Friday, 27 March 2015

Did Cameron do his homework?

As I embarked on the lengthy journey home after the first leaders’ non-debate, I found myself wondering what preparation David Cameron had done for his interview with Jeremy Paxman. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, got a duffing up from one of his senior advisers and it showed; he was ready to fight Paxman’s fire with fire. But Cameron seemed genuinely shocked at the ferocity of Paxman’s questions.

There was no gentle introduction, no warm-up; the former Newsnight host went straight for the Prime Minister’s jugular, as everyone surely knew he would, especially when he only had a miserly 18 minutes to skewer his meat. Cameron couldn’t answer questions on the numbers of food banks, floundered on zero hour contracts and struggled on government borrowing. Even being a friend of Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Coulson came under attack. Cameron’s eyes and tight lips betrayed his nervousness. Whatever preparation had been done, clearly wasn’t enough.

The Tory leader did rescue it a bit as the interview went on; relaxing a little – though never hugely – and he managed to get his lines across on the size of the deficit inherited from the last Labour government, boasted about the coalition’s economic achievements and outlined a few cuts planned for the next parliament, such as unemployment benefit being frozen for two years.

He also still insisted that, if he were still prime minister after the general election, he would serve every day of a second term before standing down. Everyone knows this is impossible; it’s a ridiculous pretence to maintain.

It was striking how Cameron looked when the programme restarted after the adverts (why weren’t these scrapped?) when he was faced with questions from the audience. An enormous weight seemed to have been lifted off his back; the prime minister’s face filled with blood once more, he smiled, he charmed.  The TV ad man was back.

Ed Miliband had an advantage going second ( I understand the order was decided by the toss of a coin rather than a cunning bit of political chicanery) as it gave him the opportunity to mentally prepare for Paxman and maybe he was cheered to see his opponent squirm. But Miliband faced much sterner questions from the audience than Cameron had faced:  ‘Why are you so grumpy?’; ‘Wouldn’t your brother be better?’. Nevertheless, Miliband just about survived and even got the first applause of the evening: noticeably Cameron didn’t get any applause though this could well be that those who had gathered relaxed more as the programme went on.

Kay Burley was the circus master for this section but whereas she asked whether the Prime Minister ever had three Shredded Wheat, she whimpered ‘your poor mum’ to Miliband after a question about his brother.

The surprise was when Miliband was confronted by Paxman; he was strikingly more combative than the prime minister, answered back and even mocked the great interrogator: ‘You’re important Jeremy, but not that important’. There was an odd section where Miliband tried to be macho: ‘Am I tough enough? Hell yes’, sounding less like the mean Dirty Harry and more as threatening as Monty Python’s Black Knight after his limbs had been sliced off.

The Labour leader struggled a bit when Paxman, who clearly relished a return to action after a long lay-off,
asked him to provide a maximum population size for the country; an absurd line of questioning which both must have known but it will allow some to claim Miliband wants no limit on immigration.

Personally, I found the questions about the relationship with his brother just a bit too personal; ‘it was a bruising contest’, the younger Miliband said, betraying the pain that still clearly exists in the family. And, much like Cameron, how a future Labour government plans to cut the deficit remains something of a mystery. Removing TV licences from rich pensioners just doesn’t cut the mustard.

The snap poll giving Cameron a win genuinely surprised the press in the spin room; everyone there had witnessed the PM being mauled and seen Miliband get the only applause of the evening and the biggest laughs (both at him and with him). Even Nigel Farage, stalking into the spin room early in the evening, said the Labour leader ‘walked it’, with Cameron ‘nervous and defensive’.

The poll verdicts will help Tory spinners paint a positive gloss on the evening’s affair. In truth, expectations were so low for Miliband, the instant polls show a big rise in his personal ratings in comparison with normal opinion polls even if he were left slightly behind. Labour spinners were cheery and bullish; the message ‘this is the reason why David Cameron didn’t want to be in the same room debating with Ed Miliband’ was repeated ad nauseam.

Will it have changed any votes? Probably an insignificant few but Labour will be the most cheered; their man gave a good show and put a spring in the step of foot soldiers as they officially launch their election campaign today.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The clock is now ticking

When David Cameron pours himself a glass of wine this evening, kicks off his shoes and sits back to relax, he may feel content that not far in the too distant future, he will be a former prime minister and able to spend decent, quality time with his family. But he may also have a nagging feeling that, by announcing his intention to stand down after a full second term - should he be elected of course - he has unleashed instability and chaos upon an already troubled Conservative Party.

A ten-year tenure as prime minister is enough, as Cameron rightly observed. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had evidently lost touch with reality, to put it politely, by the time they had been in office so long. Cameron, already prone to hubris, is wise to want to escape.

