UK Politics

EXCLUSIVE: Fox Didn't Discuss Buckley Knighthood With Harvey Boulter

9 Oct 2011 at 20:08

Liam Fox has made clear that he thinks there are some deeply suspect motives on the part of those who are trying to bring him down. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that at the time, but I am now beginning to build up a pretty good picture. And it ain’t pretty. It all seems to revolve around this Harvey Boulter character (chief executive of Porton Capital), who has been the one feeding details of his Dubai meeting to an all too willing Guardian newspaper.

Mr Boulter is in a legal dispute with 3M and George Buckley in the United States. It is entirely possible that both Adam Werrity and Liam Fox may be called to give evidence in the court hearings. So it is clear that from Mr Boulter’s point of view, if he can discredit Werrity and Fox as witnesses it will be ‘job done’. In essence, that’s what all this seems to be about. And Boulter thinks he has done a pretty good job so far.

One of Boulter’s allegations is that he discussed with Liam Fox in Dubai the position of George Buckley’s knighthood. Indeed, he has said that Fox promised to bring it up in Cabinet and recommend that the knighthood would be rescinded. As you can imagine, The Guardian was all over this like a rash. But unfortunately they omitted a vital part of the story and one can only speculate on their motives for doing so. Had they told their readers the full story, they might have been less outraged.

I have seen an email dated 14 July from the Porton Group, Boulter’s company, in which they deny any such discussion with Liam Fox ever took place concerning the rescinding of George Buckley’s knighthood. Here’s the relevant passage…

“At the end of the meeting, in the presence of others, Mr Boulter provided Dr Fox with a brief update on the litigation with 3M, concerning Acolyte, a rapid MRSA detection technology invented at Dstl (the research agency of the MoD). The MoD recently stated publically that “Dr Fox met with Mr Boulter to discuss an entirely different matter. At no point did he enter into any discussion about this legal case, nor was there any mention of anyone’s knighthood.” While Mr. Boulter did update Dr. Fox on the litigation with 3M in, he did not enter into a discussion with Dr. Fox over the issue of Mr Buckley’s knighthood.”

So, are we expected to believe that The Guardian didn’t know about this email? Are we really expected to believe that? THIS is what their journalist, Rupert Neate, wrote on 4 October…

“Hours after the meeting, which was not attended by officials and at which no notes were taken, Harvey Boulter, chief executive of Porton Capital, emailed 3M looking for a payment of $30m (£18m) to settle a dispute over the sale of a potentially lifesaving treatment to the US company and mentioning the award of a knighthood to 3M’s British-born chief executive, Sir George Buckley. The email said: “As a result of my meeting [with Liam Fox] you ought to understand that David Cameron’s cabinet might very shortly be discussing the rather embarrassing situation of George’s knighthood … At a headline of $30m+ you will allow the MoD to internally save face.”

How does that fit with the Porton Group statement in an email dated 14 July which says…

“While Mr. Boulter did update Dr. Fox on the litigation with 3M in, he did not enter into a discussion with Dr. Fox over the issue of Mr Buckley’s knighthood.”

I find it inconceivable that Rupert Neate and The Guardian weren’t aware of this when the story was written.

So, Mr Neate, over to you. Did you know about the Porton statement or not? If you did, why didn’t you include it? And if you didn’t, would you now like to correct one of your allegations? And if this one is so shaky, it does rather make one wonder about the others, doesn’t it?

As I said at the outset, there seems to be more to this than meets the eye. Follow the money. Whose interest does it serve if Liam Fox and Adam Werrity are discredited? Harvey Boulter and his company. Perhaps The Guardian’s investigative resources might be deployed looking into him, as well as the Defence Secretary. So far they seem to have swallowed Boulter’s version of events hook, line and sinker.

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The BBC Cuts: Hit The Weakest Where It Hurts

8 Oct 2011 at 20:12

Anyone would think someone had died. No, it was just the screams emanating from the BBC once reality had set in and the BBC management announced how it was implementing its 20 per cent cuts. In typical BBC fashion they have gone for the soft targets and put off the difficult decisions. Instead of actually sitting down and thinking “what is the BBC for and what should it do”, it has come up with cuts which at first sight look crass and cackhanded – and hit many of the wrong people and departments. I mean, how ludicrous is it to banish business bulletins from the BBC News Channel? And to decomission Five Live’s only investigative programme. And to chip away at various bits of newsgathering. I could go on.

