Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Devonwall back on the agenda in September?

The Boundary Commission for England has set out its timetable for the review of constituency boundaries in the run up to the next general election. The first draft will be published in September this year, with a second draft in October 2017 and the final proposals will be laid before Parliament in September 2018. The general election is due in May 2020.

Total Politics have the whole story here.

The key bit of news is that the commission has indicated that it will be more willing to split wards in order to seek equal constituency sizes. Hopefully this will overcome the quirk of the last set of proposals which saw constituencies made up of disparate parts of different council areas in order to keep individual wards whole.

Assuming the timetable can be stuck to, the new boundaries are likely to be in place for the next general election. It is proposed that there will be a boundary review during every parliament. In some cases, this will mean that voters will find themselves in a new constituency at every election - hardly ideal.

Last time, the Boundary Commission proposed a 'Devonwall' constituency combining parts of North Cornwall with bits of Torridge District after the Conservatives refused to give Cornwall the same protection as the islands of Scotland, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight.

The numbers this time are more finely balanced. In theory, the strict limitations on constituency size should require a cross-border seat once again. Allowing wards splitting will help a bit, but Cornish wards are small enough already that this won't be a huge help. But it is possible that the Boundary Commission will agree to bend the rules fractionally to Keep Cornwall Whole.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Tony Blair's ad man "wants him to get Alzheimer's"

Peter Souter is an ad man. He is chairman of the agency TBWA and worked for Tony Blair and the Labour Party in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He is used to crafting his words to have the best possible effect. So you would think he would understand that saying that the best thing to happen to someone is that they get Alzheimer's is hugely offensive.

Here is a link to a recording.

I help to care for a relative who has Alzheimer's. I can tell you that it is not a joking matter. She is someone who was always full of boundless enthusiasm and huge talent. She brought up two children single handed and carved a great reputation as an artist. For as long as I knew her before she developed her condition, she was caring and understanding and encouraging. Then all that got taken away from her and she is a shadow of the person she was.

But Peter Souter thinks that it is ok to make jokes about this condition.

I don't think this sort of thing can be excused by the context, but here it is anyway. Mr Souter was speaking at a Fabian Society event about Mr Blair. Mr Souter appears to be trying to say that he wishes he could preserve Blair's reputation simply as someone who won three elections. He compares Blair to Margaret Thatcher who became ill and could not speak about politics any more. He says that this is the state he wishes Blair was in and he specifically suggests that it would be good if Blair got early onset Alzheimer's.

However much I disagreed with what Blair did in office, just as I disagreed with Thatcher before him, I could never wish ill health on them or any political opponent. And in particular I could not wish them to live with a condition so debilitating as Alzheimer's.

I hope that Mr Souter realises his mistake and apologises. It might be a good idea if he recognises the work being done by Alzheimer's Research UK to find treatments and a cure for the condition.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Beware a wounded chancellor

It hasn’t been a good week for George Osborne. His budget started to come apart at the seams faster than any since 2012 and the Iain Duncan Smith affair seems likely to prove fatal to his leadership ambitions. But that doesn’t mean that the chancellor is no longer a force to be reckoned with.

The problem with the budget isn’t that it had holes. Nor that the projections showed that austerity was being extended by yet another year with even more government spending on tick. Both of these have been hallmarks of Osborne’s workings for all six of his years in office. What made this different was the lack of political nous. He is either missing a trusted confidante to check his workings (Danny Alexander perhaps?) or his mind was on other things. But something went very wrong.

The row with Iain Duncan Smith over welfare changes (or over Europe, depending on your point of view) is another example of the Tory party at war with itself. And there is no doubt that they do internal ructions better than anyone. IDS may be trying to portray himself as a social reformer who was frustrated time and again in his attempts to stick up for the poor, but far too few believe him. To my mind there are enough signs that his conversion is genuine to believe that it is probably true. The trouble is that after six years of failing to resign, IDS is perhaps coming out as a social reformer far too late.

But the row itself is deeply damaging. Perhaps for the Tory party as a whole, but most definitely for the Chancellor. Previously untouchable, he is perhaps being saved from more on his own side calling for his departure by having Jeremy Corbyn doing so. Perhaps for the Labour leader a lesson in recognising when to keep quiet might be in order.

The real reason Osborne is not yet in danger of having to go is the network of supporters he has in government. More than half of all ministers can be classed as friends of the chancellor and while some of them may abandon a leaking ship, enough will stay loyal - at least at the moment - to give him a chance to recover. The task for his opponents is to work out how to strip away enough of his remaining support to see him gone. The challenge for the Prime Minister is to work out when his most prominent colleague and best friend in politics has become too much of a liability to keep around. For Osborne himself, the question is what does he do next?

It’s likely that his leadership ambitions are holed below the waterline. So who does he now back? His position as kingmaker is, for the time being at least, still secure and he has any number of possible runners from within his own stable. The Tory Party rules state that each possible candidate needs to be nominated from among their MP colleagues. The parliamentary party will then vote to narrow the field to two before the entire membership has the final say.

Logic dictates that the final two will be Boris against the chancellor’s favoured candidate. But Osborne knows that his choice will have a tough time up against the Mayor of London and so he will be holding a series of private primaries of his own to test the relative strengths of the potential challengers. He can only afford to have one candidate actually take part in the MP’s vote or risk dividing his forces and failing to make the top two at all. At the same time, he will be looking for means of weakening the favourite. Osborne is enough of a pragmatist that, if it comes to a situation where none of his own stable look likely to win, he can switch his support to Theresa May.

