David Cameron's speech

Happy Birthday to me. Happy Birthday to me! Well – actually – it’s Happy Birthday to my blog – five years old today.

And I’ve just finished listening to David Cameron’s speech. Long – very very long. But as with most things – it’s not always the size that counts. Strong on image creation, short on tangibles – even in this time of crisis it seems DC cannot come up with the goods. Perhaps once a PR man always a PR man.

‘Fresh answers to the challenges we face’ he said – but none of the ‘fresh answers’ were available for critique. He seems to believe that appearing to be something is enough. The rest of it was rather ‘back to basics’ but without using the actual words. Mending the broken society by sticking it together with platitudes and £6.00 to stay married doesn’t really do it for me.

I guess he is impotent at the present. He doesn’t have the track record of someone like Vince Cable – who actually understands the economy and warned about the debt bubble that was bound to burst (for years). It’s all very well for DC to come now to the table and say how irresponsible this has all been. It’s his mates in the City who took the risks to get their ridiculous bonuses. Dave didn’t utter a word over the last ten years to warn of this – and now he is all too pleased to blame Gordon (who is undoubtedly to blame) but as the Her Majesty’s Opposition – all we got was a deafening silence as Tory types took the money – leaving us the taxpayers to pick up the bill.

Anyway – as you will gather – I didn’t rate the speech. The last thing we need now is more vacuous image style politics. And – he did my pet hate thing of bringing his wife on stage at the end. Those who know me are well aware of my aversion to this – and he kissed her about four times in the space of one minute. Afraid that the snappers didn’t get the photo first time round. Cynical – you bet!

The role of fathers

That’s the topic of my latest piece for the Highgate Flier and Muswell Hill Handbook:

It’s all sorts of dads we should be thinking about – not just black ones!

I refer to both Barack Obama and David Cameron’s recently zooming in on the world of fatherless black children. Now yes – there is a disproportionately high number of black families being brought up essentially by the mother – but it’s also an issue in white communities.

I’ve been a single mother myself since my children were 7 and 12. And two things that used to annoy the whatsit out of me when they were at school were firstly that each year parents got a class list (with contact details of all the class parents) and despite informing the school many, many times that we were separated – it was always (only) my address and number on the list – the school itself was acting as if to exclude separated fathers. Secondly – the school tended to send notes home with the child about parents evenings, plays etc. And again – that means they all came to me – and more generally, as it is usually the mother that children live with, to the mothers. So again – the school was acting in a way that excluded separated fathers rather than bringing them in and encouraging their involvement

Being obviously extremely civilised – I would tell my ex the details from the notes and we would often go together to the parents evenings and so on. But if you’re not so lucky in how things work out, the school should be there encouraging the involvement of both parents.

The school should have an obligation to contact both parents about all school activities. Clearly if the situation is hostile – there may be issues – but at least both parents would be informed (so long as the parent and their whereabouts are known).

This has improved a bit in recent years – with email and some good practise where it is the norm to list and contact both parents regardless of status or hostilities – but not nearly enough.

I continue to believe that given it has been shown that a kid’s reading ability, particularly boys, improves beyond measure in correlation to how much reading they do with their dad – it’s time for pro-actively engaging fathers more.

I’m sure lots of you reading this (fathers) are engaged and equally involved with your kids – but this is about improving a situation where there is need.

In America, they have been implementing a scheme (or various schemes) called any variation on ‘Dads and Doughnuts’. Now whilst here we might prefer something other than doughnuts – the idea is a good one that can travel: the school invites Dads in to do things with their kids without the mums. Sometimes this is reading with a breakfast (great for Dads who go to work early) or evening events or parents’ nights for Dads only.

Dads have been left out in the cold for too long. We are seeing the consequences of their absence – but it’s not something we need simply complain about. We can, and should, act.

Why Sky is the Liberal Democrats of TV news

I had decided to ask Gordon Brown a question at PMQs today – on listening to the people and learning (post disastrous election results last week) and suggest that if he had the guts he could prove he was listening by dropping the Post Office closure program. (Bad news for us by the way – none of our Post Offices were saved. We will have to get the info on why only a meagre seven in London were saved using FOI and then make hell let loose.)

Anyway – sadly I had to go to a funeral of an old uncle who died yesterday – so missed PMQs. On the radio coming back from the cemetery to parliament, blow me, I heard David Cameron ask exactly my point. That is scary! (For Nick’s questions, see the write-up on Lib Dem Voice.)

Raced to Sky News lunch with Adam Boulton and crew who were lunching Lib Dems to discuss how their news could extend even further into plurality and impartiality through internet and so on. Gorgeous lunch – and always interesting to hear what the other side thinks. Adam seemed to think that Sky News was the Liberal Democrats of news programs – in as much as they are always having to punch above their weight against the terrestrials of BBC and ITN.

