Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doctor Who new series trailer promises fear, mystery, snogging and scary monsters


It's tantalising, menacing, and with a whole stash of sinister.

From where I'm sitting three weeks seems too long to wait for this year's Doctor Who series to begin. This time, there's going to be a mega cliffhanger half way through and we're going to have to wait several months to see how it all works out.

There are some very scary looking clowns and River Song looking gorgeous as we get to find out, presumably, her full story. She's such a good character, though, that I reckon there's a good chance they'll preserve some of the air of mystery around her to keep her going.

The BBC are offering 30 pairs of tickets to a screening of the first two episodes next Monday night at 6pm in Central London. I'm not entering, sadly, because I have an ASLDC Executive meeting then, the BBC aren't paying for travel and it's only open to over 16s, and it wouldn't be fair to see it without Anna.

This series looks like it has the potential to match the last, and to scare the living daylights out of me. Bring it on.........

East Lothian SNP candidate David Berry tells carers' hustings he doesn't know about respite care

Word has reached my ears that East Lothian SNP candidate David Berry told an incredulous audience at a hustings meeting in Haddington that he didn't know about the respite care situation in East Lothian.

It was all the more remarkable because:

  •  the event was run by carers
  • he was until last May the Leader of East Lothian Council until he stood down to "hand over the reins to someone whose more emollient style may be more effective in continuing the teamwork"
  • he is still an administration councillor in the area
You would think, wouldn't you, that he would have properly researched what the Council's provision was and what local people needed before turning up at the event? 

He's written about this on his own blog, where he said:
The hardest question for me was about a major lack of respite provision across the county. Although I knew there was a problem, despite my involvement with ELC’s revamp of ASC and listened closely at the last CEL AGM, I simply had not appreciated either its top priority, nor its scale and frankly admitted as much.
Although he acknowledges his own shortcomings, there's no offer to do more to help struggling carers. I'm sure that's not the response local people would expect from someone who wants to be their MSP.

Jim Devine will be home for Christmas - or before

Disgraced former Livingston Labour MP Jim Devine has been sentenced to 16 months in prison for defrauding his election expenses, the BBC reports.  At most, he'll actually serve 8 months inside, so he'll be home for Christmas. According to his lawyer, if he behaves well, he could be out in 4 months just in time for my birthday. For the avoidance of doubt, though, he's not invited.

His crime, described by the judge as a "calculated and deliberate" defrauding of public money, was deemed not to be as serious as David Chaytor's, who is serving 18 months, but more serious than Elliot Morley's, who's in for a year.

This, I guess, brings to an end the litany of surreal and bizarre stories of Devine's tenure as my local MP. From a press story not long after he was elected in which he talked about a random woman sending him an interesting picture at himself after he'd met her at an event, to stories of bullying staff, to being ordered to pay damages by an Industrial Tribunal to bankruptcy to imprisonment. It doesn't make pleasant reading at all. For more background information, you might want to read the post I wrote when he was found guilty about the inglorious end to his chaotic career.

Eman Al-Obeidi: international community must take action on rape and other violence against women

We still don't know what has become of Eman Al-Obeidi, the woman who burst into a Tripoli hotel last weekend to tell journalists that she had been gang raped by 15 Gadaffi soldiers at a checkpoint.

Ms Al-Obeidi, who comes from Benghazi, was then bundled into a car by various Government thugs and hasn't been seen since. The Gadaffi regime has sought to dismiss her as a mentally ill drunk and prostitute when in fact she is a lawyer. It was reminiscent of Saif Gadaffi's dismissal of the protesters in Benghazi as drug addicts. They said she was safe back with her family, yet Al Jazeera's interview with her mum told a very different story. 

I'm fairly certain that Eman Al-Obeidi is not the only woman to have experienced this sort of horrendous brutality. She must have known that telling her story to a room full of journalists would not end well for her. We're still a long way from rape being taken seriously in these countries under normal circumstances, but it being used as torture by representatives of the Government is a whole different ball game. She showed incredible courage by doing what she did as it will hopefully help other women.

I'm not convinced that the international community is doing enough to tackle this violent brutality and violation of women (and I'm sure it must happen to men as well). We see it being used by rulers as a form of torture, and as a homophobic hate crime in South Africa. 

Sexual violence should never be tolerated and the perpetrators, and those who turn a blind eye to these crimes, need to be brought to justice. There has to be an increased international effort to wipe out these crimes and help the victims.

The way we report and discuss rape was highlighted in a very good article in yesterday's Guardian, called Rape is not a Compliment, taking to task some of the shamefully ignorant reporting of rape. Many thanks to my friend Amy Rodger for highlighting it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Liberal Democrats triumph in Highland Youth Hustings

From my friends in the north:

While the party leaders were getting ready for last night's TV debate, candidates from all parties were facing their own challenge in front of young people drawn from all over the Highlands at Action for Children's Quiz the Biz event in Inverness.
After exploring stalls from all the parties and taking part in political speed-dating with candidates, the climax of the evening was a secret ballot conducted by Highland Returning Officer Alistair Dodds.  The same event in 2007 sucessfully predicted the outcome of the main election a few weeks later.
After meeting Highland candidates Liberal Democrats Christine Jardine & Alan MacRae, as well as Fergus Ewing & John Finnie from the SNP, Mary Scanlon and Karensa Carr from the Tories, Rhoda Grant and Linda Stewart from Labour and Eleanor Scott from the Greens, the votes of the young people of the Highlands were as follows:
- Lib Dem 18 (38%)
- SNP 13 (28%)
- Labour 11 (23%)
- Green 5 (11%)
- Conservative 0
Turnout: 77%

What a great idea for a debate! Political speed dating seems to be the trend of the moment as there have been a few events set up on these lines. Basically groups of people get to fire some rapid questions at politicians who then move on to the next table when a bell rings. It's quite an intense experience, but great fun, and you get much more contact than at a normal hustings meeting. 

Action for Children do so much to support vulnerable children and young people. It's great to see them getting young folk interested and involved in the political process and allowing people to meet politicians not just in person but online via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (which is down right now, else I'd link to #quizthebiz.

It's also encouraging to see that young people still seem to like what the Liberal Democrats are saying.

Liberal Democrats plan to abolish Council Tax for the poorest pensioners #sp2011

Single pensioners with incomes of less than £10,000 would not have to pay any Council Tax at all under Scottish Liberal Democrat plans to be announced today. It's also hoped that this would be extended to pensioner couples with an income of less than £15,000, which is around the Pension Credit amount for a couple.

That sort of targetted support is going to make a huge difference and shows Liberal Democrat instincts to give meaningful, practical help to those who need it most.

It would mean a saving of £400 from a typical Band D bill, which compares well with the £22 the same pensioner would save under the Council Tax freeze and £200 under the Conservative plans to give all pensioner households, even those who have whacking great occupational pensions, I guess like Bill Aitken, the Tory Justice spokesman who is retiring, to benefit.

In the long term, we still want to introduce a Local Income Tax, but think it's sensible to wait until the Calman changes to the tax system are bedded in before we do so. There's only so many changes a government IT system can take, so that seems to me to be supremely sensible.

This policy mirrors our UK policy to raise the tax threshold to £10,000 now being gradually implemented by the UK Coalition. Scottish pensioners would get a head start on that as far as their Council Tax is concerned.

I know that Councillors might worry about even more pressure on their finances if they aren't getting money from pensioners but they will not be any worse off as the Scottish Government will make up the shortfall.

