This column is inspired by the subject headings in two emails I received last week, which stood out among the hundreds of gov.uk alerts and messages from nuns asking me if I knew Tristram Hunt’s address.
The first email was from the Lib Dem press office publicising its press conference on election tax and spend plans. The subject title was: “Liberal Democrats Will Finish the Job But Finish It Fairly”, which amused me because it sounded like something my builder might say to me. “We can finish the job, ooh, back end of April, maybe early May, might cost a bit more money than we originally said, can’t do fairer than that I’m afraid.” Or, in the Lib Dems’ case: “I know we said we could get this work done in five years, but it’s going to take another five years to sort out all that shoddy workmanship from the previous builders. Who put those pipes in? Bunch of cowboys!” Etc.
What Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander announced on Thursday, against a backdrop of grey mist outside the window of the 52nd floor of the Shard, was tax rises of at least £8bn and up to £16bn in spending cuts. The Lib Dems say the tax rises will be targeted at the rich – including their version of the mansion tax and increasing charges on non-doms. But what was most interesting was the shift in the ratio of spending cuts to tax rises, from 80/20 to what Clegg and Alexander claimed was 75/25.
But this ratio is based on the years 2010-2020, not 2015-2020. Given manifestos are about what a party wants to do in the future, the real Lib Dem aspiration for the next parliament is closer to 60/40, which is what Vince Cable has been calling for – and that means higher taxes. It was just that, up in the clouds, Clegg and Alexander failed to spell that out.
Which brings me to the second email whose subject title also caught my eye. Bookmakers William Hill, inspired by the Lord Ashcroft poll showing that the SNP will sweep through Scotland on 7 May, declared: “Dan & Doug – Alexanders Not-So-Great.” The email revealed that, based on that Ashcroft poll, Danny Alexander and his Labour namesake Douglas, two men in charge of their party’s election strategies, are now no longer the bookies’ favourites in their own seats.
Given this tricky situation, why is Cable not being given a more prominent role in the Lib Dems’ campaign? Why wasn’t he at the top of the Shard? Alexander (Danny) is not only in danger of losing his seat, but he is also seen by Lib Dem voters as too close to George Osborne. By far and away, Cable is the most popular Lib Dem figure among traditional supporters and the wider public and is arguably in a stronger position in his Twickenham seat. He is unpopular in Downing Street and the Treasury, and that’s exactly why the Lib Dems need him to save the party from electoral oblivion – not as leader, but as a champion of the party’s core aims and values. During the 2010 election, the party thought it could rely on Clegg and a bit of look-into-the-camera charisma during the TV debates, yet halfway through the campaign Cable was brought into a more high-profile position to give the Lib Dems a boost.
When I was a student, I used to work in a William Hill bookies. It was in the days when, at the start of a horse or dog race, you had to insert a docket into the till. The till would ring and the docket would be time stamped – making all bets after that time void. Just before that moment, there would be a whiff of panic in the air as punters rushed to get their bets on.
Even though it feels like this election race has already started, the till docket has not yet been rung. True panic has not yet set in. If Danny Alexander is indeed a non-runner, there is still time for the Lib Dems to put all their money on Vince.
The Eagle has landed
I have long disagreed with the assumption that all women hate PMQs because it’s too noisy. I happen to like the bear-pit atmosphere, and if people wanted to watch a more sedate House of Commons, they should try an Adjournment Debate on BBC Parliament.
While it is true that some female MPs hate the weekly jousting, I was cheered that Angela Eagle, the shadow Commons leader whom I interviewed last week, gets some enjoyment out of goading David Cameron. Eagle herself is a lot of fun at the Despatch Box – one of her best jokes was a response, last year, to Boris Johnson’s description of the Deputy Prime Minister as Cameron’s “prophylactic protection device”. She said: “I know I’m not the world’s greatest expert, but I thought you were supposed to be able to trust contraception.”
Scent of Labour’s next leader?
Say what you like about Damian McBride (and they do), he has been around long enough to scent the way the wind is blowing. After Tristram Hunt questioned the teaching abilities of nuns on Question Time last week, McBride tweeted that he used to think the shadow Education Secretary could be the next Labour leader, but has now “renounced” this vow.
Instead, his money is on Liz Kendall who, as I revealed last month, is the favourite of Blairite MPs. Given that McBride, one-time Thomas Cromwell to Gordon Brown, is no Blairite, does this mean Kendall is the woman to finally unite the Labour Party?
... and the next Tory leader?
From Hilary Mantel’s rendering of Thomas Cromwell as a “blacksmith’s son” in her historical novel Wolf Hall, to Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary who is always referred to as “the son of a bus driver”, we seem to be more obsessed with where we have come from than where we are going.
So where is Javid going? He is often tipped as a future Conservative leader, and at the Press Gallery lunch on Thursday he opened his speech by saying: “I’d like to announce my intention to stand… oh sorry, wrong speech.” This is not something Theresa May, for example, would have joked about – given that she has serious intentions if the Tories lose the election.
So does Javid’s casual audacity mean he really has ruled it out, as he claimed during the lunch? Or – given that his mentor George Osborne might decide by the summer that the party might not want more of the same – was it a very clever double bluff?