Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pickled red-herring

What is the point of making voters in a dozen cities up and down the country elect Lord Mayors without dismantling the whole local government system and starting again?

Eric Pickles, the Cabinet Minister responsible, is determined to foist these small-town Boris Johnsons onto us whether we want them or not.

Yet there is no sign his alleged reform, supposedly giving great power to elected mayors, will be of much benefit to the cities which get them.

The guinea pigs for this grand scheme are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

In his generosity, Mr Pickles is prepared to let other cities go for elected mayors as well.

Wolverhampton, for example, could have one if it really wanted but I don’t hear the crowds clamouring at the gate to be granted this special privilege.

Apart from a few professors of local government and professional politicians, I don’t know anyone who wants elected mayors. It’s not exactly a burning issue down the Ferret & Firkin.

Even if elected mayors were a good idea in theory, they’re pretty pointless without wider changes.

Take Birmingham, for instance. It has 120 councillors costing the taxpayer £2.6 million in allowances and expenses.

It also has a Chief Executive on £233,000 in salary and pension contributions not to mention the other 13 officers who pick up six-figure salaries.

What’s going to happen to that little lot if an elected mayor takes over? You won’t need 120 councillors for a start. The London Assembly gets by with just 25 members.

Admittedly the capital has a layer of local authorities beneath its Assembly but then it is much bigger.

The Pickles dozen would be quite capable of functioning efficiently with a quarter of their existing councillors.

Actually they would do an adequate job on a quarter of their councillors without the additional fuss of an elected mayor.

The cities certainly won’t need all their councillors when the mayor has the power and takes the decisions. There won’t be anything for the average councillor to do so why not get rid of them?

Mr Pickles has no plan to cut the number of councillors. He says councils could do so if they wanted – but can you imagine that happening? Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Equally, why would councils need chief executives and senior officers when an elected mayor and his cronies are in place?

Mind you, they won’t come cheap. Boris Johnson bags £140,000 a year and doubtless these smaller-city bosses will demand something similar.

One of the assumptions behind the plan for elected mayors seems to be that it would increase democracy and improve the quality of the people who run our cities.

What are the options in Birmingham?

Sion Simon would have us believe he gave up his place as Labour MP for Erdington so he could run for mayor of Birmingham – a decision he made even before there was officially a vacancy.

He could be challenged for the Labour nomination by the veteran group leader Sir Albert Bore.

Mike Whitby, who has been council leader for the last six years, must be in with a chance but Tory leader David Cameron says he wants someone outside politics to do the job.

That means ex-lawyer Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, must be in with a shout. He was briefly in the Labour Government but somehow managed to avoid joining the party.

Apparently the suggestion is he stands as an Independent. But would the other parties give him a free run? And, if they did, where’s the democracy in that?

Before they can vote for any of these potential candidates, the electors must first decide if they actually want elected mayors.

Without real reform of the whole system, it must be questionable whether it’s worth it.

Will mayors really have any clout? Most Governments – including this one – talk about devolution and localism but when it comes to parting with cash or power, they decide Whitehall knows best after all.

Councils are told how to spend their money. It goes on schools and social services mainly. That won’t change.

And what is the point of supposedly powerful mayors being kings of their little castles when the Government is also setting up Local Enterprise Partnerships which will cross council boundaries?

Mayors won’t want to see their influence diluted by dealing with these new quangos.

The Coalition is feverishly trying to paper over the cracks emerging from its decision to axe development agencies like Advantage West Midlands by introducing LEPs.

These supposedly business-led bodies will die of neglect if elected mayors take over the big cities.

What self-respecting captain of industry would want to devote time and energy to them when the mayor of the biggest place on the map is too busy to be bothered?

No doubt all this is the result of Mr Pickles’ time as leader of Bradford Council, where he manipulated a hung council to ensure the Tories clung onto power.

The one-time “Beast of Bradford” thinks he’s giving us radical reform. Sounds more like pickled red herring to me.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The night of the living dead

The good news is the economy is growing nicely, spending cuts are not as bad as feared and the Chancellor is talking about tax reductions for big businesses.

The bad news is that nobody's noticed and small businesses are still going to the wall with the Government mainly responsible for the bankruptcies.

Economists tell us they see green shoots of recovery springing up everywhere but most business people think it still feels like bleak mid-winter.

That, I fear, is because economists look at trends over months and years while businesses look at what happened yesterday and the day before.

Official statistics show a drop of 17 per cent in company insolvencies. That sounds like good news, even when you discover that 58 per cent of all winding-up orders come from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Alas, the taxman has been bailing out hundreds of companies for a couple of years under its “time to pay” scheme.

The taxman has been holding off asking for the money. It’s now telling companies to pay up the money they owe.

Unfortunately many of them are “zombies” – they look as if they’re still alive but as soon as they have to repay their debts, they’re dead.

True the economy isn't as dire as it was two years ago when the banks looked like they might disappear completely, taking the entire capitalist system with them.

For an economist looking at his graphs and charts, that means things are improving.

For ordinary businesses, it just means utter destruction has been replaced by a never-ending fight for survival.

The Christmas spending binge may be a bit better than last year – but only because the increase in VAT to 20 per cent on January 1 will encourage some people to buy sooner rather than later.

It means sales in the New Year will get off to a slow start. On top of that, public spending cuts are only just starting to bite.

Job-losses in the public sector, we are told by the Office for Budget Responsibility, won't be as high as forecast.

They'll still be huge. Birmingham Council, for instance, announced this week it was axing 7,000 jobs.

To judge the scale of that, remember there’s only one private sector company in the whole city employing more than 7,000 people in total – and that's RBS bank which is actually owned by the taxpayer as well.

And when councils or Government department wield the axe, they start with their private-sector suppliers.

There are thousands of small firms which rely on work from the public sector for their livelihood. That work will, in many cases, dry up completely.

When it doesn't, they face a serious price squeeze. Either way, it makes for grim prospects.

Confidence, we are repeatedly told, is the key. If only businesses had the confidence to expand and consumers had the confidence to spend, all would be well.

But faced with tax rises, spending cuts and the turmoil in the eurozone – where entire countries are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – it's hard to feel positive.

The Coalition Government is taking heart from the latest surveys saying the economy will carry on growing next year.

It is a vindication of Chancellor George Osborne's decision to get his cuts in as fast as possible.

However unpleasant they may be, at least it means we won't go the way of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and even Spain by begging for help from the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

No wonder that, according to one of the many hilarious WikiLeaks we have enjoyed recently, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King was worried about the inexperience of Mr Osborne and David Cameron.
Mr King is probably right they hadn’t “fully grasped the pressures they will face from different groups when attempting to cut spending”.
Even after the cuts, total Government debt will carry on rising until 2015 when it’s due to hit a staggering £1,300,000,000,000 (we’re talking over a trillion).

The Governor knew we needed to stave off national bankruptcy – but that's no consolation for small businesses.

Already they can see a drop in demand, consumers switching to cheaper goods or saving rather than spending. Even big corporations are now sitting on money rather than investing it.

It doesn't make good economic sense to save when interest rates are low. Savers lose out whereas borrowers get money on the cheap.

But everyone’s nervous. We don't like debt any more. We want cash for a rainy day. It's called lack of confidence.

I was talking to a businessman who does corporate finance deals. He says things are looking up. Investors have money and companies are looking to expand.

To prove it, he told me about one big deal he's working on. The company involved thinks there's a lot more work it can land in the New Year and wants a cash injection to help it grow.

This was excellent news, I thought. At last, signs of life in the economy.

What does the company do? I asked him. He told me: They're insolvency experts.

Welcome to the night of the living dead.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I counted them all in... errr...

The Government is finally cracking down on immigration – and if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

The Coalition's first stab at it is aimed at cutting the number of "skilled migrants" we welcome to these shores.

But there are two snags: the numbers don't add up and they're aiming at the wrong target anyway.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told us this week it was time Britain did something about mass immigration.

She complained: "Over Labour's time in office net migration totalled more than 2.2 million people – more than double the population of Birmingham.”

At last, you might think, a politician is doing something about the big issue that dare not speak its name.

But look at the numbers and you discover Mrs May is actually doing little or nothing to reduce the 196,000 people a year moving to this country.

Please note, by the way, that the figure of 196,000 is not the total number of immigrants, it’s the net figure. In 2009 we saw total of 567,000 immigrants – but that was offset by 371,000 people who left this country.

These are official Government figures so, inevitably, they can’t be trusted. It’s pretty much guesswork.

As a Commons committee pointed out the other day: “Until exit checks are implemented in the form of e-Borders, it is not possible to count individuals out of the country, and so figures on the inflow and outflow of migrants cannot be matched.”

Mrs May is reducing the number of “skilled workers” allowed into this country without a job offer from 14,000 to 1,000 – a big cut, you might think.
This is for people of “exceptional talent” – footballers, nuclear scientists, ballet dancers and the like.
At the same time, Mrs May is increasing from 13,700 to 20,700 the number of people welcomed into this country if they already have a job offer.

Taken together, it would appear she has cut the total number of skilled workers allowed into the country from 27,700 to 21,700.

It’s only a cut of 6,000 but, at first glance, it seems like a modest step in the right direction. But that’s not the whole story.

The Government has imposed no limit at all to the number of people allowed into Britain under “intra-company transfers”.

That means thousands more people are exempt from any limits at all if their employers want to move them to Britain – more American bankers, for instance.