I have to say I'm thrilled with this policy. The Council Tax is fundamentally unfair and takes scant account of ability to pay. This is a measure which will help particularly widowed women who don't get a full state pension because they spent their time raising their families. It's important to remember that even when I was born in the late 60s, it wasn't usual for women with children to be in paid employment. My mother went back to work when I was six months old, but she was very much in the minority of my friends' mothers. In fact, even in the early 70s, I remember a former colleague telling me, women working in the civil service had to get permission to stay in their jobs if they married, let alone had kids. It wasn't until the late 70s that the Government introduced Home Responsibilities Protection which meant that those who stayed at home to raise families didn't lose out because of that.

The absolutely shattering thing I found out when reading about this change is that a third of Scottish single pensioner households have incomes of less than £10,000. That's less than £200 a week. Under the current system, a single pensioner living in a Band D house gets some help, but still has to pay out £406 annually. That's over £40 a month out of an income of less than £800 when she has to feed and clothe herself and heat her house too. Under the Liberal Democrat plans she would pay nothing in Council Tax. It's not going to solve all her financial strains, but it will help.

The Liberal Democrats will be campaigning in this election to end high public sector bonuses and to help the poorest pensioners. Those priorities are absolutely spot on.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gearing up to cheer on Tavish Scott in tonight's leaders' debate #spdebate #greatscott

Only an hour and 13 minutes until the election campaign really kicks off with the first of three leaders' debates.

I bet the four leaders are all in various states of nervous meltdown. It really can't be a pleasant experience, especially when you remember what a game changer they were during the Westminster elections last year. I don't envy any of them. They will have spent many hours preparing for this, with colleagues playing the other leaders. I'd love to know who played Tavish in each of the other parties.

Obviously I'll be there with laptop ready to cheer on Tavish Scott. Some of us were having a wee chat on Twitter this afternoon about what our cheerleading hashtag should be - we had #gonick and later #iagreewithnick last year. I reckoned #greatscott might work and some others seemed to like it, so we'll give it a try.

I really, really hope that Tavish and Annabel get enough time in there to stop it becoming a screaming match between Gray and Salmond. Their FMQs sessions each week are frustrating and uninspiring.

All the leaders need to remember that the issues they are talking about tonight affect real people's lives. To me a good debate will be real and practical and illuminating. A bad one will have a lot of rudeness and shouting and general arsy behaviour. They all need to step up and give us a quality, serious debate that has substance and passion.  Am I asking too much.

Anyway, off to open a nice bottle of red. I think a glass is in order..................

Purvis' practical solutions for business illuminate economy debate

Here are three of the four particpants in the last of the four Scotland on Sunday debates which took place yesterday. John Swinney, whose elbow you can just see on the left,  Labour's Andy Kerr, Conservative Derek Brownlee and Liberal Democrat Jeremy Purvis lined up to quiz each other and take questions from the audience and online observers on the economy.

These debates have generally been useful. Held far out enough from the heat at the nucleus of the election campaign, they've been generally good humoured and good at highlighting the difference in approach between the parties. There was a bit of needle between Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Baillie last week, and yesterday there was a whispered conversation between Andy Kerr and John Swinney after which both of them looked a bit grumpy, though.

The issue with them being so far out is that they are before the manifesto launches so parties are keeping a certain amount of their powder dry. They also don't have to answer any uncomfortable questions as to how much their plans are going to cost.

The debates were moderated by Kenny Farquharson, the editor of Scotland on Sunday, who did a really good job. He had enough needle to get them out of their comfort zones and just the right amount of menace to try to drag some skeletons out of their closets.

Like the others, yesterday's debate started with two minute opening statements, which is enough to give the highlights and not long enough for elaborate waffle. Then they each got to ask one question of each other. After that, questions from those watching both in the room and online were taken before a one minute closing statement.

Thanks to Andy Kerr's car breaking down, the thing started half an hour late. That might excuse what was a very poor performance from him. He spent his time slagging the SNP, most viciously on the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link, which prompted the mutual grumpiness or saying not much. I must have misunderstood what he said about Labour's manifesto not being costed because there were plenty of organisations who would do it for them post publication. That attitude certainly seems typical of Labour - we've seen the financial mess they've left us to clear up at Westminster level and locally in places like Edinburgh and Fife. Bung it on the credit card and sort it out later seems to be their mantra. Lallands Peat Worrier, by the way, is wickedly and hilariously cruel about his performance, so go and have a look later.

I was quite surprised to see Tory Derek Brownlee readily agree that Scotland should be included in the consultation on Corporation Tax that the UK Government is having with Northern Ireland, saying that if these changes were possible in one part of the UK, it would be foolish to rule it out for others.

John Swinney was competent but uninspiring. He was lucky nobody reminded him, on a question about whether the "tartan tax" could be used to avoid cuts, that he was the one who had let it lapse without telling the Parliament.

I know Jeremy Purvis is one of mine, but I was really impressed with him yesterday. I was sitting there in the audience like a proud parent. Ok, so I'm not nearly old enough to be his mother but I did assess him on his candidate approval day in the run up to his election in 2003 and it do tend to beam with pride when any of my candidates do well in things, as a fair few have.

Out of all of them his language was clearest and his proposals most practical. He talked about preventing a power grab to the centre, instead providing joined up solutions at regional level. About regional development banks to give practical help to businesses. The reason for the change is simply the massive and unhelpful bureaucracy often faced by business. He illustrated his point with a real life example of a textile company passed from pillar to post round various quangos, none of which would give them the help that they actually needed. He talked about making sure Scotland had the infrastructure and things like broadband connectivity to boost business and growth and ultimately jobs.

What was interesting from him was an admission that the Council Tax is here to stay for this Parliament at least so it doesn't look like Local Income Tax will be in our manifesto this time. However he did say that we were bringing forward proposals to make the Council Tax system fairer and that its ultimate replacement would be fair and based on ability to pay.

Of the four debates so far, justice and health have been my favourites, but I guess that's not surprising as they're the subjects which interest me most. I'm going to try to go to a few more such events as the campaign hots up - if any one lets me and my serial tweeting habit in, of course.....

Scott: I want to make Scotland the most connected country in Europe #sp11

High speed broadband. Something many of us take completely for granted. However you don't have to go too far out of the major Scottish cities to find that you just can't get it. Even in West Fife, actually in Dunfermline itself, people are struggling with low connectivity which makes it difficult for them to work at home.  In the Highlands, almost one business in three can't get high speed broadband, which puts them at a real disadvantage. I've actually known of people who have had to move because the lack of connectivity made their business unviable, which is a real shame.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Tavish Scott went up to Inverness yesterday to launch the Lib Dem plan to make Scotland the most connected country in Europe with our candidates from across the Highlands Christine Jardine, Robbie Rowantree and Alan MacRae.  He said:
"Scottish Liberal Democrats will invest in superfast broadband in the Highlands and across Scotland. Almost a third of Highland businesses can't get high speed broadband. Under our proposals that will improve.
"Broadband can turn the 'tele-croft' from political rhetoric to economic reality.
"This is an investment in jobs, in starting new business and growing existing business."Making Scotland the most digitally connected region in Europe is an investment in helping schools, hospitals and public services provide better services for local people."
It's things like this that show that our policies have a strong foundation in practicality, understanding the problems businesses and people have in reaching their true potential and making sure they have the tools they need to make the economy grown and create more jobs in the future.

Conflict Resolution, Scottish Lib Dem Campaign HQ style.

A novel take on how to resolve campaign arguments, seen at our nerve centre yesterday.

This actually, is the revised procedure. If I told you what the first version was, I'd have to kidnap you and hold you prisoner for ever and I can't afford to feed you all.