Now, here’s a question for you. Which BBC Radio programme employs 54 news journalists? Today? No, they have 16 reporters. PM? no, guess again. WATO, I hear you say? No. Wrong. Unbelievably the answer is, wait for it, Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme. While you recover your composure let me tell you that Radio 1’s news output is composed of half hourly 30 second bulletins and two ten minute news programmes at lunchtime and teatime. Yes, ladies and gentlement, that’s where your licence fee goes. It’s the unique way the BBC is funded, you see. Now let me give you the good news. The number of news journalists on Radio 1’s Newsbeat will be cut to 34. Not this year, you understand. Or indeed next. No, there will be a phased reduction from 2013. To 34. Now, I work in a commercial radio station’s newsroom every day of the week. To produce thirty second news bulletins and two ten minute news bulletins takes a fraction of 34 journalists. I know. At LBC we do it every day, and the bulletins are a damned site better than the ones produced by Newsbeat. What on earth do these 54 journalists do all day? Because no one can tell me they are all fully employed.

I see it on 5 Live all the time. Each programme will have a production team of 8-12 people. Some more. You never get a sense of urgency at the BBC. No one ever runs in the newsrooms. They amble. It’s the same on the News Channel. It doesn’t fell like a newsroom. It feels like a morgue. Even when I have been there when a big story is breaking, there isn’t the same palpable sense of urgency, of excitement that you get at Sky, or at LBC.

This isn’t an attack on the BBC. It’s an attack on the way the BBC is managed. And in true BBC fashion, the cuts that have been suggested are misdirected and don’t hit the right targets. Why has Radio 4 escaped any budget cut, yet the axe has fallen on 5 Live? Why does BBC1 escape largely unscathed, yet BBC2 is hit? Why not merge BBC3 and BBC4?

And as for BBC local radio. Well, don’t get me started. In some way it its own worst enemy. It has lost its sense of direction, with a succession of senior BBC managers not really knowing what to do with it. BBC local radio’s job is to do what it says on the tin. Be local. Not regional. Local. And yet in future afternoon and evening schedules will be combined in regional groupings. In a sense it is only mirrroring what is happening in the commercial sector, but it is not the BBC’s job to do that. Saldy BBC1 went down the road of aping ITV1 many years ago. Now the same is happening to local radio. That’s not to denigrate commercial local radio at all. In commercial radio it is all about branding. National brands took over locally a long time ago, with breakast and drivetime shows the only ones with local content. Radio Broadland became Heart in Norfolk, and so it was all around the country. Indeed, it has boosted local commercial radio audiences. But BBC stations are not there to directly compete – they’re there to offer a public service. If I am in Norfolk and listening to BBC Radio Norfolk, I want proper local output, not some networked morming show presented from Colchester throughout East Anglia. If I am in Kent I’m not especially interested in an afternoon show hosted from BBC Radio Surrey or Sussex. Local radio ought to be a jewel in the BBC’s crown, yet it is being taken for a ride. There’s a serious danger that in 10-20 years it won’t exist. And that would be a tragedy. Radio listenership is on the up. It is the one form of media which the internet hasn’t ravaged. People like local radio. They often view it as a friend, a companion. And it is. Shelagh Fogarty, in her weekly diary, wrote that “it’s all about family, companionship, wellbeing – easily as Reithian as education, entertainment, and information.”

A lot has been said about the 25% cuts about to be imposed on BBC London. I should declare an interest here as a presenter on LBC, which competes for audience with BBC London. It seems ridiculous to me that the BBC thinks it cannot sustain a 24 hour radio station in the nation’s capital, but it appears that its afternoon and evening programming will be shared with a greater London region. Its nightly sports programme, with local football coverage will go. In addition, it will axe Sony award winning Danny Baker’s afternoon show. Astonishing. How to kill a radio station in one easy lesson. Don’t get me wrong. BBC London has a lot of fat which could be trimmed. It has a budget several times that of LBC yet has only half the audience. Something wrong there somewhere, wouldn’t you say?

Any organisation facing cuts of 20% is going to have to make decisions which are painful and with which many will disagree. It seems to me that the BBC management have taken the easy way out and cut the areas of least resistance. That’s not to say these cuts won’t be painful in the areas concerned, but they have concentrated the cuts in areas which are not in a position to fight back. How courageous.

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale Entices Ed Balls to Play the Piano

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Weekend Diary: I'm Going to be a Stand Up Comedian Iain Dale reveals he's a

