Friday 25 April 2008

25 April 2008

Politics really is a strange old business sometimes, isn’t it? I mean, it’s more than a year since the then Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the abolition of the 10p income tax band – so why did it take his dozy backbenchers so long to wake up?

True, a handful of people did see what was coming, but no one took much notice. Ming Campbell (remember him? Used to be leader of the Lib Dems) tried to draw attention to it; so did Frank Field; and so did the Institute for Fiscal Studies. A fat lot of good it did them.

And then suddenly, whoosh … the balloon goes up. The genius magician chancellor, who had his backbenchers whooping in delight when he reduced the basic rate of income tax from 22p to 20p, is now the ham-fisted, accident-prone Prime Minister who can’t seem to get anything right any more.

So I turned to two Labour MPs for elucidation. (They may not actually exist, these MPs, but if they did, I fancy they’d tell me something like this.)

First Labour MP: “Look, it’s pretty simple, really … I never understood a word of Gordon’s budgets, and I don’t know anyone who did, but cutting income tax by 2p sounded pretty good, even to me, and remember, this was when we were all just counting the days till we could get Tony out of Number 10 and turn over a new leaf. So I really didn’t bother too much with all the small print. But y’know, suddenly over the past month or so, I’ve been getting all these constituents writing to me and turning up at my surgery on Saturday mornings, and boy, were they angry. ‘What’s the point of a Labour government,’ they yelled, ‘if all it does is clobber the poor? There’s plenty of dosh for the dodgy banks, isn’t there, but none for us.’ Tricky, that, because I didn’t have an answer. And with local elections next week, well, we had to do something, didn’t we?”

Second Labour MP: “What did you expect, for God’s sake? I always knew Gordon would make a lousy PM … can’t see the wood for the trees, and much too fond of all those incomprehensible tax and credit schemes he keeps inventing. So incomprehensible that even he doesn’t understand them any more. Come on, we all know we’re going to lose the next election, so let’s get it over with. We’ve had a damn good innings, but Tony blew it in Iraq, and now it’s time for the other lot to have a go. And you’ve got to admit, it’s quite fun to see that big clunking fist get clunked itself for a change. The wretched man never took any notice of us when he was chancellor, but now he’s a PM in trouble, he’ll have to. If you think this week was messy, just wait. We’ve drawn blood, forced him to back down, and believe me, it feels pretty good.”

This is the third time in recent months that Mr Brown has had to undo part of a Budget. He unscrambled Alistair Darling’s capital gains tax reforms, which went down badly with the business world; he “clarified” his plans for taxing the non-doms (foreign nationals living in the UK but who are treated for tax purposes as if they aren’t here at all); and now he’s going to “compensate” young low paid workers and pensioners under 65 in ways which remain to be spelt out, so that they’re not out of pocket as a result of his decision to abolish the 10p tax band (which, incidentally, he himself had introduced, with much fanfare, in 1999).

As for the local elections next week, they won’t make happy reading for Labour, I suspect, although local election results rarely provide a clear picture. (Nor do snapshot opinion polls, necessarily, although today’s YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, showing the Tories with an 18 per cent lead, isn’t exactly a pretty picture for Labour.) If Boris Johnson wins the London mayoral election, it’ll be bad for Labour but a mixed blessing for the Tories (just watch the forced smile on David Cameron’s face as he congratulates the unpredictable Mr Johnson). And if Ken Livingstone does manage to hang on, Mr Brown will have to pretend to be delighted by the victory of one of the men he most hates in the Labour party (just ahead, probably, of Frank Field).

If I were Mr Brown, I might just be wondering if I should have called that general election last autumn after all. As I said, politics really is a strange old business.

Friday 18 April 2008

18 April 2008

Let’s try a little riddle: if GB loved TB, and TB loved GB back, where did that leave GB and GB?

I’ll give you a moment to think about it. Got it? Yes, GB is George Bush – oh, and Gordon Brown – and TB is Tony Blair. So we knew that Mr Bush and Mr Blair got on well together – stood “shoulder to shoulder” in fact – but as of last night we now know that Mr Bush also gets on well with Mr Brown.

This is more surprising than you might imagine. Last year when Mr Brown went to Washington, he seemed to go out of his way to keep his distance from President Bush. There was an unmistakeable chill in the air, and by all accounts the White House wasn’t amused.

