Nick Clegg was humiliated by the good people of Barnsley today, pushed down into sixth place in the by-election, the Lib Dem candidate losing his deposit - and all just 15 miles from Sheffield.
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They were beaten by UKIP. They were beaten by the Conservatives. Shockingly they were beaten by the BNP. And they were even beaten by an unknown independent, just scraping into four figures. Clegg admitted it was “obviously a bad result for the Liberal Democrats”, but insisted he’d be back, and prove the doubters wrong.
The result was also a concern for David Cameron, with the Spectator’s James Forsyth explaining:
“Last night’s by-election result in Barnsley is embarrassing for both Clegg and Cameron… On the Conservative side, coming third behind UKIP is going to lend weight to those who argue that the party has conceded too much to its coalition partners. I expect there’ll be a lot of quite grumbling on this point in Cardiff this weekend at the party’s spring forum.”
Back to Clegg, and one can’t but wonder whether the Indy’s Johann Hari’s made the astutest observation of all, tweeting:
“I really do expect Nick Clegg will lose his seat at the next election. (If he runs again.)”
• The government’s NHS reforms came under further scrutiny this week – with health secretary Andrew Lansley retreating on price competition.
As Trevor Cheeseman reported on Left Foot Forward this afternoon:
“Campaigners against the coalition’s NHS reforms secured a victory this week, following a u-turn by Andrew Lansley on price competition for healthcare… Price competition is significant in that it marks a big change from Labour’s approach – whereby a fixed tariff ensures a focus on quality rather than cost reduction. Many campaigners, including doctors’ leaders, have voiced concern about its implications for reducing quality of NHS care…
“Lansely himself sees the Thatcherite-style deregulation of utilities and telecoms as the inspiration for his NHS reforms; indeed Lansley himself worked as a civil servant under Norman Tebbit to open up telecoms to competition. He remains sensitive on the subject, as witnessed on last week’s Any Questions when he was caught – eight times – in a “Paxman/Howard“-style question avoidance, when quizzed by Jonathan Dimbleby on whether GPs will be able to choose between providers of equal quality on the basis of price.”
Earlier this week, Shirley Williams became the most senior coalition politician to come out against Lansley’s reforms. In a column in The Times (£), she called the scale of the reforms “too great”, leaving “too many questions unanswered”. Baroness Williams questioned the cost of the reorganisation; the accountability of the new GP consortiums; the role of the private sector; and patient choice.
And tonight, writing on Left Foot Forward, shadow health minister Diane Abbott attacked the government’s proposals on public health.
“It is a nonsense for the Tory-led government to talk about improving public health, when ideologically, it is firmly committed to so many things that are bad for the nation’s health. This is a government that is committed to big cuts pushing up unemployment which is known to produce poor public health outcomes.
“One of the first things that Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley did when he took office was to scrap the ‘traffic light’ system of food labelling, caving in to the demands of big business. He is also pushing the preposterous notion of scaling back Change4Life and pressing industry for funding, and working with firms like Mcdonalds on public health. The Labour government introduced a range of successful policies to tackle smoking. At the end of the last parliament we passed legislation to ban the display of tobacco at point of sale. The legislation is on the statute book waiting to be implemented. But we are still waiting for Lansley to take action.
“What is becoming increasingly clear is that Lansley is more interested in big business than improving the nation’s health; when it comes to public health, we must not listen to what Lansley says, but watch what he is doing.”
• Internationally, Libya continues to dominate the headlines – Colonel Gaddafi clinging on, his brutal regime continuing to murder, bomb and terrorise the Libyan people.
The most eye-opening despatch from the front line this week came from the Standard’s Oliver Poole in Ajdabiya, who wrote about Gaddafi’s first counter-attack in free Libya:
“Regime loyalists fought protesters for control of the key oil port of Marsa El Brega in the most brutal fighting of the two-week conflict so far. Rebel forces then sent in hundreds of trucks carrying rocket-propelled grenades and claimed to have retaken the oil terminal and airstrip at the centre of the battles. Under the sound of screaming warplanes and the crackle of heavy gunfire, the number of dead and wounded neared 50…
“Gaddafi’s men, sent from the coastal town of Ras Lanuf, vowed to advance on Benghazi, which has become the capital of the rebel movement. I watched as thousands massed at the eastern gates of Ajdabiya to fight the man who sent his troops to kill them. They were filling Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles with rags and petrol as makeshift molotov cocktails. Others carried AK47s and hunting rifles, with one man running past carrying rocket-propelled grenades. But most of the 7,000-strong crowd massing at the city’s eastern gate were unarmed…
“Ajdabiya’s defences are not extensive, despite it being the location for a large arms dump, which has been bombed several times by Gaddafi forces. Today its people will learn Gaddafi’s next move and whether the confidence expressed by those in the regime’s army that the revolut ion can be crushed proves to be mere words – or a promise that will mark an end to the locals’ precious few days of freedom.”
While on Left Foot Forward, former army Captain Patrick Bury looked at the military assets are available to Britain to take out Gaddafi – should it come to it. He concluded his piece by saying:
“Unfortunately, events in Libya have exposed British defence weaknesses. The British ground force toolkit for dealing with such contingencies post-defence cuts is pretty limited. And it’s not just the ground forces toolkit that’s the problem; the whole spectrum of the UK’s strategic defence assets are being curtailed. As one officer put it last week:
‘The locker is not just empty, it’s completely threadbare.'”
Progressive of the week:
Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistan Minister for Minorities, gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad on Wednesday by Islamist extremists – for daring to stand up to them with his call for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws. David Cameron led the world in condemning the assassination, describing it as “absolutely brutal and unacceptable”.
