Sunday, May 30, 2010

Diplomatic trick of the day

Marbury has spotted an interesting snippet in the latest Prospect magazine:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is afraid of dogs. As Russian president, Vladimir Putin tried to exploit this by having Koni, his black Labrador, sit in on their meetings.
It's true. Merkel was bitten by a dog as a child and has been very uneasy around them ever since. Not only would Putin bring his Labrador to meetings with the German Chancellor, but he also presented her with a puppy in 2006. Classy.

I can't help thinking that Tony Blair might have missed a trick by not making David Blunkett (with his lovely, slobbery friend Lucy) Foreign Secretary.

Koni, who is descended from a dog once owned by Brezhnev, has been at her master's side regularly since 2000. The only Russian employee allowed to bark orders at Putin, he once said of her: "I try to consult with my dog, who gives me good advice."

He also once told George W Bush that his dog is "bigger, tougher, stronger, faster and meaner" than Bush's terrier, Barney. Surprised that Bush didn't get Cheney to take out Koni with a twelve-bore.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Laws is not an ass, nor a fraud

The Telegraph's battle against perceived expenses abuses by MPs is not only getting boring but it is proving damaging. It would be wrong if the latest witch-hunt, against David Laws, robbed the coalition Government and the country of one of the most capable politicians.

The charge is that Laws, the newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of those rare politicians who is respected by all sides of Parliament, defrauded the taxpayer by claiming up to £950 a month in rent to live in a property that is owned by a man who happens to be his lover.

Laws, who says that he had not told family and friends that he is gay, has thus been outed by a petty newspaper for the sin of paying taxpayers' money to his partner.

But what is wrong with that as long as he paid a fair market rate? In fact, Laws probably paid a lot less. I was paying £1,000 a month seven years ago for a one-bed flat in Greenwich, a lot farther from Parliament than Kennington. Laws around that time was paying his partner £750. You can find flats in Kennington for less than £950 a month, but why should MPs have to live in the scuzziest properties?

The fact is that MPs who do not have a London constituency were last year entitled to claim up to £2,000 a month in rent or mortgage relief. Laws, by claiming less than half that, has saved us all money. Shouldn't we be praising him? Sounds like the ideal quality in a man responsible for reducing the national deficit.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Whatchoo campaignin' about...

Sad news (well, in a "meh" sort of way) from the US where Gary Coleman, midget TV star, has died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 42. Thus continues the curse of the child stars in Diff'rent Strokes, the 1980s sitcom in which Coleman had Americans in stitches by repeatedly asking people what they were talking about.

Dana Plato, who played Kimberley in the series, did softcore porn, armed robbery and then committed suicide in 1999, Todd "Willis" Bridges was arrested in 1994 for ramming someone with his car and became a druggie and Coleman had to sue his parents to get the money he earned from the show and had various well-publicised run-ins with the law.

What I found most interesting about Coleman - apart from discovering there was an episode in which a paedophile tried to groom Willis and Arnold (now those really were different strokes) - is that he had run for Governor of California back in 2003 and came eighth... out of 135 candidates.

Yes, 135 names were on the ballot paper for one election. Well, only 107 because 28 names were written in by people in the polling booth. But even so: more than a hundred people stood to be Governor, paying a non-refundable deposit of $3,500 each for the privilege, and 71 of them persuaded at least 1,000 people to put an X next to their name. Not just a few mates, a thousand.

Among the names on the ballot paper we can see teachers, engineers, an "adult film actress", a "retired meat packer" and a "middleweight sumo wrestler". There is a Michael Jackson (not that one, but a satellite project manager who got 746 votes - not many were fooled then), a Bob Dole (a small-business owner who got 273 votes) and an Edward Kennedy (educator and businessman, 3,007 votes).

What a great demonstration of democracy. Or what a bunch of nutters, I'm not sure which I think.

