Wednesday, 30 November 2016

No need to be fearful to be Christian

Fiona Bruce MP arose in #PMQs today saying that Christians were 'fearful' of mentioning their religion or talking about Christmas in  public in these tumultuous days in case they receive a backlash.

I hope she was comforted by Theresa May's words who, being the daughter of a vicar, said:

'Of course we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can be be proud of.

'I'm sure that we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith and also be able to speak quite freely about Christmas.'

When I hear such fears raised, my mind wanders to a wonderful sketch by John Finnemore which appeared on The Now Show several years ago, and I feel confident that our country's Christian heritage is still secure and mentioning Christmas in the workplace might just about be ok.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

When will the real Donald Trump stand up?

First the good news. Donald Trump the president will be nothing like Donald Trump the candidate. The nature of the job means he will be have to be more conciliatory and willing to compromise. He will be surrounded by officials, advisers, ambassadors, secretaries, military figures –relationships he will need and have to nurture – and his bombastic, my way or the highway attitude simply won’t work.

Look at some of his most attention grabbing plans during the campaign and it’s reassuring to see many are illegal, impractical or impossible. All Muslims will not be barred from entering the United States. Eleven million illegal immigrants will not be deported. Hillary Clinton will not be sent to jail. And, while his team remain insistent it will happen, the building of a wall along the 3,200km border with Mexico will prove immensely difficult and expensive to achieve. And the Mexicans have already said they won’t pay.

In his victory speech, President-elect Trump (boy, that’s going to take some getting used to!) was clearly at pains to be as magnanimous and inclusive as he possibly could be. Far from reissuing his threats to Hillary Clinton he said the country owed her ‘a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country’. Trump made an effort to unify the nation:

‘Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division…. to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to get together as one united people. It’s a time, I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.’

Next, regardless of how isolationist Trump has threatened to be, he will find he needs international allies. Theresa May, ever the submarine, has managed not to say anything too rude about Mr Trump. She will simply have to ignore and rise above the manner in which Trump talks about women in order to build a professional, working relationship. Brexiteers are claiming Trump’s election will make negotiating a free trade deal with the US easier as we might no longer be at the ‘back of the queue’. This, however, relies on having faith in a campaign pledge – a bold step – and Trump might not show one iota of interest in Brexit Britain.

The problems begin when one starts considering what he can do and what might happen. While stopping all Muslims from entering the US won’t happen, it’s hard to imagine that American Muslims won’t face more discrimination and racist attacks under a Trump presidency; as with the Brexit vote here, racists will believe the vote endorses their behaviour, whether it does or not.

Obamacare looks doomed. During the campaign Trump said he would dismantle it ‘very, very quickly’ and replace it with ‘free market reforms’. What this means in practice is unknown, but a hasty repeal will leave millions of people, the poorest in US society, without healthcare. Will Trump even bother to find an alternative?

Trump has indicated he wants swiftly to end any US involvement in international climate change deals. Taxes for the wealthy could be cut and his desire to bring jobs back to the US and hike tariffs could trigger several trade wars.

Many clearly do feel appalled and sick to the stomach that someone who has been openly racist, boastful of sexually assaulting women, someone so crude, someone who, for some, provokes comparisons with disturbing events in the 1930s, could possibly have been elected to the highest office in the free world.

Ultimately, though, what I can’t shake from my head is David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump didn’t want his endorsement but had it nonetheless. Trump won and the KKK are celebrating. It's hard to think of anything more disturbing.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Farage loves a vacuum

It really shouldn’t be any surprise that we are in such uncertain territory over Brexit. It’s a pretty big issue after all. But, the longer the two majority parties vacillate over their positions, the bigger the vacuum being created for those who know exactly what they want to get from the June 23rd vote.

For all the cast-iron guarantees from David Cameron, the referendum was a never a vote the former Prime Minister wanted to hold. The offer was to placate his troublesome backbenchers. When, to considerable surprise, Mr Cameron led the Conservative Party to a House of Commons majority and the referendum became inevitable, it was still a vote that, for the most part, the former Prime Minister expected to win with ease. So, what preparation was done in case of defeat? Remarkably little, from all appearances. 

Theresa May’s favourite phrase these days is a commitment to get the ‘best deal for the UK as we leave the EU’, which one would hope is the basic requirement of any British government. But it says little about the relationship the government actually wants with the EU. From the prime minister down, government ministers and officials have been insistent that there will be no running commentary on Brexit negotiations and that by revealing the government’s ambitions they would be undermining their position before talks have even begun.

This is what the prime minister seems to fear after last week’s High Court ruling on the process by which Article 50 is triggered. Just what will the House of Commons want for their vote. Suddenly, the government risks losing control. Even though the overwhelming likelihood is that MPs will give their backing for Article 50 to be invoked, only this morning (Sunday) health secretary Jeremy Hunt repeated their concerns, telling the Andrew Marr Programme the ‘impact on the economy will be far worse if through some parliamentary mechanisms Theresa May is forced to lay out her entire negotiating strategy’.

This strategy does, however, rely on the discretion of EU countries; it would hardly be a surprise if the moment they receive the UK’s demands these find their way into the newspapers.

Simultaneously, we are left with a Labour Party which also hasn’t decided what it wants from Brexit negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in the Sunday Mirror in which he indicated he was willing to block Article 50 if the government breached his four ‘bottom lines’ including ‘access to 500 million customers in Europe’s single market’.

The only hiccup with this strategy is that it appears he hadn’t discussed it with his deputy leader first. With the ink still almost wet, Tom Watson was on the radio saying the Labour Party wouldn’t try and block Article 50:

‘We are not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster. Ultimately, when the vote comes Labour will support Theresa May to trigger Article 50.’

And, in reference to the apparent contradiction between himself and his leader, Mr Watson added: ‘We missed each other on the phone today.’

In many ways, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government and the opposition to be struggling to formulate exactly what their strategies are. Theresa May’s government received the ultimate hospital pass from David Cameron’s administration; it shouldn’t be much of a surprise they are taking a little time trying to establish what they can create from the mess.

And Labour’s problems must surely stem from a leader who has long been lukewarm towards the European project if not downright hostile. Mr Corbyn, after all, voted against membership in 1975, against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009

But, the failure of both to settle upon a position leaves the field wide open for those who do have agreed strategy and know exactly what they want from the Brexit vote.

The interim Ukip leader, still completely dominant within his own party, is the consummate campaigner of our age. In a time when mainstream politicians can be so fearful of the consequences of their words and deeds, Mr Farage benefits from being not highly electorally encumbered, letting him be nimble, proactive and impassioned. That many people can’t bear what he represents only fuels his enthusiasm for the fight.

In The Daily Telegraph last week, Nigel Farage wrote:

‘The British people voted to leave the single market, for full border controls and to take back control of things such as our territorial fishing waters. They expect to see all of this delivered.’

The British people, of course, voted for none of these things as they didn't appear on the ballot paper. Instead, voters were persuaded by a myriad of reasons to vote the way they did - principled, solipsistic and altruistic, and Brexit emerged the winner. But Mr Farage knows what he wants and, with a certainty of mind of which other politicians would rightly be jealous, can fill the airwaves and newspaper columns with his precise demands.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Is there a right way to make a Bolognese?

