An escape route for Clegg, Fred Goodwin's 'rogue biscuits', and Whitehall web-browsing habits
August 24, 2011
From turtles to pandas and flamingos, a new book by biologist Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu and photographer Patrick Gries illustrates the process of evolution through skeletons. Evolution in Action is published by Thames and Hudson on 26th September

Clegg’s escape route

Has Nick Clegg persuaded David Cameron to construct him an easy exit? There are discussions within the government about whether he could replace Cathy Ashton as Britain’s next EU commissioner when European leaders pick a fresh slate of commissioners in January 2015. Ashton is better known as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, but she has a dual role as commissioner, and Britain will need a new one.

Clegg has worked in Brussels, he speaks several languages (to the discomfort of William Hague, foreign secretary, when they toured Europe together), and he needs a way out from the now-constant humiliations. Close friends of the deputy prime minister say he has become serene under frequent attacks because he sees himself as having signed a “five-year contract” with his friend Cameron—who may now give him his next job.

Cameron has the power to choose the next British commissioner, although not to decide the role in the Commission, and there is no suggestion that Clegg will replace Ashton as foreign affairs supremo, as Britain has no lock on that job.

Cameron would regard it as unhelpfully provocative to put an anti-European in Brussels, yet if he appointed a pro-European Tory, the right of his party would erupt. By choosing Clegg, he would reward his loyal friend. He would also free the Tories from any obligation to campaign with the Liberal Democrats in the next general election. If they feel such an obligation at all—a point of increasingly heated debate—it would vanish when Clegg went.

Labour MPs, who won’t now work with Clegg, would welcome the move—and so would many Lib Dems. With a more Labour-friendly leader in place, they would have the option of forming the alliance many wanted in 2010. Everyone’s a winner!

Fred the Shred’s crumbs

A new book on the economic crisis, Masters of Nothing: The Crash and how it will happen again, launched on 5th September, pulls no punches on financial complacency [see John Kay’s article]. Written by two Conservative MPs, George Osborne’s former chief of staff Matthew Hancock, and Nadhim Zahawi, it sheds new light on Fred Goodwin, the disgraced former RBS chief.

The authors reveal that Sir Fred “went so far as to refuse to allow his chief economist to attend the select committee of parliament, until the chair of the committee was forced to call and explain that if he chose not to attend he would be summoned, with the full force of the police in reserve.” They are also full of stories of Goodwin’s overbearing tendencies.

In one, “the catering staff were threatened with disciplinary action in an email entitled ‘Rogue Biscuits’ after someone had the audacity to include pink wafers in the executives’ afternoon tea.” In another, staff “went into panic mode” after a window cleaner fell off a ladder in Goodwin’s office and broke a small model aeroplane. Some were said to be more worried about Goodwin’s broken toy than the man. People in the bank “were absolutely terrified of him,” said Peter de Vink, managing director of Edinburgh Financial & General Holdings.

Beware the scribes of Davis

David Davis, the former shadow home secretary who last month undermined David Cameron by attacking the “litany of disasters” at the Met, likes to make good use of the summer months. As chairman of the public accounts committee during Blair’s first term, Davis used to fire out reports that often overshadowed the efforts of William Hague, then Tory leader. This summer, he’s been piecing together a book of contributions from 25 MPs on the Tory right, as a critique of the coalition. Now over 100,000 words, it is a call to arms for the party’s traditional wing, and will be launched by the grassroots Tory website ConservativeHome at next month’s conference.

The book, which includes pieces from MPs Richard Drax, Therese Coffey and Steve Baker, is expected to call for a referendum on EU membership and float the possibility of pulling out. It may go even wider: Davis is said to “despair” of the government’s U-turn on NHS reform and the “injustice” of Cameron’s plan to evict looters living on council estates, while wealthier ones keep their homes.

The world in his hands

As Washington hurtles towards its next debt-slashing deadline of Thanksgiving, look out for Representative Dave Camp of Michigan. He is the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the only one of 12 appointees to the new deficit reduction super committee clearly put there to compromise. All six Democrats will demand tax increases as well as further spending cuts. Camp is an occasional moderate and the most likely Republican to give in, which is all it would take get Standard and Poor’s off this Administration’s back: a simple majority of the committee would be enough to turn its recommendations into law, stabilise the US recovery and save the world.

Summer reading

A recent Freedom of Information request asked each Whitehall department to list what websites were being used by civil servants. So far, only the department for transport has provided a response, and its contents make for interesting reading. Aside from some earnest transport sites, it appears mandarins have also been surfing on a range of football sites, alongside Weightwatchers, Sainsburys, and “wallpaperdirect.”

Perhaps the most bizarre site of all to feature however, is “sexymp.com,” which asks “which MP would you rather have sex with.” One to watch

Tim Farron, president of the Liberal Democrats, is the insiders’ favourite to replace Nick Clegg as leader should the party reposition itself leftwards. The 41-year-old MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale led the rebellion by 21 Lib Dem MPs against the coalition’s hike on tuition fees in December.

He is the government’s most outspoken critic on the otherwise quiescent Lib Dem benches; he told the BBC’s World at One in July last year that the Tories were using the Lib Dems to provide “cover” for unfair policies. “David Cameron has a toxic brand,” he said. “It is not my job to detoxify it. We have to be aware he gets something out of all this. The Conservative party, at the end of it, is less ugly than when it went into it.”

Lib Dems say that if Clegg fell victim to a coalition crisis in the next year or two, Vince Cable would step in as caretaker. Chris Huhne remains bookies’ favourite, but may be too tarnished by allegations about his conduct outside parliament. If, however, there is not a contest until 2015, Farron is likely to emerge as a “clean break” candidate, untarnished by the alliance with the Tories. Every Lib Dem member has an equal vote, and Farron will appeal to a membership that is to the left of its leaders at Westminster.

Farron joined the Liberal party at 16 and became Lib Dem president of Newcastle University student union in 1991-92, before working at several universities. He won his seat in 2005 and, last year, lost the deputy leader contest to Simon Hughes—but narrowly beat Susan Kramer to the presidency.