8 Oct 2011 at 20:11

  • Well, that’s the party conference season over and done with for another year. I’m beginning to question the point of them to be honest. I went to all three this year for work related reasons and looking back, and given the choice, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of them. The LibDems can at least maintain that they discuss policy at their conference, but now they are in government even their conference was far more stage managed than usual. The Labour and Conservative conferences are both American style rallies or conventions, where party members are preached at rather than consulted. Never, in my 25 years of attending Tory conferences (how sad does that make me sound?) have I seen empty spaces in the auditorium for the leader’s speech. The sad truth is that these events are now more like commercial exhibitions than conferences, and party members are fed up with being exploited. The fact that the conferences have moved from seaside resorts to faceless and expensive conference centres in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool means that for most people it is now costing upwards of £500 to attend a conference. Any normal person would spend that on a weekend in Rome. Unless the parties do something radical and quickly and reform party conferences so that party members get something out of them, the events have a maximum shelf life of three years.
  • Next week I’m off to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I haven’t been there for about eight years. The aim is to identify foreign published books that I think could work in this country. Next year my company, Biteback, aims to publish 120-140 books, which is double what we did this year. People say that the book is dead. They could hardly be more wrong. Hardback sales may be on the decline, but paperbacks are doing OK and we are now experiencing the inevitable rise of the e-Book. Personally I don’t ever want to read a book on a Kindle or an iPad, but I accept that I am fighting against the forces of progress and we are now digitising our entire backlist catalogue. Frankfurt is a pretty ghastly city, but I am looking forward to my visit as it is a rare chance for me to speak a bit of German. I used to speak the language fluently, but it’s a bit rusty nowadays. Tatsaechlich!
  • Many of you have emailed asking how our two new puppies are settling in. Dude and Bubba are now just over three months old and are getting on like a house on fire. They are both very different characters. Dude, the Jack Russell, is super-intelligent, while Bubba is, well, a bit of a thicko. I’m not even sure he knows his name yet. But he is a delightful and very loving little dog. I’ve never had a mini Schnauzer before, but he’s a great addition to the family. Their toilet habits still leave a lot to be desired, but that’s the only bad thing I can say about them. They seem to have on/off switches. They’re either acting like Duracell bunnies and creating havoc or they’re asleep. There doesn’t seem to be a middle way.
  • Friday marked the tenth anniversary of the first NATO action against Afghanistan. It’s been a tough ten years for all involved. This conflict has lasted for four years longer than the Second World War and it’s one for which politicians still find it difficult to articulate the mission. The nightmare is that we start to withdraw our troops and within a short time the Taliban return. If that happens, the families of those who have lost their lives can reasonably ask: what was it all for?
  • I must be mad. I recently attended a charity fundraiser for the James Whale Kidney Cancer Fund. I knew that extorting money out of everyone there would be a major part of the evening, even though we had all spent a fortune on the tickets. And so it proved. They had a silent auction and one of the lots was a Stand Up Comedy course. I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a comedian so I put in a bid, albeit one which was less than half the anticipated price. To my horror I won. Readers may remember than two years ago I did perform a stand up turn at a comedy gig at a party conference and rather enjoyed it. I even got some laughs. Which was nice. I now have to go on this course and then perform at a proper comedy club in central London. It could all go very, very wrong.
  • Quantitative Easing. There. You’ve switched off already, haven’t you? But you shouldn’t, because it’s vital that people understand what it means. Essentially it’s the printing of money. The government has just injected £75 billion of QE into the economy in a desperate attempt to kickstart growth. It didn’t work before when Gordon Brown did it, and it won’t work now. All it will do is fuel inflation in the long term, and there is no more insidious economic disease than inflation. It appears today’s politicians have failed to learn the lessons of the 1970s. This is hardly a surprise as many of them weren’t born then and don’t bother reading history books.
  • This column appeared in Saturday’s Eastern Daily Press

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Why Foxy Foxy Is In Trouble

8 Oct 2011 at 20:09

The fact that supporters of Liam Fox, like Tim Montgomerie, are openly talking about his likely successors, demonstrates just how deep in the doo-doo the Defence Secretary is in. In some ways this is one of those political squalls all politicians go through at some point in their careers, but this one feels, well, as if it has legs. And if the Westminster lobby senses that Fox has been wounded, they will go in for the kill.

The trouble is that Liam Fox has quite a few enemies. And not all of them are in Number 10. The others are predominantly in the senior echelons of the military. They can’t stand him, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they have been briefing the Sunday papers like there’s no tomorrow.

So what’s the case for the defence? Well it’s certainly not the one just advanced by Tim Montgomerie on the TV just now. He reckons that Fox will be safe as, apart from IDS, he’s Cameron’s only Cabinet conduit to the right*. That simply won’t wash. If you’re going to defend Liam, you have to do it on the facts of the case. These are the questions which Fox needs to answer, according to Patrick Hennessy…

  • Why did Mr Werritty, 34, visit the Ministry of Defence 14 times in just over a year, despite not being a government employee, and join Dr Fox on an official ministerial trip to Sri Lanka this summer.
  • Has Mr Werritty ever had access to any classified MoD information?* How was Mr Werritty able to broker a meeting at a Dubai hotel in June between the minister and businessmen to discuss technology that allows service personnel to make encrypted phone calls home and according to them, a commercial dispute with American firm 3M?
  • Why, until he was told to stop doing so, Mr Werritty also handed out business cards bearing parliament’s portcullis logo which described him as “advisor [sic] to Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox.”
  • Is there any truth in claims that Dr Fox had agreed to raise the Dubai-based company’s dispute with 3M in Cabinet?

