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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Is the Liberal Democrats triple-lock pension guarantee under threat?

We have already seen this majority Tory Government undermine or remove many of the progressive reforms brought in by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government.

They have proceeded with the snoopers charter, are pursuing £12 billion of cuts in disabled benefits previously blocked by Nick Clegg, capped the Access to Work fund, are planning to proceed with plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, and are effectively neutralising much of our green agenda.

Now the Observer reports that the outgoing Tory pensions minister wants them to drop the triple-lock protection for state pensions so as to save billions of pounds for other causes.

Thie was a "totemic” policy introduced by Liberal Democrats Pensions Minister, Steve Webb and a major contribution by my party to improve the lot of many pensioners. Under the triple-lock guarantee, pensions have risen every year since 2010 by whichever is the higher figure, the rate of inflation, average earnings or a minimum of 2.5%.

Baroness Altmann, who left her post as pensions minister this month, told the paper that the cost of the triple-lock beyond 2020 would be “enormous”. She said the billions of pounds of spending it entailed could be better used.

Many of the pensioners who benefit from this policy are struggling to make ends meet. The coalition government made a huge difference to their standard of living by restoring the link between pensions and earnings. They also have a much higher propensity to spend that money, thus boosting the economy.

But there is still more to do and we need to retain the lock if we are to continue to tackle pensioner poverty.

Will the Tories take advantage of Labour's failure to offer an opposition to ditch this Liberal Democrats policy? Will they risk alienating the group of voters who are the most likely to go to the polling station? We will have to see.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Will Labour MPs set up their own party if Corbyn wins?

The Telegraph speculates that senior Labour rebels are so convinced that Jeremy Corbyn will win the leadership contest that they are planning to elect their own leader and launch a legal challenge for the party's name.

They say that leading moderates are looking at plans to set up their own “alternative Labour” in a “semi-split” of the party if Corbyn remains in post. This would involve them creating their own shadow cabinet and even electing a leader within Parliament to rival the official Labour front bench, from which they could take on the Tories.

The paper says that the rebel group are considering going through the courts to get the right to use Labour’s name and assets including property owned by the party across the country. They would also approach John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, and argue that having more MPs than Corbyn means they should be named the official opposition.

All this sounds very far-fetched, especially the involvement of the courts. If the judgement on Corbyn's candidacy is any measure then it is unlikely that the judiciary will want to get involved.

This grouping is clearly not an SDP mark two or even the beginnings of the left of centre alliance that Paddy Ashdown is focused on creating. Their purpose is to reclaim the Labour Party, but can they do that without the membership behind them?

The chances are that this will be a short-lived group, a head without a body, which will be swept away at the next General Election. Their actions though could make Labour even more unelectable and guarantee a Tory majority government for a generation.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Cats poised to take over UK Government

Move over Larry and Palmerston, there is a new cat in town and he has his own instagram account. According to Buzzfeed, the Treasury has got its own cat called Gladstone, the third official mouser in Whitehall.

Like his fellow Westminster felines, Gladstone is a former stray who’s been recruited to catch the mice overrunning the department. He arrived at his new home at the end of June but the fallout from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union meant the public announcement was put on hold:

The decision to recruit the cat was taken by the Treasury’s former acting permanent secretary John Kingman in a bid to conquer the ageing building’s chronic mouse problem.

Officials said that while mice had long been a problem in the department, they had started getting bolder and appearing in offices during the day.

For the first few weeks, Gladstone has been confined to an office with six policy officials where he mainly wanders across their keyboards, chases bluebottles, stares out of the window and snoozes.

But he will soon be fitted with a tracker device so he’s able to wander free around the Treasury estate to fulfil his mousing duties.

His food and upkeep is being paid for by Treasury staff who all contribute into a kitty, and at weekends he’s looked after by the facilities and security team.

One official described Gladstone as “a very affectionate cat who loves cuddles and food”. Some staff have become so smitten that they have even started knitting for him.

Slowly but surely the cats are taking over the governance of Britain. They are natural politicians: expert at ingratiating themselves to get what they want, a killer instinct when it matters and always fighting with each over control of territory.

The silly season kicks in as Plaid Cymru call for separate Welsh foreign policy

Let me be clear at the start, the thought of the UK being represented abroad by Boris Johnson and Liam Fox is both unpalatable and embarrassing. However, Plaid Cymru calling for Wales to have its own foreign policy and ‘ministry for international affairs’is not the answer.

In a sign that we are now fully into the silly season the Western Mail takes the proposal seriously and gives it undeserved coverage without once asking the key questions of 'how will this nonsense work?' and 'Isn't this a call for independence by another name?'.

At which point the story should have been 'Plaid Cymru out-of-touch with Welsh public opinion again as they ride their hobby horse without mentioning the 'I' word for fear of alienating people'.

Steffan Lewis AM, who wallows in the glorious title of Plaid Cymru's External Affairs Spokesperson, believes that rather than allowing Boris Johnson to speak for Wales we should create a team of diplomats who answer to the Welsh Government.

He has also proposed creating a “ministry for international affairs” for the Welsh Government in an attempt to prevent Westminster from having the greatest influence over Wales’ global dealings.

Such delusions of grandeur. Nowhere does he say how this would be paid for, where we would get these diplomats from and, more importantly, how we would get other countries to recognise and work with these diplomats.

We can barely get an audience for Welsh Ministers in the EU on Brexit, never mind setting up a network of civil servants and diplomats to rival Westminster's.

Of course this proposed infrastructure only works if we are an independent country and that is where Plaid Cymru's fantasy falls down. There is no support for independence in Wales.

Further, the European referendum outcome shows that Wales is far more closely tied to England in its political attitude and outlook than any Welsh politician dares to admit.

Seventeen of the 22 local authority areas voted for Brexit. The vast majority of voters elect unionist politicians to both the Welsh Assembly and to Westminster.

Plaid Cymru's summer fantasy is just that. But they could at least have the honesty in their press releases to say what they really mean, and actually mention independence next time.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Disagreements between Plaid Cymru AMs spill out into public domain

I think it is fair to say that Twitter is not the best medium on which to have an internal discussion about party strategy. We should be grateful therefore when politicians ignore this rule and give us an insight into the dynamics of their party group.

In this particular instance the source of the disagreement is the decision by Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood to set herself against Carwyn Jones in the vote for First Minister, rather than seek a formal coalition with Labour.

According to the BBC, Dafydd Elis Thomas, who is a former Plaid Cymru leader, has criticised his party for "deciding to lead the opposition" rather than "working positively with government". They say that in a series of tweets, Lord Elis-Thomas questioned why Plaid should "gang up with UKIP" in the assembly?

This is an interesting question because at the time the Plaid Cymru denied any collusion with UKIP. Does Dafydd Ellis Thomas know differently?

The BBC say that the Dwyfor Meirionnydd AM, who is on holiday in Spain, tweeted his comments on Tuesday after Plaid colleagues criticised the Welsh Government's decision to drop plans for a bid to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games:

Lord Elis-Thomas sent a message to Plaid's Shadow Economy Secretary Adam Price, questioning the party's "ambition" in its role as the official opposition to Labour in Cardiff Bay.

Mr Price replied: "Governance. Maybe you can come back with lessons from Menorca and the progressive alliance there between Mes, Podemos and PSIB."

Later, Lord Elis-Thomas: "Plaid decided to lead the opposition rather than work positively with government."

He described Plaid as the "'official opposition' of Welsh Conservatives and UKIP" and later asked "why should Plaid gang up with UKIP".

Lord Elis-Thomas also said: "An elected assembly has a constitutional duty to work for stable government", adding: "Doesn't Wales deserve a stable government now to negotiate its EU relations?"

