Honeyball’s Weekly Round Up

Labour Party

Although the week’s news was dominated by the minute-by- minute updates of alleged  Northumbrian murderer, Raoul Moat, the coalition government haven’t escaped the headlines entirely. Michael Gove remained in the spotlight after he failed to shake off the furore following his decision to cancel school building projects.

His announcement that some 700 school redevelopments would be scrapped in an effort to cut the deficit sparked outrage among members on all sides of the House.

Worse still, an almighty mix up followed with the Department of Education saying that some schools would be saved from the cuts, only to find out later this was a mistake and Gove was forced to apologise, again.

Even Conservative MPs are angered by this. Tory MP Philip Davies tabled a question asking why the projects in his constituency will be cut, and two dozen MPs have signed a motion condemning the ‘cavalier attitude towards pupils, parents and teachers.’

I don’t think I’ll have a chance to watch education questions tomorrow when Gove will be asked to offer a plan B for those schools hit by the controversial cuts, but I certainly hope he’s at home right now planning something to reinstate those education projects so badly needed across the country.

Gove isn’t the only minister currently facing the heat.  Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is also planning a £1bn attack on ‘bureaucracy’. He plans to reduce the number of health quangos There are disturbing rumours that the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which employs 2000 staff, will also be abolished.

It’s become terribly fashionable to bash the quangos, but they do a job and my concern is who will take on their role if they are abolished?

Many of the campaigns these organisations have been involved in have had a huge impact on our lives, in some cases proving to be life saving. Take the FSA campaign to reduce our salt intake or the saturated fat campaign, both of which have had a significant impact on how we as a nation think about food and our own personal health.

Other health quangos in the firing line are the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the NHS Blood and Transplant.  Both these organisations provide an essential service and they must not simply be done away with.

Both Lansley and Gove will face a huge backlash against their proposals. Is this an early warning of the tornados facing the government? Andrew Rawnsley asks just that in today’s Observer, which you can read here.

Meanwhile, on our side, Vincent Moss in today’s Sunday Mirror reveals that Peter Mandelson’s memoirs say Brown never got over losing his battle with Blair to become Labour leader in 1994. I hope there is something more compelling in Mandelson’s books than going over old stories that we have all heard time and time again.  If I decide to read it, I will want to know that there will be something a bit more insightful.  The full Sunday Mirror piece is here.

 Of course we still have Blair’s memoirs ‘The Journey’ to come out – due in September. Watch this space (and many others no doubt)…

Post Lisbon Blues

Labour Party

Reading the Guardian today you may be forgiven for thinking we are all suffering from a massive dose of gloom at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week.  To say nothing could be further from the truth would be an exaggeration; it’s more like business as usual with a bit extra doom thrown in for good measure.

Things are quite obviously not going to well on the big issues.  The economy across Europe is  in the doldrums with the current crisis in Greece making everyone very jittery.

To add insult to injury, the much vaunted Copenhagen summit on climate change held in December was little short of a farce.  Badly organised and lacking any sort of focus, it failed to produce any binding agreement.  Since the environment in general and climate issues in particular do not respect national borders and therefore require international action, this whole policy area is almost universally seen as Europe’s strongest card.  To come so unstuck at Copenhagen was therefore extremely bad news.

What is more, Europe’s internal, what EU jargon call “inter-institutional”, organisation is in a state of flux following the Lisbon Treaty.  There are now no less than four presidents:  Jose-Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, current holder of the six month rotating presidency.

You may recall that one of my reasons for supporting Tony Blair for as President of the European Council was to have one strong leader who would be above all the inter-institutional rivalry and cut down on the chaos.  Alas this wasn’t to be, to Europe’s immediate and, I believe, long term detriment.

President Obama recently cancelled his attendance at an EU summit due to be held in Madrid in May, allegedly because he doesn’t know who is in charge in the EU.  It looks suspiciously as if Obama is  following in the apocryphal footsteps of Henry Kissinger who apparently felt the same way.  Since this snub follows hard on the heels of the United States President’s failure to take much account of the EU at Copenhagen, Europe has much to think about.

