Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros

“One more such victory and I am ruined!” – Pyrrhus

Yes, I was going to catch up on my blogging about Preacher, now some two weeks overdue. But you’ll hopefully appreciate that these last couple of weeks have been a little tumultuous in my country, which overnight on Thursday went from being a peaceable United Kingdom to something more akin to the squabbling factions of Westeros. So I thought maybe I should write something about that. Continue reading “Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros”

The Road to Damascus

It’s been a few months now since I’ve written anything on this blog. And what a tumultuous few months they’ve been, in what’s usually the so-called ‘silly season’ when governments go on their hols.

We’ve seen a (in my view) brave man expose the extent to which the US and UK governments are sliding towards full-on totalitarianism, all in the name of ‘security’; revelations for which he’s now on the run, ironically having to seek refuge in nations whose claim to totalitarianism is rarely in doubt.

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Continue reading “The Road to Damascus”

How Mr Hammond learned to stop worrying and love Trident

“Our own independent nuclear deterrent… has helped to keep the peace for more than forty years.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1983

“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout.” – Insane mutant, Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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Philip Hammond and his spads inspect the missiles at Faslane

When I was a teenager, in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t a question of if the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust – it was when.

After forty years of teeth-bared, nuclear-armed confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, it felt like a miracle that we were still walking the tightrope and hadn’t fallen off. When hardened Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980, and immediately started referring to the Soviets as “the evil empire”, it felt like we were starting to wobble on that tightrope very alarmingly.

Popular culture reflected our anxieties, warping our expectations and filling us with apocalyptic paranoia. We might have thought the post-nuclear wasteland replete with adventure after movies like Damnation Alley or Mad Max 2, but we were soon disabused of that notion with the horrific realism (and even that was toned down somewhat) of TV movies such as The Day After and Threads, both of which gave the teenage me nightmares for weeks. Even Raymond Briggs, author/artist of cuddly Christmas favourite The Snowman, got in on the act with cartoon downer When the Wind Blows, which gave kids the opportunity to watch two loveable pensioners die a horrifically protracted death of radiation poisoning.

The music too reflected the sense of inevitable impending doom. When the Wind Blows boasted a doomy score by Pink Floyd arch-miserablist Roger Waters, whose 1983 Floyd album The Final Cut ended with a charming depiction of nuclear holocaust, Two Suns in the Sunset (“could be the human race is run”). Liverpool dance pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed up gay sex celebration Relax with the doomy Two Tribes, which opened with a mock nuclear attack announcement and whose video featured lookalikes of the US and USSR Presidents fighting to the death in an arena.

Apocalyptic paranoia goes dance.

Our own Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had swung back into power after a supreme burst of sabre-rattling in the Falkland Islands, in which she used the sledgehammer of the British military to crush the less than effective conscripts of stupidly aggressive Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri. Following that, she became extremely chummy with Reagan, whose idea of humour was the unintentionally recorded gag, “we begin bombing in five minutes”, which put the Soviet army on a high alert status. We became paranoid that every misinterpreted radar shadow of a flock of geese would spark off a retaliatory ICBM strike. It was only a matter of time.

But by some miracle, it didn’t happen. Against all expectations, President Reagan sat down with new, moderate Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and negotiated the climbdown from the Cold War that would culminate in the collapse of the totalitarian USSR in 1991. For ten years, we lived free from apocalyptic paranoia – until September 11 2001 brought the golden opportunity of a new threat, different in nature but similarly all-pervading. Guns blazing, George W Bush declared “war on terror”, ignoring the fact that, traditionally, wars are fought between two states, not one state and a mobile group of fanatics with no national allegiance.

Bush’s problem was that, like the First World War generals whose tactic was to charge machine gun emplacements with cavalry, he was trying to fight the war before the one he was actually fighting. Al Qaeda are not “the Reds”, with a conveniently available selection of cities to rain destruction on; they’re a group of fanatical opportunists most of whose weapons consist of vests with TNT sewn into them. Faced with this, “let’s bomb the bastards” makes absolutely no tactical sense, because they’re in the middle of large populations of otherwise innocent people in otherwise innocent states.

And the reason I bring all this up now is that, in the face of all sanity, military strategy and economic good sense, Conservative Defence Minister Philip Hammond is currently making the same mistake. On Monday, before visiting nuclear submarine base Faslane in Scotland, and in direct contradiction of his party’s Coalition Agreement with the Lib Dems, he unilaterally announced the first steps towards purchasing a like for like replacement for Britain’s Cold War missile system, Trident.

Whoops

“We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men may be cremated equal” – Vern Partlow, Old Man Atom

This issue has been a political hot potato for some time, and to their credit (whatever their other failings), the Lib Dems seem to be the only English political party who can see this for the massive waste of money and strategic nonsense that it is. Alex Salmond’s SNP, faced with the inconvenience and moral problems of hosting the submarines, has a similar viewpoint. Both make perfect sense – in today’s world, Trident is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Let’s look at the destructive potential of the system. Here comes the maths bit…

Britain has four Vanguard class submarines, each capable of launching 16 Trident II D-5 missiles, each of which can be tipped with up to 8 W76 warheads, with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons (1 kiloton = 1000 tons) each. That’s a total destructive force equivalent to 51200 kilotons of conventional explosives. To put that into perspective, the bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 16 kilotons. Just one of the multiple warheads carried by each Trident missile is more than six times as destructive as that. Altogether, Britain’s nuclear capability is equivalent to 3200 Hiroshimas.

Now, it is fair to say that the 2010 Strategic Spending Review has limited that substantially, halving the number of missiles each submarine will carry to eight, and limiting the number of warheads carried to a total of 40. That has massively reduced the destructive potential available at any one time to a mere 250 Hiroshimas. But don’t get too relieved – we’re keeping a (reduced) total of 120 warheads actually available; that’s 750 Hiroshimas. And we could strap them onto the missiles and load those missiles at any time – I doubt we’d tell anyone.

This massively excessive destructive potential sort of made sense as a ‘deterrent’ at the height of the Cold War, with two ideologically opposed blocs, armed to the teeth with nukes, growling at each other. The theory was that nobody would launch a first strike for fear of facing equal retaliation; you can’t win a war if the entirety of civilisation is destroyed (which ignored the probability that even if only one side launched its nukes it would effectively devastate the planet). This strategy was known as Mutually Assured Destruction, with the all too appropriate acronym MAD.