These are a lot of questions. There can be little doubt that Fox and Werrity are close friends. The question here is about judgement. Werrity’s judgement is clearly in question – you just need to look at the business cards to know that. But is Liam Fox’s? Anyone who knows Liam knows he’s basically a nice guy who is keen to impress and keen to please. He is a friendly guy. He doesn’t like saying no. So is it possible his best friend asked him to do something and he said yes? Entirely. Would he have necessarily thought through the consequences? I doubt it.

I was just discussing this with an MP of my acquaintance. I said that if DD had been Defence Secretary it is entirely possible I might have visited him in the MoD 14 times in 16 months. I certainly wouldn’t have had a business card saying I was his advisor, but if politicians aren’t even allowed to see their best friends in their departments, we are entering a very dangerous world. The difference between me and Mr Werrity is that none of my business interests are in the area of lobbying or defence. And that’s where Liam’s danger radar should have been twitching. Or maybe one of his special advisors should have alerted him to the danger.

The Guardian’s emails from Harry Boulter about the meeting with Fox and Werrity look bad. They will look even worse if it turns out there was any financial relationship between Werrity and Boulter. Unbelievably, the Guardian doesn’t seem to have asked him the question!

The other reason we know that Liam is in trouble is because Number 10 made public that the PM had asked the Cabinet Secretary for a report by Monday morning. That didn’t need to be made public, but it was. Draw your own conclusions. Why the haste? Because there are Defence Questions on Monday. Jim Murphy will also ask an Urgent Question, which I suspect The Speaker will grant. It’s also possible there could be an UQ to the PM as this concerns a possible breach of the Ministerial Code. It’s possible but not probable that Bercow would grant that. Basically, Number 10 is trying to insulate itself.

It’s clear there is little love lost between Cameron and Fox. The PM is said to be convinced that Fox leaked the letter on defence cuts he wrote to the PM a few months ago. Cameron would shed no tears over his departure from government, especially as in these circumstances he would be a busted flush politically. But – and it’s a big but – the reason Number 10 may in the end want to put a plug in the plughole before Fox disappears down it is because there is no readymade replacement. Stick with nurse for fear of worse, may be the mantra among some of the less daring advisers in Number 10.

Tim Montgomerie tweeted earlier that Owen Paterson would be an ideal replacement, as he would appeal to the right. Guess again. Harry Cole is touting David Davis. I’ll plead the 5th on that one. The name being mentioned by many is the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell. We’ll see. Or perhaps not.

I think Liam Fox can survive. But only if he comes out fighting and quickly. He’s got some powerful enemies ranged against him. If he hasn’t seen them off by Monday lunchtime, he may live to regret it. It may be too late.

  • Tim Montgomerie thinks I have misrepresented him. I didn’t, because I wasn’t the only one to interpret his comments that way, but THIS is how he has responded on Twitter.

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LBC 97.3 Book Club: Iain talks to Barbara Taylor Bradford

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Thoughts on Ed Miliband's Reshuffle

7 Oct 2011 at 20:14

The big test of any reshuffle – either in government or opposition- is this: does it make the top team stronger or not? On balance, I would say that this reshuffle does indeed make Ed Miliband’s team stronger, especially from the point of view of getting on the media. That may seem a false priority, but if a politician can’t get on the media in opposition, they’re not much cop. It is always a risk promoting new MPs very quickly, partly because it can damage them for good. Cameron did Theresa Villers and David Mundell few favours by bringing them into his shadow cabinet only six months after they had been elected. They needed to find their feet. In Miliband’s case, his new entrants have had sixteen months to do that, and many of them have performed impressively. Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna could well be the two that fight Yvette Cooper for the Labour leadership in 2015, should they lose.

The top three – Balls, Cooper and Alexander – all remain in post, which is no surprise. I am slightly surprised that Maria Eagle retains her place and Meg Hilllier doesn’t. Neither have made a huge impression, but surely Eagle, at Transport, has the easier brief to make a mark in. Many of my Labour friends are surprised that Sadiq Khan hasn’t been moved or sacked altogether. To me, that would have been unfair. His problem is that against Ken Clarke he looks unsubstantial. I must admit if I had been Ed Miliband, I’d have put Harriet Harman up against the old bruiser.

Andy Burnham must count himself lucky to still be in the shadow cabinet having failed to land a blow on Michael Gove and done little to create a new education policy. Is Stephen Twigg up to the job? Well, he has experience as a Schools Minister to fall back on, but will he try to fight past battles rather than form a new education policy? Burnham, meanwhile retreats to his comfort zone, but if he returns to his previous form, he will be a formidable opponent for Andrew Lansley.

