Saturday, January 28, 2006

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy

It isn't a good week to be a Liberal Democrat - but then it rarely is.

Those of you with an anorak-like interest in the minutiae of Birmingham politics will know that Cllr John Hemming (one-term MP of this parish) is fighting like crazy to hang onto the chairmanship of the Birmingham Strategic Partnership. He's been fighting a desperate rear-guard action so that he doesn't lose the power that this offers - he's even thrown the lawyers at it (quelle surprise) and got the press involved, claiming that the government wants him out.

It seems that the government aren't alone in this.

Friday saw a meeting of the BSP board and one of the items on the agenda is the chairmanship. Letter after letter is attached, suggesting that the chair should, logically enough, be held by the council leadership, not a mere backbencher. Although it isn't minuted, it is my understanding that there was also an indicative vote taken and it came to pass that the board don't want him either.

Never mind, John. Si Hughes reckons that a landslide is around the corner - go back to your constituencies and prepare to be buried.

Friday, January 27, 2006

What a difference a day makes

They won't let it lie, will they?

Iain Dale points towards an interview for the Times with Simon Hughes, which shows how his attitude reversed within a day.
'I tried always to take the line that private life was always going to be private life. And the more robust comments [denying he was gay] I had made in the first week of the leadership campaign were really just to put that fence in place. What I said was I hope not untrue, but it clearly may have been misleading and was misleading.'
As I note below, he may be strictly correct in saying that he is not homosexual, but we are getting into splitting the finest of differences here. By any reasonable measure, he did not tell the truth. He did not merely mislead, he did not evade the question and change the subject - a key tactic for any politician in an interview (you can spot it when they say 'But the real question, John/Jeremy/David/Jonathan, is....').

He only admitted his lies when the media obtained proof that he was lying - although he's trying to take the high ground and pretend that he was forced to admit it after The Sun found proof that he had rung a gay chat line. A comment on Guido's blog reveals that his deception goes beyond 'misleading' and dates back some way into the 80s...
When someone on C4's open-ended (for insomniacs and freaks) chat-show, "After Dark",remarked that the homophobic campaign in Bermondsey was ironic given Hughes's sexuality, everyone on the show nodded and moved on. Within minutes, Hughes had been told and was on the blower to Charlotte St., and the presenter had to do his full legal apology schtick.So, far from it being 'no big deal' and 'everyone knew anyway', Hughes has been assiduously policing his straight image for 25 years.
Remember how the Lib Dems were equally forthright in threatening legal action when anyone suggested that Chuckles might like a drink or two?

And they have the nerve to accuse Labour of spin?

Get back to the kitchen, woman

Read Lowri Turner's views and wonder how she gets paid to write that stuff. (Thanks to Brett Lock).

Apparently, gay men aren't suited to high office because they can't understand the needs of parents. Aside from the many gay men and lesbians who care for children, doesn't this logic also disqualify the childless? What about the ability of men to represent women, or vice versa?

But it is all right, really - she has many gay friends. Apparently, their biggest worry is what colour sofa they should have. Lowri - for many straight couples, that can be the biggest concern as well.

Politics and civil leadership is about a damn sight more than what you do with your genitals and you should be able to relate to people from a whole range of backgrounds and life experiences and represent them all equally.

Next week, she'll tell us that black people have a really great sense of rhythm, so should stick to making music.

Lowri, get back to what you do best - presenting cheap daytime TV - and leave the thinking to the grown-ups with more than one braincell.

Any publicity is good publicity - or not

The Liberal Democrats haven't been out of the headlines over the past few weeks, but the latest Telegraph/YouGov poll proves the point about bad publicity, with less than 30% of the sample considering the Liberal Democrats to be a credible force in British politics. Their internal wranglings and the Oaten scandal have hammered their poll ratings downwards, continuing a slide since the highwater mark of 23% at the time of the last election. The fieldwork was conducted largely before the Hughes story broke and shows the Tories right behind Labour's 40% on 39% - a recovery down to the Liberal Democrat voters switching back. All these figures relate to those who actually vote and almost two thirds of them don't know who would make the best LD leader - Campbell scores best with just 16% support.

Interestingly, it suggests that Hughes might be the best candidate to restore the LD vote from 2005, as 22% of the Liberal Democrat supporters in May would back him, compared to 15% backing Campbell. When the same question is put to those who would vote Liberal Democrat today, Campbell closes the gap, collecting 22% support to Hughes' 23%. On this survey, Huhne doesn't really appear on the electorate's radar, but this isn't measuring support amongst party members, just supporters.

The online betting shows that Hughes' support has drifted in the light of recent events, and he's actually fallen into third place in this small field, with William Hill offering 5/1 for him and reporting that they've not taken a bet larger than £5 on Hughes in the past couple of days. To be fair, this is a relatively easily-influenced market - we saw that when the odds on Hemming shortened hugely following a couple of bets from Birmingham, so I'm not convinced that this identifies the reality of the race. There does seem to be a fair amount of indecision amongst the LDs (nothing unusual there, then) and there really does seem to be an awful lot of 'undecided' voters to play for. Those second preference votes are really going to swing the election this time, as nobody has an overwhelming lead.

On that note, YouGov have also helpfully published the result of John Hemming's polling, which showed that of 390 members of the Liberal Democrat party, 70% thought that he lacked the experience for leadership (a mere 14% thought that he was suitably qualified), 58% backed his decision to withdraw and only 7% would have backed our John against the Minger.

And finally, Random Incident was at the Any Questions special on Wednesday and reports Ming's answer to one of the pre-broadcast, test questions - Ming should really learn that he won't gain votes by kicking Chuckles.
Ming was urbane, amusing, and even a little scandalous when he said that, in reality, Burns Night lasted several nights and consisted of equal parts haggis and whisky - with rather more of the latter for some people. There was a sharp intake of breath across the entire hall as everyone similtaneously thought the one word "Kennedy", but Sir Menzies looked inscrutible, as if he'd just said "fuck" in front of a vicar and was quietly enjoying the confusion.

The more I see of this lot, the more I reckon that Charlie Kennedy pissed was a better leader than any of this bunch sober.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cheap Shots (Pt 2)

More emphasis should be placed on warning boys to control their sexual urges in order to reduce pregnancies among teenage girls, the politician in charge of Birmingham schools has suggested. Les Lawrence said too much time was taken up by schools telling young women to act responsibly, while boys were largely left alone and not given the same level of advice.

'One of the easiest ways to cut teenage pregnancies is to get young boys to say no. If they could control themselves and control their hormones the problem would be largely eradicated.'

Cllr Hemming was not available for comment.

In other news, the assortment of liberated lovers that have recently adorned our front pages may have an excuse. It seems that sex reduces your stress levels and can help with public speaking (although carnal activity during a parliamentary speech is still likely to be ruled out of order by the Speaker).

Hughes Sorry Now?

On BBC Radio Five this afternoon, Simon Hughes was with the rest of the nonentities currently vying to lead the Liberal Democrats into oblivion. He apologised if he had unintentionally misled people.

No, Simon. You lied. You denied homosexuality repeatedly. You didn't dodge the question, you denied it. I'm not going to split hairs about how gay or not he is - that isn't the point. This was a personal matter and should have been left as such, but your denials make you look shifty.

