April 16th, 2010

Amol Rajan: How Boris has created a positioning nightmare for the Cameroons

It's great fun, isn't it, watching Tory and Labour spinners go great guns this morning at the Liberal Democrats.

Michael Gove, easily the Tories' most trustworthy media performer, has decided to launch into Clegg's more "eccentric" policies.

In his selection of these policies, he has landed upon one that Alan Johnson, easily Labour's most trustworthy media performer, targeted last night. Johnson and Gove agree on what's eccentric about Liberal Democrat policy.

They're both going after the Liberal Democrats' policy of granting an earned amnesty to long-term resident illegal migrants.

Clearly their focus groups have registered this is not a vote-winner. Presumably around Britain we're all hearing plenty about this on the doorstep.

And doubtless Cameron would like to use this policy to attack Clegg.

Except that he has one giant, blond problem.

The most powerful Conservative in the country is a passionate advocate of the policy.  Bojo, alas, is not in a position to implement it; but any attack that Cameron launches on Clegg in relation to this is an attack on a Tory more popular and powerful (at least for now) than him.

It's also an attack on Anthony Browne, Boris' head of policy, who some people thought would be a major player in No 10 if Cameron got in. 

Browne made the case in a piece I commissioned for The Independent.

On reading that piece, Tim Montgomerie came round to supporting an amnesty too

Oh and, in case you didn't know, I support an amnesty as well.

Tom Mendelsohn: How did the election debate taste?

It's the question on everybody's lips! Happily, the Guardian's ever-wonderful Marina Hyde has the answer.

James Wannerton, 51, is president of the UK Synaesthesia Association. He experiences words as tastes and textures, a neurological condition known as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia.

Gordon Brown's name tastes horrible, and his flavour was nasty – like soil mixed with Marmite. That said, he was good on education, when he tasted of peaches, sliced potato and bacon.

Nick Clegg tastes of a pickled onion yet he kept turning soft, mushy and warm. Immigration was good for him. His speech reminded me of sweets I had as a kid – fruit pastilles, Spangles and liquorice.

David Cameron's flavour was best. He gave me a taste of ink, which I find comforting. His name tastes of macaroons, but he said sorry so frequently it covered the macaroons with condensed milk.

Any further questions? Thought not.

John Rentoul: The beginning of the end

If only she had asked a question Mary Riddell could have had number 279 in my series, but instead she made a statement:

The leaders' debate could be the beginning of the end for David Cameron

In which case it goes into a less well-known series of Ludicrously Overblown Responses to the First Debate. Along with this from Michael Deacon:

Actually, the Leaders' Debate was bad news for Nick Clegg


Tom Mendelsohn: The prize for the least germane election-themed press release goes to...

The Independent, as a newspaper, gets a lot of press releases. Many of these are important, and go on to become news pieces, or live reviews, or diary events. Many more of them are useless, or badly written, or sent with a vastly misplaced optimism in their assumption that, say, a survey asking 57 people about toothpaste usage could make it anywhere near a national newspaper.

Many press releases are written with a hook, linking them to whatever the most newsworthy current affairs of the day. Many of these hooks are spurious in the extreme, with only the most tangential connection between whatever the release is advertising and whatever the news is.

As you can imagine, many of the press releases we're getting at the moment come rolling in reeking of the election. As you can imagine, many of their attempts to link the election with their new brand of gourmet crisps or their top ten list of things to do with a tissue are profoundly tenuous. There's nothing wrong with this; it is the job of the people who write these press releases to try and get them into newspapers. It's just that the result is generally quite ridiculous.

Anyway, yesterday I received a particular doozy. The following release makes such a heroic attempt to leap from 'the election' to 'used cars' that I felt it deserved a little prize - the oxygen of publicity.

So, well done www.webuyanycar.com. Your efforts have not been in vain. For the curious, some selected excerpts:

would you buy a used politician if they were a second hand motor?








-          robust design

-          been around for years

-          high mileage

-          competitive power but doesn’t have meaty response or crispness

-          intrusive

-          in-built sat nav for direction but is it the right one?

