Three years to the Olympics

So three years to go. I remember the day we won the bid. I was standing outside the back of the Chamber at the House of Commons – behind the Speaker’s Chair. There was that long hesitation in the announcement – as we strained to hear whether it would be a P for Paris or L for London. And when it was London – I heard a cheer go up from within the Chamber. It wasn’t dignified or Parliamentary – but totally appropriate.

I remember too – when the first inklings of our bid were swirling around the London Assembly. For it originally was Ken Livingstone, Richard Sumray and others who pushed and pushed and worked up a scheme – and who then bullied / persuaded the Government (Blair) into supporting it. Blair, once on board, played a blinder by turning up personally to the selection event.

Anyway here we are – three years away from the most exciting sporting event in this country since – well since we won the ’66 World Cup. And I know it’s expensive. And I don’t think they have made enough effort to ensure that we all benefit from the games in all our locals – whether by training facilities, grants to train kids up for the 2012 Olympics or whatever – but it will still be phenomenal for London.

Parliamentary season kicks off again

Back to The Westminster Hour last night – and the gang is all there. They are kicking off for the new Parliamentary season with the three of us – me, Ed Vaizey and Emily Thornberry.

Before that it was a busy day campaigning for Nigel Scott in the Alexandra Ward by-election which takes place on Thursday (Yom Kippur). In fact, I have referred Haringey’s refusal to change to avoid the clash to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as religious Jews are actually forbidden to make a mark during their holy day. Of course – that doesn’t change the date but maybe it will help concentrate Haringey Council’s mind in the future – councils have a choice over which day to pick for by-elections, and that choice should be used with more care and thought.

Sarah Ludford (MEP) took a team in the morning delivering – in the pouring rain! Thanks Sarah.

Much of the political news is still dominated by Peter Mandelson’s return. The Conservatives’ line on it is that ‘Labour must be desperate’. Desperate they may be – but this was a political finesse I really didn’t think Gordon capable of. However – it now looks more and more as if Tony Blair ‘told’ him to go and help. Oh what an ironic twist that one old foe of Gordon’s told him to bring back another old foe to try to save his skin!

Brown and Blair – the squabbling continues

Earlier this year I wrote a piece previewing how Gordon Brown might turn out as Prime Minister. One issue I picked up on was just how long-running and deeply rooted in the Labour Party is the internal fighting and bickering around Gordon Brown himself:

This dates much further back than Blair announcing he would not fight another election. As Philip Gould has recounted, it even goes back before the 1992 general election:

“The whole thing was so debilitating because every time Gordon appeared on TV, someone in John [Smith]’s camp would say, ‘Look, it’s another bid for the leadership’, Patricia [Hewitt] remembers.”

Someone I can’t quite see fifteen plus years of squabbling stop overnight at the leadership election.

And lo … it has come to pass with already there being a series of accusations of Blairites trying to undermine Brown. The latest comes in today’s Sunday Times:

Sources close to the prime minister reportedly accused Blair allies of trying to use Seldon’s book as a “crude attempt” to undermine the government.

Some things never change!

No to a general election this year

So – lovely, lovely Nick Robinson, a journalist who I only hold in the highest esteem you know (!) – is saying the general election is off. Looks like Gordon Brown wimped out in the end!

Tony Blair must be in seventh heaven – to see Gordon brought so low! And to be frank – I wouldn’t blame him. Gordon has made a right pig’s ear of the whole business – toying with us the electorate, flattered by polls, cynically using Maggie, Iraq and his big tent appointees to big himself up.

Tony Blair – with whom I disagreed fundamentally on major issues – at least had the balls to take the flak. Gordon Brown, keeping head below, parapet just let Blair take all the flak and brooded in the background resentful of their relative positions.

It’s good for Gordon to get a dose of leadership reality. It’s hard. It can be extraordinarily humiliating. It’s quite different to how all these boys it will turn out – and that goes for Brown, Cameron and Campbell. But I have always felt that Brown sneered silently at Blair’s leadership. Well – what goes around comes around.

Blair’s moment of revenge – I think!

The Party's Over!