By the way, I've had some very interesting names put forward as potential Liberal Democrat turncoats. I doubt we'll see any move on that until March, when the new leader is hoisted onto the platform, but if it is Hughes, there are three reasonably well known LibDems who might be heading off to their real political home. (I say reasonably, but I mean people that you might have heard of even if you aren't a sad political anorak)

Here's another question for the Liberal Democrats. A couple of weeks ago - seems more like years - there were a number of candidates for the top job, including our own John Hemming and Mark Oaten. John Hemming was denied the right to speak at a LD event in London, as it was claimed that he lacked the number of signatures to nominate him, but Mark Oaten was then allowed to make his case. It has since come to light that Oatcakes didn't have the nominations required either, so why was John refused this national (televised) platform to make his case for the leadership.

We should be told.

Cheap Shots (Pt 1)

I don't feel good about posting it, but I couldn't resist it. (Stolen from Bloggerheads)

The race is on

Despite some unkind commentators comparing the race to three bald men fighting over a comb, we now know the runners and riders for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

Sir Menzies Campbell: Started as the runaway favourite, but has slid back after a poor performance at Prime Minister's Questions. Will suffer from being fingered as one of the prime movers behind the Kennedy assassination. Surrounded by a group of young Orangistas who see him as the temporary leader and likely to be off within five years - whether through age, illness or defeat - to give one of the new bunch a chance to take over and head rightwards.

Simon Hughes: Has now assumed the lead - thanks to a huge popularity within the grass roots of the party, who are the ones who will decide this. Not popular within the parliamentary party and you should note that no other London LD MP or assembly member has come out to support him. Generally regarded as a left-winger within the party, so could hope to outflank Labour to the left, which will cost them votes in parts of the country and might pose a threat to some of Labour's heartlands. On the other hand, he might cause a schism within the party - Adrian Graves isn't the only one considering his options, no matter how the party might try and spin this. Probably won't be hurt by his outing within the party and I'd expect a fairly limited effect on the overall polling position - unless there's anything nastier to come out.

Chris Huhne: Still a dark horse and recognised by a whopping 3% of a Guardian/ICM sample. I've been ridiculed for backing him, but I still think he'd be the most interesting leader for the LDs and probably the choice they should make out of this bunch. He's very pro-Europe and his plans for heavier environmental taxes will certainly fire up the Tories.

All were comprehensively trounced when put up against a potential Brown/Cameron race, with the two expected major leaders hitting 42%/40% when they were considered as potential prime ministers. The Times/Populous poll found a similar problem for the three candidates, mirroring the Guardian findings, with only 41% recognising Ming and Huhne only being identified by 4% of the sample.

I'm not shifting on the winner - Hughes, but Huhne might come through yet.

Sing if you're glad to be gay (or we'll publish anyway)

So Simon Hughes has admitted to homosexual relationships.

Anyone care? No? Didn't think so.

It really isn't going to affect his chances of winning the Liberal Democrat leadership - they are a party built on their tolerance of personal proclivities and society has moved on from when the witchhunt surrounded Jeremy Thorpe.

The questions we might want to ask are why he specifically denied it in recent interviews and why he chose today to out himself in the Sun, that paper famous for its support for the Liberal Democrats?

There are a couple of possible answers. Firstly, there's the good old 'We've got you bang to rights and we're going to run this story, but give us your side and we won't' - which is what usually gives us some footballer confessing to his drink or drugs hell. The other is that this is Hughes outing himself before another paper runs a more damaging story in the hope of killing the impact. [UPDATE: Trevor Kavanagh reveals all....]

The problem for me is simple - why deny it? Why not just say that your private life is your private life and isn't open for public discussion? Why go to the lengths of saying that you are not, have never been and have no intention of being homosexual?

To borrow from Blackadder 'It's the lying that hurts...'

Monday, January 23, 2006

Educashun, educashun, educashun

Funny, isn't it.

Our Liberal Democrat/Tory masters can find hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund their adventures with the underground or their vain attempts to find a better solution to the problem of the Birmingham Library. When it comes to keeping an award-winning specialist school open, they can't seem to locate the cash.

St Paul's Community Foundation School in Balsall Heath faces closure at the end of this year. For decades, it has specialised in children who have had problems in mainstream education. Many of them have already been excluded from other schools, but that doesn't stop the council from planning to close the school and move the pupils back into the mainstream (the same schools that previously threw them out).

Because these pupils have assorted problems and are located in a single school, it is also the worst performing in the City, with only 22% of the pupils getting the benchmark GCSE grades and missing the minimum government target of 25% - which is perhaps more important than the cost. The school's roll of 45 pupils will be spread amongst the other schools, so their poor performance won't be concentrated in one place and making the council look bad. The fact that these kids won't be as well served elsewhere in the system is irrelevant.

The scandal is that this seems to have nothing to do with giving these children the best education that we can, nor even financial constraints, but a cynical attempt to massage the figures to meet the targets. This shouldn't be a surprise - we've seen similar tricks with housing.

Of course, it won't be an election issue, the parents of these pupils are spread across the city, so there won't be the local outcry that might save it in an election year. That doesn't stop it being a crying shame and another blot on the record of this failed administration.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Redefining home affairs

Would the next Liberal Democrat without scandals lurking in the closet please stand up. There's never a dull moment watching the LDs - I've not even had time recently to blog about some of the more serious political issues facing us at the moment.

We've had Kennedy biting the bullet over his alcoholism and then today, Lord McNally explained on R4 that he also had problems with the demon drink. John H's errors in judgement are as legion as they are well-reported, but now Mark Oaten, lately a candidate for the party's leadership and until moments ago their spokesman on Home Affairs, has stood down from this post. Paddy Pantsdown's problems were well-reported and Jeremy Thorpe also had 'issues' - I note also that he was the last Liberal leader assiduously courted by the Tories.

The issue for me is if it affects public trust in him or affects his ability to do his job. I don't think that personal failings of this sort are generally an issue with the electorate - although the homophobes amongst us may take a different view. As for doing his job, there are obvious legal issues around it, which may well have made his role as home affairs spokesman untenable.
However, I note that he has done the right thing - resigned and asked for time with his family to sort through his problems out of the media spotlight. I wouldn't give odds on him getting what he wants though.

Elsewhere, PoliticalBetting have caught on to the idea of this outsider possibly sneaking through on the rail while the big beasts lumber along.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Oaten's Quake

And so, Oaten falls by the wayside.

Never mind, Mark, there's always next time - except then Clegg will DEFINITELY run (and probably win). And it would help if you could have found enough MPs to stand by you and weren't reduced to ringing round LD activists to beg for their support. Still, he did managed to steal some of the headlines from Ming formally launching his bid for galactic domination the leadership. Not even a covert assistance campaign from Chuckles could save him, which has now been 'exposed' after reports of a Watergate-style break in at Oaten's office. I don't think that the case has been helped by Mark Oaten's campaign manager, Alex Proud, description of the radio interview with the party's largest donor:
'Listening to Michael Brown this morning... To me it sounded like a child who simply wants attention and caring for.'

I doubt we'll see another £2 million from Mr Brown.

So, it still looks like a straight fight between Campbell and Hughes - with Huhne likely to fall at the first fence (although I still think he's a decent compromise candidate). The next generation of leaders will all back Campbell - bear in mind that some medical opinion puts the chances of his medical problems returning within five years as 50/50 - as he won't last past the next election.

Iain Dale suspects that Oaten might jump ship to the Tories - which wouldn't be a surprise, as there are a number of prominent LDs who would seem to fit into the NuTory party that Cameron is promising. Much will depend on the outcome of the election - Campbell would mean that they will stay, Hughes might force them to go or face another decade of plotting behind his back. Despite a swing back towards Campbell - which has raised suspicions amongst the boys at politicalbetting that it might be a put-up job - I'm still going with a Hughes win, as I think he'll carry the activists, but I think it will be close.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Blogging Gold

Nosemonkey over at Europhobia has mined a particularly rich seam of data to combine Veritas, Big Brother, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Michael Barrymore, UKIP and Christian Voice.

