Friday, 23 April 2010

The knives are out for Nick the nice guy.

One week on from his surprise win in the first televised debate between the leaders of the three main parties the knives have come out for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg; and with a vengeance too.

As party colleague Chris Huhne put it every right wing newspaper, meaning most of the British press, ‘has a splash attacking Nick- I wonder why.’

The splashes, or ‘smears’, as his supporters have described them, have mostly concerned claims made in the Daily Telegraph that Clegg received up to £250 per month of donations into his own account from three businessmen during 2006 and the unearthing by the Daily Mail of comments he made about Britain’s relationship with Europe in 2002, which prompted it to run the headline ‘Nick Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain’ yesterday.

As Nick Clegg wryly commented to the BBC this week: ‘I must be the first politician to go from Churchill to being a Nazi in the space of a week,’ referring to the comparison made after his triumph in last weeks debate between a man most people thought of as a political also ran and the nation’s iconic wartime leader.

On the subject of claims that he had serious questions to answer about his expenses Clegg said ‘I have done nothing wrong. In the next few days I will publish figures to prove it.’

The Liberal Democrats have also come under a more general attack for everything from their attitude towards Trident, a laudable endorsement of scrapping a costly nuclear deterrent that hasn’t deterred anyone since the Berlin Wall came down and their less than popular stance in immigration; much of which has taken the shine of the nations’ newly installed political poster boy.

To a large extent this is only the close examination of policy that any party hoping to enter the political mainstream should expect, but there is also an added element of vindictiveness that says as much about the fears of the political establishment as it does about the shortcomings of a party seen until recently as little more than a repository for protest votes.

As Chris Huhne told the BBC this week: ‘British politics needs a fundamental rethink and a real change and the Conservative Party doesn’t offer that and never did,’ the question lurking in the background being do the Lib Dems offer that change?

Last night’s debate proved to be something of a score draw with David Cameron appearing more relaxed and as a result seeing his standing in the polls improve; expect him to throw everything at winning next week’s final round and Gordon Brown was as dreadful as before; for him things can only get worse now. The truth remains though while the Liberal Democrats, as I pointed out during conference season, lack the fire in their bellies necessary to force open the doors to the political big time their success in this election could provide much needed encouragement for those individuals and parties that do.

And another thing:

What a difference a week makes, last week the skies were a blue dome free from any blemish save the odd cloud, now they’re crowded with planes once more. While I’m glad that the stranded holidaymakers are finally able to make their way home I can’t help feeling that the resultant vapour trails look a little too much like graffiti on the roof of the Sistine chapel.

After almost fifty years of battling international super villains and their henchmen armed with claw hands and deadly bowler hats James Bond had been done in by his most deadly adversary; the accounts department. MGM, film distributors for the Bond franchise are in financial trouble and so work on the latest movie has been indefinitely suspended.

You can imagine how the conversation went:

Bond: (tied to a table with a circular saw spinning uncomfortably close to his family assets) ‘Do you expect me to talk?’

Evil Accounts Exec: (stroking a white Persian cat naturally) ‘No Mr Bond; I expect you to produce receipts.’

And finally, a good friend who keeps his eye on such things told me yesterday that calls to the Samaritans have risen threefold since the start of the election; never mind Gordon, not long to go now.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

All talk; no real debate.

Did the earth move for you last Thursday, during the history making television debate between the leaders of the three main political parties; it didn’t budge so much as an inch for me.

The whole thing with its over rehearsed sound bites and ludicrous rules that prevented the audience from clapping, groaning or giving any sign they hadn’t slipped into a coma was a huge disappointment. It told us, the voting public, nothing we didn’t already know about the three privileged men standing on the stage.

Gordon Brown is awkward and more often than not rather cross, how dare anyone doubt that he and he alone saved the world in the autumn of 2008. His inability to communicate with his fellow debaters demonstrated all you need to know about his inability to communicate with the wider electorate.

David Cameron gave a solid, rather presidential, performance, he was a little too sure of himself and left viewers with the distinct impression that he is only pretending to understand how ‘ordinary’ people live. While he did less well than many people expected him to Cameron has at least kept the momentum of his campaign going, something at which the Labour Party have so far failed miserably.

