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Monday 30 March 2009

A Unique Serving

The pub or bar, it is sometimes suggested, needs to continually re-invent itself to stay in business. Move with the times. Stay in the past and wither away.

It ain’t necessarily so.

Revisiting places gives two kinds of opportunities: finding new haunts, and seeking out old ones. So it was last week in Madrid.

The old area of the city north of Calle de las Huertas, home to many bars, restaurants and clubs, is not looking good nowadays. Many establishments have closed, and others seem quiet compared to the first time I visited back in 2001. But one bar, specialising in one tipple, and only one tipple, is standing room only.

At the north end of Calle de Echegaray, and with a frontage so narrow that to walk past too quickly might mean missing it altogether, is La Venencia. And here the drink is solely sherry. And that’s sherry as in Jerez, not some feeble fortified wine produced in the UK from imported concentrate.

Most punters stand at or near the bar: the measures are served along with a simple tapa – most recently of very green and very good olives – with the cost chalked up on the bar top. The clientele is a genuine mix of locals and tourists, young and old, male and female, singles and groups.

I can find only one word of warning: that La Venencia is more than moderately smoky. There has, I believe, been a smoking ban in Spain, but with the proviso of an opt-out. Allow smoking in Spain? Now there’s a surprise – not. So your shirt might have a tobacco aura the next day.

But the idea that cities are becoming uniform and bland, and that nothing stays the same, do not stand serious examination in this corner of old Madrid.

Class Act

The chamber of the House of Commons is small – too small, in fact, to comfortably accommodate all 650 MPs. This intimacy gets the protagonists close to one another. Compared to other parliaments and assemblies around the world, this place is a bear pit. Here, being on top of your brief is not an option.

And here it is that David Cameron is making his mark. Many see a nimble and spontaneous performer in him. I do not. Cameron has rehearsed to perfection, learnt his lines. The appearance of his anger at his Labour opponents is just that: this is faux anger, play acting – but it’s very good play acting.

The giveaway comes when his questioning technique is analysed. Whatever the answer from Pa Broon to Cameron’s first question, the second question has been prepared and is delivered regardless. Even the allegedly witty asides will have been scripted – supervised no doubt by Andy Coulson – so the Lord Myners jibe at Dennis Skinner wasn’t off the cuff, but the product of a “give me some ammunition to shut Skinner up” demand.

This is not to suggest that preparation is a bad thing. It is not. What is suggested is that Cameron as presented to the public is just that: a presentation for public consumption. And it is not a new idea: Blair was here first.

One thing that is genuine, however, is when the baying starts on the Tory benches, and anyone who has experienced even the most minor of public schools will recognise the attitude behind it. Here is the very real disdain for Brown and Labour: it is the sound of those who believe that they are born to rule – after all, it must be true as they had it drilled into them at school - and the oiky scholarship boy on the other side ought to know his place.

This is a key part of the Tory attack on Brown: they’re clever and sharp; he’s slow and stupid. Hence the swift Wikipedia edit to back up Cameron’s jibe on Titian: look Sir, the stupid boy over there can’t even get his dates right!

Anyone needing confirmation of the Tory attitude need look no further than the comments by MP Mark Field over Jacqui Smith’s expenses: “If she doesn't recognise that I think she's really a bit too stupid to be Home Secretary” he says, reported by the BBC here.

Some commentators talk of class war in politics. On the subject, I agree with them. It is on identifying the class waging the war that we diverge. And to the Tory party’s attempts to deflect the class issue, and shed its less agreeable past attributes, I will return.

Sunday 29 March 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

The comparison I’m about to make will not make comfortable reading for politicians and planners in the UK, mainly because the shortcomings of the British approach have not gone away over the years. Here is what happened in two large, proud and thriving cities a thousand miles apart: Manchester and Valencia.

In the 1980s, both cities had a number of local rail services which came close in to the city centre, but didn’t serve the very heart of the city. In both cities, there were proposals to join the lines up using cross-city tunnels. In Valencia it happened; in Manchester, the tunnel didn’t happen, and Metrolink came instead. And here’s the problem. Valencia also brought in trams running at street level, but the tram and metro lines were entirely separate. Manchester’s Metrolink tried to be both metro and tram.

