The Frayed Cable, Gaelic in galleries, and Britain's third sexiest politicianby Prospect / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Rite of spring: hundreds will gather at 6pm on 21st March, the vernal equinox, to watch as a ray of sunlight illuminates the Virgin Mary in the San Juan de Ortega monastery, northern Spain
He’s back! The other Miliband
After five months of discretion following his defeat to brother Ed in the Labour leadership race, David Miliband is about to break his silence. The former foreign secretary will deliver a speech at the LSE on 8th March about why the left is losing in Europe.
According to a draft seen by Prospect, Miliband will point out that governments in Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are all led by conservative or centre-right parties, and that this is for “more fundamental” reasons than a “statistical quirk.” The left, he will argue, has been “caught in a vortex of voter discontent” around “lack of protection, power and belonging,” and “needs a political agenda that matches up” to those concerns.
It doesn’t quite amount to a programme, yet, for those waiting for him to craft one in exile. But to the relief of his supporters and the many critics of his brother, David Miliband’s appetite for the fray appears to be returning.
Hunt the BBC headhunter
An intriguing figure in the search for a new chair of the BBC Trust is Dominic Loehnis, a headhunter hired to help with the quest. Loehnis happens to be an old Etonian and university friend of David Cameron, as well as a near neighbour of the prime minister in Oxfordshire. That is perhaps one explanation for why Loehnis was present just before Christmas when Cameron met James Murdoch at the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International. That’s no doubt a useful extension to Loehnis’s contact base. But whether senior BBC figures will be pleased to learn of Loehnis’s presence at the Murdoch-Cameron power dinner is another matter.
Replacing a frayed Cable
There are few walks of life with more potential for disappointment than politics. Vince Cable’s humiliation in late December, when his secret “war” on Rupert Murdoch was revealed, is just one of the latest examples. On hearing of Cable’s gaffe via the BBC’s Robert Peston, No 10 started to panic—and Prospect has now learned that David Cameron ushered Nick Clegg into a meeting to discuss who might take over as business secretary if Cable walked.
Alas, former treasury secretary David Laws was still caught up in an expenses investigation. Eventually, having agreed the position must be held by a Lib Dem, the two decided on Paddy Ashdown, who was contacted and made ready for take off. The idea—and the meeting—lasted all of 50 minutes, at which point Cable got in touch to say he wanted to stay on. But for the best part of an hour Ashdown was within touching distance of taking a seat in cabinet—and thereby fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Osborne muscles in
According to coalition sources, George Osborne wasted no time in taking advantage of Vince Cable’s damaged standing. Cable is privately furious about the outcome of February’s “Project Merlin” agreement with the banks on lending, pay and bonuses. Osborne’s “soft deal” led the Lib Dem treasury spokesman, Lord Oakeshott, to resign, declaring: “If this is robust action on bank bonuses, my name’s Bob Diamond.” But this isn’t the end of Cable’s problems. Osborne is now “in charge” of economic growth —or the lack of it—after a white paper on the topic proposed by Cable’s department was quietly scrapped by the government.
Add to this Cable’s fear that Eric Pickles’s localism bill is pursuing a “Nimby” (“Not In My Backyard”) agenda, and calls on the Tory right for cuts in corporation tax and national insurance tax, and it looks like Lib Dem life—“locked in the boot” of the coalition car, in Ed Miliband’s words—is going to get stickier this summer.
Whipping up anxiety
Relations between the Tories themselves are far from harmonious, either. Patrick McLoughlin, the chief whip, was recently overheard being asked if he realised how much anxiety the reduction in the number of constituencies at Westminster would cause among existing Tory MPs. His reply? “Hmm. That’s an advantage I hadn’t thought of.”
India’s houseless households
The British census may have reached the end of its usefulness (see Alice Miles, p16), yet India is fearlessly attempting to count its estimated 1.2bn people—and chart the extremes of their fortunes. The 2011 census form not only asks if a household has wifi, mobile phones and access to banking services, but also membership of caste and the tribe of the head of household, whether the toilet in that household is a pit, and whether the roof is made of polythene.
Most poignantly, it retains the category of “houseless households,” a large group in past polls. Surveyors, who are instructed to address all householders politely and not to fold the form for fear of creases, are told to determine that a household is houseless if the people “live in the open or by the roadside, in hume pipes, under flyovers and staircases, or in the open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms, etc.” While the number of mobile phones has soared since the last survey was conducted a decade ago, the number of those without shelter is not expected to have fallen.