All of these are valid points of course but Lord Elis Thomas will not be thanked by the Plaid Cymru leadership for raising them so publicly.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Meanwhile in other cat related news

As Larry and Palmerston have proved one of the charms associated with cats is their ability to pop up in the most unusual places and look very cute whilst doing so.

According to Walesonline this particular moggy has been practising these dark feline arts in the Sainsbury's store in Thornhill, Cardiff.

She has become such a feature at the entrance to the store that customers, afraid that he was being cast out by management, got together to collect a 500 signature petition urging that she be allowed to stay put.

Happily, management had no such plans. The petition said: "She (the cat) has been visiting there for over a year . She does no harm and never enters the store. She is quite a character and has a following on Facebook . The majority of customers love her. She brings a smile to our faces."

Yes, you read that right. She has her own Facebook page, here.

The paper says that some shoppers have complained and the company has asked for people not to feed the cat. They are though happy for her to stay as long as she keeps away from the counters.

A spokeswoman said: "Lots of our colleagues and customers love having our feline friend around the store. We have spoken to her owner who agreed to take her home if her behaviour is less than purr-fect.

I do like a happy ending.

South Wales to stage first Labour Leader's hustings

The Independent reports that the Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith will go head-to-head in a husting for the first time in Cardiff on Thursday 4th August.

Rather optimistically Labour's general secretary Iain McNichol has stressed in an e-mail that members will be choosing the party’s “candidate for prime minister” and that the hustings would help them decide.

Meanwhile we await the verdict of the High Court as to whether Jeremy Corbyn should be automatically included on the Labour leadership ballot paper.

I hope they are selling popcorn next week.

High noon in Downing Street

The big stand-off in politics is not Corbyn versus Owen Smith. It is not the battle for leadership of the Greens or of UKIP. It is not even the oneupmanship between Theresa May and the European Union over Brexit. The main event is the rivalry between Larry, the cat currently occupying Number 10 Downing Street and Palmerston, the Foreign Office's cat.

The Telegraph reports that Palmerston seems to have inherited the Downing Street ambitions of Boris Johnson. He was caught sneaking in to Theresa May's new residence while no one was looking.

The black-and-white cat, who was appointed Chief Mouser to the Foreign Office earlier this year after being adopted from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, was unceremoniously evicted by police officers.

The paper says that he then sat outside the building, looking furious, and even appeared to have a stand-off with a police officer.

They add that amid the post-referendum upheaval within the Government, Palmerston and his No 10 rival Larry have been at each others' throats recently. One violent clash outside the Foreign Office is thought to have resulted in a paw injury to Larry which required veterinary treatment.

The photo above shows that this rivalry is far from over. Larry sits guarding the door of Number 10 Downing Street, whilst Palmerston contemplates his next move. All the other political cat fights pale in comparison.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

UKIP have another public row in Wales

The row over proposed changes to Assembly Members' expenses so as to accommodate UKIP AM, Neil Hamilton's living arrangements has taken a new twist.

The BBC report that the UKIP Assembly group leader has demanded that UKIP Wales leader Nathan Gill sack an assistant for sending a tweet seeking to rally opposition to the proposed changes put forward by the Assembly's Remuneration Board.

Mr. Hamilton also wants UKIP to expel Llyr Powell, named on the European Parliament website as an assistant to Mr Gill. In return the MEP has accused his Assembly group leader of "awful bullying behaviour":

The latest row broke out after it emerged the assembly was looking at to allow AMs who live in England claim accommodation expenses in Cardiff.

Mr Hamilton, who lives in Wiltshire and is the only AM affected, is unable to claim under existing rules.

In response to the story, Mr Powell tweeted that he had "just emailed my local AMs asking them to vote to protect taxpayers money.

Mr Hamilton, who represents Mid and West Wales, wrote in an email to Mr Gill seen by BBC Wales: "I am outraged that Llyr Powell has publicly implied that my reimbursement claims are a waste of taxpayers' money.

"Worse still, he has apparently incited our political enemies to oppose reimbursement of my costs and to make political capital out of the issue.

"Using Twitter to publicise his actions is wholly malicious and deliberately calculated to damage both me and UKIP."

Mr Hamilton added he was making a disciplinary complaint against Mr Powell, "seeking his expulsion from UKIP".

The former Conservative MP said he had no doubt that "in employment law" Mr Powell's behaviour "constitutes 'gross misconduct' and merits summary dismissal".

"As your employee, his public activities inevitably imply your approval in the absence of evidence to the contrary and I request that you dismiss him forthwith from your employment," Mr Hamilton said.

The former MP for Tatton is once more embroiled in a row about money, this time with members of his own party.

His email also confirms that proposed changes to Assembly Members' remuneration that effectively allow them to live anywhere in the UK and still get expenses reimbursed are down to him.

UKIP in Wales remain at war with themselves.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Doing a Boris

When the history of post-Brexit Britain comes to be written historians everywhere will be scratching their heads over the decision by Prime Minister May to appoint Boris Johnston to the role of Britain's leading diplomat.

Diplomacy has never been one of my strengths but at least I try and engage my brain before I speak. Doing a Boris shall henceforth be the term applied to those who have been promoted above their ability and who speak out in a way that offends the maximum number of people.

As the Guardian reports the latest such gaffe comes from the master himself. The paper says that our foreign secretary, has been urged to avoid passing politically sensitive judgments on world events until he is in full possession of the facts. This comes after Boris prematurely blamed Islamist terrorists for the killings in Munich on Friday:

Johnson made his remarks before the identity of the killer – an 18-year-old German citizen of Iranian descent who was obsessed with mass slaughter – had been known.

Although early reports of the attack, in which Ali Sonboly shot nine people dead before killing himself, suggested a gang of three people might be on the loose in Munich in a terror attack reminiscent of the killings in Paris, no definitive information was available and the authorities had not identified a motive for the killings.

Speaking about the attack on Friday while in New York, Johnson told the press that that the “global sickness” of terrorism needed to be tackled at its source in the Middle East.

“If, as seems very likely, this is another terrorist incident, then I think it proves once again that we have a global phenomenon and a global sickness that we have to tackle both at the source – in the areas where the cancer is being incubated in the Middle East – and also of course around the world.”

He added: “We have to ask ourselves, what is going on? How is the switch being thrown in the minds of these people?”

Boris had previously been grilled by journalists at a joint press conference with the US Secretary of State on his past Borisms. He was repeatedly pressed to explain his past “outright lies” and insults about world leaders, including describing the US president as part-Kenyan and hypocritical.

He came under strongest attack from American journalists, who asked him if he was going to apologise to world leaders, including Barack Obama, for his past insults, and whether other politicians could trust him. His reply summed up the awkward position that he and the UK are in:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned.

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene."

The one learning point he may wish to take from that particular press conference is to not confuse Turkey with Egypt in future.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Is 2016 the year that conspiracy theorists became mainstream?

Over at the Independent, John Rentoul explains that he has had a bit of experience of conspiracy theorists and they are always “just asking questions” rather than esposuing a specific theory. So you may see what I have done with the title of this piece.

Rentoul says that something strange has happened to politics in America, and something alarmingly similar seems to be afflicting the UK as well. It is the adoption of conspiracy theories by mainstream politicians to make a point or to distract us from shortcomings in their case.

For example, he points out how Donald Trump responded to the humiliation of Ted Cruz’s failure to endorse him at the Republican National Convention:

Trump tried to draw the cameras from Cruz’s speech by making an unscheduled entrance to the convention hall in Cleveland. Then, after Cruz explained that he wasn’t going to be a “servile puppy” to someone who had been rude about his wife and father, Trump repeated the attack on his rival’s father.