Fine work.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

So, where now?

With the clear leader of the contest withdrawing yesterday, the field seems to have settled on four candidates - the Minger, Hughes, Oaten and Whoone. Clegg seems to regret not running - Compo and Foggy not being available to assist. There are reports of Oaten considering withdrawing, but no reason has yet been given - although I have heard some very intriguing rumours. Guido gives a brief, but fairly accurate precis of the speeches this morning at the LSE.

Oaten is clearly the chosen successor to Kennedy. Charlie himself has backed him and his loyal lieutenant Lembit Opik is leading the campaign. There are also stories from Scotland of a dedicated 'anyone but Campbell' campaign kicking off in revenge for his role in Charlie's defenestration.

I can't see Oaten getting it - even on presentational skills, he is lacking in comparison to Ming and Hughes. He may have much to say on policy, but he's no leader, for now at least. Ming and Hughes were both wounded by Wednesday's PMQs - not fatally, but they are now faced with recovering some lost ground and Ming has to contend with that every week. Being positive, it is national exposure and an opportunity to shine, but it is also a huge chance to fall flat on his backside - and the other contenders can leave him to it, if they choose.

My guess is that Hughes will win it, but I'd put some money on Huhne as an outside chance - he's talked a good game so far and he may yet repeat Cameron's performance in coming out of nowhere and beating the favourite. He would be problematic for the LibDems - although he would exemplify their pro-European stance, his support for the Euro could cause him no end of grief against Cameron and Brown, neither known as single-currency fans.

John's given up his campaign and is now trying to curry favour with all the potential winners, declaring that all four are doing a good job, in the hope that one will give him a good job.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Hemming practices the withdrawal method

I suppose that it was always too much to hope for. I was almost tempted to join the party, just to vote in Hemming, but the dream is no more, the flame has died.

Despite huge backing (mostly from the Labour and Tory parties, to be fair), John Hemming has decided to pull out of the race for the leadership, after a detailed poll that showed a massive 92% of the Liberal Democrat party don't want him as leader. I can hear Hughes, Oaten et al drawing a collective sigh of relief that this colossus of British politics has agreed to give them a clear run at the electorate.

Sadly, he doesn't tell us who conducted the poll, what the sample size was and where the sample was obtained, when the poll was conducted and how, what questions were asked, what weighting was used, etc. Without that information, the polling information is highly suspect. Actually, it is worth less than a Big Brother vote. [EDIT: I've been told that the poll was conducted by YouGov, but I'm still calling on Cllr Hemming to release the full results of the poll. Just give us a link to the .pdf file from YouGov]

Compare and contrast this from the surrender note:
'only 14% of members believe I have the right experience to lead the party (70% do not). That does not surprise me as I have always been marginal about this. A few more years experience is really needed in parliament'
with

'An argument is used by some MPs that I don't have that much experience as an MP. Given that I have 15 years experience as an elected politician and 22 years experience in running my own business I find that a bit unreasonable.'

and this

'There is a report that Kennedy's Aides have indicated that I have no experience. The question is experience of what.I suppose I only have 22 years experience of running things including having taken part in running the largest local authority in the country as well as a number of commercial enterprises. Admittedly although I fought the 1983 election, I was not elected then unlike Charles Kennedy, but I feel that if people are trying to say I don't have experience then that is not based in fact.'
Hardly being 'marginal' is it?

Then there's the original intention to stand solely to ensure that the membership had a choice (fire or frying-pan, I suppose). If that's the case, why wait until three other candidates have declared? He could have withdrawn much earlier in the week, rather than dragging this out and keeping the campaign going. But that wouldn't have fed the ego and the press profile, would it?

There's always next time. Simon Hughes won't go on for ever - although his speeches belie that feeling.

The Campbells aren't coming, hurrah

Oh dear.

Poor old Ming. Last week, he was odds on favourite to assume the leadership of the party, with some even talking about the need for unity and for only one candidate to go forward, thus negating the need for a messy campaign.

Then, some at the nuttier end of the political spectrum decided that they would nominate anybody who could find a crayon and the requisite forms (it not being wise to trust these people with anything sharper than that). Stand up the invisible MPs - Paul Rowen and Mike Hancock - and the only too visible 'Superstud' John Hemming, who nominated Mark Oaten, but continues with his own leadership campaign as his ego continues to outstrip his talents. So, despite the change in the Liberal Democrat rules at conference, passed in an attempt to keep the number of candidates manageable, we now have four declared and suitably nominated candidates ready to speak at the conference in London this week. John has declared an interest in standing, although he is preparing his supporters for the possibility that he can't find other MPs prepared to stick their names on the list, let alone 200 members from 20 constituency parties who have heard of him. Judging by the hits on this site over the past week, they are certainly learning about Cllr Hemming - we're back to the volume we had around election time last year. If you do a Google search on 'John Hemming leadership' - this site is one of the first to appear - always glad to provide a reference resource.

So, now there are four candidates, with rumours that Nick Clegg is 'taking soundings' and might yet decide to run, after the Minger's performance at PMQs gave his campaign chances a knock and opened it up for Hughes. Oaten seems to have wound up far too many people and Huhne seems too electorally vulnerable, after he threw away a 3000 Lib Dem majority at the last election and scraped home with just 568 votes over the Tory challenger, making his seat the Tories' 15th most winnable and a prime target in 2009. Despite that, he's embarked on a media campaign, turning up on Radio 4 this morning and actually sounding quite sane and rational.

It seems that the Orangistas plans for crowning Ming as Emperor for the short term have fallen to bits, so they are rolling out their big guns now to tackle the threat of Hughes.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Huhne He?

Another newbie MP, Chris Huhne, has joined the 'race' to lead the Liberal Democrats.

After the poor performances of the other three contenders yesterday, the former MEP can't do any worse. The irony of this is that the LD leadership felt that the last leadership contest, which had five contenders, was too drawn out and rather embarrassing for such a small party, so they raised the bar of parliamentary nominations to 10%. When Simon Hughes joins in formally this afternoon, we'll have four declared candidates, with John Hemming still trying to persuade his fellow MPs to lay down their careers on the altar of his ego. Increasingly, it is looking like we'll have 10% of the parliamentary party running, as the rules allow MPs to nominate more than one candidate - which is a fairly ridiculous idea.

Bad news for Oaten, Colin Ross' online poll gives him just half the support that John Hemming has - a mere 1% of the vote, compared to 2% for the Yardley MP, with Hughes and Campbell holding on to 15% each.

Bad news for us, too - John seems to be preparing the ground for his withdrawal, by saying that he only ever wanted to ensure that there was a contest and not a coronation. Chicken.

Also interesting is the comment posted on John's blog, which offers gushing support for Simon Hughes, describing him as
'respected in all quarters as decent, compassionate, urbane, witty, intelligent, principled and also vastly experienced'
The author needs to get out more. One word, whoever you are. Bermondsey.

He's so respected that his majority was slashed by 4000 votes this year with the biggest swing to Labour in any constituency.

Vote free, smoke free

In a sop to the backbench rebels, the government is to allow Labour MPs a free vote - unbound by the party whip - on the ban on smoking and they are expected to vote in favour of an amendment to bring about a total ban in all workplaces, including pubs and restaurants. The Telegraph leader attacks this as the restriction of the liberty of smokers, which it is - but in pursuit of freedom for the majority who don't smoke and whose health is threatened by this minority. It is, primarily a health and safety at work issue - not exposing employees to toxic fumes is taken for granted in other businesses. Almost all large companies ban smoking in the workplace - why should the health of bar staff be worth less than that of a secretary or the managing director at head office?

