Saturday, October 25, 2008

The oik's progress

Smug, self-satisfied, superior. All of those qualities shine out of the picture of the future masters of the universe members of the ultra-exclusive Oxford Bullingdon Club. The behaviour of members of this drinking club would attract a modern day ASBO, but they were insulated from the attentions of the police by their family money and connections. It seems that Gideon was regarded as somewhat beneath other members of the club, as he'd only been to St Paul's and not the preferred Eton or Harrow. All three are top line public schools, St Paul's is just a few hundred quid a year cheaper. Accordingly, Osborne was punished for his parents' poor choice.
One member recalled how at one event Osborne was held upside down by the ankles by his fellow members who would only release if he correctly answered the question: "What are you?" To each incorrect answer Osborne was bumped on the head. Finally he came up with the right answer: "I am despicable."

Marina Hyde adds to that today, with the full quotation.

The young Osborne was held upside down by his fellow members, who banged his head on the floor each time he failed to answer correctly the question: "What are you?" He got it eventually. The unexpurgated answer was: "I am a despicable cunt."

Thanks for the support, Chris

It was nice to see a solid defence of the government in the Guardian yesterday
'nothing merits the sort of intemperate scaremongering that Cameron and
George Osborne have been whipping up' Cameron said on Monday: "We ought now to be cutting people's taxes to put money back into the economy, but we can't because they've got the biggest budget deficit in the modern industrial world." And in his big economic speech last Friday: "[Brown] borrowed and borrowed and borrowed, and racked up the biggest government deficit in the developed

This is just wrong, plain and simple. There is no conceivable way in which the UK budget deficit - whether measured in cash, as a percentage of GDP, or in cowrie shells - is the biggest in the developed world. In cash terms, both the US and Japan outborrow Britain by billions. Sized by each economy, the UK deficit looks entirely unexceptional

In fact, our debt is lower than France, Germany and the USA, which have a national debt of over 60% of GDP. Japan is the market leader at 180% of GDP, leaving us firmly in the minor league. Indeed, thanks to prudent management, at the start of this century, we'd actually reduced it to 30% of GDP. The latest estimates put it - including the temporary risk of the banks - at around 50% of GDP, so there is actually room to manoeuvre in borrowing terms.
But there is also a wider cost if the public begin to believe that the state is impotent to steer us through the tempest ahead. In reality, the government has substantial leeway to help maintain activity. The UK is better positioned to use fiscal policy to stabilise output than at the onset of the 1973 or 79 recessions, albeit a little less so than ahead of the 91 downturn. It is frankly irresponsible of the Tories to pretend otherwise. By international standards, the UK's public finances remain in relatively good order. The Tories should not talk Britain down.

Can't argue with that Chris. Good to see the Lib Dems being truly bipartisan on the matter - I've actually got some respect for that view. He's making the point that Cameron is running with this line to ensure party discipline - arguing that the economy is screwed and that there is no steering room silences his internal opponents arguing for tax cuts, as those tax cuts would have to be generated through unpopular service cuts.

If we let the Tories get away with their particular brand of the truth - as they have tried to push on crime, education and health - then we're failing fundamentally politically.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Must See TV

Or TITWAS - Today Is Tuesday Wake Up and Seethe.

Yes, the council meetings are to be streamed across this new-fangled internet thingie.

You will be able to see the full glory of our elected councillors live on your computer screen. (Parental caution is advised).

Quote of the week is from Cllr Paul Tilsley
We are always striving to make democracy as open, interactive and as accessible as possible.
The man has a future in stand-up comedy.

The devolution will not be televised.

George gets the begging bowl out

It seems that George Osborne's indiscrete claims of what Mandy dripped into his ear during a cosy dinner have offended his host, so much so that Nat Rothschild - not previously known for being a Labour supporter - has written to the Times to drop George in it up to his neck.

Not once in the acres of coverage did you mention that George Osborne, who also accepted my hospitality, found the opportunity of meeting with Mr Deripaska so good that he invited the Conservatives' fundraiser Andrew Feldman, who was staying nearby, to accompany him on to Mr Deripaska's boat to solicit a donation. Since Mr Deripaska is not a British citizen, it was suggested by Mr Feldman, in a subsequent conversation at which Mr Deripaska was not present, that the donation was "channelled" through one of Mr Deripaska's British companies. Mr Deripaska declined to make any donation.

