Friday, October 30, 2009


Obviously, the economy is in a very bad way and a lot of people are suffering. The latest example in the news is this:

The GMAC-RFC mortgage lender has been fined £2.8m by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) for mistreating customers who fell into arrears. It has also been told to repay £7.7m, plus interest, to 46,000 of its borrowers.
The FSA said the company levied unfair charges on borrowers who fell behind with their repayments and was too eager to repossess them.

After setting up as a mortgage business in the UK in 1998, GMAC-RFC grew rapidly to become one of the UK's largest mortgage lenders, but it stopped making new loans last year.
The FSA's investigation of the company's lending practices between October 2004 and October 2008 found that:
  • charges for dealing with people in arrears were "excessive and unfair"
  • repossession proceedings were started before all other alternatives had been considered
  • GMAC staff were not properly trained in dealing with arrears cases and repossessions.

It would be better if none of this mess had happened.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank* the greedy bankers, the clueless sub-prime borrowers, the so-clever-they’re-stupid financial engineers, Hank ‘Nobody Will Really Mind If Lehman Goes Bust’ Paulson, the dollarholic People’s Bank of China, Gordon Brown’s dead eye, the credit rating agencies who wouldn’t know a bad risk if it painted itself purple, stripped naked and danced on top of a harpsichord singing ‘bad risks are here again’, and anybody else who may have been responsible for the credit crunch and recession.

Without you, I’d not be getting the comically cheap flat I’ve just today completed on – a GMAC-RFC repossession, not that I’d even heard of them when I made the offer – nor would I have scored such a dirt-cheap mortgage.

I’ve been looking for a flat, on and off, for over two years - and very nearly bought at the peak. Phew.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the furniture industry needs a fiscal stimulus. But not before I have an alcoholic one.

* Thanks also to C&L, for too many reasons to mention.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I heard a really clever joke the other day, about the elevator in a tower block. It worked on so many levels.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

All-women shortlists lead to equally popular female MPs

After Sunder Katwala posted about all-women shortlists (and a typically ignorant Amanda Platell column on the subject), I thought I’d take a look.

Do female MPs who’ve been selected in this way tend to be worse than those selected in an open contest against men? Platell and many others would have us think so.

So, how do you determine the quality of an MP? There are many things you could look at, none clearly definitive, but I’ve contracted out this judgement to the people who hire those MPs: their constituency voters.

As Sunder says, “35 of Labour's new women MPs in 1997 were selected on all women shortlists and 30 were not”. Respectively 34 and 29 of these stood for re-election in 2001. I’ve compared how well they did (election results here, list of all-women-shortlist seats here).

In 2001, the average vote share won by female Labour MPs selected through all-women shortlists fell by 1.8%. The average change for those selected openly was a fall of 1.4%. A tiny difference, not close to being statistically significant. So perhaps the hubbub over this is just one of those Westminster issues that ordinary people don’t really care about.

(I’ve not looked at how female candidates selected in different ways did at their first bid for election. That would be harder, as all-women shortlists were only used in Labour-held or target seats, whereas women will have been selected in open contests for many hopeless seats as well. This would likely distort any straight comparison.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Peter Ryley on management

I am currently in a mood to cheer this to the rafters. So are most of my department.

One of my more frequent big speeches is about the dire quality of some management and its remoteness from, and ignorance of, the real work that we all have to do.

Most of the people who work on the front line are not obstacles, they are experts. Their knowledge is far more valuable than the snake oil of management theory.

I’m not going to add to that, because if I start, I’ll never stop.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tories accidentally back bigger fiscal stimulus

This just in:

The [Conservative] party intends to capitalise on last week’s official figures that show the economy still mired in recession by attacking the government’s efforts to boost the economy. The Tories believe the figures… vindicate their stance.
They say the small print of official statistics last week shows the government is spending only half of its planned £20 billion fiscal stimulus. Half of the stimulus, which included last November’s temporary 2.5% reduction in Vat, was “a myth”, the Conservatives said. Their claim is based on analysis of last week’s public finances figures by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which said the Treasury was undershooting its own spending projections by billions of pounds.
“Current central government spending on the delivery of public services has grown less quickly than forecast by the Treasury for the year,” said Gemma Tetlow, an IFS economist. “If this lower growth rate continues for the second half of the financial year, this element of spending will be some £10 billion lower than budget forecast.”