The partial ban was always daft - it would have led to parliament having to define what was meant by 'serving food.' Would crisps count? What about pre-packaged sandwiches? Would it have to be a sit-down meal to qualify? It is even sillier when we look at the examples in Ireland and Scotland - why should others be left out? A total ban is easier to understand and to enforce.

I'm just sorry that the government can't be proud to stand up for the rights of the workers, rather than directing the blame from the right-wing press on to the backbenchers.

Absent without leave

If you were the MP for an East London constituency affected by the Cross-Rail project, you might think that you would want to represent the views of your constituents when the Bill came up for discussion in the House as it has today.

Unless your name was George Galloway and your ego matters more than your electorate, in which case you would choose to spend three weeks lying around amongst the attention-seeking mediawhores inside the Big Brother house.

Campbell in the soup

Is that the best he can do?

The Minger must have expected a difficult first PMQ session as Lib Dem leader, but he was slapped down by the PM this afternoon in a quite spectacular manner. The Labour benches were wholeheartedly behind the leader and he was charging at the Liberal Democrats with a new spring in his step. Why did he ask a question about schools not being able to recruit headmasters? He gifted that to Tony and he was never going to miss the chance to pour vinegar into the open wound of the leadership contest. Simon Hughes was no better and Tony just seemed disappointed that Mark Oaten chose to cower in the TV studio, rather than face the baying hounds in the chamber. That performance has opened the leadership contest up just a little bit more.

Elephunt points out that having Liberal Democrats in charge of your schools can lead to repair costs increasing. As other councils around them slash their outstanding repair costs by fixing and replacing buildings, Liverpool City Council have actually increased the amount of outstanding repairs by a whopping £15 million in a year.

There's also a hint that Chris Huhne might stand and an expectation that Simon Hughes will announce his candidacy on Thursday. Iain Dale also reports an exchange between Andrew Neil and Mark Oaten, when Neil repeated another Lib Dem MP's comment that 'Mark Oaten can be summed up in four words: unlimited ambition, limited talent.' Quick as a flash, Oaten shot back, 'That's more than four words.'

Stunning, the lot of 'em. And they dumped Chuckles for one of these? He was a better leader pissed than these are sober.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

And then there were two

So Mark Oaten has joined the race for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, doubtless after taking a breathalyser test. Rather than just announce that he was a candidate, as Ming did over the weekend, Oaten chose to give a short speech promising to 'modernise' the party. I did try to listen, but fell asleep - he's not hugely charismatic and unless he sharpens up, he'll look desperately dull compared to Blair and Cameron.

Meanwhile, in a disastrous turn for the party as the May elections draw ever closer (and a by-election in Scotland is closer still), the Liberal Democrat vote has dropped 3% on the month - the lowest since 2001 and well down on the average of 22% that the party has averaged since (Times/Populous). That may not be the full impact, as the fieldwork was undertaken across the weekend, with some before Chuckie threw in the towel. Half of those questioned thought that Charlie was right to fight to stay on as leader and the poll was fairly evenly divided on whether either being an alcoholic or lying about it were sufficient grounds for him to go, although coming down on his side on both occasions. The public did turn against him on the question of whether he had run out of steam, 41%/35% in favour of him resigning - although less than a quarter of Lib Dem voters agreed. He was still rated as a better leader than Howard was, despite the poor stories about his drink problem. The vanishing Lib Dem vote has divided itself between the Tories, Labour and the Green party.

So, we've got the Minger, the soporific and uninspiring Oaten and the spectre of Hughes still haunting this feast - more news from him is due on Thursday. The conventional wisdom and the betting gives the contest to 'Two Jags' Campbell and this remains the probable outcome, but I'd put a small amount on Hughes - his support amongst the membership could be decisive. Campbell is also vulnerable to accusations from Kennedy loyalists that he led the campaign to dump Chatshow.

Meanwhile, what of the big man himself? John Hemming's campaign to campaign gathers pace as it heads downhill. Some national papers still regard his leadership bid as a joke, for reasons best known to them, leading to a short piece in the Guardian Diary where a Liberal Democrat recalls that
that on a previous occasion, when Hemming tried but failed to get elected to parliament, other Lib Dems exclaimed: "We've won, we've won."

I find that so hard to believe. John's ever watchful staff have realised that simply having bits of paper with names and numbers on them isn't sufficient to nominate a leader, so are now desperately trying to get the formal nomination papers out to members who have already expressed their support. There is an intriguing paragraph on the blog indicating the path that John plans to take:
'It remains, of course, that I may have some difficulties getting the backing from MPs. However, we still have a fortnight for that. Once I have support from the constituencies there is a solid case that I should be allowed to stand because the members want me to stand.' [Emphasis added]

Seasoned readers will remember John's attempts at the LD conference this year to stop the constitutional change that imposed a 10% minimum level on nominations from Lib Dem MPs. Anyone care to bet on whether he has the lawyers ready to roll? The sight of an MP taking his own party to court might be one of the more entertaining contests of the year, although it probably won't improve his chances of winning. Disturbing rumours reach me that John may face more serious problems closer to home, but I'm sure that's just tittle-tattle.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The guilty men (and women)

One of the few Liberal Democrat MPs able to hold his head high over the squalid assassination of Kennedy's character is Lembit Opik - he defended him to the bitter end. And I mean bitter.

Just before Chuckles threw in the towel on Saturday, Lembit was interviewed outside the Cowley Street central office and his demeanour virtually defined 'incandescent' - which is a challenge for one of the milder-mannered Liberal Democrat MPs - in his anger at how Kennedy was being treated. He then turned up on every media outlet that afternoon, raging against the dying of the Kennedy light.
'They've got what they wanted and we lose the most successful party leader we've had for 83 years,' said Mr Opik. 'It has been divisive and I've got some very strong words to say which I'll now share quietly and privately about the performance of some of my colleagues. I think they have violated the values of the party and crucially they have given their impression that their words and their views are more important than the electorate which chose him in the first place, and I don't think that's very constitutional. There are many deep scars and a lot of resentment, primarily among the membership, who are bewildered by what's happened.'
While Opik is now prepared to back Oaten's campaign, compare and contrast his loyal behaviour over the weekend with that of Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central.
Friday morning:
'Charles Kennedy is a massive asset to the party, and people should remember that the party has got the most MPs it has ever had for 80 years. He says he has been receiving treatment and has not had a drink for two months, and I don't see why he can't continue his job as leader.'
By Friday afternoon, she was the only Welsh LibDem to sign the letter asking Charlie to resign.
'I feel that his position was untenable. He had lost the support of most of the parliamentary party. I felt that Charles on his best form was the best party leader, but he was no longer on his best form. For me, Charles didn't have enough momentum to drive the party in the best direction.'
Then there's Sarah Teather, who was elected thanks to Charlie Kennedy and was rewarded, despite her inexperience, with a seat on the front-bench. None of that stopped her from cheerleading the campaign to remove Chuckles.

We've already covered the disloyalty of Charlie's former press secretary, Daisy McDonald, who was the willing accomplice of the other assassins.

This isn't a diatribe against Lib Dem women, as the rest of 'em - Cable, Campbell, Hughes and others have all spent weeks and months briefing against Kennedy, despite renominating him almost unanimously after the election in May. Loyalty clearly isn't a word in the Liberal dictionary.

