Friday, 30 January 2009

Protectionism is a sure route to world depression

With strikes here in protest at the hiring of contractors from elsewhere in Europe and Barack Obama set to embark on a Buy American campaign, there is a real danger that the world is heading towards another bout of protectionism. Politicians must be honest on the issue. The idea that British contractors should be barred from bringing teams to other European countries would not be tolerated, so even in these difficult times, there cannot be restrictions on other EU workers here. Of course, there should be a level playing field but not preferential treatment.

The reason is obvious. A not insignificant proportion of retail earnings in December is the result of cross-border trade, with people from the Republic shopping in Newry and other Northern Irish towns. I suspect there has been a similar boost in London from French and other Eurostar shoppers. All are enjoying an advantageous exchange rate. All are keeping UK retailers going, and helping keep their staff in work. In Ireland pleas for patriotic shopping have been studiously ignored. At least within the EU, there is free trade, but we must not try to rein it in. If we try to impose protectionism, we can be sure that we will lose more than we gain.

And the same will be true in Barack Obama's America. Herbert Hoover's disastrous tariffs deepened the depression and reduced world trade to a third of its 1929 levels. If Obama is serious about re-engaging with the world, the worst thing he could do is give in to the protectionist unions bent on destroying free trade. It isn't easy when faced with the complaints of workers to give it straight. But if Gordon Brown wants to strengthen his world economic leadership credentials ahead of the G20, the best thing he could do would be to preach and practice a policy of free trade as an important part of recovering from the recession.

Lies, damned lies and forecasts?

Hopi Sen has an excellent reminder on his blog of how much weight we ought to give to predictions from the IMF . As he puts it:
Back in July, the IMF thought US growth would be 1.7% in 2008, and 1.4% in 2009. The Eurozone would grow by 1.7% and 1.2% in the same time period, while for the UK the figures would be 1.8% and 1.7%. In Japan, growth would be evenly distributed with 1.5% growth in both years. Less than six months later, and the figures are all startlingly different. Japan goes from 1.5% to an economic decline of 0.3% and is expected to decline by another 2.6% in 2009. 2008 Eurozone growth drops from 1.7% to 1% and then to -2 in 2009. The UK goes to 0.7% and-2.8 while the US drops to 1.% growth in 2008 and a decline of 1.1% in 2009.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Liberal posturing on Heathrow

Sam Coates has an hilarious leak from the Liberal Democrats showing not only that the sanctimonious transport spokesman Norman Baker doesn't think much of his colleague, the one-time Mayoral candidate Susan Kramer, but that the party's policy on Heathrow is nothing more than a cynical piece of electioneering. Who'd have thought it of the Lib Dems?

A healthy attitude to drinking?

I have a lot of respect for Dr Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, and normally find his words of wisdom to have a degree of common sense about them. I can't say the same about his suggestion of a complete ban by parents on any alcohol for younger teenagers.

On the Today programme this morning, he was dismissive of the anecdotal 'middle class' view that introducing youngsters to the odd glass of wine or shandy would encourage sensible drinking in later life. He said that the 'emerging evidence' suggested this to lead to excess later. Indeed, he seemed to suggest that parents of teenagers should only serve soft drinks to their guests in order to prevent teenagers from temptation (this, of course, assumes they never leave the family home during the week).

I don't doubt that regular drinking is bad for young people. But Dr Donaldson seems to be conflating two issues: those youngsters who drink regularly and excessively and those whose parents responsibly introduce them to the odd drink in sensible moderation at twelve or thirteen. But I would like to see the hard evidence that shows that those who do the latter are more likely to become problem drinkers in later life.