Either way, little Arnold from Diff'rent Strokes outpolled most of them, getting 14,242 votes, a mere 4.2 million behind big Arnold from The Terminator. If only his parents hadn't spent all his money, how far could Coleman have gone in politics?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Canon and bawl

An amusing typo in Metro's review of the Globe Theatre's production of Henry VIII this morning:
"The last time [they staged the play] a spark from a canon caught the thatched roof and the entire building burned down."
At least I assume it was a typo, with one "n" eliminated from cannon. Maybe, given the subject matter, it really was a spark from a burning cleric.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A load of bull

What a fabulous picture this is of the shock result in Friday night's big Madrid bullfight.

Julio Aparicio, a 41-year-old matador, takes defeat by his taurine foe on the chin. And, indeed, through the chin. It's a man's sport is bullfighting.

Except it isn't, really, because the odds are hugely weighted in the matador's favour. Six bulls are killed in an average night's entertainment, about 10,000 a year in total.

The last time a Spanish matador died from a goring was back in 1985. Signor Aparicio is reportedly recovering well in hospital.

I've never been to a bullfight but would love to one day. I imagine as a theatrical spectacle, rather than sport, it is gripping and strangely beautiful. Some call it barbaric, but the beasts are treated with respect and dispatched with dignity. And it's great when one of them gets their own back.

Which reminds me of a joke...

A man was on holiday in Andalucia and found himself at dinner one night sitting next to a couple who had been served the most delicious-smelling stew.

Inquiring of the waiter what was in the dish, he was told that it was a regional speciality. "During bullfighting season, we take the testicles of the defeated bulls," the waiter says. "We fry them in garlic and oil and then add chillis, tomatoes, peppers and a good slug of sherry. It is very popular at this time of year."

Intrigued, the guest asks for a portion but is told that there are no testicles left. "But there is a fight tomorrow afternoon, sir," the waiter says. "Come back in the evening and I'm sure we will have a fresh supply."

The man returns the next day, orders the special and is delighted to be served a bowl of the delicious stew, which he wolfs down. But when the waiter asks for his opinion, he has one small quibble.

"I thought the testicles looked rather larger in the stew you were serving yesterday," he says.

"Well sir," the waiter replies. "Some days the bull wins."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Go and be democratic elsewhere

Boris Johnson is quite right to seek High Court permission to evict the anti-everything protestors from Parliament Square. Everyone has a right to protest, but the so-called Democracy Village camp, which has grown dramatically in the past few weeks, has become an eyesore and is destroying a World Heritage Site.

Parliament Square is owned by the Greater London Authority and, being taxpayer-funded, is supposed to be an open space for all of us to wander in. It is not a campsite or a squat. Those who have set up permanent base there are trespassing and they should be moved on. This wouldn't be tolerated in Trafalgar Square or outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Once he has finished with the protestors, can Mayor Boris also get those hideous security bollards removed outside Parliament too? They are just as much of an eyesore, if rather less smelly.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Burnham shows backbone

What a very odd photo accompanied Andy Burnham's pitch for Labour leader last week.

Never mind the mad eyes and the clenched fist (has he just won a game of scissors-paper-stone against Ed Balls's scissors?), but why is there what appears to be a spinal column hanging from a peg in the corner?

What message is Burnham hoping to send? "I've got backbone?" Or maybe "I've had my backbone removed."

Perhaps he is demonstrating what will happen to people who cross him. And why is the spine hanging the wrong way up? The key message that seems to come across: "What a silly coccyx."

Friday, May 21, 2010

At least we're good at something

Every country needs something to be proud about, something that they can definitively say they are the best in the world at doing. So this map is quite useful.

Take a bow Nepal, No 1 for mustard seeds. Well done Iran, the world's top suppliers of pistachios. Way to go Mali with your fertility rates and Somalia, the best employer of pirates on the planet. Cuba has more doctors. Canada has more fruit juice drinkers. And no one does rubber gloves like the Malaysians.

What about the wealthier countries? Oh chortle: America is the No 1 place for serial killers. Australia is the place to go for the best chance of getting your car stolen.

And Britain... well apparently we're No 1 for CCTV. Yep, the country that gave the world George Orwell turns out to be pretty tip-top at spying on its citizens. I'm so proud.

Which gives an excuse to use this splendid photo I saw on Dizzy's website.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The new face of London

Sports mascots are like tuberculosis injections. They are designed by adults for the benefit of the children, who never asked for them. Supposed to be a shot in the arm, they just leave the target audience feeling a little queasy and confused.