“All I did was point out that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast,” Trump said. The conspiracy theory is that an old photograph of Oswald, who killed John F Kennedy, shows him with Rafael Cruz handing out leaflets in New Orleans in 1963. Yesterday Trump went into classic conspiracy theorist mode: “Ted never denied that it was his father... I’m not saying anything… This had nothing to do with me. Except I might have pointed it out… Nobody ever denied – did anyone ever deny that it was his father? It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him.”

This reflection on the use of conspiracy theories has been prompted by the assertion by Len McClusky that MI5 have been behind the problems of the Labour Party:

Three weeks ago he accused Portland, the PR company set up by Tim Allan, one of Tony Blair’s early advisers, of orchestrating the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. McCluskey said that left-wing MPs such as Angela Eagle had been “seduced by sinister forces” and urged the BBC to investigate Portland.

Yesterday, he proved this wasn’t a one-off malfunction. He said, echoing the Scottish nationalist JK Rowling conspiracy theory, that MI5 was behind online abuse of Corbyn’s opponents in an attempt to discredit the Labour leader. Only he didn’t assert it, of course, he was just asking a question. “Do people believe for one second that the security forces are not involved in dark practices?”

And he went on: “I tell you what, anybody who thinks that that isn’t happening doesn’t live in the same world that I live in.”

Rentoul explains that most recently conspiracy theories feel as if they are becoming more mainstream in British politics. He explains that Scottish National Party supporters in the 2014 referendum campaign accused MI5 of hiding the discovery of new North Sea oil fields, and of trolling JK Rowling on Twitter to try to discredit them.

He says that it was these SNP supporters who started the original campaign to persuade people to take pens to the polling stations, to prevent MI5 from rubbing out pencil votes, a campaign taken up by Leave campaigners in last month’s EU referendum.

In my experience the simplest explanation is normally the best one. The famous double-negative applies that just because you are paranoid it does not mean they are not out to get you. Equally though, why waste the effort when those you may wish to do down are already in self-destruct mode?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Corbyn's plans for big drugs companies could undermine the NHS

Just over two years ago Jeremy Corbyn signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons that expressed concern over the proposed takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer. It called on the Government to act as necessary to protect employment and skills in the UK, ensure that the development of the new headquarters in Cambridge continues as planned, with the associated infrastructure needs, and ensure that the UK continues to be a world-leader in science and pharmaceuticals research and development.

Now he is proposing to withdraw tax relief for research by drug companies, and suggesting that the development of new drugs should be a job for the NHS. At a billion pounds per new drug that sort of commitment could cripple the NHS, wiping out many times over the mythical windfall hospitals all over the country were promised by Brexiteers.

Surely it cannot be a coincidence that this back of an envelope initiative has come in the wake of the challenge to his leadership by Owen Smith, a former lobbyist for Pfizer. Corbyn says he wants to fight on the issues but in fact he is feeding the abuse directed by many of his supporters at Owen Smith because of the Pontypridd MP's former profession.

The big drug companies are an easy target for the left. One of the reasons given  by the First Minister for Wales not adopting the cancer drug fund for example is that it sends more public money their way. Instinctively I agree that we should not be using public money to swell the profits of multinational companies. The reality though is that without them we would not be getting the sort of medical advances we need if we are all to live longer and healthier.

As the Spectator points out last year the Medical Research Council spent £506 million on research grants. Pfizer spent $6.6 billion (£4.8 billion). And Pfizer is just one drugs company. The world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies between them spent just under £50 billion – 100 times as much as the Medical Research Council.

We simply cannot afford to insist that all research is funded by the Medical Research Council. What are we going to do with those drugs that are developed by the pharmaceutical companies? Because they are going to continue to carry out research for other markets. Will we refuse to use new privately funded drugs in our NHS? Is Corbyn really saying that he is going to deny patients life-saving medicine because they were not developed by the state?

I am interested too in what the unions are going to say about this policy. There are thousands of high quality, well-paid jobs in the UK dependent on research by companies like Pfizer. Is Corbyn happy to drive those job opportunities abroad?

The Labour Party likes to style itself as the founder of the NHS. This policy could well see them undermine and destroy that achievement.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Time to stop the intimidation

To be honest I don't care who is responsible for the abuse and intimidation on social media and elsewhere over the attempted coup by Labour MPs against Jeremy Corbyn. This behaviour has no place in modern British politics.

Like others I have been shocked by the ferocity and nature of the backlash. Today's news that Angela Eagle has stopped holding public surgeries for constituents on police advice after she received abuse and threats because she challenged for the Labour party leadership, goes to the heart of the issue.

Stop and reflect on this for a moment: an elected MP in the UK is being stopped from doing her job because of threats and intimidation. What does that say about 21st Cemtury Britain?

By all means use democratic methods to make your point, but surely there is a place for a difference of opinion between MPs and their constituency party without activists opting for the nuclear option of deselection?

We are living in a representative democracy. You cannot reduce the democratic process to one of command and control. MPs and other elected representatives are not delegates. They need to make up their mind on issues on the basis of information and experience that may not be available to others.

And we have to respect that they are trying as hard as they can to act in the best interests of their constituents. We accept it, because it is true.

The murder of Jo Cox shocked everybody. But many have not learnt the lesson that no matter how harmless the abuse appears to be, somebody will pick up on it and take it further.

We cannot exercise our democratic rights through the prism of a police cordon surrounding our elected representatives. This is not just about their safety, it is about the future of our democracy. It is time to stop the intimidation.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Active citizenship targets the Leave campaign

We are always being encouraged to report hate crimes when we come across them so kudos to the 39,800 people who have lodged a complaint with the police alleging that Nigel Farage incited racial and religious hatred during the European Union referendum campaign.

The tone and content of the Leave campaign's propaganda was not just offensive it was dangerous and insulting to the many immigrants who actively work within their local communities and contribute to this country's economy.

As the Independent reports figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council earlier this month show a 42 per cent spike in race and religious hate crimes during and in the wake of the EU referendum campaign.

The so-called “Breaking Point” poster, unveiled by Mr Farage on the morning of 16 June, depicted Syrian refugees crossing a border in central Europe, thousands of miles from the UK. Critics noted that it only depicted ethnic minorities and that its text appeared to equate the EU with immigration from the Middle East.

The paper says that campaign rhetoric referenced in the police complaint include such reported statements by Mr Farage as:

Incidents of hate crimes reported on social media since the reported hate crime surge began tend to involve members of the public telling people speaking foreign languages – or simply people who are not white – to “leave” or “go home”.

Others involve racist anti-immigrant graffiti, such as that daubed on the Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith, west London.

This complaint is active citizenship at its best and I hope that the police act on it so we can draw a line as to what is acceptable and what is not in public discourse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pokemon Go invades the Welsh Assembly

As a budding old fogy I am having enough trouble coming to terms with the latest Pokemon Go craze. So kudos to one Tory Assembly Member who clearly has a young person in his office to brief him.

Montgomeryshire AM, Russell George has tabled a question to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure asking what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effects of Pokemon Go on the transport network in Wales?

Cue Welsh Office civil servants running around looking for somebody to explain Pokemon Go to them.

Have the pesky creatures been staging sit-ins on Arriva trains? Have they been disrupting bus timetables or causing traffic jams? Have they lodged a submission to the public inquiry on the M4 extension around Newport?

I am expecting a substantive answer to this question that indicates that there is a problem. If one is not forthcoming then an explanation is due from the AM as to why he is wasting public money just to show that he is 'down with the kids'?

So who is Owen Smith?

With the departure of Angela Eagle from the Labour leadership contest, members are now faced with a choice between two straight white men. We are of course in Liberal Democrat territory there but it could have been very different.

