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Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
My eyesight has been improving,” says Danny Alexander. “They say you get more long-sighted as you get older, and I was slightly short-sighted to start with. So maybe that process has delivered a short-term benefit.”
It’s a typically matter-of-fact, cost-benefit analysis from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when asked just why he no longer wears glasses.
His changed image became the subject of fevered speculation in Glasgow after he delivered last month’s party conference speech without specs, tie or jacket. Talk of a future Liberal Democrat leadership bid, fuelled by praise from Nick Clegg, was rife. But today as he sits in his Treasury office, Alexander’s message seems to be ‘what you see is what you get’, in many senses of the phrase. And while he can see clearly now, the reins – on spending at least – haven’t gone.
With the Autumn Statement just weeks away, he’s firmly focused on keeping costs down, while proving to the voters that the Lib Dems have been key to the recovery.
Yet although he’s never the type to go on a spending spree, Alexander’s work overseeing infrastructure projects allows the Coalition to point to areas of targeted investment to help growth.
Just back from visiting an HS2 site, the Chief Secretary makes clear that he will have much more to say in December about the progress made to date on roads and other building schemes.
“The National Infrastructure Plan [unveiled last year] has been a brilliant innovation of this government. One of the things I want to use it for this year is really to show how much has actually been delivered, projects started, projects finished, projects getting under way.
“There really is a step change in the attitude and the delivery of infrastructure projects because people can see this is a long-term plan for the railways, roads. But the other thing is that having set out those headline budgets, I want to be able to try and fill in for people as much as possible what the strategy would mean in practice.”
Alexander makes plain that road-building will be a priority, not least on routes like the A303. “In the south-west, it’s a key economic artery. That route and others around the country, I want to use the Autumn Statement to set out this is what we are going to do over the next five to 10 years and this is the vision for what we actually want this route to be,” he says. “The Chancellor has been talking about the ‘northern powerhouse’ and all that. I want to do something similar for some other parts of the country. There are six routes which we identified as ones that are of major strategic importance to the country. The A303 is one, the A1 north of Newcastle is another, the A47 is a third.”
For the first time, he says full detail will be given in the Autumn Statement. “We want to fill in some of those gaps, give some more detail, not just objectives but detailed plans for what we can do.
“The important thing about what we did in the 2013 spending round was really to match what we’ve been doing with the railways on the roads. So the railways have got the largest programme of investment now since Victorian times. That really is delivering now some significant changes to the rail network.
“But our road network has been really neglected since the 1970s. You’ve had 30 or 40 years of nothing much happening. We set out some pretty chunky sums of money for the roads, growing over the course of the next parliament, and I want to fill out for people what we are going to do with that.”
Acutely aware that the next election will be as much about comparing the Coalition’s record with Labour’s as a future programme, he says that even in austere times it’s been possible to find cash for schemes that help the economy. “The road investment is about saying the quality of our infrastructure is actually one of the areas where the UK has fallen behind. Back in 2010, we were 33rd in the world league. That’s just not good enough for a country that aspires to be the best place in the world to do business. And roads have been a weak spot for a very long time. I want us to be near the top of those league tables and that will take years and years and years to do.”
As the clock ticks down to next May, there have been reports recently that George Osborne is preparing a ‘giveaway’, even if some Whitehall departments have missed their savings targets. One newspaper even quoted a friend of the Chancellor saying: “George’s view is, ‘I can put my hand down the back of the sofa and come up with a few coins. Let’s make sure they land in the right parts of the country.’”
So, are there any holes in the sofa hiding some coins? He laughs and points to the threadbare settee and armchair in his office. “There’s a hole in that chair, but it obviously hasn’t been replaced because that wouldn’t be in keeping with the general run of austerity,” he says. “Departments have to live within their budgets – full stop. But at every fiscal event, Budget, Autumn Statement, we look at what are the things we want to do to take our economic strategy further, what are the things we want to do to help people with the cost of living. But in each and every case when we come up with an idea like that, we have to find a way to pay for them. There is no point someone coming up with an idea for what they want to do unless they can also say ‘here’s how we will pay for it’.”
The FT also reported recently that Alexander had used a recent Cabinet meeting to warn colleagues that they may have to rein in spending once more. Is that true? “I’m not going to comment on what’s said at Cabinet meetings, that’s not my style,” he replies. “What I would say is that the most important priority we started this parliament with, the reason we formed the Coalition, was to get the public finances under control and maintain that control. And right now there are some risks around. You look at the eurozone, you look at tax receipts, which are not picking up as fast as the economy is recovering. We have to be alert to those risks and we have to make sure that the country is in a position to get through those things.
“And so my first priority for the Autumn Statement, the Budget, for as long as I’m in government – because I believe this is profoundly in the interests of every person in the United Kingdom – is to make sure that we deliver on the objectives we set out. And that has to come first, before all sorts of other things that different people might like to do. If I’m often the bringer of unwelcome tidings, well, so be it.”