Who's the nasty party now then? (Thanks to Yellow Peril)

Historical jetsam

'The Liberal Democrats are not a serious national party. They have had no power since the advent of the universal franchise, and have no prospect of it. They are a dustbin party, a middle-ground asylum party, a none-of-the-above party, a wine-and-cheese party, a cheap peerage party, a memorial to Gladstone and Lloyd George party. They are historical jetsam.'

Simon Jenkins laying into the failure of the Liberal Democrats and pointing out the precipice over which they currently dangle.

Regardless of who takes over the party, they may face an imminent problem more serious than the internecine warfare likely to break out - their biggest donor is considering withdrawing his support from the party. As in most things, follow the money...
'... he is shell-shocked by what has happened. He invested the money... because he believed in Charles Kennedy, not the others.'

It is interesting that Campbell is being backed by so many of the new stars in the party's rather bleak galaxy - David Laws, Ed Davey, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are amongst the half of the parliamentary party who have declared their support for the Minger. These people know that Merciless will be rattling towards 70 when the next election comes round and facing a Labour leader in his mid 50s and a Tory leader in his early 40s. They will be better placed to mount their own challenge given another four or five years of manoeuvring and that should be enough to see off the threat from Sharky Hughes. They'd like to go now, but the risk of dividing the Campbell vote and letting Hughes in the back door is too high.

Hughes is still circling - maintaining the moral high ground incumbent on the party's President and busying himself with organising the election process itself. With no sense of irony, the Times had him accusing fellow MPs of disloyalty to Kennedy. He is the big threat to the Campbell axis - the one who might just snatch the election by appealing directly to the membership and thus landing the parliamentary party with a leader that they find instantly unpopular. At least it took a few years for them to screw their courage to the sticking post and ram the knife into Kennedy, Hughes would inspire similar desires within seconds. To get rid of a second leader before the next election would be too much to bear and would raise the possibility of a political schism, with some of the new breed of Liberal Democrats taking their seats and their political futures off towards the Cameronian Tory party. The Guardian describes Hughes as 'hard to dislike' - but, trust me, it IS worth the effort.

He seems to have a problem in finding 7 MPs to countersign his nomination and his nomination could trigger David Oaten's campaign machine to whirr into action (that's the one that the loyal and supportive Mr Oaten has had on standby for weeks now). If Hughes doesn't run, then Oaten might not, so leaving the membership fuming as they don't get a chance to vote on their next leader. Not so much one member, one vote as 62 members, one vote.

There are those ready to step into the breach if the party bigwigs let them down - Phil Willis has declared that he is ready to stand if nobody else can be bothered and there's still John. There's always John. Support is flooding in from across the country and with a lack of irony worthy of Simon Hughes, John has asked my new colleague across the way to have any emails sent forwarded to him.

I'm only too glad to make the same promise and if any paid-up Liberal Democrat members reading want to back him through this site, I promise to pass your details on to the great man. Although the irony of John asking for postal support is not lost on me.
Nothing will get in the way of giving the party the leader it deserves.

David Laws tries to put some gloss on their elimination of Kennedy through briefing and backstabbing by using the excuse that they had no choice. No mention that as recently as last May, all bar one of the Liberal Democrat MPs thought that Charlie was entirely fit to lead the party, despite an ongoing drink problem and embarrassing moments during the campaign, so they proposed him for leader again. Curiously, there is a little honour in John Hemming's refusal to sign the nomination papers - he didn't think Charlie was up to it from day one, so to do otherwise would have been dishonest.

Alongside the Guardian and the BBC, our chosen candidate has failed to register with Ladbrokes' betting - even Sarah 'Endof' Teather gets in at 66/1 and Betfair offers worse odds...

Why can't they see what we can?

Tony Banks 1943 - 2006

Another one of the political characters has left us at the end of a bad week for Labour politicians - Merlyn Rees, former Labour Northern Ireland Secretary and Home Secretary died on Thursday aged 85. The same day also saw the death of Rachel Squire, aged 51, the serving Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, after a prolonged battle against a number of brain tumours. She was also the PPS to Estelle Morris when she was Education Secretary.

The weekend took a parliamentary fixture from us - Tony Banks, the former Minister for Sport and devoted Chelsea fan. One of his duties was to approve building listing applications and he controversially approved the listing of the Three Magpies pub in Hall Green in Birmingham in 1997 as a fine example of an inter-war period pub. It now forms the centre of a conservation area. He stood down in 2005 and was elevated to the Lords, which did his republican sentiments the power of good.

He was famously outspoken, with an honesty rare in politicians. He suggested foreign players in the Premiership should become eligible for England and that the national teams of the UK should unite. Other politicians received the rough edge of his tongue - he described William Hague as a 'foetus' and more accurately caricatured the philistinism of the Tory MP Terry Dicks as 'living proof that a pig's bladder on a stick can get elected to parliament.'

Despite standing (unsuccessfully) as a Liberal in a London council election, he soon saw the light and described the Liberal Democrats as:
'woolly-hatted, muesli-eating, Tory lick-spittles'
His friend Stephen Pound, another source of good quote, said on the Today programme on Monday 6 January that
'If champagne needed cheering up, it would drink Tony Banks.'

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Backing Hemming - the real alternative to a leader

I was toying with the idea of launching a Hemming4Leader blog - perhaps to showcase some of the brighter elements of the career of this deservedly under-rated politician - but I have been beaten to it.

Perhaps a swift run through of some of his successes is in order.

Errrm.

Well....

Maybe I'll come back to that later. In the meantime...

A descendant of the Vikings, John still keeps telling us about a maths prize he won at school some thirty years hence, although he has dropped the detail that he was once a candidate for Britain's first astronaut (there are those who would pay good money to see him shot into space on a one-way basis), which I suspect means that he sent in an application form. He was also once defeated in an election by a dog, having launched his political career with that hugely-successful political party, the Mercian Nationalists.

John is unusually shy these days about his role in establishing the Phoenix consortium that then systematically ran Rover into the ground. Shame that. Although he did find a trusted mouthpiece to join his campaign to blame the government for what was a case of corporate mismanagement.

John was, of course, the man who single-handedly engineered a rickety coalition with the Tories to ensure that he had an increased media profile as Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council in advance of yet another tilt at the parliamentary seat of Yardley. This was in spite of internal opposition from his own party, which has barely held together over the past two years - but then power and council cabinet salaries proved extraordinarily tempting. Ironically, this was just what John had criticised his new friends for doing during the campaign.

Once in power, this new 'progressive partnership' got quickly into its stride. When it wasn't actually doing nothing, we saw Liberal Democrat policies in action - scrapping bus lanes and speed humps in favour of the motorist, blocking the metro extension (and tried to cover up the disastrous plans for a Birmingham underground), scrapping established plans to build a world-class library in Birmingham in favour of a cobbled-together solution that they can't hope to deliver. The rest of the time, it just dillied and dallied. Oh, and it scrapped the emergency out-of-house social services team in favour of a call centre and the much-vaunted bus wardens campaign promise fell by the wayside. We know of his stand against dodgy postal votes and his litigious nature, but then we had the Liberal Democrat councillor sacked for refusing to funnel money to a local community group for electoral gain. Then we had John reneging on an earlier promise to scrap the council newspaper and actually signing a bigger contract for a new one.

Of course, one of the biggest debacles of his tenure - the defeat in Hodge Hill - wasn't actually his fault. The candidate wasn't his favoured local choice, but somebody imposed from on high. Unfortunately, Nokia Davies worked in the mobile phone industry and we all know how effectively the LibDems have mined the seam of politics around mobile phone masts. Naturally, they cracked down on the dissenters afterwards.