Election campaigns are gruelling things - and this one, at 6 weeks, on top of all the prep work that's been going on for years, is going to be particularly exhausting. Before the campaign builds to its crescendo I want to say a thank you in advance to all the fabulous staff at our Clifton Terrace HQ. They literally will pull in all nighters to get the job done and then work all day as well.  To put an election campaign in perspective, a former staff member decided to cycle from Land's End to John O Groat's for charity to give himself a rest after the 2005 election. That is how hard these people work.

All parties will say the same about their staff, I'm sure, and they all deserve it. I just thought our lot deserved some credit for their amazing efforts, fuelled by a collectively wicked sense of humour and brilliant team spirit. Be nice to them - seriously, if anyone upsets any of them, I will be round to fill their bed with earthworms. 

The secret behind Alex Cole-Hamilton's appearance on the BBC News Channel

After the Scotland on Sunday economy debate yesterday, I called in at the nerve centre of the Liberal Democrat campaign on my way home.

I arrived just in time to see our candidate for Edinburgh Central Alex Cole-Hamilton appear on the BBC News Channel. I think the people in the studio wanted him to talk about something else, but he told them about his own vibrant campaign in Edinburgh Central and about the Liberal Democrat achievements in the UK Coalition. I know that the ending of child detention for immigration purposes is particularly close to his heart as he works for a children's charity and I was really chuffed to see it was the first thing he mentioned.

He also talked about how the coalition were taking 90,000 Scots out of income tax from April, and giving a tax cut to many other low and middle income households and talked about how upbeat the party was when we met at Conference in Perth three weeks ago.

I though he did a great job - but there was a little secret about his appearance. He had popped into party HQ earlier and been asked to go on the tv. Only problem was he was casually dressed. No problem.He borrowed a shirt and tie from the party's chief exec and a jacket from another member of staff.

I've known Alex for a long time and I've seen how he's gone from his first job out of university to relishing in parenthood to his young son. He would bring a real understanding of the issues affecting children and young people to the Parliament - something we really, really need. As a former student sabbatical, he is passionate about the issues affecting students and barriers in education.

He's put together a young, cool and awesome campaign team. I've been in there the last two Sundays (although only briefly yesterday) and the atmosphere is fantastic. There are lots of people working very hard to help Alex win in five weeks' time, building on the work he's done since July. He's knocked on well over 11,000 doors since then and has had a terrific reception. He'd be a fabulous MSP and someone I really want to see in the next Parliament.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Telegraph gets it wrong on Liberal Democrat "rebrand"

Of all the silly stories that have been published about the Liberal Democrats recently, this from over the weekend has a higher bollocks per square inch (bsi) ratio than most.

Apparently, we are thinking about abandoning Libby, our "7 winged flying worm" as Ben Elton called it when  it was first introduced, and even re-naming the Party. Maybe adding in "social" to our title. Well, of course we are. That worked so well for us when we were the Social and Liberal Democrats, or"salads" and were coming within the margin of error of nothing in the polls. I'm proud to be a social liberal, but that name has bad memories for most of us who were around at the time. Not in a million years would I ever think the party would go back there. Liberal Democrats suits me fine.

They are even trying to stir up the notion of a challenge to Nick's leadership by Chris Huhne. That would be the same Chris Huhne who produced a minority report to Nick, when everyone else was saying we should go for no more than confidence and supply agreements in the event of a hung parliament, stating that we should go for full coalition with the Tories.  I'm as certain as I can be that Chris is not going to destabilise a government where so many Liberal Democrat policies are being put into practice.

The tiny grain of truth on which this story is based is that the party is appointing a Marketing Director at the moment. Up to a point that's a good thing, as long as they understand how to get across the good things we're doing in Government - which just isn't happening at the moment. Not entirely sure that's marketing, and have a small reservation that the money would be better spent on more press people, but that's beside the point. What the Telegraph seems to have done is germinated this tiny grain of truth with spin from the Tories - at the end a senior Conservative strategist is quoted as saying they're going to have to shore Nick up in the event of bad results in May.

I mean, what?

There is more likelihood of Alex Salmond saying the Act of Union was the best thing ever than the Tories ever lifting a finger to help the Liberal Democrats. We may be working in Government together and delivering some good things, but it's still in the Tories' interests to bash us out of existence.

This puts me in mind of a piece I wrote in January, about who really benefits from the stories of Lib Dem/Tory co-operation. I shall post the whole thing below partly so you can see what I mean and partly because I posted it on a Friday night and consequently not many of you read it. I reckon it's worth a second outing.
Today's Herald carries a report which states fairly categorically that a Conservative Cabinet Minister has confirmed that there will be some level of electoral pact between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives at the 2015 General Election.
What a load of complete and utter nonsense!
I suspect that every campaign in every seat, every by-election will be scrutinised in greater detail than ever before to see whether one party seems to be soft-pedalling. You would think by now that journalists would know that squeezing the vote of the party in third place is an essential part of winning any seat. The Party in third, particularly if they are a long way behind, are highly unlikely to throw the kitchen sink at their campaign. This is exactly why we need a fairer voting system, because most of our votes don't actually count. At least a yes vote in the Alternative Vote referendum in May this year would ensure that MPs had to secure the support of 50% of voters, and not be elected on barely a third of the votes cast, which is maybe only a fifth of the electorate as they are now.
If you subscribe to the notion that the Lib Dems and the Tories are heading for a bit of electoral footsie and flirtation, then you have to assume that the Tories have gone soft in the head. This is not a bunch of cuddly teddy bears we're dealing with. They will be going hell for leather to secure an overall majority in 2015, and will fight us, and we them, to the best of our abilities.
So why are Tory Cabinet ministers apparently briefing the press that there will be a pact? Well, it's quite mischievous, because it does us a lot more harm than it does them. By undermining our independence, they hope to scare off not just our voters, but our activists, leftie peace loving hippies like me. Just think about it. They want, they need to win some seats in the south west if they are going to secure a majority. They think that the AV referendum will be lost, so they'll be fighting under the current system. They want to put about the whiff of an electoral pact, and get it sort of accepted as fact, by 2015 to try to send some of our voters into the arms of Ed Miliband. A rising Labour vote in the South West under the current system will help nobody but......the Conservatives. And it's not going to do us much good where we are trying to gain seats from Labour either.
So, I think the Tories are just stirring it for their own electoral gain. You don't hear any of this sort of talk from Liberal Democrats and nor will you, for very good reason. The Tories know fine there will be no pact, but they think it's in their interests to inculcate the idea that there is into the national psyche.
Governing in the national interest with them for five years is one thing, but there won't be any turning the business arrangement into an office affair. We are likely to be offering very different ideas for the future in 2015 and each party will be trying to win as many seats as possible. The Herald might like to reflect on motive, rather than just excitedly print everything it's told as if it were Holy Writ
The Telegraph story seems to me to be more about advancing the Tory cause than a serious reporting of fact. There's a surprise.

My Friday night of surreal fantasy - from Glee to Alex Salmond's 50p duty cut

So there I was on Friday night, relaxing with my daughter, watching Glee. It was the Christmas episode where Sue Sylvester turns into the Grinch. It was utterly and absolutely hilarious. Anna thinks the line "I'm just taking these science books to the exorcist" is one of the funniest things she's ever heard.

Straight after that journey into surreal fantasy, we watched Alex Salmond give the SNP's response to the Budget in which he made the claim that in an independent Scotland, oil revenues would enable the Government to take 50p off fuel duty.

Nobody's arguing that fuel prices are cripplingly high at the moment, affecting every single one of us. The UK Government's applying for a derogation on fuel duty for the remotest parts of the country is doing more to help than any previous government and in last week's budget, George Osborne delivered a cut in fuel duty, something Labour never ever did, funded by an extra tax on the oil companies.