The underlying and very real danger is that the world revolves once again around two super powers – this time the Unites States and China.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall we may be back to the same old alignment, capitalist and communist, west and east with the same potential for an aggressive arms build up.

The EU was perhaps never going to be strong enough to be the force countering these two massive countries with their huge landmass, natural resources and, perhaps more important, their overwhelming sense of national identity.  Yet we in Europe are in real danger of missing out on any meaningful influence.  While the EU remains riven with internal jealousies, unable to move forward, the chance of acting as a player on the world stage and being the counterweight to the USA and China lessens by the day.  Strength lies in unity not fragmentation.

A Good Day for Europe

Labour Party

So we now have a result.  Mr Van Rompuy was in the end not much of a surprise.  He will, I am sure, do a competent job and be respected by his fellow heads of government.

Cathy Ashton was, it has to be said, less of a surprise to those of us involved in European politics than to many of the pundits back home.  She proved to be an excellent Commissioner.  In addition to her obvious intelligence, Cathy is hardworking and possesses a rare ability to bring people together and achieve consensus.  If you heard her on the Today programme this morning you will know exactly what I mean.  Congratulations Cathy and all the very best in your new role.

Although I made no secret of my support for Tony Blair to be appointed to one of these major posts, I am nevertheless cheered by the outcome.  Although it is certainly a stitch up, it is one which makes sense and will use the talents of both individuals to good effect.  We have one small member state and one of the larger ones, one man and (at last) one woman, one centre-right and one centre-left   We also have a Briton in one of the highest posts.  At last, we will be at the heart of Europe in reality, holding a top post and therefore having to fully engage with the EU agenda.

And this agenda, it is clear, is no longer working to bring about further European integration.  There is little doubt that although the appointment of a  British woman to the High Representative position signals the acceptance that while the EU fully intends to make its presence felt on the world stage, there will be no further significant moves towards integration across the member states.  Europe will undoubtedly grow wider with the accession of more Easter European countries such as Croatia, but no deeper for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not Turkey will be admitted is, of course, another matter.  If Mr Van Rompuy has his way, the answer will be no.

It is a new chapter for all of us, within the EU institutions and the member states.  I just hope my optimism will be justified in the longer term.

Crunch Day for Europe President

Labour Party

This is it.  All will be decided later today or perhaps tomorrow if the deliberations in the European Council of Ministers about the position of President of the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs continue late into the next day.  We are already hearing stories about participants taking one, two or even three shirts to see them through.  (They are almost all men – hence the shirt question).

Well, will our very own TB make it?  Tony’s chances do seem to have revived during the past two days, but whether he can overcome the “small country” challenge is still not certain.  Some of the tiniest EU states don’t want a large country holding the post as they fear this will smother them.  So we are now seeing an attempt at a classic EU fudge – find the lowest common denominator and go with that regardless of whether or not that is the best and most effective decision for Europe as a whole.

This mindset has led to Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy emerging as the front-runner.  I hardly think Belgium is a shining example of how to run a country.  A population of about 10 million is split into two linguistic groups with three federal regions, a system which is so unworkable that Belgium was recently without a federal government for nearly two years as the various parties were unable to agree on a coalition.

The other two small countries who are realistic contenders aren’t much better.  Peter Balkenende from Holland verges on the Thatcherite.  Luxembourg has, as ever, staked its claim.  Yet can anyone take Jean-Claude Junker seriously when the entire population of Luxembourg is only 488,000.  Yes 488,000 compared to over 60 million in the UK and Germany’s 82.5 million.  I am tempted to use that dreadful Americanism – “give us a break!”

There are two other factors working against our Tony.  Most importantly, the Socialists do not have a majority in the European Council.  The system of qualified majority voting used gives that to the EPP.  Moreover, the Socialist governments do not always all vote the same way.  Just to muddy the waters further, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has waged a strong campaign, which some Socialist governments have bought in to, that the Socialists should let the EPP have the President while the Socialists make a concerted bid for the High Representative.

The small country and/or EPP bid for the President position may well be the way it goes today.  I understand that there is everything to play for, and unusually in the EU the result has not been fixed in advance.  Since the Socialists are going for the High Representative, could this be what Tony ends up with?  I gather he may not be averse to the idea.  The job will, after all, be to act as the face of the EU across the whole globe and the post holder will also control the world-wide network of EU missions (embassies).