Last year, intra-company transfers added another 22,000 people to the immigration numbers.

This shows Business Secretary Vince Cable has won the first round in the alleged battle to curb immigration. He was lobbied hard by the CBI and other employers’ organisations which said industry needed the ability to move staff from one country to another without let or hindrance.

Mrs May has put a couple of limits on these transfers. They must earn at least £24,000 a year to be allowed here at all and, to stay longer than a year, they must be paid at least £40,000.

But few companies would want to move low-paid staff around the world anyway, so these limits are just window-dressing.

At best, Mrs May has cut immigration by 6,000; at worst, because of intra-company transfers, it won’t be reduced at all.

Either way, few people are bothered about the temporary importation of highly-skilled individuals who may well be of benefit to the British economy.

What we have is a minor adjustment to an almost irrelevant group of people masquerading as a bold new initiative to tackle immigration.

Mrs May’s plans will do nothing to meet David Cameron’s pre-election pledge to cut immigration by at least half, to “tens of thousands” a year.

The real numbers are in three categories which, so far, Mrs May has not dared to touch: students, family members and EU citizens.

We are told there’s nothing we can do about migration within Europe. We have open borders and anyone can go anywhere.

We could do something about it – but our politicians refuse to do so. They would rather be “good Europeans” than good Britons.

As for family members, the Government could change the rules on arranged marriages and the ability of one immigrant to bring over a large number of relatives.

It won’t because it’s afraid of falling foul of human rights laws – yet “family reunification” accounted for 48,000 immigrants last year, 64,000 in 2008 and 69,000 in 2007.

That just leaves students. Mrs May has already said she wants to cut the number supposedly looking for education below degree level.

The numbers are staggering. Last year, according to unreliable Government figures, 311,135 students came to Britain bringing another 30,170 dependents with them.

How many “students” were on bogus courses or dropped out and disappeared? No-one knows.

Meanwhile universities, desperate to boost their income now British students must mortgage their futures to get an education, have found a champion in Vince Cable.

He won’t let the Tories do anything drastic.

So will the Coalition get tough on immigration? It doesn’t seem likely. Rather like the statistics, on this issue the Government doesn’t know if it’s coming or going.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

You've got to be cruel to be kind

The Government plans to make the long-term unemployed get up in the mornings and go to work. And if Archbishop of Canterbury condemns it then common sense tells us it must be a good idea.

He thinks making the work-shy get off their backsides will drive them to despair. But whenever Governments come up with a sensible plan you can be sure Establishment figures will be rushing for the barricades.

As if Archbishop Rowan Williams didn’t have enough trouble in his own vestry, he’s set himself up as the champion of unemployed.

Caring for the poor and dispossessed is, of course, what the Church of England is supposed to do. The Archbishop may think he’s being true to his calling.

But if he really wants to help the needy then giving them money to stay at home watching daytime TV is not the way to do it.

We have the deserving poor. For them, a life on benefits is a daily humiliation. They desperately want to work and they should be given every help to succeed.

We also have the undeserving poor – people think a life on benefits is theirs by right.

Why should they give up “Bargain Hunt” in exchange for some grotty job which doesn’t leave them any better off than they are sitting around doing nothing?

And we all know there are some people on benefits who actually manage to do very nicely thank you – because they claim benefits and work in the black economy.

Sadly, our welfare system has been distorted by such people. It’s no longer a safety net to catch people when they fall, it’s a cosy blanket to wrap everyone up and keep them warm.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith is talking sense when he argues that a life in work must be made more attractive than a life on the dole.

It cannot make sense for the taxpayer – or to people on benefits – to discover a life of idleness pays better than a bit of hard graft.

The Archbishop says: “People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure’s on in that way.

“And quite often it can make people start feeling vulnerable – even more vulnerable as time goes on – and that’s the kind of unfairness that I feel.”

He is right to say the five million people on out-of-work benefits are not “wicked, stupid or lazy” but he’s wrong to claim they are being penalised simply to save money.

Actually, those suffering from uncertainty and despair must do so from having no hope, nothing to look forward to and nothing to do.

Being stuck at home all day with no money and nobody to talk to isn’t much of a life.

Getting out and about, working with other people and re-learning some self-discipline must be a good first step on the road back to real work.

That’s not a punishment, that’s a benefit. For most people, it would restore some of their pride, give them a new purpose in life or, at the very least, a reason to get up in the morning.

Ambitious young students give their services free to potential employers for weeks at a time just to get some experience and so they have something extra to offer when it comes to real job interviews.

The same must apply to people who are out of work for a long time. At least if they get their hands dirty doing something socially-useful, it shows they’re trying.

True, there is a shortage of jobs at the moment. But there is also a surplus of imported foreign labour because so many Brits can’t be bothered to take the work that is on offer.

Of course, if Iain Duncan-Smith’s plans succeed, it will save us all billions of pounds. But that’s not the only reason he’s right.

Living on benefits is hard and not much fun. But for some people it’s become a way of life. The Archbishop should recognise that sometimes it’s necessary to be cruel to be kind.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not with a bang but a wimper

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament and now, 405 years later, David Cameron has done the job for him. At least no-one was hurt.

The European Court of Human Rights has decreed that prisoners in British jails must be allowed to vote in elections and, six years after that decision, we’ve caved in.

We’re told David Cameron is “exasperated and furious”.

As a response, that’s as pathetic as having to share our armed forces with the French.

As a betrayal, it’s even worse.

The Prime Minister came to power promising to scrap the legislation, imposed by Tony Blair, which created the human rights industry in this country.

Labour signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, something we had resisted doing for decades.

It was originally drawn up to save less happy lands from dictatorship. It aimed to defend the sort of human rights violated by people like Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy and, of course, Hitler.

Mercifully, we have never suffered that kind of evil Government so we never had a need for laws which enshrined our basic human rights – we had Magna Carta in 1215 and it served us well enough.

But in their desperation to be “at the heart of Europe”, Tony and his cronies gave us human rights which, in turn, gave every terrorist, murderer and whinger an excuse to take the Government to court at our expense.

Before the General Election, Cameron and Co pledged to scrap the human rights legislation and replace it.

Their plan for a British Bill of Rights would probably have been no great improvement but it was a start.

That plan has now been dropped. Instead, we must admit that British sovereignty no longer exists.

Our Parliament has decreed several times to ensure prisoners can’t vote. Yet one European Court ruling and elected representatives become irrelevant.

Mr Cameron’s decision to cave in proves our Parliament might as well not exist. Our
laws are made by unelected foreign institutions we have no control over. It’s as if we had surrendered to a foreign power.

It is disgusting that prisoners, people who have committed serious crimes, should have a say in choosing how we are governed.

One of the many offensive aspects is that the Government has caved in as a result of a case brought – with Legal Aid, of course – by a mad axe-man.

John Hirst killed his landlady with an axe. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He got out of jail after 25 years.

While he was inside, he discovered a desire to vote. Having taken the Government all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, he is out of jail and able to celebrate.

This vile specimen had the effrontery to post a YouTube video where says: “Well, I’ve got the joint, I’m going to celebrate. I’ve got the bottle of champagne and I’m going to celebrate because last night it was announced that prisoners have now got the vote, which I’m really chuffed about.

“I’m now going to celebrate for the 75,000 prisoners who will be getting the vote. That includes murderers, rapists and paedophiles. All of them will be getting the vote because it’s their human right to have the vote.”

Thanks to an assortment of judges, many from some of the farthest-flung corners of Europe where human rights have only just been invented, murderers, rapists and paedophiles may yet decide the course of British politics.

This, in itself, is a staggering betrayal by Mr Cameron. It shows, among other things, that he is the willing victim of his coalition with the Liberal-Democrats.

They, in fairness, actually believe prisoners should be allowed to vote – though they kept pretty quiet about it before the election. They also believe in Britain being run by Europe.

Now they’ve got their way – another case of the Lib-Dem tail wagging the Tory dog.

The people who now make British laws are the European Court judges. Among them are human rights expert Ganna Yudkivska, from the Ukraine; university lecturer Nebojsa Vucinic from Montenegro; and Khanlar Hajivev, president of the supreme court of Azerbaijan.

Did you vote for any of them? No, nor me.

I’m sure they’re all honourable and learned. But what do they know about this country? Indeed, what do they know about democracy and the vote?

David Cameron is guilty not just of the usual politician’s double-dealing. He is guilty of betraying his country.

He has surrendered to a foreign power without the least resistance.

This is not just about whether 70,000 convicts should be allowed to vote. It’s about who runs Britain.

If we concede defeat to the European courts, we can be as “exasperated and furious” as we like but he has submitted to an unelected foreign dictatorship.

The only consolation is that when prisoners do get to vote, even they will realise it’s not worth bothering if our Government can’t be bothered to run our country any more.

Guy Fawkes thought we needed a massive explosion to destroy Parliament. David Cameron’s done it with a damp squib.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Tories suspend S Staffs party

The Conservatives have suspended one of its most successful constituency parties and axed three senior officers, two of them councillors.

The 500-member South Staffordshire Conservative Association has been put on "special support" with ex-Birmingham Northfield MP Roger King parachuted in as chairman.

Coun David Billson and Coun Sonja Oatley have been forced to resign from the association's ruling executive by the Party Board over unfounded allegations against their chairman Lyndon Jones.

Mr Jones has also been forced out and has quit the party over the "kangaroo court" which sealed his fate.