Labour members outside Wales will now be asking themselves who exactly Owen Smith is? In fact some members in Wales may need educating on that point if the conversation I had with a Labour Councillor on Monday is typical.

Owen Smith is crachach, a lifetime member of the Welsh establishment. The crachach are usually said to be Welsh-speaking and are said to be found in influential positions in the arts, politics, academia and the media.

His father is Professor Dai Smith, a former Chair of Arts Council Wales. Professor Smith was born in the Rhondda and grew up in Barry, where he was taught at the local grammar school by the acclaimed writer Gwyn Thomas.

Owen Smith is a former BBC producer, who worked on the 'Today' programme, 'Good Morning Wales' and 'Dragon's Eye', he left journalism in 2002 to go to the Wales Office as special adviser to the Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy. He then moved with Murphy to the Northern Ireland Office. He went on to become a lobbyist for the drugs company, Pfizer.

In 2006, he was the Labour candidate in Blaenau Gwent for the Westminster by-election. It had once been one of Labour's safest seats but the majority had evaporated when the local AM, Peter Law, broke with the party and won the parliamentary seat the year before. He lost to Law's former agent, Dai Davies, on the same day as Law's widow took the Assembly seat. polling just 37% of the vote.

During the by-election campaign, Smith spoke with Wales Online and expressed his support for the private sector playing a supportive role in the NHS, private finance initiative schemes, and removing foreign dictators, though he also told The Daily Telegraph the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. He has since spoken out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and distanced himself from his NHS comments,stating that PFI was a failure.

After the by-election he was attacked by the Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, who described him as a "drug pusher":

Mr Flynn said, "The lobbyists are a curse, a cancer in the system. It's insidious. One of my main interests in politics is areas in which lobbyists used their wicked wiles to get access to government. One example is the pharmaceutical industry, who are the most greedy and deceitful organisations we have to deal with."

Interviewer Patrick McGuinness then said, "Some of their lobbyists end up as candidates in Welsh Labour. Blaenau Gwent for instance."

Mr Flynn responded, "Indeed - I wasn't too pleased by the fact that we had a drug pusher as a candidate."

Paul Flynn is the current shadow Secretary of State for Wales and shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

Owen Smith was chosen for his home town of Pontypridd when Kim Howells stood down just months before the 2010 General Election. He had impressed the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, during the Blaenau Gwent campaign and within months he was Hain's deputy in opposition.

Hain was responsible for the Labour party's internal review, and this provide Smith with the opportunity to make his mark at Westminster. He was promoted in 2011 to the shadow Treasury team. He was the obvious choice to succeed Peter Hain as Shadow Secretary of State for Wales when the MP for Neath left the front bench.

There is no doubt Owen Smith is a clever, talented and ambitious MP. Whether he will be able to command the sort of popular support needed to unseat Jeremy Corbyn is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What would happen if politicians could be sued for breaking their promises?

The anger directed at those politicians who campaigned for us to leave the EU in some sections of society is palpable. People say that both sides lied but the reality is that all the big porky pies were on the Brexit side and, having won the day, they are backtracking on their commitments as if there is no tomorrow.

Given that the Brexit vote has left all our tomorrows very uncertain, and certainly poorer than before the referendum, should there not be some comeback on those politicians who promised the earth and then fled when they were asked to deliver? Why should it be those who wanted to stay in the EU who have to pick up the pieces?

Theresa May certainly appears to hold that view. She may say that her entire government are responsible for implementing withdrawal from the EU, but it is to brexiteers such as Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis she has turned to do all the heavy lifting, and to take responsibility if they fail.

Meanwhile, a crowd-funding campaign which aims to prosecute “dishonest Brexit politicians”, including Boris Johnson, and prevent Brexit from occurring has received over £27,000 in donations. The Independent says that the page has been set up by #BrexitJustice and hopes to “raise £100,000 minimum”, but acknowledges it is “going to need a war chest.”

Those behind it intend to “prosecute vote leave leaders based upon fraud, misconduct in public office, undue influence and, possibly, inciting racial hatred”. They also hope to “fund a judicial review and other legal action to prevent Brexit”. At the very least, it wants to “ensure that Article 50 will not be triggered without an Act of Parliament”.

So far, #BrexitJustice has received support on Twitter from Lord Alan Sugar, A.C. Grayling and Paloma Faith. To reach its target of £100,000, the campaign needs to receive just over £70,000 in the next 12 days. Even that may not be enough.

Of course all this is wishful thinking. If people could sue politicians for breaking their promise and misleading the electorate it would have happened a long time ago. No judge is going to risk setting such a precedent. Still, full marks for trying and I hope you get your day in court. It will be interesting to see if I am proved right.

N.B. I am aware that this would apply to Nick Clegg and Tony Blair (twice) on tuition fees. That is fine. They were both wrong to break their promises on this issue. It was not a decision I supported.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A new centre left party should not be the focus of Liberal Democrats activity

Those of us who have been around a long time may well have had an uneasy sense of deja vu when Tim Farron told the media at the weekend that he has been in talks with Labour and Greens about forming a left of centre alliance.

The Independent says that Farron believes the calamitous environment of British politics presents an “historic opportunity” to build a new political party or alliance on the centre-left, involving both the Labour Party and his own MPs. Asked whether he was open to creating a new political party in Britain, the Lib Dem leader said: “I think we write nothing off.”

It is my hope that this is just a case of avoiding scaring away possible detectors because, Tim is right when he says that his job is to "defend the Liberal heritage of our movement". The rest of his analysis though is only good in parts:

“The whole current scenario reminds us that the Labour and Tory parties in particular are completely and utterly false and uncomfortable coalitions. You’ve got the far left and the soft left of the Labour party… and in the Tory party you’ve got English nationalists versus pragmatists and even some liberals within the Tory party. In any other democracy in Europe those people wouldn’t be in the same party as one another – and quite a few would be in the same party as us.

“My sense is that one of the many outcomes of the referendum is the fact that progressives have rather enjoyed one another’s company on the campaign trail… there are loads of people out there who you realise in this most calamitous and febrile set of circumstances you share a lot more in common with them than the fact you want to be in the European Union. So realignment is a real, real possibility”.

But, he added, it is too early to tell if the election would be contested with such an alliance. “A form of any kind of movement does depend upon what happens in the Labour party,” Mr Farron said. “The main situation will be how members of the Labour party relate to Liberal Democrats. We have to respect what’s going on in the Labour party at the moment and see what happens. My genuine sense is that I can’t see a happy ending for them.”

There are senior members of the Liberal Democrats who are obsessed with realigning the left in British politics with little regard to the Liberal heritage that our party represents. It seems that their voice in being heard very loudly in the Leader's office. He would do better to talk to grassroots members.

The last attempt to realign British politics in the 1980s foundered on the British electoral system and overlarge egos. Both factors continue to stand in our way, albeit the personalities are different. If we are to have a realignment we cannot be distracted by yet more new parties, it must be a loose coalition focussing on securing electoral reform.

That is the best way to guarantee its longevity and to enable the loose coalitions within the Tory and Labour Parties, which Tim correctly identifies, to find their philosophical homes.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The damning fact about every post-war UK cabinet

As Therese May's cabinet reshuffle draws to a close it is worth reflecting on the conclusions of this article in the Independent. The paper says that she has appointed the lowest number of privately-educated ministers in a new Prime Minister’s Cabinet in over 70 years. That statistic includes Labour Governments.

The social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, has analysed the backgrounds of her new Cabinet to find only 30 per cent have received a private education, the lowest proportion since Labour PM Clement Attlee in 1945.Only 30 per cent of the new cabinet have received a private education, the lowest proportion since Labour PM Clement Attlee in 1945.

