Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Vote Blue, Go Green?

That "Vote Blue, Go Green" message seems rather dated now. In fact, it must be almost four weeks since the Conservatives put environmental concerns high on their campaign agenda for the local council elections.

Today, Welsh Tory leader Nick Bourne and fellow Welsh Assembly Member Andrew Davies were on hand to receive a petitition from hauliers.

With fuel costs continuing to rise, the Tories may not be the only party or pressure group to play down their green credentials at the moment.

Even Greenpeace have criticised plans to increase future road tax for vehicles already on the road.

Chelsea manager latest: shock new name in frame

Friday, 23 May 2008

Preparing for government?

Another day, another crisis for Gordon Brown. The Tories' win in Crewe and Nantwich is the party's first by-election win from Labour since 1978.

The 17.6 per cent swing would give David Cameron a majority of more than 100 seats at Westminster.

A BBC producer asked me to calculate how many seats Labour would lose in Wales on that swing. If you're a Labour MP you may want to look away now.

Rough back-of-envelope calculations suggest the loss of 13 of the 29 Labour seats - from the more predictable Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff North to the rather less likely Cardiff South and Penarth and Cardiff West via Delyn and Newport West.

Talk of 13 losses may be fantasy politics. No-one expects a by-election size swing at the general election, but all but one of those six seats have been held by the Tories since 1979. There will be some anxious Labour backbenchers today.

They may draw comfort from the clumsy nature of Labour's campaign in Crewe, not just the "toffs" stuff but also the over-emphasis on their candidate as the daughter of Gwyneth Dunwoody. Tamsin Dunwoody may be a Dunwoody but she lives in Pembrokeshire, had few links to Crewe and playing the continuity card doesn't work when "time for a change" is in the air.

What would a Conservative government be like? London mayor Boris Johnson, the nearest we have to one at the moment, has been honouring his election pledge to publish the details and salaries of his senior advisors.

His chief spin doctor, my former BBC colleague Guto Harri, will be paid £124,364, twice the salary of a backbench MP.

That said, Guto will be appearing at the Hay Festival this week for the usual fee on offer - a white rose.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Strange, but true

There's an interesting debate going on (I don't write that every day) about the new art in the Welsh Assembly.

The decision to hang a portrait of Margaret Thatcher alongside one of Aneurin Bevan in the new Assembly building has provoked predictable fury.

One Plaid Cymru AM described it as "an insult to Wales". There's no doubt Margaret Thatcher was a hugely divisive figure who generated rare loathing among her opponents and was at odds with the prevailing political culture in Wales.

But surely it is re-writing history to suggest she was universally despised by every voter in Wales for her role in the decline of mining?

That's being slightly economical with the statistics. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives won half a million votes, 8 seats and 30 per cent of the vote in the 1987 general election, the first poll after the miners' strike of 1984/85.

The Tories have never been near that sort of performance in Wales under her successors. They've rebranded themselves and ditched many Thatcherite policies but they'd kill for 30 per cent of the vote now.

So would Plaid Cymru - although they have progressed since 1987, when they won 7 per cent of the vote, less than a quarter of the share enjoyed by Thatcher's Tories.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Crewe cut

How do you know there's a by-election on? BBC reporters find themselves in the same train carriage as MPs (they don't all travel first class when they have to pay their way).

I spent the day in Crewe and Nantwich, where one bookmaker has stopped taking bets on the Conservatives taking the seat from Labour - something that hasn't happened in a by-election for 30 years.

Totally unscientific interviews with random voters threw up real hostility towards Gordon Brown and his Government, not just over the 10 pence tax rate fiasco but also over the price of petrol and the rising cost of living.

Labour supporters don't seem convinced by their campaign's attempts to portray the Tory candidate as a toff or by the argument that someone who lives in a £1.5m house can't represent ordinary voters. (One Labour Cabinet Minister has several homes worth far more - and reputedly even employs a butler)

The Liberal Democrats look set to be squeezed, although they had plenty of MPs on the campaign trail today. I even bumped into Lembit Opik as he introduced his party's candidate to shoppers.

Another Lib Dem MP, Tim Farron offered voters what he described as something rare - "a magazine without Lembit Opik in it".

"You're just jealous," said the MP for Montgomeryshire.

There are 10 candidates standing in Thursday's election. You can read all about them on the BBC website. Do click there - I'll be testing you on them later.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Ethics man

It's one of those profound ethical dilemmas that confront contestants on Mr and Mrs, the recently exhumed TV show where politicians and celebrities demonstrate how much (or how little) they know about their partner.