The result, in Manchester, is a solution done on the cheap. Metrolink crosses the city centre on the level, like a tram, but uses the high platforms it inherited from the rail routes that run out to Altrincham and Bury. So the city centre is strewn with elephantine street furniture to accommodate it. Also, the recently opened extension of the system to Eccles has the tracks leaving the public roadway to go into “refuges” at stops, requiring a wait at traffic signals to get back into the traffic. Progress is slow, and this in turn encourages deregulated buses to run in competition.

The lesson – that you either run a smaller version of a proper railway with high floor vehicles, or a street tram with low floor ones, but never mix them – has not been learned in Manchester, where extensions to Metrolink look set to continue the ideas that make the Eccles extension slow, and open to being picked off by the bus bandits.

Nowhere else in the UK has introduction of modern light rail systems copied the Metrolink template. Sheffield, Birmingham, Croydon, Nottingham – all have used partly or wholly low floor trams. The only scheme to use high floor vehicles is the Tyne and Wear Metro, which – surprise, surprise – runs as a smaller version of a proper railway, and underground in Newcastle city centre. Even then, the system has an image problem: the impression is given that it’s not safe to ride, especially at night. Who’s behind this? No prizes there: the bus bandits who’ve set up competing bus services.

Manchester’s Metrolink may start further expansion soon, but so much waits on the government in Westminster. Meanwhile in Valencia, another cross city tunnel is going ahead to accommodate further expansion of the now thriving metro system. The Valencianos have the commitment, Spain’s regional policy means that the decision making process does not wait on what Madrid thinks – and bus deregulation does not apply.

Thus the tale of two cities.

Eddie’s Balloon Filler

Another free paper arrives on the doormat. In Crewe you get at least two of them a week: occasionally I see the delivery bod and say hello. They’re agreeable folk, but on one subject they’re not for moving: one copy of what they’re delivering is going through your letter box, whether you want it or not.

And last week, we had the face we see too often, with the headline we know won’t result in anything changing. Once again, it’s Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy), and he tells us it’s “Time to get Tough”.

On “yobs” this time, so the thinly veiled reheated press release tells us. There will, in the new Tory utopia, be no more namby-pamby “moving on” of these people. The police will instead escort them to the nearest cop shop, where “new curfew orders could ‘ground’ persistent troublemakers at night after school hours”. Also there would be more “robust” enforcement of the licensing laws. And, guess what, there’s the old chestnut about “cutting police paperwork and bureaucracy”.

Call me sceptical, because I am sceptical. What’s the difference between a Labour ASBO and an all new Tory “Curfew Order”? And what about the ones who aren’t at school? And just what lies behind the present level of police paperwork? Here’s something I found on the Home Office website:

Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and accompanying Codes of Practice

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and the PACE Codes of Practice provide the core framework of police powers and safeguards around stop and search, arrest, detention, investigation, identification and interviewing detainees.”

Just exactly who was prime minister in 1984? Margaret Thatcher. So if Eddie, and any of the other Tories who love to rabbit on about “paperwork and bureaucracy”, are suggesting that their own legislation was wrong, how about they say so straightforwardly and unequivocally?

And, Eddie, when you’ve figured that one out, tell us how you’re going to pay for this. Don’t forget that you’re releasing this attempt to sound tough at the same time as Council Tax bills – with the police charges itemised – are, like the free paper, dropping onto doormats across the constituency.

Because, until and unless you stop flannelling and start doing (I will return to the growing list of areas where Eddie is doing either very little or nothing at all later), then all you’re producing is more balloon filler.

And that’s just hot air.

Buyer’s Market

Car production in the UK is down substantially on the same period last year. Partly we’re not surprised: temporary plant closures have been well signposted, and with a plant closed, there is no production. But what is spooking some is the idea that large numbers of the motoring public can so easily defer – perhaps for a long time – that new car purchase. We had recessions before – why didn’t this happen then?

I saw two MGBs yesterday. So what, you might say. Ah well. This is something exceptional – had I seen two Golfs or Fabias, there would have been no point in the mental note. But seeing products of the 60s and 70s still out and about is unusual, even cars like the MGB with its large following of enthusiasts (aficionados?). And the MGB was more solidly put together than many of its contemporaries.

In those times, you couldn’t defer car replacement for long. The thing would ultimately have fallen apart. The engines didn’t last as long as today, maintenance was progressively more expensive, and bodywork rotted, sometimes seriously and often dangerously. Then there was the concept of “this year’s model”.