Obviously, the Tories have denied that they solicited any donation to be channelled through a front company in the UK. Mr Deripaska's 'people' have spoken to Nick Robinson and have claimed that Deripaska did not initiate the subject at all. Despite the Tory denials, Robert Peston claims - with some authority - that there are others who can stand the Rothschild side of the story up and would be prepared to do so in court.

If it had been a matter of a donation being offered and refused, then there would be no story, as this would have been the proper response. The problem for Gideon is that he seems to have invited Andrew Feldman - Cameron's right-hand man, a fundraiser for the party and not a guest of Mr Rothschild - specifically to join a meeting with the Russian billionaire. That makes the whole Tory side of the story distinctly peculiar and must call into question Osborne's position.

This morning, listeners to the Today programme were treated to Nick Clegg giving his response to the matter. The Liberal Democrats, of course, still haven't got around to repaying that illegal donation from Michael Brown (still wanted by the police after he absconded prior to trial), claiming that they've spent it, so Cleggy is ideally placed to comment on dodgy donations.

Oh - and happy birthday Peter!

The consultant won't see you now

Tory councillor Len Clark is apparently puzzled. Not for the first time, I might add.

Don't worry - not all of the experts are on £2k a day. Some of them - the 'technical advisors' - have to scrape by on just £300 a day, which can only be described as a bargain. It is just those lucky few at partnership level who can demand the top whack of some half a million quid a year. Curiously, their money-saving skills never include the line item - 'Reduce dependency on consultants'

Now, I don't have a problem with consultants being used to bring in specific skills that a business or a council might need for a limited period. That makes sound sense, but consultants are too often used to disguise weak leadership and poor management. They are also handy for taking the blame for poor decisions. However, the business transformation project has been running for two years now and has - alone - consumed a whopping £107 million for just 160 agency staff. This works out to an average cost of £334,375 a year for each of them - surely enough to put a few staff through a professional training course or two by itself.

The Conservative councillor James Hutchings has run an inquiry into how consultants are used by BCC, but even he had to admit that the council have no idea how many they employ, nor what the costs are. It even seems likely that the use of consultants is failing to meet the basic standards of 'Best Value.'

It became quite clear early on in the committee’s work that a lot of information was simply not there to enable a thorough analysis of the council’s historic performance in this area... not been able to track total consultancy spend.... no standard procedure in place for defining and coding consultancy expenditure separately... the effect is to weaken accountability and hence efficiency... leaves the council open to innuendo that information is deliberately hidden.... the committee were unable to go further and make a value for money assessment.

Sadly, owing to a ruling by the unelected Mirza Ahmed, he wasn't able to take questions at last week's council meeting, thanks to a technicality.

Presumably the technicality was that the answers might prove embarrassing. All hail to the continuing style of open government in the Council House.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Turncoats of the world unite!

I have always had the utmost respect for Colin Powell and that has only been reinforced by his decision - rumoured for a couple of weeks to be imminent - to publicly support Barack Obama for the presidency. He did it in a dignified way, without slamming John McCain (who I also believe to be a fundamentally decent man).

He also took on an issue that has been bugging me.

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] Party say... such things as 'Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Muslim.' Well the correct answer is, 'He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian'

And then he makes the salient point.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is 'No', that's not America."

The truth is, that much of the McCain campaign rhetoric against Obama - for which he has to take responsibility as figurehead - is vicious and downright un-American. It comes to something, when the candidate himself has had to defend Obama against the nastiest attacks from McCain followers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Politically bankrupt

Gideon Osborne has managed to achieve a unique trinity.

He has proved to be a cock of the first order, a complete arse and a right tit all within the space of a week.

Last week, he pronounced to the world that he thought that the government should recapitalise the UK banks. Oddly, this came shortly after he'd had a confidential briefing on the developments to date. Yup, George got information on a privy council basis and the first thing he did was to run to the media to try and claim the credit for the implementation of the plan. And he's not missed a chance to remind us that he talked about the idea before anyone else. Cock. Utter cock.

For the past week, the Tories have struggled to portray themselves as relevant to the cure - much as the Democrats in Congress were crucial partners in the US rescue package. Of course, in the UK, the Tories are irrelevant - the government is in charge by virtue of the majority in parliament, so the opposition parties can have no impact on the rescue. Far from appearing statesmanlike, they have just seemed desperate and entirely unknowing of their own role in this whole damn mess. They are just out of the loop and their revolving platform - sometimes they back the plan, sometimes they are lukewarm, sometimes they seem to be opposed to it - reeks of indecision and incompetence. Nobody buys that the Tory mantra of 'light touch' and deregulation would have prevented any of this.