But, militarily speaking, what threats do we face now? Learning lessons from Germany, most international rivals now know that the way to best your rivals is not to conquer them but to buy them. Ignoring the small clutch of nations with a limited nuclear capability (North Korea, Israel, potentially Iran) that can’t hold a candle to the West’s nuclear arsenal, the only states currently posing a similar threat to the Soviet Union are China and Russia. Both are too gripped in their own newfound love of capitalism to risk nuclear war; China in particular, by dint of holding the debts for most of the West, doesn’t even need to. All it needs to do is send round the repo men.

So we’re left with the threat that Western governments have built up, propaganda-wise as the baddies since the demise of the USSR – terror. And more specifically, terrorists. Government press releases and hysterical news media bombard us daily with nightmare scenarios of suitcase bombs, suicide vests and the ever-looming shadow of the Twin Towers airliner attacks.

Against that, what on Earth is the point of launching a multiple warhead intercontinental ballistic missile? Even if the so-far-unproven spectre of small nations (like Iraq) developing “weapons of mass destruction” comes true, those weapons will be like peashooters against rockets compared to even conventional Western forces. A massive nuclear strike – against any of our current enemies and likely any we may face in future – makes precisely zero strategic sense.

“It’s the last thing they’ll be expecting – a daylight charge over the minefield.” – Arnold J Rimmer, Red Dwarf

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And yet, at the “leaders’ debates” just before the 2010 General Election, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron emphatically insisted that Trident must be replaced with a similar/identical system to maintain Britain’s defences. Why? It made no sense then, and makes even less now, with the repeated mantra that “there’s no money left”. With the massive slashing in public spending on society’s sick and vulnerable, how on earth can anyone justify spending billions on a massive military white elephant?

Brown then, and Cameron now, made no sense from a military perspective in retaining such phenomenal destructive power. With Cameron, you can at least understand the perspective of trying desperately to shore up the illusion that Britain somehow retains the weight it once had as an international power – after all, the very nature of Conservatism is to cling to the past and try to reverse progress. Brown’s Labour Party had no such excuse, and neither does Miliband, who’s been conspicuously quiet on the subject.

However, I’d guess that neither wishes to upset the American defence industry, from whom Trident and any potential replacement would be bought and maintained. Estimates of the overall cost (including new submarines, new missiles, and new or refurbished warheads, plus ongoing maintenance) vary wildly from £25 billion (2006/7 government figures) to £97 billion (2009 Greenpeace estimate). Still, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the US annual defence budget of $1.4 trillion, most of which I’m pretty sure is spent at home. Put simply, the US defence industry is not desperate for the billions we’d give them, whatever politicians might think. The people of the United Kingdom, on the other hand, are – certainly if George Osborne is to be believed.

To be fair to the pro- camp, all those billions would not be spent in one great lump, whatever the opposition might say or imply. The costs cover a thirty year period; however, it’s still estimated at £1.5 billion to £2 billion per year. That’s a pretty massive sum to be wasting on a weapons system that, even if it made strategic sense as a deterrent, could never actually be used. Particularly when Osborne insists that £10 billion needs to be slashed from the benefit budget because the nation can’t afford it.

And to be fair to the anti- camp, not replacing Trident with an identical system is not the same as complete unilateral disarmament (as espoused in Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto aka “the longest suicide note in history”). Other nuclear weapons are available. Ideally, ones with slightly more precision than Trident, whose smallest possible effect is the destruction of an entire city. I’d argue that we probably do need nuclear weapons. Just not blunt instruments. Iran is not going to gain the nuclear capability of the USSR overnight; it took them decades to reach that level. If that seriously looks like a threat, we could reconsider. But arming ourselves to the teeth just in case is ridiculous.

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“It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say?” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
“Only that it costs £15 billion and we don’t need it.” – Jim Hacker
“Well, you could say that about anything at Harrods.” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
Yes Prime Minister

In the end, spending billions of pounds on a weapons system that no longer makes strategic sense, at a time when, if its proponents are to be believed, we are so desperately short of money that austerity is the only possible solution, is utterly, completely bonkers. Why should other countries seeking to acquire nuclear capability listen to us taking the moral high ground when we can’t give up our own Cold War toys? And regardless of your party allegiance, can you honestly say that a very expensive way of waving your willy around to look important matters more than caring for the vulnerable in your society?

If, like me, you’re old enough to remember the all-pervading fear and certainty of destruction in those last days of the Cold War, it should be enough to cure you of any nostalgic tendencies about it. But the Conservatives love the past, and are intent on hurtling us back there, convinced that it was always a halcyon Golden Age better than the one we have now. Buying another dose of Mutually Assured Destruction may satisfy Philip Hammond’s nostalgic urges, but to the rest of us, it’s just MAD.

The venomous Cameron and the amphibious Clegg

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There’s a well-known fable involving a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, keen for nebulous reasons to be on the other side of a river, asks a nearby frog to help out by carrying him over. The frog is dubious. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”, he asks. The scorpion, reasonably, replies that if he did, they would both die. So the frog, naively, agrees to the plan, and inevitably, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that?” gasps the dying frog. “You know that we’ll both die now!” The scorpion is phlegmatic: “It’s my nature. I can’t change it.”

This charming tale came to mind on Monday, when BBC News managed to find a space in between its wall-to-wall Olympic coverage for some actual news. Said news was a dejected looking Nick Clegg seeming to finally realise the nature of the predatory beast he’d harnessed himself and his party to. He’d called a press conference to announce that the last of the Lib Dems’ central policy planks, the reform of the House of Lords, was to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition not just from Labour, but from the Lib Dems’ own coalition partners/masters, the venomous Conservative Party.