However, Alex Salmond's talk of a 50p cut in duty apes the worst of the "jam today with cream and sprinkles on the top - who cares about tomorrow?" short term attitude of the last Labour Government who spent all the country's money, busted the credit card and left us in a right mess.

Ok, if the SNP has got its sums right (and that's not a foregone conclusion by any manner of means), they might be able to deliver that sort of duty cut - but at what cost? How many schools and hospitals would have to close to pay for it? Bear in mind that if we were independent we'd have to be completely funding our own tax, pension and benefits systems, our health and care services, our own defences. Of course, we are not an independent country, we're not likely to become so any time soon, so to even talk about it is at best irrelevant and at worst cynical opportunism.

Just say we did have that kind of money available, should we not be investing in new green technology to take the place of oil when it ran out, and putting some money by to soften the blow when that happens?

As a family we took part in Earth Hour on Saturday night. It was lovely. An hour in the dark playing word games, telling jokes and doing Anna's very funny quizzes. That's just one hour, though and although it has its role in raising awareness and making people think about what we're doing to the planet, it's not going to bring about immediate radical change. It's useful in getting people to understand that we need to think for the longer term on environmental issues but the same goes for all sorts of future provision of services. We've had too much short termism in politics. We have to think about the future we leave to our children and their children to make sure their needs can be met too.

That's why it's wrong of Alex Salmond to dangle the idea of a massive short term fuel duty cut which has zero prospect of happening without looking at the long term implications of oil not being there any more and about the effect on public services. It sounds like a massive election gimmick to me and simply not worthy of the debate Scotland's people deserve about their future.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

#F1 2011 season preview: Part 3 - Gadgets and Gizmos

Welcome to the third part of my season preview, where I shall tell you about some of the things which enhance my F1 viewing.

The first two parts are:

Rules and Tools

Teams and Drivers

Once upon a long ago, when F1 came on, you just sat down on the sofa and got on with it. Then the internet came along, and you could access whatever information teams chose to give you online. And you could chew the fat with other fans on various forums, or fora, I suppose if I'm being correct about it.

For me it was Twitter that was the biggest enhancement to how I enjoy F1. It gives me the chance to chat away, in real time, as the race is happening. A couple of years ago when there was all the turmoil about the future of F1 and talk of a breakaway series, much of the F1 Twitter community, most of whom I still hang around with now, came together to call for Max Mosley to resign. Vote Liberal Democrat European posters vied with Maxout avatars in my Twitter feed. Tweeting through a race is great fun - although if for some reason you miss a session, you have to remember not to go anywhere near Twitter, which is no good at keeping secrets. The downside is that you get too engrossed in Twitter that you miss bits of the race. It's still a net gain, though, especially as some of the drivers are on there. Have a look at my F1 list to see some of the lovely people I follow.

It's also really useful to have access to the live timing screens when you're watching - it particularly enhances qualifying when you can see who's on a flying lap as their times turn purple. It can be quite compulsive. I either use the official F1 website which is free, or, to my shame, I also have the iPhone application so I can surreptitiously sit in a boring meeting and "watch" events. That costs £20 (which reduces proportionately throughout the year) but it's so worth it. You can see the GPS positions of the drivers on track so you can see who's coming into traffic or trouble. You can flick between the live timing screens and the GPS at the touch of a button. The app also has all the team and driver info you will ever want to know and a news section too. There are variations of this app for Android, Blackberry and Ovi. It is a ridiculous extravagance, but I love it.

I also frequently check the BBC F1 website which has its own driver tracker and bags of information including Jake Humphrey's fabulous blogs.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check the BBC News application on my phone. The second thing I do is to check the Autosport app. It costs £2.99 and has a regular supply of news from all sorts of motorsport so I can keep tabs on rallying and DTM too. If I'm at the laptop, the Autosport website is indispensable.

That, I think, is pretty much it. Is there anything you use that I haven't heard of? If so, let me know in the comments.

#F1 2011 season preview: Part 2: Teams and Drivers

Here's the second part of my 2011 season preview concentrating on teams and drivers. The others are:

Rules and Tools

Gadgets and Gizmos

I want to take a look at the teams' and drivers' challenges and opportunities for the season ahead, starting with the current champions.

Red Bull Racing

The current champions should have had the Constructors' Championship last year sown up a lot sooner than they did. Their season was punctuated with lost opportunities, fuelled at least in part by a failure to properly manage the tensions between their two drivers.

Sebastian Vettel seemed stuck to pole position for most of the season, but he often couldn't convert that into a race win, either because of reliability issues or by his own impetuousness, bashing into people, including his own team-mate, on occasion. He won the championship because of mistakes by others rather than outstanding talent on his part. That's not to denigrate him, because he is an extremely talented driver, but he needs to show that he can be consistent across a whole weekend, or a whole season.

On the other hand, Mark Webber is a courageous, consistent performer who, I think, outclassed Vettel many times last season. I think he did suffer because the team so obviously favoured Vettel and were quick to blame Mark for incidents between them, notably in Istanbul, which were clearly not his fault.

I don't rate Christian Horner's people management skills, certainly compared to Ross Brawn and Martin Whitmarsh. A lot of the bad feeling during last season could have been avoided. There are a number of ways that he could have dealt with the issue with the fact that there was only one front wing upgrade at Silverstone rather than just nicking it off Mark 5 minutes before qualifying. He could have sat Mark down and asked nicely if Sebastian could have it given that it didn't make any difference to Mark's performance, but it did to Sebastian. Or, as Neal suggested in the Pitstraight season preview, Christian could have told Sebastian that he wasn't taking a front wing off a careful driver who'd looked after it.

Again this season, Red Bull seem to have the best car. They have dominated testing. They need to do better at the whole team spirit and getting the best out of everybody. As things look right now, the title is theirs to lose. They don't want to throw it away through carelessness.

Mark Webber, is, by the way, one of the most balanced human beings on the grid. He showed over the cancellation of Bahrain that he has a good sense of proportion about what's important in the World. He is on Twitter as @aussiegrit. He needs to retain that fighting spirit he had last season and not allow what happened at the end to distract him. He has the talent to win the title and he has a good car. His prospects for the season will be largely determined in his own head.


The thing for Ferrari is can what happened in Abu Dhabi stay in Abu Dhabi? How much pressure will principal Stefano Domenicali be under after presiding over what may well have been a championship losing mistake? Having said that, there was something karmic about it because if Alonso had won, it would have been by less than the 7 points he gained by the Hockenheim Team Orders fiasco.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemelo is impatient for another championship win and nothing would make me happier than Felipe Massa getting out there and whipping Fernando Alonso's backside. Unfortunately, though, we haven't seen the sort of form which led Massa to almost win the championship in 2008 since his recover from his horrendous accident the following season.

I had mellowed a bit to Alonso in the years since Michael Schumacher retired, but after last year he's been making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end - most recently this morning in the Quali build up where he very smugly said that allowing team orders would help everybody.

Ferrari have looked promising in pre season testing and will be looking to capitalise on any Red Bull mistakes. Last year showed them, though, the importance of getting as many points in the bag early on as possible. Will they be able to make a strong start to the season?


I think probably the biggest wonder about McLaren is that two such monumental egos as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton can co-exist quite peacably.  I'm sure that has to be a tribute to the management style and people skills of principal Martin Whitmarsh. There was certainly no serious needle between them last year even though they seemed to be genuinely treated as equals.

This year, it seems very likely to me that Jenson will have the advantage as smooth drivers who look after their tyres will be rewarded by being able to stay out longer and stop less. How many times last season did we hear Lewis bleating about his tyres while Jenson just got on with it?