Now, out there in the White House Rose Garden, it’s all lovey-dovey again. Mr Brown says Mr Bush is a “great leader”, that the world owes him a “great debt”. Mr Bush says much the same about Mr Brown – and refers in glowing terms to the “special relationship” between the US and the UK, which always brings the Foreign Office out in goose bumps. So I’m asking myself why all the cootchy-coo.

After all, Mr Bush will be gone in eight months. Why bother cozying up to a lame duck, particularly when you know the lads back home won’t like it a bit? No Labour leader gets bonus points these days for being nice to George W Bush, as Mr Blair knows only too well, and as Mr Brown surely knows too. As for Mr Bush, he doesn’t need to be nice to the new PM on the block, but maybe he thinks that nice warm words from the White House will generate equally nice warm words from Downing Street.

The answer, I think, is that Mr Brown, like Mr Blair, is convinced that a close UK/US relationship is essential if Britain is to be heard in the modern world. On things like climate change and global poverty, nothing much can be done without a green light from Washington. So whoever is in the White House, or in Downing Street, there’ll be cooing.

Mind you, Mr Brown didn’t see only the President-on-his-way-out. He also saw all three of the potential Presidents-on-their-way-in. As Mr Bush sagely remarked; “One of them is definitely going to win.” So it was 50 minutes each with Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain – and a steely determination not to betray any preference. (Here’s a little secret: I’m pretty sure that Gordon’s hoping Mrs Clinton wins, because he’s known and been close to a lot of the people in Team Clinton for years.)

It’s no small achievement, by the way, for the visiting leader of a mid-ranking European power to see the President and all three potential Presidents on the same day. The British embassy in Washington must have been doing some serious schmoozing …

And while we’re on the subject of Presidents, it’s the Pennsylvania primary next week, so maybe I should just point out a couple of things.

One, even if Mrs Clinton wins, which she probably will, Mr Obama will still be well ahead overall, and likely to remain there.

Two, because Mr Obama is now universally acknowledged to be the front-runner, he’s coming under much more pressure from the media. The Obama-Clinton TV debate this week was a bruising business for him, and he didn’t emerge in great shape. The “liberal elitist” label which both Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain are trying to stick on him could damage him.

And yet … if you look at the latest opinion polls, he still has a clear lead over Hillary Clinton among Democrats and Democrat sympathisers nationally – and he’s still neck and neck in the polls against John McCain.

Oh, and if you think US voters must be sick and tired of all this by now, you’re wrong. This week’s Clinton-Obama TV debate (it was their 21st so far this year) was watched by more people than either “Deal or No Deal” or “Big Brother” which were on at the same time.

Friday 11 April 2008

11 April 2008

MILAN: The former – and perhaps future – Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is known to voters here as Il Cavaliere. It means The Knight, and the image it conjures up is of a knight on a white charger racing to rescue a damsel in distress.

That damsel is Italy, which is in dire economic straits and once again looking for a saviour able to work miracles. Is Silvio Berlusconi that man? In the elections on Sunday and Monday, Italian voters will have a chance to decide. And I’m here to try to find out what it is about a man who is often described overseas (and not only overseas) in terms that portray him as little more than a corrupt buffoon that attracts substantial numbers of Italian voters.

Milan, where I’ve been for the past of couple of days, is the Berlusconi homeland. This is where he’s from, and this is where his support is strongest. “He’s one of us,” people here have been telling me. Yes, he’s had a hair transplant; yes, he’s had cosmetic surgery; and yes, at the age of 71 he still has an eye for pretty girls which has landed him in trouble with his wife. But – and this is much more important than any of the above – he is mega-rich, and he sells himself as the walking embodiment of the Italian dream. I can have the yachts, and the girls, and the glamour, he says – and so can you.

Silvio Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, and according to Forbes magazine, the 51st richest man in the world. He made his billions in property, the media, advertising, and insurance. He also owns one of Europe’s top football clubs, AC Milan. If a multi-billionaire can have the common touch, that man is Berlusconi.

I was here in Italy when he was first elected 14 years ago. Then, he was a fresh face in politics, offering a new start after an entire political class had been wiped out in a slew of corruption scandals. But Mr Berlusconi himself has gone on trial on at least six occasions accused of embezzlement, tax fraud, false accounting and attempting to bribe a judge. He has always denied any wrongdoing and has never been convicted.

