Monday, 29 December 2008

Christmas - it's all about the telly

Try as I might, I didn't go out for lots of bracing walks over the Christmas period. In fact, the most exercise I took was when I went to watch boxing day rugby match and ended up running the line.

Instead, most of the time seems to have been spent watching as much TV in four days as I normally watch in an entire year.

Highlight to date was probably the Gavin and Stacey special which was completely nuts and very funny. The Royle Family was a welcome return - especially for the 'Cup a Soup in a bowl' line.

Most ill-advised viewing was the double bill of Eastenders. Partly because I thought I had successfully kicked the 'stenders habit and partly because I was persuaded by my brother into taking part in an Eastenders Drinking Game. The rules are simple - each time one of the characters wishes another a 'merry christmas' you have to have a drink. The Nick Cotton pay off line at the end required us to finish up.

Worst viewing was the thing on last night about the celebrity chef who spent close on a million pounds on a car and then raced it in the Mille Miglia in Italy only for it to break down only 150 miles in. The bloke at the focus of the film was somebody I completely turned off from. He is a podgy Yorkshireman who has made a mint as a chef and lives with his model girlfriend and his collection of historic cars in a gorgeous house. I ended up actually wishing for the outcome that happened - his car broke down and instead of being worth a mint it was worth far less than he spent on it. He then threw his toys and consoled himself by buying motoring books at £1000 a pop. So clearly he still has a few quid left.

Various DVD presents have successfully filled in the weak points in the TV schedule including the wonderful Mad Men.

Monday, 22 December 2008

A bit gay

Iain Dale has a post about having to deal with some thirteen year olds who were trying to disrupt a TV interview he was recording in a park in Tunbridge Wells.

Iain says that the reporter told the kids to go away because they were a disgrace for burping while he was trying to record. As Iain says, perhaps not the wisest move.

But what really struck me about the blog were two things:

- Iain felt that because the 13 year olds were happy to engage in a shouting match with the reporter (reporter called them a disgrace, they called him a fucking prick) that they would naturally gravitate to stealing his phone or 'very expensive' Christmas present.

- Iain felt it appropriate to abuse a 13 year old by telling him that his clothes looked 'a bit gay'. Let's forget completely about Iain's sexuality here. Does any serious political operator want to pander to homophobic abuse by using it himself. On a thirteen year old.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Not in his job description

Since when was it Gordon Brown's job to appoint football managers?

No, seriously. Amidst all the talk about a GB football team to compete in the 2012 Olympics, when did it become the job of the Prime Minister to decide who should be the manager?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Government proposals on blogger libel

Iain Dale has a story about possible Government proposals to change the law with regard to bloggers and libel. Bridget Prentice apparently wants to make it easier to sue bloggers for what they say and, crucially, what commenters to their site say.

To my mind, libel law should be the same whatever the medium. If something defamatory is published online, it should be as actionable as if it is written in, say, Private Eye. The difference comes in assessing damages and small scale bloggers should not be punished too heavily - especially if the defamation came in the form of a comment which they removed as soon as it was pointed out to them.

I can't be the only one who gets a bit fed up with Guido's comments section. I would heartily recommend some form of registration for the big sites. My site allows free comments because I get so few. I remove the defamatory ones asap and also those advertising dodgy financial services. If I started getting more then I should think I would move to a registration system fairly quickly.

Perhaps as soon as they get a serious libel suit the bloggers might stop their willy waving over the number of site visits they get. Proving you get more readers than a national newspaper will only up your damages.

At first sight, the proposal to introduce a small claims style system for libel can only be good news. Libel actions at the moment are not the even contest they should be. A Russian oligarch, for example, can bully many small publishers and bloggers into submission. For very small instances of possible libel, it should be possible to resolve matters in front of a judge for little or no costs and without specialist libel lawyers leeching every penny from both sides.

A day at the races

Yesterday I was at Exeter races to take photos for the Racing Post. I managed to get through the day without having a bet (good decision - the two horses I thought about backng both lost).

Not the most prestigious day's racing in the calendar, but good to blow the cobwebs away (trans. it was a bit chilly)

Boris manages biggest waste of cash yet

The Mayor of London has managed to waste a ton of taxpayers' money on a competition to design a new version of the Routemaster bus.

We all love the Routemaster. It is the iconic image of London. But it was gloriously unsafe and impractical. I don't know how many people were killed or injured getting off the back, but it must have been a load. The seats were too narrow for today's well-bodied types and the ceilings upstairs were so low as to cause serious damage to anyone over oompa loompa height.