Caroline Flint, at Energy & Climate Change is another one who needs to up her game. She is certainly capable of doing so and Chris Huhne now has a much feister opponent. Eric Pickles will lament her passing and regret he now has Hilary Benn as his shadow – one of the most transparently nice people in British politics today.

The promotion of Chucka Umunna and Rachel Reeves are the two most notable appointments in this reshuffle. I know and like them both and admire them as politicians. Both are nice people, both are hugely talented and both are destined for the top. Reeves knows her economic onions and will be more than a match for Danny Alexander. She has a gravelly voice that always reminds me of Pat Butcher – and I mean that in a nice way! She also has a sense of humour and a great strength of purpose. I think she will be the success story of this reshuffle. Chuka is a great front man and a calm, reassuring voice on the media. I do think he has had a tendency to believe his own publicity in the past and needs to develop himself as a policy innovator as well as a policy presenter. He will be a delightful contrast to Vince Cable, especially if he allows his impish sense of humour to find its voice. He can be very very serious, almost as if he’s frightened of releasing his ‘inner Chuka’ on an unsuspecting world.

One final word on Tom Watson. When I spoke to him at the Labour conference he was adamant he wouldn’t take on a shadow cabinet role. I have no idea if one was offered to him, but Ed Miliband has pulled off a master stroke by persuading him to take on the role of deputy chairman of the Labour Party. He can use it to, well, frankly do what he likes and take the Labour message to the media.

So all in all, a successful reshuffle for Ed Miliband. It remains to be seen how long it will take David Cameron to follow suit and reshuffle his own Cabinet team. The general consensus is that he will wait till next Easter.

The new Shadow Cabinet is:

Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party
Ed Miliband MP

Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Party Chair and Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Harriet Harman MP

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
Ed Balls MP

Shadow Foreign Secretary
Douglas Alexander MP

Shadow Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities
Yvette Cooper MP

Shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Sadiq Khan MP

Shadow Chief Whip
Rosie Winterton MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Health
Andy Burnham MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Education
Stephen Twigg MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
Chuka Umunna MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
Jim Murphy MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Hilary Benn MP

Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
Angela Eagle MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Caroline Flint MP

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Rachel Reeves MP

Shadow Minister for London and the Olympics
Tessa Jowell MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
Maria Eagle MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Policy Review Co-ordinator
Liam Byrne MP

Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
Ivan Lewis MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mary Creagh MP

Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office
Jon Trickett MP

Labour Party Deputy Chair and Campaign Coordinator
Tom Watson MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Vernon Coaker MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
Margaret Curran MP

Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and Chair of the National Policy Forum
Peter Hain MP

Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Lords Chief Whip
Lord Bassam of Brighton

Also attending Shadow Cabinet:

Shadow Minister for Care and Older People
Liz Kendall MP

Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office)
Michael Dugher MP

Shadow Attorney General
Emily Thornberry MP

Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office)
Lord Stewart Wood

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LBC 97.3 Book Club: Iain talks to Ann Widdecombe

Ann talks to Iain about her memoirs, STRICTLY ANN

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Labour Conference Diary: Why Liverpool Is Ghastly

