Clegg, Cameron, And Europe: The Big Kerfuffle

What a kerfuffle, eh? The press do love a bit of a fight.

Most journalism is about disagreement, difference and dissent. It creates drama and drives a story. In general, in British politics, this means  the arguments between Labour and the Tories. Over the last decade or so, fleet street have enjoyed milking the Blair/Brown divide within the Labour party, which was always good for a headline or two.

However, nowadays at least, Labour has a problem making a case on issues like the NHS, the

Schengen Agreement

economy, and defence, no matter how right we might be. That’s because the media doesn’t want to write about Ed Balls’ disagreements with George Osborne, or Andy Burnham’s differences with Andrew Lansley.

That’s not where the money is. The money is in the slightest sign of a split within the coalition.

So it’s been a bit of a boon for the media in the last few days.

As I write, Cameron is making to the House of Commons on the European summit and what it means to Britain. Nick Clegg is nowhere to be seen and any number of jokes about ‘alarm clock Britain’ will be being penned up in the press gallery above the Speaker’s chair.

The reason that will be given for his absence will probably be some prior engagement that couldn’t be cancelled. But the truth is far more likely to be that if he turned up, he’d be jeered by the Tories behind him on the government benches.

This is all because of his strangely evolving reaction to Cameron’s announcement of the use of Britain’s veto at the EU summit.

As an aside, Cameron and the Tory party using the word veto is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not sure it means what the Prime Minister seems to think it does.

The dictionary defines veto as:

the power or right vested in one branch of a government to cancel or postpone the decisions, enactments, etc., of another branch, especially the right of a president, governor,or other chief executive to reject bills passed by the legislature.

I really do struggle to see what exactly has been cancelled or postponed other than Britain’s chance to influence the future of the European Union for the next few years.

And I’m pretty sure that Nick Clegg agreed with me. At least he did at some point over the weekend. On Friday morning, he was telling the press (sniffing for splits as usual) that Cameron’s manoeuvre was probably in the best interest of the nation. By Friday evening, he was frustrated with Cameron’s manoeuvre. On Saturday, he was telling Toby Helm that he was ‘furious’ with Cameron’s manoeuvre. On Sunday, he was unleashing this tirade on the morning politics shows about Cameron’s manoeuvre. By Monday afternoon, he’s gone into hiding otherwise engaged.

It’s all a bit unwise from Clegg, really. Creating splits in the coalition, which in theory could lead to a general election, when you’re in single digits in the national polls is not a clever thing to do! His invisibility today combined with Danny Alexander and David Laws both backtracking on national television to try to paper over any splits that may have appeared, like the tenants of a slowly subsiding terraced house.

The LibDem leadership obviously feel they’ve made an error in creating the sign of disagreement. But I think their mistake is not to have disagreed in the first place. Clegg has committed that most grievous of politicians’ sins. He’s flip-flopped. First supporting, then disagreeing and now rowing back faster than an Oxford coxed eight. Clegg is left losing his rag over a decision that has broad popular support with the public, rightly or wrongly.

The Tory European actions are all very short-termist in their thinking, or at least I think they are. Losing influence across an entire continent to keep influence with 305 parliamentary colleagues, strikes me as pissing off the teachers so the kids in class will like you.

You have to wonder just when David Cameron decided to use his ‘veto’ given that he’d already planned in advance to be dining with Euro-sceptic backbenchers that same evening, despite talks still going on in France.

You could also say the same about Clegg’s anger as well, of course. Did he betray his true feelings on Friday morning and then try to keep the UK’s hand in the game with the EU by letting them know some in Government are pro-Europe? Was Nick attempting diplomatic relations there? Or was he just being stupidly naïve?

Update: Clegg’s office have apparently not gone with the prior engagement argument. They’re just saying he’s not attending the PM’s statement because “he doesn’t want to be a distraction”. If we can’t see him in the chamber, we’ll apparently forget all about any disagreement, difference and dissent.