Having seen those who experienced a prohibition at home becoming the heaviest drinkers in college in my student days, my 'anecdotal' experience - or qualitative evidence - would suggest that Dr Donaldson is defying common sense. But if there really is such evidence, I might be willing to change my mind.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The real reformers

Irwin Stelzer, the American commentator who is close to Rupert Murdoch, has a fascinating piece in this morning's Daily Telegraph. Stelzer has always been fairly matey with Gordon Brown, but has blown hot and cold of late, and retains his scepticism in this piece about his tax policy. However, his judgment that the welfare and health reforms being introduced by James Purnell and Alan Johnson are radical will send shivers down Conservative spines, not least because they stand in such marked contrast to David Cameron's approach of closing down serious discussion on both issues.

Stelzer also notes that Ed Balls has raised the rhetoric against 'excuses' in education, though it is actually through continuing with academies and forcing change on schools that gain below-par GCSEs that the children's secretary is making a real difference. Unlike Johnson and Purnell, Balls has in Michael Gove a rare Tory opponent, whose understanding of his brief and reforming instincts (even if one doesn't always agree with his solutions) stand in marked contrast to the vacuous Theresa May at welfare and the BMA lobbyist Andrew Lansley at health.

With the recession, it would be tempting for Gordon Brown to ignore the importance of reform in these areas. But if the recovery is to be successful, we need to improve access to health and patients' choices, we need to get long term unemployed people back to work and we need better school results. After some initial suggestions that he was backtracking on the agenda initiated by Tony Blair, there are many encouraging signs that the Prime Minister is keen to pursue a reform agenda. He must continue to find the time to devote to it in these difficult economic times.

Monday, 26 January 2009

BBC and Sky have every right not to broadcast the DEC appeal

The Disasters Emergency Committee is an invaluable organisation that helps co-ordinate the fundraising efforts of leading charities during natural disasters and famines. Its efforts in Darfur or after the Asian tsunami ensured more aid got to where it was most needed. There is also clearly a humanitarian need for aid and rebuilding in Gaza after the recent conflict. And the DEC is right to want to help co-ordinate such efforts. Indeed, I would encourage people to donate to their appeal using the embedded link here.

But it is wholly wrong to seek to bully broadcasters like the BBC and Sky, with large international audiences, into running the Committee's advertisements where to do so could damage the perceived impartiality of their news operations. Gaza is patently not a situation about which there is a clear consensus. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts pointed out this morning, some of the DEC charities have taken very clear sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would argue that it is their right to do so, within the bounds of charity law, but it is most certainly not the role of news organisations.

So, I think Douglas Alexander and his Tory counterpart Andrew Mitchell were wrong to join the likes of George Galloway and Tony Benn in denouncing the BBC. And Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, was absolutely right not to intervene. Of course, the BBC has a bigger problem when it comes to impartiality in the Middle East, as its reports from the region sometimes show (exemplified in a piece by Tim Llewellyn yesterday, as noted by Danny Finkelstein).

But on this occasion it has taken a difficult but principled decision. And it has no reason to apologise for making it.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Compensating factors

There has been strong criticism from both Unionists and victims' groups of the plans proposed by a group chaired by the former Church of Ireland primate Robin Eames and the vice-chair of the Northern Ireland policing board Denis Bradley to pay the families of all those killed in the Troubles £12,000, regardless of circumstances.

Before considering the cash proposal, it is worth saying that the other main proposals from the Commission, ignored by the BBC, are good ideas and worthy of action. These include:

- A legacy commission chaired by international commissioner and two other members to oversee how legacy of the Troubles is comprehensively addressed.
- An information recovery unit which will privately collate and report on information from paramilitaries and British security forces to help establish how and why victims were killed in conflict.
- A new investigative body to replace Historical Enquiries Team to investigate some 3,000 killings of the Troubles.
- £100 million for projects to tackle sectarianism.
- An end to future public inquiries into controversial killings.
- Practical assistance for people who have suffered or were traumatised by the Troubles.

Coming to terms with the past is an important part of facing the future. And the 3700 people who died in the Troubles should certainly not be forgotten. But these other worthy ideas could be lost in a needless controversy over a very silly and offensive proposal that would see the family of the Shankill Butchers and the IRA death squads rewarded for the terror carried out by members of their families. At the same time, as David Trimble rightly said on Today, it is offensive to imagine that £12,000 will do much for the families of the innocent victims. There is already a criminal injuries compensation scheme that does not pay perpetrators of crime.

