John Street’s Diary September 16

Written By: John Street
Published: September 17, 2011 Last modified: September 22, 2011

Confident about the superior, high net worth lifestyle to be enjoyed in London he asked: “Have you ever tried to go to the theatre in Zug?” Well, the tiny little enclave of just under 26,000 people – where the languages are German, Italian and Serbo-Croat and which is home to just under 13,000 companies and 24,000 jobs – does have an English language theatre pitching to all those ex-pats working for companies like Alliance Boots and Tata. It’s next production, running from September 30 to October 9, appears to have been carefully tailored to its local tax refugees, especially with numbers such as “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”, and is, appropriately enough, Oliver!

 

Just what is it about Tory Chancellors and dominatrixes (or is it dominatrices?) as a package: by now a good old-fashioned British tradition, right up there with jellied eels and pie and mash, it seems – and just as authentic. The Australian TV station ABC this week revived an old story about Chancellor George Osborne’s past friendship or association with “escort” and “disciplinarian” Natalie Rowe which had all the essential lurid ingredients of an old reliable staple – whips, prostitution, cocaine. Mr Osborne – who made a poorly received joke about, erm, “relief” at a men’s magazine awards ceremony the previous week – confidently rejects any suggestions of impropriety on his part during the friendship some 20 years ago. But what is interesting is the manner in which people have sought to breathe new life and relevancy into it. The story was picked up by the News of the World in 2005/6 – who apparently managed to “lift” it from under the nose of the Sunday Mirror by some means presumably known only to its then editor, Andy Coulson. Ms Rowe, who admits she had hoped to sell her story to the Mirror Group, said Mr Coulson and Wapping gave the story a make-over in which she was cast as the villain and which was very sympathetic indeed to Mr Osborne, enabling him to get on with planning David Cameron’s ascent to the party leadership. Was it this professional courtesy from Mr Coulson to Mr Osborne, some people are asking, that led to him recommending the seasoned tabloid executive be the Tories’ most senior media fixer? What is clear is how times change. At the time of the original friendship in the early 1990s, the then beleaguered Chancellor Norman Lamont received endless grief over the colourful tenant of his London flat, Lindi St Clair aka Miss Whiplash, even though he never met her. Mr Lamont, by then the target of several false, fabricated tabloid stories, came under fire for receiving a £4,700 contribution from public funds to the £23,000 legal bill he incurred (approved by both the head of the civil service and by Prime Minister John Major) responding to the stories (writs and so on) and encouraging his controversial tenant to findnew premises. His ministerial career – not helped by some of his own controversial utterances about the recession – was holed below the waterline. Mr Osborne appears to have been lucky enough to find himself in a kinder, more tolerant, Tory Party and a more “sophisticated” News of the World.

 

Still with George Osborne and the thorny subject of “spin”. The unshakeably self-confident Mr Osborne was this week accused of not playing with a straight bat, so to speak, over the release of Government economic statistics – again. The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, who had been due to retire in July but was persuaded to stay on in the job when his nominated successor had second thoughts, is disappointed that Mr Osborne is intent on retaining the rule that allows him and his advisers to see key economic data at least 24 hours before it is released. Mr Osborne’s predecessors as Chancellor certainly enjoyed the same privilege – so much so that as Shadow Chancellor Mr Osborne vowed during the election campaign to end it, in the interests of fairness and eradicating “spin”. Sir Michael believes the practice is out of step with other countries, increases voter fears about spin, increases the prospect of leaks, and – most importantly – undermines the integrity of the Government’s statistical data. In May he complained about a “serious lapse” in which inflation figures were released 17 hours early to unauthorised officials – with obvious market implications. Mr Osborne has defended retaining the early sight of figures, supposedly to give Treasury officials and advisers time to prepare a response and put the figures into context. Sir Michael’s response suggests he is far from convinced, much less impressed: “The Statistics Authority believes that the current arrangements for pre-release access are highly damaging to public trust in official statistics. Pre-release access encourages the belief – held by five out of six people in recent polls – that ministers and their advisors manipulate official statistics. It increases the likelihood of unauthorised disclosure and dishonesty.”

 

Supporters of Ed Miliband’s plans to reform the party’s relationship with trade unions might argue they haven’t come a moment too soon. That is certainly the view of political scientists at the University of Bristol who have produced a carefully timed analysis of last year’s Labour leadership election. They argue that last year’s electoral college was unfair and would not have passed muster as a free and fair election in the third world… or words to that effect. In their article, they express concern that nominations for the leadership were co-ordinated and streamlined by the trade unions in order to maximise support for Ed Miliband, their favoured candidate. Of course, there’s always been a wee gulf between those who teach and those who practice. The GMB, Unison and Unite had 75 per cent of the votes in the third section of the electoral college and all nominated  their preferred choice – who won by 0.65 per cent. The authors’ central thesis is that such was union influence over the poll that the 1993 one member, one vote reform was swept aside by an adroit reinvention of the block vote. Mr Miliband this week seemed unfazed by criticism of his victory as he sought to tell the TUC conference that he will from now on be a “critical” friend of the unions. Politics, as said so many times before, can be a rough old trade, all about the possible…

About John Street

John Street is Tribune's diary columnist.

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