Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Life of Olly

I am running the London Marathon on the 23rd of April 2017 to raise money for COSMIC (Children of St Mary's Intensive Care). You can make a donation here.

Here is why I am doing it.


Olly was born on 19th September 2011. He was our first child.

The mixture of emotions that I felt the day he was born was utterly overwhelming. The joy at having become a father and having brought life into the world. The surprise at our baby being a boy (we had chosen not to find out until the birth). The relief that the birth had gone well.

But also the worry that he seemed to be struggling to breathe a little bit on occasion. The confusion about why he seemed unable to make any noise when he tried to cry. The fear that, despite the reassurances from the doctors and nurses that he was probably fine and it was likely just to be a bit of mucus build-up, that in fact something was wrong. Perhaps very wrong.

At first I tried to dismiss my fears. He seemed OK when he was resting. They checked him over a few times and kept coming to the conclusion that he would be fine and we just needed to let him recover from the trauma of the birth. I even sent a “Mother and baby doing well” text to friends and family, trying to believe, hoping that they were right and I was worrying about nothing.

They were wrong.

Around 7 hours after he was born he had a serious respiratory collapse. By this time we were on the maternity ward but we were lucky to have a very switched-on trainee midwife who spotted there was a real problem and our son was whisked away from us into the special care baby unit.

And so it began. The days and weeks and months of tests. Paediatric consultants, respiratory consultants, cardiologists, nephrologists, gastro-enterologists, registrars, senior house officers, paediatric intensive care units.

Our lives were a blur as we followed our beautiful baby boy from hospital to hospital. The more they looked, the more they started to find all sorts of problems none of which had been picked up in any of the pre-natal scans.

We started to become familiar with all sorts of terms that most new parents never need to know. Supraglottic stenosis, Subglottic stenosis, submucosal cleft, bifid uvula, cryptorchidism, patent ductus arteriosus, pelvic kidney, reflux, tracheomalacia, bronchomalacia, laryngomalacia, nasogastric tube, echoing, intubation, extubation, BiPAP ventilation, CPAP ventilation, oscillation. The new terms came daily. Sometimes hourly.

The decision at 6 weeks of age to consent for him to have a tracheostomy in the end was not a difficult one. He had had to be kept on his front the whole time (“nursing prone” another term we got very used to) which was not sustainable in the long term. He had already suffered numerous respiratory attacks and the doctors were concerned that without a reliable patent airway he was at greater risk. I asked the question “What if this doesn’t fix the breathing problem?” I was told that given what they knew it was very likely to fix it.

At first we thought they were right. He was on room air and off oxygen support within a few days. For the first time since the day he was born we could sit him up and play with him in his bed. He could suddenly see the wonder of the world. He was particularly taken with a pink butterfly on his mobile with which he was totally mesmerised. We knew there were still lots of problems but it felt like a major milestone had been achieved.

Then they found the malrotation of the intestine. This is a potentially life threatening condition so they booked him in for an operation in another hospital. We were incredibly relieved when the highly skilled surgeon declared the operation a success.

Shortly afterwards we had some more good news. Olly’s swallow appeared to be safe after a test they had given him. But on review they noticed that this was actually not the case. He would need to be tube fed and there was no indication of when or even whether this would improve. Another huge blow.

By this stage too he was back on oxygen support. He had contracted bronchiolitis which even for children with no other problems can be very serious. In Olly’s case it left him struggling to breathe again even with the tracheostomy. Even when he recovered from the infection he still needed the oxygen.

But the doctors felt confident enough to allow us to transfer back to our local hospital with him a week and a half before Christmas when he was 3 months old. No longer being in a “tertiary centre” was worry for us but we knew if we were ever to get Olly home this was a necessary step. There were times when we knew that the people with the most knowledge on the ward about tracheostomies, their care and support were me and/or my wife. But the staff were wonderful in the main and did their best to help us in any way they could.

Christmas day itself was made as festive for us as possible. The DJ from the hospital radio station asked us if we wanted any dedications and we chose some songs for Olly and sang along with them for him when they came on. The nurses came in with several presents for our baby which we were grateful for but I was also somewhat confused. I wondered out loud if the nurses had gone out and bought the presents and someone told me that they had been donated to the hospital by charities. Despite everything we had been through in the previous 3 months I still didn’t think of Olly as a sick child in hospital. Of course people were going to donate presents to babies in Olly’s condition! I think it is a measure of just how quickly my perception of what was “normal” had changed.

In the January we started to prepare to take Olly home for the first time when he had another serious collapse which was diagnosed as pneumonia. After a scary few hours where they had to stabilise him he was rushed to another main hospital in London where he was put on the highest level of ventilation known as an oscillator.

For 3 weeks we lived in hospital provided accommodation again whilst spending most of each day in the ward with Olly as he recovered. Whilst we were there they ordered a specialist bespoke tracheostomy tube for him. They were very pleased with his progress and by early February we were back in our local hospital again.

Eventually we did get Olly home a couple of weeks later. It only lasted 22 hours however until he had another collapse and we had to call an ambulance. Luckily our community liaison nurse was with us at the time and took charge. It was an indication of just how fragile our situation was.

After another week we finally got Olly back home for a more prolonged period. He was 5 months old at this point. We were able at last to try and enjoy spending time in our home environment with our baby. Of course there was lots of equipment. Oxygen cylinders, feeding tubes, PH tester strips (to check the tube was in the right place each time before feeding), oxygen saturation monitors, nebuliser, tubing, wires, cables, suction machines, catheters etc. etc. Not to mention all the normal baby paraphernalia such as nappies, nappy bags, baby wipes, lotions, formula, clothes and the rest. But we had made it. At various points I had doubted whether the day would ever come.

We had had to be trained in resuscitation techniques and it was scary to know that at any time he could have another attack. We had nurses helping us out overnight every night which gave us a chance to (try to) get a good night’s sleep. The beeping of the monitors and the whirr of the tracheostomy suction machine from one floor down became normal and almost comforting knowing that a highly trained nurse was taking care of our boy.

And he was such a happy little baby. Despite everything he smiled a lot. And I mean a lot. I would say half of the photos we have of him when he was conscious show him with a cheeky grin on his face. He seemed to love life and I am sure he never knew that he was ill.