True, that idea was something that was honed by the real Mad Men and preached to the target audience in the USA more than in the UK, but the cars there also rotted away, and few lasted more than five years. Those few included the VW Beetle, something celebrated briefly by Woody Allen in his film Sleeper. But regular replacement became an entrenched norm.

Meanwhile, car build quality improved. And it improved not only in the Volkswagen plants. Progressively higher safety standards drove stronger vehicles, and more strength meant more metal. More metal then treated to keep its integrity longer meant less rotting. Engine technology also improved to give better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs – and longer life.
So, by the end of the millennium, routine car replacement was still done, but did not need to be done.

Thus a plethora of new models, or niche variants of models, available to give us more choice, appeal to our vanity, and most of all keep us buying. Then came the downturn, with more and more motorists forced to prioritise their outlays.

If you haven’t got the money, and you aren’t going near the idea of borrowing it, then no end of advertising, flash televisual promotion, or peer pressure will move you. The car can manage another year. Or two. Or more.

Thus the fall in demand. And if the punters aren’t buying, why keep producing?

Speak up Nick!

One little discussed element of Crewe and Nantwich concerns the Liberal Democrats, and it needs addressing by “Shagger” Clegg and his team in swift order if they are to have any chance of holding their ground at the next General Election.

Despite the best efforts of Chris Rennard, and the presence of World’s Most Agreeable Politician (tm) Vince Cable, Lib Dem candidate Elizabeth Shenton made little impression on the contest. Swing voters went for Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy) and the Tories romped home.

With an increasingly red-top style to Tory campaigning (see earlier post “How the Tory approach works”), and Labour turning their efforts to countering it, there is a real risk that the Lib Dems will struggle to make themselves heard. And if they repeat the Kennedy business in any way, they won’t even struggle.

Let’s consider the Lib Dems since the 2005 Election.
At that election, they won 62 seats. More even than the 58 won by David Lloyd George in 1929, after he had been prevailed upon to open his wallet a little wider (actually, the Liberals won 59 seats that year, but the member for Shipley jumped ship straight afterwards). Ten times as good as the dark days when Jo Grimond carried the flame of Liberalism with perhaps five others.

So what did the Lib Dems do to show off their good fortune? They dumped the unfortunate Charles Kennedy, rather than rally round him at a time of personal difficulty. They looked to have caught Big Party Disease (tm), but they weren’t a big party. Signs of delusional behaviour?

How do the electorate respond to a party fighting like ferrets in a sack? They treat them like Siberia – everyone knows where it is, but nobody wants to go there.

When the next General Election comes round, there is the strongest chance since 1929 of a hung parliament – although this comes with a big if: that chance only remains strong if Corporal Clegg can knock some discipline into his motley platoon and at least retain those 62 seats.

And make himself heard.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Bandits at Twelve O’Clock!

Integrated Public Transport? Don’t make me laugh. There was only one certainty the moment John Prescott made that utterance: it wasn’t going to happen. Moreover, the actions of the previous Tory government made damn sure it wasn’t.

The most basic PT offering, seen in all towns and cities across the UK, is the humble omnibus. Yes, buses. Your reaction to this word will vary, depending on whether you live in London or elsewhere. Why so?

Because the Thatcher government deregulated the industry – but not in London. The concept, like the reviled Poll Tax later, was initially trialled on the unfortunate Scots. It was spun to the public as the bringer of choice: Thatcher and Co had been prevailed upon to ditch much of Milton Friedman’s quack doctory, but the C word was seemingly sovereign. Also, the National Bus Company would be broken up, and this, together with forcing the selling off of operations in the former Metropolitan Counties, would encourage competition among a greater number of smaller operators.

The number of companies didn’t, however, stay small for long. Soon, they were consolidating into much larger companies. And now there are just five significant players in the industry. Count them: Arriva, First, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach. The term – who coined it I’m unsure – “bus bandits” was born: nobody who has seen the way in which these companies gain and hold territory can argue that it is less than richly deserved.

And the popularity of that humble omnibus two decades on from the act of deregulation? Again, this depends on whether you’re in or out of London. In the capital, bus ridership has increased by well over 40%. Outside London, it’s fallen by a not dissimilar amount.

So why not have a system like that in London all over the country? Ah well. Today’s bus bandits are now publically quoted companies. Their shares are nice little earners for City institutions. The London system restricts operating margins to less than 7%, as against the double digit returns that are brought in elsewhere. So such a system would dent the share price, though not put any of the big five out of business. Make such a suggestion and the defence mechanism of the bus bandits comes to life, spinning in their favour and denouncing those who suggest change.

