claims that he had not met a single person in his constituency who didn't support the 90 days, I worried a little. Perhaps Sion should get out more.

[UPDATE] Hat tip to Unity at Talk Politics for his reference to this dissection of a Sky News/YouGov poll which guides the reader to take a particular, pro-detention position through obviously slanted questions (not that dissimilar to Charles Clarke's highly dodgy internet poll last week). I will note that Sky News is stabled in the same place as the Sun. Even with those dodgy questions, 90-day detention only secured 72% support - over a quarter of voters didn't back it, with that figure rising to 32% in a Populous poll for the Times, which asked a straight question about the 90-day limit. I was a little disappointed that Anthony Wells defended the dodgy nature of the YouGov poll in his blog, but then he is now a YouGov correspondent, so perhaps that isn't a surprise. The Sky poll was conducted over the weekend BEFORE the vote and before the massive publicity around the vote really kicked off, as indeed was the Times poll.

The Guardian have published a REAL poll in association with ICM, which indicates that only around 20% of the sample supported the 90-day period. 28 days doesn't even command a majority - only 46% of the sample backed that detention period. This survey was carried out on Thursday (after the debate) using a sample of around 500 people (I don't tend to like national polls with sample sizes under 1000, but the margin of error doesn't allow for the figures to conceal 90% support).

[UPDATE] Looking at the raw ICM data, things aren't quite so clear-cut. The questions are more to do with the political tactics of the government. 20% back the government sticking to what it believes to be right, 29% would support a compromise and only 18% reckon that 28 days is too long. From that, I suspect that my earlier comments were a little rash, but I still don't see an argument for 90% support in any of these polls and it seems a reasonable assumption to identify support of around 46% for a period of 28 days or less.

Let's flash back four years to a piece by the late Hugo Young on the US response to 9/11 for a reminder about surrendering liberty and a meeting between John Ashcroft (then US Attorney General) and David Blunkett (a now-forgotten Home Secretary).
Once in place, the act will be impossible to shift. Arguments from security are like that. There's always another hypothesis to guard against. That's what justice ministers are in office to assert. The hard rightist and once-soft old labourist are fellow spirits, hungry for power in the name of a security that piously throws to the jailers the freedom it's supposed to be defending.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back of the net, Cllr Hemming

So, on the day that the government suffers the most important parliamentary defeat since 1997, what preoccupies John Hemming, the MP with his finger on the pulse of the nation?

Locking up suspected terrorists for three months?

Nope.

Whether the government have earmarked a day for celebrating the possibility of England bringing the World Cup back from Germany next year.

Not surprisingly, no plans have yet been made for this event - largely because the current air traffic control system is ill-equipped to deal with airborne porcines on that scale.

Well, that's £134 well spent.

For those of you who are counting, inane questions like this from Cllr Hemming have racked up a bill of £16,684 since he was elected in May. If he carries on at this rate and this parliament runs to a full term, he'll end up costing us over £168,000 in questions alone. By the way, he still has by far the worst voting record of any Birmingham MP (including Sutton Coldfield), having only managed to make 51% of divisions in the house (599th out of 645 MPs, as a matter of fact, according to the Public Whip). I'll knock out an end of term report nearer Christmas for the lot of 'em.

Roll of Honour

Just a note to point out that our local MPs can hold their heads high tonight - Clare Short, Roger Godsiff, Lynne Jones, Richard Burden and David Winnick - they all voted against the government bill to extend detention to 90 days without charge. The full list is here.

Thank you.

(Oh, and George Galloway found time in his busy schedule to make it into the House as well)

A view from a passenger on the Kings Cross underground train on the 7 July. (Hat tip to Chicken Yoghurt)

I'm not going to make a habit of this

But three cheers for the defeat of the 90-day detention limit in the Commons. Not often that you will find me on the same side as Michael Howard and Charlie Kennedy, but I'll make an exception.

Well done to the 41 Labour MPs who voted with their consciences against the bill - names to follow when available. They refused to give in to the barrage of tabloid headlines and a popular movement in favour of the 90-day period. When it comes to public opinion, remember that it would instantly return capital punishment, if you believe all the surveys. Public opinion also started out 80% in favour of ID cards, but that has slipped over time to 50-50. The public are fickle things and we rely on our elected representatives to give more consideration to legislation than you or I might give to a market researcher's questions or to a tabloid phone-in poll.