But, having decided to get rid of the horrible bendy buses (although with an ever-slipping timetable), Boris has gone one further and decided to seek a 'new' Routemaster.

All the winning designs remind me of BMW's 'new' Mini. They have something of the original about them but are clearly not the real thing. And I say that as someone who drives one.

But, whilst the new Mini is a very good car in its own right, I have doubts about whether any new Routemaster will be Most of the designs seem to have the old style open access at the rear and have some form of wheelchair ramp in new centre doors. Most have the front engine and scalloped nose so that the driver's cab sits alone in the lead. But they simply look like a design student has fed the old Routemaster drawings into a computer and pressed 'update' (disclaimer - I'm sure a lot more work has gone into the designs than this, but it is not apparent from the competition website). None appear to have realistically solved the problems of the old bus.

The winners of this design competition got £25000. They probably spent this and more on the project, but how valuable is it if there is little or no chance of the designs ever being built. I don't want to decry fun for kids, but offering thousands of pounds in prizes to children to draw 'new' Routemasters hardly seems like value for money either.

With no real chance of getting new Routemasters designed and built, it seems to me that the only option is to keep the old ones on the road on a few select routes and to acknowledge the fact that they are cramped and dangerous - but also very lovely. Perhaps that is why Ken Livingstone decided to do exactly that...

Befuddled Brown Battered by El-Badri

Gordon Brown gave a speech this morning where he said that oil price volatility would continue to be a problem for the coming year. Rapicly changing oil prices hit motorists in the summer and continues to affect people in the form of their utility bills. Electricity and gas companies seem to have a bewildering way of pricing their products and failing to pass on oil price cuts claiming that they have had to pre-buy at earlier prices (which didn't seem to stop them hoiking the price up as soon as it started rising).

Now the Secretary General of OPEC - the fluffy people who rule the world - has hit back. Abdalla Salem El-Badri has said that Gordon Brown is 'confused' over the issue and ought to look to his own country and Government first. Mr El Badri reckons that Brown made billions out of the high oil prices through the huge government petrol taxes and should be looking to cut petrol prices here before he starts having a go at OPEC.

Brown and OPEC have previous, as they say. Brown slagged off the oil producers back when prices started to fall when they said that they might cut production to 'stabilise' prices (ie keep them high).

It's one of those spats where you have little sympathy for either side. Clearly lower oil prices are in the interest of most people and both OPEC and the UK Government have a responsibility in this area. Long term, of course, we need to reduce our reliance on oil and that means:

- more investment in home insulation (see my budget post last March for my response to the Government's efforts in this area);
- more investment and better conditions for non oil based motoring;
- significant investment in renewable enrgy sources (and I don't mean nuclear)

Cameron's Spin Doctor - A bully

The Guardian reports that Andy Coulson, David Cameron's spin doctor and former Editor of the News of the World, has been found by an industrial tribunal to have overseen a culture of bullying in his old job.

Not only did he oversee it, but he also led it, according to the paper.

So, whilst everyone is entitled to redemption, is Cameron sure that Mr Coulson is quite the person to have at the heart of the cuddly Conservative machine?

Monday, 15 December 2008

Krispy Kreme bargain (readers in the sticks need not apply)

According to a post on Hot UK Deals, if you buy Cristmas cards from Krispy Kreme Donuts then each card contains a voucher for a dozen free donuts. £5.95 for five Xmas cards is a horrendous price, but under £6 for 60 donuts is a bargain.

Shame is that the nearest store is 131.5 miles from me.

And that I'm on a donut denying self-ordinance.

(No guarantee is given for the validity of this offer - I just read it here)

Do I want to win the Euro lottery?

Apparently this is possible thanks to someone who works for the Euro lottery and has emailed me to say that he can fix the draw in my favour in return for 35% of the take.

How very generous of him

February Election - Pros and cons

Iain Dale reports that the Labour Party is booking up advertising hoardings for January and February. He speculates that this is one more sign of a possible snap election.

I blogged previously about the reason why Brown will favour an early poll:

- Cameron may be the darling of the media and the punters but he still has no policies and it is difficult to fight an election without them;
- Gordon proved he can win in Glenrothes and will think he can do it again
- The economy might be down the tubes but it will only get worse and the 'Brown plan to save the world' is still relatively current
- the Tories still have problems of their own and Mandelson can create more

the biggie

- Barack Obama is sworn in at the end of January. Not only will Brown manage to stage a photo op just before the election (or during it), but the public works on 'Democrats = Labour' thinking and this will boost Brown.