Let me see whether I’ve got this straight. The recession is turning out to be worse than expected. The fiscal stimulus, designed to ease the recession, is turning out to be smaller than expected. So yah boo sucks to Labour for not doing enough, and if only we’d listened to the Tories, who stood firmly against – oh.

Also, the IFS research was not “uncovered by the Conservatives”. It was published on the interwebs for all to see. And if you do go and take a look, you’ll find it brimming with caveats:

We should be cautious of inferring or extrapolating likely outcomes over the financial year as a whole from information on only the first half, particularly given that a number of factors are likely to affect the profile of receipts and spending differently in 2009–10 than in 2008–09.

Another thing to remember is that £10bn is no big deal as forecasting errors go.

Organised religion tends towards politics

Does this sound like the relationship between two groups who have differing views on the interpretation of God’s will and on the route to salvation of our immortal souls?

The former archbishop of Canterbury criticised the Roman Catholic Church this weekend, branding as "inexcusable" its failure to consult leading Church of England clergy on the Pope's invitation for Anglo-Catholics to join him.
Lord Carey gave a cautious welcome to the proposals from Rome but said he was "distressed" that his successor had received just two weeks' notice of them.
He said that the move by Pope Benedict XVI could help clergy in the Church of England who were unhappy with the ordination of women bishops.
However, he urged the current Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, to protest at the lack of consultation.

Under the proposals, announced on Tuesday, Anglican congregations could join the Catholic church en masse rather than forming small, breakaway churches.
Married Anglican priests choosing to convert to Catholicism would be permitted to be ordained as Catholic priests but would be unable to become bishops.

Or does it sound like a political pissing contest between a couple of institutions vying for territory?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Does Nick Griffin like watching lesbians?

I didn’t watch it, but this quote raises an important question:

On the subject of homosexuality he said "a lot of people find the sight of two men kissing in public really creepy". "That is how a lot of us feel, a lot of Christians, a lot of Muslims," he said. "I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is."

Yes, yes. If one of the men were him, I’d certainly agree. Even if they weren’t kissing. And even if the other man weren’t there at all.

But more importantly, does Mr Griffin’s inexplicable (yet sweetly multi-faith) homophobia discriminate on grounds of gender? Does he find homosexuals of the female variety creepy when they kiss in public? What if they’re young and pretty? What if they’re wearing tight tops with Union Jack designs? What if one of them’s a nurse?

The nation needs to be told.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Darling’s borrowing forecast may turn out right

The UK's public sector net borrowing reached £14.8bn last month - a high for September… Net borrowing for the six months of the financial year so far now stands at £77.3bn - the worst figure for the April-to-September period on record.

The figures raise speculation that the government may have to revise its forecasts on borrowing.

Possibly. But I’m not sold.

I think the Budget forecast – for public sector net borrowing of 12.4% of GDP in 2009/10 – looks like turning out right, or possibly even a bit pessimistic.

This graph shows rolling 12-month figures for public borrowing as a % of GDP, based on official ONS borrowing data and monthly GDP estimates from the NIESR (rough explanation at the bottom).

The solid line is what’s actually happened, and the dotted line is how things will go if the average rate of increase over the last six months continues. By next March (virtually the end of the 09/10 fiscal year), it comes to a bit over 12.3% – just below the Budget forecast.

The usual caveats apply: past performance is not necessarily a guide, etc. But one thing that could make a difference is the end of the recession. GDP growth over the next six months is (touch wood) going to be considerably better than the last six. This will reduce any given amount of borrowing relative to GDP.

Even if I’m right, though, let’s not go dancing in the streets. 12ish% is still bloody high. And then there’s next year to worry about.

Rough explanation: I used the monthly cash borrowing figures from the ONS (series PSF2, ANNX) and the monthly GDP estimates from the NIESR, and did what I could to control for the differences in the ways the two institutions present their data. This involved using the ONS’s rolling four-quarter figures for borrowing as a % of GDP (series PSF9, J4DD) as a series of anchor points (for March, June, September and December – i.e. the final month of each quarter), weeping at my lack of social life, and also comparing the NIESR’s quarterly GDP figures with the equivalent from the ONS to generate a set of monthly GDP figures that cohere with the ONS quarterly ones. If you want more details, please shoot me and/or yourself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rearrange these words...