Sports mascots are meant to be crap and the two launched yesterday to promote the 2012 Olympics fitted the bill. One blue, one orange, both one-eyed, slightly lovable yet slightly sinister.

Yes, meet Dave and Nick, the new face of the Olympics.

Actually, these mascots have rather cool names: Wenlock and Mandeville. So much more classy than Whizzo or Flubble or whatever other previous Olympic mascots were called.

Not only do they pay homage to the origins of the Olympics - the Much Wenlock games in Shropshire inspired Baron de Coubertin to create the Olympics, while the Paralympics were born at Stoke Mandeville - but they sound like proper names from English literature.

You can imagine a Mr Wenlock owning a dingy inn in a Dickens novel or perhaps a Squire Mandeville being caddish to milkmaids in something by Thomas Hardy.

The last decent sports mascot was World Cup Willie in 1966, but he was basically a lion in a Union Jack waistcoat. Nowadays mascots always have to look unearthly, like an anaemic Teletubby.

Still at least Mandeville and Wenlock are better than the 2012 Olympic logo, which I can never see without thinking of the judgment of my boss when it was unveiled a few years ago: "Looks a bit like Lisa Simpson performing oral sex."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Byrne notice

After Liam Byrne's blunt note of advice to his successor as Chief Secretary of the Treasury - "I'm afraid there's no money. Good luck!" - the Vole has been sniffing through the archives and found some other unhelpful valedictories.

"To whichever wench is next: Henry is quite demanding. Try not to lose your head under pressure"
- Anne Boleyn

"Hope you can speak Russian. Tell the new guys they won't need to walk Blondi."
- Adolf Hitler

"Dear Colly, Try and keep one eye on the French and one eye on the Spanish. Be warned: Hardy doesn't put out."
- Horatio Nelson

"All yours. Felt a slight bump a while back but everything seems ok. Probably just a whale. I'm turning in for the night."
- Anonymous look-out on RMS Titanic

"Barry! God are you lucky: the economy is shooting ahead and the Taleban have disappeared. Or is it the economy that has disappeared and the Taleban doing the shooting? I can't remember. Ask Dick if you get stuck. By the way: never trust a pretzel."
- George W Bush

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Miliband v Miliband... to the death

So who is your favourite Miliband? David? Ed? Daddy Ralph, the noted sociologist?

Personally, my favourite is the Steve Miller Band. "Some people call me the space cowboy..."

Now that Ed has said that he will stand against David for the leadership of the Labour Party, constitutional experts and historians have been thumbing through the party records to find how to settle a brother-on-brother election. Normal rules are thrown out of the window, a straightforward ballot would be too awkward, debates would just be weird. Fortunately Labour Party history reveals plenty of precedents...

* Man-on-man wrestling. Naked. In a barn at midnight, lit only by torches. It's how Keir Hardie claimed the leadership over his brother Kevin. Many felt that Keir's bollock-twisting maneouvre was rather ungentlemanly - you wouldn't get that in a Tory naked wrestling leadership contest - but it proved the difference. Kevin's balls never forgave Keir.

* Cutting cards. It's a little-known fact that George Lansbury won the Labour leadership from his brother Harry in 1932 in a game of chance. Winner got to shout in vain at Stanley Baldwin twice a week, loser had his entry removed from Wikipedia (go and look: no Harry Lansbury). The first cutting of the cards ended in a row when they realised that no one had ruled whether Aces were high. On the second, Harry thought he had won with a ten, but George drew the Queen of Hearts and thus became Labour leader. George Lansbury went on to be more famous as the grandfather of both Angela "Murder She Wrote" Lansbury and Oliver Postgate, the creator of Bagpuss. No joke.

* Deed poll. They both can do it (at different times) but only under the same name. Ed needs to change his name to David or vice versa. Or they could both change their name to Mavis Figworthy. It's what happened with Arthur Henderson, who was Labour leader three times, from 1908-1910, 1914-1917 and 1930-32. The first time it really was him. The second time it was his brother Nigel, who had changed his name to Arthur. The third time it was Winston Churchill, who was just desperate for power. People wonder what Churchill did during his Wilderness Years between 1929 and 1939: the answer is he ran the Labour Party.