Crunch time indeed.

Tony Blair divides the Socialists again

Labour Party

Blair EU

I have just come from a meeting of the European Parliament Socialists and Democrats (S & D) Group – the one which used to be called the Party of European Socialists – and I am incandescent with rage.  The rage is again on behalf of Tony Blair and Britain, one of the minority of countries in the European Union to have a government from the same political family as the S & D Group.

 It is, inevitably at present, about the soon to be established post of President of the European Council of Ministers.  The S & D Group as a whole have, it must be said, shown no support for the Blair bid, and more of that later.  My ire is more against the two S & D MEPs who tabled an anti-Blair Written Declaration (similar to an Early Day Motion) in the Parliament.

They know who they are, but for the record I am talking about Robert Goebbels from Luxembourg and German Jo Leinen.  (A Written Declaration needs five signatures – the other three were from other political groups).

 The Written Declaration is particularly damning, asking that the new President be a figure with whom all the people of Europe can identify and whether he/she has displayed the ability to move the EU forward.  It also states the “figure” must come from a country in the Euro and the Schengen Agreement and be from a country which does not refuse to apply the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

It doesn’t take much to work out that the “figure” is our very own TB.  The attack on Tony continued in the S & D Group meeting when one of the proposers of the Written Declaration made it clear he didn’t think Socialists could support Blair due to Tony’s lack of solidarity with other socialists over the Iraq war as well as his attending the French UMP conference just before the Presidential election in France and Blair’s closeness to Berlusconi.

 Tony Blair was the most successful Labour Prime Minister Britain has ever had, winning three election victories, bringing peace to Northern Ireland and improving health and education beyond all expectations.  It is high time European socialist “colleagues” buried their petty jealousies and did what is best for the S & D Group and best for Europe by not continually carping about one of Europe’s most influential leaders, who also happens to be one of us.

Back to the Blair bid itself as opposed to personal animosity.  The S & D Group together with the heads of government in those countries with socialist governments, wrongly in my view, decided to go for the Socialists holding the new position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, a post which straddles both Council and Commission with the post holder also being Vice-President of the Commission.  The thinking was that the EPP centre-right, who already have the President of the Commission in the form of Jose-Manuel Barroso, will probably get the Council President as well. Given this, the Socialists should have the next bite of the cherry, namely the High Representative.

 This is how David Miliband came to be approached to be High Representative, rather late in the day. Sadly he declined, all but ending British hopes.  EU horse trading has won the day again, showing the worst side of what happens here.  I am tempted to ask, when will they ever learn?  Deals done behind closed doors do not inspire confidence and cause a lot of harm.  Europe will never get closer to its people as long as EU leaders behave like some out of touch clique considering only their own narrow interests.

I support Tony Blair for President (even though I was against the Iraq War)

Labour Party

Blair at the European Parliament

Now is the time, I believe, for all good men and women to stand up and be counted.  I believe Tony Blair is not only the right person to be the new President of the European Council, but the only possible choice.

 It all comes down to how we see the EU and where we want Europe to go in the future.  While I am not a European integrationist as far as domestic policy is concerned, I do believe the EU’s presence on the world stage needs to be strengthened.  The EU should be able to rise to what we may now call the “Obama challenge”, an idea first articulated by Henry Kissinger when he asked, “If I want to talk to Europe, who do I ring?” 

 The two new posts (a President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs, both to serve a minimum of two and a half years), to be created under the Lisbon Treaty will go some way towards answering this question.  Answering this question becomes ever more crucial as the years go by and both Europe and the world change.  Indeed, the environment in which Kissinger operated over thirty years ago is almost unrecognisable today.

 One of the ways to deal with the Kissinger question is, I believe, to have a strong and experienced President of the European Council, a charismatic leader who will be President Obama’s equal, a real player on the international stage.  In short, the EU needs a credible leader to execute its external relations policy. 