The Slow Suicide of the Liberal Democrats

Here is a genuine quote from a member of the Liberal Democrats on last night’s BBC Newsnight and it tells you a hell of a lot about why the country’s in the mess that it’s in now.

“We want to be in coalition with the party with the values nearest to us … and that varies”!

Staggering isn’t it? The Lib Dems spend a few days in Birmingham announcing their opposition to Tory policies after having spent months walking through the voting lobbies of Parliament supporting those same policies. Policies which have included the passing of the Act which has allowed the changing of the electoral boundaries.

On the face of it, reducing the Commons from 650 MPs to 600 and equalising the size of constituencies sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Saves money after all. Of course that means the number of people each MP has to represent goes up on average. And that means less time per voter for the MP to spend on casework. That means a greater strain on the MP and less effective representation for the constituent. And the Lib Dems, desperate to be able to say they’re modernising politics, trooped through the aye lobby to make sure it happened.

But that’s not the worst part of it. That was only the first part of the legislation. It’s phase 2 that is worse for the country and just plain silly for the Lib Dems. Because phase 2 removes the legal obligation of voters to co-operate with the electoral registrar. It moves the onus from government to the individual. Meaning it replaces household registration with individual registration as well as removing any legal obligation to co-operate with the Electoral Officer.

That may sound like gobbledygook, but it is reckoned that it will remove 10% of electors in rural constituencies and up to 30% from urban seats. That’s not great for democracy, but it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem comes down the line. Boundary reviews are calculated using the numbers of registered voters in a given constituency. So, a few years from now, the next review will be based on electoral registers with 10 million voters wiped from them. And those boundaries will massively favour the Tories, wiping out the Liberal Democrats and making it very difficult for Labour to win a majority. And still the Lib Dems support it, like lemmings over the cliff.

The Liberal Democrats come out of their conference in Birmingham with a narrative that goes along the lines of ‘The Tories are evil. Labour messed up the world economy. We’re, er, er, other people’. And all the while the Tories are arranging their destruction like the evil empire in a galaxy far, far away.

I can’t decide whether the Liberal Democrats are incredibly naïve or incredibly stupid though neither is doing the country much good right now.

The Three Priorities

DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN09 - Tony Bla...
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Do you remember a few years ago when David Cameron, trying to claim to be the heir to Blair, decided to ape TB’s famous ‘priorities’ line? Tony had said that his three priorities would be

education, education, education.

He said it to rapturous applause and went on to create the biggest school-building programme ever as well as recruiting more teachers, classroom assistants, and support staff to make those buildings work. It was a pretty good move, all in all.

Cameron’s follow up in 2006, which he obviously thought very clever, was to claim that his three priorities would be

N… H… S…

He said it to rapturous applause and went on to create a bloody mess. Cutting nurses, support staff, and building programmes. Indeed, closing entire hospitals in some parts of the country. It was a pretty terrible move, all in all.

Well now, after pausing to listen, Cameron is back trying to sell his reforms to the National Health Service. Today, he went to visit a hospital along with his man-servant human shield deputy, Nick Clegg. After getting onto a ward in the hospital to show how caring and thoughtful they both were, a doctor found them and the following press pack and went off it. Luckily for us, there’s video evidence. Watch Cameron’s face and decide just how much of an heir to Blair he is (hint: not a lot).

 

Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be?

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...
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David Cameron tries so hard. He tries hard to be a modern, liberal politician. But now and then, his mask slips. He’s a decent confident performer at the despatch box. A lot of training from his Eton days no doubt helps. But when he gets wound up, that soft cuddly mask slips and reveals the true face of David. And today was one of those days where he got wound up.

It was the first PMQs since the Easter recess. These occasions are usually boisterous and generally more so after a break. These things are to be expected. Labour MPs know that when Nick Clegg gets stressed he changes colour even to the roots of his hair (it goes a ginger shade when he’s under pressure), and they know that Cameron turns puce with rage when he is feeling the strain. So they try to corner him with awkward questions and facts.