I do think – and so did most of us MPs present – that Sky has the best rolling news and breaking news. And although I didn’t see their election coverage (as the stupid row with Virgin robbed me) I gather it was excellent. So unlike the BBC TV coverage that everyone in blogland has been blasting to high heaven for its low grade and tatty approach.

Very enjoyable – and as Julia Goldsworthy pointed out – half Sky’s top ten fanciable MPs were present. So – we ain’t got the power – but we sure got the looks!

The real lesson of the 10p tax rate fiasco

HM Treasury signIt’d be easy to simply point fingers at all those Labour MPs who cheered when Gordon Brown delivered his last budget (the one that scheduled the abolition of the 10p income tax rate for this year) and then stayed silent in the intervening year until finally, at the last gasp, speaking up on the issue.

But there’s a larger point underlying all this – beyond the failure of MPs to speak up for so long. It’s the whole way we do our budgets and our politics. Gordon Brown slipped out the announcement of the abolition of the 10p rate on the quiet, obscured – he hoped – by the fanfare he gave to a cut in the basic rate of income tax. He nearly got away with this sleight of hand at the time – David Cameron failed to spot it in his Budget debate response, though Ming Campbell did then pick up on the point.

And what sort of way of setting a major tax rate which affects millions is that? No prior public debate or discussion about the shape of the tax system. Instead try to slip it out in secret and hope people don’t notice. Why shouldn’t the creation or abolition of tax rates be discussed and debated fully in public?

Well, that’s not what you want if you’re a secretive control freak (surprise!) – but behaving like that’s the way you make mistakes, thinking that you and you alone have all the wisdom on a matter and unimpeachable judgement. Of course, if you’re flawless and always right – why would that matter? Let’s hope Gordon’s noticed by now that he and his government aren’t…

David Cameron in political hot water again

So – David Cameron’s at the centre of a fuss again where he’s being painted as someone who – basically – looks down on the rest of us.

Previously it was his track record of breaking traffic rules (‘Stopping at a red light? Going the right way down a one way street? Those are only rules for little people’ seems to be pretty much his attitude).

Today, it’s a comment he’s meant to have made to his daughter, as reported in the Sunday Mirror:

David Cameron was at the centre of a political storm last night over claims he had compared his untidy daughter to someone who had “fallen out of a council flat”.

The incident allegedly happened when four-year-old Nancy came down the stairs to join the Tory leader and his guests at his £2million West London home.

According to senior political sources, Mr Cameron looked at her and groaned: “You look like you’ve fallen out of a council flat.”

Now – as I said when this came up on the Sky News newspaper review this morning, there is some controversy over whether or not he actually said this (as the Mirror goes on to report) but the underlying problem I think is this – David Cameron has consistently invited media coverage of his personal family life – not just on ITV a few days again, but also with the whole start to Web Cameron, where again his children featured.

If you’re going to wheel out your family in the good times – and basically say, ‘Look what a good parent I am’ – it’s hard then to draw the line and rule off limits even conversations with your children. If you invite coverage in, you can’t then just turn round and expect privacy whenever it suits.

How Brown could revolutionaise PMQs, improve Labour's standing, polish the image of politics and make the Tories look like silly – all in one go

Another Wednesday, another PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions) in Parliament. What to make of today’s Punch and Judy show between Cameron and Brown?

First – I guess, as Nick Robinson points out, that Cameron has forgotten his professed distaste for Punch and Judy, you say one insult, I’ll say two back more loudly style of politics. Perhaps he genuinely meant it when he said it, but if so he’s long since changed his mind.

Second -Gordon Brown really ain’t that sharp or fast when it comes to PMQs. He was always going to have a tough act to follow after Blair who, love or loathe what he said, was a master of the art of question time.

Fraser Nelson rather wickedly desecribes Ed Milliband’s apparent new role in the whole farago:

Ed Miliband seems to have a new job. He now sits next to Brown making theatrical grimaces and facial expressions of mock astonishment when Tories speak. Quite fun to watch. Oxford, LSE, Harvard – and he ends up as the highest-paid mime artist in Britain.

I see Mike Smithson (Political Betting) is speculating whether Brown might even be driven to trying to abolish PMQs. Well – if Brown is minded to, he could revolutionaise PMQs, improve Labour’s standing, polish the image of politics and make the Tories look like silly – all in one go.

The answer? Turn down the volume and turn up the behaviour on the Labour side of the chamber. Imagine what would happen if all the Labour MPs started behaving like sensible adults – none of the screaming and pointing and exagerated facial expressions, none of the passing impressions of the rowdy pub bore who insists everyone in the pub MUST hear what they’ve got to say – and instead – behave like you or I would expect and be expected to behave in any other place of work.

In a blink, he would look statesmanlike, the Tories (if they don’t follow suit) would look almightily daft in a one-sided shouting match, and who knows – PMQs might even end up fullfilling a purpose other than making politics look crap once a week.

