Cutting Mr Osborne

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Whitehall was rocked today as violence broke out among economic forecasters.  Experts predict that this sort of thing can only get worse as the recession bites. It is true that City analysts haven’t yet got to the stage of pitching fire extinguishers off the roof of Conservative Central Office, but the time will come. All leave at the Economist has been cancelled.

The temperature was raised by the appearance at the parliamentary despatch box of Oik Osborne, a man who, to be fair, can start a riot by eating a bowl of cornflakes, but who on this occasion stoked the flames by claiming that the prospects for Britain’s economic recovery are very good. This was enough to drive all good sane people, as well as the aforementioned economists, to convulsions.

Mr Osborne knew he had good news to impart because he had been told it so by Mr Robert Chote. Mr Chote used to work for the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an organisation with more believers than the Church of England. Today, however, he is the head of something called the Office of Budget Responsibility a body that, to pursue the religious analogy, enjoys approximately the same credibility as the Moonies. This is unfortunate for Mr Osborne, who set the OBR up to be incorruptibly distant from the midden of politics, but finds it with a reputation for disingenuity capable of dragging down even Mr Robert Chote. Maddeningly, there is no prospect of this changing until the OBR starts saying things that Mr Osborne does not want to hear.

Dig a little way into the OBR’s analysis and its caution is evident.  But, its headline message yesterday was very much in line with the Chancellor’s languid confidence that his tough economic medicine is doing the trick. No longer the economic basket-case about to be pounced upon by humourless accountants from the IMF, Britain is steadily pulling away from what Mr Osborne and David Cameron were pleased to call the danger zone.  Economic growth, according to the OBR, and as gleefully re-told by the Oik, will surge ahead to 1.8% this year, transforming the country into a land of organic semi-skimmed milk and locally-cultivated honey, compared to the soiled, acidic wasteland associated with the previously expected growth-rate of 1.2%. And in the next two years, wait for it, growth is expected to tick over at 2.1% and 2.8% respectively, meaning that it will scarcely be possible to walk down the street by the time of the Olympics without someone rushing up and offering us two or three well-paid jobs.  It is true that the 2011 and 2012 forecasts for growth are somewhat lower than what had been set down before, but in politics it is important not to allow too much sobriety to butt in upon the magic.

All of these numbers pose something of a dilemma for Alan Johnson, Mr Osborne’s proletarian oppo. He can hardly join in the cheering at the glorious liberation, but neither can he accuse the Chancellor of talking out of his backside. Not only would such language be deemed unparliamentary and thus pounced upon by the demonic mannekin Bercow, but too much renting of garments commits the even grosser sin of “talking Britain down”.  So Mr Johnson took the only option left to him which was to say in a roundabout way that he didn’t really know.  Now of course he couldn’t exactly put it like that – there are already too many people, including Mr Johnson, signed up to the notion that the shadow chancellor doesn’t understand economics – so instead he accused the chancellor of taking an enormous risk. This, ironically, is the safest thing he can say since it must be true. Any serious economic or political decision is a risk.  If the risk goes sour, Mr Johnson is vindicated; if it pays off, everyone will be too busy getting rich and drunk off the proceeds that no one will remember.

Mr Osborne “is in the casino, but hasn’t yet spun the wheel”, said the shadow chancellor, a colourful metaphor concealing the truth that, so far as Mr Johnson or any of the rest of us know, the Oik might yet turn out to have placed his chips wisely. The advantage for Mr Johnson, an ageing politician, of this formulation is that by the time anyone knows where the ball is going to land, it will be too late to matter to his career.

Outside this cosy Westminster game, however, things are a lot more angry as forecasters rushed to dispute the numbers. Some of them went so far as to describe Osborne’s predictions as “overly optimistic”.  The Chancellor is not the only person in this scenario who knows about cutting.



Ed is Back

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Junior Miliband, the occasional leader of the Labour Party,  has returned to work from nappy leave, to face the discontent and disloyalty of his party’s ranks that is Gordon Brown’s most enduring legacy. Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, everything points to the cause of the discontent being him.

