Non-Leader Returns in Triumph

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The Labour Party came to Manchester full of anticipation about the big result to come, and the result did not let them down. At that moment on Saturday afternoon when it was announced that David Miliband had not been elected as the party’s new leader it was clear that we were witnessing history in the crucible of its creation.  As the non-leader stepped up to the podium to make his non-acceptance speech, you could tell that he had the Labour Party eating out of the palm of his hand. Here, without doubt, was the popular choice.

This though was as nothing compared to the rapturous reception afforded Mr Miliband when he addressed the conference on Monday afternoon – occupying quite naturally the non-leader’s traditional spot in the weekly roster – and told them how proud and pleased he was not to have been given the opportunity to bring Labour back into the promised land. Those of us who had sat through all ten of Gordon Brown’s epic non-leader’s speeches felt that he, the most famous non-leader the world has thus far ever known, had set the bar for the genre at an impossibly high level of brilliance and bite. Mr Miliband, that canny old dog, surprised us all.

Thereafter every part of Mr Miliband’s conference week was bound to be subject to the minutest scrutiny and the most careful interpretation. And what moments there were! The time, for example, when he turned to Harriet Harman, Labour’s matriarch, and told the old bat to stop applauding when some dangerous sentiments about the war in Iraq (in which venture the non-leader had, of course, played a small but glorious, part) were being voiced from the platform.  Or when he called together a hastily convened (but brilliantly choreographed) press conference to announce his first major policy achievement:  a specially-constructed deal with Virgin Trains to get him back to London two days early on his super-saver advance return flexi-bonus rail ticket without him having to pay a penny more! It was then we knew that David Davis, John Redwood, Liam Fox, Charlie Kennedy and the 25 other non-leaders of the coalition are going to have a massive fight on their hands.

Mr Miliband’s masterful decision to head back to the Capital from where to plan his programme for non-leadership was as audacious as it was smart.  The Times surely spoke the truth when it said it was the most significant and symbolic thing a non-leader has done on a train since Vladimir Illyich Lenin turned up at the Finland Station in 1917.  The consequences will surely be profound, not least for Fleet Street’s fashion editors, for whom all leave was cancelled as they rushed to be by the non-leader’s side to report on that shirt.

Who knows though where this story will go next?  The excitement of recent events was well-captured when Ms Harman – apparently betraying no ill-effects of her public dressing down – described the Manchester conference as a “rollercoaster”. She led a chorus of praise for the non-leader’s wisdom and sagacity, describing his cunning plan not to stand for election to the shadow cabinet as “sensible”.  Tribute was also forthcoming from another direction as his younger brother, Edward, called the non-leader’s move “thoughtful and graceful”.


Junior Struggles to Escape the Fraternal Doldrums

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Mrs Marion Miliband, mother of the leader of the opposition as well as the other one, is reported to have fled to the USA rather than face the distress occasioned by her sons squabbling for the Labour Party’s crown.  The question is when, if ever, will it be safe for her return. Or else whether, on current form, the elder boy might well join her there. Sadly for the rest of us, much as mass emigration might be the most appealing response to the events of the last few days, we don’t have the luxury of decamping to the other side of the Atlantic.

Junior Miliband didn’t quite say this in his speech yesterday – it was, perhaps, the one transformational cliche that he missed out upon – but he and his party, standing as they do at the motorway intersection of destiny and confronted by the coned-off lanes of deliverance, face a choice. It is a choice that will, quite possibly, define the future of the Labour Party and determine the outcome of the next general election. It is a choice as daunting as it is sensitive, as epic as it is profound, as taxing as it is necessary and it is this. Does Junior smother his brother with love, or does he crush him like a trod-upon Malteser in an act of fratricidal ruthlessness not seen since Cain slew Abel or David Cameron declined to give John Redwood a job in his shadow cabinet.