It took Clegg rather longer than that mythic frog to feel the repeated stings his ‘allies’ barbed tail was inflicting on his party’s policies. The Tories granted him his cherished referendum on reforming the electoral system, then despite careful negotiations defeated him at the polls with a hell-for-leather opposition campaign infinitely better funded and organised than that in support of the motion. They allowed him his increase in the income tax lower threshold – while at the same time slashing the top rate of tax for their hyper-rich cronies (sorry, ‘job creators’ – ha!) and rejecting his proposed ‘mansion tax’, a variation on another cherished Lib Dem policy, Land Value Tax. And all this after beginning their marriage of convenience by forcing the Lib Dems to not only abandon their policy of opposing rises to, and trying to abolish, university tuition fees, but actually twisting their arms to tacitly support having the fees trebled.

Yes, the Lib Dems have wrung some small concessions from the Tories (see my previous blog on this), to the extent that Cameron has had to tell the press that he could “govern like a true Tory” if only it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems, in an attempt to placate his more barking rightwing backbenchers. But to the voting public, those concessions are small fry compared with the formerly compassionate-seeming Lib Dems’ complicity in slashing the Welfare State and laying the groundwork for further privatisation of the much-loved NHS.

And in any case, the public image of the Lib Dems rests primarily on those central planks they’ve been so vocal on in the past – abolition of tuition fees, the reform of the voting system, and the reform of the House of Lords. With the first two well and truly scuppered by their underhand partners, the forced abandonment of Lords reform was the final sting for Clegg, who miserably took to the air to (finally!) condemn the damage his supposed ‘allies’ were doing not just to him, but to their own party and the government of the country as a whole. Finally discovering some balls, he chose to use them in precisely the wrong way, with a childish tit-for-tat gesture that promised to scupper a cherished Tory policy – the electoral boundary review, which, on the face of it, would gain the Tories more seats in a reduced Commons to the detriment of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

The problem is that, in the minds of the voting public, the Lib Dems are most strongly associated with constitutional reform, and with good reason. As my Lib Dem friend Richard explains in his blog, if you’ve lost faith in the political system because you think it’s broken, nothing about it will work properly until it’s fixed. Trouble is, looked at without partisan goggles, the proposed boundary review does seem a fairer way of dividing votes for the British electorate. Clegg himself said in November 2010 that it would mean "correcting fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs". And it’s less than certain that the Tories would like or benefit from it as much as he seems to think.

So retaliating against the Conservatives by blocking a policy he should by rights be in favour of, and which they may not be as keen on as he thinks, looks, well, a bit silly really. Unfortunately, this is the same kind of political naivete, derived from years spent in opposition, that produced his other great no-win scenario, tuition fees. Like that debacle, he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

If he blocks the boundary changes, he can be seen to be finally standing up to the Tories – but be seen as a hypocrite by many, not least in his own party. If he chooses to retain his integrity and support a constitutional change perfectly in line with his own party’s policies, he’s got nothing in the arsenal left to strike the Tories with, and looks like he’s bent over to let his party get shafted by them for the umpteenth time.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but I’d say he should have stood firmer ground when the Tory leadership first broke their word and began aggressively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote to the AV referendum. There were any number of cherished Tory policies he could have seriously damaged by withdrawing support back then – the NHS reforms, the welfare reforms, reduction in the top rate of tax – and he might have seriously regained some respect and support for his party in the eyes of the electorate. But they’ve all been passed now, with the tacit or actual support of his party giving them a mandate, and all that’s left to torpedo is a policy that he should, logically, be in favour of.

 

OK, so what about the other Parliamentary numskulls?

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To be fair, no party has emerged from this debacle covered in glory. David Cameron, in particular, now looks incredibly ineffectual as a leader who can’t even deliver his own party’s support for an agreed-for policy. The backbench rebellion of 91 MPs is one of the largest rebellions against the party whips in the history of his party, and the fact that they felt they could get away with it does Cameron’s leadership standing no favours at all. One tweeter commented, accurately, that “Lib Dems thought they were in Coalition with the whole Tory party not just David Cameron”. The backbenchers are making the Tory party look like a reverse ouroboros, a snake whose tail is somehow eating its own head.

Not to mention undermining the tenuous alliance they have with the until-now supine Lib Dems, which they seem to have forgotten is the only thing currently preventing them from struggling through as a minority government. They can’t even go to the polls without a 55% vote of no confidence due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the one constitutional reform that has been enacted. Not that they would be likely to win an outright majority this time, but it’s never worth underestimating the power of delusion in the rightwing Conservative ranks. In short, they’ve finally succeeded in alienating the party that is the only thing keeping them properly in power. But like that scorpion of old, that’s Tory nature.

 

But surely Labour are dealing with this with their usual sensitive maturity?

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Labour too look pretty crap here, torpedoing a policy they’ve championed of old as a (supposed) party of the working class. Politics is about compromise, and while the Lords reform might not have been all they wanted, voting for no reform at all feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It could always have been built on later, in the increasingly likely result of the next government being Labour. Instead, next time the Tories can fling the accusation that they’ve already rejected it once. It’s the same as those ardent PR supporters who voted no to AV on the grounds that it wasn’t full PR – those opposed now have the ammunition that the British public have already rejected electoral reform.

The Lords reform legislation as drafted had its roots in a Labour-instituted study, too, and they voted for it at both first and second reading, dropping their ‘no’ bomb at the late stage of debate timetabling. They probably did have a point that the legislation was shoddy and needed reshaping, and that might well have required considerably more than 14 days’ worth of debate. But crucially, at that late stage, they offered no alternative suggestion – just an emphatic “no”. It looks most like a childish fit of pique, designed to drive a wedge between the coalition ‘partners’ in the full knowledge of Cameron’s ineffectiveness of whipping his backbenchers into line.

And yet, Labour might be being cannier than they seem, especially with Clegg’s (perhaps?) unwitting connivance. For all the ambivalence of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Labour were the one party surest to lose out on seats due to the boundary review. Now, despite Cameron’s plan to persevere with it, if the Lib Dems hold to Clegg’s word and oppose it, it’s finished. Advantage: Labour.

The fact that this couldn’t have worked out better for them in that sense has led some to speculate that this was an arcane plan of Miliband and co’s all along – oppose Lords reform and Clegg will have to retaliate, and boundary changes is the only significant thing he has left to strike at. And one Lib Dem I know has gone even further and suggested that perhaps the opposition to the boundary review is Clegg’s own olive branch held out to the previously intransigent Labour party, laying the groundwork for abandoning their treacherous Tory partners at last.