This is tough on Junior whose first couple of months in charge have been untouched by either catastrophe or gaffe.  Rather these early days have seen Labour make a steady advance to lead the polls, while Mr Miliband himself has settled into an inoffensive leadership style best characterised by reliably consistent boredom punctuated by sudden and intense bursts of ennui.  Mr Miliband  is more neutral than Switzerland and enjoys approximately as much media coverage.

In the age of the celebrity fix, this simply will not do. Our party leaders must either be decisive men of action, like Mr Blair who spent the early years of his leadership burying his opponents in unmarked graves or unintentionally hilarious, like William Hague.  Mr Miliband instead provokes comparisons with Iain Duncan-Smith, whose election as Tory leader in the week of 9/11 rather cemented a reputation for being over-shadowed.

Mr Miliband does not have it in him to be hilarious and so must cultivate instead the action persona if he is to survive.  He has come back to Westminster promising to review his party’s policies, which is a start, even if not a particularly original one. Presumably Mr Miliband means by this that he wants to decide what Lasbour’s policies should be. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the purpose of the review is to decide whether the Labour Party needs to have any policies at all. Sooner or later someone is bound to suggest that Labour needs a re-brand and these sort of things can generally be managed with the aid of a different logo and a campaign on Facebook.

Mr Miliband is also almost certain to be judged in need of his “clause 4 moment”. This is one of the two indisipensable items that must perforce be packed into any politician’s jungle survival kit (the other is a “his Leo McGarry” in deference to the eponymous character out of The West Wing (older issues of the kit have a his or her Willie)).

It is fairly obvious what Junior’s clause 4 moment needs to be.  Mr Blair had to jettison the historic commitment to expropriating the means of production and control so as to stop the heart of old Labour. Mr Miliband must now rid his party of its ancient attachment to the visceral beating embodiment of new Labour. Yes indeed, Peter Mandelson must go.

Lord Mandelson, whose agents are everywhere, appears to have received advance warning of this plan. This is why he turned up in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday to announce that he had no intention of being moved into an old people’s home. No need for that really you might say since he is already in the House of Lords, which is rather like a nursing home though without the all-pervading tang of urine.






The Tradesman’s Entrance

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The great mercantilist Cameron, recently returned from the Orient, came to the Commons today to answer prime minister’s questions. Unfortunately, all he ended up trading was quotations. Insults would have been too spiced for this semolina fare.

Harriet Harman, still covering for junior Miliband while he finishes off the nappy shift, and wearing her outfit that suggests the recent massacre of several giraffes, wanted to know about how many fewer police officers there would be as a result of the Government’s cuts. Ms Harman came armed with a quote from the GM himself – uttered during his pre Marco Polo period – to the effect that he would send back any Cabinet minister who came to him with a plan for reducing “front-line” staff.

As an exercise in exposing Mr Cameron’s wanton (or should that be wantong) hypocrisy, this would have been more effective if the prime minister were actually owning up to hacking away the thin blue line.  Mr Cameron, however, was doing no such thing.  It was, as ever, the poor schmucks in HR, IT and, on this occasion, vehicle maintenance, who were going to get it in the P45.

Safe in the knowledge that – despite presumably their capacity for throwing a spanner in the works – car mechanics command but a nugatory slice of the nation’s affection, Mr Cameron had his own quotation to fling back across the despatch box at giraffe-woman.  This was from Alan Johnson, who at the time was the shadow home secretary. Or rather the quote was from Andrew Neil, who has never been the shadow home secretary as far as any of us can recall, and it took the form of a very long question at the end of which Mr Johnson had conveniently said “no”.  At least that was convenient for Mr Cameron since it was just the answer he had needed to make his point. The fact that, by this juncture, we had started to lose all interest in what the point was, need not detain us.

It seemed to detain Ms Harman, however, because instead of, as is her right, smartly changing the subject to something fruitier like the Irish financial crisis, she ploughed on with police numbers, bringing the focus onto Greater Manchester and dragging the chief constable of that fine city into her argument. Inevitably, Mr Cameron had his own quote from the chief constable to throw back at Labour’s deputy leader, and so the trading went on.

