Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When in a hole...

... I thought the first rule was to stop digging. Yet the Cats-in-a-sack Conservatives do not seem to be able to resist taking chunks out of each other.

The bile and bitterness that comes through in these exchanges does not show the Tories in an especially happy light- in fact it must be miserable to be a Conservative right now.
Despite the polls, the quality of debate and the lack of rancour amongst the Liberal Democrats is a complete contrast to the atmosphere amongst "Cameron's Conservatives".

The Tories can not take too much more of this before the voters are going to start walking away in even bigger numbers. Meanwhile as the conference season approaches- I received my latest reminder this morning- the Liberal Democrats now have an opportunity to demonstrate what the practical effect of of our basic principles will be.

I think that it is because we are basically agreed on those principles: anti state, somewhat libertarian, fair, open and radical, as they are that our party debates seem a bit more mature. If the Conservatives were more sure that their leader had some core beliefs, perhaps they would have more confidence in his leadership.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Off to the Beloved

Unexpectedly I am called away to a meeting in Slovenia.

Won't do much for my carbon footprint, but always pleasent to visit the small Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.

Even more charming to remind myself that the word Ljubljana sounds virtually the same as the word for beloved, in Slovene.

Na Zdravje!

Colonies

After Putin berates the UK for its "colonial attitude" towards Russia, I suppose we should not be surprised to see the hypocritical double speak from Russian officials on a visit to the Baltic Countries.

They freely admit that Estonia is under an (illegal) trade embargo, and fully intend to avoid the use of the Baltic ports for the future (although the costs of using Murmansk and Primorsk are substantially higher than Tallinn or Ventspils, especially in the Winter).

The UK position seems pretty firm: Vlad- talk to the hand.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Grumpy Old Party

No, this is ridiculous- the latest entirely unhelpful salvo from Lord Kalms against David Cameron seems to me, even as an impartial observer, pretty unfair.

I agree that Cameron is coming across as increasingly hapless. I agree too that he is failing to create a sufficiently mature policy platform. However he has set out how he might get there.

Kalms and Norman Tebbit are just some of the voices in the Conservative Party that are muttering and mumbling against their leader. Unfortunately for David Cameron, if he turns on them he will just look petulent, and begin to look increasingly like William Hague-an overpromoted lightweight.

Perhaps Michael Portillo is right- the Tories are no longer capable of being led. If so, then the rants of these grumpy old men will look increasingly like the senility of the oldest party.

In his first few months David Cameron was lucky- now his luck has deserted him: the Rwanda trip was honourable in intent and yet politically disastrous. Whereas I would have said that the Conservatives simply had to support Cameron, come what may, those in the party itself seem to believe, increasingly, that their support is optional. I do not know how Cameron can restore his position: he has alienated a large number of people, equally I do not see that the Conservatives have any other option.

The Grumpy Old Party seems to be falling out of love with the easy charm of its leader...

Monday, July 23, 2007

New Seriousness

I delayed commenting on the by-election results- partly because of themselves they are not particularly important. However the reaction to the results I think is becoming quite significant.

I have written elsewhere, that these by-elections were important for the Liberal Democrats, since a fall back would have shown some very serious problems. However moving from third into second at Sedgefield and dramatically cutting the majority in both seats is a good result.

Could it have been better? Yes, we could have won in Ealing Southall, and the stubborn and well funded campaign by the Tories in fact stopped us from doing so.

However, the big winner is Gordon Brown- he retains his M.P.s. The second winner Is Sir Ming Campbell who will still muttering from certain quarters- including this one.

It is obviously David Cameron that emerges from these contests severely bruised- the candidate stood as "David Cameron's Conservative", Cameron visited the constituency several times and even selected the candidate independently of the normal procedures. Grant Shap through his inexperience made a serious of important blunders and ultimately dropped his leader deeply in trouble- reinforcing a growing perception of Cameron as a lightweight and opportunist figure. Nevertheless in my judgement it would be crazy of Cameron to go into "back me or sack me" mode just because a few malcontents are speaking up against him: though the fact they are speaks volumes over the failure of party discipline in the Conservative Party.