They add that  the new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the only Old Etonian to have remained under Mrs May, while seven ministers went to grammar schools. New Education Secretary, Justine Greening, is the first in the role to have gone to a comprehensive school.

Despite this, Cabinet ministers are still over four times more likely to have gone to a fee-paying school for most of their secondary education when compared with the overall UK population, of which just seven per cent went to private school.

There is a story, which is most probably apocraphal, that when one of the post-war Tory cabinets was considering the mortgage rate, some ministers had to have it explained to them what a mortgage was. I find that unlikely, but when the governance of our country is being conducted by people whose educational experiences are so exclusive, is it little wonder that voters feel that politicians do not relate to their day-to-day concerns?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

So which countries have our new Foreign Secretary offended already?

Congratulations to the The Independent who have very helpfully produced a map of all the countries that Boris Johnson has offended. If you click on the link you will find an interactive version in which you can get all the details by running the mouse over each country.

I am sure Foreign Office civil servants and diplomats will find this to be a useful tool over the next few months.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Will it be back to the future with new Environment Secretary?

Whilst the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has grabbed all the headlines, bear a thought for the future of the environment and rural affairs portfolio in the hands of one-time leadership contender, Andrea Leadsom.

According to the Guardian, Ms. Leadsom, the new environment secretary, supports foxhunting and once said she wanted to end farming subsidies. Her support for Brexit may well achieve the latter outcome.

The paper says that Leadsom’s new role has alarmed environmentalists, who highlighted her previous confusion about whether climate change is real and her support for a repeal of the hunting ban:

During her short leadership campaign, Leadsom pledged to hold a vote on bringing back foxhunting, saying it was “absolutely not proven to be in the interest of animal welfare whatsoever”. She said there was a “need to exterminate vermin, which foxes are” and called for a “proper, licensed regime”.

After becoming energy minister in 2015, Leadsom admitted having asked officials whether climate change was real.

“When I first came to this job one of my two questions was: ‘Is climate change real?’ and the other was ‘Is hydraulic fracturing safe?’ And on both of those questions, I am now completely persuaded,” she told the all-party parliamentary group on unconventional gas and oil in October last year.

However, since then she has repeatedly made it clear that decarbonising the energy supply is crucial and that this will not change after leaving the EU. “It is an essential responsibility that we hold towards our children and grandchildren, as the only way to effectively counter the threat of climate change,” she said this month.

Despite this assurance, Andrew Cooper, a Green party energy spokesman, said: “By appointing Andrea Leadsom – a woman who supports foxhunting and has consistently voted against measures to tackle climate change – as environment secretary, and scrapping the Department for Energy and Climate Change entirely, May appears to be sending a clear message that fighting climate change is simply not on her agenda.”

Climate Change does not appear in any of the portfolio names of course, which is a worrying portent for the future direction of the government and there is a real danger that Leadsom will take us backwards on this crucial issue.

As for animal cruelty and specifically fox hunting, it may well be that the government does not have a majority to undo the key animal welfare measure that banned it in the first place, but having a pro-fox hunting minister does not bode well at all.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Another Brexit promise exposed as wrong

Those Brexiteers persist in their assertion that all the money that goes to the EU is ours and that we need not worry because we will get it all back and more to secure key infrastructure projects, investment in jobs and training and agricultural subsidies, had a reality check yesterday.

As the Western Mail reports, UK Government has now refused to pledge that the same level of funding that Wales receives from the EU today will be provided post-Brexit:

Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns came under pressure in the House of Commons to guarantee that Wales will not lose any of its present cash.

Wales is due to receive around £1.8bn in European structural funds investment between 2014 and 2020. During the EU referendum campaign, 13 Conservatives pledged that EU funding would continue until 2020 unless a programme was due to end earlier.

Mr Cairns insisted Wales would receive its “fair share” but said a straight replacement of EU cash with funding from another source “misses the point”.

He said: “[Simply] replacing what are currently EU funds as one source with another source from Westminster misses the point: the EU referendum sent out a number of messages; those areas that receive most EU funds were the areas, sadly, that voted strongest to leave the European Union. We need to look at models of regional aid in a different way.”

The clear implication here is that those who voted to leave the EU will be punished. Whatever happens though we now know for certain that the Leave campaign have misled the public once more.

All the money that is being poured into our poorest areas to try to create wealth and opportunity could be severely diminished once we leave the EU, because the UK Government is not prepared to make up the shortfall. Yet again, Wales will be at the back of the queue.

Welsh Assembly remuneration board to change rules to accommodate Neil Hamilton

Assembly Member expenses are complex and it is right that an independent remuneration board is in place to oversee them and to ensure that everything is above board. Wales in fact led the way in taking responsibility for their pay and expenses away from Assembly Members, but that does not mean that the remuneration board always gets it right.

The £10,000 a year pay rise for AMs they brought in from May this year clearly misjudged the public mood and did nothing to assist public trust in politicians. Now they are on the verge of another public relations boob with changes to support for the accommodation needs of AMs when they are in Cardiff Bay.

Currently, residential accommodation expenditure is based on three ‘zones’:

- Outer area – the area within the boundaries of Mid and West Wales and North Wales electoral regions;
- Intermediate area – the constituencies of Gower, Neath, Swansea East and Swansea West; and
- Inner area – with the exception of those constituencies located in the intermediate area, the area within the boundaries of the South Wales West, Central and East electoral regions.

The available reimbursement for Members whose main home is in the outer area falls into four categories, as follows. In all cases the total reimbursement is capped at £8,820 per annum:

- Option A - renting a furnished property in Cardiff;
- Option B – reimbursement of expenses relating to a property in Cardiff used by a Member (e.g. if a member owns a second home in Cardiff);
- Option C – the cost of overnight stays in Cardiff; and
- Option D – the cost of reimbursement of rent or mortgage payments as permitted under the rules which applied in 2011. This only applies to members elected before 2011 and have not had a gap in service.

Members whose main home is in the ‘intermediate area’ may claim for overnight stays in Cardiff up to a maximum cost per annum of £3,420. Those whose main home is in the ‘inner area’ may claim for overnight stays in exceptional circumstances, but have no other entitlement to reimbursement of residential accommodation expenses.

Up until now there has been no provision for AMs whose main home is outside Wales. The election of Neil Hamilton has changed all that. His main home, pictured above, is a very nice mansion in Wiltshire. The remuneration board is therefore proposing that his circumstances are accommodated.

They are proposing to amend the Determination so that Members whose main home is outside Wales are eligible for residential accommodation expenditure. They propose to do this by extending the Outer Area to the whole of the UK.

There are some who would argue that living in Wales should be an overriding qualification to stand for the Assembly. I would agree with that view. If Neil Hamilton wishes to represent Mid and West Wales then he should establish his main home on this side of Offa's Dyke. The fact that he does not do so is an insult to his electors. The remuneration board should not humour this conceit.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Blair government was dysfunctional says former cabinet secretary

The debate on the Chilcot report has thrown up quite a few revelations but none as unsurprising as the judgement by former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler that Tony Blair's Government was dysfunctional.

According to the Guardian, Lord Butler told the House of Lords that the former Labour Government misused intelligence. He claimed the former prime minister was caught in a trap over Iraq:

Lord Butler added: “Plans were not shared with senior ministers for fear that they would leak. The full legal reasoning of the attorney general was not made available to the cabinet. Official papers were not circulated.

“With hindsight, the Blair government’s disregard for the machinery of government looks not like modernisation but like irresponsibility.”

Butler said it had been a mistake to use intelligence assessments as part of a political process. “As countless examples from history show, intelligence is not uniquely worthy of belief, it’s uniquely worthy of scepticism,” he told the Lords.