Of course, there is an awful lot that people have had to accept in order to create a climate where Sinn Fein and the DUP can share power, and there are those in government in Northern Ireland with blood on their hands as a result. There are also many who have been released from gaol despite having committed the most heinous crimes. That has been a tough but necessary condition for peace.

Equally, several of the proposals here could help to ensure that their victims are not forgotten and the reasons for their deaths are properly accounted for. And with the endless Bloody Sunday inquiry, they are right to propose an end to enquiries into controversial killings.

Gordon Brown should accept these other proposals while rejecting the compensation proposal. And he should not have to spend too much time thinking about it.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Frost Nixon

To see the film version of Frost Nixon, where Frank Langella gives an outstanding performance as Richard Nixon, as he goes head to head with Michael Sheen's David Frost for the 1977 interviews that made Frost's reputation as a result of his wresting as near to an admission to guilt for Watergate from the disgraced former president as anyone has ever managed.

I hadn't seen the stage version. But the film does a good job building tension in the lead up to the crucial admission, though there is a certain dramatic licence in presenting the young Frost as a naive talkshow host initially out of his depth. Sheen is less convincing as Frost than Langella as Nixon, though I find his Blair unconvincing too, while Matthew MacFadyen convinces as John Birt and Kevin Bacon does a good job as Nixon's minder. Overall, this is a great cast delivering as compelling a two hours of political theatre as you are likely to see on the screen this year.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Rising above party politics?

The temptation to criticise the 'do-nothing' approach of the Tories is always strong, especially when their economic policy is led by a lightweight like George Osborne. But Matthew Taylor makes a very good point when he cautions against this as the best approach for the Prime Minister in these troubled economic times.

The lesson from Barack Obama is surely that we need a less overtly partisan approach in these times. Indeed, Gordon Brown has made a point of bringing people from outside Labour politics into his government. But if the Prime Minister were to distance himself from mere party advantage, it could resonate more than the current pre-election battle. Matthew suggests:
Instead, Labour needs a radically different communication strategy. This might for example involve an explicit refusal to engage in party politics while the economic storm is raging. Brown’s message might be: ‘I am reconciled to the likelihood of losing the next election. Neither I nor my ministers are going to waste any energy on that skirmish when the big battle is to get through this crisis’.
Of course, such a strategy has its risks. And the government shouldn't refrain from correcting lies and mistruths. But accompanied by a challenge of responsibility to the Opposition in helping to find agreed solutions to the banking crisis, it could be a more effective approach than re-running the golden oldie attack lines that worked well in previous general election campaigns, but which seem pretty pointless in a time of crisis.

Are specialist science colleges boosting physics?

Professor Alan Smithers has produced an odd piece of research designed to show that specialist schools are useless; and if they are any good, it's only because they get more dosh and posher kids. The basis for this claim is a study of science colleges and other schools and the status of physics within them. According to Prof Smithers, a greater proportion of students who take physics get A grades in language colleges than science colleges, therefore the whole thing is a sham.

Yet in his report, Prof Smithers tells us that science colleges are five times more likely to offer physics at GCSE than other schools. They are even more likely than grammar schools to do so. And he says that the best predictor of whether students do physics at A level is their GCSE results. Separate data shows that the number of physics and chemistry entries at GCSE and A level has been growing nationally, partly as a result of this trend. So science colleges are boosting physics, even if they don't get quite so many A grades.

So, if a larger group of students across science colleges has the chance to take the subject at GCSE, whereas many cannot take it in other schools, is it not possible that the science colleges are making a rather greater contribution to the subject than a long-term opponent of specialist schools is prepared to allow for? I only ask because the researchers apparently didn't think to do so.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Great expectations

As Barack Obama takes the Presidential seal of office this afternoon, he will have the whole world in his hands. Despite the pragmatic good sense of his cabinet picks, he remains a figure on whom everyone wishes to project their views and hopes. And, of course, he will disappoint some of them. But that is not to say that he has to disappoint as a President.

