Is it the end for Spectre? Or a new beginning?

I almost tingled with excitement to see the first full length trailer for Spectre.

It looks awesome.

It’s being directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall fame (along with American Beauty and Jarhead). And it includes many of Skyfall’s key characters. Many people regarded Skyfall as the best Bond movie ever made. I’ll stay clear of such hyberbole. It was excellent, but there are so many top 007 escapades that’s not easy to name a winner. In any case it’s hard to weigh up the incredible story of From Russia with Love (a Fleming faithful) or the innovations of Goldfinger with the technical mastery of the Craig-era movies.

Like many of the Bond movies, Skyfall was a standalone affair. It needs little context beyond a sprinkle of awareness of the series as a whole. And it’s pretty conclusive – there’s no cliffhanger. In general, that’s how they should be. Each movie stands alone as a contemporaneous reflection of the real world, in the James Bond universe.

A central plot theme of Skyfall involved data theft and the leaking of MI6 agent details. Against the backdrop of Wikileaks, this was very current in 2012, and typical of the series. Consider, for example, the Cold War themes of the 1960s, the global energy crisis referenced in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the Space Shuttles in Moonraker (1979), and 007’s short-lived alliance with the Afghan Mujahedin in The Living Daylights (1987).

Oh how the world has changed; and yet it hasn’t.

Much as I enjoyed Skyfall, three things bothered me.

  1. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace naturally fell together as the first two parts of a potential trilogy. The latter movie resolved some personal issues for Bond, but left open the fate of the Quantum outfit. This is a far-reaching organisation that has “people everywhere” – according to the excellent Mr White, who’s still at large. I was disappointed not to see this storyline carried forward in Skyfall.
  2. Casino Royale & Quantum of Solace portrayed a young Bond at the beginning of his 007 career. Skyfall seems to portray a very different character, tired and disillusioned. It’s excused because Bond takes a stray bullet on the orders of M in the opening sequence, and goes dark for a while (a few months?) But, for me, the character leap goes too far in a single movie.
  3. There is still no gun barrel sequence right at the top. This was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall. Many of you may find this objection absurd, but for this Bond fan the opening tradition (born in 1962) is so important and builds audience tension ahead of the first scene.

Spectre cannot rewind the clock to fix my character development concerns in Skyfall, and whether it opens with the gun barrel sequence remains to be seen. But I’m pleased to see Mr White in the trailer. We haven’t seen enough of him, and he has the makings of a top henchman, delightfully urbane. Mr White’s presence at least implies that the Quantum storyline is not – entirely – abandoned. But Quantum falls short of the kudos, allure and history of Spectre – the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge & Extortion.

In a welcome throwback to the Spectre era, the trailer brings in some of the theme music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). It’s a nice touch. And there are plenty of other back references to classic Bond movies, as the Radio Times notes.

The big question for me is this: Does Spectre have a future after its rebirth in October, or will Daniel Craig’s Bond bring the the nefarious organisation to demise?

The answer may depend on whether Daniel Craig will be back for another installment before he hands in his Walther PPK and licence to kill.

Spectre launches in the UK alongside the official premiere on Monday 26th October.

How much is Greece’s debt worth?

We know Greece owes about €320bn – that’s a debt-to-GDP ratio of 180%.

The UK’s equivalent debt-to-GDP ratio is ‘just’ 80%.

But how much is Greece’s debt worth?

We know it must be worth less than €320bn, given that there is, let’s say, considerable doubt over whether it can be repaid in full.

If you lend me £100, you could probably price that debt to anyone who knows me at somewhere in the region of £99. I’d promise to pay it back, but there’s always a small chance I’d die, forget or run out of cash. Invariably debts tend to be sold on for less than the original lender thought they were worth, particularly where the debtor is considered a bad risk.

Indeed, once upon a time Greece’s debts were held by private banks who decided it was worth selling them at a significant discount to the ECB and euro-area central banks. Eurozone nation states were content with the deal because it protected the banks from their exposure to such a risky debtor.

Greece also owes money to the IMF (the most senior lender), to private investors, and to the European Financial Stability Facility (a special fund established to address the EU sovereign debt crisis).

The general consensus seems to be that Greece’s creditors are unlikely to be repaid in full. Given the risk of default, no doubt they are keen to establish how much the debt is currently worth. But to strike a workable deal, the challenges are myriad:

  • IMF rules prevent restructuring of debt.
  • EU rules prevent the ECB granting a voluntary haircut on Greece’s existing obligations – it would close the tap on any further funding.
  • Electorates across Europe would not tolerate a haircut in any case.
  • Quite apart from the cost to taxpayers, it would also be politically untenable to sell the debt on to other creditors at a discount, unless Greece had left the Eurozone – by this stage Greece would most likely have defaulted and its remaining debt would be worth even less.
  • If Greece is given special treatment, other PIGS nations (Portugal, Italy, Spain) would hope and argue for the same.
  • Private investors will not be inclined to write off any of their own debts unless the transnational creditors agree to absorb some losses first.

But make no mistake… while Greece may own £320bn, the debt is not worth that to its creditors. It’s worth considerably more than I could afford to pay for it, and considerably less than Greece can afford to repay.