Incidentally, on the subject of name-changing, I learnt from looking at Papa Miliband's Wikipedia entry that his real first name was Adolphe, but as a Polish Jew didn't find life all that great in 1930s Continental Europe and fled to London, where he changed his name to Ralph.

I wonder how many other Adolphes changed their name through a desire not to be confused with Hitler. You never hear anyone called Adolphe or Adolf these days. Except for Dolph Lundgren, of course, who actually changed his name from Hans.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Welcome home

A typically superb observation by Beau Bo D'Or

Don't forget the celebrities

I do hope the Lib Dems argue for peerages and government posts for their celebrity endorsers.

John Cleese to be Minister for Silly Walks! Daniel Radcliffe to be Minister of Magic! Floella Benjamin to be Minister for Housing and Bears (only houses with round windows and square windows will be considered)!

How will it all work?

Day 1 of a new Government and the sun is shining, there was hardly any traffic on the roads as I drove to work, England are in the semi-finals of a cricket tournament and all is right with the world.

The only question is: how on earth will this coalition with the Lib Dems actually work?

Some of it will become clear as the day goes on, but a lot of the logistics will have to be thought up on the hoof. Here are eight questions that worry me:

1) Will Nick Clegg get to question David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions? He was able to ask Gordon Brown two questions a week, now will the Lib Dems get no opportunity to criticise the Tories?

2) When Cameron is away, Clegg as Deputy PM will be at the despatch box for PMQs but how wholeheartedly will he defend Tory policy that he doesn't really agree with? Expect many of the Labour questions when Clegg does PMQs to be about Europe and defence. And will senior Tories decide to attack Clegg while their master is absent?

3) What will happen at by-elections? Presumably both parties will field candidates and they will fight on slightly different platforms yet both will effectively be campaigning to join the Government.

4) What will happen to the Lib Dem quota on Question Time or Any Questions? They are entitled to appear on five out of every seven programmes at present. Will that go up or down and how much attacking of the Tory panelists will they do?

5) What happens when MPs die or defect? If 19 seats move (maybe some Lib Dems would consider defecting to the Tories if they enjoy life in Government), the Tories wouldn't need their partners any more.

6) Where, physically, will they all sit? Although there are 650 MPs, there are only about 430 seats for them, which means that if the entire Tory Party sits on the Government benches, there will be room for only half a dozen Lib Dems. Do Tories get seating rights over the Liberals or is that divided proportionately?

7) Will all jokes about quiche-eating beardies and fox-hunting toffs be banned?

8) What do we call this coalition? Conservacrats? Conliberalives? Democons?

The Vole: asking all the key questions

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The view from within

The twelfth Prime Minister in the reign of Elizabeth II enters his new home.

Things are going to be a bit different for the Cameron family from now on. Wonder how often he will be photographed going for a jog or a cycle without a full security detail?

Dignity matched with dignity

A classy beginning to his first speech as Prime Minister by David Cameron:
"Compared with a decade ago this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad. On behalf of the whole country, I would like to pay tribute to the outgoing Prime Minister for his long record of public service."
In Gordon Brown's farewell and Cameron's hello, we have seen two statesman acting with grace and dignity. Such a change from the Blairs' departure and all that "tah-rah, we won't miss you" chippiness.

Early steps

So what should be David Cameron's first task as Prime Minister when he returns to Downing Street?

Personally, I'd order a curry, find an iPod docking station and put Whatever by Oasis on at full volume, but I guess Cameron will want to start appointing Cabinet ministers and taking phone calls from Washington and Berlin.

Might be useful to find out where the nuclear button is too. You know, just in case the French go weird.

Thank you and goodbye

Just watched Gordon Brown make his resignation statement outside Downing Street with a slight tear in my eye. I am no fan of the man, his party or his policies, but in his brief statement of farewell he spoke with a dignity befitting a man of great principle and honour. I'm a sucker for a politician who praises his wife and children, too. Not everyone can carry it off with sincerity.