The prime minister told the House of Commons:
“It shows what a huge problem we have in our world with intolerance… I will send not only our condolences but our clearest possible message to the government and people of Pakistan that this is simply unacceptable.”
In an interview to be shown in the event of such a tragedy, Bhatti had said:
“The sources of violence, militant, banned organisations, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, they want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan, and whoever stand against their radical philosophy they threaten them. When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalised persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten.
“But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the Cross, and I follow him on the Cross, and I’m ready to die for a cause, I’m living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights, so these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles. I will prefer to die for my principle and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise on these threats.”
Pakistan, nay the world, is a poorer, more dangerous place for his passing.
Regressive of the week:
Howard Davies, Director of the LSE, forced to resign over his links to the vile Gaddafi regime, a man who, as Seph Brown pointed out earlier this evening on Left Foot Forward, had never got to grips with the Middle East:
“His repeatedly lacklustre reactions to this colossal lapse in judgement is indicative of the fact that he has simply never got to grips with the seriousness of close cooperation with troubled countries throughout the Middle East.
“In 2008, students and academics raised concerns over a £2.4 million investment from Sheikh Abdullah al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. In return, the university’s sleek new theatre was named after the late dictator, Sheikh Zayed; the UAE is a country which denies citizenship to 80 per cent of its population, and hence most of the civil and human rights afforded only to citizens of the state.
“Moreover, Harvard’s Divinity School returned a $2.5 million donation after its benefactor, the Sheikh Zayed Centre, was linked to anti-Semitic and anti-American discourse. Davies was not ’embarrassed’ by any of this. It was not only the financial side of the university in which Davies mis-stepped in the Middle East…
“The fact that Davies believes his support for Saif “fight to the last bullet” Gaddafi merely “backfired” shows the extent of his unwillingness or inability to engage with the serious consequences of overlooking human and civil rights in search of investment; however, Libya is not the only example where Sir Howard failed to uphold the ethical and academic integrity of the London School of Economics. Hopefully the next Director will offer more thought to the values of the university rather than its balance sheet.”
Evidence of the week:
New research from Oxford University, which details how Britain, along with the rest of the G7, has been engaged in a 30-year race to the bottom on corporation tax – with large companies getting away with paying less than small companies.
The Financial Times reported:
“Very large companies pay lower rates of corporation tax than smaller businesses, according to research by Oxford University that will fuel debate about whether big business pays enough tax.”
With the report itself concluding:
“…in the June 2010 Budget, the government announced gradual corporation tax rate cuts to 24 percent over the next four years, which might further fuel downward competition.”
Ed Jacobs’s Week outside Westminster:
Responding to the result, first minister Carwyn Jones spoke for all parties in the Assembly in declaring:
“This is a historic day for Wales. It is a clear and concise Yes vote across whole of Wales from the coast to the border.”
However, with a turnout of just 35.2 per cent, Rachel Banner, who led the No campaign, warned that it did not provide a “ringing endorsement” of the Assembly, and recognised the need for Cardiff Bay to prove to the people the difference further powers would make to them.
Shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain explained:
“There’s a big responsibility on AMs now to deliver. Now they can go full speed ahead. But ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’ now has to be the watchword.”
Commenting on David McLetchie’s assertion, Labour MP Thomas Docherty responded:
“To suggest the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government’s policies are popular in Scotland is delusional. Scotland suffered at the hands of the Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s, with a raft of pit and shipyard closures.”
In supporting the calls, The Tories’ Transport spokesman Jackson Carlow explained:
“This side – although it welcomes a Conservative administration at Westminster – will not feel slavishly bound to always endorse everything it says or not to stand up for Scotland’s interests when circumstances dictate, and we do believe that the fuel price is prejudicial to the economy in Scotland and we will be supporting the government’s motion.”
Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Police said a gun attack in Derry was a clear attempt to murder a police officer by dissident republicans.
Responding, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan called for unity:
“No matter what other issues, differences or difficulties there are, one solid and compelling message that must go out to the so-called dissidents is that we are not standing still here in Derry.”
Meanwhile, amidst debate over whether mandatory coalitions at Stormont should be ended, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie argued more time was needed for the institutions to bed in. She told the Belfast Telegraph:
“Everything in life, whether it is your job or political institutions, has to be reviewed to make sure it is still effective and still resonates with the requirements of the people. The Good Friday Agreement was always meant to be evolutionary, it was meant to move on. But we have to wait until these institutions are properly bedded down.”
We were struck this week by the tragic news of the passing away of Mark Hanson, a giant figure in the world on online politics. There have been many heartfelt tributes. Our own Will Straw said: “Two years ago I met Mark Hanson for the first time. He was someone with a huge reputation in Labour circles for his forward thinking on new media and ideas about how to make the party a genuine 21st century campaigning organisation.
“Given his reputation I was somewhat nervous about discussing my hair-brained idea to create a new left-wing website modelled on some of the leading American ‘rapid response’ blogs. But Mark could not have been more supportive.
“That first meeting with Mark and subsequent conversations always left me feeling energised and buzzing with new ideas. He had a lazer like sense of which initiatives from the evolving worlds of modern communications and social media would work well in a political environment and which were best left on the shelf. His judgment was always top class and he had nothing but enthusiasm and encouragement for what a new generation of left-wing bloggers and campaigners were doing.
“His passing is all the more upsetting since his outwardly positive personality clearly betrayed a man suffering deeply from depression. My heart goes out to his family, close friends and to all who, like me, were lucky enough to have his light – no matter how fleetingly – in their lives.”
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