It's your wedding anniversary. You are offered a ticket to watch your home team play in the FA Cup Final, for the first time in 81 years. It may not happen again while you are on this planet.

Do you

a) Turn down the ticket in favour of a romantic anniversary day out;
b) What could be more romantic than the FA Cup? Go to Wembley;
c) Compromise - find a gastro-pub with a big screen?

Unlike me, my wife didn't spend a significant part of her youth at Ninian Park, watching Brian Clark, Peter King, Bobby Woodruff, then Phil Dwyer, Adrian Alston, Tony Evans and company.

Mrs C is neither Welsh nor a football fan, but she was very understanding when I opted for option b) - at least that's what she said in the note I found waiting for me on my return home......

It was a fantastic day, a brilliant atmosphere and a far better game than last year's tedious encounter, even if the result was equally disappointing.

Patrick Collins wrote: "It was a real pleasure to have a Final without the presence of the so-called Big Four, with their blase fans and players wearing so-what faces, and rotational managers husbanding their reserves to prepare for more important tasks elsewhere".

As Jimmy Floyd "Cashinthebank" pointed out, the Cardiff fans stayed to watch - and applaud - as Portsmouth were presented with the cup.

A day well worth the domestic grief to come. At least next year's anniversary falls on a Sunday.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Pedalling a line

Top marks to the British Lung Foundation. They've succeeded where others have failed and managed to get MPs from different parties singing from the same hymn sheet.

Take this quote from the Tory MP John Baron, dated May 9: "I’m......delighted to support the British Lung Foundation’s campaign to encourage us to look after our lungs. We don’t realise how fragile our lungs are and what an important job they do in keeping us mobile and active."

The Tory MP Andrew Selous had a similar view on May 8: “I’m delighted to support the British Lung Foundation’s campaign to encourage us to look after our lungs. We don’t realise how fragile our lungs are and what an important job they do in keeping us mobile and active."
Labour's Andy Love said on May 13: "I was delighted to support the British Lung Foundation’s campaign to encourage us to look after our lungs. We don’t realise how fragile our lungs are and what an important job they do in keeping us mobile and active."

Labour's Hywel Francis (pictured) couldn't agree more in a press release issued a week after the event: "I am delighted to support the British Lung Foundation’s campaign to encourage us to look after our lungs. We do not realise how fragile our lungs are and what an important job they do in keeping us mobile and active."
It is a rare cause that unites politicians across parties verbatim - perhaps the BLF should have brought in a couple of tandems. You can find out more here or call the BLF Helpline on 08458 50 50 20.

Brown backs Bluebirds - and Pompey

There was a buzz about Downing Street today as Gordon Brown prepared to face the world's media after one of his most difficult weeks in office.

Inside Number 10, hacks gathered to question the Prime Minister on the big issues of the day - the economic slowdown, the credit crunch, rising inflation, natural disasters, geo-political instability.

So naturally I asked Mr Brown whether he'd be supporting Cardiff City in Saturday's FA Cup Final. As a Raith Rovers fan, he has some experience in supporting underdogs so I wanted to give him the chance to send a message to the Bluebirds that he's on their side.

Here's the response, as delivered live on the BBC News Channel:

"Two days ago I met Dave Jones, the manager of Cardiff City, and some of the officials and I wished him well as he approached the Cup Final.

"I also met Sol Campbell at the same reception and having satisfied myself that he was going to be fit for the Cup Final I also wished him well in the match ahead.

"I think this is going to be a great match. I think it is essentially a clash in the great Raith Rovers versus Celtic match context, between the premier league club and the challenger and I wish both sides well in the tournament.

"Dave Jones has done a great job as manager but obviously Portsmouth has had a great season as well. It's going to be a great clash - look forward to watching it."

I got the balanced, even-handed response I expected but feared. Still, worth a try.

I'll be generous and resist the temptation to suggest Mr Brown is dithering or sitting on the fence.

It must be hell being PM - you get to watch the big domestic games spending 90 minutes of agony cheering for a draw.

I'm off to check the records to see when Raith Rovers last beat Celtic.......

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

House rules

Housing soared up the political agenda as prices rose and has remained there as prices fall. "We can't know how bad it can get" as the English Housing Minister put it.

Devolution means different responses in different parts of the UK. In the week Gordon Brown unveiled plans to increase shared equity schemes and buy unsold homes to rent them to tenants, the Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy presented to Parliament an order to allow the Welsh Assembly Government to suspend the sale of council houses.