There are few more satisfying ways to while away a few hours than pottering in the kitchen, attending to a gently gurgling pot of ragu, glass of wine in hand, with the radio muttering away in the background. But, it seems that we in Britain have been doing it all wrong. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio has been getting a little sweaty under his apron over the way in which we make our Bolognese sauce.

According to the Daily Telegraph, whilst at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Mr Carluccio said: 'There was spaghetti Bolognese, which does not exist in Italy. In Italy, it is tagliatelle Bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and Bolognese without any herbs whatsoever.'

Mr Carluccio is just the latest to berate the British for taking a classic dish from abroad and subjecting it to unspeakable tinkering with the subtlety of a house decorator trying to restore a Michelangelo fresco.  Poor Jamie Oliver suffered the wrath of Spain for the heinous crime of adding chorizo to his paella last week. And, according to Carluccio, the only way to cook a Bolognese is this:

'You should do this: oil, onion, two types of meat - beef and pork - and you practically brown this, then you put tomatoes, then a bit of wine, including tomato paste, and then you cook it for three hours. That is it. Nothing else. Grate Parmesan on the top and Bob's your uncle.'

His argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that on the same page an entirely different Bolognese recipe appears, shorter but with more ingredients, by a chap called Antonio Carluccio:

But, is there, in Italy, an agreed way of cooking a Bolognese sauce? In 1982, the Bolognese Chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina declared this to be the official 'classic' Bolognese ragu:

As with Carluccio's recipe, there are no herbs or garlic but it still differs significantly. And I doubt whether every household is equipped with the compulsory terracotta saucepan and a mezzaluna chopping knife. 

But, here lies the problem: in Bill Buford's 'Heat' - a book which revels in the robust, macho, end of cooking - he writes 'there is not one Bolognese but many'.

'A Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen's quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings. There are at least two meats (beef and pork, although local variations can insist on veal instead of beef, prosciutto instead of pork, and sometimes prosciutto, pancetta, sausage, and pork, not to mention capon, turkey, or chicken liver) and three liquids (milk, wine, and broth), and either tomatoes (if your family recipe is modern) or no tomatoes (if the family recipe is older than Columbus), plus nutmeg, sometimes cinnamon, and whatever else your great-great-great-grandmother said was essential.... In any variation, the result is a texture characteristic of all ragu: a crumbly stickiness, a condition of being neither solid nor liquid, more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce.... Gianni speaks of the erotics of a new ragu as it cooks, filling the house with its perfume, a promise of an appetite that will mount until it's satisfied.'

Later in the book, Buford cooks an eight-hour Ragu alla Medici which used red onions, garlic, as well as the usual suspects, carrot and celery.

But, with such diverse opinions on the matter - while I appreciate Carluccio's frustration - hoping to maintain the purity of a dish to continue when, perhaps, it never truly existed in the first place, is tricky.

I had a quick look at recipes in a few cookbooks I have at home. Predictably they were all different. 

Below is from the Prue Leith's & Caroline Waldegrave's 'Cookery Bible', in which Carluccio's 'no herbs' diktat is ignored and the addition of marjoram or oregano encouraged.

Elizabeth David, in her classic 'Italian Cooking', chooses to add chicken livers, as well as nutmeg, to the pot:

I found another from Sandra Totti's 'A Taste of Tuscany' - ultimately intended for a lasagna admittedly - which uses fresh basil, thyme and sage, as well as a bay leaf and a clove of garlic. Asking a few colleagues for their interpretations, variations included adding a bay leaf to the oil and mushrooms and even olives to a classic ragu and letting it cook for as long as possible;  another might even use lamb, the addition of chilli and it's all cooked in 20 or 30 minutes. It may well be that there are wrong ways of making a Bolognese but it does seem that there are many right ways.

And, speaking personally, my Bolognese ragu often depends on how much time I have to prepare it. I use beef and pork, prosciutto, wine and, scandalously, some herbs, and try to leave it on the hob for as many hours as are available before the demands for food from my wife and children become impossible to ignore any longer. 

I'm afraid, Mr Carluccio's vision of what an authentic Bolognese is and should be has pretty much evaporated in this country. It may once have been a dish which emerged from Italian families, with all the variance that entails, and Italian academics may once have wanted to codify exactly what it needed; but, it has taken on a different form in Britain. It is not the classic Italian dish it may once have been - as this is not Italy. The spaghetti Bolognese is a British dish now.

But, if there is one way in which the British 'spag bol' and the Italian ragu are still related - and this may not please Mr Carluccio - it is this; as Italian families had their own versions, often passed down through the generations, it seems there may be as much variety in the domestic kitchens of Britain. Some, even Mr Carluccio, might find quite edible.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Theresa May; the red and purple Tory PM

Has a prime minister ever had such an opportunity to seize and control the political narrative as Theresa May does currently?

Sure, Margaret Thatcher dominated the political weather of her era but she came pre-loaded with a free market ideology which she applied, with more pragmatism than is remembered, during her time in office. And, of course, Blair swept all aside in his climb to power but, despite the country crying out for a change after 18 years of Conservative rule, he was timid in ambition, still fearful of electoral defeat.

Theresa May, though, is an accidental prime minister and already a lucky one. She is unencumbered by the baggage gathered by David Cameron after a decade of leading his party, emboldened by a Labour Party which seems content for now to wallow in protest populism, meanwhile Ukip seems to be permanently locked in petty, internecine battles. May - who was something of a Teflon-coated Home Secretary - is left clutching a broad, blank, canvas upon which she can paint her own vision for the Conservative Party and the country.

And so, we have her first major keynote speech at a Conservative Party conference as prime minister. Broadly speaking, it was a very successful, clever, speech. Much of it could have been written and said by Ed Miliband, bulked up with a few additions from Nigel Farage, though most of his script had been left with Home Secretary Amber Rudd a day previously. Delivered without fuss from a lectern, Ms May didn't feel the need to display any flashy skills. She didn't take a suit jacket off to show she means business, or memorise the whole speech in an attempt to display her oratorical prowess. Down to earth, unfussy and practical, getting on with the job; that was the message.

While many still struggle to come to terms with the result of the Brexit referendum on June 23rd, Ms May described it as being a symptom of wider issues within society. The vote to leave was about a broader vote for change, 'about a sense - deep, profound and let's face it often justified - that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them'. She went on:

'Our society should work for everyone, but if you can't afford to get on to the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you've been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. because it wasn't the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash. but ordinary, working class families.'

Compare and contrast with what Ed Miliband had to say in his conference speech in 2014.

'You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn't care about me. Our politics doesn't listen. our economy doesn't work and they're not wrong, they're right....

'Prosperity in one part of Britain, amongst a small elite. A circle that is closed to most, blind to the concerns of people. Sending the message to everyone but a few: you're on your own. See, think about it for a minute. In our economy, it's working people who are made to bear the burden of anxiety, precariousness and insecurity.'

All three paragraphs could easily have come from the same speech. But, while Ed Miliband suffered a humiliating defeat at the last general election, Theresa May is Prime Minister and received a standing ovation. She is busy taking Labour's clothes.

Corbyn himself recognises this. In his own conference speech, he acknowledged that Ms May knew there was a need for change:

The problem Labour and Corbyn faces, though, is that it currently isn't seen as a viable alternative for government. With that in mind, Corbyn is fortunate that Theresa May has ended speculation that she might call an early election for if she did, it seems fairly certain she would be rewarded with an enlarged parliamentary majority. 