So – the party’s over. As Tony Blair left the stage – that shiny vision of new Britain’s new dawn is dead. I know, it’s a bit of a romantic,sort of through a looking-glass view of the Blair ascendancy – but that’s what it felt like when New Labour swept in to power and swept out the Nasty Party way back in ’97.

Of course – in the end – there was no new dawn and in fact, it was a rather old and destructive dawn where we entered an era of unparalleled spin. Trust in politics and politicians died. Ironic really – that Blair’s parting words were about the noble causes that politicians strive for and the respect he really, really had for the House of Commons! That respect was rather in short supply when he as PM had one of the lowest attendance, speaking or voting records in that very same House!

A great showman in the Commons Chamber – he played it to perfection to the end. ‘That is that. The End’ he said with a small hand gesture – and he was gone.

So now – there’s a cold wind blowing through the corridors of power as the dour Brown era is ushered in to the backdrop of terrorist attacks. Brown’s ‘change’ agenda – given his brooding, controlling, centralist track record – is questionable – just as are the sudden protestations about new Gordon, relaxed Gordon, decentralising Gordon, happy chappy Gordon all dressed up in talk of challenges – new challenges,challenging the challenges to bring new change so that change and challenges will change our challenging world.

However, events dear boy, events. In times of threat to our national safety, we want to believe that serious Gordon will see them off. We want to believe that serious Cabinet Government will replace informal and disorganised kitchen cabinet Government. We want to believe Gordon when he says he will come first to Parliament to make announcements. No longer will the media be the first to know and Parliament the last. We want to believe that the era of spin is no longer. We want to hear that we will fight to win the hearts and minds of all our communities so that there is no hiding place for anyone who wishes harm on our citizens. We want to believe Gordon when he says that he will not remove our civil liberties without great reason and caution – and not just to catch the next set of headlines in the next news cycle.

He is right to want to ‘change’ the atmosphere of governance. He isright to promise a new kind of politics. He is right to set himself up as an opposite to TB.And yet, and yet … he was there at the heart of New Labour all the time. Let us not forget that this is the same Brown who agreed with going to war in Iraq illegally and signed every cheque; wasted millions on consultants for PPP for the tube, wants to spend billions tagging innocent people with ID cards that won’t catch terrorists rather than using the money to put more police on our streets and more resource into intelligence and security and closed hospitals and health services.

Leopard and spots are the words that come to mind. Only time will truly tell.

Tony Blair's farewell

So – Tony’s begun the final stretch of his long goodbye. Shed a tear and forgive him for he only did what he thought was right seems to be his message. I guess – in the end – that’s the get out of jail free card he wants to play – but I am not sure that Iraq, above all other issues, can be put away so easily.

Of course, it’s better waging war if you think it’s the right thing to do than waging war if you think it’s wrong – but that’s not really the issue. So – why did we go to war in Iraq? We can never crawl into his head to find out for sure, but my guess would be a mix of the following:

  • the difficulties of getting armed intervention working in the former Yugoslavia made him (wrongly) see the US as being the only effective international force for intervention
  • he believed disagreeing with George W Bush wouldn’t stop him, but agreeing with him would give the UK some influence and control over what happened (largely wrong again I think)
  • he genuinely thought it was the right thing to do – and it became almost a crusade for him (though the religious overtones of that word shouldn’t be latched on to too much – after all armed intervention in the former Yugoslavia was largely on behalf of Muslims to protect them)
  • he judged that Saddam’s fall would bring peace and stability to Iraq

And as for weapons of mass destruction – did he really believe Iraq had them and sincerely convinced himself of the case? Or did he deliberately set out to make a case, exaggeration and distorting it knowingly in order to get the votes in Parliament and the support outside? Plenty of ink has already been spilled on that question and I don’t think today’s speech will have changed people’s views one way or the other.

Anyway, I digress. Of course – all the media focus is was he good or was he bad. Ten years of Prime Ministership has to deliver both good and bad. Northern Ireland – good. Iraq – bad. The obvious is easy.

My own main beef with Tony (outside of illegal wars) is that he went a step further than Thatcher. Thatcher is the reason I went into politics. I couldn’t stand the selfishness she created by promoting and encouraging a grasping ‘me’ society – and negating the common good. Blair has gone further down the road by delivering permission to dodge and spin to get what you want. Truth doesn’t matter – only getting what you yourself wants matters. It’s a sad old world – ain’t it?