The departures follow a high-level two-month inquiry into allegations against Mr Jones carried out by the Tories’ Staffordshire Area Management Executive chaired by Mr Charles Boote.

The inquiry's final report concludes that “an undercurrent of bad feeling” was in danger of “spiralling out of control”.

It says there was “strong evidence of an attempt to undermine the chairman. In particular there have been unproven rumours of previous membership of the National Front or similar organisations and charges of rigging of a selection vote. Both of these could be highly damaging to the party were they to be reported in the press”.

Mr Jones was also accused of using his position to win a pay rise for his wife, who is the association’s organising secretary. But he was cleared by the inquiry which said he “behaved properly in absenting himself from key decisions affecting his wife’s employment contract”.

The report said South Staffordshire District Councillor Oatley had to go because she was guilty of leaking confidential information to members and undermining Mr Jones.

It says of Coun Billson, who is a district and county councillor, that he “has taken certain actions and made a number of allegations that have undermined the chairman. None of these allegations have turned out to be true and Coun Billson has presented no evidence to support them.”

Both councillors have been removed from the local party executive.

The report says of Mr Jones: “The chairman has exhibited a high degree of dedication to the association during his term in office.

The report also states: “However, he has permitted the paid employees to assume responsibility for issues with, and write e-mails to, volunteers that rightly fall within his remit. In doing so, the chairman has abdicated an important responsibility and has allowed situations to develop and fester.”

Mr Jones commented that as paid employees it would be part of an Organising Secretary’s job to respond to emails.

The report says the association must introduce new employment policies “as a matter of urgency” and it would be “inappropriate” for Mr Jones to remain as chairman.

Mr Jones said he had repeatedly told the area management executive that the Organising Secretary already had both a contract of employment and a job description, but he was ignored.

He became chairman 18 months ago following a selection where he was voted as Chairman by a large majority of the members and at the time of his election the Conservative Party wrote to the association confirming there was no objection to Mr Jones getting the post even though his wife was an employee.

A furious Mr Jones said: “I was never in the BNP and I never took part in any decisions regarding the Organising Secretary’s wages. I asked for advice from the party and they immediately suspended the association, told me we could not hold any more meetings, and launched an investigation.

“I do not know what I have done wrong. This is a stitch-up kangaroo court. They are really scraping the barrel if it’s because I didn’t personally reply to all the e-mails we receive.

“I have never been allowed to defend myself. As a convicted criminal I would have more opportunity to defend myself than this.”

He said some councillors may have been angry because he had tried to ensure the local party stuck to the Conservatives’ rules on the selection of council candidates.

Mr Jones added: “I am very disappointed I have had no support from our
MP Gavin Williamson after I was his chief aide and had three weeks off work for the General Election. I was with him every single day of the campaign,” said Mr Jones.

“As his Association Chairman, I would have expected his support. I am a working man who was doing a good job and feel very let down by the Conservative Party. Obviously I do not fit in.”

At the General Election, the Conservative majority in South Staffordshire increased from 8,847 to 16,950, making it one of the party’s safest seats in the country.

Coun Billson said: “I have been struck down from the executive, so has Mr Jones and one other person but I am not allowed to talk about it and that would be the situation at the moment.”

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Eric Pickles - a correction

Turns out I was wrong to complain the Staffordshire South Conservatives were only “bullied, browbeaten and betrayed” by Eric Pickles. They were blackmailed as well.

The Tories’ answer to John Prescott told them that if they insisted on choosing Nigel Hastilow as one of the six candidates to be interviewed for the seat, he would have no hesitation in suspending the whole association and imposing three candidates of his choosing on the local party.

When asked about the letter he sent me (see blog from January 17) he just shrugged.

More news about South Staffs Conservatives coming soon

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Telephone banking? Hardly

Another hideous story about banks and recession reaches me. The boss of a small company had to call in the receivers – because he couldn’t call in his bankers.

For months the poor man has been trying to attract the attention of his friendly neighbourhood bankers.

Though we, the taxpayers, own this bank, its staff ignored him, never returned his calls, didn’t bother to look at his e-mails and were “not in” when he visited. As the company’s cash-flow got worse, the boss grew desperate.

Last year he cut his employees from 26 to 13. Things have looked a bit better in the past few months.

Unfortunately, he makes children’s toys so the best time for business is in the build-up to Christmas.

To get to the most profitable time of year, he needs to spend money before he can accumulate it again. This is where the bank is supposed to help with loans and overdrafts.

Our man needed £50,000 – not much in the great scheme of things. He never got it.

Now the banks are under scrutiny, they are reluctant to say no to someone like my toy-maker. They might get into trouble with the politicians – and then what would happen to their multi-million pound bonuses?

It’s much easier to pretend your customers never even bothered to ask for your help. Ignore them and hope they go away – or go bust – without the need to turn them down flat.

The truth is, banks have changed. A few years ago, they threw money around like confetti.

These days, they won’t lend you a penny unless you pay hefty charges, extortionate rates of interest and promise them your house, car, golf clubs, wife, kids and dog if it all goes wrong.

On Tuesday there was a little demonstration outside the Council House in Birmingham as Unison members held a sing-song in protest over the axing of 200 jobs.

A young woman handed me a leaflet calling on me to join a “stuff your cuts, we won’t pay” demo outside the International Convention Centre on October 3 when the Conservative Party conference kicks off there.

To add extra potential for unhappiness, it seems the police are trying to divert the protestors away from the ICC.

This is all in aid of protecting heavily unionised public-sector workers, who seem to think they are on the “front line” when it comes to the new austerity.

They are mistaken. The first blast of cold air is already rushing through the private sector. Look what’s happened to the public housing maintenance firm Connaught.

Quite why it went bust is a bit of a mystery. It had contracts with local authorities and, even if they were being run down, that doesn’t really justify calling in the receivers.

It’s clear, though, the threat of Government spending cuts had already hammered the company’s share price.

It’s happening to dozens of businesses, especially construction firms which have seen plans to build new schools shrivel and die.

Supposedly, we have clambered out of recession and the economy is improving. Most experts think it’s unlikely we’ll fall back into another one – the much-feared “double dip” – but it is a real possibility.

We won’t know the full impact of Government spending cuts until October 20, when Chancellor George Osborne delivers the bad news.

What’s worrying is how Ministers go on about what desperate financial times these are. I understand they want to place all the blame on Gordon Brown.

But they lay it on so thick it’s enough to make the average consumer stay at home and hoard tins of baked beans rather than stimulate the economy by going shopping.

David Cameron’s rhetoric is making things worse. The economy needs public spending cuts and they will have nasty consequences, in the short term anyway.

When the marchers reach the ICC next month, when public sector workers go on strike, when riots take place in Westminster and when tax hikes lead to a spending slump, do people like Cameron and Nick Clegg have the courage to stick to their plans?

Even if the dynamic duo stand firm, will their parties? The Lib-Dems are already pretty flaky.

Few of their MPs or members signed up for the toughest austerity package in history – an election tomorrow and they’d be out on their ears.

In opposition, their hero Vince Cable, now an unhappy Business Secretary, was full of talk about reining in the banks, tackling obscene bonuses and forcing them to lend to small businesses again.

Since getting power? Nothing.

For the Coalition to survive, the least it must do is make sure private businesses also survive. That means dealing with the banks.

There are options. Vince could, for instance, prevent banks demanding personal guarantees from company directors. He could make banks take on the debt many companies now have with the taxman.

He could insist that all bank bonuses are paid into a fund to support small businesses and the money could only be taken out after five years.

If he could make bank managers answer the phone once in a while it would be a start.

A Government in a hurry

David Cameron banged on about fairness at the Conservative conference in Birmingham. But there’s precious little fairness in what he’s planning to do.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was garlanded with praise for his overhaul of the benefits system but actually he’s proposing to make the existing unfairnesses worse.

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled his big idea, which is axing child benefit for top earners. Yet within minutes, his plans were unravelling because they were so unfair.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke insisted it was right to make prisoners work and promised to pay them £12,000 a year. But how can it be fair to offer jobs to criminals when honest men and women are out of work?

The Prime Minister told us “fairness is giving people what they deserve”.

OK then, let’s look at who gets what in our Big Society.

Child benefit won’t go to anyone earning the top rate of tax. That means a married man with a non-working wife will lose child benefit when his earnings hit £44,000 a year. But if he and his wife each earn £43,900 – totalling £87,800 – they will get child benefit.

It took only moments for even Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne to realise that, as leaders of the self-proclaimed “party of the family”, gunning for middle-class mums is a monumental miscalculation.

So they cobbled together a promise to introduce a tax allowance for married men which will doubtless wipe out the £1 billion saved by the benefit cut.
Fairness was not their guiding light. They just wanted to screw more money from the better-off.

Then Mr Duncan Smith announced that in future nobody would be entitled to State benefits of more than £500 a week.

Has he considered how that compares with the income of ordinary working people?
He might be interested to know that half the workers in the West Midlands earn £456.40 a week or less – and they have to pay tax on it.

His benefit cap is £26,000 a year. To earn that much, somebody in work needs to have a salary before tax of £35,000 because tax and National Insurance will cut his take-home pay to £26,000.

You need to be in the top 15 per cent of all earners in the country to have a salary of £35,000.

Ironically, the average taxable income is £25,800, more or less equal to the maximum Mr Duncan Smith would give you for not working.

