Monday, November 19, 2007

Bald men still fighting over comb

To call the Lib Dem leadership event a 'race' or a 'contest' has seemed inappropriate until now. The whole thing has been soporific - the Question Time debate turned into a Lib Dem love-in, with the only difference being over Trident - hardly a huge electoral issue amongst the public at large. (Huhne wants to scrap it, Clegg wants to reduce the nuclear force - as if you cared).

It has been a struggle to tell them apart - at least it was until around 12:15 on Sunday, when the joint Politics Show interview suddenly reanimated the campaign - read the transcript here. As you may know, Chris Huhne's office had prepared a briefing document to highlight Nick Clegg's policy weaknesses and somebody had entitled it 'Calamity Clegg.' This version was then leaked to the BBC.

Two interesting things come out of this interview.

Firstly, Chris Huhne appears to have been less than honest. When he was presented with the briefing note, he responded that
CHRIS HUHNE: Ah hah. Well, I'm sorry, I didn't see it, so I don't know....
But then if you read the extracts of the document I've published below and a brief extract from the interview, you will notice that he appears to have absorbed a lot of the arguments from a paper he hasn't seen. Apparently he isn't alone in not having seen this briefing note - Lynne Featherstone denies knowledge (which shouldn't be a surprise), despite being in the meeting where the 'line' was discussed.

CHRIS HUHNE: Of course. Let me finish, and then of course, you can say. I don't think we know where Nick stands on issues about public services reform, he's given journalists the impression for example that he's in favour of school vouchers, he's not retracted that.

I don't think we know where Nick stands, for example on the National Health Service, because he says, he won't rule out, in an interview with The Scotsman, he won't rule out the question of continental health insurance models and then he's saying, no, no, no he's happy with party policy. So I do...

JON SOPEL: Hang on. Let, let, let Nick Clegg answer.

CHRIS HUHNE: And then finally on PR. He's said, no, no we mustn't make it the be all and end all.

Even now, he's only apologised for the title (which has now been changed) and the paper is now available for download from his website.

While Huhne can be accused of being economical with the truth, the same accusation can be levelled at Nick 'Tory Boy' Clegg. The document reveals is a Liberal Democrat who says different things to different constituencies (well, colour me surprised)

On school vouchers, Clegg has dug up a quote from an interview in the Observer - happily given to one of his friends and supporters, Jasper Gerrard:
So according to his 'pupil premium', parents would be given a voucher to spend in their referred school; but while a flaw in such schemes is often that the savvy middle class pack the best schools, Clegg would increase the value of the voucher for the needy - making the poorer child a more attractive proposition to good schools.
Oddly, when talking to the Torygraph, he was more restrictive, but indicated flexibility on private schools being able to use that voucher (a tax break for the upper middle class, in effect).
Parents should, he argues, be given a voucher for their children's education - which would be worth more for poor pupils - although unlike some of his colleagues he says he is "not yet persuaded'' that the voucher should be useable in private, as well as state, schools.
I'm not sure I see that as an earth-shattering divide in his policy statements - perhaps more of an indication of what question he was asked (both journalists know their audience). Huhne points out that Clegg has opposed means testing - which would identify those poorer pupils who need to benefit from the increased voucher value. For me, the joy is in watching Clegg drag the Lib Dems ever closer to the Tories.

On the NHS in The Scotsman

The idea to smash the centralised health service and put more power into local hands was put forward by Nick Clegg , a Lib Dem MP who is tipped as a possible future leader of the party. Mr Clegg said there should be no "taboos" when it comes to reform of the public services and the party should not discard insurance-based models adopted by other European countries.
And again in the Independent
"One very, very important point “I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service." Then he goes further, even refusing to rule out the insurance-based models used in mainland Europe and Canada. "I don’t think anything should be ruled out."
Yet his campaign manifesto shirks the issue and he has, according to Huhne, since come out against insurance-based medicine, but still wants to consider the options of funding and delivery. So is he opposed to the insurance model or not?

When it comes to that great totemic Lib Dem policy on PR, he tells Jasper Gerrard (again) in the Sunday Times that

Lib Dems shouldn’t bang on about electoral reform being a condition for support in a hung parliament
Yet, Huhne points out that

in [Clegg's] latest campaign literature under the headline Case For PR Very Strong he says: “Gordon Brown & David Cameron continue to talk about trust and reform – yet refuse to consider the one measure that would make every single vote count, Proportional Representation

All of those pieces above informed Chris Huhne's attack on Clegg - although he hadn't seen the briefing document, as he told Jon Sopel.

The finale to this little piece of criticism is a transcript of a floundering interview of Clegg by Steve Richards on GMTV, which exposes a £1 billion gap in Clegg's plans for changing funding to schools.
SR: You’d accept that you’ve got a black hole there. You haven’t found where the money’s going to come from, the other billion.
NC: Er, yes, but I mean there are other ideas. For instance there are other ideas, I mean for instance I’ve also this week been floating ideas for how I think we should introduce a 10% tax on the non-domestic earnings of so-called ‘non-doms’. In that particular case that raises about £1 billion. I would like that to go to alleviate the burden of Council Tax on those in Band A and band B properties, those on the lower rung of the property ladder, if you like. But it’s just an example of where we can be creative in trying to find that extra money in order to fulfil that pledge, and I’m absolutely confident that we will under my leadership make that fixed pledge
by the next general election.
SR: By one way or another taxing the better off, presumably. Because it has to come from somewhere.
NC: Yes, er well no, hang on, or, sorry…
SR: You said yes, so tax increase?
NC: No, no, let me correct that. I think there is plenty of scope to cut back on some of the waste in government, some of the duplication in government....
I don't think that any of these 'revelations' will terminate Clegg's campaign. It does demonstrate an interest in dragging the Lib Dems to the right - which might not sit well with the muesli wing to the party. Huhne has apparently been playing catch-up with Clegg since the campaign kicked off, but a large slice of the Liberal Democrat electorate remains undecided as the ballot papers go out this week. He's reported to be going with the old-fashioned politics of direct contact with the electorate through networks and telephone canvassing - at least that's what his campaign team several of the party's MPs told the Observer in the now traditional Lib Dem tactic of suggesting that it is a two horse race in an attempt to glean the 'anti-Clegg' votes to go with the 'pro-Huhne' ones.

Of course, here it IS a two horse race - for a party headed for the knacker's yard.

If Clegg wins - which I think he will - then the Lib Dems might as well go back to their constituencies and prepare for annihilation against the combined might of the real Tory Party. Why would the electorate back a bunch of wannabe-Tories against the real thing? Huhne offers perhaps the best chance of continued success (note that his campaign manager is Anna Werrin, the long-serving and long-suffering aide to Charlie Kennedy), but his performance over the weekend may render him as damaged goods

1 comment:

Praguetory said...

Happy with how your lot is running the country?