Osborne is wounded enough (and yet not too much) that he is now likely to have to stay as Chancellor for the remainder of Cameron’s premiership. At this time last year, when he was favoured to be next leader by 50% of those polled, it seemed that Osborne would step into another role - presumably Foreign Secretary - for a couple of years before the leadership contest. This would broaden his political experience and allow him a certain amount of deniability over any economic woes that might befall the country. His replacement at Number 11, of course, would be a person of his own choosing.

Now that scenario is gone. Any move away from the Treasury would most certainly be a demotion and Osborne’s replacement would be likely to be chosen from among the ranks of the neutrals rather than his friends. People who would have no trouble blaming their predecessor for past mistakes.

Much of that is for the future. For the present, the Chancellor is a wounded beast. He is very angry and capable of taking down almost anyone his mind sets against. The PM will be seeking to get his mind back in the game - focusing on repairing the hole in his budget. How much he succeeds in this will be crucial for the remainder of this Parliament.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

George Osborne announces three mayors for Bristol and King Guthrum the Third

More devolution is on the way to some pretty strangely drawn lines on the map following the budget today. And some of the existing devolution deals - including that to Cornwall - have been strengthened.

The Chancellor has always been a fan of devolution on his own terms. His great scheme is the 'Northern Powerhouse' and this got a further boost today. We also heard of money for London's 'Crossrail 2' - but not enough to actually make the scheme feasible yet. And there was money for the Marine Enterprise Zone in Cornwall and for the Hall for Cornwall - both very welcome.

But it will be the new devolution deals which provoke most reaction. There is one for Lincolnshire, one for the West of England and one for East Anglia.

The West of England deal will be a snub to those people (some 80% of voters) who rejected a directly elected mayor for the Bath and North East Somerset area as recently as last Thursday. Now, as part of their acceptance of new powers in a region covering the Bristol and Bath areas they will be forced to take on a directly elected 'mayor'.

So people in Bristol will have three mayors:

- A Lord Mayor (who does the ceremonial stuff)
- A Directly Elected Mayor of Bristol
- A Directly Elected Mayor of the devolved region.

It could get confusing.

In comparison, the devolution deal agreed with Cornwall saw no requirement for a new directly elected mayor. I know which I think is is the better deal.

There will also be confusion over the devolution package for East Anglia. There is no agreement from the City of Cambridge to participate and so there is a hole in the map. The participation of Cambridgeshire County Council is also in some doubt as the Tories (who back the idea) are in a minority on the authority.

The last leader of 'East Anglia' was King Guthrum II in 918. So are we about to see Guthrum III?

The sugar tax has more holes than a fizzy drink addict's teeth - UPDATED

The Chancellor's traditional Budget rabbit-out-of-the-hat is a sugar tax.
  • Except it isn't a tax on all high sugar foods, but just on drinks. 
  • Except it isn't a tax on all high sugar drinks, as milk and fruit juice based drinks are exempt. 
  • Except it isn't even a tax on all those as drinks produced by small manufacturers are also exempt. 
The world will divide into those who think that a 'nanny state' tax such as a sugar tax is a good thing or not. Should we trust people to make their own mind up about what is healthy and what isn't or should we use taxes to put the price up on the unhealthy stuff to try to stop people buying it?

To be fair, there is already a tax on cigarettes and on alcohol in an effort to reduce consumption of harmful products. So why not sugar?

Irn Bru's maker AG Barr share price fall

But regardless of your views on that aspect, why all the caveats and get out clauses? Why should Irn Bru be subject to this new tax when Frijj will not be - despite having even higher sugar content? And why should small scale producers be let off this tax when they are not let off alcohol taxes for example?

The answer seems pretty simple. The chancellor is an astute politician. He knows that this is a debate that is easy enough to frame and so will dominate the airwaves for the next few days. And he has got telegenic TV chef Jamie Oliver on board to fight his case for him. Various people have pointed out that Mr Oliver's high sugar recipes for kids won't be affected by the tax. It means that the big holes in his budget (including a massive £3.5bn cut in public spending in two years time) won't be looked at with the same rigour. And he hopes that the general public won't realise that he has played fast and loose with the numbers, pushing and pulling them in all directions to make his sums add up.

Yet again George Osborne has borrowed from the future in order to make his sums add up in the present. But at some point the future will be now and Osborne will have to explain why there is a massive debt and no money to pay it.

UPDATE - Thanks to Sky's Sophy Ridge for pointing out that the Frappuchinos and other heavily sweetened drinks produced by Starbucks and other coffee companies will be exempt as they are milk based. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Trump gets burned

Finally - a way to beat Donald Trump.

Apparently he likes his steaks well done. A trait shared by just 8% of his fellow countrymen and women. The Donald might get some cross-over love from those who prefer their beef cooked medium-well (seriously!?!), but that us still just one in four beef eating Americans.

I look forward to the attack ads based on this news.

Hat-tip to fivethirtyeight.com

Labour guarantee the Tories a free ride on Snooper's Charter

Tonight the Labour Party gave the Conservatives a free ride on the Investigatory Powers Bill, otherwise known as the Snooper's Charter. Together with the SNP, they sat on their hands and abstained when it came to the vote, thus guaranteeing another erosion of our civil liberties.

So if anyone thought that Labour might have changed under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, they haven't. They are still the party that tried to force through ID cards.

What makes it worse is that the Tories were down by 49 MPs today. Had Labour and the SNP voted against the Bill then the government would have been forced to go away and think again.

During the last parliament, the Conservatives wanted to bring forward this affront to civil liberties but were forced to back down by the Lib Dems in the coalition. Yet another example of what the Lib Dems managed to achieve in government.

Here's former Director of Public Prosecutions (and now Labour MP) Keir Starmer writing in the Guardian that the Bill is not fit for purpose.

He abstained.

And here is SNP MP Joanna Cherry arguing that the Bill would set a bad example to the world.

She abstained too.