On the contrary, good governance will require a combination of pragmatism and idealism. As The New Republic puts it in their editorial this week, "the real question is how Obama will determine the relative balance between the two." After today's pageantry, his in-tray is more than full enough: sorting out just one of the five big challenges - the recession and credit crunch, Middle East peace, Afghanistan, health care and climate change - would be enough for any Presidential first term, but he has no choice but to try to tackle all five.

Despite the churlish efforts of some to rain on his parade, there is good reason to believe that the combination of pragmatism and idealism that Obama has so far demonstrated will bring us closer to solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. On health care, for example, he has chosen in Tom Daschle the right man for the job, one who has already thought things through, and has already started to co-opt Republican opponents of Hillary Clinton's doomed efforts in the nineties. Of course, we need to see the meat of his and Hillary's foreign policy - 'smart power' is a good phrase, but doesn't yet mean a lot. And one gets the sense that no government has yet hit on the magic solution to get us out of the recession, though Obama's proposals - like Gordon Brown's - seem a lot more likely to do so than doing nothing. Yet even his transition has been smoother and smarter than most.

So we have great expectations for Obama today. The cynics would like us to think that those expectations will be dashed within months. Obama has already broken lots of records and set lots of precedents just by being elected. If he is honest about what he can do - and what others must do to help it happen - there is a real chance he can defy the doom-mongers and ensure that his blend of pragmatic idealism shines through.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Tories abandon welfare reform

Tory bloggers, including the Spectator's Coffee House, are in despair. Not only is Clarke back, but the appointment of Theresa May to shadow James Purnell is rightly seen as a sign that the Tories have not only sidelined NHS reform in a bid to appease the BMA, they have also given up on welfare room too. As James Forsyth notes:
Today’s reshuffle was a blow to the reform agenda. This morning, two of the three key public service jobs—education, welfare and health—were in the hands of committed reformers. Now, only education is.....Tory health policy has been subcontracted out to the British Medical Association. But on education and welfare there were signs of real boldness.... But the decision to replace Chris Grayling with Theresa May calls into question the Tory commitment to fixing Britain’s broken welfare system....thedecision to move May to this brief suggests that the Tories are now happy just to score cheap political points about Purnell’s desire to have single mothers prepare to enter the workforce.

Ken Clarke's return

George Osborne's gaffes have left David Cameron without a strong voice on the economy. Hence his decision to recall the Europhile former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke as shadow business secretary in place of a lacklustre Alan Duncan.

I'm sure Labour looks forward to Ken's robust advice on issues such as the value of temporarily cutting VAT - something regarded with contempt by Cameron and Osborne - and joining the Euro, reviving the good old days of Tory internecine warfare.

But in these uncertain times, we need more people of Clarke's calibre and experience to the fore. Just as Gordon Brown was right to bring back Peter Mandelson, David Cameron is right to turn to the experienced Clarke. He just shouldn't expect it to be a trouble-free appointment.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

To see Danny Boyle's extraordinary Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. The story of a boy from the Mumbai slums who goes on to win the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? shows how he managed to get the questions right through flashbacks to harrowing events of a life scarred by inter-ethnic violence, gangs, an orphanage led by a Fagin-like character and a pathos-filled love story. It is all told at a cracking pace, with a heady mix or horror and sentiment, including some brilliant performances by the principals - and a great soundtrack. I can certainly see why it is lined up for so many awards.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The right decision on Heathrow

The government has taken a brave and correct decision on the expansion of Heathrow. On a personal level, the experience of the effect of a bit of fog on the schedule or spending an hour circling because of a backlog is a pretty poor advertisement for our most important hub airport. And hardly a great contributor to the environment. I do try to use the train or fly from Bristol when I can, but for international flights outside Europe Heathrow has to be endured.