 

A match made in Hell?

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I’m not sure I buy that, but there still seems to be some vain hope that Clegg, Cable and co will cross the floor and hook up with Labour. I don’t think that would do them any favours; they’d be seen as fickle and opportunistic, bending their ideology to whichever main party would offer them the most regardless of their principles. Far better to abandon coalition altogether while they can still (truthfully) assert that they have tried to make it work in the same mature fashion as European parties, only to be thwarted by the childish, materialistic behaviour of their supposed ‘partners’.

They could then stand some chance of regaining respect by supporting the Conservatives on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, leaving them free to oppose any measures they genuinely didn’t support. The only problem there is that most of the measures a lot of Lib Dem MPs would oppose have already been passed in a frenetic haste by a Conservative party desperate to enact their ideology in case they turn out to be a one term government.

And of course, leaving the coalition would leave the Lib Dems with no positions in the Cabinet from which to moderate the Conservatives’ brutal, ideologically motivated policies. But in the eyes of most of the electorate, they’ve singularly failed at ‘moderating’ anyway, content with a few piecemeal breadcrumb policies thrown from the table while the Conservatives hacked away at everything liberals and the welfare state have achieved since 1948.

Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how many Lib Dems now think their leaders should have walked away from coalition with either major party, retaining their integrity by saying, “we tried to make it work, but neither party would compromise maturely enough for us to find common ground”. Those who support the coalition may be saying that “enough common ground” was precisely what the Tories offered, but they’re just now finding out how much those promises were worth (rather later than many others, I think). It’s taken long enough, but the Lib Dems may finally be realising that Tories can no more change their nature than that scorpion, even if it means their own electoral destruction.

What if the rightwingers were right?

Feral underclass

The feral underclass, tomorrow.

In the wake of David Cameron’s recent kite-flying statement about cutting off housing benefit for everyone under 25, the whole subject of welfare reform – and the demonisation of welfare recipients – has reared its head again. Displaying his usual stunning lack of empathy in his determination to ‘Con-Dem’ the ‘scroungers’ so berated by Iain Duncan Smith, our glorious leader chooses once again to conveniently ignore a few facts:

  • The vast majority of those claiming housing benefit are actually in work. The paltry minimum wage (£6.08 per hour, fact fans) isn’t enough to live on in many places even if you’re working full time.
  • A large proportion of the benefit bill is composed of working tax credits, claimed, again, by those who already have the jobs IDS is exhorting claimants to go out and get.
  • Removing housing benefit from young people would massively reduce their ability to move to other areas where they could get jobs, even while IDS echoes Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike” refrain.
  • Forcing them to move back in with their parents would be difficult if their parents have been forced to ‘downsize’ their accommodation (as recommended by that self same government).
  • The artificially (and politically motivated) inflated house prices make it virtually impossible for even those on a decent wage to buy a house, while buy-to-let landlords, free of any kind of regulation, are able to raise already exorbitant rents as high as they like, knowing tenants have no other choice.
  • And finally, the £10bn Cameron’s seeking to save on the welfare bill is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of unclaimed tax that wealthy individuals and corporations are allowed to get away with not paying. Vodafone alone could pay for more than half that saving if it paid what it actually owed, but has been allowed to ‘negotiate’ with HMRC to pay a fraction of what is due (under Labour, who are every bit as culpable). And that’s just one company.

Cameron and his cronies have this propaganda approach of picking the tiny minority of extreme cases of ‘welfare entitlement’ then somehow managing to tar the majority with the same brush. Anyone who’s been in the position of being unemployed is aware that there isn’t a vast army of ‘entitled scroungers’ who ‘don’t want to work’ and choose benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this view is correct, and there’s a huge ‘feral underclass’ thumbing its nose at the taxpayer while using their hard-earned cash to go on holidays and drive BMWs.

Even if this IS the case, then is simply removing all their income the best way to deal with it? Assuming you favour the ‘stick’ approach of "they deserve all they get" or "they’ll have to get jobs then", you’re ignoring the fact that, according to the ONS, there are only one sixth as many job vacancies as unemployed people.

So the actual effect of cutting off all income from these ‘scrounging parasites’ is to throw them out on the streets to starve. Now, some rightwingers are callous enough about their fellow humans as to say that’s no more than what they deserve. "Survival of the fittest", etc.

But if you can’t appeal to a sense of caring for the vulnerable in society, it’s worth taking a pragmatic look at what effect this would have on them, those ‘hard-working taxpayers who’ve had enough of supporting the ‘idle’. Said ‘idle’ classes will now be starving on the streets, complete with that army of kids you say they’ve had just to get more benefits. Local authorities can’t afford to house them – shouldn’t, by your arguments. So what will this ragged army of former ‘parasites’ now living in boxes under railway arches do?

Well, those least equipped to cope may well simply die – of starvation, cold, exhaustion, all the things that currently ravage the homeless population all the time. Look forward to the possibility of discovering rotting corpses lying unburied hither and yon throughout city centres. At least it’ll create job opportunities in the funerary market, I suppose.

Some might turn to selling themselves sexually – look forward to a vast increase in those street corner prostitutes of both genders, many probably underage. I’m guessing those ‘hard-working taxpayers’ wouldn’t be too happy about that; most of those who espouse such views probably already hate the ‘immorality culture.’

But if the rightwingers are right about the type of ‘entitled’ person that makes up this ‘army of scroungers’ what most of them would do on finding themselves destitute would be to turn to crime. Burglary, mugging, car theft, drug dealing, public disorder – all would increase many times over from their current rates, as the only options left for these ‘nasty parasites’ would be CRIME or DEATH. City police forces, already starved of budgets and resources, would be unable to cope, and even if they could catch any significant amount of this new army of criminals, it would be impossible to squeeze them into an under-resourced, privatised prison system that’s already bursting at the seams for lack of investment.

So, even if you genuinely believe there’s an army of entitled parasites living the high life at the expense of the hard-working taxpayer (which is, of course, bollocks), be careful what you wish for. If these people are the feral, lawless, troglodytes you believe them to be, your fervent desire to cut off their only income could only lead to city centres being besieged by armies of homeless, barbaric, criminal thugs, intent on robbing, raping and selling their bodies to the highest bidder. It would be, effectively, the kind of dystopia the Daily Mail seems to have a disturbing fetish about.

Quatermass1979

And while I hate to bring Godwin’s Law into this, I find it all too easy to imagine what the rightwingers would do if confronted with this dystopia of their own making. “Round them all up”, would be the cry. Followed, inevitably, by a lack of caring as to where they went, as long as it wasn’t ‘here’. With prisons already too full, swathes of land would have to be adapted into makeshift ‘camps’ like those already crammed full of asylum seekers and refugees. But you couldn’t deport your ‘feral underclass’ if they’re British citizens, and you couldn’t release such scum back into society. So what would you do with them? At this point, you begin to hear the sound of ovens being fired up…

Yes, I know this is all exaggerated dystopian hyperbole. More moderate Conservatives certainly don’t want it to come to this. But the particularly extreme, rabid rightwingers who insist on the complete dismantlement of the Welfare State and the abolition of all workers’ rights and protections, clearly haven’t thought through the impact this would have on them.

Fortunately, the majority of benefit claimants aren’t a combination of extras from Shameless and Mad Max, but decent, law-abiding people, many of them actually in work, trying their best to honestly pay their way in a society where inflation and income inequality have made it impossible to do so without state help. Meanwhile, that same state is giving concession after concession to the real ‘entitled parasites’ – corporations and individuals so wealthy that they can afford to shirk their fair share of paying for the country they live in. Tax breaks, HMRC negotiations and non-dom status are of course condemned by Cameron and Osbourne – but only in the case of certain people. Jimmy Carr might be “morally wrong”, but strangely the same judgement doesn’t apply to the Conservative front bench and their friends in the City.

Contrary to the fevered beliefs of many on the left, Conservatives aren’t actually ‘evil’. Nobody sees themselves in that way. They honestly believe they’re doing the right thing, and that by removing state intervention and allowing ‘the market’ to dictate terms they can sort out society’s problems. To some extent, they may even be right. The problem for me is that, even if it works, they’re ignoring the inevitable human suffering and carnage it will cause before it does.

Of course, Cameron’s draconian welfare proposals aren’t actually policy. At least, not yet. The obvious political motivation was to throw a few bones in the direction of his party’s more extreme back benchers, ahead of what’s liable to be a fraught debate about Lords reform this week. Reading the news articles about this, even the right wing press don’t seem to think it’s a good idea – the below the line comments on even the Telegraph and the Mail seem to be generally damning of it. But there’s always a few free market, state-dismantling fanatics who advocate the complete abdication of any responsibility to society as a whole. To them I say – read the above (or perhaps HG Wells’ The Time Machine) – and be careful what you wish for. Because (HYPERBOLE ALERT) treat the poor badly enough and they will eat you.

Morlocks

It’s my party, and you can buy it if you want to…

CameronDementia

We’re barely into a new week, and already the Conservative Party is embroiled in yet another controversy about being the party paid for and answering to the super-rich. After the passage of the free-market bonanza NHS bill, then the “fuck the poor” spectacle of a Budget that considered cutting taxes for the wealthy its most important priority, now it seems that if you give the Conservatives £250,000 or more, you get to have dinner with David Cameron and tell him what to do.

Seemingly keen to hasten their electoral demise by rushing headlong to the state of sleaze and scandal it took them years to reach by 1997, it seems the Conservatives have been allowing party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas to promise that every donor of £250,000 or more will have a private dinner with Cameron at the Number 10 flat. This, it was heavily implied, would allow such donors a significant input into party policy – suddenly the reasons for the cutting of the top tax rate seem clearer.

Cameron, of course, said he’d known nothing about this (to quote Christine Keeler, “well, he would, wouldn’t he?”). In the wake of a Sunday Times video clearly showing Cruddas making this offer, the hapless co-treasurer instantly resigned, without the usual days of Cameron offering his “full support”. Clearly, even for the Tories, this wasn’t going to be one they could brazen their way out of.

Not that they’re not trying. Cameron seemed to immediately withdraw from public view, leaving hopeless Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to vainly defend Cruddas’ actions on Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Commons. Maude was onto rather a sticky wicket trying to defend a policy that everyone had suspected existed, but for which there had previously been no proof. “But,” protested Maude, “it’s not like this is new. Everyone knows you can buy the Conservative Party!”

OK, those weren’t his precise words, but that’s more or less what he was saying. And do you know what? He’s actually right. A quick glance at the Conservative Party webpage concerning donations reveals exactly what level of access you can get, and for how much.

  • £50 a month gets you the title of ‘Party Patron’ and, presumably, a glowing sense of well-being.
  • £250 annually (less money, oddly) gets you into ‘Fastrack’ (I like my racks fast), where you meet “like-minded supporters of the Party” at “social events”.
  • £2000 annually gets you into the anachronistically named ‘Team 2000’, and here things start to look decidedly fishy. These guys are, apparently, “The principal group of donors who support and market the Party’s policies in Government, by hearing them first hand from the Leader and key Conservative politicians through a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion”.
  • £2500 gets you into the ‘City and Entrepreneurs’ forum, at which you have “discussions… in the West End”. On what, I wonder?
  • £5000 gets you into the ‘Front Bench Club’, and you get to “debate with MPs at a series of political lunches”. Presumably without ever telling them that your donations will stop if they don’t do what you want.
  • £10,000 gets you into the ‘Renaissance Forum’, at which you “enjoy dinners and political debate with eminent speakers from the world of business and politics”. “Debate” as in “bribery”?
  • £25,0000 gets you into the ‘Treasurers’ Group, at which you will be “invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”. Hmmm…
  • And lastly, for this list, £50,000 gets you into the ‘Leader’s Group’, in which you can look forward to being “invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”.

The price list stops there, but it’s reasonable to assume that, just as Cruddas said, increasingly high donations will get you increasingly exclusive access (for a couple of amusing suggestions as to what exactly, check out Millennium Dome’s blog). So, just as Maude says, this was hardly a secret. Well, maybe this level was, but it was easy enough to work out from what they’d actually put in the public domain.