Out of that, someone in a job must pay tax and National Insurance so his real income falls to £19,725.65 – £6,000 less than you might get for sitting at home and doing nothing.

One reason for the cap is to stop the State paying massive rent bills for families on benefits living in Mayfair and Belgravia. They will have to move out of their London mansions into more modest accommodation.

This will lead to an exodus from the capital as people are forced to find cheaper places to rent. In other words, London will simply export its problem families and dump them on the rest of us. That’s not fair either.

Then Ken Clarke declares it’s time to put prisoners to work. It’s a nice idea, especially when he says a quarter of their earnings will go to their victims.

Out of the £232 a week he wants to pay them, prisoners will get £20, presumably to buy drugs. Some of the rest will pay for their bed and board and a little may even find its way to their families.

This “porridge pays” policy would see crooks and thieves inputting computer data, repairing shoes and recycling rubbish.

These jobs could all be done by people on the outside. Is our economy so desperate for workers that nobody else is available?

Of course not. If paid jobs are on offer they should go to people who, even if they would prefer a life of leisure, at least have the merit of not being in prison.

Where is the fairness in giving jobs to criminals at the expense of people on the outside who might be grateful for the work?

If fairness is “giving people what they deserve” then mothers who stay at home to look after their children do not deserve to be denied benefits which still go to families with two working parents.

This is a Government in a hurry. It may be because the Tories have been out of power for so long or because they’re afraid they won’t stay there very long.

Either way, in their rush for “change”, they are making terrible mistakes and storing up more trouble for later.

Worse still, they were clearly so frightened of the backlash over child benefit cuts they dashed out a promise to help married couples overnight.

That tends to suggest they don’t have the courage of their convictions. When the going gets tough, they hoist the white flag of surrender.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Emptiness of Dave's Big Society

Pity Dave has abandoned giving speeches without notes. His party conference address in Birmingham was drearily filled with rhetorical piffle and meaningless politico-speak.

You could tell it was written for him, not by him, and it was made worse because he didn't actually read his speech terribly well and stumbled over the words.

You could also tell that some marketing guru thought it a brilliant wheeze to fill it with silly phrases like “beating, radical heart” and “we are the radicals now”.

The big phrase was, of course, Big Society. This is still a most bizarre concept. Dave clearly wants it to be his legacy. But it’s like a label which gets put on even the shoddiest products to make them look shiny and new – Big Society is the new eco.

Just as every spiv and charlatan has taken to labelling his wizard wheezes eco- to make it look cool and trendy and on-message, now everyone will pretend their products and services are part of the Big Society.

Labour gave us the meaningless twaddle of “stakeholders”; Dave gives us “Big Society”. They are equally empty.

Listening to our Prime Minister, I was left wondering whether, rather than trying to convince the rest of the country of the merits of his case, he was actually trying to convince himself.

Monday, October 04, 2010

This is luxury you can't afford

How much longer must we endure being dictated to by the European Union? Its latest edict means we must find up to £2.5 billion a year to entertain “benefit tourists”.

Refusing them handouts breaches their human rights. So we must give them jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, pension credit and income support.

People from across the Continent will make a beeline for Britain if, as the EU demands, we are forced to dole out money to all Europe’s benefit scroungers.

This is just the latest in a long line of offensive decisions imposed on us by our lords and masters in Brussels.

Ministers are at each other’s throats over spending cuts – with Defence Secretary Liam Fox issuing a stark warning about the damage they will do to the armed forces.

It would be madness for us to take on the burden of funding Europe’s down-and-outs just because the Brussels bureaucracy thinks its human rights laws are more important than our struggle for economic survival.

In 2007, when he was still making his way as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron offered crowd-pleasing opposition to EU human rights laws imposed on Britain a decade ago by Tony Blair.

He was protesting over the fact that the law prevented the deportation of Italian-born Learco Chindamo, who killed headmaster Philip Lawrence, even though the Home Office considered him a threat to the public.

Mr Cameron said: "It has to go. Abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which sets out rights and responsibilities. The fact that the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be deported flies in the face of common sense.

"It is a glaring example of what is going wrong in our country. What about the rights of Mrs Lawrence? The problem for this Government is that the Human Rights Act is their legislation and they appear to be blind to its failings."

You would think from comments like these that one of Mr Cameron’s first acts as Prime Minister would be to abolish the legislation.

Yet even before he failed to win the General Election, he was watering this down. It turned out his Bill of Rights would still leave this country ruled by the European Court of Human Rights.

Then, to cobble together his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Mr Cameron has abandoned these plans altogether. There will be no cancellation of the human rights laws and the Bill of Rights has been shelved.

The boost to benefit tourism will cost us between £1.3 billion and £2.5 billion a year – yet the Government is desperately trying to cut welfare spending and crack down on benefit cheats.

How could it possibly justify hammering its own citizens when it offers an open door and a blank cheque to people from Lithuania, Latvia and Romania?

The European Union is not only trying to impose its bizarre view of human rights on us, it is also seeking to rob us blind.

The EU’s Budget Commissioner, Polish economist Janusz Lewandowski, is campaigning to end the “rebate” Mrs Thatcher negotiated with the EU back in 1984 when she declared: "We are simply asking to have our own money back."

Tony Blair did a deal which will has seen the rebate halved from £5 billion to £2.5 billion. Mr Lewandowski wants to see it axed altogether.

Even with the rebate, we are giving the EU £8.3 billion this year and, under Mr Blair’s deal, that increases to £10.3 billion by 2014.

Where is all this money coming from? How can we afford it?

It’s bad enough Ministers protecting the foreign aid budget which sees millions of pounds leak into the hands of monsters and terrorists. How can they justify increasing our payments to Brussels?

The EU boasts about how much money Britain received in grants from Brussels. It’s so desperate to win the propaganda war that any development completed with EU support must fly the blue European flag with its gold stars.

It even fines people who forget this little detail. It cost development agency Advantage West Midlands £200,000 and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce £77,609.
Yet for every £1 the EU gives us, we give it £2. That is not, and never has been, a good deal for Britain.

The blight of benefit tourism won’t simply be the amount of money it costs. What will all these people do with themselves all day long if they have no work and no intention of looking for any? We can be pretty sure their activities will not all remain on the right side of the law.

Rather like being a member of a golf club or subscribing to Sky TV, EU membership may have been one of life’s little luxuries. It allowed our leaders to jet around Europe at our expense being important.

Surely the time has come when we have to say to our friends across the English Channel that their Union is a jolly nice idea and we wish it well but money’s a bit tight and we simply can’t afford the cost of membership any longer.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

BBC needs more reality TV

It’s not surprising Sir Michael Lyons is giving up as chairman of the BBC Trust. He knows when he’s onto a loser.

The former chief executive of Wolverhampton and Birmingham councils was appointed to the job by the old Labour Government. He was one of their trusties, having been a Labour councillor at an early stage in his career.

With the BBC under scrutiny as never before, we can reasonably assume he quit before was pushed out of his £204,000-a-year three-day-a-week job.

Things are getting nasty at the Beeb and they’re not likely to settle down any time soon.

The broadcasting unions are threatening to black out part of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham next month. We may also face blank BBC TV screens when the Government unveils its controversial spending cuts on October 20.

The 48-hour strikes over plans to limit the BBC’s generous pensions scheme will not do the national broadcaster any good.

Instead of causing the viewers and the Government maximum inconvenience, which is usually the aim of any strike, all it will do is play into the hands of the BBC’s rivals.

The unions live in the dark ages when the BBC enjoyed a near monopoly over the airwaves.

These days, there are hundreds of TV channels to choose from. This bewildering, and often dispiriting, variety of output does not guarantee quality, of course.

Some of the stuff you get with a Sky TV subscription is so embarrassingly bad it’s a wonder how the stations which churn it out can survive financially. And many of the Freeview channels are not worth wasting your life watching.

Even so, politics junkies can find more than enough coverage of party political conferences and Government spending reviews without having to go anywhere near the BBC.

The Corporation is still a national institution like the NHS. We seem to love it for all its faults. Yet if you look closely at what the BBC does, you have to wonder whether we need it any more.

We pay £145.50 for the privilege of watching television, whether we ever look at a BBC programme or not.

Most people, most of the time, still seem to think this is decent value for money. The licence is certainly a lot cheaper than even the most basic Sky package.

If payment was voluntary, rather than being the legally-enforced poll tax that it is today, the BBC’s income would fall substantially from today’s £3.5 billion but it would still yield a small fortune.

Sadly, we don’t have that option which is why the Corporation is under such scrutiny over how much it pays its stars like Jonathan Ross and why its executive directors’ salary and expenses are now public property.

It may be OK for BBC Director General Mark Thompson to claim £2,236.90 and £1,277.71 to cut short family holidays and fly home to deal with urgent business but it doesn’t look good. Especially when you know he was paid £778,000 last year.

The BBC attracts hostile attention partly because the papers and TV stations on the attack are owned by commercial rivals. They see the Corporation’s privileged financial position as a distortion of a free market in broadcasting.

That helps to explain why it seems to be under constant bombardment from the rest of the media. But it doesn’t invalidate their complaints.

The BBC’s expansion – especially its attempt to dominate the internet – are rarely justified by its public service broadcasting charter.

That’s because, even though they are highly-paid, it’s executives do not really know what the organisation is for any more.