The idea that the most important airport in Britain should be allowed to continue operating in its current manner is extraordinary. The notion that someone charged with representing the interests of all Londoners should oppose the new runway is bizarre. And, as Iain suggests, the moans from the likes of Emma Thompson would have a little more credibility if she gave up her international flights to attend luvvie parties in the States. Perhaps similar self-denying ordinances could be followed by all opponents of the new runway.

No other country in the world would spend so long agonising over whether to build an extra runway in an airport as important as Heathrow. Indeed, it is preposterous that it will still take the best part of a decade for the runway to be built. Of course, we need to ensure that modern low carbon aircraft are used and environmental concerns dealt with. And we need to get on with building better rail links (perhaps Greenpeace could use its efforts to help the government cut through the planning inquiries to get those built since it is telling us to use the train not the plane).

But not building a third runway at Heathrow will not stop people flying; it will just cost Britain business.

And having heard the promises of Tory transport spokeswoman Theresa Villiers that a Tory government would tear up any contracts for a new runway, I can see why Iain is so worried about the sanity of his party. Next time you are plagued by delays in the air or on the ground at Heathrow, just remember that the Tory policy is that you should continue to endure such misery. It is for your own good, after all.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Shriti's crime: answering the question

Trade Minister Baroness Shriti Vadera has been hauled over the coals for her 'insensitivity' by the Do Nothing Tories for saying she detected the odd shoots of recovery in the economy. There may be some civil servants who will relish the sight of a minister never known to suffer fools gladly coming a cropper. But Shriti's real crime was to repeat the question she was asked.

For the mention of 'green shoots' was first mischievously made by the ITV news interviewer, not Baroness Vadera. Her mistake was to repeat that part of the question in her answer. It is a common problem. Answering 'yes' while thinking through the answer to a tricky question can see headlines 'quoting' you as having said what the interviewer said: doing that on a question on then controversial contraception nearly cost Mary Robinson the Irish Presidential election in 1990.

Media types love to salute ministers for answering the question. But any adviser knows that it is far safer to have your answer prepared and stick to it whatever the interviewer says. As Shriti Vadera now knows, it is generally not a good idea to answer the precise question; it is an even bigger problem when you accept its basic premiss.

Some good GCSE news

There is always a negative spin put by the media on any set of government statistics, good or bad, which makes the recent protestations of the Guardian of Statistical Integrity so laughable. But any fair reading of today's GCSE data shows some real improvements in the system (although of course there is still much to do).

There are now just 440 schools with fewer than 30% five good GCSEs - including English and Maths - compared with 1600 when Michael Gove's lot were still in power (he has the cheek to bemoan the fact that "too many children are still being educated at schools which the prime minister classes as 'failing".)

Equally impressively, academies are leading the way, with improvements overall at twice the national average last year including English and Maths, and a 15-point improvement since 2001 in some of the poorest schools in the country. (The improvements are bigger still for any GCSEs).

I don't imagine there will be much cheering in the media for these results. But the teachers and pupils in the schools involved deserve real credit for their achievements.

Do nothing Dave loses to Gordon at PMQs

Gordon Brown was in cracking form at PMQs today, with a clear win over David Cameron. The 'do nothing' tag is clearly serving Brown well, while Cameron's scattergun approach really didn't work. It doesn't help that both Ken Clarke - whatever he has said since - and Norman Lamont were keen advocates of the VAT cut that Cameron ridicules. And it does little good for Cameron to witter on about Brown stealing the few policies the Tories have enunciated: it's called good politics. So, a clear win for a rejuvenated Prime Minister against a disappointingly flat Leader of the Opposition as Parliament resumes.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Is social mobility really stagnant?