In response to David Cameron’s latest suggestion, wannabe Tory MP Iain Dale manfully says:

All women shortlists: not in my name

No, Iain. That should be “All women shortlists: my name not in”.

Justice 4 MPs

Astonishingly, Gordon Brown seems to have more political sense than the rest of his party’s MPs.

His enemies in the PLP have contrived to put themselves on the unpopular side of the hottest political issue of the year:

the Prime Minister had become the focus of backbench discontent after he urged MPs to accept the repayment demands of Sir Thomas Legg…
Brown allies said the Prime Minister was trying to bring "closure" to the expenses controversy. They said the public would not understand resistance to the paybacks ordered by the Legg review.
But Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Children's, Schools and Families Select Committee, branded Mr Brown "cowardly" over his response to the crisis and complained that innocent MPs were being "thrown out of the lifeboat".
He confirmed he was considering running as a "Brown must go" candidate against Tony Lloyd, a Brown loyalist whose post as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party comes up for re-election next month. He said someone needed to "look the leadership of the party in the eye and say, 'This isn't good enough.'"

I have some sympathy with the view that MPs are being treated unreasonably harshly, but to campaign on that position is political suicide.

Trying to oust Brown because he’s colluding in the horsewhipping of the political class would be, as Sir Humphrey Appleby puts it, “courageous”.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cameron must be relieved that Lisbon will pass

Czech President and Lisbon treaty holdout Vaclav Klaus has more or less run up the white flag, pretty much guaranteeing that the treaty will come into force before the next UK election.

David Cameron, who opposes the treaty and had promised a referendum should it be unratified by the time he comes to power – a referendum that he would certainly have won - must be delighted.


Imagine you’re him. You know from your party’s experience (especially that of your shadow foreign secretary, William Hague) that while your Euroscepticism may technically have majority support in opinion polls, most people don’t regard the EU as a big issue and in fact have long found the Tories’ obsession with Europe off-putting. You’ve spent years trying to focus the party on other issues. Even now, one of your weaker PR points is your party’s position in Europe.

Then imagine you come to power next May and find yourself manifesto-bound to spend your first couple of months focusing very publicly not on the deficit, not on unemployment, not on reform of public services and not on cleaning up Parliament but on the pros and cons of the Lisbon treaty.

Much better to be able to say, regretfully, that the treaty is now a fait accompli and that you’ll certainly want to look at the matter in some vague way at some vague point in the future.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Caption competition

This has got to be a metaphor for something. But I don’t know what.

(Thanks to CH)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Passing the Britishness test

Last night, as I was making my way through a crowded room, someone accidentally elbowed me in the stomach (not hard).

I said “Sorry”.

Flipping heck

Eleanor Laing, shadow minister for justice, has been told by Sir Thomas Legg that she need repay nothing. Good for her.

But, “in recognition of the public anger”, she feels “honour bound” to voluntarily pay back £25,000, i.e. “approximately one year’s ACA [additional costs allowance]”.

This is odd. Not that an MP is being so nobly self-sacrificing despite having done, as she puts it, “nothing wrong” – her action, as she herself implies, is pure and simple PR.

What’s odd is that £25,000 is somewhat less than the £87,000 she claimed to pay the mortgage on a pair of flats that she later sold for a handsome profit, and it’s very much less than the £180,000 in capital gains tax that she avoided when she sold them. She had told the parliamentary authorities that the flats were her second home so that she could claim for the mortgage, and she told the Inland Revenue that they were her primary residence so that she could dodge the tax.

Her self-congratulatory press release neglects to mention this, but what it means is that she can now comfortably afford to spend the average UK income on demonstrating her moral purity.

Another odd thing is what Laing says in her letter to Legg about this £25,000:

Given that this amount does not represent a repayment for any particular item, nor to any particular account, may I request that you and your committee consider sending the money to a charity which helps homeless children, such as Barnardo’s?