Something that I found hard to fathom at first was, despite the fact that we understandably wanted to treat him like he was made of porcelain he actually loved to be lifted up and jiggled about. Although he couldn’t make a normal laughing noise we knew when he was laughing from his face and his “goose honk” sound which was so distinctive we could hear it from the other side of the house! We got more and more used to his cares and started to integrate as much normality into his life as possible.

I lost count of the number of times I sat with him on the sofa watching Octonauts, Chuggington and Olly’s (my wife claimed secretly my) favourite, The Lingo Show. He was always fascinated with the colours and noises from the television. He loved the snooker, tennis and even the way the counter ticked down on Pointless. We also played with him on his play mat frequently and latterly sat him in his ball pool. He was particularly impressed with my juggling skills. Well perhaps bemused is a better word!

We started learning Makaton (baby sign language) as we could not be sure if he was ever going to be able to learn to speak and we wanted to give him as many potential communication channels as possible. We became more and more attuned to when he was doing OK and when he was struggling. In the end I could sense immediately when his tracheostomy tube needed suctioning and just by looking at his facial expression I could tell when an incipient nappy change was going to be in order.

The normal baby stuff became so mixed up with the extraordinary care we were providing that they all merged into one.

I would put him to bed at night in advance of the nurse arriving and the routine would consist of changing his clothes and his nappy, switching the oxygen monitor to his other foot, testing the PH of his tube, setting up and starting the feeding machine. Drawing up all the different medications that he needed in the correct doses and administering them down the tube. And of course singing to him, reading him stories like Room on the Broom, Winnie The Pooh, The Mr Men and his and my favourite The Gruffalo, complete with all the different voices.

Olly was never happier than when me or my wife were being silly with him making funny noises, singing, jumping around and especially playing peek-a-boo. He loved that game and showed a good deal of intelligence in predicting, often correctly, where we would be popping up from next.

I would watch closely for signs of how his intelligence was developing as there was always in the pit of my stomach that lurching feeling that they hadn’t yet got to the bottom of all his problems and perhaps there was something wrong with his brain. A doctor thought he had spotted “ventricular dilation” in his brain after the bowel operation but further checks suggested this was incorrect and his brain structure was OK. But we always worried and so the signs that he was a very bright and curious boy exploring with his hands and mouth as well as starting to learn how to bang things together and examine objects close up was a joy to behold and gave us hope that perhaps his development would progress well.

From the age of 5 months to 9 months Olly spent a fair bit of time at home with us. But there were more incidents that led to further periods of hospitalisation. On one occasion we took him to a new tertiary centre where his long term cares had been transferred to for a quick examination and he ended up staying in for a month as they performed more and more extensive tests and tried different treatments for his various conditions. The sort of thing had become completely normal for us.

Every time he had a collapse we would call an ambulance, rush him to hospital and sometimes he would spontaneously recover. Sometimes he would need ventilation and there was another occasion when he required time on an oscillator again. But each time he would end up back home with us.

The doctors could not find a label to put on his condition. Various things like cystic fibrosis had been tested for and dismissed. There is a syndrome known as Opitz-G which for a while I thought he had but when we finally saw a geneticist with Olly she did not think it was likely to be that (and tests have subsequently proven she was correct). In the end they were simply treating all the different symptoms of his illness. The hope and expectation of some of the best doctors in the country was that as he got bigger the floppiness in his airways would firm up, the narrowness would be less of an issue, his swallow would hopefully become safer and generally he would have a good chance at a relatively normal life. He would probably need some operations to bring his testicles down (although one dropped naturally when he was about 7 months old – a wonderful day), to correct his cleft palate and to allow him to feed through his stomach rather than down his nose. But the prognosis was felt to generally be quite good.

However they could not explain why he kept having respiratory collapses. There were various theories, mucus plugging, sudden collapse of airway, perhaps something a bit further down in his lungs which was hard to see as they were floppy and the bronchioles had a strange arrangement. There was never a definitive answer as to why it kept happening. The tracheostomy was supposed to have bypassed the main problem with a hole in his neck that he breathed through but this clearly had not solved it.

On the morning of 10th July 2012 at 9:30am Olly had another collapse. As usual there was not much warning. He seemed fine one minute; I had been bouncing him on my knee, he had been laughing and then suddenly his oxygen levels dropped. We always knew what his levels were because of the monitor. We did what we always did in these situations which was to turn his oxygen up to maximum, manually “bag” him and watch him very closely. He seemed to recover quite quickly and we started to ween the oxygen back down over the next few minutes. But we could not get him below 5 litres per minute which was about 10 times as much as he normally needed. This indicated a serious problem and we called the ambulance.

At first I had thought this was going to be another one of these collapses that he recovered from as usual. We had been in this situation numerous times and he always had previously. We spent most of the day in our local hospital with him but over the course of those hours his oxygen requirements kept going up. By late afternoon we were up to the maximum 15 litres per minute and even this wasn’t enough. The paediatric intensive care unit at his tertiary hospital had been contacted and they were on their way. He was taken into the recovery area with a number of senior consultants including anaesthetists who manually ventilated him using the “bagging” technique. They tried to stabilise him until the paediatric consultant and specialist nurse arrived in the ambulance from the PICU.

What then followed were the worst five hours of my life.

Dozens of doctors and nurses tried desperately to keep my baby boy alive. He required constant bagging on full oxygen the entire time. They had to give him heart massage so many times that I lost count but it was certainly in the dozens. His blood pressure kept dropping and they had to give him numerous doses of adrenaline and noradrenaline to correct this.

Eventually the main consultant turned to me and said two sentences that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

“You do know we’re not winning here don’t you?” he said.

I asked him what he meant. He responded:

“Well he’s dying and I don’t know why.”

The sight of my darling baby boy who only a few hours earlier was so full of life and so happy, lying unconscious on a hospital bed soaked in his own blood looking so pale was too much to bear. I kept having to walk away to compose myself.

In the end they got him stable enough to transfer him by ambulance to the main hospital where the PICU was located. All the other times Olly had been transferred by ambulance I had followed in the car while my wife went in the ambulance but this time I insisted I was to go with them. I knew there was a chance he wouldn’t make the journey and I needed to be with him and my wife.