If anyone emerged as the ‘winner’ of the debate it was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, mostly because he came across as a, comparatively, normal human being. As a result his approval ratings have soared and at least one newspaper has claimed that he is now more popular than Winston Churchill; pay dirt for the leader of a party that is all too often pushed to the sidelines. Little of this new found popularity will translate into seats won on May 6th due to the cold mathematics of the electoral system, but it might strengthen his hand in the negotiations surrounding a hung parliament.

The awkward question waiting to be asked is did the media circus surrounding the debate improve public understanding of and engagement with the political process? Somehow I doubt it. Part of the problem was the awful way the debates were staged, the set looked like it had been borrowed from a third rate daytime quiz show and the camera work was at best amateurish and at worst downright incompetent. The main problem though is that due to the dire state of current affairs programming on British television the debates aren’t, as those in the US always are, backed up by the candidates being subjected to regular in depth interviews by respected journalists, rather than soft focus stuff sandwiched between people plugging books and films done by someone who used to be a journalist until they found out that talking bilge on the box pays far better.

The debates, of course, had to compete this week with a story that pushed the election off the front pages, by which I mean the grounding of every plane in Europe by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano with a name even the locals can’t pronounce.

It is a curious, and curiously satisfying, experience to be able to go outside and look up into a sky totally free of the vapour trails left by jet planes. All of a sudden we are in a world of mail boats and birdsong where the humble train is no longer the Cinderella of the transport world. If things go on like this for much longer the only way to travel across Europe will be on board the Blue Train or the Orient Express, good news, I suppose, for spinsters who write Golden Age detective novels.

We have, for the moment at least, been spared the thoughts of the three men who would be prime minister on the power of a volcano with a name that looks like a losing hand at scrabble when written down to bring a whole continent grinding to a halt. Perhaps they’ve been embarrassed into silence by the realization that when it comes to making headlines Mother Nature always steals the show.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

An election in slow motion.

They’re off! Cue the wall to wall television coverage, set the battle busses rolling; go back to your constituencies and prepare for total public indifference. For all the talk of it being the most open for more than a decade the election seems, so far, to be a rather undercooked affair.

The day of the official launch, Tuesday, set the tone for all that has followed. After his trip to the palace Gordon Brown posed for a photo opportunity with the members of the cabinet in Downing Street before heading for St Pancras station to be filmed waddling about on the platform like Paddington’s grumpy uncle. David Cameron made an Obama-lite style speech outside County Hall surrounded by a crowd of rapt Tory activists, most of whom were young enough for ‘Glee’ instead of ‘Newsnight’ to be their favourite television programme. As for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, he was his usual earnest self, I’m sure he did or said something important; but nobody noticed.

The rest of the country looked on at all this silliness and decided that it was nothing to do with them, perhaps because the hot topic of the campaign so far is whether or not National Insurance contributions should be raised to help cut the deficit. This, depending on your political position, is either a reasonable measure for paying off the national debt whilst maintaining front line services or a recipe for destroying jobs and businesses. What it isn’t though, is the sort of thing that sets the national pulse racing.

However dull the game might be so far it is still possible to hazard a guess as to who might be doing well and who could be heading for disaster if socks aren’t pulled up sharpish.

On my score card the Tories seem to be ahead by a nose, their campaign, for all the party’s lack of policies, seems to have a sense of momentum. The problem for the Conservative high command though is how to overcome the impression that theirs is a one man band, would Cameron look so attractive to the voting public were they more aware of the less than savoury baggage hidden by the glow of his celebrity.

Baggage is also a problem for the Labour Party; in this case it is all labelled Gordon Brown, not wanted on voyage. Less than a week into the campaign and he looks frazzled already, he gave an awful performance at the last PMQ’s of the parliament and the prospect of the live television debates must make the party faithful shudder in anticipation of the potential embarrassment to come.