Being, it seems, one of those politicians more prone to talking about tough decisions than taking them, Junior has set out upon an instant strategy of trying to do both. His first thought, just after being declared the winner, was to proclaim his undying love for his elder brother in a manner that shot several stations beyond kitsch and only just stopped short of pornographic.  Then there were the reports that big bro could have the choice of any job in the shadow cabinet he wanted, even if that meant denying Ed Balls the shadow chancellorship and risking having the vicious bugger coming after you with a knife. It was all rather pathetic really, as if Ed had invited Dave to go round his house and pick out anything that took his fancy from his CD collection.  What else could David have?  The Daily Mail has recently noticed that Junior has neglected to register himself as the father of his child.

The problem with this as a strategy is that it radiated Junior’s own sense of guilt, thus signalling to his party that he thinks that the better man lost. This is at least a unifying emotion since most of party thinks that as well. David M exacerbated this untimely  feeling by making a speech to the conference on Monday that was as elegant as it was poignant as it was raptuously received.  It relegated the man who calls himself the leader of the Labour Party to the role of a wistful spectator, sitting on the touchline, and making notes.

Come his own speech to the conference yesterday afternoon, Junior had decided to change tack.  Now was the time to repudiate the work of the previous Labour government in which, as a member of the Cabinet, he had held a fairly insignificant position. And more precisely to trash his brother’s reputation by condemning the invasion of Iraq of which the older brother, as foreign secretary, had been rather fond.  Rather like the career of Ramsay McDonald, the war is still something that sharply divides Labour and the wounds will probably never heal. To which the Davidites would say that it’s all Ed’s fault. He didn’t have to stand.

The speech had some perjorative effect since, no sooner had Junior finished delivering it that his brother skedaddled back to London, never to return. Leaving the way clear for young Ed to try to rescue his leadership from the fraternal doldrums in which it had got stuck for the first few days and claim Labour for what he calls the “new generation”.  Once we had established that this was indeed what he was talking about – as a former energy secretary could it be that Junior was basing his entire appeal on new generators –  it became necessary to decipher what this curious phrase might mean. For those of us still puzzling over the big society, this is a lot to ask.

One former Cabinet minister has been heard wondering out loud whether he qualifies as a member of the new generation. Age it seems has got nothing to do with it, prompting the Times to remark cruelly this morning that when your new generation is not even generational then something is badly amiss. And where does this leave Junior’s most famous supporter, Lord Kinnock, who is both positively ancient and from a generation when Labour lost elections as easily as most of us lose our car keys. It may be necessary for him to regenerate, like Dr Who.

It may be to do with attitude.  The Guardian thinks Junior wants there to be a “new generation of radical optimists”, which is a handy distinction should any fresh-faced  reactionary pessimists try to gatecrash the party.

Vince Cable: dignified but without the dignity

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Sent by David Cameron to New York to report back on Hilary Clinton’s new hairstyle, Nick Clegg was confronted with President Ahmadinejad of Iran at the United Nations who made a passionate speech proclaiming the defeat of capitalism.  “The demands of liberal capitalism and multinational corporations have caused the suffering of countless women, men and children in so many countries”, the president declared. Mr Clegg did not travel all that way to listen to this sort of guff issuing from the mouth of an embittered and defiant leader with a fanatical following; if that is what he had wanted he could have stayed behind and listened to Vince Cable.

While clearly differing on some key issues – Mr Cable, for example, does not share Ahmajinedad’s enthusiasm for nuclear power –  the two are united by more than a shared distrust of global markets. An obvious crackpot with megalomaniac tendencies, Ahmajinedad is also described as a simple and modest man who wanted to carry on living in his own small home after being elected president until his security people stepped in and took him off to the palace. Fairly simple himself, St Vince’s own preference for modest residences led him to propose taxing anything that offended his sense of what a property should look like. Surprised that this idea for a so-called mansion tax did not play well in what he otherwise took to be the tenements and yurts of Twickenham, he has since retreated from this, his one and only policy idea, into the cheap-jack punditry that is his natural metier.  Armajinedad and Cable also share a fondness for the base and conservative pastimes of their homeland: eagerly anticipating the annihilation of Israel in the case of the Iranian president and ballroom dancing for Mr Cable.