Solar cooker day

Well – Lorely Burt, Annette Brooke, Lynne Featherstone, Jenny Willot and Lindsay NorthoverSolar Cooker Day dawned! And you should see the size of the one that we managed to borrow from ‘Engineers without Borders’ – from Imperial College. Thank you sooooooo much Imperial Engineers!

My researcher, Mette, spent six hours sewing green, white and purple ribbon together to make the colours of International Women’s Day – and then she and a helper carted the precious object to College Green (just outside Parliament). Whilst we had been going to do this outside the gates to Number 10 Downing Street, what with the size of the object and the vagaries of the blustery and rainy weather – we opted for a venue closer to the House of Commons.

A stream of Lib Dem Parliamentarians came to support the campaign and so now for International Women’s Day we will present a petition to Tony Blair to ask him to ensure that women in war-ravaged conflict zones are supplied with $2 solar cookers so that they do not need to go outside their refugee compounds and risk rape or murder any longer.

And of course, today is the first of two days of debates on Lords Reform. I just hope that we get a conclusion – and that that conclusion delivers an entirely or predominantly elected House of Lords!

Will Downing Street let a cooker in?

On The Westminster Hour yesterday, Carolyn Quinn wanted to know what it is like being a woman in the House of Commons etc. This on the back of International Women’s Day coming up on Thursday and a debate on gender in the House of Commons.

Well – it’s still a boys school and we need more women. As to the atmosphere – water of a duck’s back in terms of the male testosterone being sprayed about. Having had my political baptism in the Haringey Council Chamber – three Lib Dems with me as Leader of the Opposition and fifty-four Labour members (then – it’s rather different now!) – the Commons seems quite sweet. However, there is a lot of pointing and jeering – by any other name at school this would be called bullying. And we are meant to have bullying policies at every school – so why not the House of Commons?

However, was grateful for opportunity to flag up the difficulty I am having with Downing Street. I want to deliver a solar cooker (looks like an oversized mixing bowl, covered with reflective silver foil) to Tony Blair. The point I am making is that these solar cookers cost around $2 and save women getting raped and murdered. This is because in many war zones when women go outside of the refugee camps to collect wood to make a fire to cook – they literally risk rape and murder. These cookers, which work of the hot sun, prevent them from needing to leave the safe compound.

So I am trying to deliver one to Tony, wrapped in purple and green ribbon for International Women’s day – but whilst I have permission to deliver a petition they will not let the cooker pass. I did threaten on radio to chain myself to the gates outside Downing Street (ever since the suffragettes I have been longing to chain myself to something for a cause) but that part was in jest!

But if the Downing Street media machine reads blogs – come on guys, let the cooker in: it’s not too much to ask.

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.

The Iraq debate

The afternoon’s debate was ‘Iraq and the wider Middle East’. Blair didn’t lead on this and wasn’t even in Parliament for the debate. He should have been there and should have spoken. The first debate in government time for four years – and a Prime Minister who was only too keen to come to the Chamber when he wanted to persuade us into war (it worked on the Tories, but not on the Liberal Democrats) suddenly doesn’t have time to debate after all.

Ming was genuinely awewome. I haven’t seen him give such a bravura speech since I came to Parliament. It is his strong suit – so it was so impressive. This was acknowledged by all sides.

The Liberal Democrats put forward a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Yes – withdrawal with outline dates. Our premise is that without a deadline (based on what might be realised and pragmatic) there will never be a ‘right’ moment and now we have undoubtedly become part of the problem not the solution. We are making things worse now – not better.

Well – this proposal certainly upset the Tories (who voted for the war but are now saying they were duped by Tony; I guess they won’t be running their next election campaign based on a “you can trust our judgement” platform!). How can you name a date they asked. Supposing things aren’t quiet when you get to the date? We think sometimes you have to make things happen. Lib Dems voted against the war – but once there – we felt we had to support the troops etc. But once the democratic(ish) elections were held, then there had to be a plan to withdraw. Now is the right time to set a progam of withdrawal in place – and that’s what we set out today, and what Ming explained in his latest online broadcast: