Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir detailing O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win and the story of that period as related in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning only one small majority in any of the last six General Elections. And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after Iraq. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against an unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under Brown and Miliband was hardly a joy to behold for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him with out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even as when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader.

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Speaking Out by Ed Balls

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Honestly. What a missed opportunity. The comic possibilities of a potential title for former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls were seemingly almost endless.
Here are just a few: Balls Revealed, Balls Exposed, Balls Up, Balls Out, Iron Balls, New Balls Please!, Strictly Come Balls, Golden Balls, Better Ed Than Dead.
Instead, this book published by Hutchinson has the extremely dull title, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. One just hopes when the time comes for his wife to reflect on her political career, she is more imaginative.
May I suggest, It Shouldn’t Happen To Yvette?
Perhaps Ed didn’t want to look stupid. He was a serious contender as recently as last year after all. Labour’s defeat and the loss of his own seat were a big personal shock to him. He is probably the most capable post-ear shadow chancellor never to make it to the position of Chancellor himself, along with John Smith.
The book is not in chronological order but linked thematically. He talks frankly about his stammer, the hard years under the brilliant but volatile Gordon Brown, his eventual falling out with Ed Miliband, his support for Norwich City (yawn!) and his running. He has a sense of humour too. Let us not forget his response to George Osborne’s claim in 2012 that the Chancellor had delivered a “Robin Hood Budget”. Balls charged that on the contrary, Osborne “couldn’t give a Friar Tuck.”
A good book then, but what a shame about the title. After all, if he really doesn’t want to look stupid why is he currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting more attention than ever before, by making himself look like a total pranny?
As Lord Heseltine once said: it’s not Brown’s. It’s Balls.

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Book review: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by John Crace

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If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, then ten months must be a lifetime. For back in November 2010, when this humorous book was published,.Ed Miiiband was not just another unshaven backbencher but a party leader widely reckoned to have a real shot at being Prime Minister. What’s more, the Tories, then in something called “a coalition” with a party, apparently the third party in Britain back then, called the Liberal Democrats, were looking quite vulnerable. Many still had high hopes for Nigel Farage and UKIP back then too. They don’t now. Fewer expected the post-referendum SNP surge to last, perhaps not even their new leader elected in that month, Nicola Sturgeon. What’s more such luminaries as Douglas Alexander, David Laws, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were all still members of parliament. The last figure, indeed, had reasonable hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jeremy Corbyn? He is not mentioned here at all.

How times have changed! This is not to criticise this funny, informative and still highly enjoyable book though. Guardian writer Crace must have known this book would always have a brief shelf life but this is still well worth a read. Crace is funniest in constructing imaginary conversations between political figures and is refreshingly even handed. He is as harsh on Miliband’s automaton type ways as he is on Cameron’s gaffes (why on Earth did he appoint Andy Coulson? What on Earth was Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms supposed to be about? Why do Michael Gove and iain Duncan Smith have to exist?).

Excellent.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election. Published by: Corgi, 2014 by John Crace

Book review: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

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Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband”” was born with David’s reputation grossly overinflated most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account of Ed Miliband’s leadership “anyone who thinks David Miliband would have proved a model of decisiveness and a master of political timing probably did not work very closely with him in the Brown government.”
Nor did it seem to matter that Ed had been elected wholly legitimately, David suffering from an arrogant tendency not to take his brother seriously. The next five years would be a struggle. Ed Miliband’s spell as Opposition leader was probably the most difficult since Iain Duncan Smith’s disastrous tenure a decade before.
It certainly wasn’t all bad: Ed enjoyed successes during the phone hacking scandal and in the battle of energy prices. He also fought a generally good election campaign (although this book stops before then). Before the exit poll on election night, Cameron and his entourage were gloomy, almost universally anticipating some form of defeat.
But Miliband undoubtedly failed to convince the public he was up to the job of national leadership. This was partly the fault of the hostile media but he must take a fair amount of the blame for this failure himself.
His worst failing was his almost total failure to defend the generally good record of the Blair-Brown years. As Bale notes:
“…it is certainly true that Brown, with the help of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, actually handled the truly terrifying possibilities thrown up by the global financial meltdown as well as – maybe even better than – any other world leader”.
But Miliband, keen to distance himself from the past allowed the reputation of one of the most successful governments since the war to be wrecked.
The Labour Party will live with the consequences of this for some time to come.

