I was disappointed to hear Andy Burnham on Marr last Sunday declare his opposition to free schools. He put plenty of distance between himself and Ed Miliband, even admitting Labour spent too much in the run-up to the recession, which is quite something given that he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the time. But Miliband was spot on, apparently, when it came to free schools. He then reeled off all the usual guff about âexperimenting with childrenâs educationâ, âsurplus placesâ, âunqualified teachersâ, etc.
Itâs tempting to take Burnham to task over this, particularly as heâs the favourite to become the next Labour leader. What could be clearer evidence that heâs in the pocket of Len McCluskey than siding with the teaching unions? But Iâm going to rise above it. Burnham is like one of those Japanese soldiers who emerges from the Burmese jungle, bayonet at the ready, after the war has ended. Newsflash Andy: your side lost. David Cameron has pledged to open 500 new free schools. If you add those to the 250 or so that have opened already, that brings the total to 750. Like it or not, free schools are now a permanent feature of Englandâs educational landscape. If and when Labour ever gets back in, they wonât be able to do anything about them.
In todayâs Guardian, Matthew DâAncona warns that David Cameron may face a successful rebellion from the 'Runnymede Tories' if he tries to repeal the Human Rights Act, led by David Davis. Not only would that be a major blow to his authority, it would make remaining in the EU a less attractive option in the forthcoming referendum. Human Rights experts insist that the two issues are wholly separate, although thatâs open to debate. But thereâs no doubt theyâre politically linked. In the minds of some sections of the British public, a good argument for withdrawing from the EU will be to escape the jurisdiction of the European Court â they will think that, whether itâs true or not â and Cameron will be keen to âbreak the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rightsâ before the first votes are cast.
Iâm conflicted about this. On the one hand, I like the idea of making the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom the ultimate guarantor of our human rights rather than the European Court. British judges are surely more reliable guardians of liberty than the jurists in Strasbourg. But on the other, Iâm nervous about the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights becoming less sacrosanct, particularly Article 10, which deals with freedom of expression. (To read more, click here.)
I appeared on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago to discuss the age-old question of whether political satire is dead. I donât think it is, but it has lost a good deal of vitality in recent years and the role of satire in the general election campaign is a case in point. There has been no shortage of âsatiricalâ television programmes, but none of them have cut through. The only sign of life has been the flurry of photoshopped images on Twitter that have followed each misstep of the partiesâ campaigns, such as Ed Milibandâs decision to carve Labourâs election pledges on to an eight-foot stone slab. If Stanley Kubrik was still alive heâd be suing people for illegally reproducing images from the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What accounts for satireâs ailing health? I donât hold with the text book explanation, which is that standards in public life have sunk so low that nothing a satirist could come up with could be as bad as the reality. This was what Tom Lehrer had in mind when he said political satire died when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. The trouble is, every generation thinks politics has hit rock bottom, but it just keeps on getting worse. In 2012, the Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union. (To read more, click here.)
For those of us who arenât members of the centre-Left metropolitan elite, it was almost surreal watching the BBCâs army of presenters and so-called âexpertsâ on Thursday night trying to wish away the exit poll that showed Labour and the Lib Dems facing a rout and David Cameron on course to remain in No 10.
They were determined to stick to what theyâd already decided was the dominant narrative of the night â the SNPâs success â and ignore the real story unfolding beneath their noses.
Seats that were expected to fall to Labour in what was supposed to be a good night for Ed Milibandâs party were held by Conservative MPs with significant swings in their favour. (To read more, click here.)
A couple of weeks ago I returned to my old Oxford college for a âgaudyâ â posh, Oxford-speak for a reunion. This one was for those of us who came up to Brasenose in 1983, 1984 and 1985. That group includes the Prime Minister but, not surprisingly, he wasnât there. I imagine he didnât want to risk being photographed at a black tie dinner with a bunch of his old Oxford pals in the middle of a general election campaign â or maybe he just finds these occasions a bit of a bore.