So far, he has been most impressively cramming the events of a whole political career into a few short months. First, there was the obligatory affair and pregnant PA - kicked off when he got 'hogwhimperingly drunk' at a Private Eye lunch and then documented in detail by the national and local press - despite legal threats - revelling in the title 'Superstud' and finally blaming his liberalism for his wandering hands. This was swiftly followed by the legal action against Birmingham Social Services (which has made him lots of friends at the City Council). Then, ignored for any sort of cabinet post (and marked for vengeance after being the only LibDem MP not to support Charlie for the leadership), we had the conference shenanigans - rebellion and slapping down - and then the leadership challenge (in between, he managed one of the poorest voting records of any Birmingham MP).

Along the way, he was described as
'a cross between Boris Johnson and Geoffrey Robinson, but without the talent '
by an unnamed Liberal Democrat national figure. He's also developed a nice line in breaching parliamentary etiquette, as well as attacking government secrecy when it suits his political aims, even it can lead to a judgement against you from the Standards Board. And he forgot to list all his interests in the parliamentary register - blaming the office for his oversight. His penchant for spending our money on pointless questions knows no bounds - to the point where a question about possible celebrations over a putative World Cup victory is more important than a vote on anti-terrorist legislation.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about John is that he will do anything for publicity - even turning up at a convention on toilets and entering a competition to find Britain's greatest love rat.

And there is no beginning to his musical talent.

But, we can be reassured that he won't go the same way as Kennedy - he leaves the drinks' cabinet under the control of one of his many cats.

Perhaps his Bond-villain ego has finally exploded.

To conclude with the views of Richard Mawrey QC, who ran the inquiry into election malpractice in Birmingham in 2004:
'[John Hemming] possesses an inability to give a straight answer to a straight question'

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hemming4Leader

Yes!

After a short hiatus, the MP for Yardley has resurfaced from his unusual silence and he has news for us.

John is considering running - in the name of giving the party choice. As always on this blog, we stand behind John in his campaign for leadership - I'm always game for a laugh.

He points out that PoliticalBetting have shortened the odds on him winning - he's down to just 50-1, which has to be worth a fiver of anyone's money. I'll be putting a small wager on it - all profits to the Labour Party funds, of course. Ming Campbell is still the runaway favourite and I believe that William Hill have already closed the betting on the leadership.

John - go for it.

(But Random Perspective suggests a new contender for the leadership - one K Clarke, late of the Tory Party. Thanks to Elephunt for the link and the giggle.)

Charlie calls it a day

From yesterday's statement that he wasn't going to be resigning this weekend, Charlie has reversed in under twenty-four hours and announced that he isn't going to stand in the leadership election, thus freeing up the campaign for all and sundry to run.

...and Ming Campbell is first out of the traps at 3:48 today.

This really hasn't reflected well on the Liberal Democrats, who have long traded on an image as the 'nice' party and the party not like the others. They've been shown up as at least as conniving and backstabbing as the rest of 'em. Last year, there was pressure on Charlie to resign over political issues - a perceived lack of leadership. That heightened, with increased briefing by his opponents in the run up to the New Year, but this week, it became apparent to the enemy within that Charlie wasn't going to go gracefully or easily, so they opted for the nuclear option and dropped the alcoholism story into the press.

Perhaps the Tories aren't the nasty party after all.

Georgeous George TV

I will admit to being stunned when I heard that George Galloway was to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, which started on Thursday night on Channel Four. I was stunned that any elected politician would think that his case would be advanced by spending a couple of weeks with a bunch of C-listers like this lot. If he'd wanted to spend time with a load of clowns, he should have joined the Liberal Democrats.

Europhobia is suitably vitriolic about Galloway, who has one of the worst attendance records in parliament. He's only ahead of the Sinn Fein MPs (who haven't taken the oath, so don't attend the House) and the late Rachel Squire, who had terminal cancer. He's missed votes because of important party business - like his stage show 'An Audience with George Galloway,' which was canvassing support in that centre of Respect electorate that is Cork, when he should have been voting on the anti-terrorism bill, something of real interest to his constituents. At least he's raising some money, although some people are concerned at the destination. On the other hand, somebody reminds us that every second in the BB House is a time not spent doing the job for which he continues to be paid. (Ta, Antonia)

But perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised, as George is a member of the school of political thought that believes that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. He's a publicity whore, pure and simple and he'll take any opportunity offered him.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On the edge...

So, Charlie faces a difficult weekend.

As of Friday, 25 spokespeople and MPs (not including John H, sadly) have confirmed that they will resign their offices on Monday if Charlie doesn't resign his first and a Newsnight poll found that more than half of the LD MPs think he should go. Charlie still reckons that he has the support in the party to hang on to office - and there is some support out there, but these unscientific samples of blogs seem to show very mixed returns.

[UPDATE] The news doesn't get better for Chuckles - The Telegraph today nail his coffin lid down with a YouGov poll for the paper which shows a massive 65% support for a new leader and only 27% of the membership backing Kennedy. These are only preliminary results, but providing YouGov aren't doing anything silly with their sampling, I can't see there being a huge variation in the final outcome. The poll also gives Menzies Campbell 49% support, Hughes 21% and Mark Oaten 14%. On that basis, Oaten's voters will give their support to Campbell as an interim candidate to allow Oaten and his sidekicks to build their popular support for when Campbell stands down - hopefully at a point when Hughes has become too old for the job and it is time for a new generation to take over.

Realistically, for him to stay would do immense damage to the party - he'd either have to go to the second string of MPs to find replacement front benchers or persuade the current postholders to return with their tails between their legs, muttering something about for the greater good or for the sake of party unity. Whatever happened, it wouldn't resolve the deeper problems about the direction of the party.

Kennedy has been holding together a party that wants to pull in two directions at once - there are the old tax and spend lefties, like Simon Hughes, and the new breed of Orange Book liberals who want to take a more right of centre view and free up the public sector to private involvement. These factions have co-existed for a while, but the compromise option can't hold these diverging paths together forever.

The election of a new leader could open a whole new can of worms for the Liberal Democrats.

(PS - Why has John H been quiet on the issue? Is he hiding or on holiday? Not like him to miss the publicity opportunity.)

Drunk in charge

A comment on the post below asks where our free press were when Charlie was drinking in the last chance saloon.

The fact is that they have been easy on him for years - partly because it was regarded as being a personal problem, partly because Kennedy is regarded as a nice bloke and partly because of legal threats from the Lib Dem press office. Back in 2002 - over three years ago - Paxman came in for criticism for asking him about his alcohol consumption:
Jeremy Paxman: Does it trouble you that every single politician to whom we've spoken in preparing for this interview said the same thing - you're interviewing Charles Kennedy, I hope he's sober?
Charles Kennedy: No, it doesn't trouble me at all. I mean, this is the kind of thing that goes around at Westminster.
JP: How much do you drink?
CK: Moderately, socially, as you know.
JP: You don't drink privately?
CK: What do you mean, privately?
JP: By yourself, a bottle of whisky late at night?
CK: No, I do not, no.

That was three years ago - well before Charlie knew he had a problem.

For his own sake, he needs the space and time to sort himself out, without the pressure of leadership. Even if he were to never touch a drop again, every time he appeared a little below par or missed an engagement for any reason, the first question that will be asked is if he's fallen off the wagon again. Times have changed since Churchill or George Brown could combine heavy drinking with a place at the top of government - we live in a hectic world and I don't believe that it is unreasonable to expect that our leaders should be sober. People will feel sympathy for Charlie on a personal level - I know that I do - but they won't vote for somebody like that. While I'd support an alcoholic who was receiving treatment for the problem and was on the wagon, I wouldn't allow a drunk to come in to work, so I'm damn certain I'm not going to want one as Prime Minister.