What does he say, said Ms Harman finally, to the people of Manchester who will be deeply worried about the cut in police numbers? To which the aposite reply might well be “just thank your lucky stars you don’t live in Liverpool”. But Mr Cameron declined to say it and so Ms Harman’s little notebook of quotable quotes must remain padlocked for another day .

Later on, in response to a question from the Labour backbencher Bill Esterson, the prime minister found it in himself to put in a plea for faster wheelchairs, briefly conjuring up the fascinating image of Britain’s paraplegics breaking the land-speed record, before correcting himself to mean something much more insipid.  Then the next question was about Short Money which, in the spirit of the prime minister’s clipped style, might have been prelude to a rant about Government cuts in the funding for dwarves. Short Money is in fact the cash handed over to the opposition to research and write down the prime minister’s uncircumspect quotations.  It is, it turns out going up by a million or so, presumably on the condition that it goes to the front-line.

Mr Andrew Griffiths, the Conservative asking the question, thought that, in keeping with the age of austerity, the Labour Party ought to pay some of this largesse back. Labour should be kept short as unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – Mr Griffiths did not think to say.

Vive L’Entente Frugale

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Though (or perhaps because) it infuriates the English Eurosceptics to an almost excruciating degree, I find myself hugely cheered at the prospect of closer military co-operation between Britain and France. True this may upset some political calculations as Cameron and team prepare for the election fight in 2015 and patriotic appeals on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo become a little blunted. Still, young Mr Hilton tends to look after these things and has a world-view no larger than his own carbon footprint. He may not actually have heard of Napoleon, despite the physical resemblance.

Anyway back to military matters and the Entente Frugale as wags have dubbed it, which means roughly that we have the aircraft carriers, but no planes to land on them, and the French the planes, but nowhere to put them down (not counting France of course). It all seems almost too good to be true, even if I did choose to suspend judgement until Colonel Tim Collins – he of the Henry V oration on the eve of Iraq – had opined on the subject on Tuesday’s Newsnight. But Colonel Tim couldn’t find much to worry about, except the tricky question of whether to fit the carrier out with French or English plug sockets. So I think that settles it. If old enemies can unite after hundreds of years of animosity and conflict,  they can certainly sort out someone between them to go down to Boots for a bagful of continental adaptors.

Europaranoids see in the agreement the embryonic advance of a superstate army. Yet this theory falls down as soon as you recall that this is a superstate that has chosen as its leaders the miniscule Dutchman Herman van Rompuy and the unprepossessing Baroness Ashton. Suffused with the European ideal as this pair may be, they would have difficulty rustling up a litter detachment let alone an army.

Nor is President Sarkozy the EU’s agent, witting or unwitting,  The President, who is unpopular in his own country and facing re-election in 18-months time, is usefully at war with most of the pillars of the Union, including Commission President Barroso, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Luxembourg.  A man with pent up aggression aimed at Luxembourg is always worth an alliance, especially in any agreement that doubles up the number of troops available to send in and take the smug stamp-lickers out.

I cannot understand why the British do not take more to Sarkozy.  For one thing in three and a half years as president he has managed to alienate, aggravate and infuriate more Frenchmen than most of us could aspire to do in a lifetime. He is both the consort of Carla Bruni and, I learn from Wikipedia, ex officio Co-Prince of Andorra and most of us would settle for either of those.

Le President is also a little dynamo in pursuit of the French national interest. Frankly our own leaders could do with a scoop more of his energy and verve in their own projections of realpolitik on our behalf. While  William Hague unwinds long and considered speeches about the importance of improved bi-lateral relations with China, Sarkozy has President Hu Jintao over into Paris and is walking him up the Champs Elysee before the foreign secretary has taken off his baseball cap.

