November 2008 Archives
If it's now an offence to leak information to journalists, half of Westminster is in trouble.
But this might be the situation we're in, after Conservative Immigration Minister Damian Green was rounded up by anti-terrorism officers on suspicion of "conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office".
His crime, apparently, is to tell the public things the Government didn't want us to know about what it is doing and how it spends our money.
Nobody denies they were true. And nobody suggests they were official secrets likely to put the security of the nation at risk.
They were just embarrassing to the Government.
It is difficult in these tumultuous times to be certain about anything.
But one prediction I feel entirely safe in making is this:
The ÃÂ£180 million Midland Metro tram extension through Birmingham city centre, from Snow Hill to Five Ways, will never be built.
At least, not if it has to be paid for by the Government.
My column in today's Post focuses on Birmingham City Council's campaign for greater freedom to make its own decisions. It may sound like a dry topic, but what council leader Mike Whitby is proposing is a radical change - with local authorities overseeing health and police services.
That doesn't mean councils would directly manage everything any more than Ministers in London do at the moment, but they would decide the top priorities for health spending and control police authorities, the bodies which oversee police forces.
My gut instinct is that devolving power down to local level is a good thing. Councillors have more idea what's going on in their local area than Government Ministers representing constituencies across the country.
In practice, many decisions are already made at local level by officials, but most people have no idea who they are and, unlike councillors, we don't have the power to sack them if they do a lousy job.
But when I discussed this with a colleague today, she dismissed the idea on the grounds, to put it crudely, that she didn't trust local councillors to do a decent job. Whether or not she had a high opinion of national politicians, she had an even lower one of their local equivalents.
Is this a common view? Can Coun Whitby and his colleagues be trusted to oversee our NHS?
Birmingham City Council certainly intends to keep pushing its ideas, and may have some success, as both major parties nationally are talking about devolving more power to councils - so we may find out whether they are capable or not, before too long.
Gordon Brown has been hinting again that the Government is planning to cut taxes when it presents its pre-budget report on Monday, November 24.
He told the Commons that "fiscal measures" were needed, in order to "help businesses and families now."
The Conservatives are trying to push the argument that the money to pay for tax cuts will have to come from borrowing - which will need to be paid back.
Tory leader David Cameron urged the Prime Minister to "be straight with the British people" and admit the cash will eventually have to come out of our pockets, in the form of higher taxes in years to come.
But this is a little disingenuous, as the Tories must have noticed that the Government has said more or less that.
Birmingham Hall Green MP Steve McCabe, a Government whip, said openly that the money will have to be repaid, when he spoke to the Birmingham Post & Mail recently.
Employment Minister Tony McNulty has said the same.
It's not quite certain that this will mean higher taxes, as tax revenues will rise once the economy starts to grow again even if tax rates remain the same, assuming spending is controlled.
But Labour have made no attempt to deny that taxes could eventually have to rise, and with good reason.
Mr Cameron is probably right in his prediction. But Labour are gambling that voters won't worry to much about the future if they get some extra cash in their pockets now, and if they are convinced it is all for the benefit of the wider economy as well as themselves.
What may be a problem for Mr Brown, however, is that he has raised expectations to such a level that people will be expecting a give-away mini-budget next week.
If his vaunted "fiscal measures" amount to an increase in tax credits for the low paid and a bit more on the winter fuel allowance, families on average wages who are feeling the pinch but aren't poor enough to qualify for the windfall may feel hard done by.
Birmingham City Council's failure to back unequivocally the Midland Metro extension from Snow Hill to Five Ways is not just extraordinary, it is verging on political incompetence.
Simply put, does the city's Conservative-Liberal Democrat leadership have any real wish to push ahead with the ÃÂ£180 million plan?
MPs are angry that they only have 90 minutes to debate plans for new regional Commons committees, which will oversee the work of Government in regions such as the West Midlands.
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con Staffordshire South) has led opposition, with an impassioned speech accusing the Government of stifling debate.