Aside from that, Gideon floundered and blustered on Newsnight last week - Chris Paul spotted that Kirsty Wark appeared to be laughing at the economic genius, although Tom Harris eventually disagrees. All of this attempt to pin the blame on Labour is a thin disguise for the fact that the Tories have no alternative plans - the only proposal put forward has been to scrap stamp duty and to take a few thousand rich families out of inheritance tax.

The recapitalisation plan is rapidly becoming the gold standard for bank rescue, with Europe and the US both looking at the Brown/Darling approach as the way to go. Paul Krugman, the US economist, wrote yesterday that
Mr. Brown and Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to our Treasury secretary), have defined the character of the worldwide rescue effort, with other wealthy nations playing catch-up.... the Brown government has shown itself willing to think clearly about the financial crisis, and act quickly on its conclusions. And this combination of clarity and decisiveness hasn’t been matched by any other Western government, least of all our own
He compares the swiftness of the British response to the sluggish answers gradually proposed in the US
the British government went straight to the heart of the problem — and moved to address it with stunning speed. On Wednesday, Mr. Brown’s officials announced a plan for major equity injections into British banks, backed up by guarantees on bank debt that should get lending among banks, a crucial part of the financial mechanism, running again. And the first major commitment of funds will come on Monday — five days after the plan’s announcement.
He highlights a problem for the neocons in the Tory party, as well as their Republican colleagues across the pond
It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Paulson’s initial response was distorted by ideology. Remember, he works for an administration whose philosophy of government can be summed up as “private good, public bad,” which must have made it hard to face up to the need for partial government ownership of the financial sector.
Sensibly, Krugman accepts that we just don't know if the Brown plan will work, but it does seem to be the best game in town.
So, who do you trust? The smug economic incompetent or the novice Nobel laureate?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Embarrassment of riches

David Cameron hasn't had a great week, really. Gordon Brown has provided a lead for the world in how to give banks a fighting chance - there's even talk of the US government copying the emergency aid package. Gordon's demonstrated real crisis leadership this week, with poor old George Osborne only able to twitter from the sidelines that Gordon and Alistair had copied a policy proposed by the Tories a few hours before the announcement (not that the Tories had any prior knowledge, you understand).
Oliver Letwin, on Any Questions this week, called for the fat cat bankers to be guided by morality, not government regulation, when it comes to their benefits packages - something that has proved an ineffective moderator so far.
And we end the week with a YouGov poll showing the Tory lead halved and Gordon and Alistair trusted more to lead the economy than Dave and George.

But surely, as Dave has tried to distance himself from his old mates in the City, he can't have forecast the help given by William Hague - a high earner himself - who has shown great judgement in joining his wife (who has her own nose in the Barclays' trough as an advisor) on a £500,000 corporate junket on the shores of Lake Como with Barclays Wealth. The Birmingham Tory conference was noted for the 'restrained' air of expectation and self-congratulation - the victory champagne was on ice. The same could not be said of this little shindig and I'm sure William got a glass or three of bubbly in Italy to make up for those missed last week.
Amazing, isn't it? A bank that has seen the share price plummet 44% in a week still thinks this sort of display is a good idea. I'm sure the seminars offered on 'Yacht Ownership' and the tactfully titled 'End of the world or opportunity of a lifetime?' will have been worthwhile.
Still, good to see that the Tories know who their friends are in time of need - the people with the money to look at this downturn as a chance to buy a new yacht.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Routes to Power

Here's a peculiar thing.

In 2003, the then-Labour council in Birmingham proposed an experimental red route along the A34 Stratford Road, running from the border with Solihull into the city centre. Solihull continued the route down to the M42 - and actually had their red routing installed first. This experiment - intended as part of a wider plan of red routes across the West Midlands - was continued by the incoming Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and the experimental traffic order came up for review earlier this year.

This has been a controversial plan with huge local opposition from traders, who felt that it would massively affect their trade. I've driven down that road regularly and can remember the plethora of simple 'No to the Red Route' signs in shop windows.