This year's car, though, is not looking that great and hasn't fared well in testing, both in miles covered and positioning. The fancy exhaust system has been removed and there have been a good few changes for Melbourne. However, it's performed much more strongly over the weekend so far than anybody expected. Will they be able to pull off a surprise race victory tomorrow?

Lewis and Jenson are on Twitter as @lewishamilton and @jensonbutton 


Last year Mercedes were always playing catch up. Battling for the title, on a limited budget, in 2009 had not given them the time and space to develop the 2010 car which did not allow the magic partnership between Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn to reach its full potential.

However, I was checking James Allen's excellent Twitter aggregator during testing and sighing as the team just wasn't setting the track alight. Until the final test in Barcelona, that is. Ross Brawn was candid that they needed to find another second, but the car started to look stronger with the upgrades. Unfortunately quali today has looked more like last season than I would have liked, especially with Nico Rosberg qualifying ahead of Schumi. Nico is looking for his first win and both drivers seem to think that race wins, but not the championship, is their realistic aim this year.

In terms of personnel, both drivers have new race engineers, with Andrew Shovlin being promoted to Chief Track Engineer. They also have appointed Bob Bell as Technical Director. Bell was the acting principal at Renault in the wake of the Singapore disaster and was credited with steadying the ship. Some might see his appointment as a bit of succession planning. But Ross Brawn isn't going to retire. Ever. I simply won't allow it. Having said that, I think that having a technical director will help share the load.

I think that they will start to win races this season. The marginal tyres and the complicated steering wheel will play into Michael Schumacher's hands so I expect him to ultimately outperform Rosberg.

Lotus Renault

You have to feel sorry for Lotus Renault. They develop a car that's their best in years and then a few days after the first test, Robert Kubica, who had all the ability to make some serious progress for the team, sustained extensive fractures to his arm, hand and leg. He's had a whole load of surgery since, and although the prospects for him are better than at first feared, if he reappears this season, it'll be a bonus.

This left the team having to find a quick replacement and they settled on Robert's old team-mate from BMW, Nick Heidfeld, who took the car by the scruff of the neck and got some good testing results in it. Unfortunately, his qualifying performance today, not getting beyond Q1 has seemingly vindicated those who think that although Nick is reliable and dependable, he doesn't have what it takes to get the best race results. Having said that, the team are putting his problems down to KERS issues and traffic, which are plausible. Let's not write him off yet. Especially as he spent some time working for Pirelli testing their tyres.

Vitaly Petrov had a solid debut year last year, showing at times that he's capable of some courageous on track moves. He is inspiring me to brush up on my Russian again, as he tweets in his native tongue @vitalypetrov10 and I want to increase the number of times I understand what he's saying.

Technically, the car has a bit of a magic exhaust system which might help them overtake Mercedes. It is also gorgeous with its black and gold livery.


It's been a while since we've seen a Williams car without an RBS logo as it is this year. To be honest, I am relieved. I was a bit sick of seeing a car go by and thinking that as a taxpayer I owned it. Not that I wasn't proud of Rubens Barrichello, just that there are more pressing demands for public money. That withdrawal of sponsorship, though, means that the team has had to seek funds from elsewhere, which is why last year's promising rookie Nico Hulkenburg has been replaced by Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado who has the weight of the state owned oil company behind him.  Not every pay driver has talent, but Pastor is the current GP2 champion, so he can drive.

He is the luckiest person in the world, though. Imagine being able to learn your F1 trade alongside the most experienced, and the most generous, guy in the field, Rubens Barrichello. He's fantastic at development work which is presumably why he's been given another year at Williams.

Each of the midfield teams has a certain something they hope will propel it into the big time - and Williams is especially keen to regain the limelight and get its first victory in 7 years. For the team it's their tiny wee gearbox which Autosport said contributed to the "most aggressively packaged rear end on the grid". They also have KERS.

Rubens is on Twitter @rubarrichello.

Force India

This "spawn of Jordan" team has had some good moments in the last couple of years, but staffing changes appear to have had an effect on the development of this year's car which has not been performing spectacularly well.

Adrian Sutil, who apparently made more overtaking moves than any other driver last year, with 45 attempts to pass, stays at the team and is joined by Bathgate boy Paul Di Resta.  Di Resta told Autosport magazine that he sees his experience as current DTM champion as better than GP2 for F1 because he's had to learn about strategy.

I can't see that Force India's prospects are particularly bright this year as it will take some time for the new staff to bed themselves in.

Paul Di Resta is on Twitter @pauldirestaf1.


Sauber seem to have produced a reasonable car this year which has performed well in testing. What it doesn't have, though, is experienced drivers. Kamui Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota in the last two races of 2009 before joining the team, is plucky to say the least. He also shows absolutely no respect to his elders and betters on track and will overtake anyone given half a chance. He's joined this year by Mexican GP2 runner up Sergio Perez.

Sauber are also unique in F1 by having the sport's only female CEO in Monisha Kaltenborn.

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Red Bull's little brother is hoping its double floor will give it the edge this year along with the Ferrari KERS system. They have kept last year's team of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguesuari.  Slightly menacingly, breathing down their necks is their Australian test driver Daniel Ricciardo. This team has previous form for sacking drivers mid season as they did with Sebastien Bourdais a couple of years ago and they already have a talented replacement in the wings. Paul Di Resta, who came up from test driver at Force India, similarly has former Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg breathing down his neck. Teams these days don't give much time to their young drivers to learn their craft.

Team Lotus

On the face of it, this is the new team which has most prospects, and ambitions to get well above its station. They hope the Red Bull gearbox and Renault engine will establish them in the midfield and that their experienced driver team of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli will help them get there.

It's been a mystery to me why someone as personable and courageous (well, he did take his Hispania for a shakedown in the middle of a qualifying session last year) as Karun Chandhok hasn't a permanent drive and why one of India's biggest companies chose to sponsor Narain Karthikeyan than him. I was thrilled to see Lotus taking him on as their reserve driver, and watched through my fingers as he ended up in the wall in practice yesterday. Characteristically, he put his hands up to the mistake.

Lotus has pretty comprehensive Twitter coverage from Team Principal @tonyfernandes, Technical director @MikeGascoyne, @h_kovalainen and @karunchandhok being keen users.

Hispania Racing

They survived. They're back. Whether they survive to the end of the season is not in any way assured, particularly with the 107% rule.

I am not keen on the way they treated Karun Chandhok last year, so I have no affection for them, or desire to see them on the grid whatsover. They were lucky to have finished second last in 2010, but that was more to do with Virgin not being able to get to the end of a race until a third of the way through the season.

They do have a bit of money this year, from Tata Motors, an Indian company who is bringing Narain Karthikeyan out of obscurity.Tonio Liuzzi, previously of Force India, is their second driver.

Marussia Virgin

Hispania's rivals, fighting for the wooden spoon, will be Marussia Virgin. Their new title sponsor, and the  may give them the edge for their car designed by computer, without a wind tunnel, to save costs. They also have an experienced driver in Timo Glock and they've taken on rookie Jerome D'ambrosio to replace Lucas Di Grassi.

So that's a quick tour round the teams as they stand just now. I think that Red Bull are going to be hard to beat, but there may be significant changes in the pecking order in both the top flight and the midfield. I hope too that Lotus can detach itself from last year's new teams and establish itself in the midfield.

#F1 Vettel storms to Melbourne poll without his magic button

Well, that was an intriguing qualifying session, full of enough of the unexpected to whet your appetite for the season to come.

I dragged myself out of bed in the last few minutes of Q1 to find Massa and Heidfeld on the cusp of going out. I had thought that Nick Heidfeld, with his experience of testing for Pirelli, and with Renault having the best car they've had in years, would be scrapping for at least the third row of the grid. As Q1 ended, he couldn't rise above 18th place and fell at the first hurdle.  Massa, thankfully, managed to pull himself up into 11th, but that was not as comfortable as it should have been given their pre-season form.