But will Gordon do it? On past form, I’m not sure he’s got the bottle to take a decisive act. Here’s hoping though….

One sure way to tell if Cameron means what he says

So – David Cameron’s been all over the media criticising Gordon Brown over general election dates. But whilst he’s happy to criticise Gordon Brown for what he did (and didn’t!) do, he’s dodged one question: would he behave the same way himself if he were the Prime Minister? In other words – is Cameron really sincere in what he is saying, or just going for the cheap points?

Well – his bluff, if that it is, is about to be called! As Ming Campbell announced in a TV interview today, the Liberal Democrats will be tabling a bill calling for fixed-term Parliaments tomorrow (the first day Parliament returns). We will see whether or not a certain Mr D Cameron is at the front of the queue to support the bill, or if he really secretly thinks, “actually, I’d quite like to abuse our electoral process myself too”. Over to you David!

Appearing on Radio 4's The Westminster Hour with Carolyn QuinnI might also have a bit of fun teasing Ed Vaizey, my new Facebook friend (!), when we appear together on The Westminster Hour this evening on this!

The show is starting up its regular MP panel again, so expect to hear me on a fair few Sunday evenings between now and the end of the year. It’s on Radio 4, 10pm – or if you miss the show you can listen again on their website.

Doughnuts are getting popular

It is growing like topsy – this Dads and Doughnuts (although the Americans spell it donuts) idea. Yesterday Alan Johnson followed my lead, and today the Prime Minister is following my tack! Just glad I put it out there live on the Politics Show last Saturday week and at the Lib Dem conference last Thursday.

And the point of it all is that, in contrast to Cameron’s populist but puerile attempt to glue people together with tax breaks, we need to be getting real support to single and separated parents. Helping mothers and engaging fathers is really vital. You can’t do it through legislation, but how schools involve both parents is a very interesting line to go down – and I am going down it.

David Cameron's debut

Off bright and early to Parliament for a ‘Green Ministers’ breakfast briefing on the proposed Marine Bill – still in its infancy. I am the ‘Green Minister’ for our Home Office team. Our manifesto commitment was to interweave green issues into the heart of all issues – so each Lib Dem team has its own Green Minister.

Today’s subject is really interesting – although not directly related to my constituency (being landlocked). It is helpful to be briefed by the experts in the field of marine life to understand the issues. What strikes me is the point they make about us having land planning laws and regs until they are coming out of our ears – but virtually nothing for our seas. Rare species and environments are disappearing, virtually nothing is protected and there seem to be no rules about priorities in terms of planning at sea. So someone can create a port – anywhere – with no regard to damage by placement and no requirement to even consider it. At least the Government is prepared to bring forward the legislation – but not all the departments seem fully engaged and you need the ODPM and the DTI fully on board!

Home Affairs team meeting is followed by Prime Ministers’ Questions. Of course, it’s David Cameron’s debut! He did really well on his first bite of the cherry, nicely telling off Hilary Armstrong for sitting there shouting childish comments at him. She does this all the time and it is unedifying and a public telling off saw her blush nicely. However, he didn’t make much impact on his environment question – I guess the Tories and environment caring, sharing are still not believable even with that nice David Cameron saying he agreed with Tony Blair on this and education.

Tony B pointed out to the Notting Hill Prince that if he agreed with it all – he had better vote for it and the budget to fund it. They were both well-behaved – which personally I found quite refreshing. However, I suspect that the Tories agreeing with Tony Blair and the Government line is a one trick pony. Tony Cameron can’t say that every time he speaks – it just won’t ring true or (I suspect) be deliverable. Still an adequate start. Style 8 – content 3!

Now Charles Kennedy, on the other hand, asked a stonkingly good question on Extraordinary Rendition (that’s the American policy of picking up suspects around the world, and flying them off on secret flights to secret locations with no trial, no legal representation and no accountability). Charles put Tony B on the back foot for not knowing what he was talking about and not telling Jack Straw – anything! And this is what question time should be about – serious stuff.

Dash back to my office to do an interview with the Westminster Hour to go out Sunday night on Cameron and what it means for the LibDems. Pontificate – but the truth is – who knows fopr sure … yet!

Last port of the day is attendance at St Andrews Church in Alexandra ward to see the local amateur dramatic society perform three plays. This is their last outing after 81 years – as the Church is renovating (lottery money) and is taking away their storage room and the stage which will make it impossible to go on. Such a shame. I don’t quite understand as when I visited the Church recently to look at the plans for the renovation I thought they had built in storage for the theatre company and I didn’t remember the Vicar saying that they would have to go. Must write and ask if any chance of them staying – somehow.

The production was very professional. I used to do a fair amount of am / dram myself from the age of about 9 until about 22! It took me back to those days. And as I have been told that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ I obviously found an alternative outlet for my thespian aspirations.