So far, a deal to reduce Greece’s debt obligations looks untenable, despite the fact few people – least of all in the Greek government – seem to think it can meet those obligations. But unless such a deal is found, then default and Grexit looks increasingly likely.

Greece’s populist government, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party, wants to stay in the eurozone. At the same time it wants to break free from some of the most onerous obligations imposed by its eurozone creditors. It seems unlikely it can do both. At some point it should clarify the options and put them to the people in a referendum.

In the birthplace of democracy, let the people decide how to proceed.

10 challenges facing David Cameron’s new government

If the last five years were about the economy and the public finances (two separate issues, but intrinsically linked), the next five will be about the state of our nation.

The last five years were dominated by tough choices. The next five will be dominated by intellectually difficult decisions.

Upon negotiating his coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats in the days following the 2010 General Election, David Cameron secured himself a Commons majority of 76. Now he has the luxury of leading a Conservative-majority government – but his Commons majority is just 12. Such a majority offers little leeway, particularly given some of the awkward challenges facing the Government over the years ahead.

It would take just six of Mr Cameron’s MPs to rebel in a key vote to diminish his majority to nil. And majorities change over time. People die, or resign as MPs, bringing risky by-elections. Other MPs may cross the floor of the House, though recent precedent (Carswell & Reckless) suggests MPs so doing may be inclined to submit themselves to a by-election.

John Major’s working majority in 1992 was 21. By the time Parliament was dissolved in 1997, Mr Major’s Commons majority was precisely zero. Before he steps down as PM – he says he’ll serve a full term – Mr Cameron could well preside over a minority Government.

Aside from simply holding itself together, what challenges does the new Government face in the years ahead? Some of them are born of the Conservative Manifesto, and others are natural challenges that time will bring.

In no particular order…

1. Our relationship with the European Union

David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. There is no reason to suppose this will not happen – as promised – by 2017. The vast majority of his party (including many EU-sceptics*) are in favour, and some Labour MPs would also support such a referendum. In the meantime, David Cameron wants to negotiate a more favourable relationship between Britain and the EU. This could include reforming the EU itself.

I stand ready to work with you to strike a fair deal for the United Kingdom in the EU and look forward to your ideas and proposals in this regard.

Jean-Claude Juncker
President of the European Commission
8 May

The European Union is in great need of reform, but securing the change sufficient to mollify the British public in 2017 will not be easy.

For a thorough examination of the merits or otherwise of ‘Brexit’, check out David Charter’s book – “Europe: In or Out” – balanced and brilliant.

* I prefer the word ‘EU-sceptics’ because ‘Euro-sceptics’ is not a good fit. Most sceptics’ beef seems to be with the EU as an institution, and not with Europe.

2. Scotland’s place in the Union

As agreed following the independence referendum, further power needs to flow towards Scotland. The nation now has 56 SNP MPs of 59 in total. The others are merely one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Conservative. In 2010, just 6 SNP MPs were elected. The sea change, almost wiping out the other parties in Scotland is likened to a tsunami.

If the UK is to remain intact, devolving further power to Scotland is only the beginning of an challenging healing process. Nowhere is that healing more needed than within Scotland itself where brothers and sisters, fathers and sons are pitted against each other in their vision for the future.

My friend Pete has suggested that David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon now have a responsibility to model effective cooperation with each other in the years ahead. Fervent disagreement need not mean enmity.

3. “English votes for English laws”

It’s in quotes because it’s David Cameron’s formulation. But by 2020, we will be a generation on from the introduction of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the West Lothian Question is yet to be answered.

The question was first posed in 1977 (the year Star Wars was released) by Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for the constituency in question. He wondered about the anomaly of a system in which he (as a Scottish MP) could vote on issues pertaining only to England, while he could not vote on the same issues pertaining to his own constituents.

With the prospect of even more power flowing north to Scotland, and likely the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, English voters are increasingly disenfranchised on some issues. The issue will only become even more pressing if the next government relies on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MPs to manage its domestic agenda in England.

Precisely how to answer the West Lothian Question is the challenge. Different answers seem to favour different parties, but then that is the nature of devolution. Without doubt, the question must be put to bed.

4. A divided nation

The Conservatives have an overall majority. But they must govern alone with a majority of just 12 over Her Majesty’s Opposition. And although the Tories increased their share of the vote (ever so slightly) to 36.9%, opposition to the Tories amongst the remaining 63.1% is often quite intense, to the point where it’s little wonder so many Tories are ‘shy’.

As we conduct this vital work, we must ensure that we bring our country together.

As I said in the small hours of this morning: we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country from north to south, from east to west, and indeed it means rebalancing our economy, building that northern powerhouse.

David Cameron, victory speech, 8 May 2015

For the first time since 1832, a different party topped the polls in each of the UK’s four nations: the Conservatives in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, the DUP in Northern Ireland. Each nation has its own unique challenges, and the devolved administrations can be held only partly responsible for meeting them.