27 Sep 2011 at 20:16

  • There is always one politician who goes totally over the top and loses credibility at a party conference. We all remember Michael Portillo’s ‘Who Dares Wins’ speech in 1996. Last week it was Tim Farron’s turn. This week Ivan Lewis has covered himself in glory by suggesting that there should be a state register for journalists. A madder idea I haven’t heard in years. In case you don’t know, he is Labour’s Culture, Media & Sport secretary. And all I can say is, oh dear. Lewis had a good hacking inquiry, but on this he is so very wrong. It appears Labour’s authoritarian tendency hasn’t quite been eradicated. It’s so easy for politicians to go over the top on issues like this. The trouble for Ivan Lewis is that he is unlikely to find many people following him.
  • Last night was a first. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was in front of a microphone for half an hour and didn’t utter a word. To be fair, it was because she had come to take me out to dinner after my LBC show finished, but I was astonished she didn’t try to intervene in a rather sparky discussion I was hosting with three young Labour thinkers (Richard Angell, Owen Jones and Rowenna Davis). So, ten o’clock arrived and we went in search of food. Pizza Express (I know how to treat a girl), just outside the conference centre, was our destiny of choice. But its lights were off. It closed at ten, can you believe. And we had no more luck at Jury’s, the conference hotel. Their restaurant closed at ten too. This, despite thousands of people still milling around. Unbelievable. So we went next door to East z East for an Indian, where we were joined by Radio 5 Live’s Richard Bacon and Labour supporting advertising honcho Trevor Beattie. What a fabulous restaurant. I am not a great fan of Indian food, but this was something else. I much enjoyed by chicken shashlick and can highly recommend it! The evening ended strangely, as Richard Bacon kept putting the wrong pin number in the credit card machine. Shame really, as it turned out that Trevor Beattie’s card was in it. Three attempts and his card was invalidated. All Tony Blair’s fault reckoned Yasmin.
  • Look, I’m going to be honest. So far, I have found Liverpool to be a ghastly city. The Albert dock area is lovely, but from what I have seen of the rest of it, it makes Gaza look welcoming. It’s now that I understand perfectly why lots of famous people profess to love Liverpool so much they move away at the first opportunity and never return if they can help it. Driving in on Sunday it was quite apparent that what money the council has had has been blown on regenerating the docks area to the exclusion of everywhere else. There seem to be a large number of second world war bomb sites which haven’t been touched in 60 years. It gives a terrible impression to people visiting for the first time. And then there’s the Adelphi Hotel. A shocker. I vaguely remember watching a fly on the wall documentary about it a few years ago. Believe me, it hasn’t got any better. They are charging £189 a night for a room with no internet, no mini bar, a room service menu which has a choice of two things and which is only available for an hour a day (OK, I exaggerate a little on that) and a TV which was built circa 1976. Oh, and its car park resembles a Kevin Webster style MoT bay. But the bathroom does have a set of bathroom scales, so that’s nice. What an absolute dive of a hotel. I know Liverpool has many fans. A good friend of mine loves the place. She regularly comes here for weekend breaks. God alone knows why. If I never came back again ever, it would be too soon. I suspect the feeling will be mutual after this.
  • It’s interesting to note that there were more lobbyists at the LibDem conference last week than there are here at Labour. Power sells, you see. I remember my days as a lobbyist, having to organise fringes for clients, and then fearing that no one would turn up. They did, of course, but sometimes it was a close run thing.
  • Each year I compile the Daily Telegraph’s Top 100 People on the Left, with Brian Brivati and a panel of Labour insiders. I’m told that Chris Bryant took great delight in telling Ivan Lewis (him again) that he was one place above him in the list published this morning. After Lewis’s speech today, I think that one place might be extended somewhat next year.
  • Sitting here on the LBC table in the media centre I am looking around wondering what on earth the massed ranks of the 150 BBC journalists here actually do all day. Most of them stare at their computer screens and never seem to move from them. I try and make a point of wandering round the conference centre chatting to delegates. But it seems to me that most journalists here just feed off each other and the senior politicians they meet. Ordinary delegates don’t seem to have a role at all. Yet it is they who create the mood and atmosphere at a party conference.
  • Yesterday I chaired a fringe for the Fabian Society on whether there could be a LibDem/Labour coalition after the next election. After an hour and a half’s discussion I did not rush down to Ladbroke’s and put a bet on, I can assure you. Emily Thornberry spent the whole time hissing venom at LibDem MP John Leech and Centre Forum Chief Executive Chris Nicholson, whole Ben Bradshaw made a valiant attempt at being the voice of sweet reason, but to little effect. The audience clearly hated the LibDems just as much as Emily Thornberry. It was fun, though!
  • A BBC journo friend of mine was still in the broadcast centre when Ed Milibad was practising his speech next door in the conference hall last night. Apparently he was being coached in how to wave to the audience as he walks onto the stage. Indeed, so rubbish at it was he, that they made him walk on five times.

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Tuesday LibDem Conference Diary

20 Sep 2011 at 20:19

Sarah Teather has been wandering round the conference with a face like thunder. As well she might. Her off colour jokes about the Chancellor, George Osborne, went down like a lead balloon among the delegates here, but what should worry her is the reaction of Nick Clegg, who, I am reliably informed went red with rage when he heard what had happened. It wasn’t just Teather who incurred his wrath, though. The LibDem leader was furious at his colleagues who insulted other coalition colleagues, and indeed, fellow LibDems. There’s an inquest into what happened and whether next year the opening conference rally might be ditched in favour of something less risqué. And as for Sarah Teather, she’s in the happy position of knowing she is unsackable. Why? Because she’s a woman, and there aren’t many of those to the dozen in the ranks of LibDem ministers.

Presenting a three hour programme on an O/B is a challenge even if you’ve been doing them for years. Yesterday’s LBC show was my first from the conference. It went really well (I think!) but I have rarely felt so tired as I did afterwards. So tired that I have to admit I didn’t wake up until 10 o’clock this morning, something I haven’t done in years. Tonight’s show includes an hour long phone in with London LibDem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick from 8-9. Paddick is an interesting character who has something to prove, not just to the LibDems but himself. He says he has learnt a lot from the rather awful campaign he ran last time. I intend to find out what that is, because at the moment, I’m none too clear.