Thus it was that a shaky looking David Cameron finally emerged from the shadows this lunchtime for a previously booked gig he couldn’t duck out of – an address to the Alzheimer’s Society on increased dementia funding. The sight of him delivering his excuses beneath a banner advertising the society may not have pleased them (and invites some tasteless jokes which I’ll refrain from here), as he relegated their cause to second place after addressing the whole wretched ‘corruption’ issue.

He insisted that all this was news to him, but admitted that there had been private dinners with some high flown donors. It was all above board, he insisted, and there was no question of impropriety or undue influence on government policy. That’s all right then. Presumably these billionaires just wanted the undoubted delight of the Camerons’ company, and in no way did the fact of their massively high donations hang over the dinner like a looming sense of obligation.

Still, Cameron promised to publish the details of all these dinners – “something no Prime Minister has ever done before”. It’s a revealing list of plutocrats, hedge fund managers and financial brokers, all of whom, given their net worth, presumably donated significantly more than £250,000 each to the Party. Still, I’m sure the possibility of displeasing those who financially prop up his party by disagreeing with their aims never once entered into our incorruptible Prime Minister’s head.

And with that, he promised an internal investigation into the affair and proceeded to lifelessly deliver his planned speech on dementia. Afterwards, he slunk off without taking any questions from the assembled journos, and is conveniently absent from Prime Minister’s Questions at the House for the next few weeks, leaving his whipping boy Nick Clegg to take the flak. Being for once blameless, Clegg could have a lot of fun at his master’s expense here – I wonder if he’ll have the nerve?

Labour, of course, leapt on the revelations with glee. Ed Miliband, with the air of a school debating society captain who’s won a petty victory, fumed that it was a bit mad to have an internal Tory party investigation into allegations of corruption into the Conservative Party. In this he has a point. The old “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” question could debatably apply to any political party, but it’s certainly pertinent when the party in question is actually in government and passing legislation. Still, when the calls for an independent inquiry are led by “cash for peerages” Labour Lord Levy, the words “pot” “kettle” and “black” instantly leap to mind.

Because it’s not like Labour have never done this kind of thing. Apart from Levy, and the odd coincidence that big Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone was exempted from the ban on tobacco advertising for his Formula 1 hobby, the Labour website too lists ‘benefits’ for their donors. Admittedly, their menu is rather more modestly priced, and tops off with the exciting sounding ‘Thousand Club’ which confusingly costs £1200 to join. This doesn’t get you an intimate dinner with Ed Miliband, in the unlikely event that you should desire such a thing, merely “exclusive events” and a free pass to the Party Conference, the Glastonbury for Labour supporters. But it’s the same kind of thing as the Tories. And besides, Labour don’t need big donations – they get those already from the Trade Unions.

Which brings us to the whole vexed question of party funding, and how it influences policy. It’s an odd coincidence that in a recent Deputy Prime Minster’s Questions, Clegg was called on to answer what was being done about the undue influence of unaccounted for lobbyists on each party; at the time, I caught myself thinking, doesn’t that include all those funding donors, like the unions funding Labour and the City providing more than half the funding for the Conservatives?

With the issue thrown so thoroughly into the public eye, Cameron fell back on some old policies, stating that donations to parties should be capped at £50,000 annually. Now, there is some merit to the idea that donations should be capped, to prevent the donors effectively ‘buying’ their own compliant government (as seems to be the case in the United States). But £50,000? That’s still £250,000 over a five year Parliament. Which is quite a lot.

No party (except maybe the Lib Dems) has been keen to really address the issue of party funding, for the obvious reason that any reform to the present system would stand to lose them quite a bit of money. As it stands, the Labour Party is largely funded by huge Trade Union donations, and the Conservative Party by City firms and plutocrats. As a result, each is obliged to take a stand on fairly narrow, sectional viewpoints. This is actually the very antithesis of democracy and the embodiment of corrupt self-interest, but because it’s such a longstanding arrangement, few people question it any more.

Not coincidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Tories tend to do well despite representing, basically, businesses and the rich. They have a massive financial advantage that allows them to sweep in with a barrage of donor-funded publicity in any constituency where they might be threatened. Labour have the wherewithal to stage at least something of a fight back, but the Lib Dems, whose funding is far more modest, have never had a chance. With a much more limited supply of financial resources, they’ve had to concentrate on seats they have a good chance of winning, and simply abandon the rest as a lost cause. And they’re more leery than their counterparts of large donors, after their one big contributor, Michael Brown, turned out not to actually own all the money he gave to them.

This is clearly a corrupt state of affairs – but when the leading parties are the beneficiaries, why would they challenge it? But interestingly, a 15 month inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended some pretty sweeping reforms when they reported last November. The report recommended a much lower cap of £10,000 per donor, which would bring things down to a much more level playing field for all three major parties. Of course, this wouldn’t go far to funding a big political operation for any of them. Which is why the report proposes using £23million of state (read ‘taxpayer’) money to make up the shortfall, and give all three major parties the same amount of money to deal with. Hey presto – at a stroke, the Tories would be stripped of their City-funded financial advantage, Labour wouldn’t have to be a slave to the unions, and the Lib Dems might approach something like credibility in comparison.

There are moral and pragmatic arguments against this – why should the taxpayer fund political campaigning (particularly when austerity is cutting real incomes left, right and centre), and how could this get voted through when the two largest parties stand to lose advantages because of it? As a result, we’re unlikely to see anything like this happen, which is sad, because as the Committee said, it would be “ the only safe way to remove big money from party funding”, and claw something like democracy back from vested interests who can currently buy representation in ways the ordinary voter can only dream of.

But on the flipside, even with austerity, this amounts to a contribution of 50p annually for each taxpayer. And £23million may sound like a lot, but it’s pocket change compared to what’s being slashed from the NHS and the benefit system while billionaires are getting tax cuts. Isn’t it a price worth paying to buy back your representation from self-interested billionaires and trade union demagogues? With the issue certain to be debated, this report is bound to be called on – by the Lib Dems if nobody else, since they have least to lose. That’s assuming they’ve paid the requisite £250,000 to get the Prime Minister to listen…

A tax is the best form of offence

One of the ‘joys’ of living through an ongoing economic crisis is that suddenly, everyone is an armchair economic pundit. Forget Robert Peston – you’ll hear a hugely diverse (often misinformed) range of opinion on this arcane, complex and, quite frankly, dull topic these days in every pub in the land. Not to mention a spectrum of political viewpoints all over the internet.