I also want to believe that this had more to do with principles and less to do with dumping on Tony.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Charles Clarke apologises

Not for continuing to plan to lock people up for three months without charge, but for the ludicrous survey sent out last week.

Finally, I would like to apologise for the questionnaire which was attached to the message that I sent out to party supporters on Friday. It was not intended to gauge public opinion but to start a political debate around the proposals currently being debated in Parliament. Many people have raised with me perfectly valid concerns about how the questions were drafted. I can only say that I share those concerns and give my assurance that questions of this type will not used in the future.
Thanks for the apology for insulting my intelligence - although I'm not convinced that it was designed to start a debate.

Now, can we talk about this detention thing?

The answer would appear to be no.

On the up side, the proposals now insist that a High Court judge gets to review the case every seven days, that some of the definitions will be drawn more tightly and the act will expire after twelve months unless MPs vote to continue it.

I'm not moving, even if MPs do.

90 days is still wrong.

Monday, November 07, 2005

National Insecurity

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, resorting to claiming national security as a justification can't be far off. Tony reckons that's the reason he continues to back the 90-day detention period for people suspected of involvement in terrorism. (Hat tip to Talk Politics for the Telegraph link)

That's a little cheap. Not as cheap as Charles Clarke's dodgy survey, which has rightly attracted ridicule for the blatant attempt to produce ammunition to use against recalcitrant Labour MPs, but cheap nonetheless. Apparently, the party aren't planning on using the data returned any time soon - perhaps because the answers aren't what they expected.

The thing is, the police and security services are allowed to ask for whatever powers they see fit and make the appropriate case for them. The case for 90-day detention is described as 'compelling' - not irrefutable, you would note. While Tony is quite happy to give the police whatever they ask for, last time I checked, members of parliament still owe a duty to weigh that request against the national interest and civil liberties and make a judgement accordingly - especially if the Attorney-General urges caution. You would have thought that Lord Goldsmith would have learnt his lesson after his last advice over Iraq...

Although the government ensured that the whole process would at least be covered by regular judicial review and the police assure us that there are only a few cases where it would be applied, it is certain that if you give the police extra powers, then they will be used.

The police have specific search powers under s44 of the 2000 Terrorist Act, which have been controversially used against protestors outside a defence exhibition in London, against an 82-year old man at the Labour conference, to stop veteran peace protestors from attending a legal demonstration at Fairford in 2003 and even against trainspotters on Basingstoke station. The Daily Telegraph reports that in the first year of the Act, 8000 searches were carried out, but within two years, almost 30,000 were being carried out - despite an apparent review from the Home Office. 600 people were searched under the terms of the Act at the Labour conference

Frankly, I'm not sure how effective the 90-day maximum will be, in any case and I doubt that the few days of extra detention will prevent a single terrorist attack - although we'll all be told that it's our fault when the next bomb goes off. It has been said that the current terrorist tactics of suicide bombs forces the police to make arrests earlier than they normally would in conventional criminal conspiracy cases, but I can't work out how the extra detention period would help - they will still need to pick them up early. I'd also suggest that the moment you pick up a terrorist suspect, they cease to be of practical use in any covert enterprise and that very arrest will disrupt any plans - either by bringing them to a screeching halt or possibly forcing the terrorists to play their hand early. Any information gleaned from the suspect needs to be employed very quickly - nothing is more perishable a commodity than intelligence. Yes, it does take a while to follow up international investigations or decode encrypted data, but it isn't beyond the wit of the good people at Thames House to keep an eye on a handful of suspects released on police bail pending enquries.

And how will this be received in the communities that are already the target of current interest? Will the thought of people being incarcerated for three months encourage young Muslims to raise their suspicions about potential suspects within their community? How will this look to the wider world?

So, pardon me if we're a little caution about extending the powers of the police to lock people up without charge while they trawl for evidence. There's nothing unpatriotic about standing up for civil rights.

'They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety'

Benjamin Franklin

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Unwanted

Look, if there's a village out there missing an idiot, we have him.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Mike Whitby, Tory Leader of Birmingham City Council

Failing that, no sensible offers refused to take Whitless off our hands.

Please. Hell, we'll give you Sutton Coldfield as a job lot.

Thanks.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sion Simon - what's the point?

I thought I'd heard enough from Sion Simon this week (Labour MP for Erdington), following his diatribe in the Guardian about those of us who think that Tony ought to call it a day - the executive summary is that there's nothing wrong with Tony, it's all of you who are wrong.

Thanks for that Sion.