There is a very different air about this conference compared to LibDem conferences of years gone by. It is infested by lobbyists and campaigning groups. Oh, and the BBC. Oh, and newspaper commentators who two years ago wouldn’t have given the LibDems the time of day. Did I mention the BBC? I reckon they must have the best part of 150 people here. Mind you, for an organisation that employs 52 journalists on Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme, I don’t know why I should be surprised. I mean, what the **** do they do all day?

I love interviewing Ming Campbell. He such a pleasure to interview. Some people go through the motions. Ming really engages with you, especially when he knows you’re going to give him a bit of time. He hates the two minute interview just as much as I do. Last night I asked him about Nick Clegg’s performance as leader. I followed it up by saying: “Were you comfortable in the job as leader?” He gave such an honest reply that I almost felt guilty for asking the question. Almost.

Last night’s Newsnight was a frustrating watch. Jeremy Paxman got 80 LibDems together, ostensibly so he could shout at them. What on earth was the point? Quite what we learned from the segment, I’m still not sure. Yet people on Twitter seemed to think it was marvellous. “Paxman in blistering form” said one. Really? I thought it was dreadful. Being combative is one thing. Being downright rude and insulting is another. I am a huge admirer of Paxman, but I do wonder sometimes if he is encouraged to play up to the caricature by the programme’s editors.

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LibDem Conference Diary: Day 1

18 Sep 2011 at 20:20

  • Listening to many of the speeches both on the platform and on the fringe at this conference, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the LibDems are in government. Their whole attitude indicates an oppositionalist attitude which may make them feel better, but won’t go down well with the electorate which knows full well that they have been part and parcel of every government decision.
  • I didn’t go to the LibDem conference last year and I had wondered if this conference would be any different to the others I had been to in recent years. In a sense, I am rather relieved that it isn’t. It’s still the usual mix of the weird and wonderful. I know I have said this before, but the LibDems really do have more than their fair share of very odd looking supporters. I saw a woman yesterday, who was about 5’ 1, weighed about 18 stone and worse shorts and a T shirt which failed to cover her amply proportioned midriff. I am afraid you could not help but stare. And what about the man whose whole body seems to be covered in tattoos. And… No, I must stop. But it’s why these conferences are a fascinating study in social anthropology. At least, I think that’s what they are.
  • The constant attacks on the rich at this conference are a little odd and totally populist. It’s all you hear. Vince Cable wants to curb bankers’ pay. Danny Alexander is recruiting 2,000 more tax inspectors to make sure the rich pay their tax. All well and good, and I am sure it will go down well with the readers of the Daily Mirror. But have we heard a peep about how the LibDems want to create economic growth or create jobs? Well, if we have, I must have missed it. At the next election people will cast their votes based on who they think is best equipped to run the economy – not who can utter the most extreme insults to the rich. They forget that most people aspire to be rich.
  • Let Them Eat Carbon is a most unlikely book to find on sale at the LibDem conference, but there it was on the LibDem Image stand. I was rather pleased, especially as I published it, but it’s hardly a book Chris Huhne would approve of. I was even more pleased t discover that they had sold several copies of it. Just as it is possible to find the odd LibDem Eurosceptic, it seems there are a few LibDem climate change sceptics too.
  • Talking of Chris Huhne, he addressed the Total Politics Nuclear Power v Sustainability fringe last night. I can’t say I agreed with all that he said, but if ever there is a cabinet minister on top of his brief, Chris Huhne is it. Rather against my instincts I found him enormously impressive. Conservative friends in the cabinet also think highly of him. Initially they had been very suspicious of his reputation as a bit of a slippery customer, but what they tell me now is that he is the one LibDem they feel they can really trust. If he promises something he delivers on it.
  • Vince Cable has every right to give his views on private sector pay. He has every right to criticise the bonuses bankers receive. But he can’t pretend that he is actually going to do anything about it, because we all know he isn’t. Unless he’s going to introduce some sort of 1970s pay restraint type law (and we all know how effective that was) all he can do is play to the gallery and bluster. Having worked in the private sector, you’d think Vince would know that the people who can do something about excessive pay and bonuses are shareholders. Perhaps he ought to look at giving them more powers of oversight. One thing I would do is legislate to restrict the number of non executive directorships any one individual can have. Some people have 8, 10 or a dozen. Sorry, but there is no way a non executive director with a dozen of them can do his or her job properly and monitor exactly what is going on. There are too many quid pro quo non execs too – people who sit on each other’s boards. That’s where Mr Cable should be directing his fire.
  • This evening from 7pm I am broadcasting my LBC show from the press centre here in Birmingham. I suspect it is going to be an “experience”. Everything that can go wrong, no doubt will. But that’s the joy of live OBs. So I am told. I’m hoping we will be able to keep the whole show conference related, but I suspect Dale Farm (no relation) might upset my plans. Anyway, do tune in from 7 if you can for a LibDem-tastic show.

