Look Left – Johnson and Coulson quit as everyone forgets about Blair

Two resignations in the past two days rocked Westminster - with Labour and the Tories losing a key man - while Tony Blair reappeared before the Iraq Inquiry.

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Two resignations in the past two days rocked Westminster, with Labour and the Tories losing a key man. Today, using Tony Blair’s appearance at the Iraq Inquiry as cover, and on the morning after Alan Johnson’s shock departure, David Cameron’s communications chief Andy Coulson staggered onto his sword – announcing his intention to leave Downing Street “within the next few weeks”.

Pressure had been mounting for months over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, though questions over Coulson’s conduct stretch beyond recent scandals, with allegations of bullying stretching back five years. One of his victims, sports reporter Matt Driscoll, told a tribunal:

“Andy Coulson was at the heart of all of this… He should look at himself and decide if his actions in the course of the way I was treated were correct. If I were him, I would find it very hard to look in the mirror. I was subjected to unprecedented bullying and he did nothing to stop it, if anything he accelerated it. I didn’t do anything wrong…

“I was in the top 30 sports writers in the country. I then came up against the venom of Andy Coulson, which I found very hard to take. It has taken an incredible amount of strength to take on the richest news group in the world and win. I don’t think anyone has ever done that before with the success that I have.”

The Indy’s Ian Birrel is the favourite to succeed Coulson (6/4), followed by the Telegraph’s Ben Brogan (4/1); Boris’ spinner Guto Hari (6/1); The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh (6/1); and the Times’s Danny Finkelstein (8/1) – with the BBC’s Nick Robinson (40/1) and Sky’s Adam Boulton (66/1) rank outsiders.

• Last night, Alan Johnson quit frontline politics for “personal reasons to do with my family”. He said he had “found it difficult to cope with these issues in my private life whilst carrying out an important front bench role”. He is succeeded by Ed Balls, with Yvette Cooper taking over as shadow home secretary and Douglas Alexander the new shadow foreign secretary.

Speaking on the World at One this lunchtime, the new Shadow Chancellor said:

“I have been asked to do this job and I said to Ed Miliband, do you want me to do this? And he said ‘I really do’ and on that basis I think we will be a very strong partnership across the Shadow Cabinet in what is a vital role… in politics you have got to be relaxed and you have got to be liked sometimes, but also people really, really worry about what is happening to jobs, to mortgages, to VAT, it is not something you can be too relaxed about…

“It is an understanding of the history, an understanding of economics and a determination to take the argument to the coalition on behalf of the people, that is what Labour needs, that is what I am going to deliver with Ed Miliband.”

• Tony Blair, meanwhile, appeared before the Iraq Inquiry for a second time. This time, however, there were fewer protesters, less coverage on the rolling news channels and not many new revelations – though the former prime minister did say he “regrets deeply and profoundly the loss of life” of British and coalition troops, those helping the Iraqis rebuild their country and the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians killed since the 2003 invasion.

This morning, before news of the Coulson resignation broke, the papers were full of anticipation about the questions Mr Blair would face, with the FT saying (and Mr Blair perhaps heeding):

“As he prepares for the half-day inquiry session, Mr Blair will be looking over the new evidence gathered since his testimony, which includes some uncomfortable assessments from former colleagues… beyond the detail, Mr Blair will also be considering his tone, and whether a more contrite approach may help defuse some lingering anger.”

Progressive of the week:

Andy Burnham, who fought hard this week against the coalition’s “stupidscrapping of EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance), and will continue to fight on. Speaking after the vote, he described the Lib Dems as “spineless“, calling them “yellow Tories” and asking: “What on Earth is Simon Hughes’ job all about? They were never serious. The Tories have maneuvered the Lib Dems into suffocation.”

He added:

“Look at what they’re doing, axing the Future Jobs Fund, EMA, Aim Higher; look at Michael Gove’s new baccalaureate… The mythical pupil premium, the Sure Start cuts, the ‘Free Schools’ plan… Gove is creating a segregated, divided, atomised education system, a divided society, a step backwards… We need to make this a one-term government. Imagine 10-15 years of this. They’re taking people’s hope away, bit by bit…”

And today, on a visit to Elms Bank Special School, the shadow education secretary tweeted:

“Met Connor, reg blind & living w/ sister, who sd losing EMA will take away his independence. If only Govt wld listen to stories like this.”