If “public service” were the real objective, the BBC wouldn’t need all the TV and radio channels it now owns. It would not produce pap aimed at winning an increasingly-irrelevant ratings war. And it would not fork out millions on “talent”.

Apart from the sacred cow of the NHS, everyone in the public sector is facing huge spending cuts. They must be applied to the BBC as well.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will soon embark on new negotiations over the licence fee. The time has come to debate the options. One would be to close down many BBC activities, sell them off and cut the fee to no more than £100.

In my view, it would be better if the whole monstrous edifice were sold off in a massive privatisation which could make billons for the Government at a time when cash is short.

Luckily for the BBC, though, it is still valued enough by viewers and listeners that a sell-off is not on the cards.

Even so, it’s a fat, monstrous old auntie sitting complacently on its sofa sucking sweeties paid for by the hard-up taxpayer. It needs a fitness regime if it’s to survive.

The unions may think blacking out the Tory party conference is a dramatic statement of intent but they’re asking for trouble.

Sir Michael has six months of his contract to go. He should give the BBC a dose of reality TV. If he switches off now, the unions shouldn’t complain if the rest of us switch off too.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Mr Incredibly Stupid

If ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson did not know his reporters were illegally tapping the phones of various prominent people then he is incredibly stupid and utterly incompetent. If he says he didn’t know but, actually, he did, then he is a liar. Either way, he shouldn’t be employed at the heart of David Cameron’s Government. For once, it’s hard not to sympathise with John Prescott.

I suppose only an appalling cynic would wonder if the furore over William Hague not being gay, and Mr Coulson's embarrassment were in any way connected but it is coincidentally a useful smokescreen for the ex-News of the Screws boss to hide behind. Let's wait until the smoke clears.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bounty hunters? Try paradise

David Cameron is right to employ bounty hunters to crack down on benefit cheats. But why stop there? What about bounty hunters to crack down on tax evaders as well?

They cost the honest taxpayer far more than the unemployed underclass.

Some estimates put the “tax gap” at £120 billion. The taxman says it’s £40 billion.

The Coalition is to employ an army of snoopers, on a five per cent commission, to trawl through people’s bills and financial records in search of benefit frauds.

No doubt they’ll find a reasonable number of people. Mr Cameron claims fraud costs the honest taxpayer £1.5 billion a year.

The benefits system is so complicated, though, that genuine mistakes by claimants and the Government come to another £3.7 billion of money “wasted”.

Some fraudsters aren’t hard to spot. Court cases crop up regularly involving the bloke who claims he’s laid up with a bad back and is out cleaning windows or someone with a gammy leg who turns out for his Sunday league side every week.

It may be that Dave’s army of curtain-twitchers and dustbin-snoopers will save us a fortune. Let’s hope so.

But if we’re taking a high moral tone about the feckless and idle, what about the rich and industrious?

We can’t really be sure how much benefit fraud costs because it’s a crime people try very hard to conceal. In the same way, nobody really knows how large the “tax gap” is either.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, our official tax-gatherers, put the figure at £40 billion. Other experts say it’s three times as much.

Either way, the Government is missing out on a vast sum of money.

The difference between what the Revenue thinks it ought to receive and what it actually gets – the tax gap – includes illegally evaded taxes and those which are legally avoided.

There is nothing wrong with making sure you tax bill is as low as possible. It’s up to the Government to make sure the laws are watertight.

If big multi-national companies and lucky billionaires can find ways to cut their tax bills and stay on the right side of the law, good luck to them.

Some people claim it’s immoral to keep your tax bill to the legal minimum. But few of us would willingly pay more tax than necessary – especially when we see how much of it is wasted. Morality has nothing to do with it.

Tax avoidance is fair and reasonable. It’s up to the Treasury to deal with loopholes in the law.

But there would be no harm in appointing an army of bounty hunters to go after individuals and companies which actively evade paying tax.

Imagine who might fall into that category. For instance anyone who has paid a builder in cash, to avoid the VAT, or failed to declare their earnings, could be ripe for investigation.

The black economy – or “shadow economy” if you’re politically-correct – is worth billions and set to grow when VAT hits 20 per cent in January.

But a few cash-jobs are chicken-feed. From time to time we hear of great HMRC triumphs when a gang of VAT cheats or cigarette smugglers get brought to justice.

In May, 21 people, including nine men from the West Midlands, was jailed for a £37.5 million VAT fraud.

Last month, Wolverhampton car-parts dealer Balbir Baden was jailed for evading £270,000 of VAT and income tax.

Even these cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

HMRC says in its annual report that “the proportion of UK taxpayers who are willing and able to pay their taxes has increased from 49.1 per cent to 51.6”.

This is apparently seen as something of a success. But it means that almost half of the people and companies in Britain are either unwilling or unable to cough up. That’s a lot of potential for our bounty-hunters.

One of the most bizarre legacies of Gordon Brown’s time at the Treasury is that he spent many years cutting down the number of tax-gatherers.

For someone desperate to spend our money, it’s surprising he was so negligent about collecting it all in the first place. But he was.

As a result, the revenue doesn’t have enough experienced staff to crack difficult tax cases. They are far more likely to come down hard on the corner shop-owner than they are on the multi-national corporation.

There are one or two household name businesses which manage to pay little, if any, tax in this country or anywhere else for that matter.

So why doesn’t the Government accept its own customs men aren’t up to the job and hand the task of chasing the missing billions to the private sector?

The vast sums of revenue the Government misses out on – maybe more than ten times as much as it pays out to benefit fraudsters – must be worthy of investigation by a few privatised bounty hunters.

There is a simple alternative, of course. Cut taxes so drastically it’s no longer worth trying to evade payment and Government income would actually go up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We can still make it

Anyone with any sense watches “Top Gear”. The larking about by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond is the only thing that saves the BBC from drowning in political correctness.

But they did something unusual for the last episode in the series. They performed a requiem for the British motor industry buy taking a Lotus Elan, a TVR S2 and the Jensen Healey for a spin across the country.

They visited the shut down Jensen factory in West Bromwich and went on to the similarly abandoned TVR plant in Blackpool.

There was plenty of messing about and schoolboy pranks on the way but in the end this was a plaintive lament for the death of the British motor industry from three of its all-time fans.

At one point in the show, Clarkson kicks around the Jensen factory and says: “In the 1970s, 26 per cent of the British workforce was employed by manufacturing. Today it’s nine per cent. It’s not that we don’t make sports cars any more – we don’t make anything.”

The other day I drove past the old Longbridge plant in Birmingham, once the biggest car-factory in Europe. A bit of building is going on but most of it’s a flattened wasteland.

For someone who was brought up just down the road from “the Austin”, it’s a sorry sight.

Even so, Clarkson and co are wrong. The British car industry is not dead. Actually, it is alive and well.

The difference these days from the lamentable past is that it’s foreign-owned and the unions seem to have learned their lesson the hard way.

Globalisation, consolidation and rationalisation put paid to the dozens of famous old names and marques we used to know and love.

Instead, the industry is owned by a handful of multi-nationals. Like the big banks, some of them are incompetently run and rely on Government handouts to keep them alive – just ask General Motors.

Yet while successive British Governments have cared less and less about the ability of this country to make things, somehow industry has carried on regardless.

Astonishing as it may seem, British factories are manufacturing hundreds of thousands of cars a year. And many of them are being exported to foreign countries.

We are not the world power we once were when it comes to sheer numbers. We’re 11th in the world car-production league table which puts us behind Brazil, Mexico, Canada and Spain but we’re still ahead of Italy.

Jensen Motors ceased trading in 1976. The following year, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, British industry manufactured no fewer than 1,315,972 cars and commercial vehicles.

That was, admittedly, down on the 1.9 million the industry hit at its peak in 1972 but even in 1976 people were talking about the death of British manufacturing –warning it was on the way unless the unions backed off.

They didn’t, as we all know, and so famous companies started to go to the wall. A lot of old names are no more: Hilman, Riley, Triumph and Sunbeam to name but a few.

Even so, new models and new manufacturers have taken their place. This country still makes Minis, for instance, and very successful they are too.

OK, so they are made in Oxford by German-owned BMW but, given the fiasco that MG Rover became after it was flogged off to the Phoenix Four, we’re lucky anything was salvaged from the wreckage.

Meanwhile companies like Ford and Vauxhall continue to make cars here as well as Nissan, Toyota and Honda.

Because they’re foreign-owned there is, perhaps, more chance that they will abandon ship and go elsewhere. But plenty of British-owned companies have done that already so patriotism won’t help much either way.

What we can say, though, is that things have not got any worse since Jensen stopped making cars in West Bromwich.

The British motor industry may employ fewer people but that’s because the manufacturing processes are so much better. And it churns out pretty much the same number of cars we were making 34 years ago.

In 1980 we made 1.3 million vehicles in this country. In 1990, the number had risen to 1.5 million. In 2000, it was 1.8 million and was still at 1.6 million in 2008.

Admittedly last year was a nightmare for car-makers. As we all know, factories shut down for months on end and nobody wanted to buy anything because of the credit crunch and the recession.

In 2009, the number of vehicles made in this country only just squeezed above the one million mark at 1,090,139.

But the industry has bounced back this year. In the first six months, we made 701,266 vehicles. And guess what? No fewer than half a million of them were for export.

We might not make Jensens and TVRs any longer but Clarkson is wrong to sound the death knell for British manufacturing. We still have the engineering, the design, the technology and the workers to compete in world markets.

