Keeping tabs on MPs and Prime Ministers

GRAHAM DINES, for 15 years the EADT political editor, is retiring. Here he takes a look back at the highs and lows of monitoring the world of politics

LAST week, I walked the corridors of the Palace of Westminster for the final time as EADT’s specialist writer on politics.

A lobby pass gives almost unfettered access to the very heart of our democracy. It allows the holder to bypass nearly all security checks and gives instant recognition when entering Downing Street, the Treasury and all the other great institutions of state.

Fifteen years has been a long time to get under the skins of MPs, political activists, councillors and council staff.

I’ve had the best of both worlds – reporting from London on parliament and government, visiting the European Parliament and EU institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, and at the same time keeping an eye on the goings-on in local government in Suffolk and Essex.

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In 15 years, I’ve had a fair few ups and downs with the great and the good, but at the end of the day, all of those in charge of governing us know they need the media more than the media needs them. Taking umbrage at what journalists write has been around as long as there have been newspapers. But if reporters are fair and, above all accurate, politicians realise they must tolerate the media.

Working for a politically-neutral newspaper beholds the political editor to be non-partisan.

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However, on some cross-party issues and matters of conscience, I’ve not been afraid to write my own opinions – opposition to capital punishment, indignation at the folly of the second Gulf War of 2003, and a detestation of hunting with hounds in general and hare coursing in particular.

I don’t hold with the argument that journalists should not vote – I have always been too professional to sulk if the candidate and the party for whom I voted lost.

And so, I do vote. I have my own political views, and at times have found myself in agreement with issues championed by each of the three main parties. I like the Liberal Democrat policy of replacing council tax with a local income tax. Labour’s Sure Start programme has benefited some of the most vulnerable in society and its 50p tax rate on salaries which exceed �150,000 is a fair redistribution of wealth as is the Conservatives’ plans to lift the lowest earners out of paying tax altogether.

I won’t be alone in thinking that the coalition is taking a huge gamble with the economy. Between 1997 and 2010, Tory MPs in Suffolk and Essex wrung their hands in anguish at Labour’s perceived attack on the countryside and rural living.

Yet thanks to central government cuts and tax rises, the countryside has never before been under such attack as now. Bus services face the axe, libraries are set to close, magistrates’ courts are to be even more centralised than under Labour, day care homes are to be flogged off to the private sector, and the cost of petrol – the biggest single tax on the rural way of life – is heading towards �7 a gallon unless the Chancellor gives way and introduces a fuel duty stabiliser.

The increase in VAT to 20% hits the poorest disproportionately. Pensioners and families at the bottom end have to pay the same for goods as millionaires, who probably don’t even register that prices have increased.

Politically, my hero was Ian Macleod – the very embodiment of One Nation Conservatism – whose death just four weeks after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1970 robbed Britain and the Edward Heath government of a brilliant intellect.

To my mind, he was one of those who can be labelled among “the best Prime Ministers we never had”. In recent times, I would add Labour’s Dr John Reid to a list that includes RA Butler and Denis Healey.

Over these past 15 years, the UK has had four Prime Ministers. The Tories have had five leaders, Labour three and the Liberal Democrats four. And for most of that time, there’s been a Labour government.

Whatever you think of our coalition government, it can’t be denied that David Cameron shares with Tony Blair a strength of character and purpose which have brought with it strong leadership.

John Major was severely weakened by policy errors and an almost constant rebellion among his own backbench MPs, while Gordon Brown was, quite frankly, an utter disaster.

The key events in the past decade-and-a-half have been Labour’s 1997 landslide, the ban on hunting with hounds, Brown’s inept premiership, the MPs’ expenses row and the formation of the UK’s first peacetime coalition.

Tony Blair swept to office because the country wanted change. The Tories were left reeling and it took them 13 years to recreate themselves, helped in no small measure by the blunders of Gordon Brown.

The invasion of Iraq was a political and strategic disaster, yet the fact that Blair was re-elected two years’ later amid bitter recriminations and public anger shows just how far the Conservatives had sunk. For a political journalist, it might be thought that the most enjoyable period of 15 years was the negotiations to form a coalition. But for me, it was from September 2007 to May 2008 when Labour in general and Brown in particular cracked.

He bottled going to the country when leading in the opinion polls. The Tories grabbed this lifeline with George Osborne announcing he would raise the threshold on inheritance tax to �1million in recognition of rising house prices. This had the potential to lift tens of thousands of middle Britons out of this tax trap, the very people who helped Labour to its 1997 landslide.

Within weeks, the personal data of 25million people was lost in transit from Tyneside to London, there was a run on Northern Rock, Brown halted a promised pay rise for the police and reneged on his promise of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

If that wasn’t bad enough, April and May 2008 were a horror show. The previous year, in his last Budget as Chancellor, Brown announced the abolition of the 10p tax rate. He didn’t realise – and this showed his lack of political nous – that it would mean tax rises for the lower paid, mainly Labour voters.

As he tried to unscramble his tax disaster – which led, in part, to Boris Johnson’s victory in the London mayoral contest – Brown ordered his strategists to label the Tory candidate in the safe Labour seat of Crewe & Nantwich a “Tory toff”. It backfired in a constituency home to Rolls Royce cars, and the Conservatives stormed to victory. Other highlights have been the rise of the UK Independence Party, led by former Frinton-on-Sea undertaker Jeffrey Titford, and the massive increases in council tax in Suffolk and Essex as a deliberate ploy of the Blair government.

And finally, my thanks to politicians of all parties, and in particular MPs Richard Spring (Tory, Suffolk West 1992-2010), Alan Hurst (Labour, Braintree 1997-2005), John Gummer (Tory, Suffolk Coastal 1979-2010), Simon Burns (Tory, Chelmsford since 1987) and one Liberal Democrat life peer, Lord (Andrew) Phillips of Sudbury.

It’s been a lot of fun.

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