Of the three party leaders Nick Clegg, surprisingly, seems to be in the best position, although being a Liberal Democrat he probably doesn’t recognise it. He won’t be prime minister come May 7th, but, in the event of a hung parliament, he could play the role of king maker. If, that is, he and his party can summon the guts not to let their biggest chance for eighty years slip through their collective fingers.

And another thing.

Ok so I’d still kill for his short game, or his long one for that matter, but it looks like Tiger Woods has slipped off the pedestal marked ‘hero’ once and for all, even if he has made it back onto the golf circuit.

Never mind the affairs or the lost sponsors, what finally sunk his reputation is the advert he made for one of the ones that stuck by him. The payoff for Nike’s loyalty is a toe curling advert in which a chastened looking tiger is asked by the disembodied voice of his dead father if he’s ‘learnt’ anything from his fall from grace.

He sure has, he’s learnt that sincerity is what matters; if you can fake that you’ve got it made.

And finally, it was announced this week that the rules of Scrabble are to be changed to allow proper names to be used. This might just be the end of civilization as we know it. Next thing you know they’ll be allowing an open verdict to be returned in Cluedo.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

That old Blair magic returns to the campaign trail.

Tony Blair, the great actor manager of modern British politics returned to centre stage this week by giving a speech to Labour Party members in his former constituency of Sedgefield.

In the speech he expressed optimism for Britain’s future saying ‘We are not out of the woods yet, but we are on the path out. This did not happen by chance; but by choice.’

The choices in question, he implied, were those made by his successor and one time rival Gordon Brown.

Unsurprisingly the opposition parties were critical of Blair’s return to something like centre stage, Tory Chairman Eric Pickles said the speech told people ‘nothing about what Labour has to offer this country.’ On a more cutting note usually absent from his party’s attack Liberal Democrat spokesman Danny Alexander said the speech would only serve to ‘remind people of the failures of Labour over the last thirteen years.’

Quite so would be a reasonable answer to both points, but of course the intended audience for Blair’s one night only comeback tour wasn’t the wider British public, it was the membership of the Labour Party. As such it, along with the fact that Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are to play prominent roles in the forthcoming election campaign sends an unhappy message about the health of the party.

Tony Blair’s performance at Trimdon Labour Club on Tuesday exhibited all the old familiar tricks, the catch in his voice to show strong emotion only just being held in check and the odd chopping motions with his hands, added to these were a orange tan straight from a bottle and an accent that sank somewhere in the mid Atlantic. It was rather like watching a pop star who used to be big a decade or so ago doing his act in Vegas, fascinating in the sense that he can still hold a crowd but also rather sad because it highlighted how completely the dark arts of PR can overwhelm an individual’s personality.

The reason Tony Blair, who has been busy making himself very rich over the past three years, has been brought back is as simple as it is misguided, the Labour Party high command think that he and the fellow architects of the New Labour project will be able to scatter a little of their ‘magic dust’ over what looks likely to be a lacklustre campaign. It won’t work of course because one person’s magic dust is another’s toxic fall-out.

The media treated Blair’s speech as what it was, a minor distraction unlikely to sway floating voters one way or the other. Where the real harm will be done is through the reaction of Labour’s fast diminishing army of active members and that, I fear, fear will not be at all positive.

To all but a tiny majority of these people Tony Blair is an unwelcome reminder of how completely the heritage of their party has been sold off in order to win three elections. They find it hard to feel the optimism he expressed about the future of a country they see as being increasingly divided, over taxed and spied on to the point of paranoia by a largely ineffective bureaucracy. Staged events of the sort at which New Labour excelled won’t reconnect these people with a party that seems to take their support for granted, only an honest and at times unavoidably hurtful discussion of what the Labour Party stands for in a world that has changed out of all recognition since it was founded will do that, but, sadly, a party hierarchy obsessed with clinging on to power at all costs has little enthusiasm for such an exercise.

Gordon Brown deserves a small amount of respect for eating the large portion of humble pie involved in bringing a man for whom he has little love back on side to fight his corner, not least because for all his faults Tony Blair possesses many of the social skills he so clearly lacks. Doing so won’t though do anything to alter the course of the election that will in all likelihood provide a sad coda to his political career.