As if to remind us of the calibre of statesman who has just left the stage, Channel 4 News cuts to John Prescott for a eulogy, who says he has got his battle bus warmed up ready to fight the Tories in another election. Hard to see either Prezza or Blair leaving with similar gravitas or decency.

Quote of the day from John Snow on Channel 4: "If the Queen really does watch Coronation Street - and they say she does - she will be postponing it tonight."

Monday, May 10, 2010

And on and on and on...

So Gordon Brown is resigning as Labour leader and hopes that this will help his party to reach a coalition with the Lib Dems. But he also says his replacement as leader will not be in place until the party conference in late September. Does that mean that Brown thinks he will carry on as Prime Minister until then?

He is like one of those dinner party guests who won't leave even when the dishes have been cleaned away, the cat put out for the night and the host is removing his trousers for bed.

If the Lib Dems really want to strike up an arrangement with a Brown-free Labour party then that is their own business, but it is ridiculous that a man who they cannot deal with should be answering questions as PM and driving through legislation before then. The only sensible solutions would be for a temporary Labour PM to be appointed by the Queen (Harriet Harman??) or for Nick Clegg to serve as Prime Minister on the understanding it is as caretaker until the leader of the majority party in their weird little romance is chosen.

70 years on: a day that changed the world

The party leaders attended the ceremony at the Cenotaph on Saturday, marking the 65th anniversary of VE Day, which gave photographers a chance to get the necessary photo of Nick Clegg and David Cameron looking in the opposite direction to Gordon Brown (I presume the Daily Mirror managed to find a snap of Clegg and Brown looking away from Cameron).

With three exceptions, the veterans of the First World War have all now passed and those who fought in the Second World War are also fading away. The 200 or so veterans who attended the Cenotaph are now pushing 90. Many will not be there for the next major anniversary. It is right that political arguments in the present are put aside to pay respect to those who fought and died for our democracy.

Yet today marks another, more significant, anniversary in our national story. It was 70 years ago that Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, replaced by Winston Churchill, and Britain was governed by a coalition Cabinet.

It was the perfect meeting of man and moment. On the same day that Churchill, the former maverick outsider, was received by George VI at Buckingham Palace, Germany began its onslaught on France and the first bombs started to fall on England. The greatest test of Britain's unity began.

Hitler had planned his attack to take advantage of the political crisis in Britain but Chamberlain, who had resigned after losing a vote of confidence in the Commons, said: "If he has counted upon our internal divisions to help him he has miscalculated the mind of this people."

Churchill's initial War Cabinet consisted of three Conservatives (himself, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax) and two Labour MPs (Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood). As the war progressed, the Cabinet expanded but remained balanced. For every Anthony Eden there was an Ernest Bevin or Stafford Cripps.

Those remarkable men faced remarkable times, of course, and the current situation requires a coalition for the expedience of governing rather than to present a united front to the world and the country. But the lesson of Churchill's Cabinet suggests that reasonable men with the same basic objectives can work together regardless of their party backgrounds.

Of course, another lesson for David Cameron is that once the coalition broke up at the end of the war, the supposed junior partners from Labour ousted him from power.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

There go the girls

Iain Martin makes the astute spot that a Con-Lib coalition could result in the first woman-free Cabinet for 18 years.

There are no female Lib Dems involved in the coalition talks and it is hard to see any of their seven woman MPs - down from nine before the election - pushing for a seat in a combined Cabinet.

But if the Lib Dems do strike a deal where they take three or four Cabinet posts, it could bump a couple of Tory women out. Theresa Villiers must be particularly vulnerable as transport, the role she handled in opposition, has been identified as one brief that the Tories might give up.

Theresa May and Caroline Spelman could also be under threat, although there are a few male Cabinet colleagues that I'm sure David Cameron wouldn't mind an excuse to lose. Surely he would be too savvy to leave himself open to accusations of sexism.

It is a travesty that in the 81 years since Margaret Bondfield became the first woman to hold a Cabinet post, only 27 women have followed in her steps.

Tories have a pretty bad record at elevating women to the Cabinet. Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd served in John Major's Cabinet from 1992-97, but for the first two years of Major's premiership there were no women.

And while the Conservatives are rightly proud of producing the country's only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was hardly supportive of the sisterhood. Her only female Cabinet minister was Baroness Young, who led the party in the Lords for only two years.