And let's throw a new reason in there - talk of an election brings a party together. Brown can bring (most of) his rebels back on board for a short time to fight against the Tories.

But there is one new reason why Brown might want to hold off. That is the planned Irish EU referendum. If he thinks the Irish can see it through, it allows the Lisbon Treaty to be ratified and put finally to bed. Once this has happened the Tories cannot undo it. But until then, Cameron can campaign on a ticket that says that hewill unpick Britain's ratification and allow a referendum here. That would be bad for the UK's relationship with the EU (in Brown's view) and would be a popular campaign message for the Tories.

For the Lib Dems, there is a pivotal moment in such a campaign. Do we say (as Brown will) that the Lisbon Treaty is a thing of the past as far as the UK is concerned and that it is not a valid subject for a general election. Or do we side with the Tories and promise a referendum if we have influence. I suspect the former but would prefer the latter.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Chris Hoy is Sports Personality of the Year (brought to you by Robinsons)

Oops, just been a plug for Robinsons as the supporters of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. Surely not the BBC resorting to sponsorship for one of its prestige events?

Oh, and congratulations to Chris Hoy

Friday, 12 December 2008

In praise of Dr Max

A long, long time ago, I worked for Paddy. I was in my gap year and he was Liberal Education Spokesman. I wanted to work in Parliament for the experience (or, as my mother put it, to do something other than lie in bed seeing as how I had taken a year off) and Olly Grender, who worked for my own MP, Matthew Taylor, managed to get me a place with a really interesting MP (I'm sure she didn't mean it as a dig against MT).

As these things go, halfway through my time there, the merger happened and the new Party was in search of it's first leader. Paddy duly stood and the office expanded rather alarmingly. Having been myself, Alison (now Mrs Adrian Sanders) and a wonderful bloke called Tony who worked for the teaching union AMMA and who did research on the Education Bill, there were now lots of others. These included the late, great Harriet Smith, Tim Clement-Jones, Virginia Morck, Cathy Bakewell - who went on to lead Somerset CC - and several American interns.

Also on the scene, although not in the office, were the two people who helped Paddy with his speeches. They were Liz Lynne - who helped with the vocal side of things - and Max Atkinson. Max is a truly wonderful speechwriter. Not only are his speeches fantastic, but he had a great way of explaining why one thing would work and another wouldn't. He was the exact opposite of the 'because I say so' person who is all too prevalent in politics.

Fast forward a few years and I was asked by a company to present a training course on speechwriting. In the course of bringing together my own thoughts and researching what others had written, I came across Max's book Lend Me Your Ears. It is one of the best guides to how to put together a speech and why some things work and others don't that I have come across. Particularly strong is the section on rhetoric. Max explains that rhetoric is not a dirty word but the science of crafting speeches that appeal to the listener. In ancient greek times, rhetoric was taught as a subject to students (so it really ought to be an -ology). In simple language, it's about how to put together soundbites (except that this too is now a dirty word).

So I would advise any politician, aspiring or existing, to do two things:

First, read Lend Me Your Ears - it's quite cheap and available on Amazon (don't forget to go there via the LD link)

Second, read Max's blog. It's a fascinating dip into the science (and art) of speechwriting and speech making.

De Menezes - the most damning verdict the Coroner would allow

The jury's verdict in the inquest of Jean Charles de Menezes is about as damning for the Police as it is possible to get. Not only have they returned an Open verdict (as opposed to one of lawful killing) but their answers to the 12 specific questions posed by the Coroner are (with a single exception) utterly damning of the Met Police and their methods.

In simple terms, I think it is quite clear from this verdict and the answers given that the Coroner was wrong to rule out the option of unlawful killing. No one can say that this is what the jury would have decided, but their verdict and answers show that this should at least have been allowed to be discussed.

On the questions surrounding whether Jean Charles de Menezes moved towards the firearms officers, the jury have accepted that he stood up, but rejected the idea that he moved towards the guns - in direct contradiction to what one officer told the inquest. The jury also rejected an officer's claim that they shouted a warning.

On the matter of police procedures, the jury found that communications didn't work, that the Police had failed to give officers decent photos of the real suspect, that they had failed to stop de Menezes earlier and that the firearms officers were in the wrong place. All of these, said the jury, contributed to the death.