Chief Secretaries are certainly harbingers of doom for high spenders. But what does he say when ministers tell him that there’s no more fat to cut, that further cuts would eat into the bone of services?
Alexander is as firm as ever, clearly immune to the ‘bleeding stumps’ waved by some departments. “There won’t be another spending round till the next parliament. My experience has been that actually when you sit down and look at how efficient government is, you find there are ways to improve. I remember back in 2010 people telling us ‘you will never meet your objectives on government efficiency’. Actually, we’ve over-achieved, and Francis Maude and his team working with the Treasury have done a really good job on that. And they now say to me we think we can do even more in the next parliament.”
Given his stress on only committing to promises that can be funded, what did he make of the Chancellor’s recent Tory conference pledge to offer £7bn of income tax cuts in the next parliament? Has he had the chance to rib his colleague about ‘unfunded tax cuts’? “I have made the point, yeah,” he smiles, before quickly adding: “I’m not going to go into the conversations we’ve had.”
He does, however, attack the Conservatives for “unfairly saying that they want all the burden to be done through spending, and particularly through welfare savings on the working poor.”
To shift the balance would be to undermine one of the Coalition’s main achievements, he argues. “The basic way that the impact of deficit reduction has been shared across society, with the wealthiest part of the population paying the greatest share of their incomes, there aren’t any other countries that have achieved that. And it’s something that I’m pretty proud of.”
While regarded by many as the ‘axeman’ of the Treasury, Alexander is also seen by his own party as the man who has led the charge to raise more from the wealthy through tax loophole crackdowns, capital gains tax and pension reliefs. “I think as a party we don’t get enough credit for the work that we have done to rescue the British economy,” he says. “That is my work here on spending and on raising money and things like delivering the income tax cuts, Vince’s brilliant work on industrial strategy, apprenticeships, further education, on science policy. It’s Ed Davey’s brilliant work on making sure we’ve got the biggest amount of investment in renewable energy that we’ve ever seen in the country’s history. Look at what Nick’s done to champion the regional growth agenda.
“I don’t believe that the recovery would be as fair or as balanced or as sustainable as it is without the Liberal Democrats. I think that is something we need to shout about from the rooftops. It’s something that I intend to spend the next six, seven months doing, in TV debates and other things.”
Alexander will certainly get an unprecedented national profile if the TV debates go ahead. This month it was confirmed that Nick Clegg had decided to make Alexander the party’s ‘Shadow Chancellor’ for the general election campaign, a role last held by Vince Cable.
But just how difficult will it be to really go for George Osborne’s jugular, having spent the past four years working with him hand in glove? “Of course these TV debates are a new challenge for me personally. It’s something that I’m looking forward to, but we have a lot of work to do to get it right,” he replies. “Will it be difficult debating with George? No, absolutely not. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last four years arguing with George, maybe we are going to see some of those in public for once. I relish that. I think that we have got the best message, I will have the best message. We are the most economically credible party. I get on well with George. We get on well together, that’s important in a coalition to be able to work effectively with people. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have differences that can be exposed in those debates.”
It’s unclear which of his colleagues will pretend to be Osborne in any role-play ahead of the TV debates. Tim Farron famously played the role of Nigel Farage as part of Clegg’s prep for his bout with the Ukip leader this year. Alexander reveals that he has past experience of taking on another persona. “When Nick was leader and I was his chief of staff, I used to play Gordon Brown in the rehearsals we did for PMQs every week,” he laughs. “I have a very good Gordon Brown impression.”
In his own conference speech this year, Clegg revealed that the Chancellor had privately objected that raising the tax threshold by £1,000 would result in a ‘Lib Dem Budget’. Was that true? “It was a massive increase, that’s what we had wanted to do. We had to fight very hard to agree that. We had to agree some very important things.” Including the cut in the top rate from 50p to 45p? “The stuff on the top rate I was happy to go along with, because it’s economically rational and it was in the context of other measures which asked the wealthy to pay much more. But that was a big thing for the party.”
So was it a Lib Dem Budget or a Tory one? “He delivered a Coalition Budget. All of these Budgets have had as much of my stamp on them as his. That’s the way it should be in a coalition.”
Yet with the election looming, some Lib Dems feel Alexander should perhaps have done more earlier on in the parliament to differentiate the party in the Treasury from the Tories.
Vince Cable has recently suggested that tax rises could further sharpen the dividing lines. He told Newsnight during the party conference that the current 80-20 split of spending cuts and tax rises would have to change in the next parliament. How surprised was Alexander by that? “I think what he’s saying is basically the approach we are adopting. The Conservatives have said all of this has to be done through spending cuts. Vince is absolutely right to say, as I would say, that we have to be careful about where we find those savings.
