Thursday, 28 October 2010

And so it begins...

Boris Johnson and David Cameron went to Eton together, they both went to Oxford, were in the Bullingdon Club at the same time, and they were in Michael Howard's Shadow Cabinet together. However, you would be wrong to think that this makes them friends.

The rivalry between the two men has been much documented and at the same time remained in the shadows, never overtly coming out in public, there have just been suggestions of its existence here and there. This has made it one of the most tantalising political stories of the moment.

I predict that Boris Johnson's description of the government's housing policy as 'Kosovo-style social cleansing' is just the opening skirmishes in a much longer battle between the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister.
Some of this was inevitable, Boris Johnson will be fighting for re-election in less than 18 months, and he needs to separate himself from the government. Mr. Johnson knows people tend to vote against the party of government in mid-term, especially one which is rising taxes and cutting public services. As a result, the Prime Minister will probably tolerate these differences of opinion - for now.

In the meantime, I'm guessing the Mayor will enjoy snipping at his old schoolmate and it is probably are foreshadow of Conservative Party conflicts to come.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Even I understand this

I must confess, although I love politics, I have little knowledge of economics (budgets speeches tend to send me to sleep). However, I had no problem understanding the Spending Review - we've run out of money and all need to cut expenditure (all of us).

Even the Queen faces a 14% cut, although having been on the thrown for almost 60 years, Her Majesty has been through spending cuts before - unlike many of the civil servants currenlty working in government departments.

For the last decade, government departments have seen increased spending and investment every year, and for many who have grown up with that culture, it will be very difficult to change.

The UK we see today has come about as a result of the investment culture, what the UK looks like after a parliament of the cutting culture is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Mr. Miliband's first PMQs

Some nerviness before your first Prime Minister's Questions as leader is understandable, and an uneasy performance from Ed Miliband would have been more than forgivable. However, Mr. Miliband seemed neither nervous nor uneasy at his first PMQs as Labour leader, in fact, his questions were measured and clever, his delivery was smooth and he actually had some genuinely funny jokes. David Cameron however seemed rather uncomfortable at times, and was often unable to give a clear response to questions from the Leader of the Opposition. Even the Father of the House, Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell, complimented Mr. Miliband on his performance.

Fortunately for the Prime Minister, and unluckily for Mr. Miliband, the media gave near blanket coverage to the extraordinary rescue of the 33 miners from the San José Mine in Chile. During the rescue, Mr. Cameron telephoned the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, to congratulate him. The Prime Minister really should have also thanked the President for rescuing the miners on the same day he was trounced at PMQs, thus pushing Mr. Miliband's success off tomorrow's front pages.

Ed Miliband always has next week's PMQs to get the media's attention, although I suspect victory will be a bit more difficult next time - Mr. Cameron will want to learn from today's defeat and make sure he is ready for his next meeting with Mr. Miliband.

Of course, the importance of PMQs for those outside the Westminster bubble is rather insignificant. When William Hague was Leader of the Opposition, he frequently defeated Prime Minister Tony Blair in debates across the despatch box, but he then lost the 2001 general election in a landslide. Mr. Hague once described PMQs as "exciting, fascinating, fun, an enormous challenge and, from my point of view, wholly unproductive in every sense."

One thing PMQs does do is give a sense of the personality of the party leaders. Today Mr. Miliband seemed calm, cool, clever and funny. The big test for a successful leader is whether they seem 'Prime Ministerial'. In my opinion, I don't think Mr. Miliband did that today, but this was mainly due to the fact that he wasn't the guy answering the questions.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Good or bad conference for the PM?

At the start if the conference season, I had thought that, in comparison to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative conference would seem rather dull. In fact, it was one of the strangest and most interesting conferences due to it being hijacked by the Chancellor's announcement that child benefit would be cut for families with high incomes (most of whom are Conservative voters). George Osborne apparently announced his plan without talking to the Cabinet, something for which Mr. Osborne used to criticise Gordon Brown.

Many Conservative delegates and MPs were greatly angered at the announcement but an opinion poll suggested that 83% of people support the cut. Although, as most commentators pointed out, about 83% of people aren't affected by the cut and it's easy to support someone else losing money.

David Cameron's speech on Wednesday was good, but not his best. There was a very sweet moment when the Prime Minister talked about Niamh Riley, a six-year-old girl from Salford who sent Mr. Cameron a £1 from the tooth fairy to help with the deficit. Mr. Cameron apparently returned the money with a thankful note advising Miss Riley to 'treat herself'.