The Government's new social mobility paper clearly has some good ideas attached to it. Golden handcuffs for staying in inner city schools may make a difference to recruitment (though with the recession, there should be no shortage of teaching candidates). And the appointment of Alan Milburn to head a taskforce on the problem should ensure a livelier set of future proposals. Today's report comes after a LibDem think tank yesterday presented their own critique (pdf). Needless to say the party rejected the only proposal on education likely to make a serious difference - admissions ballots for secondary schools. With ballots or banding, popular urban schools could achieve a mixed intake. Without them, they often become too socially selective.

But while there is still clearly a big gap between the achievements of the best off pupils and the poorest, it is not the case that there has been no change as a result of the government's education policies. Martin Narey said in the Lib Dem report yesterday:
The present Government came into office with a commitment to tackle this social exclusion and it needs to be acknowledged that many of the policies implemented since 1998 have contributed to positive change and the long- term return on others, such as Sure Start have yet to be realised.

However, even that is not the whole story. In fact, not only are GCSE results improving, they are improving disproportionately more for those from poorer households. Mobility is not just about those who are in workless households; a Labour government has always been as much if not more about the interests of those in work with modest incomes. The evidence of improvements can be found in a twice yearly survey that the Government doesn't do enough to publicise known as the Youth Cohort Study.

The 2007 publication shows that between 1999 and 2006, the proportion of higher professional children gaining five good GCSEs rose six points from 75 to 81%, an increase of six percentage points. At the same time, there was a ten point increase among pupils from lower professional families and intermediate occupations, a twelve point increase in those from lower supervisory grades and a 14 point increase from 26 to 42% in families with routine occupations. There have also been disproportionately large improvements among Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils. But, at the same time, there does seem to have been less improvement among white boys on free school meals (only 14% of pupils are eligible for FSM).

None of this suggests a problem solved, and the mobility taskforce has its work cut out for it. The children of professionals are still twice as likely as those from families with routine occupations to gain five good GCSEs. But it does suggest that the more extreme comparisons, based on data such as free school meals, are not telling the whole story. Comparisons with earlier years were done -as is the wont of our brilliant statisticians - using a different scale, which means we don't have continuity. But given that these changes happened within a particular policy framework targeted at urban school improvement, including the birth of academies, the London Challenge and Excellence in Cities, might there not be some connection between the improvements and Labour education policy? And shouldn't our ministers remind us it is so?

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Opening up the professions

It is good to see Alan Milburn back working on social mobility. There is clearly a real job to do opening up professions like the law, medicine, army leadership and the national media to a wider social mix. In part, this is about young people being given the opportunities to study the right subjects in the sixth form and encouraged to take up places in elite universities. Government must be more open about this: the Sutton Trust has done some excellent working showing where this is not just about standards in state schools, as the Sunday Telegraph claims today. It requires students to apply for the right courses at the right universities.

But it is also about social connections. A good degree is often not enough. One reason why so many places are taken by a self-perpetuating elite is because of family connections and the ability to survive while taking up unpaid internships. If Alan Milburn can get to grips with those issues, he will widen the pool of talent available to leading professions. The idea - as the Tories have it - that this can only be done through "class war" is a sad reflection of the narrowness of experience of the old Etonians who want to run the country again.

The Reader

To see Stephen Daldry and David Hare's take on the Bernard Schlink novel The Reader last night. The story of a German boy's sexual initiation with an older woman who insists on being read to during their liaisons, and his subsequent shock on discovering that she had been an SS guard responsible for many deaths, is filled with moral ambiguities. The story itself is certainly thought-provoking, given Hanna's secret, though the ending in New York is a bit trite, and this is nevertheless a good adaptation of a fine book. Kate Winslet gives a career-defining performance as Hanna, the ex-SS guard and David Kross is very good as the young Michael. But despite its strengths, the film suffers from being a bit too long and as so often it doesn't quite capture the atmosphere, tension and suspense of the book.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Internships a good idea - beyond the recession too

News that the government is developing a series of paid internships with leading companies for this year's graduates is another welcome sign of the Government's willingness to act to mitigate the worst effects of the recession.