His colleagues have had enough of covering up his lapses and occasional incapability. When he's on song, he's an asset to the party, but a drunk Kennedy is a liability.

So the row goes on, dividing the party. Jenny Tonge has come back out urging Charlie to kick the habit of being LD leader and was swiftly followed by Nick Harvey MP who said that Kennedy should face a confidence vote from the parliamentary party next week and then Chris Davies MEP described Kennedy as 'a dead man walking.'

He won't make it past the end of next week. How can he? Those eleven front benchers - Vincent Cable, Sarah Teather, Norman Baker (Charlie's former PPS), Sandra Gidley, David Laws, Ed Davey and Michael Moore amongst them - who have no confidence in Kennedy's leadership can't face the possibility of him continuing in office. Add to that the number of other MPs with an eye on their majorities and the pressure for him to quit will rapidly become uncontainable. The worst case scenario for the LDs is that he does survive and the Kennedy saga dominates the Lib Dem agenda in the weeks running up to the local elections.

Actually, that's quite an attractive option.

Daisy, Daisy, give us your answer do.

Iain Dale (with a nod towards Guido) reveals that you can't trust your former employees. Especially if they are Liberal Democrats.

Before taking up her post with ITN, Daisy McAndrew was Charlie Kennedy's press secretary.
She handed his private office a dossier early this afternoon and within an hour it was announced Kennedy would be making a personal statement. Shortly afterwards 5 Live's John Pienaar reported that 11 LibDem Shadow Cabinet members had signed a letter of no confidence, which in typical LibDem fashion, they wimped out of sending. It seems that Hughes, Oaten and Campbell had all declined to sign it. Three Portillo's in the making? At 6pm Kennedy admitted in a very dignified manner that he had a drinking problem and put in train the process for a leadership election.Lembit Opik has appeared denying that Kennedy had lied about his drinking problem and said he was courageous for admitting to it now. The fact is, of course, that Kennedy wouldn't have said anything had he not been forced into it by Daisy McAndrew.And of McAndrew herself? At no point during her report did she mention the fact that she used to work for Kennedy. She should have. I hope there aren't too many mirrors for her to look into when she gets home tonight.

The dossier itself reported the details of the meeting in 2004 when four of the great and the good in the Liberal Democrat party confronted Charlie over his drink problem and demanded that he sought help.

The question remains - what inspired her to break this story now? Or should that be who? Somebody who had been at the 2004 reading of the riot act, perhaps?

At the moment, the most serious candidate not to have declared undying support for the leader is Simon Hughes, so I'd put money on him standing. Whether the Orange Book Bunch put forward one of their own to counter him remains to be seen - it won't be Oaten, but there are others. Anyone for Teather? Thought not.

It should also be noted that Kennedy and his office have repeatedly denied any problems with alcohol over the years - with some journalists reporting that they were on the receiving end of some heavyweight legal threats to warn them off publication. Not exactly the image that the squeaky-clean Kennedy has tried to promote (when he's not misunderstanding the rules on campaign contributions).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vote Hemming!

Not often you'll hear me say that, but surely now is the time for him to come to the aid of the party and stand for the leadership.

Come on John, how about it? Put your money (of which there is much) where your mouth is.

The Hack and Bob Piper are with you.

Career on the rocks

So Charlie has pressed the button marked 'self-destruct' and decided to put the matter of his leadership out to the masses in the style of John Major.

While you have to applaud his (eventual) honesty about one of the worst-kept secrets in politics, I don't think that the news that he's an alcoholic (although dry for two months, apparently) will impress the party. He's specifically denied those accusations when they have been put to him and has only decided to admit the truth when forced to by a TV programme. He's also cynically shifted the focus from the political failings to his personal problems and those will prove hard to attack without the other side appearing heartless.

I wish him well and note that he's not the first alcoholically challenged MP - Churchill is one of the famous cases and George Brown famously helped to create the Private Eye shorthand for drunk, 'tired and emotional.' But does it disqualify him from the leadership?

The big question now is who will stand against him and this marks his best chance of survival. Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes have said that they would not stand against Chatshow, so has his statement that 'it is open to any colleague' released them from that promise? (Oaten has now specifically confirmed that he will not stand and will campaign for Charlie). And they're spinning like mad at the moment. Lembit Opik is proclaiming his loyalty to the leader and praising him for his honesty - all pushing about the drink and not a word about the problems with the party.

To settle this, a serious contender needs to come forward. Time to put up or shut up, Ming.

UPDATED: Ming is being merciful tonight and won't stand. Simon Hughes looks to be wavering a little and is now saying that he hasn't thought about running against Charlie. What - never? Well, hardly ever....

Rumours all around

Chuckles is in continuing trouble - half of the shadow cabinet have signed a letter saying that they have no confidence in his leadership. A statement (rumoured to be about allegations of his drinking habits due to air on ITV tonight) is due shortly.

The best rumour is that a certain controversial London MP might be an inmate on Celebrity Big Brother tonight. Ahhh - if only C4 would forget the key and turn off the cameras...

Baker day

Yet another Liberal Democrat MP has suggested that Charlie K might want to consider his position, but this time it's a front-bencher - Norman Baker, no less, their environment spokesman who wants a vote of confidence amongst the parliamentary party 'to clear the air.' Also joining the pack of howling wolves snapping at Chuckles' heels are Alastair Carmichael, who also wants a confidence vote next week (and there's still the unnamed MP who has promised to force it) plus the former MP and now LD peer, Jenny Tonge, who has described the situation as 'a boil that has to be lanced.' In Channel Four's spot poll of 18 LD MPs, just one could be found to back the current leader, while one called the whole affair 'shambolic,' another added that Chatshow 'can't survive now' and a third 'he's run out of friends now. He is bleeding to death.'

Even with his sop to the right-wingers of the Orange Book (whose thoughts of privatising the NHS now put them to the right of the Tory party) of abandoning that ancient Liberal Democrat promise of a penny on income tax for high earners, Charlie seems to know that he's lost the parliamentary party and is relying on the membership to keep him in the job. Should the MPs force a vote:
'it is perfectly obvious to me and anyone else that the membership are overwhelmingly of the view that I should continue as leader, and that's my gut conviction as well.'

I don't know what planet he's living on, but can anyone seriously believe that the membership would support a leader who had so completely lost his parliamentary support? The mere thought of that might energise Simon Hughes, who has been giving out mixed signals of late. On the one hand, he's not going to run, but then he's still not given unequivocal backing to Charlie. Apparently, Hughes doesn't feel that he would receive the full support of the parliamentary party, although he is likely to win a membership vote, and that's what's putting him off standing, not any sense of loyalty to Chuckles.

At least Charlie can rely on the support of the president of Amber Valley Liberal Democrats, one Oliver Smith, who noted that the current leader is
'holding it together. I think he's good and I think he makes the right decisions.'
But then he is only twelve.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

We're not thinking what we used to be thinking, we're thinking of something else now

A few months ago, I seem to recall a certain David Cameron raising his voice in support of that daft 'patient's passport' scheme dreamt up by the policy wonks who wrote the last Tory manifesto. (One D. Cameron)

Now, that's all wrong and it wasn't really his fault anyway - he was only involved in the manifesto for a year beforehand and all these policies are decided much further in advance than that and he's a nice bloke and he was made to do it by all those nasty Tories that we don't hear about any more. He's even aimed a swift kick in the direction of Thatcherism by disowning the tax break for those who pay for private healthcare. I can't disagree when he promises an NHS free at the point of need, nor when he promises to nurture it.