Barnardo’s is wonderful (you can donate here), but this is taxpayers’ money she’s returning. She doesn’t get to say what it gets spent on, and, unless Westminster has gone completely mad, nor does a retired civil servant.

This case study illustrates another aspect of the arbitrariness of Legg’s repayment requests: he decided that mortgage claims need only be looked at in relation to the maximum limits that were in place and not as regards any manifest gaming of the system. But take the piss with your cleaning and gardening claims and he’ll have you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Strong words are common currency

The title of Chris Dillow’s latest piece – ‘No need to fret about weak sterling’ – makes me wonder about the language we use to describe currency levels.

Somebody, long ago, pulled a brilliant verbal trick in getting us all to talk about the pound being ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ – after all, who wants to be weak? This language encourages us to think of the currency as a virility symbol for the national economy. Likewise the day-to-day movements: ‘sterling gained one cent against the dollar but lost two cents against the euro’ – it makes it sound like football scores. Woo-hoo, we’re up! In your face, dollar!

If we changed strong and weak to high and low, and changed gain and lose to rise and fall, it would sweep away a little of the ‘strong-currency’ fetishism. That attitude may be a fair response to competitive devaluations that encourage a burst of growth at the expense of higher inflation, but it can’t be a universal principle.

Sometimes a lower currency will help the economy, sometimes a higher one will – although, given the trade-offs involved, the notion of a ‘correct’ exchange rate (even at any one time) is pretty shaky.

Stupid rules, stupidly enforced

Some years ago, I wrote a spoof news story about a professor of moral calculus discovering that two wrongs do in fact make a right. This finding has clearly informed Sir Thomas Legg’s decision to invent some precise numerical rules on MPs’ expenses and to apply them retrospectively.

A section of Legg’s explanation is headed: “The need to determine what the rules were”. By ‘determine’, he means stipulate as much as discover.

He says that, when it comes to secondary (i.e. non-accommodation) expenses, “some limits must be regarded as having been in place to prevent disproportionate and unnecessary expenditure from the public purse”. This decree assumes that, by definition, the previously existing rules must in fact have contained specific limits on certain types of spending, even though such numbers were never in any way stated.

Given this, Legg has had “to establish the limits which must be taken… to have been in place at the time”. By ‘establish’ he means conduct some unspecified procedure and then state that second-home cleaning costs of up to £2,000 a year and gardening costs of up to £1,000 a year were fine, but no more.

Following this moment of clarity, he has been able to tell lots of MPs that they did in fact claim more than his imaginary rules allowed and should pay it back. They, having screwed us over, are now screwed over in turn, and the moral balance of the universe is restored.

Back in the real world, it’s obvious that the expenses rules (behind which many idiot MPs had tried to hide) were shoddily drafted, arrogantly manipulated and indulgently applied. But it just adds to the fiasco for Legg to come along and confabulate what he reckons the rules probably ought to have been if only they’d been different.

The party leaders, fearful of a lynch mob, have rushed to insist that their MPs pay back these arbitrary sums in the desperate hope of buying a couple of points on their poll ratings.

I have no sympathy for the well-off MPs who have been milking the system “within the rules”, but this whole mess does tell us something about our political culture: standards of due process will be torn to shreds when it comes to deeply unpopular people. If politicians see the public and the media angrily demanding severe punishment for such a group, then they will do whatever it takes to make those people suffer.

In this case, they themselves are the bogeymen. So how would they treat poorer, weaker groups with no political clout? (Ask an asylum seeker...)

This isn’t justice; it’s vengeance. And hardly anybody seems to care about the difference.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

We’re modern – many of our best readers know some gays

The Telegraph, in an editorial about “a way of thinking and talking about the family with which modern Britain should feel comfortable”, says:

some ways of thinking about the family are obsolete. It is no longer acceptable to stigmatise unmarried mothers, divorcees or gay people: in many cases these are literally our children, parents, brothers and sisters.

But not actually us, of course. The Daily Telegraph – the paper for married straight people who may well know some unmarried mothers, divorcees or gays. And the reason one shouldn’t stigmatise the latter is that it’s “obsolete” and can lead to dinner-table awkwardness, not because it’s vicious and leads to anguish.