Ms May currently faces bigger challenges from within her own party than the official opposition. Many Tory MPs object to the expansion of grammar schools.  There is a cohort of disgruntled Remainers. And the balance of the House of Lords is also still stacked against the Conservative Party. But all this could change. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the whole Brexit process will be a 'bumpy' road, the Conservative Party is still split over what Brexit actually means, and if the economy does indeed struggle as many experts fear, it will be this government that is blamed. Moreover, if her fine words remain just fine words and little effort is made to actually seize the centre ground, this will be noticed and Labour could still return there.

The Labour leader has been dismissed many times but he has weathered an almighty battering. It may be hard to imagine now, but, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has galvanised a movement behind him. Many may not recognise it as the Labour Party they have known for decades, but it is huge in number, over half a million in strength, and could still prove a formidable election fighting machine. The next election, however, remains Theresa May's to lose.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

I don't want to be a 'Soberhero'

Mine's a Daiquiri

It seems that barely a month goes by these days without it being hijacked by a charity eager to encourage us all to stop drinking.

Once upon a time, January was the month when people - normally of their own volition and not for charity – would lock up the drinks cabinet and forswear the public house to give their body a break after the excesses of the Christmas season. A very worthy and sensible ambition (though I remember lunching with an elderly politician and his nephew at The Gay Hussar one rainy January day and a cascade of abuse was directed at the nephew for having the temerity to emerge for lunch and not drink). Dry January has, of course, been adopted by charity and last year more than two million people took part, raising money for Alcohol Concern.

We are now, however, in the middle of a Dryathlon, promoted by Cancer Research, which urges us ‘to give up alcohol this September and become a Dryathlete’ after a ‘summer of overindulgence’. And after labouring through an abstemious month, one would be forgiven for desiring a snifter, but then we are being encouraged to become a ‘Soberhero’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, and remain booze free for the 31 long days of October. Australia has a Dry July campaign; I wouldn’t be surprised to see that emerge here too soon.

Now, this isn’t a criticism of these individual charities who all do tremendous and valuable work but rather a concern about the unintended consequences. Figures released by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in August showed that 21 pubs were closing across the country every week. Supermarkets, which still continue to sell alcohol at prices so absurdly cheap it is impossible for a pub to compete, taxes on pubs and the role of pubcos are all cited as major reasons behind these closures. But these charity events do have an impact on the pub trade. The loss of two million customers for a month will inevitably hit the bottom line. One publican admitted to me it was ‘hard to quantify’ how much of a direct hit pubs took but said its impact was ‘significant’.

It is easy to forget how much of an important role the pub plays in British society. It is a home away from home, a meeting place, a community hub. An IPPR report in 2012 said:

‘One of the most important contributions pubs make to local community life is that they act as hubs for the development of social networks between local people. Our national opinion poll found that outside the home the pub scored the highest of any location as a place where people “meet and get together with others in their neighbourhood”’.

And a study by University Hospital in Basel found, unsurprisingly, in a report published this week, that a single glass of beer can make people more sociable.

The continuing loss of pubs damages the fabric of society. But, this seems to be the ambition of some anti-alcohol campaigns. One representative, from the World Cancer Research Fund, has repeatedly claimed: ‘About 24,000 cancer cases could be avoided every year in the UK if everyone stopped drinking alcohol’. Any, albeit inadvertent, damage this could cause to social cohesion - which, in itself, contributes to the health of individuals - is, it seems, ignored.

And then there is the Institute for Alcohol Studies, which claims to be an ‘independent voice on alcohol policy’, but is in fact mainly funded by the Alliance House Foundation, once known as the Temperance Federation. Four people linked to the IAS were recently among the ‘experts’ advising the government to recommend the reduction of safe weekly drinking limits for men from 21 units to 14.
Roger Protz, the editor of the Good Beer Guide, at the launch of the 2017 edition just this week, warned:

‘the restrictions urged by the medical officers are taking us on the road to Prohibition…. All the real scientific evidence shows that moderate beer drinking can contribute to a health lifestyle. We should listen to the experts – not the kill-joys of the Temperance movement.’

There can be few people who are not aware of the risks posed by the excessive consumption of alcohol, and charities should be congratulated for finding ever more innovative funding techniques in a competitive world, funding vital work. And yes, we should probably all drink less alcohol. But, I hope we have reached saturation point when it comes to month-long dry-outs; it's enough to make one turn to drink.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

UB40 for satirists please

It always used to be the case that the Labour Party attracted the support of cool celebrities, musicians and artists while the Conservatives were left with the meagre joys of end of pier comedians and Peter Stringfellow.

Just think of those early days after Tony Blair's election in 1997 - the moment when Cool Britannia flowered briefly before being hastily deadheaded - when the likes of Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher were eager to be photographed with the new, rockstaresque, prime minister. And, in 2000, while Nelson Mandela addressed the Labour Party conference, the Tories had Jim Davidson instead. This is despite the alleged comedian having been happy, in his 1993 autobiography, to write about poking his then wife in the eye, ending with the hilarious quip: 'I actually went for the mouth. Thank heaven I missed, I'd have fallen in. I just took a playful punch.' How the blue rinses must have laughed.

Yes, this was the stuff for satirists. And, more recently, the Three Brexiteers, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – awkwardly yoked together by the canny Theresa May – could easily have entertained us all in their own sitcom with their bickering over who nicked the milk or failed to replace the toilet paper in the Chevening House farce in which they all star. But, think of the poor satirist being faced with Jeremy Corbyn’s recent liaison with UB40 – or, at least, one version of the group, if not the one with the original lead singer: what is he to make of this?

Today, for reasons I have yet to fathom, Jeremy Corbyn was joined by UB40 on stage at the Royal Society of Arts where they endorsed him as leader of the Labour Party, claiming he had:

're-ignited an interest in politics for people who no longer felt included, and engaged and inspired a new generation of young voters who, for the first time, believe that they have an incorruptible politician who truly represents them.'

UB40, of course, is hardly an up and coming band riding on the crest of a popular wave of youthful fans; it is an ageing band that was involved with the not entirely successful Red Wedge movement of the 1980s, had split up famously acrimoniously and featured a set of siblings who no longer talk to one another. As this event was being planned, that no one within Labour's strategy team piped up and questioned, just for a moment, whether seeking the backing of such a group an might not be the best metaphor for the modern Labour Party, is little short of astonishing.

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn unveiled an interesting, ambitious, arts policy, pledging to reverse Conservative cuts in arts education and widening opportunity for pupils to participate in the music and arts. How exactly it was to be funded was not entirely clear, but there is a theme to develop, though this event provided no such opportunity. Moreover, I think, prior to the event, there were were very few people on the planet who wondered where UB40, or indeed UB40 with Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue, stood in the Labour leadership battle.

But, for a moment, just think of that satirist. When Ed Miliband emerged with his tablet of stone with his elections pledges for the May 2015 General Election, it was easy to imagine such a scenario appearing in The Thick of It or Yes Minister. But, it is impossible to imagine Armando Iannucci would have come up yesterday's scene, where the Labour leader was presumably trying to garner support rather than appear absurd. Similarly, it's hard to think any writer of fiction would invent the desperate, colour of Donald Trump, who seamlessly combines extremist bile and egregious banality without ever knowing the difference. Strange days indeed.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Perhaps CCTV isn't that useful after all

A curious tale of cost-cutting has emerged in the last few days as it seems Westminster City Council is planning to scrap its network of more than 100 CCTV cameras in the West End of London on the basis that it can no longer afford their upkeep due to government cuts.