Published by: Oxford University Press

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Book review: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

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As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left to become Head of the EEC. Crosland, a heavy drinker, died soon afterwards. But it was Jenkins who as Home Secretary oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality. Bloch points out many of the key architects of the change in the law, in fact, had secret homosexual pasts themselves. Bloch even suggests the bisexual Lord Boothby may have blackmailed the notoriously homophobic Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe into permitting the Wolfenden Report which urged legalisation in the Fifties.

What about Downing Street? Bloch repeats the rumours that the 1890s Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery may well have been gay, rumours which ultimately wrecked his career at the time. As for Edward Heath, one of only three bachelor Prime Ministers, Bloch re-enforces the growing conventional wisdom that Heath (a misogynistic mummy’s boy) was essentially homosexual but chose to suppress his sexuality as he knew it would destroy any chance of a political career. This throws an interesting angle on the brief coalition talks Heath went through with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. Heath knew from the security services that Thorpe was gay and indeed that the younger man was already in difficulties with the Norman Scott affair which would ultimately destroy him. He kept his knowledge to himself, however.

Some might raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Winston Churchill in a book entitled “Closet Queens” though. Yes, Churchill reportedly had a low sex driver, was a misogynist and enjoyed a number of close friendships with young men. This does not, in itself, make him a “closet queen” and this chapter should have been expunged from the book.

However, with the wealth of biographical information on the likes of such characters as “Chips” Channon, Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, Harold Nicolson and Peter Mandelson and the like, this is a useful book even if you choose to ignore the bits about their sex lives.

Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch. Published by: Little, Brown

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Great political myths of our time

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  1. “The chief problem with MPs today, is that too few of them have held a job outside politics”.

Saying this sort of thing is an easy way to get a big applause on Question Time with. But is it really such a problem? Anyone who wants to get on in politics is surely well advised to start pursuing their ambitions early. Even in the past, many of those who did pursue other careers first (Margaret Thatcher was briefly a chemist, Tony Benn was a pilot and worked for the BBC) ultimately seem to have been biding their time until they got into parliament anyway, just like David “PR exec” Cameron and Tony “lawyer” Blair. But why is it assumed that MPs who have done other jobs first are necessarily better quality? Remember: or every Winston Churchill or Paddy Ashdown, there’s a Jeffery Archer, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Neil Hamilton (an ex-teacher), a Robert Maxwell or an Iain Duncan Smith.

  1. “The Tories only won because the electoral system is unfair.”

Nonsense! They won because they won more votes and seats. The parliamentary boundary system is skewed towards Labour if anything. 36.9% of the vote might not sound like much, but it’s about the same as Cameron did in 2010 and Blair did in 2005. You had your chance to reform the electoral system in the 2011 referendum anyway. Did you vote in that? I doubt it. Did you vote yes? I expect not. Well, it’s too late now. The Tories may not have been expecting or deserved to win. But they did win, fair and square. Get over it.

  1. “The Labour Party today has been taken over by the middle classes who have moved it to the right.”

Again, this isn’t the problem. Labour has always had lots of poshos in it from Clement Attlee to Hugh Gaitskell to Shirley Williams. It’s wrong to assume posh people are necessarily more conservative anyway. Tony Benn and Michael Foot after all came from privileged backgrounds and they were hardly pseudo-Tories. Nor were James Callaghan or David Blunkett, exactly rampant lefties despite being of working class stock.

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  1. “Labour is obsessed with class”.

Actually, if you look at the tabloid press, it is clear the Right are far more intent on class war, attacking anyone on benefits as a “scroungers” and anyone not to their political liking with money as “hypocrites” or “champagne socialists”. Ignore them!

  1. “Rupert Murdoch likes to back a winner

Wrong! Murdoch will only back those who share his own right wing outlook. Hence why he backed losers like John McCain and Mitt Romney in the US and backed the Tories even as they appeared to be heading for defeat in May 2015. Remember this, next time you pick up The Times!

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Great myths of our time: Why Ed did not stab David Miliband in the back

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“That helps to explain why the history of socialism is littered with appalling personal betrayals, from the murder of Leon Trotsky to the smears and lies of Damian McBride… Ed Miliband’s excuse for knifing his brother was that it was the only way to ensure his beloved Labour Party was led by a true believer…” Toby Young, Daily Telegraph blog, 2013

“Younger brother Ed was the deceptively geeky assassin with the bow. He snatched the job David thought was his birthright…” Richard Pendlebury, Daily Mail, 2013.

“Do you regret stabbing him in the back or not?”TV audience member question to Ed Miliband during March 2015 BBC Three debate.

In 2010, Ed Miliband beat his older brother David for the Labour leadership. Of the many myths to arise out of the contest, none is more persistent than the argument promoted by the Tory press that Ed “betrayed”, “assassinated” or “stabbed his brother in the back” to get the job.