The problem that Cameron faces is that he is considered a little too smooth in the atmosphere of new seriousness that the accession of Gordon Brown has added to the political mood music. Yet, Cameron can not do much different from what he is doing- await the protracted process of party reports to reestablish some kind of coherence to the political platform of the Tories. However he may have further problems with his own side. This Op-Ed piece in the Telegraph suggests that the Conservatives should re-iterate that they are they party of reduced state power and lower taxes.

The problem is that the Conservatives are neither of these things. The lingering support for ID cards and the continued support for the myriad of other illiberal pieces of Labour legislation like the extension of the time that a suspect may be held without trial, marks the Conservatives out as the paternalist and centralist party that they have always been when in office. Neither can the Conservatives put forward new lower taxes, since they are very largely committed to the full programme of Labour expenditure (or what politicians call "investment").

The Liberal agenda, once partially espoused by the Conservatives under Thatcherism, has been fully reclaimed by the Liberal Democrats- at its heart is a dramatic reduction in the power of Whitehall and the reassertion of local control in key areas. Part of the key to achieving this is a switch in control of taxation down to local government- genuine "localism". More important will be defining the limits of State Power- in the economy as well as the traditional Liberal area of civil liberties.

Clearly, there also needs to be a dramatic change in the levels of taxation as they apply to the lower paid. It is absurd to argue that higher taxes for the lower paid is in any way beneficial to the UK economy, and the closing of several loopholes for the well off would only match the tax burden already levied on the poorest earners. Despite the absurdly unbalanced income tax structure, the Conservatives still fret more about inheritance tax than about the unfair income tax system- merely demonstrating how out of touch they remain. The point about the Liberal Democrats is that they are now committed to strictly limiting the overall tax burden- all our polices over the past few years have been generally revenue neutral. In several key areas, the emphasis is moving to reducing that burden on key sectors of society.

As for Sir Ming, the new mood of seriousness may well play to his strength of gravitas. The greater formality of politics that seems to be on offer from Gordon Brown would likely boost him a contrast to the "first name terms" politics of Cameron (and indeed Blair). As a leader, amongst the Lib Dems he has turned the parliamentary party into a dramatically more potent force. he has allowed policy formation to become far more integrated- and many Lib Dem policies are becoming mainstream indeed. My concerns with Ming have all been about image, and to a certain extent about language- I still do not accept the "politician of the centre-left" labelling. However, now I see in the mood of new seriousness that Ming may in fact end up as a serious asset- the intellectually coherent tortoise catching the scatty Cameron hare.

So well done to the Lib Dem by-election teams, you have set the cat amongst the Tory pigeons, and though any damage from these elections to the Conservatives might be quickly forgotten, we have reduced still further their freedom of action. They are becoming outflanked on policy and suffering a serious crisis of confidence. Any further mis-steps by "David Cameron's Conservatives" could well become an existential crisis that the current situation for them is not- yet.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Russia blinks

OK they are not raising the ante- just four British diplomats unjustifiably expelled as a straight tit for tat.

Meanwhile the rest of the EU has slowly stirred themselves to mutter a bit against Russia. If there is any further problem, one would hope that a "common foreign policy" position might emerge that was a bit more proactive. Britain, Poland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania now all have significant grievances with the Putinists, others too are increasingly annoyed- will Russia now calm down, if faced with a United front?

That is up to the Kremlin- but patience with Russia is wearing very thin.

Boris and Camels

My comment about the lack of discipline of Boris Johnson seems to have annoyed a regular Conservative reader- the anonymous Lepidus- who is going to need a much broader sense of humour if the Conservatives actually adopt this ambitious but essentially rather clownish and oafish man as their candidate for Mayor of London.