This will come as a surprise to those who remember times at City Hall under the then unknighted Simon Milton when, along with Wandsworth, it prized itself as a wealthy (ahem, their reserves have recently been valued at over £22billion so they'll get through the week), successful council; a proud Conservative flag-bearer in a time when Labour ruled the roost nationally with ease. I remember, back in 2004, Kit Malthouse, now an MP but then a Westminster councillor and deputy leader, confidently revealing ambitions to cut council tax from its already low levels to zero ‘by 2012’. Needless to say this courageous aspiration was never realised.

And, when I worked as a reporter in the area in the earlier 2000s, Westminster Council was inordinately proud of the network. The manager of the CCTV control room was not only keen on inviting the press and other visitors to see how the operation worked, but he was also a frequent witness at council meetings and attended gatherings of organisations like the Leicester Square Association, reminding the locals how useful the CCTV was in improving their security.

But now, while other police and private cameras will remain, Westminster wants to switch theirs off, claiming it will save a £1million a year, a fairly paltry sum when they are looking for savings of more than £100million. A report on the matter concludes it is not the ‘most effective use’ of council money and the ‘operational benefit to the council is limited’; working hand in hand with the police, it seems, is so last decade.

A Soho resident I know wondered whether their safety was being put at risk by these cuts. After all, for years Westminster Council, the police and the government have been telling anyone who’d listen that the network was a success, acclaimed for cutting crime in the West End. Have they, in fact, all be telling porkies?

John Denham
In 2002, the Press Association reported how Home Office minister John Denham, was treated to a private viewing of footage - in the ‘£1.2million CCTV control room in the Trocadero Centre’ - of an incident in which eight youths launched an unprovoked attack on two men in Leicester Square. Other treats included a fist fight and a man urinating into a bin in Soho. Denham announced an extra £169,000 grant for three new cameras to the system and claimed that, while the CCTV centre had only been in operation for four months, 'it was already producing real results’. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter said ‘CCTV had been a great help in tackling late night incidents’.

In April 2003, Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair praised CCTV for helping to cut street crime in Westminster by 33 per cent

And in January, 2001, Westminster councillor Alan Bradley, who was then cabinet member for community protection at the council, wrote a letter to the council taking issue with a claim that CCTV does ‘not appear to make such difference anyway’. Councillor Bradley wrote: ‘We cannot quantify exactly how much difference it makes but we have seen a drop in street crime of 30 per cent in the West End in the past year. CCTV is one tool to help in the battle against crime and antisocial behaviour…. In Leicester Square for example, our CCTV was instrumental in the successful prosecution of seven youths who assaulted a tourist… the only comment I hear from people in Westminster about CCTV is to press for it to be extended to the streets where they work and live.’

In July 2004, Sound, the nightclub in Leicester Square, lost its licence after attacks on customers by bouncers were captured on CCTV. Superintendent Chris Bradford, from the Metropolitan Police’s clubs and vice unit, said: ‘The video footage showing the kickings given to customers were horrific.’

In April 2007, a man dubbed ‘Britain’s most prolific handbag thief’ was jailed for four years. Maurice Young, then 55, ‘was captured on CCTV at the scenes of the crimes’.

In September of the same year, the numbers of traffic wardens were cut in the West End by 20 per cent, with the council boasting that an expanded CCTV network could do the job more efficiently and save £1million a year.

Before the Olympics, in May 2012, the Evening Standard reported that police ‘swooped on Soho’s most wanted drug dealers in a pre-Olympics blitz on the street trade in heroin and crack cocaine’. Police identified a ‘hit list of 36 top-level suspects – amassing CCTV evidence and conducting test purchases’.

Camille Gordon
One crime CCTV didn't help solve, however, was the murder of Camille Gordon, who worked as a nightclub hostess at the Blue Bunny Club in Archer Street, Soho. This was a clip joint, a venue which enticed men in with the promise of a strip show and even sex for prices as low as £5. Once inside, normally in a basement, customers would suddenly find themselves with an astronomical bill of hundreds of pounds and threatened with beatings if they didn't pay. Sometimes, unfortunate customers would even be marched up to cash points and ordered to withdraw money by some knucklehead. The business plan of these clubs - which have mainly gone now - relied upon knowing that their victims were highly likely to be far too embarrassed to ever complain to the police.

On this particular occasion, on March 1, 2004, there was a dispute with a young black man who was facing a £375 bill after being in the club for about ten minutes. He left the club only to return and stab the 23-year-old Ms Gordon, who staggered down the stairs of the club before collapsing. Archer Street, at that time, had no CCTV cameras and the only footage that was obtained by cameras nearby displayed grainy pictures of a figure heading away who may or may not have been the killer. Despite a £20,000 reward being offered, her killer has not been captured.

There is, of course, no way of knowing whether CCTV would have led to the successful conviction of her killer but I remember police bemoaning the lack of decent footage and Westminster Council certainly wasn't saying CCTV was of 'little benefit' at the time.

A matter of timing

In just over three weeks’ time voters will be going to polling stations to cast their vote in the EU referendum. The polls are increasingly close, the Conservative Party is, predictably, tearing itself apart on the issue, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are having whale of a time campaigning to large crowds around the country. This, then, is the obvious time for a film (full film here) about the apparently pro-EU leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to rail against those enemies of socialist progress, the BBC and The Guardian columnist.

Inside Jeremy Corbyn’s press team there is someone who thought allowing filming of the leader behind the scenes, by a Labour-supporting, Corbyn-voting activist, for Vice News was a good idea. Viewers certainly see the good bits of Jeremy Corbyn. He is evidently active in his Islington constituency, is excellent at talking to people, likes being with members of public and is clearly interested in their concerns and interests. At one point he remarks rather endearingly ‘every single person you meet knows something you don’t know, if you don’t interact with people you can’t learn anything and, also, it keeps you humble’.

But, the whole atmosphere pervading the film is one of paranoia, not helped by a grim-faced Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s executive director of strategy, frequently hovering in the background. While it can certainly be true that just because someone may be paranoid, it doesn’t mean people are not plotting against them, it isn’t the familiar newspaper foes that get it in the neck, it is the New Statesman, the BBC and the Guardian writer, author of an ‘utterly disgusting’ column, Jonathan Freedland. Does Corbyn really believe the BBC is obsessed with damaging his leadership? Is there really a ‘Gerald’ at the heart of his operation, leaking his PMQ question to a Tory 'Karla'?

Neither major party is a picture of competence currently. The government is hopelessly split over Europe and, thus, is incapable of presenting a coherent vision for the future of the country and has presented a Queen’s Speech denuded of anything that might be vaguely controversial. Cameron’s government, with only a small majority, has been forced into making u-turn after u-turn. Despite claims that these have been Labour successes, many – such as forcing successful schools to convert to academies, tax credit cuts, disability benefit cuts, Sunday trading laws, the repeal of the Hunting Act – have all occurred due to Conservative backbench rebellions. Yet, Labour remains stubbornly behind in the polls. And while it is certainly true that Labour’s performance in the local elections was better than expected, they were hardly – Sadiq Khan excepted – an indication of a party on its way back to power.