It’s just a pity we don’t seem to have the bosses and the investors to lead the way.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's so special about this relationship?

What’s so special about our “special relationship” with the United States?

David Cameron was at it again in Washington after his meeting with President Obama, waxing lyrical about how much the countries have in common.

Even then, he admitted Britain was the “junior partner” – though “America’s poodle” might be a better term.

Why are we so subservient to the Americans? True, it’s a good idea to stay on the right side of the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation on earth”.

But it’s a very one-sided relationship. We do the Americans’ bidding; they kick us, especially when we’re down.

This week, Congress has been up in arms about why the Scottish Government released Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is alive and well and living in Libya.

The accusation is that the Blair Government sold out the victims of that terrorist outrage in exchange for lucrative oil rights for BP.

BP – or “British Petroleum” as Mr Obama likes to call it – is Corporate Enemy Number One in the USA because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Americans are desperate to distance themselves from this disaster and, as a result of their hectoring, there’s every chance one of Britain’s most famous and successful companies could disappear.

The Lockerbie fiasco is being used by the Americans as another stick to beat BP with. Yet instead of standing up to defend the company, Mr Cameron promises an inquiry.

This is typical of the way our leaders behave towards the Americans. Even Winston Churchill was forced to treat them with kid gloves – and he was half American.

The USA has never rushed to our side in our hours of need. Americans think the 1914-18 Great War started in 1917 when they finally agreed to play some part in the struggle.

As for the Second World War, we are now celebrating the Battle of Britain which took place during the summer of 1940.

Why did Britain stand alone against the might of Hitler’s Nazi war machine?

Why was the beacon of liberty a guttering flame kept alight by a few RAF airmen and the bloody but unbowed attitude of the British people and its wartime Prime Minister?

Because the Americans wouldn’t help us. They were desperate to stay out of the war.

Churchill did everything he could to interest President Roosevelt in taking an active part but he refused to commit. It wasn’t until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 – more than two years after the outbreak of war – that the United States were finally forced into action.

For Britain, the Japanese attack was a turning point even if it may not have felt like it at the time.

Finally, the Americans became our allies and comrades in arms. Not because they wanted to support us but because suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, they had no choice.

By the end of the war, Churchill was able to coin his “special relationship” phrase which we’ve been saddled with ever since.

It hasn’t been plain sailing, though. Mainly because the relationship is not between equals or even senior and junior partners. It’s more like master and servant.

Almost 100,000 British troops supported the Americans in the Korean war from 1950 to 1953. Three years later this country was humiliated around the world when the United States refused to back our defence of the Suez Canal.

Mercifully, Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to America’s war in Vietnam. That may help explain why America found it impossible to back us when Argentina invaded the Falklands.

Though Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan worked well together to bring an end to Soviet Communism, it was still a fairly one-sided affair.

Britain became America’s European aircraft carrier, the home for cruise missiles and bombing raids on Libya.

If only Tony Blair had shown some of Harold Wilson’s mettle, British soldiers would not have invaded Iraq on the basis of sexed-up dossiers and they would not be dying in Afghanistan.

Those two wars, more than anything, show the shameful nature of this country’s relationship with America.

If Mr Cameron and Mr Obama plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in five years’ time, their promise is an admission of defeat.

Meanwhile British soldiers will continue to lose their lives during a long, painful and humiliating retreat.

Yes, America is a great country; we should be on friendly terms.

That’s different from slavish fawning just because they’re strong, we’re weak and we happen to speak more or less the same language.

For all their dominance, Americans are sensitive souls. It seems they’re unhappy because Mr Cameron, talking of his admiration for their country, said: “I think of my grandfather going ashore at D-Day, with the Americans in support of the British.”

Grandfather Cameron may have made it onto the beaches but every American knows Tom Hanks liberated Europe for the Yanks.

And what do the Americans think of the “special relationship”? Nothing at all. As the novelist Julian Barnes said: “Any foreigner visiting the United States can perform an easy magic trick: buy a newspaper and see your own country disappear.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Home is where the wallet is

House prices are stagnating and may not improve until 2015. Good. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place and it’s about time we looked on a house as a home not an investment.

Moat is no martyr

Why is anybody sorry the police ended up killing Raoul Moat? Some kids seem to regard him as an outlaw hero and he certainly ran rings around the police. Even so, it was not the police’s job to keep Moat alive and we’re well rid of him.

Nazis in wigs

A radio host has lost a fight to clear his name after calling a councillor a Nazi for banning smokers from adopting children. But it’s the High Court judges who are the Nazis. Because whatever you think of the council ban, surely people have the right to criticise. The word Nazi may be offensive but if we lose the right to be rude to people we lose a precious slice of our remaining freedom.

Berks and burkas

It’s tempting to want to follow the French in banning the burka, described across the Channel as a “walking coffin”. I hate them and, far from oppressing women, I believe they are used by many as a deliberate rejection of the society they live in. There are certainly times when people should be required to show their faces: at banks, when asked to do so by the police, at border controls or in job interviews, for instance. But we must not follow suit because people must have the freedom to stand out from the crowd no matter how anti-social or undesirable they look. Or are we saying that women who wear burkas are all terrorists?

Fun in the sun

Looks like we’re taking fewer foreign holidays because of the recession. Holidays at home are great if the weather’s good but they are invariably more expensive than abroad. Have you tried paying for a hotel recently? We stayed at a complete dive the other night and it cost a fortune.

In the wrong

Nobody cares about the schools in Sandwell – not Michael Gove and not Ed Balls. This is about politics, not education.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Time for another mutiny on the bounty

If charity begins at home and Britain faces cuts running into billions of pounds, why are we planning to increase spending on international aid to China?

Why, for that matter, are we planning to spend more money in India, which has one of the few booming economies left in the world?

Or Zimbabwe, which is run by Robert Mugabe, a dictator every bit as unpleasant as Saddam Hussein ever was?

Or the Pitcairn Islands, for that matter?

The coalition Government is adopting a slash and burn approach to public spending.

Thousands of jobs will go as Ministers struggle to bring down Britain’s massive debt from £163 billion.

We had a small taste of it this week when Chancellor George Osborne detailed how he would save a modest £6.2 billion this year.

Even that provoked howls of anguish – imagine how much more unpleasant things will get when Mr Osborne has had time to go through the books in more detail.

Yet international aid is safe. Actually not just safe – the Government plans to spend more money on it than ever before.

This year we are spending £9.1 billion. Ministers may think that’s a small price to pay for keeping Bono and Bob Geldof off their backs.

And of course vast swathes of the world are impoverished. People are dying of disease and starvation. Everybody should do what they can to help.

Except that large sums of aid end up in the hands of corrupt dictators and murderous warlords.

If we can’t afford to spend as much on welfare and schools at home, surely we should spend less abroad as well.

Yet in the Queen’s Speech the Government promised spending on international aid would carry on growing.

The speech declared piously: “We won’t balance the budget on the back of the world’s poorest people.”

This self-righteousness “will place Britain in a position of clear international leadership, encourage other countries to live up to their commitments and generate momentum ahead of September’s UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals”.

That’s all very nice and fluffy and will help International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield, sleep soundly in his bed at night.
But why protect international aid? Why, for example, are we spending £40.2 million in China?

China overtook Britain as an economic superpower in 2006 and will be second only to the USA by the end of this year.

It may be an undemocratic, dangerously unstable abuser of human rights but a few million quid from little Britain won’t change it.

Especially when some of the money we spend in China goes on teaching children to campaign against climate change.

Britain’s biggest financial commitment goes to India, which gets over half a billion pounds.

We’ve all seen “Slumdog Millionaire”. We know the divide between India’s rich and poor is enormous.

But India is already the world’s 12th largest economy and will, according to experts, overtake Britain within the next five years.

India is so rich its top industrialists come over to here to buy up what’s left of our manufacturing industry. To them, we’re the Third World, not the other way round.

Naturally, we spend hundreds of millions in Pakistan but we can’t even get them to promise not to torture people.

We’re spending £79 million teaching conservation farming techniques in Zimbabwe – a country which bans the BBC because its dictator wants to hide how he is destroying it.

Aid for Zimbabwe farmers wouldn’t be needed at all if Mr Mugabe hadn’t allowed the farms to be over-run and destroyed by machete-wielding thugs. Our money is keeping him in power.

Then there’s the Pitcairn Islands (pop 50), in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, home to descendants of the mutineers who kicked Captain Bligh off his ship, HMS Bounty.

Our £2 million pays for a prison to house six men jailed for sex abuse.

True, we give money to deserving causes as well. Places such as Hungary and Croatia, even Saudi Arabia have all been beneficiaries of our generosity.

It may be there was a time when we were so rich we could afford to spread our money around like a drinker at the Last Chance Saloon. You’d have thought those days were over.

The Government is using foreign aid as a reasonably cheap way of extending its appeal to bleeding-heart Liberals. Britain is now world leader in giving away taxpayers’ money to undeserving causes around the world.

Even when it goes to countries in desperate need, there’s every chance it will only make matters worse.

International aid worth billions has poured into Sudan yet the country is starving. Civil war in Darfur has left two million people homeless and killed maybe 200,000. It’s home to Al Qaeda’s terrorists.

Britain spent £54 million on Sudan’s elections earlier this year – and they were even less free and fair than our own.