“But as I said in my conference speech, my priority is to use tax as the instrument to make sure that the overall balance is fair. I think 80-20 broadly achieves that, 78-22 or 79-21, that doesn’t bother me.”
Would going any higher in the tax stakes send out the wrong message about the Lib Dems? Alexander is firm. “My own view as the person who has spent time in government actually looking at all these budgets is that the remaining savings can be safely achieved with that sort of balance overall.”
Is the danger he’s worried about that the Lib Dems would be seen as a party of tax hikes rather than sensible spending? “To my mind, it’s much more about what is the right way to handle this in terms of having a deficit-reduction programme that is sustainable and delivers results for the country. All the evidence is that that sort of balance that I’m suggesting is best.”
But what about Cable’s claim that some departments would be hammered by the 80-20 split, particularly those which aren’t ringfenced such as the armed forces, police, local government and others? “Well, it’s logically correct that if you protect one department then you are making savings elsewhere. In my view, the protections are a statement of the bleeding obvious.
“No one in their right mind would be able to or wish to cut the health budget in real terms given all the pressures there. And that’s by far the largest chunk of public expenditure. International aid is a political commitment and one I’m passionate about. That’s a political choice, and one of the consequences is that you have to look harder at other areas.”
The party certainly changed tack this summer when it unveiled a new golden rule to allow borrowing for ‘productive investment’. Alexander underlined the approach in his conference speech. “What we are saying is our first priority is to finish the job, dealing with the structural deficit by March 2018. Once that first task is complete, then we put in place a new set of fiscal rules, and number one would be getting the national debt down as a share of GDP to a sustainable level by the mid-2020s, that sets the framework. But provided you are meeting that goal, then borrowing for the most productive investment is the right thing to do. I’ve seen in government the difference we can make with targeted investment in infrastructure. And the more of that we can do as a country the better.”
Just how well the Liberal Democrats will do after May will determine whether they can keep on affecting big decisions on tax and spending. And although the Deputy Prime Minister is secure in his post until then, speculation has centred of late on who will succeed him.
In his own speech in Glasgow, the Lib Dem leader all but anointed his former chief of staff as a possible successor, heaping praise on him as the man “responsible for the really tough job of repairing the damage to our public finances”. Alexander’s profile has certainly increased in the past year, so much so that a photo of him strolling in the Highlands went viral on Twitter, courtesy of a ‘Danny Walks’ meme. “The Danny Walks thing was hilarious,” he says. “I was at the Sheffield Lib Dems dinner and someone at the next table said ‘have you seen all these pictures?’” He decided to join in, tweeting his own version. It all stemmed from him adopting a Facebook profile photo from one taken by the Sunday Times for an interview. “When I saw it in the paper I thought it was one of the best pictures that I had seen of me,” he smiles. “I’m not that photogenic, so when you see a good one you want to make the best of it.”
As for Twitter, are other ministers a bit too nervous of it? “I’m a bit nervous of it, but I’ve tried to conquer my nerves! It’s a good way of communicating, a lot of people don’t necessarily realise as a politician all the different things you do, it’s a good way of showing people what you’ve been up to.”
And although it sparked an over-excited reaction, his decision to drop his tie for his conference speech was a deliberate move to soften his image. “I am much more relaxed than people think I am, and I wanted to show it,” he says. “And it actually made me more relaxed in delivering the speech and made it a better speech. I don’t wear a tie unless I have to. I think when you are amongst friends at a party conference, it’s not one of those occasions when you have to.”
He dismisses as “trivial” the attention he got for ditching his specs. “I just don’t need them. I don’t need to wear glasses to see you or things in this room. I still wear them if I’m addressing a big event or if I’m driving my car, I hate contact lenses.”
But with David Cameron and Boris Johnson recently starting to wear glasses, isn’t he heading in the opposite direction? “As in many other things…” he jokes.
He may or may not be heading in the direction of his party’s leadership. But for Danny Alexander, being more long-sighted is clearly the future.
ALEXANDER ON…FUEL DUTY
“I’m a Highland MP, if you live in my constituency a car is a necessity. It’s been one of the biggest hits on people’s budgets.”
ALEXANDER ON…LIB DEM AVIATION POLICY
“I personally don’t think there would be any merit in coming and having another debate about it in spring conference next year.”
ALEXANDER ON…PRIVATISING THE HIGHWAYS AGENCY
“That’s not an option I am particularly interested in.”
“The Tories’ maniacal focus on Europe is very much anti-business, anti-growth.”
ALEXANDER ON…THE OTHER PARTIES
“Labour and Conservative parties are feeling increasingly desperate about the election next year and they are both lurching in directions that are increasingly economically incredible.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
As a keen cyclist, Mary Creagh is used to the odd puncture. But on a train journey this year, she was surprised to find herself on the sharp end of a different kind of commuter experience.
“I was on First Capital Connect and there was a wire sticking out of the seat that punctured into my leg,” the Shadow Transport Secretary explains. Like a growing number of passengers fed up with poor service, she took direct action by taking a photo on her smartphone of the “evil metal spike”.