We did make it to the PICU together. They put him on the oscillator which had worked wonders for him on two most serious previous occasions but this time it did not work. His oxygen saturation levels came up on the monitor and they were below 40. I just knew instinctively that he had been saturating at that low level for a long time. In the other hospital they had turned the monitors away from us and in the ambulance they hadn’t monitored it at all. I knew that had been a bad sign and now I knew the truth. At those sort of levels for a prolonged period brain damage is certain. The only question is how extensive. I knew that already.

The doctor asked me and my wife into a side room and told us in plain and honest terms that Olly was unlikely to survive this and if his levels kept dropping as they had been doing the thing that would be in his best interests was to not intervene. He had been an incredibly brave boy who had fought his condition for more than 9 and a half months but his body was telling us he had had enough. He used the word “progressive” to describe his Olly’s condition. He still could not put a name to it but it was clear from reviewing the notes and the way he had and hadn’t responded to the treatment this time that his condition was actually getting worse, not better as they had previously thought.

We thanked the doctor for his honesty and went back through to sit by the beside of our beautiful boy. My wife asked for the hospital chaplain to come and christen him which he did. I found it very hard when during the ceremony the chaplain referred to how the christening is for the rest of his life. I knew the rest of Olly’s life was only going to be another few hours. My wife read him a chapter from Winnie the Pooh, the same book we had read to him on the many occasions he had been on life support machines previously.

In the end it was incredibly peaceful and in some ways beautiful. My wife requested for us to hold Olly in our arms. She sat and cradled him whilst I sat next to them and put my arms around him too. The nurse continued to bag him until we said we were ready and then she stopped. We kissed our baby and told him how much we were going to miss him but that it was time for him to let go. Over the course of the next few minutes he passed away. He lived until 5:00am on July 11th 2012.

The aftermath was a blur.

We had to organise the funeral. We wouldn’t have been being true to Olly’s memory if we had not included so many of the happy memories we had had with our boy in the eulogy. My wife’s uncle read out our words and afterwards people told me that they had been amazed to be laughing at the funeral of a baby but we felt that was appropriate. I also did a reading of The Gruffalo and yes, I included the voices exactly as I did when he was alive. Olly was always at his happiest when we were happy and laughing and we had wanted to reflect that. There was of course lots of sadness too during the service but we also wanted to say thank you to everyone who had provided unfailing help and support to us in particular the NHS.

Afterwards we went away for a couple of days but of course we had to come back and start rebuilding our lives. Having all the equipment taken away was hard. We put all of Olly’s toys and other stuff in his room but we would always have the door open.

I still find it very difficult to look at photographs and film footage of him. I had hoped that would get easier with time but it has been several years since he passed away and I still struggle with this.

I am very glad to have known my baby boy and to have been a father to him. I would not change that. I’m just so sad that I will not see him grow up into a toddler, a boy and eventually a man. I am certain he would have had a great personality. In his short life he showed us what potential he had and it is so tragic it will never be realised.

And so nearly five years since our first beautiful baby boy died our circumstances have changed. We have another son, Noah who was born in April 2014 and happily he seems to be perfectly healthy. We also moved to a completely different part of the country to be in a more rural area. We had planned to do this shortly after Olly had been born but that had proved impossible.

On 23rd April this year I am going to run the London Marathon. I am running it on behalf of COSMIC, a charity linked to the paediatric intensive care unit at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. It was where Olly spent those three weeks in early January 2012 after his suspected pneumonia. We know how important these charities are in providing facilities for the children and their families. Until 4 months ago I had never done any running in my entire life and when I tried to run 200 yards I had to stop with my lungs burning. But I have been training hard and last week I ran 16 miles. It has been hard work but compared to what Olly had to go through it is nothing and it is a privilege to raise money for them. Please follow the link and give what you can.

I dedicate this post to my beautiful baby boy Oliver Seamus Eric Thompson.

I will never, ever forget the joy you brought into our lives although it was so unbearably brief.

Sleep well baby boy.

Daddy x



Friday, 9 September 2016

Were the Lib Dems "useful idiots" in coalition?

Polly Toynbee seems to think so.

She wrote a piece yesterday using this exact phrase expressing her disgust with Nick Clegg and the legacy that she perceives he and his party have left behind following the coalition of 2010 - 2015. Some of her points are reasonable but amongst it all are many unfair claims and some of what she says is absolutely ridiculous.

I thought it was time for a good old fashioned fisking:

Can you forgive him? That depends on whether you think Nick Clegg venal or just a political idiot. Seeking power was no sin, as that’s the purpose of politics: he is to be judged by how he used it. In a rich crop of self-justifying politicians’ books this autumn, Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is first to invite an assessment of how he did.
He might have been wiser to keep his head down and hope the country has a short memory. But that would be out of character, as his own account reminds us of one grave political misjudgment after another. Almost everything he colluded with in the Cameron government was an error, while almost all he achieved was piffling in comparison. His role now is as a warning beacon of what not to do in future coalitions.

It's not fair to say that almost everything Clegg did in government was an error although of course there were some big ones. But I would certainly agree with Polly that there is a lot that the Lib Dems did in government and the way they approached it that should be lessons for future putative junior coaltion partners. (For further reading on these lessons by the way I recommend this excellent piece by Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth).

How Icarus-like was his fall from the dizzy days of Cleggmania. Back in 2010 “I agree with Nick” was mirrored by opinion polling. For the record, this paper backed the Lib Dems in 2010, though its political columnists – myself included – wrote supporting Labour.
It took decades of local pavement-pounding for the Liberals to grow from a taxi-full of MPs into a 57-strong coach-load at Westminster. But after Clegg led them to a thrashing last year, they are now back in an eight-MP people carrier (with probably only four MPs after boundary changes) – and have few local councillors. They have deserved it.
Start back in that 2010 sunlit No 10 rose garden, with toe-curling smiles that look yet worse in retrospect. Clegg and his party had to make one big call: was the country indeed on the verge of Greek-style bankruptcy and in need of David Cameron and George Osborne’s emetic austerity medicine? They fell for the bait and called it wrong, as even the likes of Mervyn King, Bank of England governor at the time, now agree.