-          untried performance

-          good for business use


-          appeals to younger people

-          an affordable second hand choice

-          great little runner, but maybe a little low powered


Basically, they say, probably without the full backing of proper scientific method, that Gordon Brown is a Mondeo, Nick Clegg is a Corsa, and David Cameron is a BMW 3 Series. Also, they 'literally do purchase any car from £50 to over £100,000'. and isn't that the true point of the democratic process?

Tom Mendelsohn: Take That And (Conservative) Party!

It only takes a minute to fall in love, as cheering crowds of schoolchildren at Brine Leas High School in Nantwich discovered this morning, when Gary Barlow arrived with David Cameron to be unveiled as the Tories' surprise new celebrity figurehead.

Could it be magic? Possibly - the Conservative party have been crying out for a star name with big electoral pulling power, but with Gary, I think they've found heaven. Cameron has been saying throughout the campaign that everything changes with him, and with Barlow by his side, maybe we'll see a beautiful world? Maybe we will, if he keeps his promises.

And after a fairly drab performance in the first leadership debate last night, perhaps Cameron is hoping Gary might re-light his fire.

And if that does happen, he can rule the world.

Your move, Boyzone.

The original shot of Take That is from Reuters. The special photoshopping skills are courtesy of the masterful Jack Riley.

John Rentoul: ComRes debate poll - the full story

The sensational figures showing the Liberal Democrats up to 35 per cent are real, but are taken among the 4,000 people who watched the debate knowing that they might be asked their view afterwards. This is known as panel conditioning and exaggerates the effect, which is in turn felt only among the minority of likely voters that watched the programme. So ComRes have also estimated national voting intention, assuming the views of those that did not watch the debate are unchanged.

This produces a modest Lib Dem bounce and a seven-point Conservative lead over Labour. Full figures at ComRes in a moment. Meanwhile, ComRes boss Andrew Hawkins's press release:

The final analysis of the ComRes instant poll for last night’s ITV News at Ten among those watching the First Election Debate, extrapolated across the GB adult population as a whole, puts the Conservatives on 35%, Labour on 28% and Liberal Democrats on 24%. This compares to the ComRes poll broadcast on ITV News at Ten on 14th April showing Conservatives on 35%, Labour on 29% and Liberal Democrats on 21%.
Of the 4,000 sample of viewers who watched the debate, their voting intentions are now Conservative 36%, Labour 24% and Lib Dems 35%. This compares to their stated voting intentions prior to the debate which stood at Conservative 39%, Labour at 27% and Liberal Democrat 21%.
Methodology statement:
Instant Poll
ComRes interviewed 4032 GB adults on 15th April by an automated telephone survey immediately after the ITV1 Leaders’ Debate.  Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults and weighted by past vote recall.  Respondents were selected from a pre-recruited panel of people who agreed to be contacted by telephone following the leaders’ debates to give their views.  ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables will be available shortly at www.comres.co.uk.
National Voting Intention
To extrapolate the impact of the change in voting intention figures for viewers of the debates the national voting intention is modelled taking into account: (i) viewing figures for the debate (Peak of 10 million – approximately 21% of the population); (ii) projected turnout –nationally and among viewers.  Therefore, the national vote share result takes into account ComRes’s latest voting intention figures published on Wednesday 14th April and the voting intention of respondents who watched the debate polled on 15th April.

John Rentoul: Read. Between. The Lies.

The trailer for The Ghost, which was apparently shown on ITV before the leaders' debate, although I didn't see it, has a double meaning for We Happy Few, who take the normal view that Tony Blair was on balance a good thing. Thank you to Julie, who identifies the Question of the Day, asked by Steven Fielding in the Guardian:

If Blair was as awful as these screen fictions suggest, how come he was one of Britain’s most electorally successful prime ministers of recent decades?

My only quibble would be that "of recent decades" is an understatement. "Since the advent of the universal franchise" would be more accurate, a date I put at 1928. (Some pedants say this was not achieved until the abolition of university seats after the Second World War, but that is a detail.) Tony Blair's three majorities of 179, 167 and 66 were greater than Margaret Thatcher's of 43, 144 and 102.

But can anyone explain why The Ghost, the title of the book, became The Ghost Writer when the film was premiered in Berlin in February and is now The Ghost again, except that it is a better title?