Of course, you do feel a distinct loyalty to the Leader - after all, it was the No 10 apparatus that airdropped you into a safe Labour seat a little while ago, when the sitting MP conveniently stood down shortly before an election and leaving no time to carry out the usual selection process. Naturally, that hasn't stopped you opening your mouth about Birmingham, when you gave the opposition some succour back in 2002 with your views in parliament that Labour is 'sufficiently incapable of running Birmingham.'

Of course, some of us are involved at the grass roots of the party and we have to face those voters who want to vote Labour, but can't stand Tony. We have to try and cope without the members who have left as a result of Iraq and other policies, running our campaigns on a very stretched shoestring. Look around the blogosphere - predominantly middle-class and liberal/left-leaning, to be sure - and look at the number of anti-Blair commentators who should be loyal Labour supporters and you will see the depth of the problem. This is not some rose-tinted view of what a Brown-led world might be, nor is it betraying the achievements of the government.

Tony's become a liability, pure and simple. We won the election in May in spite of Tony, not because of him.

I was out campaigning because I still believe that Labour has transformed aspects of this country in the past eight years of government - for all the faults and errors. I have no doubt that a Labour government offers the best route to Hattersley's 'justice and equality', but government is local as well as national and Tony is becoming an obstacle for the people in the wards that make up Sion's constituency. Sure, they will all return Labour councillors next May, but there will be other wards across the city that will continue to return Liberal Democrats or Tories, wards that we must take to attempt a rescue of this city from the incompetence of the LibDem/Tory coalition.

Far from accusing people like me of betraying the 'least powerful people in the land,' I'd argue that those who hold these views are defending those without a voice - many far better placed to make the argument than myself. It is because these people need a Labour government at all levels to help them that we'll get on our soapboxes to speak up.

I see the enemy only too clearly and I see how they are exploiting the weakness of our leader. I don't want to see Tony's legacy be the destruction of our party base, for that would be the greatest betrayal of all.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

But that wasn't all from Sion this week. Oh no. He's back in the Birmingham Post today with a piece calling for the scrapping of the BBC licence fee.

Is it a regressive tax? Absolutely. Is it a poll tax, of sorts? Yup. Should we oppose it? Well, probably. Except that the licence fee is one of those British quirks that don't really make sense, but do actually work.

For a few quid a month - even under the planned increases, it will still be less than £15 a month - people get access to local and national radio, TV and internet coverage, with a global newsgathering organisation respected the world over for its integrity. Trust me, that's the best deal you will ever get. Sky costs you a damn sight more - I've just signed up to it to feed my cricket addiction and because I was offered a particularly good deal. Even ITV has a cost - those advertisers bung their charges onto the bottom line of all those goods we buy.

Sion reckons that the BBC will become unresponsive to consumers' demands and will get out of touch. Too a degree, that's a good thing, as it allows the BBC to be responsive to a range of consumers rather than having to focus on the lowest common denominator and feed the majority to the exclusion of minorities. Quality programming doesn't always attract high audiences - not many people will watch 'The Thick of It,' but that doesn't stop it being a wonderful programme. Would any other channel have taken a risk by commissioning The Office? Would Radio 4 have been a testing ground of dozens of comic careers in writing and performing - Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and The Day Today were all born on radio.

So leave the licence fee, with all the relatively minor injustices that go with it, well alone, for the simple reason that it works.

Defying common sense. Again

I suppose that a tiny bit of blame falls on my shoulders - and on the rest of the critics who have attacked the Tory/Liberal Democrat council over their vacillation and inaction over major projects like the new Library of Birmingham.

Still, I'd like to see them make a decision that made sense.

It seems that despite a scrutiny report heavily critical of the council's back-of-an-envelope plan to split the central library into two sites, despite a costly consultants' report that pointed towards the original Labour plan as offering the best fit between value and service delivery and despite claims from his own officers that even this plan might prove impossible to deliver, Mike Whitless knows better. Oh yes. Nothing will get in the way of this split site option and they intend to appoint a former city council officer to force the project through negotiate with the lead consultants.

The only problem is that the scrutiny committee that laughed the split-site proposal out of court is headed by a senior Liberal Democrat, who was narrowly defeated for the group leadership by Paul Tilsley a few months ago after John Hemming jumped ship for Westminster (and managed to avoid the avalanche of bad PR that has hit the council in recent weeks). This will only deepen the fractures that are being papered over to try and keep this tottering coalition together.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Gotta no RESPECT?