Anyway, the review was led by the Transportation & Street Services Scrutiny Committee - chair, one Cllr Martin Mullaney - and used as evidence a pair of 'before and after' surveys conducted in 2003 and 2007. These concluded that the red route enforcement and development had led to

a. An increase in traffic speeds but little change in traffic flows;
b. Enhanced parking provisions: the number of parking spaces has increased by 202 spaces (onstreet and off-street) along the Red Route, plus 40 loading bays;
c. Improved average bus speeds and bus journey time reliability (a finding supported by TWM) and an increase in bus patronage (against the trend in the rest of the West Midlands);
d. Improved safety record;
e. Improved air quality

Not bad, eh? The report concluded that the experiment should be made permanent - despite those vocal complaints from local traders, which led to some rather rough scenes when the committee visited the Stratford Road itself. There was a slightly dissenting view from Springfield councillor Jerry Evans, who had his eye on re-election in May, so could ill-afford to be associated with such an unpopular policy and semi-detached himself from the majority.

Fast forward a few months and a proposal has been made to red route the A435 Alcester Road down towards the M42 in South Birmingham, which runs through Cllr Mullaney's own ward, Moseley. In many ways, this is similar to the A34, with a mix of commercial buildings, houses and shops along it. At the start of the month, there was a public meeting of the neighbourhood forums in Moseley to discuss this, with the result that the local residents gave it a resounding thumbs down. Martin is of the view that this has killed the project.

This is rather odd - he claims that the Stratford Road red route had to proceed because it was started under the previous administration, but that doesn't explain why it had to be continued, despite the vast local opposition, when an opportunity clearly existed this year to kick it into touch. But those protests are only ignored on the Stratford Road.

Across the city in Kings Heath, one meeting was enough to kill the project stone dead. Why one group of local protestors should be enough to stop a plan that affects many road users across the city, I don't understands. Martin blames it on a lack of support from Len 'Friend of the Motorist' Gregory - but that still doesn't explain why the Stratford Road project got to continue and the Alcester Road version will never start. Even more oddly, the scrutiny committee noted this:

Whilst local objections are particularly pertinent, we do have to recognise the regional and strategic importance of Stratford Road as a main arterial route from and to the city and – as we said in our report on Building Bus Use: “there will continue to be increasingly tough decisions to be made to tackle congestion effectively”.

Another decision has been ducked - and it looks like it has been done for local political reasons.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Tory Impressions

One of the more disturbing moments of last night's Any Questions - and one that the broadcast audience don't get to hear - was the warmup question to allow the engineers to check sound levels. Last night was about the panel's favourite accent and it revealed Alan Duncan's talent for mimicry. His William Hague is spot on and the John Major isn't bad either.
(And hello to the other bloggers who were there - Laurence Inman of the Stirrer and Praguetory was also kicking around.)

Words unminced.

For those of us suffering from withdrawal symptoms from the Thick of It and the vast quantity of baroque swearing, the Guardian provides a transcript of a press conference with Joe Kinnear, the temporary manager of Newcastle United.

One of the things I like about the Guardian is that it accepts that we are adults and doesn't try to shield us from the language. The Sun will happily fill page three with one or two semi-naked women, but will defend itself as a family paper and delete the expletives with judicious use of asterisks, giving the readers the - limited - challenge of working out which combination of consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant was used. The same applies to their ever-expanding dictionary of salacious euphemisms for various sexual acts.

The Guardian doesn't do that. Rather like Radio 4, it assumes that the readership are grown up enough to accept the odd swear word - or a Profanisaurus-full in Mr Kinnear's case.

Obviously, not suitable for maiden aunts who might be reading this.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Once, twice, three times a minister

The swirl of mist, the whiff of brimstone and the Prince of Darkness rises from the grave - well, Brussels anyway - to taunt the faithful and scare the enemy. Hellfire, indeed.
This will go one of two ways. It will either be a dramatic stroke of genius or a car crash. While Mandy's a divisive figure, I do have a sneaking admiration for the man - he's Labour to the core and he's a fine political operator.
There is one other man that I'd like to see back in government - or someone like him - and that's Alistair Campbell. We urgently need a late 1990s-style Campbell figure, as the media strategy of the party is currently dire and in need of reform. The Tories need to be challenged at every turn and mustn't be allowed to run the news agenda - something that we've let them do far too often lately. We need an iron discipline in communicating our message through the media and we're missing that in tough political times.
Congratulations to Liam Byrne on his promotion - just short of a position in Cabinet.