So the Met faces huge problems on two levels:

- first, they were institutionally ill-equipped to deal with this situation. That, essentially, is why they were found guilty of the health and safety case. At the time, that verdict was played down to such an extent that nobody had to resign. Now the Met and the Government are making it quite clear that everything has now changed and the Police are able to cope. Hypocrisy - surely not.

- Second, what happens with the firearms officers and other individuals concerned. At the top, most people seem to have gone for one reason or another (but none because of the killing itself). Only Cressida Dick remains. At the bottom, the firearms officers have been disbelieved by the jury over crucial issues and yet will not face any charges. The Met Police Federation are harping on about the extremely troubled times surrounding this incident and how officers were under extreme pressure. I do appreciate this, but surely we have to be able to rely on our Police Forces to uphold the law properly at ALL times. They cannot be allowed to give up on the rule of law and such things as shooting innocent people at times of stress.

It might sound cheesy, but it's true, if we start renouncing the rule of law in response to terrorism then the terrorists have won.

That is why the Government and the Met cannot simply walk past this verdict and claim that they have made everything better. It's not simply a matter of better radios, it is a matter of attitude. Until the public truly believe that the Met don't think in the way they did on 22nd July 2005, then nothing will have changed and there will still be a fundamental lack of trust in the officer meant to protect us.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Hain cleared

Peter Hain is not going to be prosecuted for late declarations to his Labour Deputy Leadership campaign. Apparently the CPS could not prove that it was he who had the duty to report the donations and, therefore, he is not responsible for the late reporting.

Apparently, just because the funds were given to his campaign, does not mean that he (or anyone else, it appears) had any responsibility for them or the campaign.

If we accept this ruling, then it drives a coach and horses through the legislation passed by this Government to regulate party funding. This instance may have revolved around an internal Labour election, but who is to say that the same circumstances could not be used in a national election.

Expect to see Hain back on the front bench in the next reshuffle and some junior minister promise a review of the legislation that never comes to anything.

An early election would be hypocritical and anti-democratic

Whilst GB has sought to play down talk of an April or May General Election, the fact remains that it is still a possibility.

What has not been explored is the fact that it would be massively hypocritical.

How so?

Well, the Government has decided to delay the fixed term elections to local councils from the first Thursday in May to June so that they align with the European elections. Their reasoning is that holding two sets of elections will confuse voters, cause voter fatigue and cost lots of money.

And yet they now whisper about the possibility of having a General Election on the very day that the May elections were moved from.

To my mind this is massively hypocritical and also anti-democratic. It will certainly mean that a wide array of ministers who stood up in the Commons to say that delaying the May elections was the only fair thing were talking out of their arse.

Draft boundaries published

The Boundary Committee has now published their draft boundaries for the new Cornwall Unitary Council. The Committee has accepted the case for 123 members of the new body and the first elections should be held in October.

This brings two thoughts:

First, in my view 123 is too many councillors. Each will represent an average of just 3,200 electors. I hardly wish to see wards of 18,000 plus as in Birmingham (albeit with three councillors for each ward), but I think the new Council could become unweildy with so many members. It will also be difficult for them to know what their role is. If there were just 80-90 (the old County Council has 82) then backbenchers could be effectively half-time. Many might event make it a full-time role. But with 123 members there can be no question of that.

Second - how has it come to pass that we should have to wait until October for the elections. This is six months after the scheduled date. It is bad enough that the May elections have been postponed until June, but to delay elections for six months seems totally wrong. I accept that, from where we are now, it might not be possible to hold elections for the new Council in June. But I want to know why this delay has happened and what is being done to make sure it cannot happen again.

There will be some consternation about the line drawing that has been done by the Boundary Committee. Whilst they have made the (quite reasonable) case that a ward in Bodmin should not consist of two areas of housing, unconnected by roads and with a massive hill in the middle, they have then proposed a similar set-up for a ward here in Launceston. I hope that they can be persuaded of a more reasonable case before the lines are inked in.

Honda leaving Formula One

According to the BBC, Honda are to quit Formula One. It costs the company £300 million per year to compete and they managed a poxy 14 points last season - well off the pace in all but the wet British Grand Prix.

Clearly in the current economic climate, the company could not justify spending so much on failure - particularly as they are cutting back on working hours and on jobs.

I have an on-off relationship with F1. When it is competitive it is great to watch. But during periods of dominance by a single team or, worse, driver, it is so routine as to be boring.

