Friday, July 04, 2008

London Politics Health Warning For Boris

Mayor Johnson had better learn the game fast. Anyone entering London politics should be given a health warning - enter at you peril, it's a dirty business. This is not the cosy Westminster bubble, this is the street politics of a huge and diverse city. 

It's rough out there on the mean streets of London - it always has been. 

Livingstone was a political street fighter. Anyone who can survive Thatcher and Blair has to be. Johnson, on the other hand, is a member of the Westminster circle.

Serious allegations of financial and sexual misconduct surrounding Mayor Johnson's deputy Ray Lewis and his credentials have surfaced, but this is not the big issue. That will eventually all come out in the wash.

So far Johnson has behaved correctly. He called a hastily arranged news conference at city hall yesterday and stood next to Lewis, promising an investigation into the allegations. 

But what prompted the hastily called news conference? Obviously he got wind of a story about to break. Was this another story planted on the BBC? This time it was prompted by a list of questions sent by the Guardian newspaper the day before. 

The questions raised by the Guardian were serious and must be investigated and answered. And they were followed by questions raised by Channel 4 News. 

Apart from the allegations, they call into question Johnson's and for that matter Cameron's judgement in appointing Lewis as deputy. And that takes London politics to the heart of Westminster. 

UPDATE: Lewis announced his resignation at around 7pm this evening. Mayor Johnson is going to have to learn fast if he is to survive.


Sharia Over Here? Not Much To Fear

The 'Bearded' one has been joined by the 'Learned' one, with comments over sharia law. But judging by some of the headlines and comments today, it seems this is an area where resentment and bigotry is stronger than ever.

That point is made by Peter Oborne in today's Mail.

Top judge, Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips, apparently says principles of sharia law could play a role in some parts of the legal system. 

The comments previously made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that some aspects of sharia law may be unavoidable, sparked huge controversy and debate. 

That was until anyone took the trouble to actually read what he said. Then they were confronted by a dense, complex theological thesis that no-one understood. In the end, the Archbishop was told to stick with the day job. 

Sharia sets out the way some Muslims believe they should live their life. So it's worth looking carefully at what His Lordship has to say: 

"There is no reason why sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution ... It must be recognised, however, that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales."

Severe physical punishments such as flogging, stoning and the cutting off of hands would not be acceptable, he said.

He added: "There can be no question of such courts sitting in this country, or such sanctions being applied here.

"So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English and Welsh law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English and Welsh courts.

"I think it's important to clarify that English common law already allows us to go to mediation to whichever third party we wish.

"So that is why you have sharia council, that is why you have Jewish courts. It is a truly voluntary arrangement.

"There is no parallel legal system. This system cannot override English common law." 

Unlike the Archbishop, this seems like a reasoned, common-sense argument.


Do Badgers Vote In Elections?

When has this government ever listened to 'public opinion'? It's a tough one that but when it comes to a planned cull of badgers in England, the government is more than wiling to lend an ear.

According to the top story from BBC On-Line 'News' this morning, the government has decided against a cull of badgers in England to control TB in cattle. Hold the front page! That picture of a badger (above) is really cute.

The BBC report goes on: "And the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has in the past also said that public acceptance would be a factor in determining the government's policy."

Maybe Benn the Younger has been taking lessons from dad Tony on democracy and civil liberties. After all, Benn the Senior recently came out in support of David Davis by-election stand.  

The government former chief scientific adviser had told ministers previously that culling badgers could be effective in controlling the spread of the disease.

Good news for badgers and democracy - but bad news for farmers.


MPs Keep Their Nose In The Trough

In the most blatant and disgraceful acts of smug arrogance and self-interest, the government's top ministers have voted to keep themselves in luxury at the tax payer's expense. 

Ministers helped throw out a string of Commons reforms aimed at restoring confidence in MP's expenses.

By a narrow margin of just 28, MPs, including a number of senior Labour cabinet ministers, rejected an alternative expenses package put forward by their own Commons review and voted instead to keep their £24,000 second home allowances and the right to choose luxury household goods from the cushy 'John Lewis list'.

In all, more than 30 government ministers voted to keep the Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) and the List, where public money is used to pay for luxury items like new kitchens and TVs. 

They included home secretary Jacqui Smith, culture secretary Andy Burnham, Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward, Welsh secretary Paul Murphy and housing minister Caroline Flint.