There is, however, no chance that he will be able to serve a full second term. He isn't a president; the Tories will need a new leader for the next general election, currently scheduled to be held in 2020. Instead of quashing speculation that he might stand down after a 2017 in or out referendum on the EU, it seems likely to only intensify such talk. He will constantly be asked when he intends on standing down by any reporter lucky enough to be granted an interview.

And the timing is extraordinary. To announce his intention to stand down just weeks before a general election seems an utterly unnecessary distraction and might actually damage his electoral chances; do the general public want to vote for someone who already has his eyes on retirement?

In true football manager style, Cameron spoke of 'the Theresa Mays, and the George Osbornes, and the Boris Johnsons' who could succeed him. All likely candidates at this stage, certainly, but any successor would need a decent run-in time to stamp their mark on the party before a 2020 poll. And it's worth noting, both May and Osborne hold positions which are vulnerable to political weather and their stars could wane.  As for Boris, whatever his personal popularity may be, he remains a liability.

Other potential successors will inevitably emerge. Liam Fox and Owen Paterson still seem keen to be champions of the Tory right wing but it's hard to imagine either could mount a serious challenge. And the trouble for these two - and for those mentioned above - is that they would have been at the top of their party for a decade or longer. Fresh faces may be required. And, as yet, it's hard to identify likely candidates from the modernising wing of the party. A shift to the right looks likely and potentially dangerous for a party that would have been in power for ten years by 2020.

In the event that the Tories find themselves in government after May, every speech or move made by any likely successor will be scrutinised for any hint of leadership ambitions. Inevitably, these moments will be over-read and misinterpreted. All this turmoil will only destabilise and fracture the party further.

So Mr Cameron should enjoy that glass of wine while he can: he may have just unleashed years of trouble for his party.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Shapps; the Conservative Party's Private Walker

After perusing some old cuttings, it is a bit of a struggle to fathom why David Cameron picked Grant Shapps to be Conservative Party chairman. Yes, he’s fluent on the telly, in a boyish, titter-ye-not, sort of way; but he’s not exactly overwhelmed with gravitas. Jeremy Hanley, a previous incumbent of the office under John Major, almost seems a political titan by contrast.

Depending on which version one reads, Shapps either 'over-firmly' denied having a second job whilst serving as an MP, or 'stumbled' during the cut an thrust of an LBC interview - quite how one does both simultaneously I have no idea - when he said:

'I did not have a second job while being an MP, end of story'

Seems pretty clear and categorical to me. But anyway, this isn't a new tale. Mr Shapps has repeatedly denied any wrong doing ever since alter ego, web guru, Michael Green's existence first became known.

The earliest denial I've found is in The Guardian on September 3, 2012, when, in regard to his self-help schemes, his spokesman said Shapps had never set up the business, but it was in fact:

"...always a partnership between Mr and Mrs Shapps". He added: "Grant Shapps derives no income, dividends, or other income from this business, which is run by his wife Belinda with a registered office in Pinner in north-west London. He is quite simply not involved in this business."'

This denial poses an interesting contrast with a piece which appeared in The Independent a day later. In his diary column, Andy McSmith, under the headline 'Will the real Michael Green - er, Grant Shapps - stand up', wrote:

In the days that followed, further details of Shapps' internet guru incarnation became known and were gleefully reported. Posing as Green, he offered expert advice on internet marketing, with The Guardian, reporting  that: 

'"The fee for my one-hour phone consultation is $297 (US). I make the call to you, no matter where you are in the world."'

The threat of an hour on the phone with Michael Green/Grant Shapps or whoever suddenly makes the prospect of a 10k Iron Man training session with Iain Duncan Smith look appealing.

Now, I do appreciate that Grant Shapps claims he embodies the Conservative vision of a self-made man. In an interview in October 2012 he told the Evening Standard

‘I’m absolutely not embarrassed about having done something that Ed Miliband has never done – which is to build up a business from scratch. I know what it’s like to get up early and graft – and to put my house on the line to buy the next printing press, pray it works out, and pay my employees at the end of the week.'

A laudable sentiment, certainly, and one which will be familiar to anyone who has struggled to start a small business. But this image, of the self-reliant, get-up-and go, up and thrusting businessman is somewhat spoilt by any analysis of what Mr Shapps actually did for a living.

Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with self-help books/websites/programmes but – let's just put it as strongly as this – there may be a tendency in the sector to target the most vulnerable, most gullible and most needy. 

I am, of course, not suggesting for an instant that Mr Shapps’ How To Corp did any such thing, but with products given such tawdry titles as Stinking Rich 1, 2 and 3, it could be argued they possess something which would make Dad’s Army spiv Private Walker proud

In many respects Walker was a lovable rogue, but is this really the required image for the chairman of the Conservative Party?