“However, this should not lead us to the conclusion that intelligence is valueless or stop us investing in it. In today’s world, intelligence is crucial. When we have weapons which can be directed to land on a sixpence, it is all the more important to know which sixpence to direct them towards. We need to learn the lesson that intelligence is a very valuable – indeed, indispensable – aid to political and military judgment, but it is not a determinant.”

Butler said he had considerable sympathy for Blair “in the obloquy which is being poured on him. I have never believed that he lied to the British people, and I accept that he was sincere in believing that military action to remove Saddam Hussein was necessary as a last resort.

“The trouble was that he got caught in a trap in which a decision on whether or not to join the Americans in military action became unavoidable before other means of containing Saddam had been exhausted.”

Some important lessons there for the future, as to why the Presidential style of government we are slipping into does not work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why a snap General Election is not necessary

As Theresa May assumes the office of Prime Minister it is worth taking stock as to where we are politically.

Labour is in complete disarray. MPs are being beseiged by angry activists for seeking to depose Jeremy Corbyn and there are dark mutterings about deselections. They are about to enter a divisive and acrimonious leadership election.

The Labour Party National Executive faces the choice of excluding Jeremy Corbyn from a leadership ballot and facing protracted legal action, or allowing him to contest the election despite not having the requisite number of nominations and watching him win, widening the rift between MPs and the party at large.

Labour's paymasters, the trade unions are threatening to take their toys home, activists are focussing on internal party matters instead of campaigning in the constituencies, normal scrutiny of the Government has been effectively suspended and voters in safe Labour seats are switching in UKIP in large numbers.

In the light of all this Jeremy Corbyn has called for a snap General Election so as to force the new Prime Minister to seek a mandate. There are predictions that if this happens then Labour will lose 100 seats and the Tories could be set up in power for a generation.

UKIP and the Greens are also in the middle of leadership elections, whilst the SNP remain dominant in Scotland with only the Tories apparently threatening to spoil their party, and even that is relative.

The Liberal Democrats are the most united of the UK wide parties, they are the only ones with a coherent and distinctive pro-EU message to take into an election, but the party is broke, it does not have candidates in place, and its activists, like those of other opposition parties are still recovering from a General Election, local and regional elections and a referendum and will be difficult to motivate to fight another contest so soon.

The voters too are exhausted by a succession of elections and just want to get on with their lives for a bit. Nobody is impressed by the shenanigans in Westminster and disillusionment with poilitics and politicians is at an all-time high. A snap General Election could set a new record for low turnout.

Nobody has a manifesto in place, none of the opposition parties have a compelling narrative and if an election were to be called then they will be faced by a well-funded, Tory election machine ready to sweep away all those who stand against them.

In the circumstances why is any political leader demanding that Theresa May seek a fresh mandate at all. What happens if she calls their bluff?

What is worse is that the basis of these demands are meaningless. We do not operate a presidential system, so why pretend that we do? And even those countries who do have a presidential system like the USA would not have an election in these circumstances. They have a written constitution with clear lines of succession.

And there are precedents for a Prime Minister in Theresa May's position not to go to the country. These include Jim Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown, to name just three.

Moreover, the argument about mandates is a fallacious one anyway. David Cameron has a majority of 12 on a 36.9% of the vote. Turnout was 66.1% so he had the support of 24.4% of the electorate. What sort of mandate is that? In as nuch as she has a mandate at all, Theresa May has inherited the one the Tory Party won in 2015. She still has their 2015 manifesto to implement.

And finally there is the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which makes it virtually impossible for Theresa May to go to the country even if she were inclined too.

The opposition party leaders need to calm down. A snap General Election is not necessary and they are being rather silly to call for one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Cameron adds to the Labour leadership crisis

With Labour in the middle of an existential crisis the last thing they need is an opportunity for a further public argument and split. And yet that is what the David Cameron has dumped at their doorstep with his intention to finally hold the vote on renewing Trident on 18th July.

This is Cameron's last throw of the dice, an attempt to leave behind some sort of legacy. Whether committing the UK to a £20 billion nuclear missile system, which we don't need and cant afford, at a time of austerity and non-proliferation is questionable. However, in the Conservatives arming the country to the teeth counts as a legacy.

Labour will not be able to unite on this issue. Jeremy Corbyn has acknowledged as much. I suspect most of the Labour membership will back their leader on this. And once again the Labour MPs will be seen as out-of-touch with their activists and members.

If Corbyn is on the ballot paper in the forthcoming leadership contest I can see him winning it. If he is prevented from standing then goodness knows what will happen within Labour.

The MPs will be happy but they could then face a bigger threat in their own constituencies in a round of attempted deselections that will make the 1980s look like a picnic in the park.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The two mile pipeline that could set a trend

We have been arguing for years that power cables need to be undergrounded in rural areas and in areas of outstanding natural beauty so as to preserve our natural heritage. Each time though the developer says it is too difficult or too expensive.

Well, now that a two mile long pipeline has been laid to pump beer beneath the cobbled, historic streets of Bruges they will no longer have that excuse. What is good enough for Bruges is good enough for Powys, though power lines do not have the same allure as a specialist Belgian beer with a 450 year tradition behind it.

The Guardian tells us that if all goes to plan, enough beer to fill 12,000 bottles an hour will slosh down the two-mile underground pipeline from De Halve Maan (Half Moon) in the city centre to an out-of-town bottling plant. That is some pipe-dream.

Cue beer drinkers everywhere plotting how they can tap into the pipe. They could even make a film of it - The Great Belgium Beer Heist - "Hang on, lads; I've got a great idea" (Google it if you don't get the reference).

Seriously though,  the good burghers of Bruges have led the way in showing that just because a City, its cobbled lanes and renowned medieval buildings are on the Unesco world heritage list, does not mean that it has to be preserved in aspic.

Normal life can continue without disrupting Bruge's heritage and traditional industries can remain within the boundaries despite the fact that the beer is no longer brewed in two-metre deep open vats that have to be scrubbed out with hand cloths and brooms and delivered to people's homes in a horse and cart.

Moreover, the project has meant that beer tankers are no longer struggling to turn around on narrow lanes. The fabric of this great City is more secure.

All us Brits need to know now, especially in the light of Brexit, are the words of Charlie Croker: "Just remember this - in this country they drive on the wrong side of the road."

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Andrea Leadsom courts the 'backwoods' Tories

Those of us who have been saying for some time that Leave campaigners such as Nigel Farage want to turn back the clock to a fictional 1950s and a gentler, whiter Britain have been proved right with the campaign that their cheerleader, Andrea Leadsom is now running to become the next British Prime Minister.

Like Farage and company she seems to want to take us back to an imaginary world in which we all lived wholesome lives, went to church on a Sunday and dominated the international stage. Of course the Brexit vote has undermined any chance that we will be a dominant economic force for some time.

The Guardian is particularly cutting about Leadsom, picking up on The Times exclusive in which she claimed she would be a better prime minister than her Conservative leadership contest rival, Theresa May, because she has children and May does not.

Even by Tory standards that was an unacceptable jibe given that the Home Secretary has spoken at her regret that she and her husband cannot have kids.

Is Andrea Leadsom saying that it is only parents who can be trusted with the country's future? Is she saying that childless women (I presume she is okay with childless men) are less capable than mothers and less empathetic?

Her campaign team have form on this. As Jonathan Calder points out on Liberal England Andrea Leadsom's campaign manager, Tim Loughton told Tory activists in September 2013:

"The person who was actually in charge of family policy amongst the ministerial team at the DfE was Sarah Teather. Which was a bit difficult because she didn't really believe in family.
"She certainly didn't produce one of her own. So it became a bit of a family-free zone. I think that was a huge disappointment."