Since his comment was rather offensive, I have felt free to delete it and to switch on moderation for a few days. Apart from My blog=my rules, the fact that Lepidus seems to believe that Boris might be found in bed with a camel would certainly make me question Boris's credentials as a candidate, even if "private lives should be private"- or was that humour just a bit too subtle for our soi-disant triumvir?

By elections

Well, Iain Dale was right- the by-election in Ealing has been extremely dirty.

Quite frankly though- the dirt has very largely come from one side. The Conservatives have been so desperate to chalk up a success that the have stooped to some very low tactics indeed. The mysterious "leaking" of the postal vote last night- apart from being illegal- was part of a consistent pattern- false postings being made on Lib Dem sites coming from the computers of the Conservative campaign itself, and even the naked opportunism of the Tory candidate, so recent a convert from Labour.

Whatever "David Cameron's Conservatives" do tomorrow, I hope never to see such an unprincipled and unscrupulous campaign ever again.

"I'll raise you ten..."

As the stand off between the UK and Russia continues, the Russians seem determined to continue to show overt aggression.

The scrambling of RAF Tornadoes (not for the first time in recent weeks) to deal with a Russian incursion into UK airspace comes only hours after the expulsion of a Russian suspected of attempting a plot to kill the tycoon Boris Berezhovsky.

The irritation factor in Whitehall is substantial- and should the Russians respond in kind to the expulsion of their diplomats, the UK will get extremely grumpy indeed.

What we have seen so far, may pale compared to what comes next.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The ghost of Jefffrey Archer

"Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad" Euripides

The ecstatic reaction of the Tory bloggers to the possible selection of Boris Johnson as their candidate for Mayor of London is bizarre.

I do recall the last time the Conservatives went for a well known but slightly "eccentric" candidate. Of course that was Jeffrey Archer.

Boris has a whole cemetery of skeletons in his cupboard, and may yet end up being found in bed with a camel or something equally inappropriate. His persona of dotty bafflement hides an ambitious but rather undisciplined character.

So the choice is set to be the corrupt and thoroughly nasty Ken Livingstone or the demented Boris Johnson.

If the Liberal Democrats can find anyone who is not a gargoyle we might just end up being in with a chance!

Kicking a Man when he is down...

...is usually considered a bad thing,

but when that man is George Galloway, it is hard to resist: looking forward to the trial, George?

Nice to see a liar and a hypocrite exposed -I really hope that this is taken further...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Russian Poker

Well, eventually the UK has lost its patience with Russia over the Litvinenko affair and expelled four FSB officers in London under diplomatic cover .

Many observers consider that a tit-for-tat response is to be expected, in fact Russia will need to consider its options very carefully. As major problems emerge in the logistics of Russian gas supply, the position of the Russian economy looks increasingly fragile. The preponderance of the energy and basic products sectors has supported the Rouble at prices that makes much of the rest of the Russian economy fundamentally uncompetitive. The squeeze on Russian industry that was seen before the August crisis of 1998 is back with a vengeance. However, whereas then, there was increasing efficiency in the oil and gas sectors, the Kremlin-led forced consolidation of energy assets into national champions, such as Rosneft and Gazprom, has drastically reduced the efficiency of Exploration and Production and long term investment has been all but abandoned. This, together with the encouragement of domestic demand, is placing the sector at risk of being unable to deliver supplies that have already been contracted. Furthermore, stripped of the energy and basic products sector, the Russian economy is tiny.

Meanwhile the formal repudiation of the CFE treaty, concerning Russian deployments of conventional forces was another step in the erosion of international confidence in the Putin regime (in any event the presence of Russian forces near Pskov had been breaching the treaty for some time). Russia has a rapidly dwindling pool of political capital and international goodwill to draw on.