Both of Brown's parliamentary aides, Ian Austin and Angela Smith, rejected the new proposals, as did the Prime Minister's close ally, Nick Brown and a number of other junior ministers.

Predictably, Brown and some of his most senior cabinet colleagues went missing for the vote.

Cameron and the shadow cabinet voted for the abolition of the 'John Lewis list' and both the Conservatives and LibDems condemned the decision.

Their unexpected rejection of a package of reforms, means MPs will be able to continue to use a £24,000 a year allowance to claim for furniture, electrical goods, kitchens and bathrooms.

Not surprisingly, the Committee's recommendation for new offices for MPs was approved, increasing the annual bill for MPs' constituency offices from £2.8m to potentially £6m.

MPs who voted for the changes expressed disgust that their colleagues had voted against and said it was a missed opportunity to put their house in order.

After the expenses vote was read out in the Commons, Cameron was heard to exclaim: "Where's the government?" 

Exactly. They should be hanging their heads in shame.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

You're Living In Fantasy Land, Darling

So the economy is well placed to deal with current 'difficulties', is it, Darling? The chancellor is living in his own little fantasy world, out of touch with reality and following his boss's mantra, as the country pays the price of a decade of follies.

Is that the same economy where the government stood by and deliberately allowed the UK manufacturing base to go to the wall, while manufacturing in countries like Germany and Japan were encouraged to flourish and go from strength to strength? 

Is that the same economy where the government placed such a 'light touch' on credit and borrowing, to deliberately create the 'feel good factor' which is now coming home to roost in a debt culture with disastrous consequences?

Is that the same economy which removed the financial checks on credit and loans and allowed the money lenders to adopt dodgy business models, with no regulations, until Northern Rock came crashing down around your ears?

Is that the same economy, where government spending has been allowed to get out of hand, with billions of pounds squandered on silly schemes just to support your half-baked domestic and foreign policies? 

Is that the same economy where the government sold-off most of the gold reserves at a knock-down price and has spent the last ten years borrowing to create 'easy money', to dig itself out of an economic hole, while the true cost has been kept off the public accounts books with smoke and mirrors? 

Speaking at a news conference today, ahead of Brown's grilling by MPs, chancellor Darling said: "For the last ten years we have had strong growth - although we are going through a hard time, our economy is better placed now than it ever was to deal with these problems."

Go on, blame it all on the global economy again, Darling. 

The truth is we never had a strong economy. We just lived in an economic fantasy world. And now we are paying the price.


New Carriers Are An Expensive Folly

Going ahead with the building of two new aircraft carriers costing more than £3 billion keeps people in work and tries to keep voters in the shipbuilding constituencies happy but it's a hugely expensive folly. 

The true cost will be much higher and comes at a time when the Army is over-stretched and under-resourced.

Even in peacetime, aircraft carriers cannot set to sea without a flotilla of ships for protection and supply. At times of war and in hostile waters, they are sitting ducks without the frigates, destroyers and submarines to protect the vulnerable mother ship. 

Contracts were finally signed today by the MoD for The Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. But they're not due to come into service for 10 years. 

Aircraft carriers were fine when we went sailing around the word as a maritime superpower, protecting the Empire. But the war we're fighting now is in Afghanistan. Maybe the MoD hasn't looked at a map recently. That country is landlocked. There's no ocean for thousands of miles. Proper equipment for the Army yes, but aircraft carriers are the last thing you need. 

And aircraft carriers need, well aircraft, otherwise even the name sounds silly. And not just any old aircraft - but very costly aircraft with short take off and landing (TOL). And what have we got ? Well at the moment any old aircraft. The ageing Harrier jump jets were fantastic in their day but are now getting a bit long in the tooth. 

So we'll have to wait for the new pan-US/European Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, which won't be ready in time for the carriers.

That £3-4 billion was just for building the carriers. Who knows what the true cost would be to get them to sea with protection and support vessels and the new aircraft to go on them. 

In ten years time we'll have two new aircraft carriers to fly the flag. But will we? 

By then, they'll be at the beck and call of the president of the new EU, as part of the new EU defence force. So which flag will they fly?