What is most troubling, however, is not the Jim Hackeresque confidence that everyone is conniving against him, it is the timing. Jeremy Corbyn has not been prominent in the European referendum debate thus far. It has followed something of a pattern: Conservatives in rival camps shout at each other; a few Labour figures, like Alan Johnson, Tom Watson or John McDonnell, emerge to speak briefly from the sidelines; someone questions where Jeremy Corbyn is; Corbyn duly appears and makes a speech he rather seems not to want to be giving; Corbyn goes back to whatever he was doing before anyone noticed his absence.

And, so it is today, Corbyn has been giving a speech in which he will outline his fears about the dangers of Brexit. And yet, it has already been overshadowed by this unnecessary, self-inflicted, wound.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Sadiq Khan the 'radical'

What was never clear about Zac Goldsmith’s campaign is when the dodgy fellows with whom Sadiq Khan was supposedly allied would emerge and wield their influence over the new mayor. Sadiq Khan has been in position for just over a week so it’s probably too early to judge whether he is the security risk to the capital that Goldsmith, Michael Fallon and David Cameron suggested. In his first few days, however, he has displayed little apparent sympathy with Islamic extremism. Instead, the new mayor has displayed sound judgement and shown canny political instincts.

Consider his first few days:

His swearing in ceremony took place in the modest splendour of Southwark Cathedral, rather than City Hall, several stones' throw further east along the river.

The following day, Mayor Khan attended the Yom HaShoah memorial event, remembering victims of the Holocaust. There, he chatted with the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, commiserating that he’d been unable to vote due to the shambles at polling stations in Barnet. The photographs portray an amicable meeting despite, just a few days earlier, Rabbi Mirvis warning that the Labour party had a ‘severe’ issue with anti-Semitism. 

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Marcus Dysch wrote:

‘A Muslim politician, the son of Pakistani immigrants, standing shoulder to shoulder with Shoah survivors? It looked good, and it felt good too. And that is not something Jews have been able to say about many Labour politicians in the past year. Two days into the job, he has now cemented his position as the community’s go-to figure.’

The Labour Party's troubles do not seem to be Sadiq Khan's.

And today (17/05/16) the Gay Pride flag is flying outside City Hall to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT): 

It has been well documented how Sadiq Khan upset some in his own community for backing same-sex marriage in 2013, to the point of even receiving death threats. This didn't stop him from reassuring Pink News back in January, however, that he would attend future Gay pride marches, after Boris Johnson's failure to attend since 2010.

Now, it's perfectly likely that Zac Goldsmith would have been appeared at these events had he been elected mayor; they're just the sort of trips a new London mayor makes. But, they go a long way very quickly towards dispelling any fears waverers may have had over who was taking over City Hall. And, with the added benefit of hindsight, it marks the Conservative mayoral campaign as being even more tactically and painfully misjudged. 

The even more tragic aspect of the whole affair is, while the Conservative Party will ultimately continue on its way, Zac Goldsmith's reputation is likely to have been tarnished for years to come.

Monday, 25 April 2016

So who would win if the London mayoral candidates played Monopoly?

There are many ways a voter may decide how to judge the various London mayoral candidates. Some might think a candidate’s housing policy the key issue, for others maybe it’s transport. But what about whether they can play the ultimate London board game, Monopoly, or not.

Over the past couple of months my Metro colleague Sharon Lougher and I have interviewed the major candidates running for mayor. We’ve asked them about how they would tackle the housing crisis, what infrastructure London needs to cope with a growing population and what crime measures would be their focus. All agree housing is the key issue and many have found it difficult to separate it from transport, arguing that one can only be solved with work on the other.

But, while they might agree on the major issues, they disagree – particularly the leading candidates Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan – on their approaches to tackling the problems so voters are left with a genuine choice. 

To lighten the mood in an increasingly fraught contest, however, we also asked what their tactics are when playing Monopoly; which one would you trust to play the ultimate property board game and win?

Caroline Pidgeon
First up was Caroline Pidgeon. This crucial issue didn’t make the final edit in the paper, but her Monopoly tactics are to ‘buy the stations because they keep generating the revenue. Then I'd go for Mayfair’. Now, as a fellow transport enthusiast, I can only applaud the sentiment of wanting to secure the stations and I can understand the simple attraction of Mayfair. But, really, as a Monopoly tactic it is unlikely to prove a winner.

The full interview, where she talks about her transport plans, why Heathrow expansion should be stopped, how the Garden Bridge should be cancelled and Boris Johnson's legacy can be found here.

Sian Berry
Clearly, a fellow transport enthusiast, the Green Party candidate Sian Berry also said 'the stations!' when asked what she would target. You can read the full interview with Ms Berry here, where she talks about her plans to set up a renters' union across London to help private renters, getting rid of City Airport and the joys of Hampstead Heath.

Peter Whittle
Peter Whittle, the UKIP candidate, was at least honest about Monopoly admitting 'I've never completely understood the rules'.

'I used to make them up when I played my very impressionable sisters! For some reason I used to like the greens - Regent Street, Bond Street, Oxford Street. I thought they were attainable without being ostentatious.'

Bond Street is possibly a bit ostentatious these days and Regent Street, if not quite ostentatious, is certainly an advert for aspiration. But, regardless, it isn't a winning tactic for Monopoly. Peter Whittle's full interview, where he talks about tackling overcrowding in London, his love of the arts and meeting the Queen, is here.

Zac Goldsmith
Now, if there's one person who should know how to play Monopoly, it is Zac Goldsmith. He is, after all, almost wealthy enough to consider buying a space on a Monopoly board for real. Again, there wasn't enough space for the issue to make the final cut in the paper but he falls into the same trap as Caroline Pidgeon and Sian Berry.

'I would go for the train stations, to guard our precious transport infrastructure from Khan's £2bn blackhole.'

So, not a winning Monopoly strategy, but he's hoping with his overtly political answer to highlight again his major campaign theme that Sadiq Khan's plan to freeze transport fares for four years, if he becomes mayor, would blow a large hole in Transport for London's development budget. It's certainly a point of contention. Goldsmith talking of his love for Richmond Park, his plan to build houses and why Britain should leave the European Union can be found here.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan is another who really should have a grasp of how to play the game, being the son-of-a-bus driver, born and brought up in Tooting, as he's very keen to tell anyone that listens. And, it's pretty clear that he is practised at the game, as he replies:

'Buy early, and buy lots! Whether it's Old Kent Road or Park lane, buy, buy, buy.'

Finally, in the Monopoly stakes at least, a candidate has a potentially winning strategy. Whether he can win in London with his contested four-year freeze on fares and his affordable housing target of 50 per cent remains to be seen. For details on why he thinks those policies would work, and how he would like to step into a boxing ring with Barack Obama and that he definitely didn't woo his wife in McDonalds, see the full interview here.

Sophie Walker
But, an honourable mention also needs to be made for Sophie Walker, the leader and mayoral candidate for the Women's Equality party. Rather than engage in the competitive bluster of a Monopoly game, she pointed out what practical uses it can have. She said:

'I play with my daughter Grace, who has autism, and struggles with maths as well because she has dyscalculia. So when I play Monopoly my main strategy is to help her understand the value of the properties that she's buying and whether she can pay the mortgage.'