 Foreign affairs and defence have moved beyond the realm of individual nation states.  The EU itself now has a developed common security policy and speaks as one voice on very many external matters.  The only time in the recent past when this did not happen was the Iraq War when Britain went out on a limb with the United States.  I opposed the Iraq War all the way through, spoke against it in public and voted for the resolutions in the European Parliament condemning the war.

 I am not, therefore, a blind Blair loyalist.  But I do believe he is the man to be President of Europe.  He is also an ex-Labour Prime Minister, and hence our, the Labour, candidate.  I have never had much time for those Labour Party members who were against Blair because they viewed him as not “old Labour” and not left wing enough.  Tony Blair is Labour. End of story.

 Tony Blair’s record as Labour Prime Minister speaks for itself – the national minimum wage, Sure Start, extended maternity leave, paternity leave, a massive reduction in NHS waiting lists, a huge hospital building programme, a reduction in class sizes, peace in Northern Ireland, tripling overseas aid, establishing devolved government in Scotland and Wales and setting up the London Assembly, to name but a few.  You will all, I am sure, be able to add to this list.     

 Given that it is now almost certain that Czech Republic President Klaus will sign the Lisbon Treaty, it will probably come into force towards the end of November.  The EU therefore has less than two months to shape its future.  Let’s hope it takes the bold decision and appoints the man who once affirmed that “We are at our best when we are at our boldest”.

CHERIE BLAIR – SPEAKING FOR MYSELF

Labour Party

I have always liked Cherie Blair (or Booth according to choice). As well as being exceptionally able, rising to be QC in what, as her book describes, is still a very male dominated profession, she also has an undiminished ability to speak her mind. The book’s title “Speaking for Myself” may therefore be read two ways – at last she can speak out now that the shackles of Downing Street are removed or, alternatively, she is continuing in character, being straightforward and straight talking.

Both are, of course, true. The book is a cracking read, despite the fact, as is generally the case with books of this type, it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. The exception of exceptions is, of course, the story of her contraception, or rather the lack of it, on one fateful visit to Balmoral. I salute Cherie for including this tidbit. It makes both her and Tony more human.

I cannot, however, help but feel that the Prime Minister, his wife, his omnipresent oppo (Alastair Campbell) and his partner (Fiona Millar) are perhaps all to present to the British public at the present time. The rush of “I was there” books provide us with an intimate insight into prime ministerial life the like of which has never before been seen. While I truly believe all representatives should be fully accountable for their actions in representing their constituents and governing the country, personal privacy is also important, and has been pushed to the limit post Blair.

Having said that, I found Cherie’s writing on her children often moving and always interesting. She was a real pioneer – the first Prime Minister’s to have a full-time, professional and successful career and to have a child while at Downing Street. I think that’s a real achievement, and if some members of the fourth estate objected to some of her behaviour, that says more about them than it does about Cherie.

PAY AND THE EX-PM

Evening Standard, Labour Party, Tony Blair

The London “Evening Standard”  is up to its usual tricks.  This paragraph appeared in today’s Londoner’s Diary”:

“Forget the furore over MPs’ (I have corrected the apostrophe as theirs was woefully wrong) abusing their expenses.  What about ex-Prime Ministers?  Tony Blair has now emerged as the world’s highest paid public speaker earning almost £400,000 for two half-hour speeches during a 36-hour visit to the Philippines.  Well British taxpayers are certainly doing their bit for the money spinning cause.  Blair stayed with the British ambassador, as he also did on a recent lecture circuit in Washington.  Surely Tone can afford to stump up for a hotel given his earnings.”

Apart from the snide nature of this piece, perhaps understandable in a scurrilous diary, the underlying sentiment is truly crass.

Tony Blair is a national asset.  His talks around the world boost Britain in a way few others can.  Blair is good news for us.

It’s therefore mindboggling that the “Evening Standard” compares his staying with the British ambassador to MPs’ expenses.  Tone, as Londoner’s Diary calls him, earns us money.  Rather than slagging him off in the same breath as the MPs they perceive to be fiddling their expenses, it would be far more reasonable to recognise the benefits Tony Blair has brought our country.  His status and name recognition are more like Elton John or perhaps Paul McCartney than little known politicians.  After all, if it were Blair’s favourite Liam and Noel Gallagher I imagine the “Evening Standard’s response would be very different.