“I’m a live-tweeter and I tweeted it. You don’t want some little child getting their leg ripped open,” she says. “There was an immediate response [from the company]: ‘What’s the number of the carriage? We will take it out of service’.” The firm also asked if she was OK and offered a helpline if she’d damaged her clothes.
The story is the perfect vignette of Creagh’s hands-on approach to her brief, trying to get companies to change their ways through a combination of passenger power, digital transparency and political intervention. And with transport emerging as one of the hot topics in key marginal seats ahead of the General Election, the Wakefield MP has been nothing if not active. From taxi safety to rail fares, from bus service cuts to devolved powers for cities, her office seems busier than Clapham Junction.
Born and raised in Coventry, Creagh spent eight years as a London councillor before becoming MP for her West Yorkshire seat in 2010. Since taking up her current brief last year, she has been struck by just how different the capital’s transport network and powers are from other parts of Britain. Nowhere is that difference more stark than in bus services, she says.
“The rest of the country comes to London and cannot believe that fares are cheaper in London than they are elsewhere. They are 35p to 40p cheaper than in places like Wakefield to go longer distances, and it crosses all modes.
“You’ve got an Oyster card that works on Underground, Overground, absurd cable car, trams, on everything. We don’t have that integration in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, the north-east. It’s a huge problem and it is holding our city region economies back.”
In Lord Adonis’s recent devolution report, the Labour peer was clear that Whitehall should be devolving about £2bn of the transport budget. Creagh admits “that’s quite a big chunk of my change going out” of the DfT, but says it would be worth it. “Other European cities are much better at allowing cities to grow,” she says. “We have a very disjointed process.”
In the 2008 Transport Act, Labour made it easier for local authorities to pursue a ‘quality contract’ with private bus companies and the north-east is the furthest ahead of other areas in trying to make it work. Creagh hints that a new Labour government would introduce further legislative change to make the contracting process “faster, easier, less risky to take that step”.
“The mechanisms haven’t been there for Midlands and northern authorities to come to the Treasury and argue their case for funding. I think the regulatory framework isn’t there for them to say to bus operators ‘this is how we are going to do it and these are the routes we want to run’. I’m very keen to see that.”
Creagh says that in Wakefield, local bus services to semi-rural areas are effectively a skeleton service before 9.30am and after 6.30pm. Across the country, there are “absurd” services where some rural areas have “one bus out on Monday, and a bus back on Wednesday”. Since 2010, some 1300 bus routes have been axed nationwide, she adds. “In places like North Yorkshire, it’s a wasteland. It’s a real pity, it cuts off people’s access to shops, GPs, work, education.”
And yet bus companies receive nearly £2bn in public subsidy. It’s money that Creagh is determined to target to improve services. “So we are looking as part of our zero-based review at the subsidy that goes into buses; at the fact that it is allocated on miles not passengers carried. We have to look at reform.”
At the same time services are being cut, bus fares have risen by 25% since 2010, five times wage levels. Yet some companies like Stagecoach in Tyne and Wear are making 28% margins, she says. So is the bus market outside London a ‘broken market’? “What market? There was a flurry of competition in the 1980s and in the end it settled down into six big operators with a few regional players and smaller operators,” she says.
“I want those small operators to stay in business. I like competition, but the question is how do you get competition that works in the public interest? You can only do that if you plan centrally, and the deregulation model says the market will provide.
“You need an internal cross-subsidy in the market…that should grow the market share. Nobody thinks there’s a problem getting a bus in London. There’s no stigma attached to it. You go on the new bus, admiring the beautiful design of the seat, cursing the fact that the windows don’t open upstairs…but it’s an iconic thing.
“There’s a feeling outside London still that if you have a choice, you don’t choose the bus. And it’s because the information isn’t necessarily clear, the times aren’t regular, it’s not just a ‘turn-up-and-go’ service, it’s not integrated with railways, there’s no real-time information, different firms don’t accept each other’s tickets.”
In the capital, bus ridership has also soared in part because new smartphone apps allow passengers to know exactly when their bus will turn up. Outside London, “bus companies won’t give that information…[and] the same goes for rail companies.
“Transport for London has released that data and apps have flourished. We’ve got a problem in a digital age where we have got operators who feel that they own it [the data] even though we are putting in a lot of subsidy. I’m very keen that we have real-time information available for people and there is none of this ‘we own it, you can’t have it’ business.
“It should be a passenger-focused transport network, not a producer-focused transport network.”
One particular area where Creagh would like more transparency is in train companies’ services for disabled passengers. She says disabled people are not aware that under the passenger charter they are guaranteed a seat in standard class on a train. “I met one lady in Stevenage paying £7,000 for a first-class ticket into London, more than her mortgage, so that she could be guaranteed a seat. And she didn’t know of her rights. It’s just incredible.”