Perhaps future Tory Cabinets will be more enlightened. Gradually the talent pool is growing, with 48 Tory women elected last week, up from 18. The more there are, the more good ones will emerge and, one hopes, get the tap on the shoulder.

Gordon Brown's last (we assume last) Cabinet had four women in it - Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, Yvette Cooper and Baroness Royall. This was half the number that Tony Blair had in his Cabinet at the peak, with 15 women being given a Cabinet post during Blair's ten years as PM.

The overall number of women MPs has gone up from 126 last week to 141, with the likelihood that Anne McIntosh will win the held-over Thirsk and Malton election on May 27. But that increase of 16 is some way short of the 40 extra women MPs that the Centre for Women and Democracy envisaged in a report before the election.

Labour's contingent of women MPs fell from 94 to 81 last week, but as a proportion of their overall intake it rose to 31 per cent. The Tories are improving, but Labour remains the best place for a girl to get ahead.


Sitting in the Pavilion at the Oval today, watching Surrey play Bangladesh, I saw two helicopters hovering in the distance, roughly over Downing Street. Then a third came zooming overhead to join them. Something seemed to be up.

I called my wife, who works in Westminster, to ask whether the moment had finally come. Was Gordon Brown heading to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation?

No. Apparently those three helicopters were there to capture the moment when Brown drove back to Downing Street after a day in Scotland. Thrilling, but surely a story that could be covered adequately from the ground. And with helicopters costing about £500 an hour to hire, it seems an extravagant use of money for the broadcasters each to need their own.

Presumably these three helicopters are on permanent stand-by for that moment when smoke emerges from the roof of the Cabinet Office to herald the selection of a new Government and staff at Buckingham Palace are asked to put the kettle on for when the new PM calls by.

I can understand the desire to capture that historic drive from the air (left out of Downing Street, up Whitehall, left at Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch and down the Mall), but it must be expensive to keep three newscopters and their pilots hanging around in a hangar somewhere near the M25, waiting for Nick Clegg and David Cameron to cut a deal.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Never mind the ballots: it's election night

"You know," Richard said at around 5am this morning. "For the most exciting election of our lifetimes, this is incredibly dull."

He had a point. No high-profile MPs lost their jobs - Richard left after Ed Balls kept his seat muttering something about being thrilled that he could tell his grandchildren that he had stayed up for Lembit Opik, although Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke went within five minutes of him going - and very little churlishness by the beaten as we had from David Mellor and others in 1997.

Joanne Cash was horrid, blaming her defeat on the media for focusing on her friendship with "Dave", and Balls was pretty pathetic to have a rant at Michael Ashcroft after he had suffered a 9 per cent swing against him, but I didn't expect anything better from him. To Balls's credit, he did praise his Tory opponent graciously.

The BBC's coverage was quite poor, too. Jeremy Vine has done a couple of these now and he really is no Peter Snow. The Swingometer was meaningless and used badly this year and we ended up turning over to ITV in the end because they were better at trying to extrapolate what Parliament might become once a decent sample of votes arrived. ITV also, for some reason, tended to be about 40 declared seats ahead of the BBC.

One last BBC rant: how much of the licence fee was spent on that ship of fools moored by the London Eye? Who really thought that the first talking heads we wanted to hear from after the exit polls were Bruce Forsyth and Ben Kingsley? Did Joan Collins say anything coherent (and why is she so loved as a writer by the right-wing press)?

Other thoughts on election night:
  • You actually can order too much curry. I never thought that possible.
  • As I get older, I have less enthusiasm for drinking heavily.
  • Miriam Clegg (sorry, Gonzalez Durantez) really is quite sexy
  • That's about all the good news for the Lib Dems who had a shocking night
  • All the fuss about people not being able to vote filled the opening hours quite well, but I did find myself wondering why they hadn't managed to visit their polling station in the previous 14 hours
  • Why did the Prime Minister fly back to London on what looked like a budget airline? Surely no one would begrudge him a Hercules.
  • It is perfectly justifiable to ask for a recount in a close seat. It is bordering on ridiculous to ask for five recounts when your opponent has been 1,000 votes ahead in each one, as the Tories did in Edgbaston
  • David Dimbleby is still good, but he is showing his age. He started to look - and act - really tired halfway through the broadcast
  • Emily Maitlis is very good and underused.
  • A few friends and former colleagues from my days in Westminster are now MPs. Many congratulations to Steve Brine, Penny Mordaunt, Paul Maynard, Kwasi Kwarteng, Damian Hinds, Gavin Barwell, Karl McCartney, Priti Patel and Rebecca Harris and bad luck to Chris Philp for pushing Glenda Jackson so close. I feel very envious and slightly inadequate just to be a mere hack. 