Older readers may remember Mr Murphy's view on this Legislative Competence Order (LCO) when it was mooted last year. This is what he told the Welsh Grand Committee in December:

"I think that, overwhelmingly, most LCOs, when they come here, will be passed without too much fuss. However, there may be occasions when things are a bit more controversial, and I will cite two LCOs as examples.

"I think that the LCO that deals with the ending of the sale of council houses will produce controversy. For the past two decades in Wales, the fact that houses have been sold by local authorities has meant that people in Wales, by becoming home owners, have improved their lot.

"There are areas of housing need that we must be careful about, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy touched on one or two of those issues today. However, a warning shot should be sent by those of us who represent constituencies that have traditionally contained a large proportion of council houses."

Perhaps the warning shot missed its target or has Mr Murphy shot himself in the foot?

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Crewe Junction

Top marks to Jon Sopel of the BBC News channel for his opening question to Labour's candidate in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election: "How's the class war going?"

Tamsin Dunwoody, for it is she, was briefly non-plussed by the query, prompted by her party's campaign highlighting the relative affluence of her Conservative opponent Edward Timpson.

"We have a candidate opposing us who lives in a one and a half million pound mansion," Ms Dunwoody, late of the Welsh Assembly, said during a live interview.

That sum would barely buy a wing of Tony and Cherie Blair's latest purchase, a country house once home to Sir John Gielgud. Labour are branding Mr Timpson a toff, employing activists dressed up in top hat and tails to greet him in the constituency.

Cherie Blair's memoirs make much of her humble origins, although her husband went to Fettes - "the Scottish Eton" - which probably makes him a toff in Labour circles.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson have had to downplay their own schooling at Eton for political reasons. Visitors to Britain might think it slightly strange that some parents fork out tens of thousands of pounds buying what they think is the best education you can get, only for the beneficiaries to feel the need to distances themselves from it.

A campaign leaflet stoked up the class war. At least Labour aren't using the by-election to rail against the hereditary principle - probably just as well as Tamsin is the daughter of two Labour MPs and the grandaughter of a Labour general secretary and a member of the House of Lords.

The full list of by-election candidates, should you be interested, can be seen here.

If all this talk of old school ties is making you nostalgic, read this inspiring story about someone who had the misfortune to teach me at (comprehensive) school.

Monday, 12 May 2008

A different blame game

Some respite for Gordon Brown, currently more beleaguered than a relegated Premier League manager. Ken Livingstone isn't the only Labour figure prepared to take responsibility for this month's electoral drubbing rather than blame someone else.

Lynne Neagle chairs the Labour group in the Welsh Assembly. She is also AM for Torfaen, where Labour had a pretty grim day on May 1.

Here's her take on what the elections mean for Welsh Labour:

"The electorate has just told us that we haven’t done enough – and what we have done clearly hasn’t been communicated well enough."

"The very idea that none of what happened in the local elections in Wales has ended up at the door of the Assembly is monumentally worrying – it must make us question just what kind of an impact the institution has made on the Welsh psyche?

"We control education, health, housing, community regeneration – and according to some – we’ve established clear red water between ourselves and an unpopular UK Labour Government.

"And yet on May 1st, the clear red blood of good Welsh Labour councillors ran thicker and faster than their counterparts in England. It is time to take some responsibility.

"Playing the blame game just undermines the value of the Assembly in Wales – and indeed there was little in the results of last week that wasn’t foretold in the Assembly elections of last year. Our reaction to that result has been sluggish, and we’ve paid the price.

"The communities for whom only Labour will ever deliver are tired of waiting for lasting change and they’ve just got that message across in the clearest way possible.

"It takes a strong character to ask for a discussion with the person who has just bloodied your nose – but that is what Welsh Labour must do with the electorate, starting today."

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Slap happy once more

A lot has changed in Welsh politics recently but students of political linguistics will be cheered by the return of one familiar phrase.

Plaid Cymru may be in government in Cardiff now but farther west they feel rather excluded from the new local government shake-up in Carmarthenshire.

In a statement guaranteed to evoke nostalgia for what seems a bygone age, Councillor Arwel Lloyd says the Independent/Labour coalition is "a slap in the face" for democracy.

Three years after I first identified the phenomenon Plaid have resurrected this traditional campaign description.

The party has yet to exhume "snub to Wales" although the word "snub" may not be out of place here.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Leadership frenzy

For months - almost since he got the top job - the political world has been agog with rumours about the party leadership.

The verdict from the voters was, at best, mixed. Speculation about the man at the top was never far away whenever the party's politicians and activists were gathered together.

A fixture on the political landscape for so long, could the leader survive demands to make way for a young pretender who could re-vitalise the party?

Should he stay or should he go?

Now we know.