And why didn’t London have to suffer deregulation? The thought occurs that the capital was one place where to do so may have risked alienating a significant number of Tory voters. In any case, the real reason for deregulation was nothing to do with choice. Alfred Sherman, bless him, let the cat out of the bag: it was just another way to break trade union power.

A Question of Judgment

Much of my attention is turned to the Tories, and for this I make no apology: these are the Men Who Would Be Kings. The probing of their character, motivation, principles and judgment not merely should, but must, be a pre-requisite for any potential government.

That, however, does not mean that the party of the medium-term, prudent, responsible and sustainable defender of the colour Broon gets a free ride. They, too, must expect scrutiny.

Back at the turn of the millennium, my opinion of Gordon Brown was revalued downwards, and has not recovered: this, as I suspect will be the case with many freelances, was over IR35. But this is as nothing to the disquiet I feel at Pa Broon’s trimming to the agenda of the Daily Mail, and its legendarily foul mouthed editor Paul Dacre.

Dacre is a figure that, the more I discover, the more loathsome I find him. His recent rant against Mr Justice Eady, where he managed to play bully, coward and hypocrite in rapid succession, reinforced my opinion superbly. Any Prime Minister would, surely, keep such a person at arm’s length? Why bother?

The answer, not surprisingly, depends on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. From the Broon end, it’s the thought that, in a potentially tight General Election, the encouragement of the Mail, or at least its failure to root for the Tories, could make the relationship worthwhile. From the Dacre end, it’s straightforward vanity: that the Prime Minister of the day seeks his opinion. This proves his continuing influence.

Both, I would suggest, are wrong. The power of the press to influence elections diminishes over time, and at best is marginal. Ken Livingstone was shafted just as much by Labour’s general unpopularity, and his own reluctance to soften his approach, as by the Standard. The Sun’s claim over the 1992 defeat of Neil Kinnock conveniently forgets the way the Tories made John Smith’s “shadow budget” a hostage to fortune, and their “red smoke” stunt in 2005 emphasises not so much their influence, as the plain fact that Michael Howard was not electabell.

Both should realise this: Brown will forever regret the plainly daft utterance of “British jobs for British workers” – over which the Mail duly poured an industrial strength quantity of scorn – and Dacre should remember the night of the 1997 General Election, where the terrible realisation hit home: there he was, seeing the Tories ship seat after seat, and concluding in disbelief “What the f*** is going on? Those are Daily Mail readers!”

As Harry Callahan once concluded, a man’s got to know his limitations.

Monday 23 March 2009

Lost and Found in Translation

More and more variously unfortunate folks are discovering the joys of scanning the job adverts.

If, as I am, you’re of A Certain Age – significantly north of 35, that is – you’d be well advised to understand what the various agencies and employers are actually saying in those adverts. It’ll hack you off. But it will also save you a lot of valuable time.

You see, I’m a freelance – so by definition I look at the job adverts rather more often than your average salaried staffer. Also I get to do more interviews, a privilege that is most definitely more dubious as the years pass. But the feedback can be useful, as well as hacking you off (again).

Here’s a little advert and interview speak translated:

“We want someone bubbly” – not even up to age 35. More like 20: further, the money’s probably crap.
“It’s a fast paced environment” – over 35s can forget it.
“Pressurised environment” – hint: it’s not about aircraft. More ageist drivel.
“You’ve got so much experience” – you’re being told you’re past it.
“Too much experience” – too old.
“Overqualified” – guess what? Yup, too old.

There are, no doubt, more examples of thinly veiled ageist tosh going the rounds. So I may revisit this subject, although not too often. Wouldn’t want to find myself overqualified.

Three Penny Bits

1: Why does anyone in the UK rate Lynton Crosby?

As one of Michael Howard’s peepell, all he got the Tories was ridicule over their campaign slogan, and much accusation of closet racism.

He may have had success in Australia, but the rule that applies to the USA must be considered: just because they speak a form of English doesn’t make us identical or even similar.

For starters, the UK would never have elected a Prime Minister who looked like a refugee from a Dilbert cartoon.

2: Oh yeah?