Here is someone with a sensible purpose for the game rather than one who wastes hours - albeit with sadistic glee - trying to bankrupt one's opponents. You can read more about the struggle for equal pay, trying to end violence against women and why Mary Wollstonecraft deserves a statue in London here.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The sins of one's father

One cannot atone for the sins of one's father. One cannot even atone for their accounting choices. I dare say that, gazing back through my family tree, among the many fine and upstanding people, several of the characters that feature would have done something of which I thoroughly disapprove. I imagine there was a racist, a bully, maybe a petty criminal and a blithering incompetent. There's little I can do about it. And I reckon I do things that will make my daughters in future roll their eyes in bewilderment.

I actually feel a bit sorry for David Cameron for this is the problem he now faces. He cannot undo the business decisions his father made and it must be very excruciatingly painful for him to see a figure he loved and so obviously admired to be hauled over the coals, especially as his financial arrangements were far from unusual and all tax owed - under the law - was paid. People claiming that Cameron has benefited from tax dodging are simply wrong. He hasn't.

Nothing illegal has occurred. That does not mean, however, that the prime minister hasn't made a series of terrible of mistakes that yet again leaves his judgement open to question. While the urge to defend the honour and privacy of one's father is a perfectly natural instinct, it is hard to imagine how it could have been handled more incompetently.

It is the end of yet another wretched week for the government and most of the problems are entirely self-inflicted. In his interview last night, yet again David Cameron said 'I don't have anything to hide', but it was the fifth statement on his financial affairs, having spent the week trying to dodge the question.

David Cameron was at pains to say Blairmore Investments wasn't set up to avoid tax. Yet, the 2006 prospectus for the scheme stated:

'The directors intend that the affairs of the fund should be managed and conducted so that it does not become resident in the UK for UK taxation purposes... the fund will not be subject to UK corporation tax or income tax on its profits'.

And it is noticeable that both the prime minister's £300,000 inheritance and £19,000 profit from Blairmore both happened to be just below thresholds above which tax would have been due.

Why also did Cameron sell his stake in January 2010? It surely cannot have been because he feared how it might appear if he were to win that year's general election, can it?

And while not strictly necessary under the rules, it is a noticeable omission from his Register of Interests after repeatedly asserting his transparency.

The claim that 'we are all in this together' also sounds particular hollow now and Cameron's criticism of others using offshore vehicles - such as Jimmy Carr - does appear at the very least foolish, if not hypocritical, now.

These are awkward questions which the prime minister may still face pressure to answer.

Oddly, though, they're almost irrelevant. The bigger issue is political competence. Lurching from self-inflicted wound to self-inflicted wound, the government currently gives the impression of being tired and out of ideas, much like John Major's administration after the disaster of Black Wednesday.

Consider the last few weeks. George Osborne's budget took three days to fall apart spectacularly. Jeremy Hunt is proving more unpopular at health than even Michael Gove at education and the junior doctors' dispute shows no sign of being over anytime soon.  Sajid Javid found himself on a jaunt in Australia when Tata was holding a crucial, and long expected, meeting on the future of the British steel industry. Even the EU pamphlet, while in many ways perfectly understandable, is a £9.3million invitation for a bit of internecine warfare.

One can only think that the most plausible explanation for this is the EU referendum. The government is chronically divided and is struggling to present an agreed voice on almost anything. We witness, on a ridiculously frequent basis, ministers within the same departments saying contradictory things - meaning that focusing and simply getting the basics right is very difficult to achieve.

The biggest danger for the government is that this image of incompetence might sway voters in the EU referendum. While it is fair to say neither side of the Brexit debate has covered itself with glory, no one wants to be on the same side as an incompetent and it always looks worse coming from a government. Voters might tick the box to leave the EU simply to give the government a bloody nose rather than because it's something they actually want to do.

Despite the ineptitude, however, any calls from Labour for Cameron to resign are way over the top and while the government does seem tired, it remains very hard to imagine a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn ready to step into the breach.

It is recoverable, of course. Cameron simply must shore up the team around him for currently he is receiving woeful advice. And if the Prime Minister wins the EU referendum - which still seems most likely - he will have the opportunity to shake up his cabinet, refresh it and try and push on; though it will be a struggle to keep all sides happy.

In the end, it does rather feel that the final days of the David Cameron era has arrived. If he loses the EU referendum he's a goner anyway, but if he wins he will at least have the opportunity to depart on his own terms.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's tea recipe

The Today programme is discussing tea recipes; here is Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's somewhat absurd tea making process:

That's all changed. Now, to make my tea, I need two good-sized mugs. I boil the kettle. The hot water goes into one mug first, stays for a few seconds so the mug is heated, then goes into the second mug. The tea bag goes into the first, hot, mug, boiling water is poured in, to within a couple of millimetres of the top, and the two mugs, one containing brewing tea, and the other containing hot water, are left to stand. After about five minutes, the mug of brewed tea is placed in the sink, where some new hot water (freshly re-boiled) from the kettle, is sloshed into it, so it overflows by about half a mug. This is to stop the well-brewed tea being too strong. The full-to-overflowing mug is now tilted a little bit, so it spills out enough tea to allow room for some milk.

Remember the second mug, full of the hot (now not so hot, but still quite hot) water that was used to warm the first mug? That is now emptied. The tea bag is fished out from the first 'brewing' mug, and placed in the bottom of the empty 'warm' mug, where a small splash of milk is poured over it. The effect of the hot tea bag, and still-warm mug, is to take the chill off the milk - and impregnate it with a mild tea flavour. To encourage both these objectives, the mug is picked up and swirled, put down for a few seconds, picked up and swirled again, and left to stand for a short while longer. The tea-coloured, warm milk is now poured from tea-bag mug to brew mug, which is given a stir.

The resulting colour is observed. A little more milk may be necessary, in which case it will go via the still-warm tea bag mug, into the brew mug. When the colour is exactly right, I will stir in exactly one rounded teaspoonful of golden caster sugar. The tea, which at this point is still far too hot to drink, will now be left to stand for at least five minutes, before a sip is attempted.

After that laborious process I'm not sure what time there would be for any other morning rituals. The full article can be found here:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Only chain stores of a certain size need apply

The one thing the team behind the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station have been very keen to stress – whether it ultimately turns out to be the case or not – is that they are not intending it to be just another luxury flat development. Yes, a studio flat may set you back £800,000 but, really, it’s a mixed development, they tell everyone they can find.

Following this theme then, they have just unveiled the first commercial tenants for the site and they are trying to reassure everyone it will not be just another identikit high street, at least not just yet anyway. Rob Tincknell, the chief executive of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, says he has been ‘approached by a number of big chains’ about leasing sections of the development but that they haveall been refused.

Instead, there will be Pedler – a sister branch to a restaurant in Peckham – the fourth Vagabond wine shop, a General Store (any relation to the hilariously hip and expensive General Store in Bellenden Road, Peckham?) and a new incarnation of Allens the Butchers, the lovely shop which once graced Mount Street in Mayfair for so many years before being forced to close by spiralling rents. (If you ever watched an episode of Poirot with David Suchet or Jeeves & Wooster with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and a scene required a butchers, it would be Allens that would feature.)

