Daily catch-up: Blair steps back as Middle East envoy; plus Joseph and the technocratic dreamcoat

Also, if Nicola Sturgeon says the SNP would never prop up a Conservative government, what is there for either David Cameron or Ed Miliband to talk to her about?

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The Independent Online

1. Anyone who wants to know what is really happening to Tony Blair’s role in the Middle East could do much worse (literally) than to watch this informative discussion on Sky News yesterday between Matthew Doyle, who used to work for Blair, and Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, which broke the story of Blair ceasing to be the Quartet representative.

2. Looking back on Blair’s time in government, Sir Michael Barber defended public service reform in the second term, when he headed the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, at the launch last night of his book, How To Run A Government.

The launch was chaired by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, who opened the event at the LSE by saying: “No one is more impatient to learn how to run a government than me.”

Barber’s presentation of the arguments of the book, which were previewed in The Independent on Sunday, was inspiring. Although he did say that he didn’t often go to the GP when he worked for Blair because he couldn’t bear the complaints. (“Now when I go to the GP they say that was the golden age.”)

He wove his experience advising governments around the world on how to deliver public service improvement with historical examples. My favourite was his account of Joseph and the technocratic dreamcoat. Here is how he tells it in the book:

“Pharaoh’s dream as interpreted by Joseph – what we would now call a Treasury Forecast – suggested that, contrary to contemporary assertions, boom and bust had not ended. After seven years, the boom would be followed by bust. Joseph advises strongly, therefore, that instead of spending as if there were no tomorrow, you should save 20 per cent (‘the fifth part’) of each year’s revenue so that when the bust comes you have the resilience to get through it. In other words, draw a trajectory for gathered corn, which will result in a store of at least 140 per cent of the baseline, a good year. Then strengthen the delivery chain; put ‘a man discreet and wise’ in charge of delivery and, for the next link in the chain, ‘let him appoint officers over the land’...

“Why, thousands of years after the story of Joseph was written for us all to learn from, do governments find it so hard to apply these lessons? It might be argued that the electoral cycle confounds long-term thinking; Joseph, after all, planned fourteen years ahead. I’m not sure this is convincing, though, especially after the economic trauma of the past decade. My guess is that citizens would be impressed by a leader who argued that, as the recovery strengthens, not only are we going to pay off the debt, we are also going to invest in our own future resilience. This might not be the easiest message for the campaign trail, but surely it should not be beyond today’s political leaders to find the words to express the fundamental concept of stewardship.”

3. It was a busy day at the LSE yesterday, which had earlier hosted a speech by Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party. She complained: “Cameron won’t rule out coalition with UKIP but seems to see SNP as beyond the pale.”

This is a bit rich coming from someone who has said: “The SNP will not formally or informally prop up a Conservative government.” There does not seem to be much point in David Cameron opening discussions with her.

It also raises the equal and opposite question of why Ed Miliband should bother to do so, as the SNP therefore has to support a Labour government in a hung parliament. Miliband finally got to where he should have started yesterday, saying

“Labour will not go into coalition govt with the SNP. There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead.”

If only he had said that weeks ago, he could have avoided hours of pointless speculation about a Labour-SNP deal, which has made it look as if Labour would be weak in a hung parliament.

Even so, the only reasons for Labour discussions with the SNP short of a coalition are politeness and a desire to respect the democratic choice of the Scottish people. Miliband need not talk to the SNP at all because in a hung parliament Sturgeon has already said she will support Labour come what may.

4. “He’s either an evil genius or a fairly normal bloke.” Michael Ashcroft’s focus groups are as interesting as ever, on Nigel Farage, whether UKIP is racist and on the Conservative election message asking for the chance to “finish the job”:

“How can you ‘finish the job’ of running the country?”

5. This is lovely by Philip Cowley and Matthew Bailey, tracing the origin of the word “Thatcherism” to Mrs Thatcher herself, although it was with the indefinite article, “a Thatcherism”, in March 1975, 40 years ago yesterday.

6. And finally, thanks to Moose Allain for this:

“Don’t write off pre-Norman British history until you’ve examined all the Angles.”

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