It's easy to forget now just how much turmoil the political and economic world was in in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election. The country hadn't had a peacetime coalition since before the Second World War and the financial crisis was still rumbling on. I agree with Polly that the Lib Dems were a bit too hasty to accept the need for the level of austerity that Osborne wanted but to pretend that this was somehow an easy and obvious call that they should have avoided is to play the game of hindsight. The press was going ballistic. The markets were all over the place. Had the politicians carried on much beyond the Tuesday with their coalition discussions God knows what would have happened.

Now I happen to think that this is ridiculous. There are countries all round the world that wait weeks or months for new governments to form and give their politicians plenty of time to thrash out the agreements needed to govern in coalition. But that is not what was happening here. Our body politic and the Fourth Estate are not used to this way of doing things. They expect the removal vans to be round the back of Downing Street the morning after an election result. The press were pushing very hard the narrative that Gordon Brown was "The Squatter in Downing Street" which was preposterous given that all he was doing was fulfilling his constitutional duty*. We needed a Prime Minister and a functioning government whilst the coalition talks were going on. But our press were unwilling to acknowledge that and hence there was massive pressure on the Lib Dems to cut a deal, any deal to get a "legitimate" government in place.

The Lib Dems swallowed the story that the country needed a boiling down of every function of the state to its bare bones. They were useful idiots for what was always an ideological project: Cameron and Osborne said within a short time that even once the deficit was down, there would be no restoring of cut-down public services.

I hear this "ideological" claim about the Tories and austerity all the time. I'll just say that up until the financial crisis of 2007 Cameron and Osborne were not contemplating anything like this. Their mantra was in fact "sharing the proceeds of growth". But of course by the time they came to power there was very little if any growth to share and the economy was in the toilet.

In accepting extreme cuts as an economic remedy, Clegg abandoned his party’s greatest thinker, Keynes, who would have gone for growth through government investment. But even if Clegg has been right on austerity, why did he let the axe fall on the most vulnerable? In policy after policy, the bottom half bore the brunt as VAT rose, while the top had an income tax cut and kept their many benefits: tax reliefs, and cuts to capital gains and corporation tax.

And here I would (at least partially) agree with Polly. The VAT rise, the cuts to capital gains and corporation tax as well as the reduction of the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% in the pound were all largely regressive and unwelcome measures.

The rightwing thinktank, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, showed how Osborne raised the lifetime tax-take from the bottom 20%, while tax for the top 20% fell. Even Clegg’s flagship raising of the income tax threshold was soon revealed by the Resolution Foundation to direct most of its huge £10bn cost to the benefit of the upper half while low earners gained little.

I would quibble with this point though. I remember seeing these analyses at the time. What they did was highlight that the very poorest did not earn enough to benefit from the tax cut. But that ignores or at least misunderstands what the point of the raising of the threshold was meant to do. It was supposed to allow people who were previously earning not very much but still paying tax keep more of the money they had earned. Polly's is an argument for never raising the tax threshold at all as this will never benefit the very poorest, most of whom do not work. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this would be fair.

Guardian readers need no reminding of the extreme severity of the benefit cuts – hitting children, mothers and people with disabilities hardest. Clegg had no need to fall in with the vindictive spirit of the bedroom tax, the sale of swaths more social housing, or the ever-tightening screw of work capability tests, as food banks opened everywhere. Labour supporters seeing the Lib Dems sitting on their hands and saying nothing may never forget. But then social justice was never the Lib Dems’ strong point: good on human rights and the environment, social equality is not in their DNA.

This is bullshit. I was a Lib Dem from 2008-2013. Many of my closest political friends are still in the party and I struggle to think of any of them who would wish for anything other than social equality and justice. In most cases they have spent decades fighting for just that. That their parliamentary representatives in government may have fallen short of this ideal is not a reason to besmirch the DNA of the entire party in this way.

In 2012 Andrew Lansley’s health and social care bill was stumbling in parliament, as it dawned on the Lords that this was a project to blow the NHS into fragments by setting up a market tendering every shard out to any bidder. “No top-down NHS reorganisation,” said the coalition agreement, and the Lib Dem grass roots rebelled. But they were soothed by Shirley Williams, and Clegg voted it through.
Why? Cameron was astonished not to lose the bill. So disastrously unworkable has it proved that it’s now being dismantled again, but deep, lasting damage was done to the NHS that Clegg could easily have stopped.

I keep hearing this. That the coalition "destroyed" the NHS. I have no idea what Polly and the people who say this are on about. I can still see my GP in exactly the same way as I could when Labour were in office for 13 years. I have also had cause to use hospitals numerous times in the last few years and again they are as accessible and free at the point of use as they always were. There is literally no difference at all in that respect. The changes were very complicated but essentially were attempting to allow the NHS to use facilities and services whether private or public where appropriate without dogma getting in the way. It is simply a small extension of what Labour had already done.

I think in fact what this episode tells us is that whatever the Tories do with the NHS when they're in office, however bland or minor it may be they will always, always be described as having "privatised" and "destroyed" it as well as trying to flog off its constituent parts to their mates. Especially by people like Polly Toynbee.

The charge list is long. The value of his pupil premium remains disputed, and he has suffered enough for his tuition fees debacle. He boasts of pushing through 5p plastic bag charges, but he should have stopped the banning of land-based wind turbines. He was treated as a minor irritant in the great Tory project – and that’s all he was.
In his book, Clegg observes Tory savagery on benefits and housing as if he were a non-participant; yet he had the power to stop or soften much of this. What makes him more of an idiot than a villain is his weak understanding of the power he had.
Take his failure to seize the one great prize his party sought for decades – proportional representation that would make such coalitions a fixture. His party would justify a pact with the devil to secure electoral reform. But out of sheer incompetence, Clegg blew that chance. He got his referendum, but only on AV: the weak “alternative vote” even his own side didn’t want. Fatally, he failed to force Cameron to pledge his party’s support. The same team of Tory liars who swung the Brexit vote ran the anti-AV campaign, preposterously claiming the tiny cost would deprive babies of NHS incubators and our boys in Afghanistan of kit. How Cameron’s crew laughed when Clegg lost.
Had he secured PR, the political landscape would be changed for the better, beyond all recognition. The Tory party would have split between pro- and anti-EU wings. Labour would split between Corbynites and social democrats. Ukip and the Greens would have their fair share of seats.
Above all, citizens could vote for a party closest to their views. At a time of turmoil and alienation, it’s never been more urgent to restore a closer link between what people want and what they get in Westminster. I can never forgive Clegg for bungling that once-in-a-generation mission so badly.