Therefore though Russia may feel the affront, they will need to consider their response to Britain's justified anger over the agonising public execution of Litvinenko extremely carefully. Any response that the UK regards as an escalation will be greeted with further measures from the British side- and some of these could involve an expensive price for the delicate Russian economy. Meanwhile. if the Russians go after the BP joint venture, the UK has a planned response that would be commensurate- and could shut out direct Russian economic relations with the major global organisations for months if not years. A disproportionate Russian response on the diplomatic side will result in further expulsions by the UK and more restrictive visa issuance, rather than the easing that was currently planned- again more damaging and inconvenient for Russia than for the UK.

This is not over yet- but in this poker game, the UK has a psychological advantage- let us see if Mr Putin ups the ante or folds.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Know Your Enemy (part 2)

The UK is getting ready to take the dispute with Russia to the next level.

Watch this space- and hold on to your hat!

Know your enemy (part 1)

I some bigoted old fascist has marked Britain out for special treatment by terrorist murderers as the result of our giving a knighthood to Salman Rushdie.

Good! We like to know where we stand. I have no particular brief for Rushdie, Midnights Children aside, I have always considered him a bit sub-par as an author. By the way Rushdie has been honoured by many countries- including France's Legion d'Honneur- if the news reaches you in your cave Osama.

When some Islamo-fascist suggests that the UK deserves to have more innocent people attacked because we protect free speech and honour writers, then I know which side of the barricades I am on.

So Ayman al-Zawahiri- drop dead.

Get back into the cave with your pathetic deluded friend Osama Bin Laden. We hold you and your kind in the deepest contempt. By the way- if we find you, your life expectancy is likely to be pretty short too.

We are not afraid of vermin.

Neo-Conservatives

Well, the Tories have finally put out a document that is not policy, but might- maybe- form a basis to, er, discuss policy ideas. Well its vague enough, but actually it does put forward a point of view- unsurprisingly it is a conservative document, in every sense- but also a rather surprising one. It is not the new Cameroon image of social inclusivity at all, but rather a strangely old fashioned document. It is paternalist, a bit patronising even.

Let us start where Liberals will be happy to agree: the power of education. Beyond that, it is pretty hard to muster any enthusiasm for such an illiberal, ill focused mish mash. The idea that marriages will not fail if a £20 tax break is dandled in front of couples is simply laughable, and reflects on how utterly out of touch the Conservatives really are.

The fact is that the analysis may be right- family breakdown is socially corrosive- but the solution- to end tax biases that supposedly encourage family breakdown- is absurd. The idea that politicians- they alone, you understand- can provide solutions to these major problems by relatively painless external pressure is inevitably bound to fail: the analysis is too simplistic and reductionist. The state is not the cause of these social problems and is incredibly unlikely to provide the solution- especially through the kind of paternalism that Iain Duncan Smith proposes.

In a way, this does tell you a lot about how Conservatives view the world- they do not accept the idea of social autonomy that forms a central part of both Liberal and Libertarian world view. So perhaps it is quite reassuring that the Tories still believe these comforting nostrums, but the reality is that they are a) expensive to enact and b) if enacted, will not work.

Significant economic measures that might work- returning the real price of alcohol back to the level it was in 1970, say, would be deeply unpopular - indeed I see the bibulous Simon Heffer has already gone on the offensive- so Cameron has swiftly rejected the option (I guess he is still hoping for more donations from the booze industry).

So where does this first tranche of Conservative policy suggestions leave us: well, they do show the Cameroons as socially conservative- well no surprise there- they also show that the Tories have not really got to grips with the modern world- they remain dirigiste anti-liberals.

After a mountain of vapid waffle, we have seen the Tories latest "polices"- and it is back to the fifties...

At last we know where we stand.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Alex Salmond- nice bribe

OK so "Wee Eck" said that he would only take one salary - either MP or MSP but not both, but oh dear, apparently- tsk- he has to take both or resign from one (well, in what way would that be a bad idea- he clearly can not serve both Banff & Buchan at Westminster, Gordon at Holyrood and be the First Minister- can he?)