Yesterday’s appearance on the Andy Marr show by William ‘Ague included the reheating of another Tory chestnut: keep saying something and someone might believe you.

Young William told that administrative costs under the present government had “mushroomed”.

As someone who remembers “Shagger” Major telling us that “ ...of course, British Rail is deeply inefficient”, the first question that enters is straightforward: got any figures to stand that one up, Master ‘Ague?

No, thought not.

3: Slant at the Beeb

The thought that a less than representative number of Tory guests have been appearing on the BBC’s Sunday politics shows has been doing the rounds, typically voiced by Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he).

Oh, I dunno. Andy Marr had Carole Vorderman on recently. No, stay with me on this. I’m not being flippant. Ms V (and others like Ms Kirstie Relocation) have taken the Cameron shilling. They come from a background of undemanding shows, they’re smart and agreeable, and still carry a little authority.

Think of it this way: who would the average swing voter prefer to see on Andy Marr’s sofa – Fat Ken, Dominic Grieve, John “live long and prosper” Redwood, or Ms Vorderman?

Stealth introduction of alternative cat skinning technology shock horror!

Sunday 22 March 2009

Search Me. Again

In the name of “Security”, we the people are apparently prepared to put up with a great deal of inconvenience, and particularly so before being awarded the dubious privilege of being packed together into an aluminium tube, kept aloft by wings filled with paraffin, simply to get from A to B that much quicker.

You know the drill. In the tray: jacket, belt, keys, mobile, coins (although this varies with the airport concerned) and anything else potentially metallic. Hand luggage must not contain liquids or pastes except in clear plastic bags. You tolerate it just the once; then on the return journey you tolerate it once more.

Unless, of course, your journey involves more than one flight. Then you have to tolerate the whole procedure again. Transit passenger or no.

My first experience of this double exasperation was en route to Rome last June. There are few direct flights from the North West to the Eternal City – no doubt the Southern snobberati would say we’re provincial and uncultured – so I flew via Zürich. Swiss do a good job directing you around Zürich Airport, but there it was between me and the gate – belt off, coins, mobile, keys.

Perhaps this was a Swiss idiosyncracy? Oh no it wasn’t. Transiting Paris CDG over the New Year was worse. Checks yet more aggressive. I counted myself lucky to have been allowed to keep my shoes on.

So be warned. And consider this: the longer we all put up with it, the longer it will carry on. Regardless.

It’s A Team Game

Anyone watching Manchester United lose to Fulham yesterday should know that there is a lesson for politicians everywhere in their performance: lose your discipline and you’re dead. Talent, training, application – all are useless if your team doesn’t keep together. Man U finished the game with only nine men; arguably they were lucky that it wasn’t eight.

That lesson has clearly been taken on board by the Tories. Today’s Andrew Marr Show featured an appearance by a very disciplined William ‘Ague, giving the Shadow Cabinet line with no frills or flamboyance added. This performance explains why David Cameron has given a mere grammar school boy the number two slot. Young William can be relied upon to focus on the approach and the message. The Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth baronet, may not.

Could the Tories carry this discipline into government? The cabinet of the sustainable, medium-term, prudent defender of the colour Broon try their best, having learnt the same lesson as the Tories. But it’s not easy, as all the so-called “briefings” show. Especially over the succession question: one moment the rumour mill has young Millibroon about to wield the knife, this dies down and is later succeeded by the frankly potty idea that Hattie will take over.

Thus the additional lesson for the Tories. It’s one thing being a disciplined team when you’re in opposition, but something of an order of magnitude bigger once you get hold of the levers of power. Cabinets leak – Blair’s did, although often at the deliberate behest of Alistair Campbell. And it would be easier to talk about when Major’s cabinet didn’t leak – you might have blinked and missed it.

To find a leak-proof cabinet, you have to go back more than a generation, to Sailor Heath’s Tories in the early 70s. The loss of discipline they suffered was elsewhere: they changed tack in the face of rising unemployment, leaving the economy for Wislon to sort out, much as their Tory predecessors a decade before. Back in 1964, it did not take long for Jim Callaghan to find out that when Reggie Maudling said “sorry to have left things in such a mess”, he wasn’t talking about the furniture.

Moreover, the idea that the Tories bequeathed a uniformly healthy economy to allegedly “New” Labour in 1997 ignores slow burning problems to which, as someone who majors occasionally with things transportation, I will return.