Regressive of the week:

Wayne Rooney, who alongside Gareth Barry, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Theo Walcott, David James, Michael Owen, Andy Carroll and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere was named and shamed as a tax avoider, to the tune of £600,000. The Mirror described it as “a kick in the teeth for millions of ordinary supporters who pay tax at normal rates”, while I wrote:

“Rooney’s tax dodging will do little to endear him back in the hearts of United fans, coming just months after his contract negotiations – during which he was accused of holding the club to ransom – and just a week after Manchester City Council fired 2,000 staff, a move described by the Unite trade unioin as ‘savage‘.”

Evidence of the week:

Further proof of the regressive impact of the cuts, which Howard Reed presented on Left Foot Forward today, looking at the regressive impact of the cuts across the income distribution; by gender; across local areas; and across regions of the UK, concluding:

“…across a whole range of measures, the coalition’s spending cuts fail the fairness test and give the lie to Cameron and Osborne’s claim that ‘those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the heaviest burden’.”

Ed Jacobs’s Week outside Westminster:

Scotland: Left Foot Forward reported on Nick Clegg’s Scottish discomfort as new polling showed support for the Lib Dems and Conservatives in Scotland has plummeted, with The Herald saying:

“Eight months in coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster… appears to have robbed the Lib Dems of almost all credibility with voters in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, whilst figures showed a 0.5% growth in Scotland’s GDP in the third quarter of 2010, Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, launched a pointed attack on SNP ministers. He said:

“There is certainly no room for complacency on the part of Scottish ministers, who all too often simply indulge in self-congratulation rather than taking the concerns of business seriously.”

Wales: It was a week dominated by the start of proper campaigning for March’s referendum on further law-making powers for Cardiff Bay. In officially launching its campaign, those opposed to providing the Assembly with extra law-making powers decided not to apply to be registered as the official No campaign, thereby denying the Yes campaign the right to be officially registered as well with the TV air time that would have gone with it.

Responding to the move, Plaid Cymru’s Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM told BBC Wales:

“I think it’s a very sad day for politics and democracy in Wales. They (True Wales) don’t want a discussion and they don’t want to campaign because they know they don’t have arguments.”

And writing in the Western Mail, Labour’s Ann Jones AM outlined why she would be voting yes:

“As I see it, further law-making powers would bust open the current system where problems and barriers are held up behind closed doors simply because they can be. I’ll be voting yes to stop this, I’ll be voting yes to ensure that the next AM (within or outside of government) that has a good idea and the commitment to see it through can change Wales for the bettter.”

Meanwhile the Tory chairman of the Commons Welsh Affairs committee David Davies explained why he would be voting no:

“When the idea of an Assembly was first mooted, I was concerned that it would cost a vast amount of money and would be used as a stepping stone towards an independent Wales. It has certainly cost more money and the Assembly has already gained many extra powers since the original referendum. If there is a yes vote, then it won’t be long before AMs want even more powers.”

Northern Ireland: It emerged that the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party had struck a deal to work together in North and West Belfast ahead of May’s local and Assembly elections. In a joint statement, the leaders of the two parties said:

“Unionist co-operation is not so much about voting pacts and electoral arrangements; rather, it is about Unionist elected representatives committing themselves to engaging and working together, in continuing partnership with the community, in order to ensure co-operation takes place in a real and meaningful way. This is by no means short term in nature. It will involve developing long-term strategic positions in relation to social, economic, educational and cultural issues impacting on North and West Belfast communities.”

The Northern Ireland Office announced that due to security concerns, the identities of donors would remain anonymous for a further two years for their protection. Explaining the move, Minister of State for Northern Ireland Hugo Swire explained:

“I recognise and support the desire for full transparency in politics and on the funding of political parties in particular. But I accept with regret that there remain concerns in Northern Ireland about intimidation which makes it difficult to achieve this.”

Sinn Fein expressed concern that it would contribute to “justifiable public cynicism” whilst the Alliance party’s Naomi Long MP sought assurances during PMQs that the step was taken for security reasons rather than the political convenience of some parties.

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