Still, it’s progress of sorts. I remember a Telegraph editorial from the late 90s that said (if I recall right): “the homosexual lifestyle is a deeply unhappy one”.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tories win Nobel Economics Prize for double-dip recession

It has just been announced that George Osborne and David Cameron have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. The award is in anticipation of their compelling practical proof of the importance of public spending to maintain aggregate demand in the immediate aftermath of a severe financial and economic crisis.

The judging panel said that the 2011-12 recession would be an impressive demonstration that when private-sector borrowing and spending have fallen back dramatically and unemployment has shot up, an assault on government borrowing will only weaken the economy. “Their ingenious devil’s advocacy about a ‘debt crisis’ of supposedly overwhelming importance and the virtues of rapid spending cuts should give them the opportunity to provide a reductio ad absurdum of their own, clearly ironic, statements of policy.”

A dissenting minority of the judges suggested that this was already known by anyone with half a brain and a rudimentary knowledge of economic history, following failed US policy in the 1930s, failed Japanese policy in the 1990s, and a great deal of Keynesian writing. However, this was denounced as “crazy talk”.

Some have expressed surprise that Cameron and Osborne should have received such a prestigious award when they have yet to achieve anything in power. Bookies’ favourites Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe were unavailable for comment.

Receiving the prize, Cameron modestly said that the whole nation deserved thanks for the coming double-dip recession:

When we look back we will say not that the government made it happen, not that the minister made it happen, but the bankrupt businesswoman made it happen, the laid-off police officer made it happen, the father whose house was repossessed made it happen, the teacher with years of pay cuts made it happen.
You made it happen.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama wins Nobel (Pre-emptive) Peace Prize

Now that’s just taking the piss.

It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve.

An interesting switch from rewarding already-achieved peace to investing in future peace. Just as George Bush used the doctrine of pre-emptive war, so this award is clearly a policy of pre-emptive peace.

And I’d quite like a $1.4 million advance payment for the things I’m trying to achieve…

Cameron, the state and society

Bit busy, so no in-depth commentary on David Cameron’s speech. But I recommend these two posts by Giles Wilkes.

I’ll also briefly add that the fallacy at the heart of Cameron’s politics – and, if the polls are right, the tragedy that will be at the heart of his government – is his conviction that ‘the state’ and ‘society’ are not just wholly distinct entities but rivals engaged in a zero-sum game. They are, in a democracy, deeply interdependent; sometimes different parts of either get in one another’s way; sometimes they help one another.

He says: “The more that we as a society do, the less we will need government to do.” Which has a truistic ring to it. But what his approach in power would be is: “The less that government does, the more society will do.” In other words, if you reduce the supply of social policy provision coming from the state, the demand for it will rise and other providers (businesses, charities, community groups, churches) will appear. And, because they’re not the state, they won’t have any of the failings that the state does. And they certainly won’t have any distinctive failings of their own.

Good luck with that.

And there are two wholly different arguments about “big government” that the Tories are very happy to muddle together. Cameron (and others in all parties) often sound appealing when they talk about decentralising government, so that local organisations and individuals can wield more power. But arguments in favour of that are being used to also justify a big shrinkage in the size of government overall. The former is about redistributing power; the latter is about creating a vacuum and hoping it will be nicely filled.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

His adverbs are as misplaced as his priorities

A beautiful and unintentional oxymoron from George Osborne (no, not ‘progressive conservatism’):

Anyone who tells you otherwise is frankly lying to you.

He’s also clearly been going to the same voice coach that got Margaret Thatcher to make her voice deeper and less shrill.

(For rather better commentary on Osborne, I recommend Chris, Duncan and Don.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cameron’s Thatcher strategy

If the Tories win the next election, the trade unions are going to be absolutely central to their political strategy for the years that follow. In at least one way, they’ll be taking us back to the 1980s.

They are going to engineer a series of fights with, in particular, the public-sector unions. Yesterday’s promises of a pay freeze and cutting ‘Whitehall’ by a third are just the opening salvos:

Labour ministers… suspect that the more severe Tory squeeze will backfire. Trade unions reacted angrily, warning of industrial action.