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Celebs in the polling booth

I made a Labour teller's day when I cast my vote this morning.

"Has Glenda been down yet?" I asked.

"Glenda who?"

"Glenda Jackson, she lives just up the road. I'm sure she'll be down to vote soon."

At which a huge beam spread over the face of the lady with the red rosette. "Oh that will make sitting here worth while," she said. Always happy to make someone smile, even a Labour supporter.

Jackson is probably the most famous local resident in Blackheath. Jools Holland lives nearby but I think is in the Greenwich constituency and there is also supposedly Terry Waite, the former hostage and Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, but he is never seen around the village despite an Indian restaurant boasting on its menu that one curry is "Terry Waite's favourite". Well anything must taste better than Beirut's finest slops.

I met Jackson in the pollling station five years ago. The double-Oscar-winner-turned-MP lives a couple of streets away from me (albeit in a far grander house, as befits a socialist), on the other side of London to her Highgate constituency.

"Morning," I said flashing a smile. "Who did you vote for then?"

The sour-faced old sow just scowled. If she was that grumpy when Labour were winning an election, it is probably just as well that our paths didn't cross this morning.

Decision day

Off to vote shortly. But for whom?

In general terms, the Conservatives have won me over. I think David Cameron would be the best prime minister of the options on offer. William Hague would be the best foreign secretary. Ken Clarke would be best at business (and best as Chancellor but Boy George has that sewn up), Michael Gove the best at education, Jeremy Hunt at culture, Liam Fox at defence (the last slightly by default). No one has a better option for Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster than Francis Maude.

And as for the economy, health, transport, home affairs... well they aren't really important issues, are they?

The trouble is that I think that an MP, as my representative (not, please, my servant), should be worth supporting for his own merits and I am not sure that my local Tory candidate is that impressive.

As well as his election literature being vague, bland and undetailed, he also seems to have a tenuous relationship with the English language. His website says that he "advises Local Council's". The capital letters are bad enough, the apostrophe unforgiveable. And then there is the policy section: he will stand up for "common sence", apparently. Sigh...

Not that the party as a whole is innocent of assaults on our language. There is the countrywide poster pledging national service for "16 year-olds". What, only 16 of them? And how good would infants be at national service?

Hmm, maybe Gove has a tougher job at education than I thought.

So if not our local Tory, who do I support? The Lib Dems have tried hardest here - they even brought Nick Clegg to our village on Monday - and their candidate seems a decent fellow, although he overuses the exclamation mark in his election literature. I don't agree with his policies but as this is a Labour stronghold, should I not just register a protest vote?

As for our Labour candidate, she is called Heidi but makes no mention in her literature of having spent her childhood living up a mountain with her grandfather. Can we really trust her on anything else?

Ho hum, decisions decisions...

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Defenestration strategy

Almost time for "curry and Dimbleby night" chez Vole. Election nights are always something of an endurance sport but well worth staying up late to watch, especially on transition nights like this year when a few famous names are in the stocks ready for a pelting.

In 1997, seven members of the Cabinet lost their seats as the Conservatives suffered a meltdown. Michael Portillo (Defence), Malcolm Rifkind (Foreign), Ian Lang (Trade), Michael Forsyth (Scotland), William Waldegrave (Chief Secretary), Tony Newton (Leader of the House) and Roger Freeman (Duchy of Lancaster) were all sent packing, as well as notable former Cabinet ministers such as Norman Lamont and David Mellor. Not only out of office but out of a job as well.