To me, it seemed as if the bad headlines were affecting the PM (either that or his newborn had been keeping him up). George Osborne however was unaffected and unapologetic, he knows that there are worse cuts needed and that the government is going to become very unpopular in the next few months.

However, the next general election is a long way away, and the coalition hopes that by the time polling day comes, the economy will have been repaired and the government will get the credit. In the meantime, they will have to suffer through some very bad headlines and a few more hijacked conferences.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, in his take of the week, compared Ed Miliband to a mafia boss. This image is rather strange as Mr. Miliband in the rest of the media is portrayed as soft and cuddly. Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell even drew Ed Miliband as a panda.

Yet to stand against his brother took bravery and steal. Then, one of his first acts as leader was to attack his former boss (Gordon Brown) and removed one of Brown's closest allies in the party, Nick Brown.

When Tony Blair first became Labour leader in 1994, he was described as 'Bambi', perhaps Mr. Miliband's panda image will be proved to be as erroneous. British voters tend to like the idea of a strong leader, Gordon Brown's polls numbers increased when he was accused of bulling his staff.

This week is the Conservative party conference. Then, on Wednesday 13th, Don Ed Miliband (as Mr. Rawnsley called him) meets the capo di tutti capi (Prime Minister David Cameron) at noon in the House of Commons for PMQs. It will be our first look at the new order in Westminster. I can't wait!!

Beyond Blighty: Ecuador and Brazil - a tale of two presidential republics

Public service cuts will no doubt be the main talking point at the Conservative Party conference. Although the cuts will be unpopular with many workers, David Cameron is not risking his life by implementing them. This is not the case for Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador.

Last Thursday, President Correa was shot at and had tear gas thrown at him by this own police and military after the President announced a cut in their pay. Loyal troops were able to rescue Mr. Correa from a hospital where he'd taken refuge, but for short time it looked like the democratically elected President might be forced from power.

Military coup d'états are not uncommon in Latin American countries, Ecuador has seen several coups and military juntas, as have most South American nations. The last coup in Ecuador was just five years ago when President Lucio Gutiérrez was forcibly removed from office at the point of a gun.

The number of coups in that part of the world is partly due to culture, but another reason is the system of government. Almost all Latin American countries are Presidential republics where the head of state is also the head of government and Commander-in-chief, very similar to the system set out in the United States Constitution (once described as America's most dangerous export).

It would be wrong to condemn all Latin American counties. Today voters in Brazil are electing a new President. Opinion polls suggest that Dilma Rousseff will win comfortably and become Brazil's first female President. Brazil is seen as an emerging superpower and a stable government is an important part of this success story, but Brazil's history is not trouble free, having had a few coups of its own in the 1960s. Like Ecuador, Brazil's constitution is very similar to that of the United States.

The text of the US Constitution seems very sensible and democratic. The states are given great autonomy with the Congress to deal with federal issues and a President who acts as a unifying national figure, dealing mainly with foreign policy and defence. When put into practice however, it doesn't work like that. The executive branch is incredibly powerful and there is little accountability for the President. In countries which use versions of the US Constitution (although not the US itself) this has led to dictatorial Presidents who could only be removed by the military in a coup.

In 2008 the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the countries of the world in order of the state of their freedom and democracy. This list was called the 'Democracy Index' and out of the thirty countries classed as 'full democracies' only four were presidential republics (the United States, the Republic of Korea, Uruguay and Costa Rica). Most of the world's presidential republics were classed as 'authoritarian regimes'. By contrast twenty-five out of the world's thirty full democracies have a parliamentary system.

It is no coincidence that former Iberian colonies (which almost universal became presidential republics) have a history of military dictatorships and economic instability, whereas former British colonies (which almost universal became parliamentary democracies) have a long history of stable government and economic prosperity. There are several exceptions of course, but in general parliamentary systems protect democracy.

A parliamentary system gives systemic accountability as the executive is directly answerable to the legislature. If a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy suddenly became tyrannical, he or she could be removed by their parliamentary party, by the parliament itself, or even by the head of state. It is incredibly difficult to peacefully remove a President in a presidential republic (hence the number of military coups in such countries).

I am not saying that presidential republics are doomed to become tyrannical, but if you happen to find yourself choosing a new system of government for a country, I'd suggest a Parliament and Prime Minister, not a President and a Congress.