This is the part of Toynbee's piece that I most profoundly disagree with.

I am not happy with the legacy that the Lib Dems left behind. Indeed I left the party part way through their time in office disillusioned with what had been achieved and more specifically the lack of a difference in their approach to politics (I highlighted Clegg's very disappointing approach to PMQs when he deputised as an example of this). I myself wrote a pretty scathing piece late last year about Nick Clegg and how he hasn't been held properly accountable for his failings in government.

But the idea that Clegg somehow bungled the chance for PR is to misread reality so badly that I wonder just how well Polly even understands the dynamics of politics in this country.

The Tories are opposed to any change at all to the electoral system for the Commons. That is almost all of them. Certainly almost all of them in parliament. I could write a very long piece on the reasons for this but it is a bald fact.

Furthermore the Tories are absolutely implacably opposed to any change to a proportional system for the Commons.

These two facts conspired to make it impossible to get a proportional system during the 2010 coalition agreement. It was difficult enough for Cameron to get them to agree to a referendum on a pretty minor change to the electoral system (AV) that wouldn't have been proportional. The idea that Cameron could ever, ever, ever have got his party to vote for a referendum on a proportional system for the Commons is laughable.

With AV, the Tories would have been looking at maybe losing 10 or 20 seats that they would ordinarily win in an election. With a properly proportional system they'd lose 100 or more seats that they consider "rightly" theirs. I of course utterly disagree with them about this but that is what they think. They would consider it electoral suicide. Even a referendum on such a system would have been (and would still be) way, way beyond the pale for them because of the risk they might lose it.

They just about accepted the AV referendum thinking that they'd have a pretty good chance of winning it as it's difficult for those opposing the status quo in referenda and AV is a system that nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. But a fully proportional system whose benefits would be much easier to coherently argue for in a referendum? Over their cold dead bodies.

I am 100% certain that had Cameron tried to force this through we would have seen one of two things. Most likely the coalition agreement would have failed. The Tories would have governed alone for a few months doing all the easy things. There would have been no austerity during this time and they would have spent it spreading poison about how the Lib Dems had eschewed their chance at governing because they "selfishly" wanted to change the electoral system "massively in their favour" and away from our "stable" system that had "served us well" for "hundreds of years". And then gone to the country again in the autumn of 2010 and got a majority.

The second possibility is what happened with Lords reform. Which is that the Tories might have said they would do it but in practise when it came to a vote in the Commons loads of backbench MPs would have voted against it. And Labour would almost certainly have found a pretext to oppose it too in order to dish the Lib Dems (in exactly the same way they did when they had the same chance with Lords reform) and hence the referendum would not have got through. And that would have caused the government to fall with the same outcome as the previous paragraph, "selfish Lib Dems" etc. etc. etc. followed by a Tory majority.

To suggest that Clegg somehow fumbled an historic opportunity on PR is so far from the truth and what was possible that it actually makes me angry. Angry that Polly Toynbee would write it and angry that so many people in my country seem to also believe it.

Clegg did lots of things wrong in government but messing up his One Big Chance for PR was not one of them. Such a change at that time was simply politically impossible.

History may remember him as no worse than clueless. But one tragedy is that the country needs a strong unequivocal pro-European party, as the Lib Dems once were. Clegg’s miscalculation of everything has left behind only a tiny rump with too little heft to influence the battle ahead.

I would certainly agree that Clegg's miscalculations have left the Lib Dems as a small rump but to characterise this as "everything" he did in government is manifestly unfair and does not give him credit for the things he did manage to achieve in his five years as Deputy Prime Minister of this country.

It's worth mentioning as well that throughout the piece Toynbee falls into the trap that many people seem to of overestimating the leverage that the Lib Dems had in office. They had 57 MPs so despite the fact that they had 23% of the vote vs the Tories 37% (i.e. roughly 4 voters for every 6 the Tories had) they only had 1 MP for every 6 the Tories had. That put them in a fairly weak position in terms of being across issues in the government and certainly in terms of parliamentary firepower. A junior partner with a seventh of the MPs of a government simply cannot dictate terms on every single policy as her piece suggests they should have done.

Had the Lib Dems pushed it too far, eventually the coalition would have broken down. I used to talk about this and used to predict that were that to happen, all those Labour supporters cheering for the end of the coalition would be very sorry when we saw a majority Tory government. I was derided for talking such "nonsense" but of course in 2015 when the parliament ran out that's exactly what we saw. It's now pretty obvious in hindsight that that would have been the result had the election been earlier.

So in actual fact the Lib Dems ameliorated the worst Tory excesses, did some good things and some not so good things (as every party in government does) and staved off majority Tory rule for five years. In a just world they'd be thanked for "taking one for the team" instead of being pilloried and castigated by left wing columnists who don't appear to understand how politics actually even works.


*Indeed the depth of the lie of this "squatter" narrative is exposed by the fact that Brown actually wanted to resign and was persuaded not to by Clegg who begged for more time. In the end Brown resigned before the coalition agreement had been finalised and hence Cameron went to see The Queen unsure if the deal would be formally reached and if instead he would have to lead a minority government. That's just how wrong the narrative is and yet it still persists. Even now people talk about how Brown "squatted" in Downing Street. We truly live in a post-truth world now.

Friday, 1 July 2016

We are now seeing how the Tories prize loyalty above all else

Yesterday's manoeuvrings within the Tory party are some of the most bizarre I have ever witnessed in all my time following politics.