Friday 20 March 2009

Aficionados Anonymous

Um, as this is my first AA meeting, erm, I’d like to say [sniff] to you all, um, that [scratch] my name’s Tim, and, erm, I’m a Railway Enthusiast.

There, I said it.

Do I have ... ? No, I don’t have an anorak. Nor do I write numbers in a book (or, as most spotters do in these technologically advanced times, dictate them for later). Nor do I favour spam butties, or whatever current caricatures suggest.

Nor do I have any leaning towards terrorism, or any other form of violent disruption.

But I do have a camera. Two cameras, actually: there’s one in my mobile phone. For some authority figures, this makes me a deeply suspicious quantity.

Actually, the rail industry tries to be well disposed towards enthusiasts, but too many individuals take it on themselves to make up their own rules. Hence the proliferation of Data Protection Act excuses, and the supposed imposition of “New Security Levels”. Both of these fall into the category of Industrial Strength Drivel (tm), but if the person making them up has the say so on your snapping away, it’s tough luck.

And it isn’t just railways. Try taking out your digital compact in one of today’s Wonderful Shopping Experience Complexes. The security goons can’t keep the lid on all the folks snapping each other on their mobiles, but, hey, they have “intellectual property” to defend – and are paid only enough to follow their orders. Cuts out thinking, as Harry Palmer once observed.

As for anything to do with Government ... perhaps someone will see sense soon after the first Japanese tourist gets summarily banged up and thereby precipitates an international incident.

This contrasts with the approach taken in a number of other EU States. The former East Germany, until 20 years ago a totalitarian state, doesn’t bat an eyelid at rail enthusiasts with cameras. Portugal – for decades the dictatorship of the Novo Estado, ruled over by the less than benign Premier Antonio de Oliveira Salazar – is nowadays equally accommodating.

What is our problem?

Postscript: the day after I put my first draft together, a retired accountant was stopped, on supposed security grounds, from videoing the arrival of a train at Macclesfield station. The station staff later dug themselves in deeper by refusing permission for BBC North West Tonight to film there. Macclesfield is run by Virgin Trains, who run several other stations where enthusiasts snap away without staff intervention. Apparently the punter concerned was using a tripod, and had plonked it in the middle of the platform, which would not have helped his cause. But the citing of “security” along with the supposition of potential terrorism is disturbing.

[For those wondering about the use of the term “Aficionados”, this is how “Enthusiasts” translates into Castellano (yes, even the Spanish are lightening up). I quite like being an Aficionado]

Gideon and the Wrong Bible

Ultimate embarrassment for Gordon Brown and all around him: he brings back Peter Mandelson into the cabinet, and out comes the story of how Mandy was allegedly slagging off the stalwart defender of the colour Broon across the blue and white tablecloth of a Corfu taverna.

And to whom was the slagging off being told? Step forward the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, and Shadow Chancellor.

In the course of my business I encounter few politicians, but have seen Osborne in the flesh. And he is an instantly dislikeable fellow. Fortunately, in the constituency of Tatton, he has found an electorate who will vote Tory, despite the candidate. This was, after all, for many years the seat of one Mostyn Neil Hamilton.

So it was with some pleasure that I – and no doubt many others – saw Osborne getting both barrels from Nat Rothschild over an abuse of hospitality. Rothschild was most forthright about Osborne’s alleged soliciting of a donation from “king of aluminium” Oleg Deripaska. Osborne angrily denied the mere suggestion; Rothschild stood firm.

But Osborne wouldn’t have dumped on Mandelson if he thought that the process would end with his suitability for high office being questioned. What made him think that young Nat would keep schtum?

Ah well. Rothschild and Osborne were at Oxford together. Moreover, they were both in the Bullingdon Club. And a Buller Man, well, it’s just not done – a Buller Man would never rat on another Buller Man, would he?

Here, if you ever needed to know, is why David Cameron is leader of H M Opposition, and Osborne is merely Shadow Chancellor. Osborne isn’t daft: I reckon he’s the sharper of the two – but it was Cameron that took the First and Osborne the Upper Second. Cameron is the one who thinks it all through, prepares better, acts more convincingly (something to which I will return).

Also, Cameron may be easily as ruthless an operator as Osborne, but the electorate first see at least an attempt to be likeable. They wouldn’t see that in Osborne, and thereby lies the problem for the Tories: Cameron could get them elected. Osborne couldn’t. The heir to Blair doesn’t have a spare.