Ben Chu: Stay out of Sherwood, Nick

Ain't politics a funny old game. I thought Nick Clegg did reasonably well last night, nothing spectacular. I certainly wasn't expecting the tidal wave of public affection he seems to have attracted. I guess that's because I'm used to watching the Liberal Democrat leader perform and know that he's good, whereas most people probably aren't and didn't.


Anyway, an afterthought on the Liberal Democrat manifesto (which I bet they're combing through in Conservative HQ right now to look for weaknesses). I note it contains this pledge (as my colleague Sean O'Grady accurately forecast):


"Work with other countries to establish new sources of development financing, including bringing forward urgent proposals for a financial transaction tax" (page 62)


I'm not heartened by this backing for the so-called "Robin Hood Tax". While (as anyone who has read this blog will know) I'm all in favour of taking on the vested interests of the banking sector, I think this would be the wrong way to do go about it. I understand the original Tobin theory of "throwing sand in the wheels" of finance to bring down the volume of socially-useless and potentially destabilising trading, but I fear that Giles Wilkes is right (see here) that the banks would simply end up passing on the costs of this tax to their customers.


Incidentally, it's for this very same reason that the Lib Dem policy of raising £3bn from taxing aviation (page 100) is sensible. Those costs will be passed on to passengers - which is precisely what any policymaker who is serious about tackling carbon emissions should want to happen as an increase in the cost of flying will discourage people from getting on planes and will encourage them to substitute other, less polluting, means of transport.


My preference would have been to levy VAT on aviation fuel (part of the Greens' manifesto), which could have been presented as removing an unwarranted subsidy for the airline industry, rather than imposing a new tax. But, either way, this solid environmental pledge from the Libs (which would hit many voters in the pocket) shows up the mostly empty green waffle of Labour and the Tories.

John Rentoul: Dumbledore's madrassa

Further my gently pointing out to Toby Young that JK Rowling is not a Tory, Conservative Party Reptile has weighed in with an ingenious further argument:

The subplot of The Order of the Phoenix is that the Ministry of Magic is concerned that the headmaster of Hogwarts is running it as a sort of Dumbledorian madrassah, training up students to fight the Government.  As a result they impose ever more centralised control of education, imposing a school inspector who gradually increases her power to remove teachers, micro-manage the school rules and eventually take control of the school curriculum itself.  This process of greater state involvement in education is portrayed as extremely malign, with the curtailment of independence stifling the quality of education and leading to a counter-productive focus on passing tests, regardless of their applicability to real life.  At the end, the students rebel and force the return of Dumbledore and the end of Government meddling.

Couple of themes run through that: 

1. the Government has no place dictating to schools what they can teach or how they should run their schools; and

2. the power of the individual is both stronger than and in conflict with the power of the state.

Now, far be it for me to contradict John Rentoul, who after all has the power of saying ‘No’ to this sort of idea, but in terms of education policy at least, if not the overall philosophy of government, JK Rowling looks, through her writings, to be advocating a view of the world that is far more Tory than it is Labour. 
A fine try, sir. Or madam. But look.
JK Rowling is not a Tory.

Ben Chu: McChrystal is no callous butcher

I suspect my colleague Johnn Hari misresprents the Nato and US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in his comment article today. Johann suggests that McChrystal was "bragging" when he remarked recently that: "We have shot an amazing number of of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat".

In fact, McChrystal has made it an explicit goal of his forces to reduce civilian casualties. A directive written by the general last year states: "We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories  - but suffering strategic defeats  - by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people."   Other directives have reined in the use of air support  and special forces because of the fact that they often end up killing Afghan civilians.

I think it's overwhelmingly likely that McChrystal was condemning the behaviour of the forces under his command in those remarks quoted by Johann, rather than bragging about it.

You can take the view that McChrystal's hearts and minds strategy won't work in Afghanistan. But it's simply wrong to suggest that he's one of those generals who is blind to the immense harm that  "collateral damage" does to an operation, let alone to present him as a callous butcher.

Tom Mendelsohn: That Jewish kid from the election debate has his own fan club

Joel Weiner, the spunky young fellow in the yarmulke who asked a question about exams during last night's election debate, now has his own fan club on Facebook.

At the time of writing, he's on 4,155 fans, but 100 of those have appeared in the last ten minutes.

"At this rate," despairs one of the Indy's own beleagured on-line guys, "he'll have more fans than The Independent before the end of the day."