For Michael Gove who had been seen as one of Boris Johnson's key allies and a likely future Chancellor under a Johnson premiership to suddenly abandon his colleague, denounce him and announce he would be standing himself was extraordinary to watch. Then Boris, showman to the end made a speech peppered with references to Julius Caesar's Brutus and where in its denouement he withdrew from the leadership race using the carefully calculated phrase we have seen repeated on all media outlets: "..in view of the circumstances in parliament that person cannot be me.".*

It is becoming clear that Gove is now himself a busted flush having first brought down David Cameron's premiership (along with Johnson) and then latterly turned on Johnson and brought down his leadership ambitions too. There are lots of Tory MPs shocked by this behaviour and although politics is a dirty business I think there are now simply too many who will not want to be seen to reward this sort of behaviour. It's possible now that Gove doesn't even make it to the final ballot of members. He may even, if reports today are accurate withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind Theresa May who is now the clear front-runner and very likely to be the next Prime Minister.

Nothing is certain but May is 4/11 with Betfair with Gove at 19/2. For the rest of this post I am going to assume that Theresa May will now win.

Because in reality that fits the pattern of almost all the Tory leadership campaigns that I have witnessed as an adult. Right through from the one that followed the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

In 1990 Geoffrey Howe dropped his bombshell as he resigned from Thatcher's cabinet and Michael Heseltine responded to his clarion call that "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long." by challenging Thatcher for the leadership directly. As we all know his bid failed and instead the hitherto ultra-loyal John Major who had rapidly risen through the ranks to have recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer won the crown**. Heseltine was widely seen as having been punished for his disloyalty. This is despite the fact that the majority of Tory MPs knew that Thatcher was finished anyway, they did not want to reward Heseltine for having been the one to actually bring her down.

In 1997 after the Tories lost the general election the subsequent winner was William Hague. He had been very loyal to John Major all throughout his travails in the 1990s and was appointed to the cabinet after John Redwood had quit in 1995 order to challenge Major. He was seen as a trustworthy pair of hands to guide the Conservative Party through a difficult time. Redwood was eliminated in the second ballot, another victim of the Tory Party's dislike of disloyalty.

In 2001 the story was a little bit different and deviated from the norm in that the winner in the end was Iain Duncan Smith who himself had been a serial rebel in the 1990s against John Major's government. Duncan Smith was actually the beneficiary of the fact that he ended up in the final ballot against Ken Clarke who as a Europhile was wildly out of touch with the Tory membership who by now had the final say when the MPs had whittled the field down to two. This aberration however was short lived as the party rapidly realised they had made a mistake selecting Duncan Smith not least because it was very difficult for him to credibly demand loyalty from his parliamentary party after all the times he had failed to do the same thing himself under Major. So in 2003 without even a leadership election the Tories got rid of Duncan Smith through some back-room shenanigans and replaced him with Michael Howard the former Home Secretary who himself had been (publicly) loyal to Major in government thus ending the experiment of allowing a former rebel to lead them.

2005 saw another loyalist David Cameron push through the field to emerge victorious. Cameron in fact is the epitome of a loyal party member having devoted much of his life to working in the engine room of the Tory Party before he became an MP first in Central Office and then as a special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Indeed he and George Osborne used to help out prepping John Major for PMQs during the 1990s.

And so to the current leadership contest 11 years on. Given the history of how the Tory party selects its leaders and the disaster that befell it the one time it deviated from this norm and selected someone who was widely seen as disloyal it is looking like once again that rather than the showboating politicians and/or the ones who have been willing to publicly betray the party leadership it will be the quiet, unassuming but publicly loyal Theresa May who will win the ultimate prize.

There is almost certainly a lesson in here for future aspirant Tory leaders. Keep your head down, get on with the job and no matter what you might really think, always, always swear absolute loyalty to your leader.

It's the Tory way.


*As an aside this debacle shows how wrong I was when I wrote the other day that it was most likely to be Boris Johnson who won the leadership. I should have adhered more closely to what history tells us myself! I'll be more careful in future for sure.

**It's worth noting that Major was able to "have his cake and eat it" when it came to Thatcher's nomination for the first round of the leadership ballot. Thatcher's team had wanted Major's signature on her nomination papers as he was Chancellor and that would add weight to her bid. But Major did not sign her papers as at the time he was under anaesthetic having dental surgery. Hence he was able to both profess loyalty and simultaneously not dirty his hands by directly backing her. This contributed to his success in the second round and will perhaps go down as the luckiest dental problem in political history.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Why I have just joined the Labour Party. And why you should too. Seriously.

I have just joined the Labour Party.

Before long term readers of this blog start thinking I've gone peculiar let me assure you that there is method in this.

Firstly, I will state for the record that I certainly consider myself to support Labour's "aims and values" which is what you have to be able to do to be a member. As I've mentioned before I consider this a fairly vague thing to have to adhere to but in so far as I want to see social justice in this country I certainly think I have at least as much in common with those goals as e.g. someone like Peter Mandelson. Or Tony Blair. Both of whom as far as I know are still Labour members.

OK, that's the admin out of the way (in case the Labour Party "Compliance Unit" (seriously that's a thing) are reading this).

To the method.

We have just had the most politically revolutionary event in this country since the second world war. All the pieces have been thrown up in the air and they will be falling down and settling over the next few months and years. The Tories are about start a contest to elect their new leader and hence Prime Minister. As I outlined earlier today that is very likely to lead in short order to a general election.

Let's face it, it's going to be Boris Johnson.

In the meantime as I am writing this 8 shadow cabinet ministers have either been sacked or have resigned in order to try and force a leadership contest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I think Corbyn, although a very nice man is simply out of his depth as leader and hence would lead the party to a serious defeat at the coming election. If you thought it was bad for Ed Miliband (who actually didn't really have much of a track-record for the Tories to attack) just imagine what it is going to be like for a man with Corbyn's history and all the platforms he has shared with... Well, you've all seen the pictures. You know what I'm talking about and what will happen. He'll be thrashed.

It is costing me £3.92 per month to be a member of the Labour Party. That is a small price to pay if like me, you do not want to see a demagogic charlatan like Boris Johnson have such an easy run at hugely increasing his majority in a few months time. If you agree then you should also join so you have a say in choosing the next leader who after Johnson is likely to be the most significant politician in the country.