But internships shouldn't just be developed for these recessionary times. They should become a part of every university course. One reason why we are so often regaled by tales of underemployed recent graduates is their failure to get useful work experience.

Where courses are not directly linked to a particular career path, it is particularly important that students gain proper work experience; rather than bemoaning the fact that most students have to do some work, we should be looking at ensuring that some of their work will help them gain more lasting and relevant employment after they graduate.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A ceasefire is needed in Gaza - on both sides

Of course, there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as the Israeli army tries to stop the daily indiscriminate firing of dozens of rockets at their civilians by Hamas. And Israel could do more to avoid genuine civilian targets, though the size of Gaza and the nature of its military make civilian casualties inevitable. And, of course, a ceasefire is urgently needed. But, as Tony Blair pointed out this morning, a ceasefire can only come when there is a verifiable end to those rockets, and arms shipments through tunnels from Egypt to Hamas, as well as an end to Israeli military action in Gaza.

Not that this would be terribly clear in some reporting on British television about events in the region. Channel 4 News makes little effort to hide its contempt for Israel: last night Sarah Smith was even given time to show how she was already falling out of love with Barack Obama because he failed to condemn Israel (given that he had made his views pretty clear during the election campaign, as even Smith acknowledged, why should this be a surprise?)

Equally, President Bush has said some daft things in his day, but this statement on Gaza is hardly among them: "I know people are saying: let's have a ceasefire. (Those are) noble ambitions. But any ceasefire must have the conditions in it so that Hamas does not use Gaza as a place from which to launch rockets."

Yet this was the subject of much head shaking on the ITN News at Ten last night and in much BBC reporting of the issues. Indeed, there were attempts to contrast his approach with that of Gordon Brown (a contrast which, I accept, may not have been entirely unprompted) who said this on Sunday: "So first we need an immediate ceasefire - and that includes the stopping of the rockets into Israel. Secondly we need some resolution of the problems over arms trafficking into Gaza. And, thirdly, we need the borders, the crossings open, and that will need some international solution."

We certainly need a ceasefire quickly in Gaza, but one that lasts and one that is observed by Hamas as well as Israel. Those who have taken to the streets to protest Israel's actions in Gaza - and their media supporters - would have a lot more credibility if one thought they genuinely believed that too.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The dangers of Cameron's latest wheeze

On the radio this morning, David Cameron sounded ever more preposterous in his faux-shock at the Prime Minister's borrowing strategy and the decision to spend £12 billion on a 2.5% cut in VAT. No term of abuse was too strong for this idea, despite its being first proposed by one Kenneth Clarke, because of its impact on public debt (though significantly, Cameron admitted he wasn't suggesting much lower debt levels himself).

By lunchtime, we saw where Cameron was headed. He had his own tax cut plans - worth £4 billion a year with no indication from whence they might be funded, though health, schools, defence and international development budgets would be left unaltered. Tax-free income would rise £2000 a year for the average pensioner and basic rate taxpayers would pay no tax on savings.

But what would the economic impact of this unfunded largesse be? As the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out, there was a chance that it would result in less money flowing into the economy. Moreover, once the four ringfenced areas were left unscathed it could result in a "very sharp slowdown" in the rate of spending growth across many areas of government.

Which might, incidentally, also lead to higher council taxes, as DCLG is not protected. Back to the drawing board, chaps?

Sunday, 4 January 2009

A good start by Gordon, but how did Marr get out of No 10 so quickly?

Gordon Brown was in confident form for his New Year interview with Andrew Marr. And the decision to allow the whole programme to be broadcast from Downing Street played to his strengths, not least in the wrap up minutes with Michael Sheen and Anne Robinson.

But, as one who worked in the building, I am puzzled as to how Andrew Marr managed to leg it down the stairs and out the front door of No 10 as quickly as he apparently did in the closing sequence. In these days when 'noddies' are banned, surely this wasn't a bit we filmed earlier?