So they’ve got an awful lot riding on young Dave.

Thursday 19 March 2009

One in the Eye

The one postal delivery of the day is made, and proof that Royal Mail still perform a useful function comes in the shape of Private Eye (we’re now on issue 1232, folks).

On the cover is another attempt to lighten up by the steadfast, sustainable, medium term defender of the colour Broon; away from the cover the mag is still mainly monochrome, as it was back in the 70s when I first became a regular reader.

The content is variable in its usefulness – those who know one end of The Railway from the other have long ago given up on seeing much more than newsgroup reheats and Branson bashing in “Signal Failures” – but every so often it gets the stories out that others miss, or would rather not pursue. It gets under the skin of politicians, business folk, slebs and all the hangers-on: this has in the past endangered its survival.

Indeed, at the time I first read the Eye regularly – the staff at the newsagents near my (then) work let me pay for it using Luncheon Vouchers – it was being pursued by the deeply unpleasant James Goldsmith in an action which, had it carried on, would have seen it close, with the possibility of then editor Richard Ingrams going to Jail.

Fortunately, Goldsmith’s vanity defeated him: he wanted to become a Press Baron (tm) and it was made clear to him that closing down the Eye would not help any attempt to buy out a national newspaper. In the event, he failed to get hold of a national daily, instead founding the weekly news magazine Now!

To the delight of the Eye and its supporters, Goldsmith’s mag soon sank without trace, and he had to make do with the consolation prize of a knighthood from Wislon. But it was a damned close-run thing.

I never did warm to Goldsmith, not even when he helped see off “Shagger” Mellor in 1997. But I still value my subscription to Private Eye. Hopefully others feel, and more still will come to feel, the same way.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Crewe and Nantwich: Not Really Momentous

After the last departure of the politicos, hacks and hangers-on, and the settling of the dust, the question remains unanswered: just how exceptional a victory was this for David Cameron’s New Model Tory Party, and its candidate Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy)?

So I’ll answer it. And my short answer is that it wasn’t exceptional at all. I’ll go further: for the Tories not to have taken the seat would have been exceptional.

But, hang on, the average hack might say, we saw the terraced houses and the cheap takeaways – this is a solid working class constituency, right?


The Tory campaign painted it that way, and with good reason: if they fouled up, it could be spun as an unwinnable seat. In charge of the opposition was the circumferentially challenged Eric Pickles, the Karl Rove of the Tory party. Fat Eric would not have even thought of pitching in to the fight without doing his homework properly.

Pickles would have ventured beyond the area between the railway station and the town centre – all that many hacks saw – to see that there was plenty of natural Tory support, and most significantly, plenty of potential swing votes. The hacks could have figured this in one: turn left outside the station on to Nantwich Road and keep straight on. The shops and terraces give way to larger houses within a kilometre. Or, having reached the town centre, carry on northwards. Again, the terraces give way to larger housing, much of it recent build. Or visit Nantwich, or one of the outlying villages.

How many did that? Michael White of the Guardian didn’t even check out all of the town centre. I figured this as he said, hearing that its partial redevelopment was a potential issue, that it didn’t look at all bad. This meant that he didn’t go near the bus station, although to avoid Crewe bus station is a sensible move. Parts of some towns you would do well to avoid at night; Crewe bus station you should avoid period.

But, as Clive James might have said, I digress. Let’s look at some figures.

The Crewe and Nantwich constituency was first contested in a General Election in 1983 (Gwyneth Dunwoody had previously been MP for Crewe). Labour won – but only just: the majority was 290.

Dunwoody got the majority into four figures in 1987 – but, again, only just. By 1992 she had increased it to almost 2,700. Not exactly rock solid.

Only in 1997 did Labour score a five figure majority, and here the Tories were caught in the perfect storm: not only did they lose badly all over the country, in Crewe the selling off of the rail industry and the effect on the Railway Works had hit the town hard.

In 2001, and again in 2005, Gwyneth Dunwoody’s majority declined. And, of the just over 7,000 2005 majority, there may well have been some who voted for her, but might not be natural Labour folk.

Still wavering? Consider these numbers.

In 1983, the Tories’ national share of the vote was just 42.4%; Labour got 27.6%. Labour scraped Crewe and Nantwich by 290 votes.

The week before the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich byelection, a YouGov survey gave the Tories 45% versus 25% for Labour.

