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…

Fix that term: the case for fixed term Parliaments

A polling stationIt’s 80 minutes into an Arsenal-Tottenham football derby. Tottenham lead 1-0. Arsenal are piling on the pressure. The Tottenham manager shouts at the ref, “OK, that’s it – can we have the final score now please?” The ref agrees, all the players troop off the pitch 10 minutes early and Tottenham get the three points.

Sounds absurd doesn’t it (and I don’t just mean the idea of Tottenham beating Arsenal!)?

But that’s what passes for normal in the world of Palace of Westminster politics when it comes to general election dates. The Prime Minister – and the Prime Minister alone – gets to choose the date. Now – in theory Parliaments last for five years and the monarch has to agree to any earlier election, but in practice – the PM always gets his or her way – and they shouldn’t.

Which is why, even though the immediate fuss after Gordon Brown’s general election that wasn’t has died down, I’ve returned to the topic in my latest magazine article – which you can now read on my website.

It mentions – which is a cross-party campaign on this very topic, including the likes of bloggers Iain Dale (Conservative), Stephen Tall (Lib Dem) and Sunny Hundal (of Liberal Conspiracy), MPs Ed Vaizey (Conservative – and my frequent sparing partner on The Westminster Hour) and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, and journalists including Benedict Brogan of the Daily Mail. If you agree with me on the issue – do go and sign up to support it. And if you don’t – read my article, and perhaps you’ll be persuaded!

My choice for Lib Dem leader

A day of weighing up thoughts on the Lib Dem leadership contest. First – many thanks to everyone who has been lobbying me to run for the leadership. It’s flattering – but sorry, I’m not in the running.

Instead, I am sticking with Chris Huhne. You know he had real balls last time – took the risk – gave the party a real choice. And in the campaign – it was Chris who had the big ideas – so much so that the other leadership contenders followed his agenda. I want the person who sets agendas – that is leadership.

Outside of loads of media interviews – it has been a day of Lib Dem huddles. Who will support who? Who’s the media backing? And so on … but perhaps at last there is a chink of light in the media being (a little!) interested in what the policy choices there may be behind different candidates and what our party’s approach is rather than obsessed with what socks Ming is wearing.

But I’ll give you one firm prediction: whoever runs and whoever wins – their best policies will be nicked by the Tories without hesitation, then nicked by Labour and then the Tories will complain about Labour doing the nicking – as if they were really their policies in the first place!

Parliament: it's like a badly behaved playground

Sunday night – so did my stint on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour again. It was reasonably lively tonight. No prizes for guessing the main topic – leadership! Both Brown at PMQs and Ming.

I am so fed up with this Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) rubbish. The House loves it. The media loves it. It is a great spectator sport (blood sport that is) but it is not the way to judge leadership or to hold the PM to account – at least, not if you are a grown up. It’s boys behaving like boys do – and I don’t mean that as a compliment!

Can you imagine anyone in the real world behaving like that? Can you imagine in your workplace that sort of shouting and disorder passing for normal at meetings where the manager answers questions from staff or the directors answer to shareholders? I think not! Yet in the majesty of Parliament – we have the behaviour of the playground. And our political system is meant to rest on this sort of behavour. Not impressed!

Anyway – my verdict on this week was that I thought Brown did his best (following his delivery of his own mortal blow in terms of bad judgement) and Cameron just appeared like an upper class bully boy – famed of public school films.

As for Ming – yes Simon Hughes said what he said. But the way it was portrayed in the media was OTT. It was a statement of the bleeding obvious for any party – you always want to do better. So – pooh to all of that!

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.

More backing for fixed-term Parliaments

Two more straws in the wind: Ming Campbell on last night’s Question Time and Lib Dem blogger of the year James Graham on his blog have both spoken out in favour of fixed-term Parliaments in the wake of the latest will-he won’t-he dithering from Brown.

Previous backers included Benedict Brogan of the Daily Mail and Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times. There might be a bit of a head of steam building up on this now – thank goodness!

What should be done about immigration?

That’s one of the topics at conference today, as you can see from my latest conference webcast diary:
Running time: 91 seconds

More details about the immigration debate are on the party’s website – and you can also see the other conference webcasts (from Ming Campbell and Conference Committee Chair Duncan Brack) by clicking here.

Ming makes us laugh at Question Time

So – Gordon’s first PMQs. Ming scored today – with a joke! Gordon was saying that his door was always open to Ming – and Ming said ‘Yes – a trap door’. It doesn’t quite come over in print – but it rocked the House with laughter – the right sort of laughter. As for Gordon – I thought he was much as you would expect – serious, slightly ill-informed on some issues (as he said – he had only been in the job for five days – but excuses don’t go down too well in the HoC) and he was trying to be conciliatory saying to most questioners – I will consider the points the Honourable Member has made. So – dullsville really!