The Tories are banking on being able to win the battle for public opinion on this: as the private sector will have shed a lot of jobs and made a lot of cutbacks, they think people will be happy for the public sector to also bear some of the pain. And strikes in particular will disrupt the running of public services – blame for which may be likelier to fall on the unions, ‘sticking up for their vested interests’, than on the government, ‘making the tough decisions to share the burden’.

If so, this would only increase the electorate’s tolerance for more cuts. The Tories will try to turn Unison’s Dave Prentis into an Arthur Scargill-type bogeyman.

At the same time, there would be enormous pressure on a Labour party heavily reliant on union funding to back the unions on this. That would then allow the Tories to brand Labour as being in the pockets of its paymasters, in denial about the cuts that are needed, siding with the producer interest against the taxpayer, and so on.

The Tories also intend to reform party funding rules in a way that will savage Labour’s finances – but, in doing so, they will end up reducing Labour’s dependence on the unions. If they are devious, they’ll wait a couple of years, so that the unions can exert maximum sway over Labour during the worst of the cuts battle, and then they’ll cut the party off in time for it to go ‘what? who? where?’ in the lead-up to the following election.

If the Tories win, they will quickly become resented in a way that Tony Blair didn’t until after Iraq. But they will do everything in their power to make it hard for Labour to capitalise on this

Under this Thatcher strategy, Labour and the unions would have to get a lot smarter in the fights they pick and the ways they fight them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Making a virtue of necessity

Boris Johnson boasted to the cutfest that is this year’s Tory conference that “we’ve lost 180 jobs at City Hall”.

The really impressive thing is that under half of these were Bozza’s own handpicked deputy mayors and personal advisers who resigned with clouds over their heads.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson confirmed that the job losses would save London taxpayers “chickenfeed”.

Britain’s broken record

Another thing from David Cameron’s interview on Today this morning. He said, when questioned about what Evan Davis called his “broken Britain” theme:

We don’t talk about broken Britain, we talk about a broken society.

You could reasonably call this hair-splitting; you could also reasonably call it a lie:

“I applaud The Sun's Broken Britain campaign. You are absolutely on to the right thing.” – David Cameron, January 2008

“this is the long-term way to allow people, families and communities to take control of their lives, create the responsible society and fix broken Britain” – David Cameron, October 2008

“crime, educational failure, welfare dependency and family breakdown all on the rise in Labour's Broken Britain” – David Cameron, January 2009

He does have a persistently poor memory when challenged about his 'broken' sloganising.

Tory pension confusion

The pension age is going to rise; the Tories now say they intend it to happen more quickly than Labour’s plans. The media yesterday were full of party briefings about the men’s age rising from 65 to 66 in 2016; women would follow more slowly, going up from the current 60.

Alas, David Cameron told the Today programme this morning that things aren’t quite so clear. There’d be an “independent person to head a review” after the election, to look at how the pension age could be raised, from 2016 “at the earliest”.

So a lot of people in their fifties no longer have a known retirement date to plan towards.

Floating a change to the pension age just a few years away from people’s retirement, and then telling them they’ll have to wait to find out, is pretty irresponsible.

Cameron paints this as a proposal to deal with the ballooning deficit. But under either party, the bulk of the deficit reduction will be taken care of by 2016. So the policy – if we can really call it that – is both too late and too soon, as well as being too vague.

Monday, October 05, 2009

‘Just a trim, please. I said just a trim!’

The Tories should be worried about the opinion polls.

It’s not voting intentions: they’re maintaining a comfortable lead, although I don’t think a landslide is in the bag. No, their problem is people’s expectations of what they’d do in power as regards the public finances.

Polls from ICM, Populus and YouGov find that people tend to be more averse to higher taxes than to public spending cuts, and that when people are asked how to deal with the problem of the deficit, they want the main focus to be on spending cuts rather than tax rises.

But how big a problem do people think the deficit is? Because of the general consensus in the political and media class, pollsters haven’t looked at this very much. Ipsos MORI, though, have gone into that territory.