There’s another example too. “People don’t know that if their local station is inaccessible for them then the train operating company will pay for a cab to take them to the nearest accessible station. It’s the best-kept secret on the railway. Every time I tell people that, people are grateful. The train operating companies are like ‘we don’t mind paying that’; I go ‘why is it a secret?’.
As for the new threat to taxi firms in London, Creagh is wary of the new app-based firm Uber. She is pleased TfL has referred Uber to HMRC for possible tax avoidance, and has concerns too over its protections for women travelling. “We can’t stop new technology but what we have to do is make sure people get home safely every time.”
But the Shadow Transport Secretary seems keener on car-sharing apps, such as that run by French firm BlaBlaCar, which offer a cheap, environmentally friendly way to travel from city to city.
“Isn’t it just like hitchhiking, but match-made? I used to drive hundreds of miles a day to work in Cranfield [School of Management, where she taught entrepreneurship]. I had a rule which was as a single woman driver, I always stopped for a hitchhiker.
“They were all men. I would always pick them up, and nothing bad ever happened. I never picked up a woman hitchhiking. I stopped on the hard shoulder once to pick some guys up going to Millwall. Their coach had broken down and I thought, ‘these guys have got to get to the match and I’ve got an empty car’.” She smiles: “In the end I had slightly too many people in the car…but they were so happy.”
Creagh also has fond memories of her youth and car-sharing. “I didn’t have a car growing up and I spent a lot of my life waiting at bus stops, and our family was always incredibly grateful when neighbours would stop and give us a lift. So I think it’s good karma,” she says.
“I’ve had times when public transport has let me down and I’ve had to hitch as a young person. You are relying on the goodness and the kindness of strangers to get you home safely, and 99.9% of people are actually really nice.”
The absence of a family car growing up also meant that a teenage Creagh took to two wheels. “I had a yellow racer, BSA was my first bike as a 16-year-old. ‘Bloody Sore Arse’, that’s what I used to call it,” she laughs.
“Cycling when I started in this country used to be what people who didn’t have a car did, I did it not because it was trendy. Now it’s become a sort of…for some people it’s an ideological symbol, for others it’s a sort of status symbol and they are going round on bikes worth more than my car. We have the full spectrum. But with just 2% of people cycling in this country, it’s just not good enough.
“I want to see cycling planned into A roads when we are designing our new roads. It can’t be an afterthought; it can’t not be segregated. I think people want to feel physically separated.”
Many people take up cycling to save on the cost of travelling to work, and for Creagh, tackling fares is central to Labour’s ‘cost of living’ narrative at the next election. So just how many marginal seats does she think will be affected by the fares issue? “I’d say about 20,” she replies. “Reading, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Peterborough, Stevenage; three in Brighton; Crawley, some of the Kent seats, are all in there.”
One Kent seat in particular has of course had more attention than most lately: Rochester and Strood. What more does Creagh think Labour should be doing to combat Ukip?
“We need to be talking about our plans to have an economy that works for working people, our plan to raise the minimum wage to £8, to end zero-hours contracts, to tackle agencies who only recruit from overseas,” she says.
“We have a good suite of policies and when we talk to people about them, they think ‘yeah, all that should be done’, but it’s like they haven’t heard us saying them. Ed and Yvette have both been out there giving a whole series of speeches on immigration; I think we now need to translate it into campaign materials, leaflets.”
She also believes her party has to be comfortable with the issue. “We are the Labour party; we do like talking about the NHS, and we are right to talk about the NHS. Perhaps there are some colleagues who feel nervous talking about immigration. I certainly don’t.
“I think immigration has brought enormous benefits to our country and we should continue to be a welcoming, open society. But we also need to acknowledge the strain on schools, public services and the fact that people want to feel that people have put into a society before they start taking something out.”
Creagh adds that “nobody’s in love with politicians at the moment and we are branded as the Westminster elite”. Yet when asked if she’s optimistic that Labour will win the next election, she replies: “I think we can, I think we will.”
And while Ukip is a danger, she believes Europe will be more the Tory party’s undoing than Labour’s. “I think by-election behaviour and European election behaviour is different to general election behaviour,” she says.
“We are not complacent, but Farage is running rings around David Cameron and the Conservatives are changing positions more often than the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has got more positions than the Kama Sutra at the moment, depending on who he’s talking to.”
When it comes to transport policy, Mary Creagh has certainly been trying to run rings around the Coalition herself. And as one of the most prolific tweeters in the Shadow Cabinet, she has again been busy on social media, chivvying both ministers and train companies. In the past week alone, she’s tweeted her thoughts on HS3 and ‘stealth fare rises’ and urged Virgin Trains to open up first-class carriages to delayed passengers forced to stand in standard class.