Being, again like his anti-capitalist brother, essentially a sad man in search of attention, Mr Cable will have enjoyed the fuss that has been lavished on him for his speech to yesterday’s Liberal Democrat conference. Clegg was, as noted above, away, and Mr Cable got offered the spot vacated by his leader. From then on it was only ever going to go one way.

Like Michael Heseltine, a business secretary from a different era and a different party, Mr Cable aspired to go down as the conference darling (it is, incidentally, an interesting historical footnote that, despite obvious advantages, Alistair Darling never achieved this accolade).  Their cases are  different though. Mr Heseltine  was a businessman of some repute and  only ever aspired to control capitalism in order to channel it towards his own fetishistic interests, such as  the regeneration of Liverpool.  Mr Cable, it seems, wants to abolish it altogether.

His speech was read meat for the conference. Well not red meat maybe, because these are the Liberal Democrats we are talking about, but strongly-flavoured yak’s milk cheese certainly. A convocation that was dying on its feet suddenly came alive as the man who is supposedly in charge of business for the coalition government told them that business was essentially composed of spivs and rip-off merchants and you should no more trust them than you would buy a used academy from Michael Gove in Oxford Street. Business leaders lined up to condemn these sentiments, including Lord Digby Jones, the former head of the CBI who was, let us not forget, himself a trade and business minister in the last Labour government. More proof, if any were needed, that the Liberal Democrats are to the left of Labour on many issues.

Does any of this matter? Probably not. Much as the Lib Dems like to kid themselves that their conference has some kind of executive authority, it is in fact little more than an extended therapy session for tensed-up members keen to discover that political power hasn’t corrupted their right to be gloriously irrelevant.

As for Mr Cable, it is obvious that he belongs firmly in what Bagehot called the dignified rather than the efficient part of the constitution. He is there for show rather than for effect. It is unfortunate that he cannot also discharge a dignified role with dignity, but that sadness is his misfortune, not ours.

Aggressive Secularism Meets Its Match

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Never mind the coalition, all the evidence this morning is that it is the Guardian that is split.

I give you in evidence this page where Simon Hoggart makes the outrageous claim that Nick Clegg is “morphing into Tony Blair”.  But before you read on to sift through Mr Hoggart’s argumentation, follow the link you’ll find south-south east of his opening par and you’ll arrive here, where a Mr Peter Collett, who describes himself as a “body language expert” asserts the thesis that Mr Clegg is “metamorphosing into David Cameron”.

Hmm. A man who can simultaneously transubstantiate in two directions at once. Get the Pope back. I think aggressive secularism may have met its match. No wonder the Liberal Democrats made this guy their leader.

One’s first thought, of course, is for Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Mr Clegg’s generously-monickered wife.  Of all the similarities posited between Messrs Cameron and Blair (and there are many), the one that stands out like a cherry on a dungheap is their enthusiasm for impregnating their wives such that the prime ministerial potency credentials might be burnished by the sound of a baby’s cries ringing through Downing Street (Mrs Thatcher achieved the same with her Cabinet without the need to get pregnant, but that’s a different story).  It seems likely therefore that, if she is to keep up, Ms G-D will have to produce twins. Perhaps one now sees the point of the conference slogan “Delivering for Britain”.

With a body turning into David Cameron, and a brain manufacturing the famous verbless platitudes of Tony Blair, the Clegg Monster clanked to his party’s podium yesterday to denounce the Conservatives.  Since the conventions of coalition politics mean that he finds himself temporarily unable to denounce the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat leader was forced to signal these base emotions to his followers through the technique of condemnation by proxy. He chose a pair of readily-identifiable synonyms for Tories and attacked bankers and tax-evaders instead.

Let no one say that the Clegg speech did not have a beginning, a middle and an end. He attacked bankers and tax-evaders in the third paragraph of his text, returning generously to the topic in the otherwise brackish reaches of the centre and then, finally, giving the twitching corpse a valedictory bit of welly as he reached his peroration.