Well, weirdly it is his MSP's salary he is demitting- but only, you understand to a "trust" to spread a little happiness across the benighted folks of the North East.

Personally I suspect that the good folk of the North East will recognise that Eck lied and is now trying to bribe them with their own money.

The first of many, many disappointments, I fear...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

We hold these truths to be self evident...

In the 231 years of American independence, the United States has stood for many things, from the opening up of a new frontier to becoming a bastion of democracy in the cold war. Yet while by and large the country has much to be proud of, it has also had much to regret. The strange persistence of slavery in the Land of Liberty and bigotry and racist violence have persisted even to our own day. The astonishing despoliation of the land that must have truly seemed like Paradise to the early settlers by ugly strips and endless suburbs also takes some getting used to- and the pollution and waste that the American dream produces are not far from shocking.

As the lamest of lame duck Presidents adds to his grim legacy of failure by pardoning a former associate for his crimes, it is clear that the US is undergoing a period of reflection, a dark night that will only lift when the 43rd President and his unpleasant gang are out of office.

The fall-out of the Bear Stearns funds collapse is unsettling markets that are already jittery over the sub prime collapse- and the consequences may prove to be extremely unpredictable. Indeed it is hard to construct very many positive scenarios that solve the growing economic imbalances that are emerging across the globe.

Yet the US remains a flexible and dynamic place- and a great country, despite its pygmy President- so to the many American readers of this blog I wish you a great holiday - it is good to know that despite the little unpleasantness 231 years ago (and indeed the slap that we were compelled to deliver in 1812) we are still bound together by ties of fellowship: democracy, loyalty and history and of course the easily understood variants of our common language.

Happy Birthday America!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Cameron's (Vauxhall) Cavaliers

So what are we to make of Mr. Cameron's bright new team?

Oh dear!

Not exactly a "cabinet of all the talents" really- with Osbourne actually being promoted to election coordinator, it seems more like a cabinet of half the talents.

We can only assume that this is an interim move- but another example of how Gordon Brown is putting all of the opposition onto the back foot.

57 Channels (and nothing's on)

I see somebody unlocked Michael Grade this morning. As some sycophant interviewed him he put forward the faintly preposterous view that people don't like television because they "feel deceived" about the phone lines scandals.

Er NO.

They may have an insane number of TV channels (I only have Freeview and I think I can get around 50) and the quality on offer depends on how many repeats of quality programmes are available: the more repeats the better, because contemporary programme makers are producing mostly brain dead rubbish.

In the words of The Boss.

57 channels (and nothing's on)

Full lyrics here

Monday, July 02, 2007

Pauline Neville Jones- An Apology

During one of the darkest episodes in British History in the early 1990s the then British Government sat on its hands while tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by Serbian death squads in Bosnia.

Douglas Hurd, advised by his then Security Chief, Pauline Neville Jones, campaigned tirelessly to ensure that the legal government of Bosnia Herzegovina could not defend itself against Serbian murderers. He called this disgraceful policy "ensuring a level playing field".

Tens of thousands of women were raped, tens of thousands were killed, and the population of such cities as Sarajevo and Dubrovnik were besieged by the Serbs in a medieval display of barbarity. 90% of the casualties were on one side- an interesting version of a level playing field

Very shortly after they left office, "Dame Pauline" and "Lord Hurd" as they became, joined Nat West Markets as senior advisers and directors.

Three months after that Nat West Markets gained privatisation mandates from the Milosovic government in Belgrade to sell Telecom Serbije. The mandates in addition to making Nat West, Lord Hurd and Dame Pauline millions of Pounds also allowed Milosovic to raise tens of millions and continue the policy of violence and oppression that ultimately led to British Forces going into action to defend the civilian population of Kosova against renewed Serbian atrocities.

Some would consider therefore that Dame Pauline has a rather questionable reputation.

The Conservatives are more forgiving- they just made her a peer of the realm in the latest reshuffle.