Spending cuts may be necessary but they will be hard and unpleasant. Ministers need to think again about those parts of the world where they want to lavish even more of our money. Call it mutiny on the bounty.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Prescott gets his just desserts

Good to see John Prescott joining the upper toffs after all these years. Give a class warrior a sniff of ermine and suddenly the workers can look after themselves. Champagne, comrade?

If the coalition isn't split it should be

Vince Cable claims the coalition is not split over plans to raise capital gains tax to 50 per cent – to which the only answer is that it should be.

What are the Cameroon Liberals playing at? A young entrepreneur told me today: “I feel very strongly about this.

“Eight years ago, I took a risk. I was offered a good, safe, extremely well-paid job but I set up my own business.

“If this tax rise goes through, even if my business goes as planned, I would have been better off taking the safe job – and I wouldn’t have had to spend the last ten years worrying about money and where the next contract is coming from.”

As my friend points out, using CGT to hammer people with second homes and a few shares will only leave them worse off and more likely to become dependent on the taxpayer in their old age.

Meanwhile the major buy-to-let landlords can afford clever advice to make sure they get registered abroad and probably don’t need to worry about tax at all.

There is a terrible irony here. It was a Labour Government which cut capital gains tax to 18 per cent only to discover the reduction was being abused by the very rich, who converted income to capital.

But it was still a good idea. It may need reform to prevent abuse – such as the re-introduction of a taper so you can’t cash in on short-term investments.

The point has to be, though, that long-term investment and entrepreneurial risk-taking must be encouraged by the tax system – not punished.

And if the Conservatives in Cameron’s coalition don’t understand that then we might just as well have voted Liberal in the first place.

Much as I loathe Alastair Campbell, it was pathetic of Cameron's "communications team" to refuse to put a Cabinet Minister on BBC's Question Time programme just because the former Labour spin-freak was on it.

Is there nobody in the Cabinet capable of taking him on? Is there nobody willing to defend the Government's first week of work just because there isn't a Shadow Cabinet Minister in attendance?

Much as I loathe the BBC, the corporation was quite right to refuse to be dictated to.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stitched up like a Ukipper

In all the euphoria over the new civil partnership between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, we seem to have forgotten that the Conservatives should be running the country on their own.

Mr Cameron had an open goal and he shot wide. He missed out on a majority in parliament and now he has sold his party to the Liberal Democrats.

Why did the Tory leader blow it so spectacularly? Why, when he was opposing the most unpopular Government, with the most inept leader, during the worst recession for decades?

How could Mr Cameron have missed?

One answer is that in his desperate desire to cosy up to the Liberals even before the election was called, he betrayed his own natural supporters.

And it’s all because he refused to honour his own “cast iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

The treaty, you will recall, is now signed, sealed and delivered.

Among other things it gives us the very first President of Europe, Hermann van Rompuy, and “the most powerful woman in Europe”, an obscure Labour peer called Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who has never been elected to anything.

The Treaty is the latest and biggest step down the road to a European superstate.

Given half a chance, the people of Britain would vote against it. For a few months, it looked as if a new Conservative Government led by Mr Cameron might actually offer that rare opportunity.

Then the treaty was ratified by all the other countries of the EU and Mr Cameron surrendered without a shot being fired.

He thought it would all get too messy if Britain withdrew from the agreement after it was in place.

Instead, he’s promised he won’t agree to any further attempts at “Eurocreep” – but it’s too late for that because no further treaties are necessary.

Ardent Conservatives are purple with apoplexy when they look at the election results, demanding to know why anyone in their right mind would vote for the UK Independence Party.

UKIP – dismissed by Mr Cameron as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly” – polled more than 900,000 votes at the General Election.

It didn’t do them any good. They didn’t win a single seat.

Even Nigel Farage, who thought he could oust the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, came down to earth with a bump.

But UKIP did achieve its main aim. That was to deprive the Tories of seats they might have won without the Eurosceptic party’s intervention.

Various experts estimate the Tories were, as a direct result of this, deprived of 19 or 20 seats at the General Election.

Another 20 seats would have seen Mr Cameron over the line into an outright Commons majority.

If he had simply honoured his original “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, most UKIP support would have melted away.

The Tories would be home and dry and Nick Clegg would be yet another also-ran leader of the Liberal party.

The terrible irony is that in the nauseating Parliamentary love-in we have witnessed this week, Mr Cameron has clambered into bed with the most committed Europhile party in British politics.

The Lib Dems positively want a European superstate. They would sign up to the Euro tomorrow. They would willingly surrender British sovereignty to Brussels.

One sceptic MP has warned: “Europe is developing into an empire, not a military or hereditary one, but an empire run in the interest of a narrow elite.

“Anyone familiar with the Austro-Hungarian Empire will recognize the characteristics and that in attempting to hold itself together this latter day empire became more and more repressive.”

These are the words of Gisela Stuart, the German-born Labour MP who was the British representative on the committee which drew up the European Convention.

Ms Stuart saw what was happening at close quarters and recoiled in horror. No wonder she managed to cling onto her Birmingham Edgbaston seat when all around her Labour MPs were falling like nine-pins.

If the Conservatives had adopted Ms Stuart’s tone in their approach to the EU then there would be no need for UKIP and no need for coalition politics.

The irony is this was not only the Tories best chance for years to win an outright majority in a General Election but possibly their last chance ever.

Now they have copped off with Mr Clegg, a former Eurocrat and Euro-MP, we may lose our first-past-the-post electoral system and get proportional representation instead.

That means hung parliaments for ever, with the Lib Dems permanently holding the balance of power.

Instead of the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Mr Cameron will be offering us a referendum on electoral reform.

With luck, we will reject the idea of constant compromise, back-stairs deals and cobbled-together coalitions. But we might not.

All this means the people who voted UKIP have actually got the very opposite of what they were hoping for.

By depriving the Conservatives of an outright majority, they may have lumbered Britain with a permanent Lib Dem dictatorship.

The blame rests firmly with Nick Clegg’s new best friend.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cabinet Ministers are not taking a pay cut

Ministers, we are delightedly assured, are taking a five per cent pay cut.

That is not true. All that’s happening is backbench MPs who have been jolted into the Cabinet are getting a massive pay rise – just not as massive as it would have been if they were in a Labour Government.

A pay cut is when your salary goes down. What we are seeing is a reduction in the rate of pay for the job. That’s a very different thing.

Employers in the private sector do it all the time when a long-standing employee leaves and they recruit a replacement.

Let’s not be fooled by talk of pay cuts any more than we should be taken in by the idea that when a majority of the Commons opposes the Government the Government doesn’t have to resign.

If our MPs accept the 55 per cent-against proposal, they will have proved themselves even more supine than previous Parliaments and dealt yet another blow to the fiction of Parliamentary sovereignty.

Compromises are all very well but we’re supposed to be in a new era of democratic accountability – yet the first thing our new masters do is stitch up a special deal to guard their backs and protect themselves against the day they fall out of love again.

Marry in haste....

It’s a marriage made in hell. Surely it can’t last.

Over optimistically, the first stitch-up of the new coalition is fixed-term five-year Parliaments which means the next election is in 2015.

It’s hard to believe David Cameron and Nick Clegg seriously think their new found love-in will last the course. They have bound themselves together for better or worse, for richer or poorer, for half a decade.

Yet, like cynics at a shotgun wedding, everyone’s wondering if it will last a matter of months never mind years.

On the very eve of the wedding day, Nick couldn’t resist one last flirtation with a Labour Party willing to dump Gordon Brown to make itself more attractive to the Mr Darcy of British politics.

If was a flop. But the attraction remains. There are thousands of Lib-Dems who would like nothing better than a quick romp with a Socialist.

Some of them are positively repelled by the idea that they have been forced to sell themselves to the Tories. And the feeling is mutual.

For Conservatives who do not suffer from a lust for power at any price, the idea of getting into bed with the Lib-Dems is about as appealing as a night on the town with Harriet Harman.

For many Tories, it is a duty to oppose the Labour Party but a positive pleasure to loathe the Liberals.

In many parts of the country, the Lib Dems are the real opposition to the Conservatives. Worse still, the Lib Dems have a well-deserved reputation for fighting dirty. No blow is too low for them.

Now we have the spectacle of the two parties plighting their troth to one another in a ceremony as bizarre as anything Las Vegas could conjure up.

Dave was not up to it on his own; Nick was pregnant with votes. This is a forced marriage. We’re assured it’s the new way of doing things.

What that means – and this is a benefit of coalition – is that the more outlandish, mad and extreme policies of the two parties will be abandoned.

The Tories have dumped their promise to cut inheritance tax for the very rich; the Lib Dems have dropped their plans for a mansion tax on their homes.

The Lib Dems have decided a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent is OK after all and they’ve ditched the notion of an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But the great Cameron give-away includes a pledge to abolish taxes for anyone earning less than £10,000 a year and a new holidays tax.

Worse than that, he’s showered Mr Clegg with wedding presents – fixed-term parliaments, State funding for political parties and a referendum on “unfair voting” via a form of proportional representation.

It’s no wonder the Lib Dem leader was seduced by the Tories. He was offered a pre-nuptial agreement most minor parties would die for.

With a bouquet of Ministerial jobs to go with all of this, the honeymoon between the two parties should be happy and fulfilling.

But like all hasty marriages, once the first fling is over and reality dawns, the chances of the couple living happily ever after will disappear rapidly.