On her Twitter profile, she is a self-styled ‘cyclist, cook, wife, mum, fruit grower, Labour MP for Wakefield and Shadow Transport Secretary’. But if Creagh’s campaigning can help swing 20 marginal seats, at least one of those job descriptions could change next May.
CREAGH ON… FUEL PRICES
“We are in a situation similar to the energy companies where prices rise like a rocket and fall like a feather.”
CREAGH ON… TAXI DEREGULATION
“We have to make sure we keep the rogues off the road.”
CREAGH ON… MINICAB APP UBER’S TAXES
“Let’s have a look at this. TfL have been quite activist on this, which I welcome.”
CREAGH ON… SAFER CYCLING
“We will have a renewed focus on HGV safety and also in Brussels looking at lorry and cab design.”
Those of us who love the thrill of a general election would’ve hated the Septennial Act of 1716 which increased the maximum length of parliaments from three to seven years – a period longer than the Second World War, or the time it takes to drive around the M25 when the first snowflake of winter sparks panic in south-east England.
The limit was reduced to five years by a 1911 Parliament Act better remembered for championing the supremacy of the House of Commons by clipping the law-blocking wings of the House of Lords after a titanic struggle decided by the people in a second general election.
We have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 – when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government decided five years was to be both the minimum and the maximum – to thank or blame for inking into our diaries 7 May 2015 as the date of the next general election.
Confirming the date so early shackled the Tories and Lib Dems together so neither could easily pull the plug on the other and cut and run for an election. Five years was George Osborne grabbing 60 months job security instead of a shorter term, the crafty Chancellor extending the spell in the Coalition Agreement from the four years pencilled in in the draft.
The tidy part of my brain was always attracted to the idea of fixed terms. Uncertainty over the date of an election is good for journalists who enjoying guessing games. There’s no evidence, however, that it excites voters. Business yearns for political stability, as do foreign governments in dealings with Britain, so I can’t imagine apprehension is good for either commerce or diplomacy.
Giving prime ministers the ability to pick the day of battle to suit themselves always struck me as unfair.
The last two Labour prime ministers to be defeated at the polls, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown, made a hash of it. Callaghan was singing about waiting at the church in 1978 when it would’ve been better, under the rules, for him to have gone to the polls, while Brown never recovered from the electoral ball he fumbled in 2007.
Blair judged it right in June 2001 in delaying Destiny Day a month for the foot-and-mouth epidemic to subside, then again in 2005. On both occasions he went to the country after four of the allotted five years.
Margaret Thatcher chose elections after four years in 1983 and 1987. Her Tory successor, John Major, successfully gambled on the full five years of a parliament in 1992 to win before losing to Labour and Blair at a second five-year limit in 1997.
Ed Miliband made clear privately a while back that he’d stick with five years should Labour find itself in government from next May. Labour peer Charlie Falconer argued for the curtain to come down on parliaments after four years when the 2011 Act was debated. Frontbencher Stephen Twigg declared publicly that Labour would, if it won the election, serve the full five years. I suppose no wannabe premier wants to surrender power in advance.
I’m a four-year man to enhance accountability and enjoy more elections, and watched with interest as a cross-party attempt to end fixed terms on principle by Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh and Labour’s Frank Field gathered little support.
Four years would be better than five, but five is better than prime ministers selecting a date after four years – or any other period – to gain an unfair advantage. And I hope we never go back to the future with a Septennial Act.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) on the Daily Mirror
I know what you think. OK, not every single urge, not every single idea, not every tiny thought, consideration, whim, grand plan, philosophy, micro or macro strategy. It would be foolish – and untrue – to make an outlandish suggestion of clairvoyant-like powers, or indeed to assert that politicians of every hue, heritage, party and credo collide with their every waking thought. And yet.
None of you – yes, you, the readers of this fine journal, our small and joyously, imperfectly formed quorum of politicians – would demur from the fact that we are hurtling towards an election in curious times. As Lord Freud discovered last week, even the walls of obscure fringe events most definitely have ears.
And, if the polygraph is out, few of you would contradict the assertion privately that there are ideas, beliefs and realities that you feel – with the clock counting louder every day – you can’t or just won’t say.
What is worth a moment’s pause, whatever party you are from – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Plaid, SNP, crossbencher or Green – is something rather less obvious: just how much in common you have in private but won’t or don’t dare let on to the public. Despite your differences, you ought to know, you concur on rather a lot.
Nearly every politician you engage on the subject, from whatever party, believes that as a country, we require a proper, frank conversation about how much money we spend on the NHS. Not a mission to hack it to death, not an excuse to sell it off, nor a debate designed to guarantee generous funding for ever. But a decent conversation about how we ought to proceed with this most important national institution.
It’s almost universally believed in private that the universal nature of many benefits for pensioners can’t continue. I’m yet to meet a politician who behind closed doors justifies why a retired accountant on a lavish pension from yesteryear with a villa in the Algarve needs a bung for his bills as much as the former shop assistant with no private pension and a draughty terrace that doesn’t belong to her.