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Top Ten Things To Be Overheard At The LibDem Conference

17 Sep 2011 at 20:21

1. Don’t you think Danny Alexander’s a bit of a Tory?

2. Isn’t it terrible all this new security? I’d rather risk being bombed.

3. Well I don’t care what anyone says, I’d happily take Chris Huhne’s speeding points.

4. Don’t mention the AV referendum. I did, but I think I got away with it.

5. I know I’m probably alone in this, but don’t you think Evan Harris is an absolute dish?

6. What kind of People Carrier do you think the party will order to transport all our MPs after the next election?

7. Isn’t Birmingham an absolutely ghastly place to hold a conference?

8. No, Lembit, go away.

9. I’m so looking forward to Vince’s speech. He’s bound to slag off the Tories.

10. Did you know that Iain Dale’s broadcasting his LBC show live from the conference?

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Cameron Intervenes On Gay Marriage

16 Sep 2011 at 20:37

I well remember David Cameron’s first speech as party leader back in 2006. I remember the frisson that went round the conference hall when he said these words…

“There’s something special about marriage. It’s not about religion. It’s not about morality. It’s about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it’s in a church or anywhere else, what you’re doing really means something. Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it’s not just about “me, me, me” anymore. It is about we: together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man."

Well, five years on he has lived up to his words. In a few hours time he will announce that gay people will, for the first time, be able to enter a proper civil marriage. Not just a civil partnership. A marriage. The Home Office is about to launch a consultation on the best way to do this, but done it will be, and before the 2015 election. Now, I’d have thought that this would be welcomed by everyone of a liberal persuasion and who has supported the various moves under Labour towards equalisation of the law for gay people. But no. This was the response to the news on Twitter by Chris Bryant.

The Government is spinning it’s going to consult next March on full gay marriage. Why not just introduce a Bill now and Parlt can vote?

It’s a typically churlish response. He can’t bear the fact that a Conservative led coalition will introduce legislation his own government failed to do. This may be announced by LibDem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone at the LibDem conference. At midnight the Home Office issued this statement…

A public consultation to consider how to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples will begin in March 2012, the government announced today. As part of its commitment to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals the government announced in February this year its intention to look at how legislation could develop on equal civil marriage. Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone said: “I am delighted to confirm that early next year, this government will begin a formal consultation on equal civil marriage for same-sex couples. This would allow us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. We will be working closely with all those who have an interest in the area to understand their views ahead of the formal consultation.” The consultation will only cover civil marriage for same sex couples – not religious marriage. NOTES TO EDITORS 1. Currently, civil marriages are only open to opposite sex couples and civil partnerships are only open to same sex couples. 2. The consultation will look at civil marriage of same sex couples but it will not include consultation on civil partnerships for opposite sex couples. 3. Earlier this year, the government announced that religious buildings will be allowed to host civil partnership registrations. The change, which will be entirely voluntary and will not force any religious group to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so, is being introduced as part of the Equality Act 2010. It will give same-sex couples, who are currently prevented from registering their civil partnership in a religious setting, the chance to do so. 4. The government will be laying the necessary regulations by the end of this year in order to allow the first civil partnership on religious premises to take place as soon as possible in the new year. This is a separate piece of work to the consultation being announced today.

I happen to know that this was going nowhere until the Prime Minister himself intervened. A source close to No10 told me last night:

“The Prime Minister personally intervened to give same-sex civil marriage his enthusiastic support, so that it would be introduced in this parliament. When David Cameron was elected Leader of the Conservative Party he spoke of the importance of commitment and how special marriage is, so this is entirely consistent.This move doesn’t down-grade civil partnerships, what it does is recognise there’s been a demand for equality”.

Note the bit in bold. This is not a consultation on WHETHER to introduce gay marriage, it’s a consultation on HOW to do it.

Remember also, that soon, gay couples will be able to have their civil partnerships if the churches are happy to perform the ceremonies. I suspect most won’t, but at least the law will allow them the option.

My own view is this. I have never been bothered that the traditional marriage ceremony hasn’t been available to gay couples. To me, a civil partnership is quite good enough. It’s a bespoke piece of legislation for gay couples. I have never bought into the idea, promulgated by Peter Tatchell, that straight people should be able to have civil partnerships and gay people necessarily need the same marriage facilities as straight people. As long as the legal consequences are similar all that is different is the name. But others feel that if there isn’t full equality between gay and straight people, then it’s just not fair, and frankly I am happy to go along with that.

The government has made clear that it will not legislate to allow straight people to have civil partnerships, and I quite see their point. Surely that is what registry office weddings are anyway?

I welcome this move and I hope most reasonable thinking people will do too. Let’s leave the last word to Clint Eastwood…

“I don’t give a [expletive] about who wants to get married to anybody else! Why not?! We’re making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t be making a deal out of … Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want."

Quite.

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