Loughton later told the BBC that he would apologist to Teather.

Elsewhere in the Guardian we learn that Leadsom is opposed to equal marriage, wants to stop women working for small businesses taking maternity leave and being able to sue for unfair dismissal, wants to do away with all regulation relating to employment rights for full and part-time employees (75% of part time workers are women), and she is anti-abortion.

Despite being a government minister at the time, she promoted the bill on sex-selective abortion proposed by the Tory MP Fiona Bruce – a move that threatened to move the burden of criminality from doctors to pregnant women.

Here we have a leadership contest that will produce only the second female Prime Minister this country has ever had and one of them wants to turn back the clock on women's rights. No wonder that Carolyn Hitt in the Western Mail wants us to move beyond the gender of female politicians.

Who would have thought that the progressive choice in a Conservative leadership contest would be Theresa May?

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Kidlington mystery

Kidlington is England's largest village sandwiched between the River Cherwell and the Oxford Canal. It has a population accroding to the 2011 census of 13,723. To all intents and purposes it is an unremarkable settlement.

That judgement however is not one shared by others. According to the Metro, it has become a tourist hotspot. They say that in a bizarre twist to an already bizarre story police have been called as clueless residents have been left baffled following an influx of 'sight-seeing' foreign tourists arriving by the coachload - for no apparent reason:

Stunned locals say hoards of Chinese and Japanese holidaymakers began arriving in Kidlington, Oxon., on tour buses three weeks ago. The camera-totting tourists have been wandering around the rural village in groups of up to 40 at a time - taking photos of houses and gardens. Tourists have even knocked on doors along 'unremarkable' Benmead Road and The Moors road and asked for pictures of locals - before taking selfies with them.

Maurice Billington, from the parish council, said people were concerned by the tourists going into their gardens, looking through their windows and taking pictures on their doorsteps.

He has spoken to Thames Valley Police – whose HQ is in Kidlington – over what locals have called an ‘invasion of privacy’.

Some residents of Benmead Road and The Moors said that the tourists have been picking their flowers and wander into their gardens without permission.

Mr Billington said: ‘We are happy for them to come here but we do not want them going into people’s gardens to take pictures.’

Images posted to social media show groups of tourists posing in roads and by garden hedges while others, armed with umbrellas, braved the rain to get their coveted snaps.

There are many explanations as to why Kidlington has been the target of so much interest over the last three weeks. These include rumours of Harry Potter and Inspector Morse being filmed on location and links to Sir Richard Branson.

It has been suggested that the village is a convenient stop-off for those heading to Bicester Village, a nearby designer shopping outlet, while others believe the area is popular because it is a “normal village”.

But my favourite is that the tourists are time-travellers, wishing to glimpse a thriving English village before it meets its demise when the UK leaves the European Union.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The five ways Chilcot contradicted Tony Blair

I freely admit that I have not read all 2.6 million words of the Chilcott report or even fully perused the 200 pages of the executive summary. So I am grateful to the Independent for getting to the heart of the matter and identifying the five things Tony Blair said about the Iraq War which were completely undermined by Chilcot:

1. Saddam Hussein won't co-operate, we have no choice

Chilcot said: “We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort."

2. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction could be activated in just 45 minutes

Chilcot said: “The judgements about Iraq’s capabilities in that statement and in the dossier published the same day were presented with a certainty that was not justified. The Joint Intelligence Committee should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Iraq continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued."

3. The UK can influence US decisions, we have a special relationship

Chilcot said: "Some [lessons] about the management of relations with allies, especially the US. Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq. The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ."

4. Removing Saddam Hussein will make Britons safer

“Mr Blair had been warned, however, that military action would increase the threat from Al Qaeda to the UK and to UK interests. He had also been warned that an invasion might lead to Iraq’s weapons and capabilities being transferred into the hands of terrorists."

5. The ensuing chaos in Iraq could not have been predicted

“Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.„"

Undoubtedly more will emerge as the full report is digested but already Blair's legacy is being unpicked and the decision to go to war shown up as being based on a false premise.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

UKIP put 'race row candidate' onto Assembly's Equality Committee

As if it were not bad enough that climate deniers UKIP were given the chair of the Welsh Assembly committee that oversees and scrutinises Welsh Government action on climate change, yesterday their AMs cocked another snook to Wales.

UKIP nominated Gareth Bennett, the AM who during the Assembly elections suggested that the litter problem in Cardiff was caused by Eastern European immigrants, to be a member of the committee which promotes equal opportunities.

As one of my erstwhile colleagues said, they are doing it on purpose. But nevertheless Mr. Bennett's membership of that committee undermines its function and purpose and impacts on the Assembly's reputation amongst those it is meant to champion.

The other interesting aspect of the list of members nominated to serve on committees was the total absence of Nathan Gill's name. He has said he will continue serving as both an MEP and an AM, and either he has requested not to be on a committee so as to facilitate that dual role or his group have taken umbrage and punished him for his decision.

It is known that there is no love lost between Nathan Gill and the UKIP group leader, so my bet is that it is the latter explanation. Either way it looks like the UKIP group remains inextricably split and they don't care who knows it.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Will Chilcott really throw any light on the Iraq war?

The long-awaited Chilcott report will be published tomorrow. But how much light can filter through 2.6 million words and 12 volumes? It is almost as if the report has been designed to hide answers to all the key issues.

The big question of course is whether the decision to go to war was legal or not?  The Guardian though, says that the legality or illegality of the Iraq war was never a question Sir John Chilcot was asked to deal with in his long-awaited inquiry:

Two days before the unveiling of the Chilcot report, a 2m-word document six years in the making, Lord Butler said on Monday: “What [Chilcot] was asked to deal with was what happened, not only in the lead-up to the war but during the war and after the war, and what lessons can be learned from it. The legal issue wasn’t actually put to him. His review team wasn’t equipped properly to deal with that issue.”

Cue, major disappointment all round.

One commentator on the radio has said that Chilcott will be a slow-burn as journalists struggle to digest a 200 page executive summary in two hours and that it is only as they read it in depth over the next few weeks that key points will emerge.

Why has it been done this way? Why are major conclusions being buried in verbiage? Those Labour MPs who have held back from challenging Corbyn because of their role in voting to go to war may get the break they are looking for after all.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Time for Boris to start acting like a grown-up

Boris Johnson is the Dr. Strangelove of the Brexit campaign, a half-crazed genius who shouts and stomps whilst the world falls apart around him. Okay, I may not have done the film much justice but hopefully you have got my drift.

I have never been so outraged by a newspaper column than I was this morning with Boris Johnson's latest contribution to the post-Brexit debate. Having led the UK to the edge of economic disaster he has retreated to his ivory tower and is now demanding that others clean up the mess.

Yes, he has a five point plan, but careful reading of it shows it up to be the sort of careless platitudes and misplaced optimism that fooled many voters into supporting the leave campaign in the first place.

The international competition, leadership and co-operation he says is now possible could be delivered as part of a major free trade partnership like the EU. Alas, we are now leaving the EU and somebody is going to have to pick up the pieces and rebuild. That person will not be Boris Johnson, who has walked away from any leadership role in that process.

He has condemned the government for not having a plan in the event that the vote went against them.

Well, they could just adopt his plan.

Oh, wait, he did not have one either and not only that but the benefits he and others sold to the British people turned out to be lies.

The problem as Oxford Philosopher, David Rodin highlights is that the referendum asked the wrong questions. He says that the cardinal error of the Brexit referendum was in offering a choice between two alternatives (leave or remain), when in fact the choice was between three quite distinct alternatives: a) remain in the EU, b) remain in the European Economic Area giving full access to European markets, but at the cost of accepting free movement of people, or c) regaining control over immigration, but at the cost of losing free access to European markets.