I scanned the list of votes cast in yesterday's division over the Terrorism Bill, checking that some of the high-profile MPs bothered to turn out.

I'm indebted to Blairwatch for spotting that as the government won by a single vote, the scourge of capitalist, anti-Islamic warmongering that is George Galloway, erm, wasn't there. Far more important was 'An Audience with George Galloway' in Cork - for which I'm sure Gorgeous George will be appropriately rewarded (and not with barrels of oil).

Whoops. It might seem to the untutored eye that George finds it more important to line his pockets than to represent the interests of his constituents.

By the way, the Lib Dem Vince Cable's whinging that he wasn't able to get back in time to vote because of security delays doesn't wash with me at all.

Toryboy II

An interesting experiment on BBC 1 tonight - a debate between Davids Cameron and Davis over the Tory leadership. This is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the ballot opens tomorrow for the leadership, so this is a big chance for the candidates to set out their stalls. The other issue is whether this will increase the pressure for a similar debate between the party leaders at the next general election and certainly between candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party.

It is probably most important for Davis, who started out as the favourite, but has slipped back in recent weeks and is now playing catch-up.

In terms of presentation, Cameron started streets ahead. Davis does have a habit of mumbling and his voice is a touch too low, while Cameron speaks strongly and clearly. Cameron also looks more like a leader - even down to his dominant handshake, where he grasped Davis' upper arm as they shook hands.

As the debate has gone on, Davis is coming out more strongly - Guido Fawkes reports that he has received extensive coaching for this event - and it shows. He's increasing in confidence and his strength on issues and policy is showing. Cameron's actually looking fazed by some of the questions and 'waffling.'

I'd give that one to Davis as a points victory.

Is this real life or is it just fantasy

No escape from reality indeed, even as I step well outside the usual meandering ambit of this blog.

It seems that the EastEnders scripts are bleeding across into reality. Except that nobody would dare write this into a drama. This goes straight to the top of the 'You Couldn't Make it Up' pile.

So, we have Rebekah Wade, who edits the largest-circulation tabloid in the country, and her husband, Ross Kemp - who is allegedly an actor - who spend the early part of Thursday evening with the PR guru Matthew Freud and his wife Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert, Rebekah's employer). Thereafter, the Wade/Kemp duo head off for drinks with the man of the moment, disgraced minister David Blunkett. Thoroughly refreshed, they head off home. In the wee small hours, the Met are called to deal with a domestic discussion that turned a little rough and end up arresting Rebekah, while Ross refuses medical attention for a cut lip. A few hours later, the girlfriend of Steve McFadden is then arrested on suspicion of assaulting him (coincidentally).

[INSERT EASTENDERS DRUM FLOURISH HERE]

Both women have now been released without charge.

Ironically, the Sun have been running a campaign against domestic violence and Rebekah was due to appear this afternoon at the Women of the Year lunch.

Ever get the feeling that there's more to this story than meets the eye?

Not quite lame, but this duck's certainly limping

One thing you can say about Tony Blair is that he is a fighter and not a quitter (or was that someone else?).

This isn't quite the end, but the past few days have certainly marked the beginning of the end. He's going to face a difficult few months over a number of issues: the terrorism bill, welfare reform, education reform and a number of other issues that would be classed as difficult under any circumstances. Those benches are increasingly populated by MPs ready to flex their muscles. Some are disillusioned with Tony, others know that they can't get promotion under this administration and hope for some morsels from the next leader, some are just part of the traditional 'awkward squad' who are happiest when opposing their own leadership, still others actually have principled objections to specific policies. All now find common cause in blocking some of the wilder ideas of Blair's legacy and I feel secure in predicting more reversals for the government.

To stretch another metaphor - the fat lady is starting her warm-up scales in the wings. If Tony has any sense, he'd be looking to set the process in motion to stand down in the spring, after the presidency of the EU has passed along. Perhaps most damagingly, comparisons are now being drawn between Tony Blair and John Major.

As I noted during the conference, the party is bigger than Blair - we need to regain the grass roots supporters who have drifted away over the years and who are crucial to winning elections. If we don't, then we are to blame for letting Tories like Mike Whitless and his cabinet of curiousities hang on to power in Birmingham and other councils across the country. The moment you become a liability, Tony, you owe it to us to make as dignified a withdrawal as you can. I'm sorry to say this, because you were the one who inspired me to actually join the party and take an active role, but the time has come to go.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Whitby gets his man

Opponents of Mike 'Shambolic' Whitby should quake in their shoes as the Curse of Whitless strikes. After Mike threatened to take his ball away and continue to ignore Birmingham Forward if Andrew Sparrow continued as leader, Mr Sparrow has done the decent thing and resigned.