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Political Cracker Explodes At Westminster

It's a case of here today, gong gone tomorrow for Labour MP, Keith Vaz. Minutes before PMQs, the Telegraph dropped a bombshell on its front page news website, which discloses a private letter from Labour chief whip Geoff Hoon to Vaz who he hopes will be “appropriately rewarded” for supporting the 42 days detention bill.

The contents of the letter were clearly held back from the morning newspaper to deliberately wrong foot Brown and give Cameron a chance to put him on the spot in the commons.

Once again the Speaker saved Brown's skin when he cut Cameron off and called on one of the New Labour plants to speak from the back-benches.

In the handwritten letter sent on June 12, 2008 – the day after the knife-edge vote on 42 day detention, the Telegraph reports at 11.51am that Hoon writes:

“Dear Keith…Just a quick note to thank you for all your help during the period leading up to last Wednesday’s vote. I wanted you to know how much I appreciated all your help.
“I trust that it will be appropriately rewarded!...With thanks and best wishes, Geoff.”

Vaz, the Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee, was previously opposed to the plans, but later offered his full backing which was only won when Northern Ireland's DUP voted with the government.

With rumours circulating in Westminster of a peerage or knighthood, Vaz was asked in Parliament, during the debate the day before the vote, whether he had been offered an honour for his support. He said: “No, it was certainly not offered- but I do not know; there is still time.” Not now there's isn't.


Visiting a Dentist Shouldn't Be A Pain

Trying to find an NHS dentist is only the start of the problem. You are then left with a huge bill for anything other than routine treatment. Now people are being forced to resort to the 'old method'. Just pull them out.

Going to the dentist is fine if you can afford private dental insurance or if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland. But in England, the idea of a 'free' NHS doesn't seem to apply to dentistry. 

The new dentist contract, introduced in England in 2006, under which you pay a fixed charge for particular types of treatment, was supposed to simplify charges and make it easier to find an NHS dentist.

The result was huge queues as people desperately tried to find a dentist to take them on. 

A report by MPs says access remained "patchy" and there had been a sharp fall in the number of complex procedures.

Interestingly, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, not covered by the changes, the number of complex treatments have risen.

The number of patients seen in England fell by 900,000 in the 18 months after the new contract was introduced.

In the first year alone, the number of complex treatments which attract higher fees under the new scheme was halved, and the number of root canal treatments fell by 45%. But the number of tooth extractions rose.

The British Dental Association, described it as a "damning report" which "highlights the failure of a farcical contract that has alienated the profession and caused uncertainty to patients." 


Another Nail-Biting Wednesday For Brown

Another back-bench revolt looming. More last minute phone calls, bribes  and concessions. Another crisis vote in the Commons. Just another nail-biting Wednesday for Brown. 

With a working majority of 66 Labour MPs, the balance of power in the parliamentary Labour Party is slowly shifting. Soon it will be New Labour faithful who will have to be called the 'rebels' and the back-bench MPs, the voice of the Party.

Brown and chancellor Darling have been busy trying to buy off back-bench Labour MPs over the back-dating of the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). 

The MPs are still threatening to support a Conservative amendment tonight when the commons debates plans to increase VED on the most polluting cars, as part of the Budget.

This 'showroom' tax was originally one of Brown's 'green' ideas, to hit gas guzzling cars. But the plan back-fired when an exemption for cars registered between 2001 and 2006 was removed, leaving owners of older cars furious. 

Back-bench Labour MPs say it is another example of the government hitting Labour's natural supporters - those with older cars. 

Some 69 MPs - including 49 Labour back-benchers - have signed a commons motion urging ministers to reconsider the "retrospective" nature of the tax rise.

Meanwhile some 20 back-bench Labour MPs were set to launched a fresh rebellion over the scrapping of the 10p tax rate last night. 

But in the end they decided not to press a vote, after being given assurances that the chancellor will bring forward concrete proposals on the issue in his Pre-Budget Report this autumn.


Cherie The TV Pundit

What next for Cherie Blair? After her book and a commons committee appearance, is it time for a spot on 'Loose Women' followed by her own TV series?

Cherie Blair appeared before a minor commons committee, knowing full well that she would be in the spotlight and whatever she said, her remarks would be made in the full glare of the media.

Sure enough, she was given huge prominence by BBC News and in today's The Independent newspaper.

The barrister was giving 'evidence', apparently, to the home affairs select committee, as a member of Channel 4 TV's Street Weapons Commission, which is investigating gun and knife crime.