Most of you admit freely in conversation that there’s not that much you can do to significantly change the level of energy bills your constituents pay. Even the most self-aggrandizing of Westminster residents knows they can’t control the global oil price. Most accept that for good or for ill, there is no way Generation Rent will ever join their parents in their castles in anything like the same numbers.
On all sides of the House there are politicians who think too many young people go automatically to university; indeed, whisper it, that many apprenticeships aren’t worth the praise heaped on them so often.
Many agree, as we may well be reminded in the coming months, that the big picture of the economy – the recovery – is intensely more dependent on conditions way beyond our shores than any decision made in No 11 or on Threadneedle Street. Present company not excepted, Chancellors are quick to blame international conditions when winds blow ill, quick to claim credit when the climate is kind.
And in the runup to the next election, when push comes to shove, in private, a fair number of our politicians accept that when considering the scale of sorting out the backblast of the global downturn of five years ago, the gap between the parties’ plans to do so exists, but is not wide. And yes, you all agree that there is no way you can give every detail of how you will make it all add up, however much my industry bays for it.
Add all that up, and there is one chunky common manifesto that will never get written.
In a world where every moment, almost every word, is subject to instant scrutiny, it doesn’t fit your individual political narratives to say things considered traditionally to be politically awkward. Certainly, even gingerly edging a pinkie toe over the party line has its risks.
But let’s face it – the current modus operandi of divining dividing lines that mask agreement isn’t exactly driving the public wild. Rather, it’s driving them rapidly into the arms of others. I acknowledge that our vigorous political culture doesn’t always reward honesty. But there is power too in saying what you really think; at the risk of sounding trite, of telling the full truth. Common beliefs – even the current unsayables above – won’t stay secret for ever.
Laura Kuenssberg is chief correspondent and presenter for the BBC’s Newsnight. She tweets as @bbclaurak.
The House: Relations between the UK and China have shown strong positive growth in the last two years. Will the 2015 general election in Britain affect China-UK relations?
Ambassador Liu: China-UK relations have in general maintained a good momentum and entered a new phase of comprehensive growth and inclusive development. A healthy and stable China-UK relationship is China’s long-term commitment. It is also the shared aspiration of Chinese and British people. I believe it represents the consensus of all political parties of Britain. Therefore no matter what the result of next year’s general election in Britain is, I hope it will not affect the momentum and trend of China-UK relations. As a matter of fact, many important exchange and cooperation projects under discussion are cross-party and will go beyond the general election.
Hong Kong has an important role in the global financial and trading system. How do you see ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong? What are China’s comments and expectations on the British government’s response to the developments in Hong Kong?
Since late September, some people in Hong Kong have illegally blocked streets and boycotted law enforcement by police. Their actions have seriously disrupted Hong Kong’s law and order, poisoned Hong Kong’s economic environment and tarnished Hong Kong’s international image. If unchecked, they will only reverse the progress of democracy in Hong Kong, and even destabilise Hong Kong. Dealing with ‘Occupy Central’ in accordance with the law, maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and preserving its economic environment is in tune with the wishes of the majority of Hong Kong’s people and serves the fundamental interests of all countries, including the UK.
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China. Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs. Hong Kong’s political reform must follow the Basic Law and the related decisions of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. No foreign government or individual has the right to intervene. I hope the British government and parliament will understand and respect China’s position and not interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong and China by any means. I hope they will do more to promote Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity as well as the healthy development of China-UK relations.
How would you comment on the current state and prospects of China-UK cooperation in trade, infrastructure, green energy and new and high technology? What is the progress in Chinese investment in British high-speed rail and nuclear power?
China-UK economic cooperation in recent years has seen gratifying progress. In the first three quarters of this year, our bilateral trade reached $59.5bn, up 20.2% year-on-year. Britain has become one of the main overseas destinations for Chinese investment. Since 2012, Chinese investment in Britain in various forms totaled more than $18bn. This represents more than the total volume of investment over the previous three decades. In the first half of 2014, Chinese investment in Britain exceeded $5bn. Moreover, this investment has expanded from trade, transport and telecommunications to advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, internet, R&D, hotels and real estate.
Mutual beneficial cooperation between our two countries has a bright future. We are making steady progress towards the goal of $100bn in bilateral trade by 2015. Chinese companies have shown a strong interest in building British nuclear power plants and high-speed rail. The competent authorities on both sides have signed the MOU on strengthening cooperation in civil nuclear energy and the MOU on cooperation in rail. These two MOUs set out the policy framework for our cooperation in these two sectors. The relevant authorities and industries of our two countries are having intensive consultations aimed at delivering early results.
London has become a global RMB trading centre. What is China’s plan to further advance China-UK financial cooperation and support London becoming a global centre for offshore RMB business?