These are serious times and it simply cannot be left to the left wing activists who flocked to Labour last year to get to choose who this person should be. They had their chance last year and they have utterly failed. So please, if you can afford a few quid a month join Labour in order to make sure you have a vote in the contest to ensure there is a stronger opposition to one of the worst politicians I can imagine becoming Prime Minister.

You don't have to remain a member in the long term. I may do, I may not. That's not my concern right now. I'm simply looking at trying to make sure that Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition can do a proper job during the biggest political crisis of my lifetime.

Will you join me?

Why (and how) there will be a general election very soon

So as a country we've voted for Brexit.

I didn't of course, I voted for Remain. But we are where we are.

One thing that I have been certain of since the moment it started to become clear that Leave were likely to win on Thursday evening is that there will certainly be an early general election, likely very early. It was obvious Cameron would have to resign and therefore that there would be a new Prime Minister within a few months.

Boris Johnson is favourite to be that new PM but even if he isn't the new leader will face a number of pressures the inexorable logic of which will lead to them having to go to the country sooner rather than later.

Firstly there will be the fact that the manifesto that was voted on in 2015 and the mandate that Cameron had has been utterly eclipsed by this referendum result. It is simply not tenable for a new leader to piggy-back off Cameron's win and ride things out until 2020 when everything has changed so fundamentally.

Secondly, Boris's (or A. N. Other leader's) majority will be wafer thin. Given the incredibly difficult task the new PM will have navigating a course through negotiations with the EU trying to execute a tricky and trap-laden divorce settlement will frankly be impossible when a tiny back-bench rebellion on any one vote could bring the whole house of cards crashing down. They will need a decent working majority as a bare minimum.

Thirdly, more pragmatically the recent precedents are not good for leaders who take over and do not win an election of their own within fairly short order. Gordon Brown bottled it in 2007 and his Premiership was dogged by "The Election that never Was". Jim Callaghan also refused to go to the country in 1978 at a time that was likely much more propitious than waiting it out until a vote of no confidence sunk him less than a year later and issued in The Age of Thatcher. By contrast John Major who had the good fortune to be able to eke out the fag end of Thatcher's third term from the end of 1990 through to early 1992 while he was still relatively popular won a huge mandate of his own.

Fourthly, if it is Boris then it is preposterous to expect that someone who has been banging on for months and months about us being lorded over by "Unelected Brussels Bureaucrats" can expect to remain in office for long unelected. He'll need the mandate to have any real credibility given all his on the record statements on this subject.

But, but, but I hear you splutter. What about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011? Doesn't that mean that we can't have another general election until 2020?

Well technically yes. Unless one of two things happen, both of which are quite possible.

One is that two thirds of the Commons votes for a dissolution of parliament. So effectively that would require both the Tories and Labour to vote for one. That is perhaps the most likely way it will happen. Because I simply cannot see politically how Labour refuses a general election no matter how frit they might be of the consequences (especially if Corbyn is still leader). Can you imagine the utter derision that will be poured on them if they deny the public the opportunity of a fresh election given how fundamentally the tectonic plates of UK politics have now shifted?

But if Labour make that dreadful miscalculation then all the new PM has to do is call a vote of no confidence in him or herself, bring down his/her own government and then wait two weeks. When no stable alternative government can be formed (which of course with the current parliamentary numbers would be impossible) then an election is triggered by default. A bit more messy but would get us to the same place. You could certainly imagine a politician with the sheer chutzpah of Boris Johnson delighting in the opportunity to use a mechanism like this. To bring down his own government in order to rise phoenix-like from the flames in an even more powerful position.

Finally if the new PM wants to short-circuit all of that they could simply invoke emergency legislation to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That only requires a bare majority in the Commons and I doubt the Lords would do anything to stop it given the current circumstances. Then they would be free to call an election whenever they wanted, old-school style.

So three different ways to achieve the ends required. I would guess number one will happen but even if it has to be one of the other ways I am certain we will have an election within the next 12 months, quite possibly later this year.

In fact as Thursday evening bled into Friday morning and I became more and more convinced that Brexit was going to win I put some money on with the only remaining online bookies who were still taking bets on this market backing a general election in 2016 and covering one in 2017 too. About 30 minutes after I placed this bet the online site took the market down. I got odds of 10-1 for both bets.

I put my money where my mouth is. Mark my words, we'll be going to the polls again before very long.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

An open letter to a Leave voter

Dear <**LEAVE_VOTER**>

So here we are. I voted Remain, you voted Leave. You won. It was narrow but clear. 52% to 48%.

I fear that a lot of what the Remain campaign said would happen will now come to pass. I hope I am wrong but I think it is very likely that there will be various negative short and long term consequences of the vote we've just had.

Members of Leave have already started to back-track on the pledges made during the campaign. Nigel Farage for example has said that the pledge emblazoned on the side of the Leave battle bus was "a mistake" and that there will not be £350 million extra per week for the NHS. Daniel Hannan said on Newsnight last night that migration will not be curbed to any significant degree.

I don't know if you voted Leave for either of those reasons but if you did I think you'd be justified in feeling pretty annoyed today.

But it is very difficult to hold the Leave campaign to account. They were made up of politicians of different parties and now the campaign is over they have scattered to the wind.

Except that some of the leading lights in that campaign are likely to be part of the next government of the (currently United) Kingdom. Michael Gove for example is quite likely to be a senior cabinet minister. And Boris Johnson (who is most readily identified with that battle bus with the £350 million emblazoned on the side) is odds on to be our next Prime Minister.

I suspect that if (when) Boris becomes Prime Minister he will feel duty bound to call a snap general election in order to give himself the mandate to move forward with his negotiation plans with the EU.

When this happens I urge you to think very carefully about what has just happened. How quickly the Leave campaign has backed away from its promises.

If you are suffering from "buyer's remorse" right now. If you are one of the growing band of Regrexiteers who feel they've been sold a pup don't think there isn't anything you can do about it.

We have a representative democracy in this country and the chances are good that you will be able to send another message via the ballot box quite soon.

Please do not waste this chance. You need to speak to the politicians who will be in a position to do something about it in a language they understand.