When I attended my first gaudy about 15 years ago, I assumed that the only people whoâd bother to turn up would be those whoâd made a success of their lives and theyâd spend the entire time bragging about it. In fact, it was much more random than that. The successful and the unsuccessful were mixed up together and if their different career trajectories were a source of tension it soon disappeared after the first drink. I was expecting my Oxford contemporaries to have become more status conscious with age, but it wasnât apparent on that night. It was as if they were able to shed their personal histories and return to a more innocent period in their lives when they still had everything before them.
It was the same on this occasion. The experiences weâd had since leaving Brasenose 30 years ago seemed to vanish in a puff of smoke and we were transported back in time to the mid-eighties. Looking at all the familiar faces sitting in the dining hall, I felt like I was in an Oxford version of Back to the Future. Except, in this case, the Hollywood special effects wizards had used their magic to make everyone look 30 years older. When I was talking to the people Iâd been closest to, I had to suppress the impulse to grab them and pull the pillows out from under their shirts and wipe the ageing make-up from their faces. (To read more, click here.)
If Spitting Image were still in service, you can easily imagine how it might skewer Russell Brand.
There he is, puppet head framed by flowing locks, when a friend suggets he might want to rethink some aspects of his lifestyle if he's serious about re-inventing himself as a left-wing crusader against inequality.
âLike what?â replies the jet-setting playboy with a $3m mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Well, his friend suggests, how about cutting back on some of the less essential members of his domestic staff? Does he really need a hairdresser on call 24/7, for instance? Or a permanent chauffeur? And what about his travel arrangements? Is using a commercial airliner out of the question, instead of always travelling by private jet?
âNah,â says Brand. âDonât be daft.â
The weird thing is, he'd be right. It would be a daft suggestion. Russell Brandâs transformation from a cynical, sexually-voracious movie star into an earnest, working class revolutionary is now complete. The disconnect â the yawning chasm â between Brandâs decadent, extravagant lifestyle and the left-wing values he professes to believe in hasnât caused so much as a hiccup. And itâs not just his millions of fans who have taken the new Russell Brand at face value. As weâve seen this week, the leader of the Labour Party takes him seriously as well. Without a hint of irony, Ed Miliband has decided that abasing himself at the feet of this privately-educated, 39-year-old multi-millionaire is a good way of winning over angry, disaffected âyoofsâ. (To read more, click here.)
I think it was a close run thing, but the winner tonight was David Cameron.
Ed Miliband was workmanlike, but he didnât do as well as Nicola Sturgeon, who scored a direct hit when she said â correctly â that Ed would do a deal with the SNP if itâs his only hope of forming a government on May 8th. That got the biggest cheer of the night, not because thatâs a government the audience would like to see, but because she nailed exposed Edâs dishonestly so effectively. A win for Sturgeon means this debate wonât have helped Labour in Scotland.
Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett did okay, which, again, will hurt Labour, because a vote for Plaid Cymru and the Greens will, in many constituencies, help the Conservatives.
Nigel Farage did less well than he usually does â and that will help the Tories too. Miliband made a tactical error in going for Farage because, according to the pollsters, UKIP defectors will break for the Tories over Labour at a rate of two to one. If Miliband succeeded in persuading anyone not to vote UKIP, that will help the Tories.
Finally, the reason this was good for the Prime Minister is because it gave us a taste of the chaos that will ensue if Ed Miliband is in a position to form a government on May 8th. This is what a ârainbow coalitionâ would look like â a weak Labour leader being pushed to the left by three anti-austerity party leaders.
Iâm disappointed that Ed Ballsâs suggestion that the Office of Budget Responsibility should audit the partiesâ manifestos was never taken up, not least because we will never know what Robert Chote thinks of the Green Partyâs claim that all its proposals are âfully costedâ. Believe it or not, this includes the commitment to spend ÂŁ45 billion on loft insulation in the next Parliament.
Itâs quite something, the Greensâ manifesto. No doubt youâll have already read about some of their more reasonable measures â such as the âcomplete ban on cages for hens and rabbitsâ and the insistence that âUK taxpayersâ money is not used for bullfightingâ. But the sheer scale of their financial profligacy is breath taking. (To read more, click here.)