Don’t bet on a Tory landslide
Gordon Brown may have seen off a second coup but, given his humiliation in June’s elections and David Cameron’s handsome poll lead, a thumping Tory victory in 2010 seem all but inevitable. Not so fast, though. Cameron currently boasts a meagre 198 MPs. To win he needs 125 more. What are the odds?
Assuming a uniform swing, pollster Peter Kellner thinks a 6 per cent poll lead will only just see Cameron draw level with Labour, at about 280 seats each. For a majority of one over all parties, Cameron needs a lead of roughly 11 per cent; a swing almost as large as the one that handed Tony Blair a majority of 179 in 1997. A decent majority of around 40 seats needs a massive 13 per cent lead. And while this glum picture could be brightened if Lord Ashcroft’s millions win over marginal seats, or Lib Dem tactical voters ditch Labour for the Tories, it remains an extremely steep hill to climb. So even if Cameron wins 40 per cent, and Labour slump to 30, a hung parliament is on the cards. Cameron would become PM. Rather than cosying up with Clegg’s Lib Dems, however, he’s likely to soldier on in a minority and call a second election. Next year may well end up as a spin on the old story: you wait five years for an election, and then two come along at once.
The Prospect plan to save the world
Sweeping schemes for constitutional reform and global salvation abound. Not to be left out, Prospect has a plan that neatly solves two problems in one—and doesn’t even need primary legislation. The idea is this: cap the number of government members drawn from parliament at 50 (down from the current figure of 124)—and draw the remaining talent from outside. At a stroke, this would create more competition for government jobs—not a bad thing in itself—and give a boost to the parliamentary career path. With fewer government jobs to chase, more of parliament’s brightest could focus on chairing select committees, improving legislation and keeping the government in check; all of which would strengthen the legislature against an over-mighty executive.
In his chaotic June cabinet reshuffle Gordon Brown brought in a record number of lords, seen by some as an indication of a government low on steam. Much better to start afresh with a new system where genuine experts and talented non-parliamentarians could fill the vacant slots—and thus strike a blow against the professionalisation of politics, where too few MPs have experiences outside Westminster. America stuffs its executive with able non-politicians drawn from businesses and charities. And just as in the US, this new breed could fairly easily be made accountable to the legislature. So why shouldn’t we? Go on Gordon—cut the ministers, not the MPs. A genuine government of all the talents is there for the taking.
What’s the German for saving face?
The German word “angst” entered regular English usage only after the second world war. But it’s now a feeling all too familiar to foreign office mandarins fretting about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall this November, writes Hans Kundnani. Two decades ago, fearing European domination, Margaret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to derail German reunification. Chancellor Kohl wrote in his memoirs of his annoyance at Thatcher’s foot stamping in meetings, and even overheard her say: “we beat them twice, and here they are again!”
Behind the scenes, FCO top brass weren’t as sceptical as the iron lady, seeing a unified Germany as all but inevitable. And today—in a desperate attempt to show off their spadework and put to rest lingering German annoyance—David Miliband’s finest have decided to rush out a series of internal archives a full decade before they are due under the 30-year rule. The documents, which will be released in October, include minutes of meetings, as well as of negotiations between Bush Snr, Gorbachev, Mitterrand and Kohl. They graphically illustrate Thatcher’s attitude—including some pointed annotations in the margins of briefings—as well as, by contrast, the more the more benign, pro-unification tactics of the FCO. Clearly, our government believes in freedom of information—so long as it’s all good news.
The greatest insult in eastern Europe The EU breathed a minor sigh of relief this June as Latvia—the most disastrously depressed economy of its 27 members—forced through huge budget cuts, making it eligible for a further tranche of the €7.5bn emergency loan package currently keeping it afloat. The EU is terrified that, if Latvia ditches its pegging to the euro and devalues, other eastern economies will follow—and that the rot could even make it as far as the eurozone itself via Greece. But, Latvians are increasingly asking, is the cost of fiscal rescue too high? GDP is expected to drop by about 20 per cent this year, while the Latvian currency’s pegging to the euro makes exports painfully uncompetitive and the burden of euro loans taken out by Latvian businesses unsustainable.
For a nation that two years ago was enjoying Europe’s biggest property boom, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. One Latvian government has fallen already this year in a welter of riots. And with wages down 20 per cent, and unemployment approaching 20 per cent, its second looks distinctly vulnerable. What next? In a worst case scenario, Lats may find themselves abandoning long-nurtured dreams of joining the eurozone and seeking solace in the arms of Russia. Either way, Latvia has got it bad: a point the Estonian Baltic Business News wasn’t slow to point out in a recent piece entitled “Is Borat smarter than Latvians?” Its central claim: that “Latvia’s standard of living will soon be lower than Kazakhstan’s.” Eastern Europe knows no greater insult.
An unlikely recession health bonus
Here’s a credit crunch data conundrum: unemployment, it seems, can make us both more ill and healthier at the same time. As you might expect, stress and financial hardship increase mortality rates for those out of work. But the sharp falls in employment that come with recession also tend to make populations healthier overall—because the desire to save money stops people from splashing out on fancy food, liquor and suchlike. According to academics Marc Suhrcke and David Stuckler, the result is an overall rise in health, as the declining health of the newly unemployed is more than balanced out by the prudent actions of the cash-conscious majority. There are intriguing oddities within the data, however. A 3 per cent rise in unemployment causes relative falls in drug abuse, road accidents, Alzheimer’s and diabetes; but it increases alcohol poisoning, liver cirrhosis and ulcers. Homicide and suicide go up too. Nevertheless, most of us should emerge from a recession a little healthier. Some good news for Gordon: if NHS reforms don’t make us well, economic mismanagement might.
Charles and Richard’s 20-year carbuncle war
Prince Charles is no fan of modern architecture. But why does he so hate Richard Rogers? Charles’s recent intervention over Chelsea barracks was no less than his third squelching of a Rogers scheme. In 1987, the architect was in line to rebuild Paternoster Square beside St Paul’s—until Charles likened the plan to a Luftwaffe assault. Then Rogers wasn’t invited to pitch to the Royal Opera— following a few discreet princely calls. And there was a barbed line in Charles’s recent speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects, about the irony of modern architects living in “lovely old houses.” Rogers lives in a fine Georgian house in Chelsea.
Word of the month: “ecology”
With a book entitled The Ecology of Commerce under my arm, I strolled to attend a talk on the “ecology of mind” while perusing a recent article on “the ecology of some parts of the UK media.” Or rather, I didn’t. But I could have done. Because, these days, metaphorical ecologies are everywhere. Why? Well, one of the best ways of sounding like you know what you’re talking about is to use a word that magically conveys a minute appreciation of any situation. Hence “ecology”: a word coined in 1873 from the Greek word oikos (for “house”) to describe the study of how organisms relate to their environment. Its connotations are at once organic and benign—unlike the facelessness of “systems,” “properties” or mere “facts.” Now that environmentalism has miraculously combined the key aspects of science and religion—reason and faith—there’s no better vocabulary to appropriate in order to prove your deep sensitivity to the workings of anything really tricky.
What’s coming up
1st July Sweden takes over EU presidency 4th July Tour de France begins 4th to 5th July Wimbledon tennis finals 8th to 10th July G8 summit, Italy 8th July Indonesian presidential election 8th to 12th July First Ashes test 21st July 40 years since the Moon landing 5th July 100 years since Blériot first crossed the Channel by plane