There will also be a fourth outlet of The CoffeeWorks Project and a fifth pub from the smart pub/restaurant chain Darwin & Wallace (for an idea of the sort of thing they might offer just look here). And there will be a Village Hall space run in partnership with the Battersea Arts Centre.

These all sound very good – I’m particularly pleased to learn Allens will have a high street presence once more though it will never match the sheer romance and beauty of its previous site where the butcher's block was curved by years of use and the window was full of hanging pig carcasses – but clearly chains aren’t banned. They just have to be chains of a certain size. It rather seems to me this trend was set by the refurbished St Pancras Station which, when it first opened to acclaim, eschewed major high street stores and set a model many now follow. It isn’t fairing badly at St Pancras, though, some may feel regrettably, there are two WHSmiths and two M&S stores there now.

Whereas for many years, people feared shopping area developments would tragically lead to a disappointing interpretation of Slough High Street, with every functional chainstore turning up for duty, now it seems developers are trying to ape more apparently edgy areas. It is more likely to be the hip streets of Shoreditch, Peckham and Brixton providing the inspiration these days. So, while we wait to see whether Battersea Power Station becomes yet another lonely enclave where the wealthy have placed their money to gather decent interest or a mixed residential community, the Battersea Power Station Company does deserve credit for trying to be thoughtful and imaginative in the commercial spaces at the site. They may still be small chains in glass-fronted stores but we're not bored of them yet. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Nanny George taxes our sugar

The sugar levy, the bouncing dead cat announcement by George Osborne in his latest budget, has had a curious gestation period. Despite being consistently called for by the health lobby for several years the government has been lukewarm at best towards the proposal. Here’s a quick rundown of the last couple of years:

In March 2014, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman made it clear David Cameron was opposed any plan to control the contents of food and drink.

‘What we are doing is working with the industry. You have already seen commitments from retailers and food manufacturers to reduce levels of salt, to remove calorie content and improve labelling, as well as public health campaigns by local authorities and the NHS.’

In May of the same year, despite the National Obesity Forum claiming a 'revolutionary' levy of 25 per cent slapped on fizzy drinks, chocolate and biscuits was needed to help the NHS - backed by Conservative life sciences minister George Freeman - Healthy Secretary Jeremy Hunt made it known no such charge would be applied as it would push up the cost of the weekly shop.

A Public Health England report, details of which leaked in October last year, said:

‘there is a role for a fiscal approach in reducing sugary drink consumption’.

But several papers reported that David Cameron had again blocked such a tax apparently after being ‘got at’ by interested parties in the food and drinks industry.

According to The Sun on October 22, 2015:

‘Sources say the PM sees it as a "blunt weapon” that would hit struggling families.
'But it emerged that last year Mr Cameron hosted lobbyists from Mars, Coca-Cola, Nestle and the major supermarkets.
‘Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, called it a "stitch-up". She claimed “You have to think he has been got at by an industry that does not want him to ‘tax its products’”.'

Then, in January this year The Times suddenly reported the tax was ‘back on the table’ only for it to be shelved again in February as food and drinks firms were apparently going to be given ‘one last chance to slash calories and portion sizes voluntarily’.

So, it rather begs the question why it has fallen to George Osborne - the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not the Health Secretary - to announce this latest u-turn in national health policy.

While the most obvious purposes of the plans may indeed be to tackle public health concerns and, more immediately, to distract from the grim growth forecasts revealed in today's Budget, could there be any other thoughts on Mr Osborne's mind?

I suppose it can't have had anything to do with wanting to reassert his potential leadership credentials after Boris Johnson stole a march unveiling his own 10p charge on all added-sugar soft drinks sold at City Hall's cafe in January this year. In a pointed speech, which didn't pay too much heed to any of the usual 'nanny state' klaxons, Mr Johnson said:

'I hope this initiative will allow us to raise awareness of the problem and encourage people to think about their diets'.

It is noticeable that duty on the adult vices of alcohol, despite the health problems it causes, remained frozen in Osborne's budget, but when it comes to the health of the country's children, Nanny George steps in. In caring terms, much to the delight of the health lobby and especially Jamie Oliver, George Osborne said:

'I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children's generation: I'm sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.'

Your turn Boris.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

If only there was some green space in London

'What if there was one place right in the middle of it all where we could all just slow down for moment, look up and see our London like we haven't seen it before'

The above is the question posed at the end of the new promotional video for the Thames Garden Bridge. And, indeed, watching the video, which, produced with Oliver Stone-style freneticism, portrays London as an unremittingly fast-paced urban brick and concrete jungle, one could certainly do with some spacious views of the Thames and a bit of leafy peace and quiet.

But, as some have noted, the video entirely ignores one of London's great assets, its beautiful and plentiful green spaces. The joys of Hyde Park, Regent's Park, St James's Park, Battersea Park, Crystal Palace Park, Hampstead Heath, Kelsey Park, Alexandra Recreation Ground, and every other green space in the capital are completely ignored. Likewise, all the walks and gardens along the Thames and the many picturesque bridges which command spacious views of the river.

Even Middle Temple Gardens and the surrounding Inns of Court, close to where the bridge is supposed to 'land' on the north bank and replete with some of the most remarkable buildings and green spaces in the capital, are overlooked. Is this because one of the express aims of the Bridge is to bring 'regeneration' to the North Bank and it wouldn't do to mention what jewels we already have - and what might be damaged - there?

Instead, the film suggests that only the Garden Bridge will provide relief from the chaos; and only the Garden Bridge will afford views of the river, glimpses of which are offered, as a final promise

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The smearing of Sadiq Khan


If one were to believe the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, if Sadiq Khan was to become Mayor of London, the capital would be under genuinely more threat from terrorism than if Zac Goldsmith wins the race for City Hall.

This threat would not emerge because Khan is going to drastically cut police numbers, or that, as a Muslim, Khan would suddenly allow extremists of the Abu Hamza variety to take to the street once more and peddle their dangerous views to vulnerable young men and women. No, it’s because London, according to Mr Fallon, needs a ‘candidate who can unite our city, not a Labour lackey who speaks alongside extremists, proving himself unfit to perform that role’. His attack has prompted today's Evening Standard headline to scream: 'Minister; Khan is unfit to be mayor'. People don't even need to read the paper for it to have an impact.

Michael Fallon is basically claiming Sadiq Khan is a terrorist sympathiser, on the basis that his former brother-in-law Makbool Javaid almost 20 years ago had taken part in events with the extremist group Al-Mulajiroun and whose name appeared on a fatwa in 1998 calling for a ‘full scale war of jihad’. Quite why Sadiq Khan should be responsible for his ex-brother-in-law’s long since abandoned views is not clear, especially as they haven't met for 12 years. Moreover, that Mr Javaid is now a partner in the legal firm Simons Muirhead & Burton – not obviously a harbinger of jihad - that he now repudiates those views and regrets his 'naivety' is buried. 

Khan has also faced criticism for appearing at rallies where extremists were in attendance including one in 2006, the Global Peace and Unity conference where, apparently, the black flag of jihad could be seen. That former attorney general Dominic Grieve and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg were also there has provoked less attention.