I wonder how many members of the Labour Cabinet will be looking for new work come Friday morning. Some are in vulnerable seats, but it is hard to see more than a couple being chopped. With 100 Labour MPs deciding to stand down rather than face the electorate, opportunities for high-level scalps will be more limited than they were in 1997. The Hoons, Hewitts, Byers and Kellys of this world have left the stage early.

Here, though, is the Questing Vole's guide, with the help of the PA timetable of declaration times, of when you can expect to see "a Portillo moment" and when it is safe to go to bed.
  • 10pm Polls close
  • 11pm First announcement expected from Houghton and Sunderland South (Labour stronghold)
  • 12.45am Gisela Stuart was one of the early successes for Labour in 1997, but her Birmingham Edgbaston seat is vulnerable this time with a majority of 1,500.
  • 2am Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) is rated as only 50% likely to hold on to his seat, with the Conservatives the main challengers. Charles Clarke (Norwich South) has a majority of 3,653 and is expected to lose to the Lib Dems. Jack Straw (Blackburn) has been invisible this campaign. Has he been working hard to cling on to his 8,000-seat majority? It would take quite a swing and boundary changes have helped him. Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) would be a big loss for the Lib Dems. His majority is just over 1% but the polls are pushing his way.
  • 2.30am Jim Murphy (Renfrewshire East) has a majority of 6,500 but the Tories are expected to oust the Scotland Secretary in what has become a two-horse race. In Oxford East, Andrew Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, is expected to lose to the Lib Dems
  • 3am This is the one we all want to see: Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) has a notional majority of 8,669 in this new constituency, but momentum is swinging away from him. Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) has a majority of 10,000 but could go in a landslide. The Tories won't be gloating, though, if Oliver Letwin (Dorset West) loses his wafer-thin majority over the Lib Dems. This is also when we will find out how much of the vote Esther Rantzen has won in Luton South on an anti-sleaze ticket.
  • 3.30am Not a Cabinet post, but an interesting seat nonetheless. Brighton Pavilion has a Labour majority of under 6,000 but became a three-way marginal. Now the Greens think they can win it.
  • 4am John Denham (Southampton Itchen) has an interesting battle. If enough Lib Dems back the Tories, his 8,000-seat majority could be vulnerable on a bad night. Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) has a majority of under 7,000 and is being pushed hard by the Lib Dems. Alastair Darling (Edinburgh South West) has a 60% chance of holding his seat but if things are going very badly...
  • Also at 4am In Poplar and Limehouse, George Galloway's decision to stand for the Respect party could cost Jim Fitzpatrick a seat that should be Labour heartlands. The Tories have a 7% lead over Labour in the polls there and Respect are taking 9%. Speaking of loony candidates, Nick Griffin will find out if he has won Barking for the BNP around now
  • Also also at 4am: Derby North is statistically interesting. It is the Tories Target Seat No 130 and is the one they need if they are to get an overall majority.
  • 5am The former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (Redditch) will have more time to spend with her husband's porn collection with her majority of under 3,000 in severe threat
  • 5.30am What could be a good night for the Lib Dems will be spoilt a little if Sarah Teather loses Brent Central. She is neck and neck with Dawn Butler (Lab) in this super-marginal. Will we all still be awake, though?

A polite protest

I felt very proud to be English when I read the story today of the polite button-pushing protestors of Dorset.

The villagers of Chideock were fed up with the volume of traffic that goes along the High Street - much of it directed by sat-navs that seem to think the A35 is a decent alternative to the A303 (I've driven both: it isn't) - and so finally took action into their own hands.

The council installed a button-controlled pedestrian crossing on the main road, so the locals decided to man that crossing, pressing and repressing the button so that the lights would change constantly, bringing traffic to a regular halt.

Their action yesterday caused a seven-mile tailback of angry motorists. The villagers say they will carry on pushing the crossing button until the council agree to build a bypass. Or, presumably, until the council takes the crossing away.

Of course, this story is only charming if you don't have to use that stretch of the A35 to go to work or pick up children or any other essential business. The locals wanted to protest against juggernauts thundering through their village, but everyone will end up suffering.

Then again it is a very civilised and polite form of protest. So much more dignified than those stroppy Greeks with their firebombs and riots.