That wasn’t what did it today though. Ed Miliband went with fairly predictable questions about the poor economic performance as disclosed in the GDP numbers this morning. In quarter four, you may remember, the economy shrank by 0.5%. Due, according to George Osborne at least, to heavy snowfall (this despite the growth 12 months before during even heavier snow). In the first quarter of this year, it’s been announced that the economy grew by 0.5%.

The Tories have called this ‘growth’ while Miliband pointed out that this just left us in exactly the same place as we were 6 months ago, except now our incomes are worth less in real terms than they were. So the economy is flat.

Cameron’s reply to this was that Miliband should apologise for previously declaring there would be a double-dip recession, which is something Ed M never said. Ed was happy to point out that after a year in office, the PM couldn’t blame Greece, Ireland, the Bank of England, the last Government, or even snow. The blame for current economic performance lies squarely with Cameron and Osborne.

That irritated the PM, but it wasn’t where it went majorly wrong for him. It began to go wrong for him when Miliband turned the NHS reform with his next set of questions. Cameron was forced to offer up a defence for the frankly pathetic performance of Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary. And this was where he began to turn an ever brighter shade of red.

After saying former Labour MP Howard Stoate had been beaten at the last election by the Tories, Shadow Treasury team member, Angela Eagle attempted to correct him by telling him that Stoate had stood down and not fought the election.

The Prime Minister’s response? Well, Cameron decided to go with what I’m sure will become a classic he’ll regret. He said

Calm down, dear!

Not the best of retorts really. He might have gotten away with “calm down” on its own. But putting the dear on the end just ensured he came across as patronising and sexist. It’s very likely that he wasn’t being intentionally sexist at all, but politics isn’t always about what you say but what you’re perceived to have said. And he has been perceived as a sexist bully, not far removed from the Bullingdon Club of his youth.

Not only did it rekindle images of Flashman, but it left him looking like someone who couldn’t make a half-decent argument to defend his position. As you can see below, it also left Nick Clegg looking decidedly uncomfortable and unhappy.

Don’t be surprised to see Labour asking questions on the NHS in coming weeks and months.

Getting To The Point

United Kingdom's Deputy Prime Minster and Lord...
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Even if you’re not particularly interested in politics, you can’t help but be aware that Wednesdays means Prime Ministers Questions. At least, you can’t help but be aware if you live in the UK. It’ll get coverage on all the national news broadcasts and maybe even a few lines in the following morning’s newspapers. If you watch it live, there’s only an hour to go til it all kicks off in the Commons after the Spring half term recess.

And in all the brawling, baying, and soundbites, it would be very easy to forget that David Cameron isn’t the only member of the cabinet who get’s asked questions. Yesterday was Nick Clegg’s turn at his regular ego-building Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. As a general rule, this is a dull affair with lots of versions of questions along the line of ‘why are you letting the Tories use you as a human shield?’. This week was always going to be a step above the norm because of last week’s fiasco. And Harriet Harman wasn’t slow to remind Clegg that he managed to go on a skiing holiday forgetting he was supposed to be in charge of the country at the time.

But that wasn’t the highlight of the session. That came from John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw. A Parliamentarian of 10 years and a member of the Treasury Select Committee. A Yorkshireman known for his quick wit and sharp humour, his question was always going to be an incisive one and it was simply this:

The first Deputy Prime Minister in British history to fail to turn up to work when the Prime Minister is abroad for a week. I think I am wanting to ask: what is the point of Nick Clegg?

And a very good question it was too.

The Absurdity Of The Libya Crisis

Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (in Dimashq, Syr...
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It may be hard to believe, but the speech given by Muammar Gaddafi which included quotes like “If they don’t follow Muammar Gaddafi who will they follow? Someone with a beard? Impossible” is not the most absurd thing about the Libyan crisis.

The behaviour of the Libyan government, or at least that part of it that remained loyal to Gaddafi, is reprehensible but not that unexpected or absurd compared to other things they’ve done in the past. The behaviour of the UK government, however, has been completely ridiculous.

This is the first real political crisis that the Cameron/Clegg government has had to deal with and, thus far at least, they’ve not covered themselves in glory.