It is no surprise it is Fallon launching this attack on Khan; it was, after all, Fallon who said Ed Miliband would stab his country in the back like he had his brother during the general election campaign. But he goes much further than Zac Goldsmith has. The Tory candidate has accused Sadiq Khan of being a 'radical' - a loaded word in itself - and claimed a Labour mayor would inflict Jeremy Corbyn's experiments upon London. But, ultimately these can be considered part of the rough and tumble of a mayoral contest.

Fallon's words, however, have a deeply worrying undercurrent; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim inevitably makes them a smear. Whether they are true claims or not is irrelevant, mud sticks. That Sadiq Khan has long been a voice of moderation and been active at trying to tackle radicalisation counts for little it seems.

Having met and interviewed all the major mayoral candidates, all have appeared decent people, with a rich variety of ideas. Londoners do have a genuine choice at this election. Candidates are united that the housing crisis facing London must be at the top of the next mayor's agenda but each has a different approach. There are genuine gulfs of opinion between the two front runners, Zac and Sadiq. They disagree on affordable housing definitions and targets and transport fares. The public should be able to see these differences and vote accordingly and not have the debate muddied with ugly smear tactics.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Was Hunt's tweet just an accident?

Members of the cabinet aren’t stupid. They can’t be. They all, to a person, went to top universities, many succeeded in the private sector, all are millionaires in property terms at the very least. Yet on occasions, such as when Liz Truss makes a speech, it is hard to be totally convinced by their intellectual rigour. Another such moment is when Jeremy Hunt does something, like sending an entirely inappropriate tweet during an ongoing trial.

For today, it can finally be reported that Judge Mr Justice Coulson, sitting in the manslaughter case following the death, following an emergency caesarean, of Frances Cappuccini, ordered Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to remove the offending tweet which said it was a ‘tragic case from which huge lessons must be learned’. He posted it on the second day of the manslaughter trial of an NHS trust and locum consultant anaesthetist Errol Cornish. Her death was indeed a tragic case but the trial collapsed today (28/01/2016) after the judge found they had no case to answer. Judge Coulson said that Dr Cornish's actions were 'as far removed from a case of gross negligence manslaughter as it's possible to be'. In reference to Mr Hunt's tweet, Judge Coulson said: 

'It is highly inappropriate for anybody to pass comment which might be said to know the result of a trial before that result is known. I suppose, potentially, in a very serious case, it could be regarded as a contempt of court. I would hope that everybody would know that.'

And he blamed this inexplicable lapse on there being ‘no lawyers left in the House of Commons’ (there have been pieces on this such as here). It would seem that it is Jeremy Hunt himself who has huge lessons to learn.

But, one does not need to be a lawyer to know that commenting on an active case is completely unacceptable. It's really very basic legal knowledge; it is impossible to think Jeremy Hunt could not have known it is not something that is done, though it is worth pointing out that he is far from the only senior politician to have made such a rudimentary error. 

Jeremy Hunt has been a lucky politician. Most would have been brought down by the inappropriate closeness between himself and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation when he was Culture Secretary when he was supposed to be making the quasi-judicial decision on whether to allow the firm’s takeover of BskyB. He survived by the skin of his teeth and was moved to his current post of Health Secretary, succeeding the hugely unpopular Andrew Lansley, who was left bloodied by his wasteful and reckless top/down reform the NHS, the one the Conservatives had promised not to undertake. Rather than playing the role of a pacifier, Hunt has himself become extremely unpopular with the medical profession, especially in relation to the contract he has been trying to force on junior doctors.

While posting this tweet was a simple moment of stupidity by the Health Secretary, it does suggest he had other issues on his mind when he published the tweet. We have already seen his frankly dodgy use of statistics when it comes to weekend deaths in hospitals - by the editor of the British Medical Journal here and excellently covered by Buzzfeed here. One is inevitably left wondering whether Hunt was preparing to politicise the desperately sad case of Frances Cappuccini and use it as another stick with which to beat the NHS and push through further reforms.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Corbyn's cabinet chaos will be forgotten, Cameron's EU chaos won't be

Strange days in politics. On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn was supposed (or so we were led to believe) to be sacking Hilary Benn on the basis he rebelled against his leader during a free vote on whether a handful of British planes should occasionally bomb Daesh in Syria. On the other, we have the sight of a prime minister, suspending collective responsibility within the government, allowing ministers to campaign during the coming referendum either for or against staying within the European Union. Simultaneously, therefore, the government is abandoning any prospect of having a coherent EU policy ahead of a vote.

There is no doubt Corbyn’s handling of the reshuffle has been shambolic at best but in the grand scheme of things it is insignificant. David Cameron’s decision, however, has huge ramifications and he is running the very serious risk of placing himself in the unenviable position of being the prime minister who leads Britain out of the EU.

In 2006, Mr Cameron bemoaned how, while ‘parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, [the Conservative Party was] banging on about Europe’. Indeed, it has been the dominating item of discussion and division within the Tory Party now for more than 25 years. Cameron doesn’t like to admit it, but he didn’t want to hold a referendum on the matter at all. It was just the latest in a series of concessions offered to Eurosceptics within his own party to try and keep them vaguely disciplined and on-side. Cameron’s desire to reform the EU may be genuine – and, my word, a rather huge amount of reform is surely necessary – but he certainly doesn’t want Britain to leave the organisation.

The latest concession, however, means that Cameron's authority has been seriously dented - and probably not just on the EU either; ministers will surely be tempted to test the boundaries of collective responsibility on other matters too.

The Prime Minster will return from Europe, claiming to have successfully negotiated a new deal; he will recommend that his government, the opposition and voters should choose to tick the box that will keep Britain in the EU. No new deal, though, no matter how overarching and comprehensive, will satisfy the Eurosceptics within his own party - and we shall witness the spectacle of some of Cameron's ministers campaigning to leave the EU. The government will not have an agreed vision for the future of the country.

Speaking to the World at One, Ken Clarke, a veteran EU loyalist, compared Cameron’s position to that of John Major’s during his Maastricht battles in the 1990s.

‘It is just like John Major, who tried to put people in the cabinet to get them to be more loyal, found that it didn’t work, they all briefed against him and were openly disloyal…. David probably has been forced into it because one or two of them (ministers) are obviously already briefing the newspapers and have been for some time.’

Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that the polls currently indicate the Brexit campaign is losing. And, as we saw with the Scottish in/out referendum, voters are more likely to stick with the status quo rather than feel beguiled by the promise of drastic - but uncertain - change.

But, as pollsters and pundits saw at the General Election last year, predicting the minds of voters is especially hard at the moment. The Guardian recently reported that from the last 21 polls, 13 showed remaining in the EU in the lead, four gave quitting the EU a lead and four were tied. But, such is the overwhelming disenchantment with the major parties, voting against their wishes is terribly fashionable. It remains too close to call.

So, yes, Corbyn's discomfort is probably worth a brief click of the tongue at the wonder of it all, but ultimately, whatever happens to this shadow cabinet, the Right Honourable Mr Benn and others, it will be a mainly forgotten episode, perhaps an unfortunate footnote in a distressing time for the Labour Party. What David Cameron does in the coming weeks and months will have much more momentous consequences. What his decisions mean for Britain's membership of the European Union and, indeed, the long term future of the United Kingdom itself - as a vote to leave the EU may well trigger the SNP to force another Scottish independence referendum - has no chance of being forgotten whatsoever.