Mike's refused to comment on the whole affair, but has added that
I have been inundated with letters of support from leading representatives of the business community wishing to express their backing for the council's vigorous approach to regeneration and the building of a better Birmingham for all.

Go on - name five.

Let's see who is prepared to back an approach that has all the vigour of a geriatric snail. These supporters of his do seem to rather quiet, in direct contrast to those who are prepared to stand up and be critical.

Birmingham Forward and Andrew Sparrow are stakeholders in this city and have an absolute right to comment on the progress (or lack of it) that the city is making. Pressurising external groups into silencing criticism isn't the way for any political leader to behave. Mr Sparrow isn't going down without a fight, though...

I just think that making threats of that kind is no way to run a city. It is the politics of the playground and I would have stood up to him. If someone dares to speak out and who turns out to be right in his criticism, for the leader of the council to hold a gun to the head of an independent business lobby group is unacceptable and suggests desperation on his part,I am furious that Mr Whitby has stooped to the levels he has. I can only say that he must feel very uncertain as to his own position to resort to such tactics. I made my comments in the public domain because I knew that all the usual avenues for Birmingham Forward to get a meaningful dialogue with the council were falling on deaf ears.

For 16 months Mike Whitby has refused to commit to dates for private events which afford Birmingham Forward the chance to put their concerns. The council leader's performance at a series of breakfast meetings held jointly with the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Birmingham Forward has been described by almost all those present as 'shambolic'. If business thinks that then it should not be afraid to say it. People should not masquerade as lobbyists if, when the test of nerve presents itself, they cave in.

It's vital that talented business people participate in the real politic because we all earn our livelihoods from the city and should look beyond the balance sheet of our respective firms to the civic realm. My comments, which were not made with reckless abandon, have been given emphasis purely due to the hysterical response by Coun Whitby...

...I say again that unless individuals are free to raise matters of concern and base their argument on sound evidence then it is the city that will suffer. I am very disappointed in where we are as a city and the 'buzz' has gone out of Birmingham. I want to make sure we get it back.

I believe that the current administration has, to date, not shown itself to be effective in driving major projects for the city forward. If Birmingham loses momentum then it will manifest itself in a variety of ways very quickly. If the city is perceived to be halted it will prejudice external investment both private and governmental.

This place gets more like North Korea every day - Whitless employed his own mouthpiece to draft hero-worshipping press releases (seemingly without interview and without any post being advertised); tried to keep the failure of the underground plan a secret ; removed the chief executive to silence any internal opposition and has now removed one of his external critics. I'm waiting for the Town Hall to be covered in enormous pictures of Whitby. At least then I could find a use for this huge set of darts I'm building.

I do hope that Hemming and Tilsley are deeply proud of keeping this clown in office.

Bye Bye Blunkett. Again.

What with Charlie Clarke backing Blunkett only a couple of hours ago, I have to admit that I thought he'd make it through to Thursday rather than leave an open goal for the Tories at PMQs today, but I can't say I'm surprised that he's gone. As I wrote earlier in the week - he'd become the story and this was overpowering the narrative message of the government, quite apart from the breaches of the ministerial code.

Blunkett isn't stupid and to be advised to run appointments past a committee on three occasions and ignore that advice each time is more than a simple lapse in judgement.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Tick, tock, tick, tock

It is a truth universally acknowledged in football that when a manager is described as having the full support of the chairman, then that manager should start scanning the 'Sits Vac' column of Footie Manager Today and clearing some of the stuff from his desk.

Much the same applies to Tony's ringing endorsement of his embattled (TM all papers) Work and Pensions Secretary, David Blunkett. How firm that support is remains to be seen, given that DB is reported to have qualms over some of the more Thatcherite extremism emanating from Downing Street over forcing the sick and the lame back to work and off the sick list. Perhaps TB has a greater view of his own miraculous powers than the rest of us.

This story has now taken on a life of its own - entirely separate from how Blunkett performs at the DWP - and therein lies the problem. Once the person becomes the story, then there is a well-trodden path towards eventual resignation. Perhaps not today, but if the story rumbles on a few more days, Blunkett's woes will get more press coverage than anything else the government does. The only way to staunch the flow of media reports is to cauterise the wound, so expect to see the usual exchange of letters shortly unless the story goes away VERY quickly.