The rot sets in when they start to bicker about money.

The Conservatives are determined to get on with the job of taking the axe to public spending. They don’t really have any choice because the markets will force it on them whether they like it or not.

This will be painful and deeply unpopular. Mr Cameron may think he’s done himself a favour by tying the Lib Dems into this.

But when Mr Clegg’s colleagues discover just how drastic and painful the cuts must be, there will be rows, tantrums and tears.

For decades, Lib Dems have enjoyed the luxury of being able to promise the earth, safe in the knowledge they would never have to deliver anything.

Suddenly, they’re in the spotlight and they won’t like it when their party is accused of conniving with the Conservatives to cripple the public sector.

Usually, the Lib Dems get by on extravagant spending promises. Today they have bound themselves to the very opposite.

In time they will complain they’re being taken for granted.

As the euphoria of the wedding breakfast and the heady days of the honeymoon become distant memories and they deal with the daily drudgery of trying to dredge the economy out of the depths of despair, the Lib Dems will question why they got into this in the first place.

By then, they will have committed themselves to a full five years in an unhappy relationship.

A newly revived Labour Party under a new leader will present itself as “the other party”.

The Lib Dems will be casting longing glances in the direction of the Labour Party even while they are stuck in this relationship with the Tories.

Mr Clegg may even start talking about divorce and throw himself at Labour. It probably won’t do him any good, though – hell hath no fury like a Labour Party scorned.

This coalition is a marriage of convenience. It will end in bitter divorce.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We just got fooled again

What a far-sighted political genius David Cameron is. First he becomes the “heir to Blair” then he turns the Conservatives into the Liberal Party then he absorbs them into a coalition Government.

Was this the outcome he was hoping for all along? Is that why he did so well in blowing his party’s best chance of winning outright victory at the General Election since 1979 (John Major didn’t have such a good chance but he won anyway)?

All we need now is a stitch up over proportional representation and the Tory party might as well cease to exist for all the good it will ever do.

I tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow to the new revolution...

The parting on the left is now parting on the right....

Friday, May 07, 2010

Let down, hanging around

David Cameron has let down his party. He was elected leader on the promise that his new, smiley, PC-friendly Conservatism would deliver election victory. It didn’t.

He may be the next Prime Minister but he has achieved a watered-down version of power only if he can win over the Liberal Democrats and keep them on board.

His failure is staggering. A year ago, he was favourite to walk it. He was competing against the most unpopular Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain and in the midst of the worst economic crisis since, well, Neville Chamberlain.

Yet his “heir to Blair” project came off the rails. The voters turned their backs on the A-list “Dave’s doxies” and UKIP’s 900,000 votes could have delivered dozens of more seats for the Tories, had they chosen to promise a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Nick Clegg did worse than expected. Gordon Brown did badly, as expected. David Cameron was the biggest failure of the election and yet he is about to negotiate himself into Downing Street.

Lucky him. Unlucky Britain.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Looks like we'll hang 'em high

I have no idea what the outcome of the election might be. The polls are all over the place.

One puts the Tories on 37 per cent of the vote, another on 32 per cent. One has the Lib-Dems in the lead on 33 per cent and another puts them on a mere 23 per cent.

Nobody’s got a clue who will win which is why it’s all such fun (If you’re not participating and if, like me, you think the outcome won’t make much difference because we all know the next Government has only one task and that’s a nasty one).

Before the campaign started I expected a Conservative majority of 30. That looks a bit unlikely now, though it still wouldn't surprise me.

Still, for what it’s worth, based on a cursory study of the conflicting polls and assuming they have some veracity, here’s a prediction: Conservatives 303 seats, Labour 242, Lib-Dems 76, others 29. That would leave David Cameron with the largest party.

He would have to form a minority Government and dare the Lib-Dems to bring him down. It might last 18 months or more.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Friday's on my mind

It’s the elephant in the room. The huge monstrous object in the corner everyone knows about and no-one wants to discuss.

It’s the Government’s massive debt. On May 7, no matter who wins the election, the elephant will lumber onto centre stage.

It’s a terrifying prospect because – despite endless manifestos, never-ending discussions and four and a half hours of leaders’ debates on TV – we still don’t know how it’s going to be dealt with.

We borrowed £163.4 billion in the last 12 months. We owe £890 billion in total. By the end of this year, it’ll be a trillion pounds.

A trillion is the sort of sum few of us can really get our heads round. It’s a very big elephant in a very small room.

Actually, if you include the money the Government has spent on building new schools and hospitals and managed to hide, thanks to the Private Finance Initiative, we already owe £1.34 trillion.

The next Government, whether it’s red, blue, yellow or a combination of these, has no option. It will have to start paying off the debt.

At the moment, the interest on our loans comes to £35 billion a year – that’s more than we spend on defence, transport or law and order.

We can’t go on like this. As every bankrupt knows, there’s a price to pay for a mindless spending spree.

Just ask the Greeks – their day of reckoning has arrived and the country is in turmoil. Their debt has been downgraded to junk making the home of democracy Europe’s first sub-prime borrower.

Public sector workers are taking big pay cuts – 30 per cent in some cases – taxes are rising and jobs are disappearing. Protesters are taking to the streets.

We’re not as badly off as Greece mainly because we aren’t in the euro (one of the decisions Gordon Brown got right was to resist Tony Blair’s desperate desire to sign up to the straightjacket currency).

But our debts have to be tackled and, when we go to the polls next Thursday, we really won’t have a clue what our politicians will do.

Worse than that, it doesn’t really make much difference who we elect. The crisis will be the same and the cuts will be similar.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons there are massive black holes in each party’s plans.

The Conservatives, according to the IFS, can’t account for £59.4 billion of cuts and tax increases. Labour can’t account for £47 billion. The Lib-Dems are £42.7 billion short.

Whoever wins, according to the experts, we face the biggest public spending cuts for decades. That’s on top of tax increases which will come to £15.8 billion under Labour, £10.1 billion under the Tories and £19.7 billion under the Lib-Dems.

Call me a bigot but I’d say the truly bizarre aspect of this election campaign has been the refusal of the parties to address these issues openly and honestly.

Cast your mind back to the days before Cleggmania swept everything before it and you will find Labour and the Tories arguing earnestly over a £6 billion increase in National Insurance.

“A tax on jobs,” they said, claiming to have identified ways of saving enough money to reverse the increase.

But it’s a sideshow. They’re squabbling about £6 billion. They should be debating how to fill a gaping hole worth maybe ten times that much.

It’s partly our fault the parties have carefully skirted round the subject. When the Tories warned we were facing “an age of austerity” their poll ratings fell and they’ve never really recovered.

We are as bad as our political leaders. We don’t want to know. We can’t really face the consequences and we’re likely to vote against anyone who puts it to us straight.

You can’t put all the blame on the parties. They’re fighting an election. They all want to win.

Like the Marxist-style cover to the Labour manifesto, with its happy family looking over the green countryside to the new dawn, they want us to believe things can only get better.

It won’t be like that. Cuts will be drastic. A hit-list from the Taxpayers’ Alliance gives us some idea of what we’re facing.

They say child benefit and free bus passes for pensioners should be abolished. Some public-sector workers should have a 15 per cent pay cut, the rest should have a pay freeze and their pension contributions should rise 30 per cent.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance wants state pensions frozen, ten per cent of public sector jobs to go and the interest subsidy on student loans abolished.

Taxes will rise – everyone thinks VAT will hit 20 per cent yet no politician is prepared to admit it – and we may well dip back into recession.

I am absolutely convinced the next Government faces widespread civil unrest – strikes, protests, riots – as reality bites.

This is not an elephant in the room, it’s a stampeding herd of elephants charging towards us while our leaders point in the opposite direction and pretend everything’s OK.

We won’t know what hit us when, after the election, we all get trampled under foot.

• It probably took about three minutes to read this article. In that time, the national debt increased by £930,636.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

They think it's all over for Gordon... It is now

Whoops… Gordon Brown meets a pensioner, can’t deal with her questions and ends up calling her a bigot. And she’s a Labour voter – or she was one until earlier today, anyway.

Still, at least we got to hear the authentic comments of the authentic Prime Minister. It may not be very respectful of the voters but what did we expect?

It would be interesting to hear the private comments of the other party leaders when they’ve just met someone who questions their policies and judgment. Would they be any less grumpy?

What we have here is the campaign gaffe everyone has been hoping for. Reporters don’t traipse around after party leaders hoping to catch their pearls of wisdom.

All they want is the rogue voter, the unpredictable John Prescott punch, the gaffe or – and this is gold-dust, the unguarded comment.

If it was going to happen, it had to happen to Mr Bean. It will be played ad nauseam at least until tomorrow night’s election debate.

It may well go down in history as the moment Labour finally lost the election and, in the event of a hung parliament, it will be used as proof that Mr Brown is unfit to be Prime Minister.

Mainly, though, it’s just an amusing insight into the desire of all politicians to stage-manage their public appearances.

Mr Brown’s gripe isn’t really with Gillian Duffy, the pensioner, it’s with his aides for lumbering him with an embarrassing encounter with a real person with genuine concerns who isn’t going to let him have an easy time.

Our leaders detest that sort of thing above all. Which is why Mr Brown complains the encounter was a “disaster”.

It’s only after he’s asked what Mrs Duffy had to say that he complains she was a bigot.

He privately thought their discussion was disastrous… it is now.