One of the curiosities of the new politics is that Mr Clegg found it necessary while doing this to portray Labour as the party of the bankers, which may come as something of a surprise to the spirits of Keir Hardie and Clement Atlee.  I don’t think that his audience was fooled. They knew who he was talking about.  Each salvo against the rich and heartless was awarded with a round of applause. The actual Conservatives and David Cameron were mentioned just the once – praised indeed, albeit only for the boundless sagacity they had displayed in inviting the Liberal Democrats into government.   This received no applause.

Needless to say, it was mainly when leftish sentiments were coming out  that Mr Clegg’s audience felt roused to respond. Much clapping when – with due reference to the discomfort of the Government’s lawyers – he re-stated his belief that the war in Iraq had been illegal. A cheer even when he said, and then said again, that there would be no selection in the Government’s schools policy. He didn’t quite go down the David Blunkett path and say “read my lips”, but since that would only have drawn his audience’s attention to what Mr Collett maintains is the deputy prime minister’s Cameronesque mouth this is probably just as well.

For his conclusion, the Clegg Monster invited his audience to imagine all the fun they will be having knocking on people’s doors in the general election campaign of 2015. If you cannot possibly imagine that canvassing is fun – and are certainly not the person who starts looking forward to it five years in advance – then you are not a Liberal Democrat.  We will be able to tell them, Mr Clegg ploughed on, that we have scrapped ID cards. We will be able to tell them that we cut crime, stopped Labour’s “mass incarceration of children” (eh?), brought the troops home from Afghanistan, knelt the bankers down and put a bullet through their heads and discovered a quick way from the M4 to the M1 avoiding the M25. Well not the last two actually, but you get the general idea.  It was rousing stuff, or certainly intended to be.

The fact that David Cameron, with one or two tweaks of emphasis, could tell his conference to tell the people on the doorstep the same thing need not trouble us for now. But one day it will. One day it will.

Victims in the Home of Victimhood

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Liverpool, long associated with the downtrodden, dispossessed and the downright dejected, makes an apt place for the Liberal Democrats, in all their self-regarding misery, to gather for their annual party conference. One might have thought that, since this is (wartime apart) the first time in nearly ninety years that British Liberals have convened as a party of government, it would be possible to detect a certain cheeriness about them; a spring in the step, a tendency to reach for another sun-dried tomato or make up your own answers to the Guardian crossword, or whatever else it is that moderates do when they’re on a bender. This though would be to misread the Lib Dem persona.   Eternal victims in victimhood’s eternal city, the Libs look about as happy as if they had just discovered that Charlie Kennedy is back on the sauce.

The mood of dejection cannot entirely be explained by the party’s X-rated poll ratings which, though graphic, are no worse than those they must have got used to down the  years.  To paraphrase Enoch Powell, a Liberal Democrat complaining about low poll numbers is like a sailor bitching about the sea. On the contrary, psephological oppression is part of the rich loam from which grows the Liberal Democrat’s florid sense of injustice and his unshakeable belief in voting reform as a pathway towards a more enlightened world where the minimum number of votes returns the maximum number of his party’s MPs.

The problem, I rather fancy, is that having – the atrocities of first-past-the-post notwithstanding – got themselves into government, the Liberal Democrats are not at all certain they like what it is they find there. It is one thing, like excited children, to stand at the top of the steps leading down into a dark cellar, squealing with anticipation about the prospect of walking down, quite another to be in the cellar itself with George Osborne ululating through the blackness and the icy fingers of Liam Fox slipping down your back. This indeed seems to me to be the central paradox of Liberal Democrat politics: the one thing that can be most said to define their political outlook – a change to our constitution to make it easier for them to share in power – is also that which leads to where they least want to be – in office and with nowhere to hide.