And guess what? It is absolute nonsense.

The September 2010 contest was won by Ed Miliband fair and square. In addition to David, he also beat Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott. Were they “stabbed in the back” too?

David Cameron beat David Davis to win the Tory leadership in 2005. Davis was initially the favourite to win.Did Cameron “betray” him by standing against him and winning? Of course not.

The term “assassinate” is sometimes appropriate in politics if one leader is overthrown by another. Margaret Thatcher arguably politically assassinated her leader Edward Heath by standing against him and winning. Although he never became Prime Minister himself, Michael Heseltine politically assassinated Thatcher herself fifteen years later in 1990. But David Miliband has never been leader.

But the difference is that the Milibands were brothers! How could Ed so cruelly deny his brother the job that was so rightfully his?

This is a strange argument. I repeat that Ed Miliband was elected in a free and open contest. Why should we assume David is more entitled to job than he is, when he lost the actual election?

Is it because David Miliband is older than his brother? Since when was this the rule? We are not talking about the royal family here. Both men had Cabinet experience too. In this, they were both more qualified for leadership than both Cameron and Clegg were on assuming office in 2010. Neither had

I actually very much doubt that David Miliband ever thought the leadership was his “birthright” either despite what the Mail claims above. If he did, he was supremely arrogant to think so. It was a bruising contest and I don’t doubt that David was upset to lose. But I doubt very much that he thinks there was anything constitutionally wrong with his brother beating him in a fair fight. If David had won would we now be accusing him of betraying his brother Ed? It makes no sense.

What about the unions who played such a role in Ed’s victory? Well, that is another issue. The leadership vote is divided equally three ways between Labour MPs, party members and union members. David won narrowly in the first two and lost narrowly in the third. David knew all three of these groups were crucial to the verdict. Ed won fair and square overall and contrary to tabloid myth has consistently taken a tough line against the unions from his leadership victory speech onward.

Five years on, despite endless relentless attacks from the Tory-owned press, Ed is close to David Cameron in terms of personal popularity. With Labour neck and neck with the Tories in the opinion polls, he stands a very good chance of becoming Prime Minister.

The Tory press who today attack Labour for electing “the wrong Miliband” as their leader are natural enemies of the Labour Party. Had David Miliband won in 2010, they would be attacking David Miliband with all the venom with which they now attack his brother.

Top 10 David Cameron cock ups

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Cast iron guarantee

As Opposition leader in 2009, Cameron said this of the Lisbon Treaty:

Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.  No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.

The treaty was ratified. Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. There has never been a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Voters should perhaps treat any future election promises from Mr Cameron with caution.

Election loss

Many Tories have never forgiven Cameron for failing to win the 2010 election.

Immigration

In 2010, Cameron made a “no ifs, no buts” election pledge to bring net migration – the difference between those arriving and those leaving the UK – to below 100,000. The figure for the year up to September 2014 was 298,000 – some 54,000 higher than when he took over.

Queen gaffes

Cameron apologised last year after joking that the Queen “purred” down the phone to him. He had to apologise again soon after for revealing indiscreetly that he had corrected the Queen over the identity of a portrait,

NHS

Despite denying any such plans during the 2010 election, a major “reorganisation” was announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley soon after the Coalition came to power. A humiliating failure, the plans were sidelined two costly years later

Andy Coulson

Cameron was warned by figures as diverse as Lord Ashdown and even the Palace, not to appoint Coulson, as his communications director. Coulson had already been sacked as editor of the news of the world under suspicion of phone hijacking. Coulson inevitably resigned from Downing Street too and was ultimately imprisoned. Cameron has also been close to former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks who he once leant a horse and initially defended his friend Jeremy Clarkson during his recent controversy. By any measure, Cameron’s judgement on these matters has been awful.

Syria/Europe defeats

Cameron’s leadership has also witnessed numerous u-turns on everything from the selling off of national parks to a proposed “pasty tax”.

All this and World War II

Cameron claimed Britain had been a “proud ally” of the US in 1940. The US did not enter the war until December 1941.

Debate cowardice

Cameron’s desperate attempts to avoid having a head to head TV debate with Ed Miliband made Cameron a national laughing stock earlier this year.

Third term

Cameron inadvertently kicked off a possible post-election leadership contest when instead of merely stating that winning the 2015 election was his immediate priority at the moment, he inadvertently answered an innocent question by completely ruling out a third term completely. Cameron then compounded the error by naming George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May as possible successors.

This change of leadership may happen sooner than he thinks.