Silly me- I thought that integrity and honesty were values that had universal respect. In fact dishonesty, greed and double dealing seem more highly prized by Mr. Cameron's "Cavaliers".

I am sure that the war victims of Bosnia and Croatia will welcome this appointment with great delight.

The Doctors Plot

As the scale of the latest terrorist attack, or rather attempt, emerges, I do not think that I am alone in feeling vastly relieved that the new crew do not stoop to Tony Blair's emotive histrionics.

Jack Staw's comments were almost along the lines of "well these things happen", and actually as a line to take, it is not a bad one. We know that there are out there a whole load of dangerous nutters out to kill as many innocent people as they can. However, as the attacks on London nearly two years ago showed, it takes more than a bunch of suicidal nutcases turning themselves into puree to make the people of Britain terrorised.

If they do manage to actually succeed in an attack, then we will be shocked, saddened and repelled by the violence. We will not, however, be changed one little bit.

The quite gravitas of Gordon Brown was the right response to a difficult start to his premiership, but frankly it comes as a relief to most of us not to have the "I feel your pain" stuff from Blair, followed by another load of illiberal and dangerous legislation. If Brown does not feel the need to pass yet another load of anti terrorist legislation then I for one will actually feel safer.

Dignity and determination versus hyper activity and emotion- an interesting contrast already.

What's in a name?

As I was driving around the North Circular Road through Private Eye's beloved Neasden, I came past the end of an Aboyne Road.

It crossed my mind that I don't recall seeing a Neasden Road in Aboyne, or even a Willesden Green. Indeed the only reference to anything that might be to do with England is the Low Road.

Strange that.

I'm sure the idiuots at the Daily Mail would suggest some overarching Scottish conspiracy.

Lost Russia

As the hapless George W. Bush and the venomous Vladimir Putin gather for a summit at Kennebunkport, there is a sense of lost glories. These summits are no longer the peace or war, life or death discussions that they were under the cold war. However that is not to say that the meeting could not have some highly significant consequences. Particularly if Dubya repeats his "I looked into his soul" stuff from their first meeting in Ljubljana.

The fact is that Putin is a despot at home and an aggressive expansionist abroad. The American idea of who "lost" Russia, as laid out by Marshall Goldman in this piece, is very dangerous. It is not a question whether Dubya lost Russia- in fact Russia never truly joined the West, and is certainly not a part of it now. The US, as a part of NATO, has treaty commitments to countries that Russia has explicitly and dramatically threatened- as Estonia's President Ilves will have have reminded the Administration when he visited Washington last week.

The repeated use of illegal and aggressive measures has already put Putin's Russia beyond the pale. It is not the case that friendly concessions from the West will be reciprocated, rather they will be treated as signs of weakness. Therefore the West must return to its traditional policy of "containment": recognising that Russian intentions towards third parties are likely to be malign to the interests of democratic powers.

We have already woken up to the attempts by Russia to split NATO by alternately isolating then rewarding different members- with the exception of the UK, whose anger at Litvinenko's murder is not so easily stilled.

The shear brutality of Russian policy in recent weeks has already placed dramatic strain on the political connections between the West and Russia. However, the failure to adhere to minimum standards of rule of law has also undermined Russian attempts to attract inward investment. Although BP managed to make a profit (largely by ensuring a strong dividend flow) , the fact that even BP has failed to secure its position, despite clear commitments and legal contracts, has warned off many other investors. Although some may say that capitalists will always chase a profit, the fact is that the real issue is risk-reward, and unless the rewards of doing business are absolutely stellar, the risks are simply insurmountable for most major direct investment- as the withdrawal of DSG, the British retailer, from a proposed investment in Russia has shown quite clearly.

Bush is a discredited President, and any supposed "historic deal" that he may emerge with from his discussions with the Russian leader will more likely reflect his own weaknesses than any significant improvement in Russo-American relations. We watch with interest and concern.