And that is why the F1 bosses have to get a grip on the sport and to make it more interesting. They need to level the playing field and even up the racing. There is not point having a sport where only four cars can win a race (and of these, two may be subject to team orders and told to let their mate win). Racing is interesting where it is competitive and close. Yes we like bumps and crashes, but we would happily settle for lots of overtaking and a close championship.

There have been proposals to introduce a common engine and gear box which would cost the teams about £4.5 million a season. Still a huge amount, but far less than the hundreds of millions spent at the moment. But the big teams object. They are happy to throw money at the sport if they think it helps them win.

But if Honda cannot be sold then there will only be 18 cars on the grid in 2009. And who is to say that Force India and both Red Bull teams will make it to Australia at the end of March.

It is definitely time for Bernie et al to shake things up and bring us back decent sport.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Speaker gets away with it as MPs plan for pomposity parade

Guido is distinctly underwhelmed at the Speaker's statement. Iain seems to think he is on his last legs and MPs took pity on him.

For my part, I think that he has got away with it. He has announced a debate on Monday which I fear will be dominated by the Sir Patrick Cormacks of this world. It will be lots of MPs saying how important they are and that the Police were bang out of order. It will be a parade of pomposity. David Winnick started the ball rolling today by demanding that a Policeman be called to the Bar of the House to explain himself. If MPs insist on making themselves appear so different to the rest of us then they will continue to lose favour with the public. The rest of us don't have a 'Bar of the House' to call people to, and most people cannot relate to MPs when they talk in this language. And, let's face it, it's not as if Mr Winnick's call will be heeded.

The real issue for me is twofold:

- was Damian Green doing his job in publishing the leaks? I think he was and the Speaker was right to say just this. It is this acknowledgement that is most to Speaker Martin's credit and the reason he will hangmon to his job;
- were the Police justified in searching his office without a warrant and jeopardising the confidential information held there? The answer is clearly no.

So how come the Police did conduct such a search without a warrant? Mr Speaker makes clear that he wasn't asked and didn't advise the Serjeant to demand a warrant. Perhaps he should have done so. If it is true that the Police should have advised the Serjeant that she did not have to agree and that they failed to do so then they are clearly in the wrong. She is also clearly wrong in not knowing the rules she is paid to enforce (albeit that she is new to the job). She had the time to double check and could have asked both the Speaker and Clerk if she were unsure.

So what will happen now?

Well a forgettable debate featuring Sir Bufton Tufton will take place on Monday. It will reassert the importance of MPs and the sancitity of the Palace of Westminster. It will reinforce the Speaker's statement that only he should be allowed to consent to a search and that a warrant will be needed in future. But as this situation has not arisen for hundreds of years, who's to say that it will come up again. This whole protocol is likely to be a complete waste of time as is the investigation by seven wise MPs (insert joke here).

The Speaker is further damaged but not in such a way that he will be forced out before the General Election.

The new Serjeant will be made the sacrificial lamb over the whole issue but Harriet Harman and the wimmin's brigade will not want to see the first female Serjeant lose her job and so she will survive - but she will be utterly powerless.

The Police will admit their mistakes but claim that no one is above the law and that they asked for and got consent to the search. They will be overjoyed that they got one over the politicians.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Spooks - it's almost over

If you want to maintain the most vital network of undercover secret agents in a foreign country, clearly the first thing you get them to do is to get a very recognisable tattoo.

It's good fun though.

The Front Bench ARE all crap

The Party Leader has it right. Most of the front benchers simply aren't up to it and need to be replaced. There are some talented people outside the Shadow Cabinet and the time servers need to make way for them. Better to have a reshuffle now rather than later.

It's unfortunate that the Leader was heard bad mouthing his colleagues, but most people would rather see a leader who is prepared to weild the axe than one who keeps time servers in their posts.

Oh, it's David Cameron and the Tories I'm talking about. But of course you knew that...

Welcome to the world of hypocrisy

Item one - The Government's apparent consent to the arrest of Damien Green for receiving leaked documents when they have all done it and continue to do it.

Item two - Ryanair. They have blasted Cornwall County Council and the RAF because Newquay Airport is having to close for three weeks as it is handed over from military to civilian control. Clearly this is not perfect, but Ryanair are the last people who should be moaning. They had already cancelled two routes out of the airport for three months each for no apparent reason and have failed to repay the fares of passengers who had booked on these flights. This is the airline that dumps people hundreds of miles away from their destination with no means of onwards transport in cases of bad weather.