She said the government's (that's her husband's former government's) crime statistics hid the true extent of gun and knife crime among young people.

Was she blaming her husband, Tony, who famously promised in his 1997 New Labour pre-election pledge to 'get tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'? And for the next ten years introduced policies, laws, narratives and agendas which just made the problem worse.

Or was she blaming New Labour's much-favoured and totally meaningless British Crime Survey (BCS), a skewed and very limited survey which excludes youngsters, which for years has been trotted out by the government to falsly justify their claim that they are cracking down on crime.

Or was she having a dig at Brown for sitting on his hands for the past year and doing nothing about the problem? 

Maybe she just wants to join her husband in his mission to save the world?

Or maybe, she's just the frustrated wife of a former prime minister who wants to fulfil her lifelong ambition to get into politics.


Balls And The Fonz 'Jump The Shark'

A  career low was reached by schools secretary, Ed Balls, when he 'jumped the shark' with The Fonz, in a desperate bid to boost his popularity. Happy Days!

'Jumping the shark' describes the low point in a TV series, when a character is forced to do something really stupid to boost flagging ratings or their own popularity. 

The term comes from a scene in a 1977 episode of the TV series 'Happy Days', when cool-kid 'The Fonz' jumps over a shark while water skiing and jumped straight into TV history.

So who better to join schools secretary, Ed Balls, at a children's reading launch, than the man himself - Henry Winkler, who played The Fonz in the TV series.

The event also included a party to celebrate the first anniversary of the stalinesque 'department for children, schools and families'.

TV shows or movies that have 'jumped the shark' have passed their peak and fans often lament the noticeable decline in the show's quality from that point on.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The English Question Still Unanswered

Ken Clarke's Democracy Taskforce group, looking at the vexed 'West Lothian Question', comes with a stark health warning: "We underestimated the resentment the Scots were feeling. We do not want to wait until English resentment builds up and we have a crisis."

The question is a simple one. Should Scottish MPs vote on English matters at Westminster - when Westminster MPs cannot do the same at Holyrood? 

But Clarke's report raises just more questions than answers.  The answers go to the very heart of our democratic legacy and have been highlighted  by the Orange Party  here

One solution put forward by the Taskforce is that Scottish MPs should not vote on amendments to England-only bills.

In his report, Clarke is proposing banning Scottish MPs from voting at the committee stage of bills relating to England.

However, they would still be allowed to vote at the earlier second reading stage and the third reading stage, when the bill as a whole either passes through the commons or fails.

What has to be made clear is exactly what are 'English-only matters' at Westminster? And would that not be better served by an English Parliament sitting alongside the UK Parliament at Westminster? 

But the real problem is over the representation to the parliaments and assemblies which have evolved piecemeal over time. 

The present system has been described by Labour MP, Frank Field, as "one of the festering sores in English politics", with English voters becoming increasingly resentful of the present system that allows a range of "fiscal discriminations". 

But the New Labour government is being, not surprisingly,  rather quiet on this vexed issue. The Scottish Labour Party is in disarray and Brown is under increasing pressure to reduce the Scottish grip in the cabinet.

The 'West Lothian' question, will never go away. Sooner or later it will fall on the government of the day to have to grasp the nettle and sort out the 'English Question'. 


Brown Goes Cloth Cap In Hand To Unions

New Labour's big business donors are deserting in droves and the Party a reported £16m in the red. Now Brown is being forced to go cap in hand and cut a deal with the unions. But they won't hand over the cash without a few strings attached. 

The unions meet with New Labour politicians this month, to put the finishing touches to the agenda for September's Labour Party conference. 

So expect plans to strengthen working conditions, workers' rights and a commitment to pull troops out of Iraq.

But Brown faces an uphill task. It was New Labour under Blair who deliberately switched funding from the unions to the fat cats in big business,  to wipe out the trade unions as a political force and break the Party's dependence on the unions. 

The bad old days of rampant red trade union power which wrecked the country are over, but the unions will remind Brown they can still reach out and speak for the people who New Labour politicians in their arrogant bubble cannot reach. 

The unions will remind Brown of that, before they hand over the cheques.