Because the choices were so indistinct and so blurred, nobody actually knows what the British people have voted for as their alternative to remaining in the EU.

Yes, I am annoyed and bitter. But this is not about re-running the EU referendum. We now need to minimise the damage. There are so many unresolved issues that have to be debated and negotiated.

These include the status of EU nationals living and working in the UK, the status of UK nationals living and working in Europe, future immigration policy, the future of trade with the EU and others and whether this will include free movement and of course Britain's relationship with the rest of the world.

There are many more issues. None of them were resolved by the referendum vote. Those of us who think of ourselves as internationalists and Europeans, who were amongst the 48% who voted to stay in the EU, have a legitimate right to highlight them all and to campaign for our view to prevail.

It would be nice therefore if instead of pontificating, Boris grew up, took some responsibility for his own part in this and helped us to resolve those questions.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Bureaucats at the heart of government

Whilst we wait with baited breath to see who will be governing us in a few months time and indeed, if there will be an opposition worth its name to hold them to account, this piece on the National Archive blog reveals who has really been running the country since the 1800s.

They say that for the last 200 years or so, there has been a secretive group of government employees who have been given free range over Whitehall, allowed to stroll into Ministers’ offices during the most sensitive of conversations. They have been paid out of the public purse to preen, sleep and hunt in the corridors of power. They are the government’s cats.

They say that the UK government has been unofficially ‘employing’ cats since the mid 19th century for the gruesome task of ridding Westminster of mice and rats. Today they are presided over by Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office )pictured in action above). The Foreign Office's rescue cat Palmerston has gained a substantial following on Twitter. The archive tells us more:

Most of these mousers have been unofficial, and left no paper trail. However, records were created when departments applied to the Treasury for a feline upkeep allowance, making these cats official. Details of some of them are preserved in The National Archives.

In 1936 for instance, the Cabinet Office applied for an allowance for their resident mouser, Jumbo. Jumbo died in 1942, his name forever ‘recorded in our CAT-alogue of Events during the war’. In light of the need for men at the front, it was suggested by one Cabinet wag that his replacement be a female feline (catalogue reference: CAB 150/7).

It is the Home Office who kept the most meticulous record of their feline employees, and their exploits are detailed in The National Archives’ file HO 223/43.

It all began in 1929, when the Treasury agreed to 1d (one pence) a day being spent on the upkeep of Peter, a black cat already resident in the Home Office. The upkeep was not applied for because Peter was underfed, the Home Office said, but quite the opposite – titbits brought in by besotted civil servants had led to Peter neglecting his main duty as the office mouser.

On his new diet, Peter performed his mousing duties admirably. When part of the Home Office moved to Bournemouth in the Second World War, Peter’s services were so missed they applied for an allowance for two cats. London agreed, with the poetic caveat that it be made sure the cats didn’t breed:

‘To pay for grub we hesitate

For ‘pussies’ who may propagate’

It has not always been a puurrfect life for these cats. Peter was put to sleep on 14 November 1946 at the age of 17 and replaced a month later by a two month old male kitten, dubbed Peter II. Unfortunately the second Peter was to have a tragically short tenure as the Home Office’s chief mouser. Peter II was struck by a car while crossing the road from the Home Office to the Cenotaph 3.15am on 27 June 1947 and put to sleep on the advice of the RSPCA.

A later occupant of the Home Office, was a Manx cat, originally called Manninagh Katedhu but renamed Peta. She was a gift of Ronald Garvey, Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man and was presented to the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, on 7 May 1964.

In 1967 she was accused of brawling with Nemo, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Siamese cat, leading to Mrs Wilson being injured. The Home Office’s cleaners and office keeper are on record as having complained about Peta’s behaviour and lack of house-training.

Comments on the blog reveal that the records of the Scottish government in the eighteenth century were looked after by a cat. (See an article on the subject: Athol L. Murray, ‘The Exchequer Cat, 1715 to 1842’, Scottish Archives, vol. 12 (2006), pp. 53-56.) Whilst, there are articles elsewhere on the internet on the Post Office cats.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Are UKIP following Labour and the Tories into an existential crisis?

UKIP have had so many leadership crises and scandals that they make Labour and the Conservatives look like beginners. Why then, should the latest in-fighting be any different?

As the party which has the most to gain from last week's vote one would think that UKIP would be making plans to exploit it for all its worth. I anticipate that they will get a boost in the polls and if there were an early General Election may even add to their single MP.

But that is not how UKIP operate. Instead, as the Independent reports they are preparing to expel the sole UKIP MP from the party. The party leader is quite clear that he has had enough from the errant member:

Speaking about Douglass Carswell on LBC radio, Mr Farage said: “What would he know?”

”We find somebody inside our party who doesn't agree with anything the party stands for, it's a very odd state of affairs.“

The comments came in response to an attack on the party leader launched by Mr Carswell over Ukip’s controversial “Breaking Point” posters, which depicted large queues of refugees attempting to get into Europe.

Mr Carswell, a member of the official Vote Leave campaign, said he believed it was a “fundamentally wrong thing to do” on Mr Farage’s behalf.

"Angry nativism does not win elections in this country", he added.

There could not be a clearer indication that UKIP is a one-man band. However, if they expel Carswell where does that leave UKIP? Already we have effectively two UKIP groups in the Assembly, to then throw out their only MP could split them further.

For all their troubles, for now Labour and the Tories  remain as viable political parties. If UKIP back Farage and throw out Carswell then they will not even have that luxury.

Instead they will reinforce their status as a single issue protest group, a dysfunctional collection of eccentrics held together by a common hatred of Europe and immigrants and a charismatic leader.

Wales through to the European Championship semi-finals

Just leaving this here

Friday, July 01, 2016

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

In Macbeth Shakespeare wrote a soliloquy for his lead character:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on th'other. . . .
Macbeth Act 1, scene 7. 25–28

If he were writing today the bard might have difficulty who to apply that judgement to.

We live in extraordinary times in which all the political certainties of my lifetime have been turned upside down.

This is not just one party self-destructing as in the 1980s when Labour ripped itself to shreds, or the 1990s when the Liberal Democrats were forced to rebuild after David Owen took his toys home, or even the 1920s when Lloyd George's ambition destroyed the Liberal Party. We are now faced with both the major parties in turmoil, fighting like ferrets in a sack and apparently drifting rudderless on a fast-flowing current.

Two players stand out in the developing farce. There is Boris Johnson, whose personal ambition has led Britain to the brink of a major economic depression, only for him to bottle the final act and withdraw from the battle for the Tory leadership. The quiet assassin in the case was Michael Gove, a man running for a job he has said nine times he lacks the competence and capability to do.

The second player is Jeremy Corbyn, who is seemingly standing Lear-like, unmoved at the top of the Labour Party as his political family desert him. His conceit is that he represents the rank and file of the Labour Party against the vested interests of an establishment which has never accepted him. In that he may be right, but only another leadership contest will offer proof.

Depressingly, the British political system has a habit of re-setting itself. The one big realignment in the 1920s, was about social not political change. But with each reset there is incremental change. In the 1951 General Election 96.8% of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative. In 2015 that figure was 67.3%. The only thing preventing a major political transformation in the House of Commons is the electoral system.

Will the crises facing Labour and the Conservatives this week be the catalyst that leads to lasting reform? Not if the political establishment has its way.

But all those people who voted to leave the EU as a protest against remote, elitist politicians deserve that change.

A system that reflects the way people vote, that does away with safe seats and forces political parties to work with each other in the national interest is the best answer to that protest vote. Politicians would have to listen to the people then.

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