An offer he could have refused
Marc Grossman is a brave man. Not only has he come out of retirement to try to fill the shoes of the late Richard Holbrooke, an outstanding US diplomat, but he is taking over Holbrooke’s job as the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan just as ties between Washington and Islamabad have become even more fraught. US claims of diplomatic immunity for an American consular official accused of killing two Pakistani civilians have, unsurprisingly, gone down very badly on the streets, with protestors calling for the official to be hanged.
Even before this latest row, a host of US diplomatic glitterati had said “thanks but no thanks” when sounded out about the job. They are said to include former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, ex-UN ambassador John Negroponte, and Nicholas Burns, who in 2005 succeeded Grossman as the under secretary of state for political affairs. In the end, though, the Obama Administration might have picked the right man. Unlike the bruising, larger-than-life Holbrooke, Grossman is a low-key operator who plays things by the book. And that may be just what’s needed right now.
Deficit killed the radio star
Spring is a bad time of year for devotees of NPR, America’s public radio network. For one whole week in April, the only spot on the dial that provides genuinely serious, in-depth and non-partisan programming is clogged up with fundraising appeals for its member stations. But fans shouldn’t tune out: these days, money from listeners is more vital than ever. Not just because of the ever-rising cost of quality programming (dedicated foreign correspondents and the like), but because the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives wants to stop government funding for public broadcasting altogether. The ostensible aim is to reduce the federal deficit, projected at $1.1 trillion for 2012. Yet public broadcasting accounts for barely 0.0001 per cent (yes, one 10,000th) of total federal spending. Evidently, that’s not the point. What these self-proclaimed deficit hawks really want is to kill off what they see as a rare “liberal stronghold” on the airwaves.
The five National Galleries of Scotland are in talks to promote multilingual appreciation of their famous works. No bad thing, one might assume. Isn’t it about time that British galleries boasting works by Canaletto, Koons and Rembrandt started printing signs that reach out to people from beyond our Anglophone shores?
Unfortunately, it isn’t the French or Italians to whom the doyens of Edinburgh’s finest artistic establishments are hoping to make friendly overtures. No, the tens of thousands of global visitors that flock to the fair city for its wonderful festivals may be greeted by an altogether more perplexing text: that of Scots Gaelic.
The only people likely to be more puzzled by this than the international art crowd are Scots themselves. The last census found that fewer than 2 per cent of the 5m people who live in Scotland speak Gaelic. A Scottish government survey of languages spoken by schoolchildren found Gaelic ranked eighth, with 626 speakers, behind Punjabi, Urdu and Polish.
Meanwhile, according to reports, a survey of the galleries’ staff concluded there was “no evidence for demand from members of the public for services and information to be provided in Gaelic.” No doubt those attempting to stoke patriotic sentiment will view the hundreds of thousands that the initiative could cost as money well spent. Others, though, might be puzzled to see a whole series of logos and texts rolled out across Edinburgh in a tongue that has no historic roots in the city.
One to watch
Chuka Umunna (above) was hailed as Labour’s new hope long before he was elected MP for Streatham last May. The young former employment lawyer jumped on the right Miliband-wagon early, expressing his hope back in 2008 that Ed could “become one of the big guns of a new political generation.” His support was rewarded last year when he was appointed Miliband’s parliamentary private secretary, ensuring he has the ear of Labour’s top man.
Umunna, however, is no party hack in the Westminster mould. He is harder to classify than most politicians; his time in the City distinguishes him from career wonks, and he is not tainted by the new Labour era. As a furious tweeter, he is seen as in touch with a young electorate that is growing more politically vocal.
In recent months he has repeatedly locked horns with George Osborne over economic policy, and turned his fire on Bob Diamond as the Barclays chief was grilled by the treasury select committee. Difficult to have it both ways forever, but despite Umunna’s willingness to put a few noses out of joint, he is fast elbowing himself into the establishment.
Heard the one about Clegg?
The Lib Dem leader is still prompting more than his share of jokes after his reversal on student fees. One of the latest: “There are two things I don’t like about Nick Clegg—his face.” A Facebook group with this quip as its name now has over 10,000 members.