Cameron has been touring the very region in which the crisis has unfolded but has failed to discuss the issue in any substantial way. In fact, while the French and US Presidents were calling for a change in leadership in Libya, Cameron suggested the current regime could stay in power saying:

“It’s still open to Col Gaddafi to stop that behaviour.”

At the same time, Deputy PM Clegg had gone on holiday to Switzerland leaving William Hague as the most senior member of the cabinet in the UK to manage the evacuation of our citizens from Libya.

An evacuation which has been a real mess in it’s execution. Classic Big Society thinking meant that it seems the government assumed the British oil workers in Libya would make their own way home via private sector commercial flights. This at the same time as Russia, Turkey, France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands and the USA were all evacuating their citizens using military flights, ships and government-chartered jumbo jets.

Team Cameron were forced to ask BP for a loan of one of their company 737s to evacuate British residents from Tripoli. At the same time, they dispatched a type-22 frigate, HMS Cumberland, to the port of Benghazi to rescue Brits from there. A type-22 frigate which will be pulling into Plymouth’s Devonport naval base soon to be scrapped as part of the government cuts.

After Clegg was reported as saying he’d ‘forgotten’ he was meant to be in charge of the country, he has this morning returned to London to convene an emergency COBRa committee meeting, a week into the crisis. Not exactly rapid response is it? On top of Clegg’s forgetfulness, Cameron was quick to tell the media that in the age of the blackberry, he was always in charge. So it’s good to know that Cameron is taking full responsibility for the government’s handling of their first major crisis.

In the mean time, Gaddafi continues to massacre his own people, drive up the price of oil around the world, and destabilise the entire middle-east. It’s ok though, because Cameron is always in charge and he’s sent a message to Muammar. That message is

“My question right now would be to Colonel Gaddafi, which is: ‘What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it.”

Well that’s sure to sort everything out, isn’t it?


Lib Dems Communicate With Public – Sort Of

Isn’t it nice when political parties involve their members? Get them active and communicate effectively? Always a positive thing.

So it’s nice that the Liberal Democrats are doing that with their ACT site. The site, which you can link to here should you really want to, allows members/supporters/activists to add events such as campaign days, socials, and so on to it. Which is lovely and Labour do a similar thing on their membersnet pages.

The difference is the Labour site requires  a login which only members can get. With the Liberal Demoservatives, anyone can add an event.

So you can just imagine the events that have been added. And if you can’t imagine such a thing, here’s a picture for you as a handy aide imaginaire.

image via Political Scrapbook

 

(h/t Political Scrapbook)

A price worth paying?

Just what is David Cameron willing to do to hang on to his new best friend?

I’ve got friends I’ll buy a pint for, I’ve got good friends I’d give £20 if they needed it, and I’ve got best friends I’d maybe lend £500 to.

And I think that’s probably the same for most people. We all have friends with differing strengths of bonds who we would do different things for.

Does our Prime Minister share these standards with the rest of us? Is this one of qualities that makes him Common Dave?

Well no, it’s clearly not.

He made friends with someone he hardly knew over a few days in May this year, and a few months on he’s happily given his new pal £1.4 billion. That’s right. 1.4 billion British pounds right at a time when we are supposedly making the biggest cuts in decades.

Now I’m not saying Dave stuffed £1.4bn worth of tenners into bags and dropped round Nick Clegg’s house with it. That’d be silly. And take an enormous number of bags. And probably a bigger house than Clegg’s Putney pad.

No, what Dave did was to delay replacement of the country’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. You see, Nick doesn’t like Trident. And if Dave wants Nick to be his friend, then Dave had best not play with it. Cameron mustn’t buy a new eagle eye action man Trident. That’s one of the few deals holding the coalition together. Clegg, who backed down over a number of Lib Dem policies including tuition fees, stuck to his non-nuclear guns when Trident was delayed until 2016, conveniently the year after the next general election.

As well as this delay, the Vanguard-class submarines will also be kept in service for a further four years. Liam Fox told the Commons this week that the total cost of these delays will be £1.4 billion.