Italian politics make Byzantium look like a children’s game. There are 177 parties registered to stand in the elections – no fewer than 10 were in the rickety left-of-centre coalition government headed by Romano Prodi which collapsed after less than two years in office. Mr Berlusconi’s party which used to be Forza Italia is now the People of Freedom. The left-of-centre party headed by the former mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni is called the Democratic Party. It has also been known as the Party of the Left, the Democratic Left, the Oak Tree and the Union. But I sense that you’re losing the will to live, so I’ll stop.

When I lived here back in the 1970s, the average length of a government’s life was eight months. Silvio Berlusconi lasted five years before narrowly losing in 2006. That alone makes him something special. But so too does his straight-forward way with voters: when a young woman asked him how he would suggest she could get on in life, he replied to the effect that she should find herself a rich husband – someone like his son, perhaps.

The opinion polls have been suggesting that Berlusconi will emerge the winner on Monday. But if it’s by only a narrow margin, he may be forced to go into a “grand coalition” with at least some of the parties of the centre-left. The trouble is that Italy needs radical reforms in both industrial and welfare policy – it is already becoming known as the “sick man” of Europe, and in economic terms has now fallen behind Spain, something that deeply offends Italian national pride.

The country that brought you some of Europe’s giants of the arts -- Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Verdi, Puccini, Dante and many, many more – is now losing its way and unsure of where it should be heading. This weekend, Italian voters have a chance to point the way forward. I’ll be on air tonight, Friday, and again on Monday, when I’ll be in Rome as the first results come in. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

Friday 4 April 2008

4 April 2008

BUCHAREST: I can’t help feeling that if Romania’s unlamented Communist president Nicolae Ceausescu were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave. Something like that, anyway.

His vast, hideous monstrosity, the House of the People (now less grandiloquently named the Parliament Palace), is draped in NATO banners. Yes, NATO, in Bucharest, a city that less than 20 years ago epitomised all that was rotten behind the Iron Curtain.

The building is reputed to the second biggest in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington. (People who know more about big buildings than I do say it isn’t – all I can tell you for sure is that it is definitely big.) And it’s where this week’s NATO summit is being held, which means that someone, somewhere has a finely developed sense of irony. Three thousand delegates, the same number of journalists – and still the place seems half empty.

As for NATO, well, it’s big, and getting bigger. It has 26 members now, including 10 which less than 20 years ago were in the Soviet bloc – and two more, Albania and Croatia, now accepted for future membership. Albania? I know, it’s hard to keep up sometimes.

The whole point about NATO, of course, is that it was founded as – and still is – a defence organisation. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which happens to have been signed exactly 59 years ago today, says: “An armed attack against one or more [members] shall be considered an attack against them all …” which is comforting if you’re a small, vulnerable nation with a large and powerful neighbour.

And on the subject of large and powerful neighbours, President Putin is here today (I’m writing this before we know what he intends to say) – the word is that he intends to be in a mood more mellow than melodramatic. Next month, he’ll become Prime Minister Putin, so he may also be in semi-valedictory mood.

NATO’s great achievement over the past 59 years has been to convince the US that its own security depends at least in part on Europe’s security. President Bush is keen to entice more and more former Soviet bloc nations into the NATO tent; but some of his European allies aren’t so sure that tweaking Moscow’s nose is such a great idea. But Mr Bush won’t be coming to any more NATO summits, so the feeling here is “Let’s wait to see who’s in the White House this time next year.”

First in Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan, NATO troops have gone into action “out of theatre”, which is soldier-speak for countries that aren’t NATO members. The thinking is that if NATO members’ security is threatened, either by the Taliban harbouring al-Qaeda, or by ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, NATO has the right to intervene. But Kosovo is still a big headache, and Afghanistan an even bigger one. Which means this is a pretty sombre summit.

And if you’re wondering why I haven’t said anything about Zimbabwe this week, it’s because the situation is still too volatile and confused to make any sense of. As soon as I think I can discern a likely outcome, you’ll be the first to know.

Next week, I’ll be in Italy to report on the elections there. It looks as if Silvio Berlusconi is on his way back again. I’ll be in touch …