The early surprise of the day was that the McLarens were looking a lot stronger than their testing form suggested. Also frustrating was the fact that the nice new Red Bull gear box and Renault engine didn't seem to have the desired effect from the Lotus. According to Ted Kravitz, the issue was getting heat into the tyres. Let's hope that improves when we get to warmer climes.

It was fun to watch the different styles of adjustable rear wings. McLaren's looks a lot more robust and rounded and smooth in a way than Mercedes, for example. Don't ask me about the engineering because it will only lead to my embarrassment and won't be in any way enlightening for you.

An unexpected early casualty of Q2 was Rubens Barrichello, who made a bit of an elementary error which he put his hands up to completely, as you'd expect from someone who is as honest and grown up. Other drivers might have blamed tyres, or a fag end on the track, or a slippery white line, but Rubens stepped up. That's just one of the reasons I love him.

Adrian Sutil had a huge spin, which, amazingly, he managed to correct, at the end of a lap in Q2. It left him down in 16th place. This to me also illustrated a huge increase in the quality of the BBC's commentary. I reckon Jonathan Legard would have actually understood what had happened. David Coulthard had it spot on, articulated well, almost before Sutil was out of the spin. More on that later.

 It was fabulous, though, to see Sutil's team mate, Bathgate's Paul Di Resta qualify confidently in 14th on his debut. He was remarkably cool and calm during a live interview 30 minutes before quali. I was very impressed. 

There was never any doubt that the Red Bulls were going to be dominant - the big surprise, though, was that the McLaren's were up there with them. Sebastian Vettel stormed to a pole position that was faster than last year's, even with the reduced downforce and lack of double diffusers. He was still 0.8 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who cheekily swiped second place from Mark Webber by 0.088 of a second.
McLaren, and probably Lewis, were ready to blame his failure on the fact that his KERS was playing up. Martin Whitmarsh was at great pains to point out how much of a disadvantage that would have put him at, because you don't just lose the speed boost, but the braking balance goes off and you have the additional weight for nothing. Clearly the aim was to say "Vettel, we'd have had you if we'd only had KERS." The look on Lewis Hamilton's face when it became clear during the press conference that Vettel hadn't even used his magic button was a bit of a classic. I'll remember that one for a long time.

I do wonder, though, if someone needs to tell Sebastian Vettel to get over himself. He has always been such a lovely chap, really engaging and happy, and humorous. Sometimes, though, and I know this from politics, there's a battle to keep people's feet on the ground once they achieve great things. It's easy with some people, to keep them real, but others can develop a sort of pretentious arsiness that is most unattractive. I know that English is not his first language, but even so, his comments on the team radio after his pole position lap were a bit, well, suited to the Luvvies column in Private Eye.
"Yes, yes, boys, we keep on working, we do our thing, we are who we are"
Time to grab hold of his ankles and help him gently back down to earth, I think.

A trio of final observations on the cars. You know how I said that Renault should have made the third row of the grid anyway. Well, Vitaly Petrov did. That proves the car is capable of good things and bodes well for the future.

I was gutted to see Michael Schumacher not make it into Q3 after such a promising final test, especially when Rosberg qualified 8th. Not a great position for the team to be in, but it is only the first race.

And the Hispania's are s-l-o-w. I bet a few of the go-karts at the track up the road at Deans could give them a run for their money. They were the only ones outside the 107%. I still think they should be allowed to race, as there is that discretion, it is the first race and I hate the rule. How are they ever going to get any better if they start losing sponsorship or potential sponsorship if they can't get through the weekend?

I mentioned earlier how DC, on his commentary debut, was spot on with his analysis of Sutil's spin. I really thought that his partnership with the now lead commentator Martin Brundle worked fabulously. I always thought it would, to be honest. DC was clearly nervous, and it seemed from what he said afterwards that he thought the commentary box was a bit claustrophobic, but he did well. He got distracted a couple of times - once when he was explaining the lap delta stuff on the steering wheel, but that commentary box had more passion for the sport and clarity of commentary in one qualifying session than in a whole season with Jonathan Legard. For a start, Brundle's voice has a variety of tone and pitch and speed that in itself keeps you awake. He's stepped up instinctively to the role of lead commentator and what I liked more than anything else was how clearly he explained things. He's found us a great analogy for the tyre colours:

silver - hard - knife

white - medium - toast

yellow - soft - butter

red - supersoft - jam

Genius - I'm not going to forget that now, even if I loved Doctorvee's take on it.

As for tomorrow, we'll have to see firstly if Red Bull in general and Vettel in particular can convert the advantage of pole position into a race win. Or will Hamilton sneak past at the start? Or will they both get impetuous and take each other off. Not, of course that I would take any pleasure in that happening. If Hamilton gets past, how long before he ruins his tyres and loses the advantage?  The way the grid is set up, with the Red Bulls alternating with McLarens and Alonso and Petrov ready to pounce, could bring all manner of surprises. I can't wait.

Friday, March 25, 2011

#F1 2011 season preview: Part 1 - Rules and Tools

How utterly wonderful it was to come down the stairs this morning, turn on the tv and hear the scream of F1 engines. Even the doof doof doof of the tools in the garages made me literally want to jump up and down with happiness. I know I can't be a proper fan if I didn't get up to watch practice live, but, honestly, I need my sleep too much so I only do all nighters for elections and party conferences. My body clock can't take any more disrespect of its rhythms.

After Bahrain was quite properly cancelled, hopefully not to reappear on this year's schedule at least, the last 2 weeks have seemed interminable.

But now we're here - this weekend sees the curtain raiser to 8 months of track action. This preview will come in 3 parts:

Part one: Rules and Tools - the technical changes for 2011

Part two: Teams and Drivers - an assessment of the runners and riders

Part three: Gadgets and Gizmos - a look at those internetty and techy things which enhance my race viewing

So let's have a wee look at the new rules for this year, which are summarised here on the official F1 website.

Farewell, Double Diffuser

For me this will always have the fondest of memories in F1 history, being the magic bullet that propelled Jenson Button and Brawn to victory in 2009.

Hello to Adjustable rear wings

At certain strictly regulated points in the race when a driver is within a second of the car in front, ( and never, ever when it's wet), drivers will be able to adjust their rear wing to reduce drag and give them a 10-12 kph speed boost which is supposed to be able to help them overtake. They are called all sorts of things. The "official" term is Drag Reduction System but Mercedes refer to it as the RFA - for Rear Flap Adjuster.


The Kinetic Energy Recovery System, first used in 2009, is back. Now, we have to remember that the championship was won by a car which didn't have it, so it's not a magic bullet. While that sort of technology is really important for the future it bothers me that the drivers who use it have to lose weight to compensate for what is quite a heavy system. There were a few who looked thinner and more gaunt than I would have liked to see in 2009. The weight limit has been lifted, but already on Twitter I've heard reports of drivers with KERS, notably Jenson,  looking very thin.

The 107% rule

This controversial rule is back. The fastest time in the first qualifying session is the benchmark - and cars whose time is not within 107% of it will not be allowed to start the race. There will be flexibility, though - if a car performs well in practice and then has a spin in qualifying, then they might be able to start if the stewards agree.

I have to be honest. I hate this rule. The sport is supposed to be opening up to smaller teams, who will suffer if they're on the margins. If they don't get to the race, that affects their sponsorship and so on so there's no chance for technical improvements. It's wrong and it benefits the big players.

There are a few races last year where we wouldn't have seen the three new teams if that rule had been in place and I worry that it will suffocate them if they can't beat the clock. It's a rule which preserves the exclusivity of the big boys and as such I really don't like it.