As I said, the result of the byelection wasn’t exceptional at all.

Bung Us Another Eight Quid And You Get A Seat

Most of the stories about low cost airlines are about Easyjet and Ryanair. This should be no surprise: most low cost flights are provided by Easyjet and Ryanair. But the idea of having an itemised extra charge for your seat isn’t a Michael O’Leary wheeze. So who’s the clever little soul behind this?

Or perhaps I should have said clever tiny soul, because this faintly daft concept comes to you courtesy of BMIBaby (the airline with allegedly tiny fares). I kid you not: try doing a booking through their website (that’s www.bmibaby.com, folks).

Why? Ah well, there is, as ever, method in this particular madness. Unlike Easyjet and Ryanair, who don’t allocate seats, BMIBaby let you choose your seat from a plan of the aircraft (a less than pristine Boeing 737-300, as I found out later) – and if you want more legroom, ker-ching! – that’s extra. But it’s still eight quid for starters.

Even then, BMIBaby aren’t done with you just yet. You take the least cost route and opt for online check-in when booking? With someone like Easyjet you can do both outward and return check in there and then. Not BMIBaby. You have to wait until 48 hours before departure, and that’s for both legs of your trip. So if you won’t have internet access while away, either you find an internet cafe, or that’ll be an extra charge at the airport because you didn’t check in online within the window offered.

Yes, BMIBaby are a mere tiddler compared to the big fish of the low cost ocean. But that doesn’t stop this practice being well out of order.

How the Tory Approach Works

It starts with the advisor. In the case of the Tories, it’s Andy Coulson.

Who he? Coulson was once editor of the News Of The World – until his departure, following the revelation that, on his watch, hacks had been engaging in acts of forthright criminality. This minor CV blemish has clearly not phased David Cameron. Well, not enough to put him off having Andy in his team.

How many stories do you get on the front page of a red-top tabloid? One. Sure, there may be teasers for other stuff, but there’s only one big story. As for the red-top, so for the Tory Approach. There’s only one story, one target, one person responsible for all our ills. Step forward Gordon Brown.

This, simply, is the substance of the Tory Approach. Revenue and Customs mailroom blunder? Brown personally responsible. Baby P? Brown bang to rights. Oil price hike? Brown to blame – heck, the man doesn’t even drive, so he’s doubly culpable.

Now, the idea that Brown is somehow a more calamitous presence than a cross between Frank Spencer and Jacques Clouseau may sound ridiculous. Indeed, it is ridiculous. But in a time when you’ve had a party in office for over a decade and the economy is turning down, hurling enough dirt may cause more and more of it to stick. And if the assault is continuous enough, voters may not have enough space between attacks to think. Tabloid editors know that it’s not a good thing to let the target audience think.

This coin, as you’d expect, has another side: perhaps, if Brown were not there to play the target, the Tory approach could be more easily countered? Change the leader, and all would be well. Perhaps it was this thought that emboldened Hattie Harperson, or, if the subsequent denials are to be believed, didn’t.

Or perhaps Hattie just suffered a personal disruption in the area of the Vanity-Reality Continuum.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Airside Upside

Restrictions on carry on luggage seem only a little daft.

Aerosols? No way guv, we've all seen Live And Let Die.
Mouthwash? Yaw kidding, you might be Arthur Brown.
Drinks? Right out. Remember Carry On Spying (the same joke also appeared in The Living Daylights, in case you're not yet of A Certain Age)?

However, those lucky retailers who have airside outlets (you may call them shops) are literally quids in on this one. Your friendly WHS will hit you for well over a quid for any liquid refreshment; Boots' are rather less mercenary.

Some airports across mainland Europe have drinking water fountains airside, so you could take an empty container through security and then fill it for free. Proud Brits will be relieved to know that a quick check at Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham airports reveals that nothing of the sort is allowed to hurt those all-important revenue streams.

Joy Unconfined in Small Cheshire Town


The beings from the planet Network Rail have finally thrown in the towel on the moderately potty idea of moving Crewe station two miles to the south, merely to give them a nicer little earner than before (those liking a more dignified tone may at this point use more reassuring phrases such as "income stream").

Credit to: Councillor Roy Cartlidge for organising against the scheme.
No credit at all to: Edward Timpson MP, a man with marginally more charisma than a Burton's dummy, for sitting on the fence.

Now can we have the station properly updated, please?