Daily catch-up: Whistleresque; chickens and TV debates; and the return of Blair

Plus your guide to the 2016 US election and why an iPhone is like a battleship

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1. Lovely photograph of the Thames estuary at dusk from the London Port Authority via Clive Davis.

2. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have all written separate but identical letters to David Cameron urging him to take part in televised debates. Daniel Finkelstein in his column for The Times today (pay wall) says he has seen this movie before:

“It was once my job to prevent a chicken defecting to the Labour Party.

“In 1997 the Conservative party hired an actor to dress up as a chicken and follow Tony Blair around. Unfortunately, the more the actor saw of Mr Blair, the more he liked him. And so the idea took hold that the chicken might, as it were, cross the road. This would have been a PR disaster even greater than having involved ourselves in such a stupid stunt in the first place.

“So I was given a job. I was to have lunch with the chicken on a regular basis and keep him onside. I proved myself worthy of the trust placed in me.”

The Conservatives wanted Blair to have a TV debate with John Major but he refused, so they thought they could embarrass him by having the chicken appear at all his election campaign events. Finkelstein’s point is that the Conservatives were completely wrong. Voters say they want debates but they don’t feel strongly and the chicken had no effect except to make the Tories look a bit silly.

Finkelstein thinks Blair was quite right to refuse to take part in a debate, just as Cameron is today, and I agree with him. Debates give the outsider the advantage, as was graphically illustrated by Clegg’s success in 2010 and his failure against Farage last year.

3. Talking of Blair, there he was yesterday at the Northern Ireland select committee. I was there to see the back of his head, and to hear him remind the world how good he is at defending tough decisions. Often, select committees are poor instruments of accountability, prone to grandstanding and lazy questioning. Not this one. The opening exchanges, with Ian Paisley Jr, Naomi Long and Sylvia Hermon, were tough, precise and respectful. Well worth watching (not necessarily all two and a quarter hours), to see the British parliamentary system at its best.

Donald Macintyre’s sketch is here.

In other Blair news, Alan Johnson says that he and Blair “fell out” because of a joke he told.

4. Venn diagram of the day: the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, by Nate Silver:




5. This, via Charles Arthur, is great: Benedict Evans on the parallels between 1900s battleships and the iPhone.

6. And finally, thanks to Chris Heaton-Harris for this:

“Was refereeing at the weekend and a parachutist landed on the pitch. I cautioned him for descent.”

(Particularly good because he is actually a football referee, as well as a Conservative MP.)