All the best

Mark

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

If Cameron knew his inheritance was from tax haven money he must resign

What a pickle Cameron is in now.

With the leak of the papers from Panama based Mossack Fonseca it has been revealed that the Prime Minister's late father, Ian used their services and was able to ensure a company that he ran (Blairmore Holdings) was able to appear as if it was run offshore. This was done using various methods including Ian Cameron regularly flying to board meetings that were held abroad even though the bulk of the company's business was done in the UK.

Before I start, I should make clear that it seems pretty certain that neither Cameron's father, nor Cameron himself have done anything illegal.

However, David Cameron has benefited hugely from the schemes his father used. He has inherited a large amount of money from his father's estate and it looks very likely indeed that some UK tax was not paid on profits made by the company that may have provided that money in a way that is morally dubious to say the least.

Now you may argue firstly that as nothing illegal was done here there is nothing to see and we should move on as some are doing. I am afraid I profoundly disagree. Cameron has been banging on and on about tax avoidance (see here, here and here for examples from last year) for years now accusing those who engage in it of "morally wrong" behaviour. See here for his comments when comedian Jimmy Carr was caught out:



So the Prime Minister's position on this before this latest scandal blew up was crystal clear. People who are involved in avoiding UK tax by using clever schemes like making it seem like companies are based offshore when by any reasonable measure they are actually based in the UK are engaging in immoral behaviour and should pay their UK taxes. Indeed the pressure that comments he made above put on Carr forced him to pay more tax on his money and to stop the practise that was allowing him to avoid it.

That brings us to what should happen now.

Cameron's line so far has been variously to claim that this is a "family matter" and also that he has no shares nor any money held abroad. He made comments yesterday where he told us he simply has his PM's salary, some savings from which he gets some interest and one house in London that he rents out while he is in Downing Street (although this appears to ignore the house he has in his Oxfordshire constituency but let's let that one slide as to be fair he only has that because he is an MP).

Neither of these defences are good enough I'm afraid. It is not a "family matter" whether our Prime Minister has personally benefited from tax avoidance schemes that he has been campaigning and legislating against. It is very much our business. And his comments about his current finances ignore the history of where his "savings" came from in the first place. A classic politician's way of answering the question.

I am sure Cameron, who has a notoriously hot temper and has previously invoked his father as a huge influence on his life is furious about how this is all being reported. What he needs to do now to cauterize this is quite simple. If he knew nothing about the tax avoidance schemes his father's company used then he needs to work out how much tax would and should have been paid on what he inherited had those schemes not been used and write a cheque out to HMRC.

If however he did know what his father's company was doing and knowingly inherited a large amount of money where UK tax had not been paid in a "morally wrong" way (to use his own words) and then sat on it for years then his situation is much more stark.

I know others will take a different view but on manifest hypocrisy about finances I take a hard line. Under those circumstances he will have shown himself unfit for office and he must resign as Prime Minister.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Labour have forfeited any right to complain about boundary changes

So the (evil natch) Tories have got themselves a majority and are now going to press ahead with boundary reform. They intend to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and also to even up the number of voters in constituencies to within about a 5% margin. This is in contrast to the situation at the moment where there can be huge disparities between numbers of voters with some constituencies being 4 or 5 times the size of others.

Now before I get into how Labour have no right to whine about this let me just reiterate my long held position on our electoral system. I think First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. I think it hugely distorts results, forces parties to focus on a tiny number of swing voters in marginal seats and prevents new parties from getting a foothold hence allowing our atrophied and sclerotic politics to perpetuate.

But Labour don't agree with this. Since the Second World War they have been in power cumulatively for 30 years, most recently the 13 years from 1997 to 2010. In all those long years, and especially when Blair had his big majorities between 1997 and 2005 they could easily have put through a change to the electoral system to make it more proportional (or what I would call "fairer"). Indeed after the Jenkins Commission (set up by the new Labour government) reported in 1998 and recommended we change to a system of Alternative Vote Plus (a preferential system topped up to add proportionality) they would have had the perfect political opportunity. But they chose not to do this. The system that had served them so well and given them a huge majority was deemed fine and dandy. Blair has subsequently admitted as much.

The boundaries have long favoured Labour because of their vote distribution and the constituency sizes. Until the night of the long sgian dubhs they could expect to get significantly more seats than the Tories even if their vote share had been the same. It's questionable whether this is still the case following their rout in Scotland but nevertheless this held for many, many years.

So what we essentially had was an electoral system that was strongly bent in favour of the two main parties, Labour and the Tories, and then within that bending, it was bent a little further in favour of Labour than the Tories. Labour were fine with the massive bending towards the two main parties, and of course the extra bending towards them in favour of the Tories.

Unsurprisingly the Tories, while happy with the overall massive bending towards the two main parties were not happy with this extra bias towards Labour. They saw an opportunity to "fix" this problematic (for them) part of the system by evening up the constituency sizes and reducing their number. They were (and are) able to use the cover of "making the system fairer" even though the effect will be to bend things more in their favour. Analysis suggests it may give them another 20 or so seats compared to what they would get at the moment. It's not an exact science but most observers agree it will be to their benefit.

And of course Labour are not happy with this change. There are cries of "foul" and "gerrymandering". But they've brought this on entirely themselves. A rotten system that was bent in favour of red/blue hegemony but slightly more towards red will now be a rotten system that will be bent a little more towards blue. But the Tory argument that evening up the constituency sizes will be fairer is very hard to rebut. It is unfair that there is such disparity in the system and Labour could get more seats than the Tories for the same vote. If you accept the premise that FPTP is the best system (as Labour clearly have every time they achieve power) then you simply don't have a leg to stand on trying to claim what the Tories are doing is unfair.

I'd scrap the whole lot and change it to multi-member constituencies using a preferential voting system. But Labour have never done anything like that for Westminster and there are no signs they want that now. Maybe after another 15 years of opposition (which is looking increasingly likely with the Corbyn/McDonnell nexus) they'll change their mind again. Although even if they do I'd have no confidence in them actually changing things were they ever to fluke back into power again.

But in the meantime the best thing they can do about the incipient Tory changes is pipe down.

They long ago forfeited any right to complain about "unfairness" in our electoral system.