Restricted working hours

There will be no more of this working through the night in the garage, which is bound to be kinder on the mechanics, but could prove disastrous to anyone taking a spin in practice or qualifying if the mechanics can't get long enough to work on the car. This could affect big teams as well as small as they will be deprived of 6 hours of through the night working.

I'm in two minds about this one. On one hand, you have less tired mechanics, who are less likely to make mistakes. On the other, if someone told campaign teams they had to get a certain amount of sleep the night before an election, it would often be impossible to get everything done and it's unfair to penalise teams for an accident which they may not have been able to avoid. The teams have four individual exceptions to this during the season - but there could be a time when this floors a championship contender.


Remember the race when poor Rubens Barrichello arrived back in at the end with his gearbox actually on fire?  Well, this time, gearboxes have to last 5 races, not 4. This is bound to lead to more grid penalties at the end of the season, just to mix things up a little bit.

Team orders

This is another change which has me foaming at the mouth.  If I hear Felipe Massa being told, quite openly this time, not in code, to move over to let Alonso pass on race one, I will be furious.

I'm not entirely unreasonable - at the end of a season, it is not only legitimate but courteous and responsible for a driver who's out of the championship running to help out their team mate, but I don't like its acceptance. It's not good for drivers - what's their incentive to do well if their ambitions are crushed by a more powerful team mate - and it's not good for fans.

Wheel Tethers

After too many scary moments when wheels went flying, there now has to be an extra wheel tether.


Another element thrown into the mix are the new Pirelli tyres, designed to not be quite as hard wearing and just to make it even more difficult, drivers now have 3 less sets for the weekend.

They are colour coded so it'll be supposedly easier to tell the difference. Yalla F1 has a pretty picture but the colours to get stuck in your head are:

wet: orange

intermediate: light blue

super soft: red

soft: yellow

medium: white

hard: silver

So basically, the lightest shade is the softer of the two on offer on any given weekend as the combinations will be red and white or yellow and silver as there's always a difference of two levels.

The last four seasons have had thrilling endgames - Kimi winning at the last gasp in 07, Massa just losing out in 08, the thrill of Brawn's year and then it all going down to the wire in 2010. This sport does not have to be made more exciting. Having said that, the combination of the new wings and tyres may add an extra frisson of tension and unpredictability.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clegg and Cameron: a bit of harmony in Government can't be a bad thing, surely

One of my favourite moments so far this year - and if anyone can get me a screen grab of it I will love them forever - was the look on Jon Snow's face as he salivatingly asked for Nick Clegg's wee moment this evening to be replayed. He was enjoying that far more than was decent.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Nick and David Cameron were doing a joint appearance in Nottingham to big up enterprise zones. At the end of the event they took some questions, one of which was about the leaders' debates in the next general election. David Cameron said that he hoped they'd be better natured than last year's. As they were walking out, Nick, who'd forgotten to take his mike off, joked to Cameron that "if we keep doing this we won't find anything to bloody disagree about in the bloody tv debates".

I don't know about you, but after 13 years of Cabinet by attrition from Labour, and, before that, the poisonous atmosphere in the Major Government and before that the withering disrespect Mrs Thatcher had for half her Cabinet, it's quite refreshing to finally see the PM and Deputy PM getting on. You don't need to be be best friends to work with somebody, but a good rapport can't be harmful.

All today's incident shows is that despite the policy differences on Europe, social policy and immigration as well as political and electoral reform to name but a few issues, Nick and Dave get on well enough to have a wee bit of jokey banter. You can't imagine Blair and Brown exchanging social niceties - and in fact they often went for weeks without anything more than a glower across the Cabinet table between them, with legions of aides spending more time fanning the flames of their feud than doing any serious work.

It's not like this was the first clue that Clegg and Cameron get on. A couple of weeks ago, Nick told the Independent that he'd whispered to Cameron that he was talking "utter bilge" at PMQs over AV. You don't talk to someone like that if you don't get on with them.

Way back in September, they put together some furniture for Cameron's new baby.

Of course, if they hadn't spoken at all, or it didn't look like they were getting on, the media would be full of splits and predicting the end of the coalition. They actually can't win. And, to be honest, having a good relationship is a lot less stressful.

What made me laugh out loud was the look on the face of poor Lena Pietsch,  Nick's press secretary. It was one of these "what.a.tool" moments that I'm sure every political staffer has with their boss from time to time. I feel her pain, but in a couple of days this will all blow over.

I guess well you have to remember that in the past couple of weeks Clegg and Cameron have been working together on first building the international coalition and then planning the action in Libya. That must have fostered the team spirit between them.

I have no problem with Cameron and Clegg getting on - I am secure enough in my own party's identity and its contribution to this Government to see it as an asset rather than a liability. I disagree passionately with lots of people about lots of things - doesn't mean I don't like them.

Let's not complain when our leaders behave like grown ups.

In which I get on to iTunes

Remember how the other day I did Callum Leslie's show on

Well, I probably shouldn't tell you this, but it's now available here on iTunes if you want to hear me, Iain McGill, Tory candidate for Edinburgh Central, Labour member Matthew Bevan and Callum chew the fat about all sorts of things from drugs to alcohol to Libya to the prospects for the parties in the Scottish elections, the best bit of which was my heartfelt plea for anyone who lives in Glasgow to vote Lib Dem on the list to ensure that a wise man who has a passion for civil liberties in his DNA, Robert Brown, is re-elected on 5th May. In fact, if any of your friends and family live in Glasgow, tell them to make sure they vote Lib Dem on the list there.

Callum mentioned at the top that we'd done a podcast a couple of days previously but then we both forgot to plug it later on in the show - but here it is if you want to listen to that as well.

Jo Swinson quizzes Cameron on nuclear plant safety

One of the highlights of yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions was seeing Jo Swinson asking a question that's on all our minds at the moment. I've certainly been shaken to the core as I've watched events unfold at the Fukushima plant in Japan in the wake of the tsunami. It just shows how a natural phenomenon can destabilise a reactor, and of the consequences of loss of power lines - especially how far afield the effects are felt.

Jo asked:
Our hearts go out to the people of Japan as we watch their horror unfold and see warnings today about heightened radiation in Tokyo’s water supply. It is not just earthquakes and tsunamis that can threaten the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, so does the Prime Minister agree that what has happened at Fukushima will have consequences for the new nuclear power stations proposed for the UK?
Cameron replied:
 I am sure that the whole House will want to join the hon. Lady in sending our condolences to people in Japan and to express our admiration for their incredible bravery and resilience in dealing with this immense crisis. Of course we must learn any lessons that need to be learned about nuclear power, which is why the head of the nuclear safety inspectorate is looking at this issue. As I have said before, the power stations we have in Britain are of a different type from those in Japan. We are not planning to build any like those, and we are not in an earthquake zone or a zone subject to tsunamis, but of course we have always got to test against all eventualities. I am sure that there is further testing we can do on nuclear power.
Jo spoke afterwards of her reasons for asking the Prime Minister about this:
“With warnings today about heightened radiation in Tokyo’s water supply, the consequences of Japan’s deadly earthquake and tsunami serve as a serious reminder of the danger inherent in nuclear power generation.
“Whilst I am pleased that investigations are being carried out into the UK’s nuclear safety, earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only disasters that can threaten the cooling systems of nuclear reactors. The Fukushima disaster highlights the importance of investing in renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency to pave the way for a safe and secure low-carbon future.”
I can't really write a post about Jo at the moment without taking the opportunity to remind you that she's running the London Marathon in 3 weeks' time in aid of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. She wants to raise £100 for every mile, a total of £2620. If you can, please sponsor her here. 