Mike German will step down as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats this autumn.

The only party leader from the original Assembly still standing, he announced his decision today.

"I said earlier in the year that I would stand down when it was sensible and practical to do so, and having received this request from the party's senior officers, I have decided that I will resign following the debate on the constitution at our Autumn Conference."

(Can there be a more appropriate way for a Lib Dem leader to leave than after a debate on the constitution?)

Mr German's announcement has fired the gun, as we hacks say in these circumstances, for the race to succeed him.

You will doubtless find detailed analysis of the potential candidates elsewhere but I will be taking a passing interest in the campaign.

Regular readers of The National Assembly for Wales - The Record of Procedings (always devoured chez Cornock over breakfast) will be aware that Eleanor Burnham has recently been stressing the breadth of her experience.

Not content with regularly throwing the "as a former magistrate" into speeches, EB JP has also spoken recently "as a former teacher of underachieving disaffected 14-16 year olds" and "as a former hospice fund-raiser".

Her campaign team will be hoping that come the autumn speeches do not begin "as a former future leader......"

The Men in Grey Beards

Fantasy politics can be a fun game for Westminster journalists on those rare days when there's no Government crisis to report.

Now MPs seem to be joining in the game. Paul Flyn unveils his fantasy cabinet here. Gordon is still Prime Minister - Gordon Prentice, that is. Mr Prentice, along with the other Flynn selections is unlikely to be offered office under any likely PM but the significance of the line-up is the suggestion that Gordon Brown should go before the next election.

The Newport West backbencher poses a question that currently focuses Labour MPs - and offers this answer: "Yes of course it’s possible to win a fourth term. Here is the plan. Gordon Brown survives until the D-Day of January 1st 2010. By then he will have rebuilt his authority and he can resign with dignity and honour."

The blogging equivalent of a visit from the men in grey suits - the men in grey beards, perhaps? - or the traditional leaving gift of a pearl-handled revolver and a bottle of whisky?

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Spending a penny wisely

If anyone ever asks you the point of a political institution, you may wish to refer them to this quote from Jenny Randerson, a Liberal Democrat member of the Welsh Assembly.

"Making sure there are enough public toilets, in the right places and accessible to all who might wish to use them, is exactly the sort of thing the Assembly was set up to debate."

Bad news for anoraks

Another radical response to Labour's electoral disaster, this time from Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy:

"We talk a lot about constitutional issues, these things have to take second place to the realities of everyday living."

A bold idea. He'll be telling Welsh politicians to stop gazing at their navels next.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Sex, drugs, cosmic energy and Lembit Opik

I fear our privacy may be about to be invaded again, judging by this excerpt from Piers Morgan's diary in the Mail on Sunday:

"Just two weeks after his Liberal Democrat boss Nick Clegg suffered national humiliation from our GQ encounter (the one in which 'Cleggover' revealed to me how many women he'd slept with, and how good he is in bed...) I was invited, yes invited, to sit down for two hours and interview his housing spokesman, Lembit Opik.

My first reaction, before we met, was, "Why the hell is he doing this?"

My second reaction, on departing from his office as the sun blinked down over the yardarm, was, "Why the hell did he do that?"

I can't reveal too much at this stage, except to say that Lembit wanted to focus on the "big political issues affecting the country".

And I preferred to dwell on sex, drugs, cosmic energy and his bedroom arrangements with the Cheeky Girls.

I can't work out if the Lib Dems are committing this collective political suicide deliberately to raise their celebrity profiles, or whether they really are as dim as they seem."

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to avoid the next issue of GQ magazine. I promise to read it, so you don't have to.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Said Ken

An astonishing thing happened yesterday.

A politician lost his job and forgot to blame someone else.

Ken Livingstone didn't blame Gordon Brown, Westminster, the Barnett formula, London, the weather, Tony Blair, the world economy, Derby County's defence or any of the other usual scapegoats politicians suggest when things go pear-shaped with the electorate.

This is what he said: "There is absolutely nothing that I could have asked from the Labour Party that it didn't throw into this election, from Gordon Brown right the way down to the newest recruit, handing out leaflets on very wet, cold days.

"I'm sorry I couldn't get an extra few points that would take us to victory and the fault for that is solely my own. You can't be mayor for eight years and then if you don't at third term say it was somebody else's fault. I accept that responsibility and I regret that I couldn't take you to victory."

Whatever your views of his politics, Ken Livingstone was a political pioneer in some areas, whether it was talking to Sinn Fein or taking on the motoring lobby.

Yet somehow I don't think this radical idea of candour and personal responsibility in defeat is going to catch on.