Cameron may say in press briefings that he is trying to save money, but the truth is he’ll spend it when it comes to his new best friend, Nick. Amazing what someone will do for a friend.

Clegg and tuition fees – obstacle or opportunity?

Today, Government has announced that the cap on University tuition fees will be set at a maximum of £9,000 per year. Michael Gove has done his tour of the various radio and television studios trying hard to ignore the fact that 79% of potential university entrants will be put off applying for a university place with fees so high.

Gove is also turning a blind eye to the fact that those graduates who choose to go into high paid jobs such as banking or city work will end up paying less for a degree than those deciding to go into teaching or nursing. This change will drive top graduates away from public sector careers and inevitably create a shortage of recruits in such professions.

But Gove is far from the most interesting politician today. The one I’m most interested in watching is Nick Clegg. I know, Dear Reader, that you’re amazed to hear that Clegg is remotely interesting but hear me out. His job today is to wrangle the votes of the Lib Dem MPs as almost half consider rebelling against the university tuition fees. He only has 57 MPs in parliament and 27 are said to be considering opposing the rise to meet their pledge given in the run up to the election.

The whipping of MPs to vote one way or another is not all that interesting in itself. However this will be one of the first

Another broken promise

 major tests of the coalition, so seeing how many of his backbenchers Clegg can persuade to support him could be indicative of future cracks. Where it gets more interesting is how Clegg manages the aftermath of any rebellion. How many MPs will actually oppose the coalition bill and will Clegg risk alienating his MPs further by punishing those who rebel? Will he decide to use this as an opportunity for a mini reshuffle?

Could this, in fact, be a gift-wrapped opportunity for Nick? Word in New Palace Yard is that Clegg is looking for a way to lever David Laws back into a Frontbench post….

Rose-tinted glasses spoil Clegg’s view

One of the things I’ve noticed in the last couple of days is how little I’m seeing of Osborne in the tv studios and how much I’m seeing of Nick Clegg. This jars with me. Doesn’t sit right at all. The Chancellor is who I expect to see out there defending his position and making his soundbites. The deputy prime minister doesn’t have responsibility for the CSR at all. And yet it’s Clegg who is trying to make the argument that the famously neutral Institute for Fiscal Studies’ assessment of the CSR is nonsense.

Why is that? We know that Cameron and Clegg merged into Cleggeron after the love-in in the gardens of 10 Downing Street in the days after the election. We know they’re best buds frequently texting one another and apparently offering each other support in building flat-pack furniture.

That’s all very lovely and all, but why hasn’t Clegg, or at least his advisers,  realised the Liberal Democrats are getting royally screwed-over? Is he so hypnotised by his adoration of Cameron that he fails to see the political consequences of what is going on in the country?

If he hasn’t yet, then surely the 10% poll result they just got should surely be a wake up call of some sorts?

All of the main commitments that Cameron made in the election, Winter Fuel Payments being the classic example, miraculously managed to avoid the CSR’s axe. At the same time, the Liberal Democrat abandon pledges one by one. The Tories are positioning the coalition in such a way as to force the Lib Dems to abandon their electoral promises and make huge numbers of u-turns. When we come to the next election, Team Cameron will safely be able to say they kept most of their promises despite being in a coalition. The Lib Dems will have no such luxury.

This political positioning has Osborne’s fingerprints all over it. He will protect his Prime Minister at all costs and eventually go to the country with NHS spending, overseas aid, free bus passes, and the winter fuel allowance (all the things Cameron made promises on) apparently protected while welfare gets slashed, jobs are lost, transport infrastructure ruined, and communities destroyed.

Following the tuition fees debacle, watch how many pledges the Liberal Democrats abandon between now and the next election.

Whatever Clegg may think about being in a partnership with Dave,  Osborne and Cameron are very carefully and patiently getting ready to pick up votes from Clegg’s colleagues in the south-west, and break the Liberal Democrats for decades to come.

I wonder when the Lib Dems will wake up to that fact.