This week, the armchair economic pundits have mostly been talking about George Osborne’s typically divisive 2012 Budget. According to whose take you read, it’s a terrible budget, or a great budget, or an unmemorable budget, or an attack on the poor, or a much-needed shot in the arm for the business sector. As an armchair pundit myself, what I see in this Budget is a politically incompetent attempt to drive through more of the increasingly hardline Conservative ideology that’s been a signature of most Coalition policies since the Conservatives and their junior partners (or “human shields” – thanks for that one, Owen Jones) the Lib Dems got into power.

Poor little rich boys

CameronOsborne

Osborne called it “a Budget to reward hard work” in his Commons statement, but a not particularly close look is needed to tell that this only applies to very well-paid hard work. Key to this is the much pre-publicised dropping of the top, 50%, tax rate for very high earners to 45%. No amount of (not especially well-done) spin can disguise the fact that this is, essentially, a bonanza tax cut for the very rich, who in these straitened times are  precisely the ones who need a tax cut least.

This is standard Conservative ideology. Osborne claims in one breath that it will remove a disincentive for those ‘wealth creators’ to shift their businesses to the UK, while in the next he says that the tax take from said ‘wealth creators’ will rise by five times due to other measures contained in the Budget. Well, which is it, George? If the 50% tax rate was putting them off coming here, how will other means of raking in even more money not do the same thing?

Shifting to another tack, the Chancellor and the Treasury point to a not-especially reliable ‘Laffer curve’ showing that this higher rate of tax actually decreases the overall tax take from the very rich. This, according to the Treasury, is because when the tax rate is too high, the rich find increasingly more ways to avoid paying it. Therefore, the theory runs, you’ll take in more tax at a lower rate, because those upstandingly moral wealthy people will happily pay all they owe, if that amount is generally lower.

This is an interesting perspective. “We can’t make the law work,” says the Chancellor, “so we’ll remove that law”. Interestingly, this is one of the most persuasive arguments to abandon the utterly ineffective prohibition of drugs; but somehow the same chain of logic isn’t applied there. It would be more in keeping with the government’s hardline stance on the drug laws (not to mention with Osborne’s stated aims on tax avoidance) to make more strenuous efforts to make sure the law is followed, not only to the letter but also to the spirit. But then that wouldn’t win all that goodwill from the very rich people who form a core part of the Tory voter base (not to mention donating about half of its party funds).

Laffer curves are a very subjective thing. The idea that the ‘peak’ tax rate after which revenue from taxation begins to decrease is at exactly 45%, or 50% for that matter, is mathematically simplistic. It’s also entirely theoretical until long term, reliable data has been gathered at varying tax points to make the comparison.

But Osborne claims to have this data. He points to the revenue gained from the 50% rate as being far less than the £3billion Labour claimed it would net when they introduced it in 2010 – less than a third of that, apparently. What he neglected to mention (but must surely be aware of) is that there is only data from the first full year of the tax. And because Labour gave a nice long term warning that the tax rise was going to be happening, many of those who would be affected chose to pay themselves dividends early, to avoid the new rate.

This had two big effects – it made the tax revenue for Labour’s last year in power artificially high (not that that could save them electorally), and made the first year’s takings at the new rate artificially low. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, had the new rate been maintained long enough, it might have brought in far more. And that’s presumably including the anticipated avoidance. If Osborne’s promised crackdown on tax avoidance happens, who knows, it could have brought in even more.

No, none of the Chancellor’s justifications for this tax cut being pragmatically and morally the right thing to do hold any water at all. Perhaps if they had someone with the skill of Alastair Campbell doing their spin, they might have. But they don’t, and this looks like exactly what it is – naked Conservative ideology, which clings to their traditional idea that the rich deserve to keep their hoarded wealth at the expense of the poor.

As if to prove this, Osborne also announced a further ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud. So, if the poor (even the tiny fraction of them whose claims are fraudulent) flout the law, they must be severely punished. If the rich flout the law, that must mean the law is inconvenient and should be removed. Think about the message that sends – far from ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’, the current Cabinet seem intent on raising the age old spectre of ‘the Nasty Party’ – now with added Nastiness. Electorally this may not be a wise plan.

Gran, can you spare £10 billion?

GrannyBoris

And neither are the methods being used to make up the predicted shortfall. Most prominent among these, and causing howls of outrage among even the right wing press, is the so-called ‘Granny Tax’ – an apparent £10 billion tax raid on the pensions of the elderly.

This is not big or clever politically. The Chancellor is always seen as ‘Mr Nasty’; he’s the killjoy that makes it more expensive to drink, smoke, or drive your car. But mugging the elderly to give more money to the hyper-rich, that’s a new low. What next, raising tax revenue by stealing candy from babies?

Again, this could have been handled better with a little thought about the message. It’s actually tied in to the Lib Dems’ much vaunted increase in the tax free personal allowance – their manifesto pledge was that, in time, this would be raised to £10,000, benefitting everyone, but particularly low earners. A big step was taken towards that in the Budget, with the threshold being raised quite considerably to £9205.

There’s a rather nasty viewpoint that says pensioners have had it too easy during the savage cutting back of austerity, and it’s time for them to pay their fair share. That’s tied in to jealousy, plain and simple – the elderly have managed to buy houses and get good pensions – things that are rapidly becoming impossible today. So why should they get the nice stuff by virtue of having lived in easier times? Let’s drag them down to the same low standards the rest of us have to put up with!

Put like that, it actually seems a most un-Conservative policy – the elderly have worked hard for their assets, and surely standard Tory mantra would be that they should keep every penny. But this is New Conservatism, steeped in class prejudice that would make Thatcher (a grammar school girl) blanch with horror. What Osborne is doing will, predictably, only affect lower ‘earning’ pensioners. Their tax-free threshold, which normally rises with inflation, will be frozen at £10,500 for the foreseeable future. New pensioners will have it even worse – their threshold will be stuck at £9205. Not coincidentally, the same as the new tax free threshold for working people.