Sarkozy’s own presidency of the Union in the second half of 2008 is still recalled with a certain breathlessness.  For six months he strode about the place making a difference in a role usually filled by an unpronouncable eastern European sorting through his agenda points. “Sarkozy offered a brand of EU leadership that works, reviving the Union and making headway in projecting a responsible European voice in global affairs” said the International Herald Tribune which is not a publication often moved to swooning

All this fizz, I surmise, was given not out of great love for the EU, but for the interests of France and, well yes, Nicolas Sarkozy. We should forgive him that. This is a man it is better to have on our side.

Suffrage the little Tories

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The news that prisoners are to be given the right to vote seems to have caused particular discontent among Conservatives at Westminster. According to James Forsyth, yesterday was a day of “Tory grumbles”,  though why he should have chosen Tuesday 2nd November for this particular accolade is unclear.  The Conservatives these days live in a state of perpetual sulk, punctuated only by moments of intense happiness, such as when George Osborne turns up at the despatch box to start cutting things.

The Tory state derives from the fact that, although notionally in power, they are the ones who always end up getting pushed around. Recent history tells us of course that this is a party that has no difficulty with being pushed around when the pushing is being done by a strong woman.  She is 85 now though, and beset by viruses and there simply isn’t the same frisson when Nick Clegg turns up to take you through the finer points of the pupil premium.  And if it isn’t the Liberal Democrats extracting the latest instalment of the pound of flesh demanded of David Cameron as the price for putting him in Downing Street, then it is the old enemy, Europe.

David Cameron’s “victory” at last week’s EU summit has left the Eurosceps distinctly unimpressed. True, he got half of Europe’s leaders to sign up to the idea that the budget shouldn’t go up by any more than 2.91% – and if it were me I’d be putty in the hands of a man who negotiates to the second decimal place – but expectation is all. Cameron had earlier backed a freeze to the EU budget. Even that reveals weakness. A good many Tory MPs don’t want the budget frozen. They want it eliminated altogether: wiped from the continent’s face  as a social evil, rather as we once managed with bubonic plague.

Now it is Europe again held to be at blame for the wicked plan to enfranchise the nation’s cons, thus overturning the provisions of the Forfeiture Act 1870, a piece of legislation that  many Tories fondly recall and some of them in all probability voted for.  I don’t know what tactics were employed in support of Wormwood scrubs suffragism – it may, given the ample opportunity, have involved quite a lot of chaining yourself to iron bars – but they have undoubtedly been effective since the European Court on Human Rights is on their side and David Cameron has decided – reluctantly it is said – to throw in the towel.  He told the Commons at PMQs today that he feels “physically sick” at the prospect of votes for prisoners, his sense of nausea not improved when a mischevious Labour MP reminded him that the package now comes with the right for lags to vote for new police commissioners.

Mr Cameron will might argue that his position is rooted in a long and honourable Conservative tradition of hostility towards the idea of people voting. Lord Salisbury battled heroically, but alas unsuccessfully in 1867 and again in 1884 against extending the franchise to the lower orders.  “The classes that represent civilisation”, his lordship wrote in the Quarterly Review, “have a right to require securities to protect them from being overwhelmed by hordes who have neither knowledge to guide them nor stake in the commonwealth to protect them”. The Conservative leader might thus conclude that such high Tory opposition owed less to a general anti-democratic urge than to a desire to tailor the franchise to a population most likely to vote Conservative.

I do not know whether Mr Cameron  represents civilisation – even Witney has its limitations – but he and his party might well aspire to represent that class of crafty, rules-are-made-to-be-broken, entrepreneurs with whom our jails are stuffed. The beauty of the European Court’s judgement, as I understand it, is that it leaves the Government free to choose which prisoners actually get access to the ballot box. It may be possible, for example,to sign up burglars, tax evaders and metric martyrs to the franchise while continuing to deny it to undesirables such as paedophiles and benefit cheats. A golden age of gerrymandering awaits.

Cameron had better hurry up though. The Court made its ruling five years ago and at this rate by the time prisoners get the vote, Ken Clarke will have ensured that there are none of them  left inside to enjoy it.