March 2015 notebook
The prime minister is trying to scare us all with the spectre of Ed Miliband doing a deal with the Scottish National Party involving a Labour-SNP coalition after the election in May, thus allegedly “bringing into the government the party that wants to break up the UK”, or words to that effect, and conjuring up the ludicrous idea of Alex Salmond as deputy prime minister. Mr Cameron knows perfectly well that there’s no question of a Labour-SNP coalition: both the Labour party (e.g. Caroline Flint on the Andrew Marr Show on 8 March) and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader in Scotland, have made that clear. If however there’s a hung parliament again on 8 May, there might well be a majority of the progressive parties combined, including Labour and the SNP, plus the Greens and some LibDems, which would support a minority Labour government on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, enabling Miliband to form a government and win a vote of confidence. But any such loose understanding needs to be set up by Labour, however informally, before the election, so that it would be clear as soon as the results are in on 8 May that there’s a majority of progressive MPs from several parties collectively willing to support a Labour government. This would avoid a prolonged period immediately after the election and before a new government could be formed of arguing and haggling between all the parties of both left and right about coalitions and alliances and deals and multi-party policy agreements and party splits, with no certainty about the outcome. Anyway we voters have a right to know the intentions of the various parties before we cast our votes.
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Another canard being spread shamelessly by the Tories is that if there’s a minority Labour government that depends on the SNP’s support for its majority in the House of Commons, this will enable the SNP to force Labour to make excessive concessions to Scotland, which in turn will enrage the English. In addition, it’s being suggested that English voters will be even more enraged by the spectacle of a Labour minority government having to use SNP Scottish votes to pass legislation that only affects England. The first of these nightmare scenarios is nonsense: the SNP would have no leverage to extort unreasonable concessions for Scotland from a Labour minority government since their only recourse if the government rejected their demands, as it would, would be to withdraw their support and bring down the government. This would probably mean fresh elections, leading to either a Conservative-led government or else a majority Labour government, with the SNP losing any influence at Westminster either way. The solution to the second objection is a Labour declaration at last in favour of an eventual English parliament and government, probably in Manchester or Birmingham, relieving the federal government at Westminster of all responsibility for purely English matters. Of course it would take a decade or more to achieve this, but just adopting it as a clear Labour objective would effectively disarm the accusation that a Labour government dependent on SNP votes would mean England being governed by a gang of Scottish MPs. It would also, incidentally, answer the West Lothian Question — nothing else does!
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You don’t need to be a paying member of Chatham House (aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs) to listen to a fascinating podcast about Britain’s membership of the EU and its future prospects. Chaired by the Chatham House Director, Dr Robin Niblett, those discussing the issues with exemplary clarity and brevity are Dominic Grieve, among the best of the few good Tories (and accordingly summarily sacked by David Cameron), Peter Kellner, political commentator and superpollster extraordinaire, and Quentin Peel, Mercator Senior Fellow at Chatham House and long-time former FT columnist and correspondent. The discussion lasts for less than 20 minutes but says more in that time than a year of Prime Minister’s Questions.
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Speaking of which, once upon a time the feisty Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a Tory MP cordially disliked by the Tories and rather popular with the rest, used to interrupt the present prime minister at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) as he was making the usual allegations about the defects of the Labour party’s record and policies, to remind him that at PMQs he was required to give answers relating to his own responsibilities as prime minister, not about Labour policies for which he had no responsibility at all. More recently Mr Bercow seems to be allowing the prime minister unlimited latitude to bang on endlessly, voice raised and purple-faced, with obscure quotations from Labour speeches of long ago supposedly demonstrating U-turns (the ultimate sin of the modern politician), inconsistency and hypocrisy, often culminating in that stale old chestnut, the demand for “an apology”. I suppose the Speaker has his work cut out trying to quieten the baying mobs on both sides of the Chamber so that the questions and non-answers can be heard, without once again taking on the prime minister for his relentless abuse of the original purpose of PMQs.
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The great Financial Times guru, Martin Wolf, on the feebleness of George Osborne’s boasted recovery from the recession:
“The overall picture of a dismally slow recovery is quite clear. … Voters are grumpy for understandable reasons. Such a long period of stagnant living standards is not to be found within living memory. In the third quarter of last year — despite the vaunted recovery of the UK economy — real gross domestic product per head was the same as in the third quarter of 2006 and 1.8 per cent lower than in the first quarter of 2008 (the pre-crisis peak). This has given the UK something very close to a lost decade. Why such a poor recovery should be a matter of congratulation is hard to comprehend.
“The main cause of the slow recovery in standards of living … has been the feeble recovery in GDP per head. Given the robust employment performance, this weakness is, in turn, directly related to the feeble productivity performance. … An important question is how far the reaction of a flexible labour market to policy-induced weakness in demand explains this dramatically poor productivity outcome…”
Martin Wolf Financial Times 06 March 2015. [My emphases — BLB]
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Ugliest new verb of the year (so far):
“The Independent reports that representatives of Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC have discussed the ultimatum and whether to “empty chair” the PM if he refuses to take part.”
— Times Red Box, 6 March 2015
“…not to mention increasing speculation about Cameron somehow being empty-chaired…”
John Harris, Guardian, 6 March 2015