As Chinese Ambassador to the UK, I have witnessed how London’s offshore RMB business has started from scratch and gone from strength to strength. In the three years since the Economic and Financial Dialogue launched the program in 2011, London’s offshore RMB business has come a long way. Britain was the first to sign a bilateral currency swap agreement with China. London was awarded the first RQFII quota outside Asia. The first RMB clearing bank outside Asia was created in London.
London was the first to issue RMB denominated financial products. Notably, the British government has recently issued a 3bn RMB sovereign bond, which has made the UK the first foreign government to issue RMB sovereign debt. It also means RMB has become one of Britain’s reserve currencies. Its significance has gone beyond a bilateral scope. Looking ahead to the future, I am confident that London will become one of the world’s most dynamic offshore RMB markets.
However, we should also be aware that RMB internationalisation cannot be achieved overnight. It should proceed in a step-by-step manner. China will deepen financial reform, follow market rules and create favorable conditions for financial and economic cooperation with other countries. I believe the Chinese and British financial sectors should seize opportunities and make joint efforts to boost RMB business in London, take China-UK financial cooperation to a whole new level and inject vigour and vitality to the China-UK comprehensive strategic partnership.
How important is the UK’s position as a gateway to the European market to Chinese investors? Does Germany have more appeal to them?
Britain and Germany each have their own strengths. It is hard to say which has greater appeal. According to my observations, Chinese investors place importance on Britain’s unique role in Europe. First, Britain is a champion for free trade and market rules. It is open to Chinese investments in infrastructure, telecommunications and water. Second, Britain is an international hub for finance, trade and information. Its connections with the European, North American, Middle Eastern and African markets are wide and mature. Third, Britain is strong in high-end manufacturing. It is a leader in innovation and R&D.
In addition, Britain has accumulated rich experience in many fields such as urbanisation, healthcare, old-age care, energy conservation and environmental protection. China has a lot to learn from Britain’s experience. I believe deeper economic and trade links between China and Britain can make Britain a torchbearer of China-Europe cooperation, an important offshore innovation base for China, a leading developed country to work with China in infrastructure and an all-round partner for building China’s modern services.
Many Chinese companies now have investments in Britain, such as Huawei and Rekoo. What more can be done to help attract such companies to the UK, and why do they find Britain attractive? How can we foster Chinese success stories such as Alibaba in the UK?
Recent years have seen a sharp increase in Chinese investment in the UK. The UK has become one of the top destinations for Chinese investment. According to incomplete statistics, about 500 Chinese companies now operate in the UK and have succeeded to varying standards.
That being said, some challenges remain. Due to lack of information, many Chinese companies willing to make investments in the UK do not have sufficient understanding of the UK market, its operation and business models. More can be done to bring the supply side and demand side together. I hope the UK will do more to promote itself and improve its investment environment. I believe with our joint efforts, Chinese companies could achieve similar success in the UK to that of Alibaba.
The British government has taken some measures to revise visa rules for Chinese businesses and tourists. Is China encouraged by the response? Could they do more?
The visa issue has been highly topical for Chinese and British business, financial, cultural, educational and tourism circles. According to UK figures, between June 2013 and June 2014, the UK side issued 390,000 visas to Chinese citizens, up by 22% on a year-on-year basis. I hope this trend will continue. In terms of working visas, we hope Britain will provide greater facilitation to Chinese staff based in Britain, increase the number of working visas and shorten the processing time. This will help Britain attract overseas investment and boost the consumer market. I am confident that Britain will continue to implement visa policies and measures that benefit both countries and lend support to China-UK people-to-people exchanges and comprehensive growth in bilateral relations.
What do you make of internet social media such as WeChat in China? Many UK ambassadors are on Twitter; do you plan to join them?
The rise of WeChat in China in the past few years has fundamentally changed the way people communicate. The latest 2014 figures show that there are 600m WeChat users in China, posting and reposting over 400m pieces of information every day. A total of 98% of central and local government departments, including the Foreign Ministry, now use social media like WeChat and Weibo to interact with the public.
The feedback has been very positive. The website of the Chinese Embassy in the UK has received wide attention from home and abroad. We place much importance on the huge influence of social media such as Twitter and Facebook in the UK. We have been exploring various platforms, including social media, to tell stories about developments and changes in China and are delighted to interact with Chinese and foreign friends who follow China and care about China-UK relations. I myself use internet a lot, including Twitter, Facebook and WeChat.
What is your favourite place to visit in London and why?
London is a charming international metropolis, and has left an indelible imprint on my diplomatic career of 40 years. It has impressed me in many ways. Museums are the places I frequent the most, so if I had to pick one place, it would be a museum. The British Museum, Science Museum, V&A Museum, National Gallery, Tate Britain, Natural History Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, the Wallace Collection – the list goes on and on. London deserves to be called a city of museums. They are the epitome of Britain’s history and a symbol of British culture. When people ask me what to see in London, I always recommend museums.