So the logical – and less politically explosive – thing to have done would be to make clear that it was this parity they were trying to achieve, and juggle both tax free thresholds until they were equal. Yes, some pensioners would lose out, but less than with what’s actually happening. And there might be some justification in that anyway, if spun right – which it wasn’t. It’s hard to fathom the reason for any experienced politician to handle it this way – it’s like Osborne’s actually trying to throw away the next election.

Corporation’s what you need

Weyland-Yutani_Corp._Logo

Perhaps he was hoping to use it to disguise yet more tax relief for large corporations – being panned for mugging the elderly might be the lesser of two evils compared to pandering to those all-purpose bad guys of unrestrained capitalism. In his quest to bring the level of Corporation Tax – on corporate profits – down from 28% to 22% (lower than almost every developed country), the Chancellor made another leap for glory by shifting it down to 24%.

On top of that, there’s an arcane rule about shifting corporate money from one tax region to another. If a UK-based company shifts profits from, say, Ghana to Switzerland, it currently has to pay the Treasury the standard corporate tax rate on the money made by doing so. Well, guess what? Not any more! Perhaps George was willing to take the hit on mugging grannies to keep that little wheeze from becoming more widely known.

This, of course, fits in with the Tory mantra that private industry will make everything better. Bring down the burden of corporate tax, the theory runs, and businesses will flock to the UK, bringing all that lovely money with them. Except, of course, they won’t be giving any of it to the state, because in Tory-world, only the free market can handle money responsibly.

This ignores two fairly well-proven things. Firstly, corporations exist to make as much money as possible. That’s their very raison d’etre. Do you really think they won’t still attempt to hoard as much of it as possible? And if they do, how will that help the economy? And secondly, it’s hard for a business to make any money in a consumer economy where the consumers have no money to spend – largely because they’re losing it all in tax to fund corporate tax breaks.

The fate of the Nice Ones

OsborneCable

But what about the Lib Dems, and their much-claimed moderating influence on the ruthless, money-hungry class warriors of the Conservatives? Nick Clegg has been lamely pointing to a few measures that could, on the surface, look ‘nice’. Chief among these is the raise to the personal tax free threshold, which leaped much closer to the target figure of £10,000 by going up to £9205. That’s got to be a step in the right direction, surely?

Well, sorry Nick, but it’s not as good as it looks. For a start, the raising of the tax free threshold is accompanied by a lowering of the threshold for the higher, 40% rate – this has been frozen and will fall to £41,500 by 2014, meaning that more and more people will find their tax bills getting higher. Also, it doesn’t do much to help the truly poor, who may be below that threshold already.

And this policy won’t do much for the low earners it lifts out of tax either, because of a nifty little benefit technicality pointed out by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. If you’re in that low-income bracket, chances are you’ll be claiming Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. Well, these benefits taper off the more you earn, and here’s the thing – that’s net earnings, ie after tax. So while the new thresholds give £220 with one hand, the increased earnings mean that they take £187 right back. Leaving those low income households with the princely extra sum of £33 a year. Put like that, it doesn’t seem quite so generous, does it Nick?

OK then, how about the other measures, the ones that Simon Hughes claims make “the rich pay their fair share”, and Cameron says will bring in five times the revenue of the 50% tax rate? There are a couple of these, and on first glance they look quite good. Unfortunately, they’re basically fudged versions of the much more effective mansion tax originally proposed by Vince Cable, who shiftily tried to make them look good on last night’s Question Time with the haunted look of Dr Faustus discovering that his deal with Mephistopheles wasn’t as good as it looked.

These measures are to do with stamp duty, and initially appear to be a creditable attempt to tax assets rather than earnings – because they’re, sort of, a tax on property. Henceforth, stamp duty on properties worth over £2million will rise from 5% to 7%, but even more significantly, for properties bought by the tax dodging wheeze of using shell companies rather than individuals, it will go up to a whopping 15%. And there’ll be an annual duty on residential properties already owned by shell companies (though the rate for it has yet to be determined).

While this “mini mansion tax” is nice, the other rises have one basic flaw – they depend on the property actually being sold. It seems sheer madness to make confident estimates of the money you’ll make from property transactions, as there’s no guarantee of them happening at any predictable level. Hell, what if the rate of property purchase drops because of this measure? Where will the money come from then? Well, just maybe from the further £10 billion to be slashed from the welfare budget – at precisely the time more and more people are falling into poverty.

Nick Clegg is shiftily trying to claim that these measures constitute the ‘tycoon tax’ he so unexpectedly called for at the recent Lib Dem conference; despite the fact that what he outlined sounded nothing like this. He’s also saying that a proposed cap on tax relief fits the description (a good policy, nonetheless).

But I have to wonder what backroom deals were already in place with the Tories before he made that announcement. The Lib Dems attempts to spin this Budget as being anything less than naked Conservative ideology completely at odds with their own is sadly lacking here. Of course, the Conservatives’ spin isn’t too great either. The difference is that everyone expects the Tories to be nasty, even if they may have overreached themselves this time. Once again, though, I think we expected better of the Lib Dems. They’re beginning to appear almost powerless in the Coalition, and their leader’s constant attempts to defend extremely right wing policies are beginning to make him personally look like Vidkun Quisling.

Nothing in the world can stop them now?

Lib Dems aside, this should still be electoral suicide even for the Tories. Well, if they had any sort of worthwhile opposition, anyway.

Labour seemed to do all right out of the Budget. This is largely because opposing Budgets is easy, and opposing one this nasty was child’s play – even for the charisma vacuum that is Ed Miliband. But Labour still seem to have no coherent idea of what they would do instead. Vague promises are floated one week, then discarded the next. And the best their Shadow Chancellor can come up with is that he’d do more or less the same things – just more slowly.

There are three years to go before the next election, which might give both Labour and the Lib Dems the chance to shape themselves up into some kind of credible opposition to the Tories. Let’s hope so. Because right now, the fact that the Tories have the sheer gall to put through a Budget this mercenary and selfish seems to indicate that they think no-one can challenge them. And on the present evidence, they may well be right.