He said: "We make a mockery of this place if we do not have time to debate important issues."
So far, he's been talking for 35 minutes. As I write, the actual debate on how we run our region hasn't begun.
Call me old fashioned, indeed I am old fashioned, but I hadn't realised it was common practice among young people to smoke cannabis during or after a visit to the pub.
Of course, quite a lot of people do indulge in illegal drugs of one sort or another - but not most people.
I certainly hadn't realised this was the chosen way of relaxation among young Muslims in Birmingham.
But then, until this week, I hadn't had the benefit of listening to pearls of wisdom from Dr Mushuq Ally, Birmingham City Council's head of equalities and diversity.
The long saga of the Government's attempts to introduce regional government in England may at last be coming to an end.
Labour once hoped to introduce directly-elected regional assemblies to regions such as the West Midlands. Not because anyone wanted them, but because it would silence complaints that the Scots and the Welsh - who already have their own assemblies - were enjoying unfair privileges denied to the English.
When it became clear that English voters didn't want a new tier of regional government, the Government was stuck with a bunch of regional quangos with nobody to oversee them.
These quangos spend ÃÂ£1.3 billion a year in the West Midlands, but local politicians have almost no control over them. They are accountable directly to Ministers in London.
So now, at last, someone has come up with an answer. Local MPs, who, after all, we already elect and pay, are to do the job instead, with the creation of a series of regional select committees.
This may sound like yet another layer of bureaucracy, but the Commons is already full of politicians and committees. Creating a bit of time in the timetable specifically to discuss the West Midlands can't do the region any harm.
But Labour could face more embarrassment, as it seems some MPs would much rather be discussing Iran or global warming.
Has the nation forgiven Gordon Brown?
Just a few weeks ago, his career appeared to be over.
Labour backbenchers were openly calling for a new leadership contest, and the consensus at the party conference in Manchester was that he would never recover from a disastrous 12 months which saw his reputation plummet.
And it was seen as inevitable that the SNP would sweep to victory in the Glenrothes by-election, where Labour was defending a majority of more than 10,000.
But today, things look very different - and Scottish voters chose to stick with Labour when they went to the polls.
Mr Brown's party started in pole position, but even winning a hefty majority in a general election does not make a seat safe for the governing party in a by-election.
So his success in Glenrothes suggests that he is still capable of winning elections.
And although opinion polls are still giving the Tories a lead of eight or nine points, the gap between them is closing.
Mr Brown may be the first Prime Minister in history whose career is actually save by an economic crisis.
But it does like as if Labour's strategy of portraying him as the only man with the experience and gravity to lead Britain through such difficult times may be working.
Sensitivity over the relationship with private outsourcing firm Capita is so great at Birmingham City Council that it could be cut with a knife.
Stephen Hughes, the council chief executive, is particularly prickly when it comes to any criticism of the link up.
Quite what he thought the media reaction would be when the council published a "lessons to be learnt" report into installation of the Voyager IT system last year it is difficult to say.
Well after eight years at The Birmingham Post (five as picture editor) I am on the verge of leaving to pursue a career as a freelance photographer.
An American friend once asked me why the rest of the world insisted on poking its nose into their business - and specifically into the question of who should be the next US President.
As I tried to explain, if you're going to be the leader of the free world you have to expect the whole of the free world, rather than just a bit of it, to take an interest in the things you do.
Sometimes I think we Brits should get a vote in the US elections, as the result will certainly have an impact on our foreign policy.
But unlike most people I know who have been watching events in American, I've avoided jumping on the Obama bandwagon.
Some of the hype doing the rounds about Obama reminds me of the way people talked about Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.
I don't think Blair was a bad Prime Minister, but I do think some of those who were so enthusiastic about him ten or 11 years ago were disappointed, and I think some of Obama's supporters will end up equally disillusioned if he wins.
He won't want to withdraw American troops from Iraq if his advisors warn him the result will be chaos on the ground, which means he won't be able to withdraw the troops.