I'm still reserving judgement on Cameron. He's been very slick in presentation, but we've still seen no substance. Although today was trumpeted as a major speech, it offered a broad outline of the journey ahead without specifically identifying a route. We know where the Tories seem to want to go, but not how they plan to get there. Is he going to try the Blair approach and prove to the world how unlike the old Tory party he is by trying to spark a fight with the Old Conservatives? At the moment, that fight won't come - they are all too cowed by the success of this young man and they're enjoying the strange sensation of being ahead in the polls, so Cameron has a lot of political capital in the bank to spend.

Of course, the real test will come over tax. Running a public service like the NHS costs money and that has to be raised through taxation, so what you do with tax defines what you can do with the services that it supports.

But Cameron is not without history. We all know about his past as an advisor to the great financial brain that was Norman Lamont - there is footage of Cameron skulking in the background as Lamont admits that his ERM policy has gone tits-up - and he's apologised for that. We know that he was a corporate communications wallah at Carlton. Jeff Randall at the Telegraph reminds us that he was lurking around the board just as Carlton were engaged in the farce that was OnDigital, which ended up costing the shareholders over a billion quid and cost 1000 people their jobs. (Hat tip to the Apollo Project). Add into that the suicide note that was the last Tory manifesto and this man doesn't have a great track record of turning base metals into gold.

At the moment, Cameron only seems to have one gear - reverse. He's apologising for the NHS policy, admitting he's learnt a lesson from Black Wednesday and is even prepared to stand up to 'big business' (buzzwords as meaningless and as universally used as 'hard-working families'). He's come out in favour of the environment and against global poverty - thanks for those no-brainers, Dave. But still no sign of moving forwards, other than trying to take over our territory - exactly the same tactics used by Labour in attacking the Tories.

Watch him with one eye on the recent history of Labour policy - they've often out-flanked the Tories on traditional Tory issues (asylum and crime) while investing in traditional Labour issues (like the NHS and education). Treat him like a dodgy magician and don't look at what he wants you to see - watch out for the sleight of hand.

A healthy dose of scepticism and mistrust is prescribed when dealing with Mr Cameron.

Public (dis) appointments

If you recall, a few months ago, the Tory/Liberal Democrat 'Progressive Partnership' (sic) finally managed to ditch Llin Homer as chief exec of Birmingham City Council. They've now announced that the successful candidate will be limited to a maximum remuneration of £195,000 a year. This sounds a lot, but you do need to remember that this is the senior executive managerial role in the biggest council in the UK - effectively a business operation that turns round billions of pounds a year in the service of around a million people. The salary should therefore be competitive with other local authorities.

Birmingham Forward and John James from the Institute of Directors have both called for a higher salary to be offered to tempt the right candidate - with John James actually calling for someone in the Digby Jones mould to be brought in as a
'strong chief executive who can provide leadership and direct the politicians wherever possible.'
Pardon me for being old-fashioned, but isn't that the wrong way round? Although, to be fair - the current bunch need a lot of directing. Straight down to the job centre, if I had my way.

Funny how Diggers keeps being mentioned in relation to a role in running the city, isn't it? And the Post do keep banging on about their love of an elected mayor.

I actually suspect that we can find the right person for a salary around that figure, but my concern is more with the recruitment process. The recent history of Birmingham City Council senior appointments is less than brilliant.

Last autumn, we had the appointment of a head of communications who just happened to be a former senior Rover manager (remember them? they eagerly loaned Whitless a top-of-the-range sports car because he was such a fine ambassador for the company). Curiously, the post wasn't advertised and there seems to have been a strange dearth of alternative candidates to write the most turgidly awful press releases.

Earlier in the year, they appointed a new head of Equalities and Diversity, one Mashuq Ally. He was, a few years ago, dean of the faculty of arts at Lampeter, until he left following a disagreement over his supervision of a PhD thesis supposedly written by a member of the Saudi royal family studying at the university. An internal report from the university contains the damning statement that he 'knowingly acted improperly and abused his position' and a note that the university would not be providing a reference for him. Employers aren't required to provide references, but it would certainly raise some huge questions if I was seeking to employ somebody and received that kind of response.

Dr Ally then went on to be the director of the Commission for Racial Equality in Wales, only to leave after a couple of years following allegations of professional misconduct over business projects and inappropriate behaviour towards colleagues. He then took a job with South East Wales Racial Equality Council, but didn't last out his probationary period and was gone in nine months after an allegation of 'an improper personal relationship' with a colleague came to light. And now, he turns up in Birmingham.

I can't wait to see who they get to be chief exec.

Tick tock, tick tock (again)

Poor old Chuckles.

He must feel like Captain Hook - wherever he goes, there's this ticking noise in the background and he's waiting for the alarm to go off and the sharp-toothed beast to shred his career.

Now, at least, we've another Liberal Democrat breaking cover to criticise the leader (correct at time of going to press). Lord McNally offered the usual lukewarm support yesterday, repeating the Hughes request last week for the party to get behind the leadership (for the next twenty weeks or so, at any rate). Simon did make the interesting comment that Charlie 'has to win the confidence of his colleagues' - which suggests that they don't have confidence in him. Susan Kramer (once the LD candidate to be Mayor of London and now an MP) came out this morning on the Today programme to call for an immediate leadership campaign to clear the air.
My personal feeling is as a party we have lost control over this issue. I think it's time that we went back very quickly to our membership and said here are candidates for our leader - I'm sure that would include Charles - and asked them for a verdict so that within in a matter of weeks we have a leader with a ringing endorsement from the party.

Pointedly, she refused to back him. Ed Davey, one of the younger set touted as a potential successor to Charlie, added his thoughts
'The need for some sort of change was established before Christmas and we await developments'

All this follows hard on the heels of a dubious internet poll from The Liberal magazine, which claimed over 3000 party members (allegedly including almost 400 councillors and a handful of MPs) had voted for Kennedy to do the decent thing. To be fair to Charlie, this poll is pretty meaningless, as there seems to be no way of confirming that voters are who they say they are - Rob Fenwick takes the poll apart fairly effectively here - but it falls into the trap of most internet polls - a self-selecting, unrepresentative sample. I doubt that Ben Ramm (who runs the magazine and the poll) will find that many supporters in his attempt to get a safe parliamentary seat for the Lib Dems. A hat tip to Bob Piper for the counter-poll, which has a massive 41 signatures in support of Charlie.

Increasingly, it looks like Chatshow won't make it to the end of next week, let alone the March conference or the May elections or less still the next general election. He's become the story and this will go on and on until he resigns. Still, he can always return for the next series of Have I Got News for You or perhaps it isn't too late to make a bid for Celebrity Big Brother.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Back Kennedy, urges Hughes - for now

Another show of support from a leader-in-waiting - this time from Simon Hughes, who emerged from a holiday in Wales long enough to tell us that
'It really isn't acceptable for the complainers to keep complaining when the water was tested before Christmas and the majority view was that Charles should stay on.'
He suggested that issues might resurface later - 'once we've seen real votes in real ballot boxes' in the local elections - but said he had a message for the rebels: 'Please, not until then.'
Even Alan Beith has his doubts and added that the new year brings an opportunity to assess whether with the changes forecast in the other parties, Chuckles
'is really there and ready to take us through to the next election with the really considerable effort that's going to be required'
Oh dear, poor old Charlie. The clock is definitely counting down now - can he make it to May?