£12.7bn Wasted On NHS Computer

Missing from Lord Darzi's big business plan for the NHS in England, was any hint of what to do about the billions of pounds wasted on bureaucracy, top heavy management and, in particular, the disasterous £12.7 billion NHS IT system. The Review, announced yesterday, was a wasted opportunity, with no mention of how to put money saved into better treatment for patients.

The NHS's Connecting for Health (CfH) computer system, launched in 2002 in the heyday of New Labour, is the biggest non-military IT computer project in the world, costing a staggering £12.7 billion and four years behind schedule.

Last month, the head of the NHS, chief executive David Nicholson, told MPs on the public accounts committee he'd rejected calls by 23 leading academics for an independent review of the scheme.

The IT industry's magazine, Computer Weekly, notes that: "Nicholson's arguments against a review of the programme were similar to those put by National Air Traffic Services when its board fought a call for an independent assessment of delayed software to support a new air traffic control centre in Hampshire."

Conservative critics say the government's attempts to "ram through a top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all central NHS computer system" has come "crashing down around their ears." 

As noted here, billions of pounds of tax-payers' money is just going down the drain and into the pockets of the IT consultants, leaving doctors and hospital chiefs trying to get to grips with an unworkable IT system, instead of looking after the welfare of patients.

The last decade of the New Labour government has seen many the big IT projects crash and burn, with huge IT projects at the MoD and department of work and pensions ending up as embarrassing financial fiascos.


Monday, June 30, 2008

Sacrebleu! Hands Off Our Arthur

The dastardly French have accused us of nicking our beloved King Arthur and spinning him into an English legend. Why you only need to take a look at that meticulously researched historical Arthurian drama-documentary Monty Python And The Holy Grail to know that can't be true. Sacrebleu! 

One other small problem for the French. At the time of Arthur, England didn't exist. And neither did France!

Arthur was Romano-British. (He must be real because we've seen him at the movies).

The 'Brit' bit covered a huge swathe of romanised celtic culture stretching from the north, through Wales and Cornwall and into Brittany and the Basque Country. There's even a clue in the name Brittany. Accuse a Breton of being French and you'll get more than a Gaullic shrug.

Arthur pops up in Geoffrey of Monmouth's highly imaginative Historia Regum Britanniae, The History of the Kings of Britain - Britain, not England - and later in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte DArthur, The Death Of Arthur (clever people wrote in Franco-Latin in those days).

The 19th century poet, Tennyson took the Arthurian legend to heart in Idylls Of The King - but then the Victorians claimed everything for the Empire. And this was more to do with morals and Christian values than where the guy came from.

A better take on the Arthurian legend comes in Philip Reeve's book Here Lies Arthur

Here an Alastair Campbell type is cast as the devious spin doctor, Merlin, determined to put the war-mongering thug Arthur on the throne. 

And the splendid sword Excalibur rising magically from the lake? That's just some poor servant lass who's forced to hold her breath underwater and push up the sword as part of the spin. 

In the end Arthur isn't cut out for the job because he's only interested in himself.

Somewhere Arthur must be spinning in his watery grave.


'Eco-Town' Con Hits Westminster

Protesters fighting the government's discredited 'eco-town' sham descend on Westminster today with environmentalists and local campaigners set to expose the money-grabbing plan to build thousands of new houses in the open countryside. 

An official government report has warned that many of the so called 'eco-towns' are just big housing estates on greenfield sites with an eco-friendly 'green' label stuck in front.

In the face of a huge and growing backlash, a short list of 57 was whittled down to 15 and due to be cut down further. 

Instead of being 'eco', protestors say the schemes will just ruin the environment and ride rough-shod over people, with the trickery of new planning laws used to fast track the developments and by-pass the planning process with a new expensive, unelected and unaccountable quango.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England's interactive map shows the true extent of the deceit.

As well as the names of property developers behind the schemes, one with financial backing from supermarket giant Tesco, the map show over half are on MoD-owned land and the government stands to make millions from the sell-off. 

To add insult, the new towns will be built to a lower 'green' standard than elsewhere. And with the current credit crunch who can afford to buy a new house?

Protesters, who point out the potential environmental disaster to their areas, are being joined by the Media Class NIMBYs and powerful environment and countryside groups. 

Last week saw the first casualty of the scheme, when a local council scrapped its plans for a 5,000 house 'eco-town' in Manby, Lincolnshire. 

Meanwhile the government plans to counter criticism - with a PR roadshow.