Only 24% agreed that “there is a real need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the very high national debt we now have”, while 50% disagreed. Note the wording, though: “spending on public services” isn’t the same thing as “public spending”. The former is much cuddlier and less cuttable. Thus the same poll found 75% agreeing that “making public services more efficient can save enough money to help cut government spending, without damaging services the public receive”; just 9% disagreed.

While the wording is “help cut” rather than just “cut”, which makes it technically obviously true, this very strongly suggests that a lot of people expect efficiency savings to pretty much do the job when it comes to reducing the deficit. We can just cut some waste rather than actually harming the quality of services. They may be in for a nasty shock.

What’s more, going back to the YouGov poll, people strongly reject the Tory line on timing (although they may not know it’s the Tory line). Only 18% thought that “public spending should be cut sharply very soon in order to get the government’s finances in order as quickly as possible”, while 70% thought that “public spending will need to be cut in due course, but if it is done too soon, Britain’s economy would be damaged and unemployment would rise still further”.

If people’s expectations and preferences about cuts stay as they are, then by voting Tory they’ll find that they’ve gone to the barber’s for a trim but then been scalped – and for a price.

As Danny Finkelstein regularly points out, saving money by cutting public spending (rather than raising taxes) takes time and can even cost more in the short term. If the Tories can get their heads round this, and if they intend to attack the deficit as quickly as they can (i.e. well before the following election), that will mean higher taxes early on. If they haven’t primed the voters to accept that – as well as cuts in real services – they’ll be in trouble.

David Cameron reportedly wants a ‘doctor’s mandate’ – to do whatever may be necessary to sort things out. At present, he’s coasting towards a barber’s mandate. He may have to choose between deterring voters now and alienating them later.

(Of course, you could say that Labour would face much the same problems. However, what looks likelier is that Labour will face the problems that come from being in opposition...)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Marr ducks the question of Cameron’s schizophrenia pills

I’m disappointed by Andrew Marr’s interview with David Cameron today, compared with the Gordon Brown one last week.

Marr, of course, had asked Brown about whether he was popping pills. This followed a bout of online gossip based on the supposed observation that Brown wasn’t having any chianti and cheese – which you have to avoid if you’re taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors, sometimes used for treating depression.

I have observed that Cameron has not been operating any heavy machinery lately. This naturally leads me to suspect that he might be using chlorpromazine, a powerful antipsychotic drug, most often used for the treatment of schizophrenia. When on this medication, you aren’t supposed to operate heavy machinery.

I think the question of whether our aspirant prime minister is being treated for this serious mental condition is very much in the public interest. But did Marr ask? Did he hell.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Prat alert

Giles Coren, 25 April 2009:
I have been a Labour supporter all my life.
And then, on Wednesday, there was the Budget. I will lose all of my personal allowances. I will pay tax on a fair whack of my income at 50 per cent… And, worst of all, I won't be able to squirrel away huge chunks into a private pension so as dramatically to reduce my tax liability.
When I heard this, I immediately had two thoughts. ... My first thought was: “God, I'd better call my accountant and find out how we're going to dodge this.” And my second thought was: “Hell, I'd better vote Tory.”

Giles Coren, 3 October 2009:
The Sun sure got a lot of good coverage for its U-turn... So I thought maybe I should make one.
Unfortunately, as I haven’t ever expressed support for a single political party, I haven’t got one I can switch from. So I shall just have to come out and say that I have totally changed my mind about everything I stand for, and will from now on be writing my columns in support of the, er, other people.
After all, I’m no different from The Sun. I don’t want to get caught on the losing side when, frankly, it doesn’t make any difference to me one way or the other who wins...

David Camera-on*

Say cheese:

David Cameron has hired a press photographer who charted his journey to the threshold of No 10 to work full-time for the Conservatives.
Andrew Parsons, who has worked for The Times and the Press Association, is to provide behind the scenes images of the Tory leader to the media as he fights to win power.
Parsons has taken some of the best-known images of the Tory leader. His portfolio includes pictures of Mr Cameron dog-sledding in Norway and visiting Rwanda, and a number of family portraits.
The appointment is a first for British politics and Mr Cameron’s aides are nervous that it will be portrayed as evidence of presidential pretensions.

Presidential? No, nothing so vulgar. Appointing a court photographer is regal.

* Credit to Neil Kinnock for the pun.