Of course, many will reasonably object that it is not the being in office that so appalls the average Liberal Democrat, but the idea of sharing that office with the old enemy, the Conservatives. Trident is a case in point. Conservatives, by and large, believe passionately in Britain retaining the capacity to use its own nuclear weapons. A few Conservatives believe in retaining the capacity to use nuclear weapons against the Liberal Democrats. The junior coalition partner meanwhile holds the equally passionate belief that Britain’s enemies can anywhere and everywhere be disarmed by the essential reasonableness of Sir Menzies Campbell.  These differences are irreconcilable. This is not to say that Mr Cameron and  Mr Clegg will not try to reconcile them, even if that turns out to be at the cost of Dr Fox taking his icy fingers elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats would doubtless feel a little more smug, but not a whole lot less insecure.

As a result of all this a divide is opening up between the party’s politburo, who by and large remain persuaders for the coalition, and the rest, who yearn for the certainties of perpetual opposition and the hope that they can make it up with Labour. This could turn nasty. When Vince Cable was due to address the conference yesterday, for example, there was a heart-stopping delay between him being announced and arriving at the podium. Surely this kindly old gent couldn’t have been mugged in the green room by Simon Hughes a man whom, if Paddy Ashdown is capable of killing with his bare hands, could certainly leave you permanently incapacitated with his earnestness. The clue is in those staring eyes. Mr Cable finally hobbled to the stage, apparently with all his limbs intact. Even so it would be worth checking for broken bones.

And so Mr Cable was able to speak, from behind a podium bearing the conference slogan “Delivering for Britain” which, were you not paying attention – always a reasonably high risk at the Lib Dem conference – could beguile you into believing that you had arrived at the annual congress of the Royal College of Midwives.  Luckily the sainted Vince was not required to address the theme of delivering for Britain – lucky since his rapidly contracting industry department will soon enough lack the wherewithal to deliver pizza – but was there to take part in a debate on making the party more diverse.

This comes about because people who are inclined to notice these things have noticed that not a single one of the party’s 57 MPs is anything but white. “We have a deficiency of white working class candidates at all levels” said Mr Cable, aligning himself to the little-known Alf Garnett tendency in Liberal Democrat politics, and perhaps missing the point of the debate. Lib Dems too posh says the old economic sage himself. But not perhaps, in light of that tantalisingly ambiguous conference slogan, too posh to push.

Friday 17th September

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The forces of Catholicism, which girded themselves yesterday in Scotland, are moving south. The Pope arrives in London this morning to be met off his plane by the City’s mayor, Boris Johnson. That the Pontiff should choose to arrive by EasyJet, rather than march south in the traditional manner, picking up supporters on the way  from among loyal Catholic enclaves in Yorkshire and the midlands, rather spoils the drama of the situation.  True it is mildly amusing to watch an old man with undisciplined white hair, incompletely kept in check by a skull cap, bob about on the tarmac with a younger man with undisciplined white hair, incompletely kept in check by a barber with an ulcer the size of Vatican City, but think how much richer the tableau could have been. Somewhere outside Luton say, his Holiness‘ forces are met on the field by the regiments of Godlessness, under the leadership of Duke Stephen of Fry and the Earl of Dawkins.    “O Twitter, thou knowest how busy I must be this day; if I forget thee, do not thou forget me”. Ninety-six characters and the blood of a thousand Englishmen soaking into the Bedfordshire dirt.

Somehow, I doubt whether the ragtail army of humanists, activists and publicity-seekers gathering in protest outside St Mary’s College (do they appreciate the irony I wonder) will provide quite the same level of opposition, no matter how much noise they make.  Nor the gentle Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who has clearly concluded that the Church of England doesn’t have a dog in this fight and will content himself  instead by sitting down with the Pope to pray, in his case no doubt for the safe return of the various vicars so crudely interfered with by the left-footers. It is, of course, not so much that the Catholic Church should set out callously to seduce the nation’s parsons that should appall us, as the associated systematic cover-up.

Ill-mannered though the country’s reception has been in general for the Pope, the political class has done well to rise above it. And none more so than the doughty Annabel Goldie, who as leader of the Tories in Scotland, might be regarded as already having been dealt with enough of life’s duff cards, even before being asked by the Duke of Edinburgh, and apparently within the Pontiff’s earshot, whether she was wearing tartan knickers. One would like to know really whether he would ever speak to his wife like that.