Shouldn't we be reforming, not cutting, Winter Fuel Allowance?

As regular readers will know, I have absolutely zero attachment to the idea of Winter Fuel Allowance being a universal benefit. I am appalled that my husband will get it when we a) don't need it and b) a family with a disabled child won't.

I was annoyed to see this story in today's Telegraph saying that the amount of the allowance was going to be cut, by £50 to £200 for the over 60s and by £100 to £300 for the over 80s.

First up, can we just have some agreement that 60 year olds aren't "elderly". Thank you.

My point is, though, that within the group of people who get Winter Fuel Allowance, there will be some people who do desperately need it - and they will be experiencing a hefty cut - 33% for the oldest - this year.  Wouldn't it have been fairer to restrict it to people over 65 who are basic rate taxpayers unless disabled, and extend to families with disabled members?

David Cameron seems very keen to keep the pledge he made on WFA during the election, but he could actually be harming some of the people it's supposed to help by making these changes.

This is a real opportunity to do something fair which has been lost, at least for the moment. Bob Russell, why don't you ask Cameron about this at PMQs next week?

Balls talking Balls - on fuel duty and prices

I've been wanting to write that headline for a while. It might be rude, but it's also accurate, so it may well  become an occasional series.

Today Ed Balls has been telling anyone who'll listen that the Government should have stopped the oil companies from charging so much, and should have reduced the rate of VAT on fuel.

We've become used to hearing Labour politicians talking outrageous nonsense in the last few months, but this takes the biscuit. First of all, our oil companies aren't state owned nationalised monoliths who do what the Government tells them and for Ed Balls to suggest that the Government could dictate what price they should charge is ridiculous.  I asked yesterday on here if there was a danger of oil companies passing on the tax increase to customers. What Danny Alexander has said on this, reported on the BBC, kind of makes sense to me:
"If the oil companies try to pass that on to retailers they will simply buy their fuel from elsewhere. You've got a global market for oil and you've got a competitive market for the supply of fuel, so there is no prospect of that being passed on."
Wouldn't it be a bit more constructive if Ed Balls had condemned any petrol retailer who would take advantage of this situation to profiteer?

And now let's come to the issue of just reducing VAT on petrol. Ed Balls spent long enough hanging around the Treasury to know perfectly well that no Government can do this. It's just illegal.  Balls has been going on about France doing so for restaurants - but as the Financial Times blog pointed out, it took them seven years. Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray has been touting this idea too, and he should know better. Funny thing is, fuel prices have spiked several times over the last few years and if it reducing VAT was so easy, why didn't Labour do it? The problem of rural fuel prices being cripplingly high in the highlands and islands of Scotland is not something that's appeared overnight - and the people who have been leading the campaign for years to do something about that that were George Lyon, Lib Dem MEP for Scotland, and Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat now Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And funnily enough, now Danny's in office, the Government he's part of has done more than its predecessor ever did to tackle that. Shocking consistency on the part of a politician!

I didn't think that Labour's arguments could get any less credible. We've had 10 months of them going on about how much better life would be under them, when in reality they were planning to make cuts that were not a million miles away from those made by the current Government. They have never explained what they would do in any sort of detail. However, Balls takes it all to a new level by simply saying things that can be quickly and easily disproved, telling people that the Government should do things that he knows perfectly well can't be done. Yet again, Labour prove themselves to be supremely skilled in the art of unscrupulous hypocrisy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Does anyone like the term Alarm Clock Britain?

I've said many times in this blog how the poorest people in this Country are those who are just above the thresholds for certain benefits or tax credits - the pensioner, for example, whose occupational pension puts her something like 28p above the minimum income guarantee so she can't get Pension Credit or the family whose income is just and no more above the threshold at which they get working tax credit - and so find themselves having to pay full Council Tax, prescriptions, rent and the like. It was to Labour's absolute shame that they left behind a situation where the poorest children were in homes where parents were working.

Those are the people Nick Clegg is talking about when he uses the phrase "Alarm Clock Britain", those people who live pretty much month to month, or week to week. Those people who never really get the chance to save for the future because the basic needs of the present use up all their income. I get the principle, but I hate the label. It's not quite as patronising and judgemental as its predecessor "hard working families", which used to get on my nerves, but I really don't like it. You shouldn't really criticise when you don't have an alternative, as I've been saying to the Labour Party all the time, but coming up with snazzy terms is not my strong point. Low paid households doesn't really have a snappy ring to it although it's probably more accurate.

I loved what Jennie said about Alarm Clock Britain:
And then he resurrected the spectre of Alarm Clock Britain. I don't know who keeps telling him that it's a good idea to remind people of the thing they hate, the thing that makes them get out of bed and go to work, the bastard alarm clock, in every sodding speech, but I don't know one single person who really resonates with the phrase.
Although I disagreed with her next bit about those people being the squeezed middle - I take it to mean the £15-£25000 income range rather than £40k and above.

However, scrapping about words is one thing, but I shouldn't let it distract me from the fact that today's budget will help those people, who really need it at the moment, to cope with rising food and fuel prices. The tax threshold is being raised again, to £8015. That's an increase of some £1630 over the first two years of the Parliament, good progress towards the £10,000 in the Coalition Agreement.

The price of fuel doesn't just affect those who have cars - it affects all of us who ever eat, or wear clothes or buy anything. While I wince at the roughly £42 it takes to fill my Micra, that must be multiplied in the accounts department of every business when they realise how much it costs to get in their raw materials and then transport their products for sale. The 1p cut in duty, and not having to worry about any more increases for at least a year, will make a difference and the above inflation fuel increases are stopped until 2015 - all of this paid for by a tax on the extra profits the oil companies are making. I just hope that the oil companies don't try to pass that tax rise on to us because that would defeat the object.

Those are the budget measures which are there to help out people with living costs. There are others which are aimed at boosting jobs, which I'll write about later. In the meantime, I'll leave you with another e-mail from Nick Clegg to chew over:

Dear Caron,
Today the coalition government has announced a budget that will return the UK to sustainable and balanced economic growth and which puts helping Alarm Clock Britain at its heart. 
We are increasing the income tax threshold by £630 to £8105; lifting hundreds of thousands of low income earners out of paying income tax and putting £126 back in the pockets of low and middle income earners. This is in addition to the last budget that took nearly a million of the lowest income earners out of tax and made millions of hard working individuals £200 better off. We are making a real difference in people’s lives - from the front page of our manifesto to people’s back pockets. 
Alarm Clock Britain will be further helped by the measures we have taken to give motorists a fairer deal. We are shifting taxation away from the pumps and onto the broader shoulders of the oil companies instead - with fuel duty being cut and taxation on oil companies rising. 
At the same time we are making the wealthy pay their fair share with increased measures to tackle tax avoidance, higher charges for non-doms and a special tax on private jets. This budget also places green growth front and centre – the Green Investment Bank will begin operation next year with £3bn of capitalisation, delivering an additional £18bn of investment in green infrastructure by 2014-15. 
We were left a toxic economic legacy by Labour with a record deficit and debt. Under Ed Balls Labour have no answers and solutions to the mess they left. The difficult decisions we have taken in government have rebuilt confidence in Britain’s ability to pay its way, kept interest rates lower than they would otherwise have been, and have provided the stability that business and individuals need to invest in the UK’s economy. 
There are no easy decisions in this budget. But we are delivering a budget which will mean that that those who can pay more will; and those who are working hard to make ends meet will get a helping hand. This budget is progressive, green, liberal and what our country needs at this time.
Best wishes,
Nick Clegg MP
Deputy Prime Minister & Leader of the Liberal Democrats


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