No fewer than four former prime ministers are expected in London to help keep His Holiness entertained. These  include Gordon Brown, himself on an excursion to the Smoke from Scotland, and showing that, embattled as it may be, the Catholic Church can still bring about miracles. Baroness Warsi meanwhile, the chairman of the Conservative Party, declares that the coalition “does do God” and presumably she has some idea of what she means by that statement.

Tuesday 14th September

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Bob Russell, a leading member of the Liberal Democrat awkward squad, forced the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House yesterday to answer a question about public spending.

There was a time, early in the life of the coalition, when it was hardly possible to pass a parliamentary day without Mr Osborne arriving to tell the House something new about his cuts, but he seems to have tired of the despatch box lately.  Worse, like the unspeakable cad he so unfailingly resembles, he has allowed his lascivious attention to wander off towards other outlets including, last week, the BBC. It was in a television interview on Thursday last that slimy Georgie announced he would be carving an extra £4 billion from the benefits budget over and above the carving he had already announced.

Mr Russell, by the looks of him, is not a man prone to outbreaks of psychotic anger but there was so much in the Chancellor’s actions to get him cross yesterday that he hardly knew where to start. There was the fact that Mr Osborne had announced the extra cuts to the BBC and not to the House.  There was the fact that, by aiming his axe at benefits for the long-time unemployed, he appeared to be blaming Britain’s economic ills on the work-shy when, as anybody knows, if only a handful of bankers had been a little more shy about doing their work we wouldn’t be in the financial hole in the first place. There was the Chancellor’s “immature” public battle with the welfare secretary Iain Duncan-Smith which, to my mind at least, conjured up the image of the two of them thrashing about in an ornamental fountain, pace Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in Bridget Jones The Edge of Reason.

Nonetheless, as Mr Russell ploughed on through the indictment sheet,  one sensed that the real sources of his rage remained unspoken. These were variously that Mr Osborne exists. That, through the quirks of good fortune, opportunism and privilege, he has risen to become the second most powerful man in the country, And that, worst of all, Mr Russell finds himself shackled politically to this oily achiever by virtue of a coalition agreement that he didn’t want and which he would gladly repudiate if only he could pluck up the courage to do so.

I doubt whether the Chancellor’s reply would have done much to make the member for Colchester feel any better.  Georgie unctuously thanked him for giving him the opportunity to make a statement on spending, implying that this had been on his mind to do so all along and that it was only thanks to the sheer genius of Mr Russell that the chance had now arisen. And he referred to him as “my honourable friend” which, parliamentary convention now dictates, is how the Tory overlords refer to Quisling Lib Dems, reserving the alternative “honourable member” for those of their notional coalition partners whom they know to be hostile.  Mr Russell sunk back deflated and defeated.

Leaving the floor open for Yvette Cooper, standing in for the shadow chancellor who was otherwise engaged. She tried a different tack. Mr Osborne’s Thursday announcement, she maintained, had all been a cynical ploy to divert the media’s attention from harassing Andy Coulson, the nation’s chief phone fiddler (or so it is alleged).  Though no expert in how the spending review works, I am guessing that the Chancellor doesn’t turn on the television, see that the news is running with a story disadvantageous to the Tory Party and turn to his aide and say “I know, we’ll take another £4 billion out of social security”.  If it does, then the logic of this dubious proposition is that the Labour Party had better stop giving the Tories grief or else pretty soon there will be no public spending left.

It will take more than this to disturb the Chancellor’s granite sense of superiority and, on the day, it did. It took Sir Gerald Kaufman no less, raging from inside one of his notorious beige suits about a constituent who, he said, was being so mucked around by the administration of  tax credits, that he was literally penniless, save for the goodwill of his local church. For a moment it looked as if the Chancellor was going to give another of his sixth form common room replies, but this is Kaufman we are talking about.  I’ll look into to it, right away sir, he said (or words to that effect) and sat down.

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