The Government needs to demonstrate it recognises the disparity between the four nations, and also the huge variance inside each nation. A rebalancing of the economy, particularly the private sector, to struggling areas is crucial. George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda is an important step forward in this regard. A success story here should help the Tories politically, as it would help the North of England economically.

One-nation Conservatism, if done properly, could be David Cameron’s attempt to fight Labour on its own territory – as boldly and as effectively as Blair raided the Tories’ turf 20 years ago.

Fraser Nelson, writing in The Telegraph, 9 May

Like Disraeli before him, David Cameron is a ‘one-nation Tory’. He has promised the Conservatives will “govern as a party of one nation”. Now he needs to get on and do it.

5. The Human Rights Act

The new Justice Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed the Government will scrap it, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. The HRA is controversial. Scrapping it would be equally controversial.

Few would argue with the core principles of the Human Rights Act, but there is concern about how it has sometimes been applied, giving undue comfort to foreign criminals facing deportation from the UK, or to others who have shown no mercy to their victims.

But until now, Britain has had great moral authority on matters of human rights on the world stage. How would that authority be damaged if we abandoned the HRA? Mr Gove should tread carefully.

6. Deal with the “housing crisis”

The free-market economist Andrew Lilico has argued that there is no UK “housing crisis”, but we certainly live in an era where home ownership is becoming unattainable for more and more people, many people live in overcrowded homes and, in some areas, there are long waiting lists for people hoping to access social housing.

Like many of the other issues on this list, I don’t know the answer to the housing challenge, but I spent several years on the board of a housing association, Poplar HARCA, in east London. I have seen the struggles of people living in overcrowded conditions, and of others in need waiting interminably for social housing.

The so-called bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy/under-occupancy penalty – delete as you prefer) is flawed, not least because many of those affected have been unable to downsize because of complex personal circumstances or the lack of availability of smaller homes. Despite the proliferation of the ‘bedroom tax’ expression, it is, in fact, not a ‘tax’ – but the financial impact on those affected is real. Many of them have had little leeway in their personal budgets to accommodate this penalty.

However, as I argued within Poplar HARCA a decade ago, there is a case for periodically reviewing people’s housing needs to free up social homes for people who need them and larger homes for growing families. Inevitably this points towards incentives for those with lesser needs to accept smaller homes or leave the social housing sector altogether. How to get this right? I do not know.

I am fortunate enough to be on the second rung of the so-called housing ladder. I am only here because other good fortune (along with a pinch of foresight and a ladle of hard work) helped me onto the first rung in 2002.

House prices have risen significantly. The home I bought 13 years ago is worth twice that today. As things stand, millions of millennials will struggle to get onto the housing ladder at all.

For those with secure tenure, London is becoming a polarised city – wealthy home-owners, and the poorest in social housing with lifetime tenure. Many others are renting on short contracts paying more than a mortgage for a home they will never own and considerably more than social rent for a home they could be turfed out of in 12 months.

I don’t want to see a housing crash, nor do I want to see onerous burdens (such as rent controls) imposed on private landlords. I am nervous about the special assistance offered to first-time buyers that merely serves to stoke demand and push up prices further.

Evidently we need more homes across the country, but particularly in certain areas. All sorts of excuses have been offered by successive governments about the lack of house-building. Lack of funding, planning logjams and land-banking are all blamed.

Whether or not the government itself should building new homes is academic. But by 2020, it ought to be able to laud a million or more new homes built under its watch.

7. The relationship between work and welfare

Iain Duncan Smith is widely seen as a reforming Work and Pensions Secretary, particularly for his work on welfare (also in his brief). The relationship between work and welfare is certainly in need of reform though it is safe to say Mr Duncan Smith’s efforts have not been without controversy, stirring up discontent both amongst some of his own Conservative colleagues and probably most of his Labour opponents – for different reasons.

The Coalition Government oversaw 1.9 million more jobs during its term of office, and the Conservative Government pledges a further 2 million over the next five years. It needs to address the critique that many of the jobs are born of zero-hours contracts. Such contracts have been much-maligned, and while they are just right for many workers, they clearly offer too much uncertainty and too little work for many other workers.

The last government tried to simplify the welfare payments mechanism through the Universal Credit. There is clearly more to do on this. Furthermore, the welfare trap must be abolished. The system should be fair to those who cannot work whilst acting as an incentive to those who can. David Cameron has said work is the best route out of poverty. This may be true, but many workers enjoy little or no real benefit for every extra hour at work.

Finally, the Conservative Party promised in its manifesto to cut a further £12 billion from welfare (excluding pensions) to help meet other spending priorities. No indication has been given thus far as to how this might be achieved. It has been suggested that this policy was designed purely to be abandoned in coalition negotiations. With an overall majority, David Cameron has promised the manifesto will be implemented in full. But on this pledge, his Government should tread carefully. The social and political consequences of this cut could be severe.

8. Airport capacity in the South East of England

The Airports Commission has said there is a need for an additional runway in the South East by 2030. It has shortlisted three options: two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick.

The overall plan is politically controversial.

A prominent west London Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, would resign his seat if one of the Heathrow plans is approved. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, now an attendee of David Cameron’s political cabinets, is opposed to all the shortlisted options, preferring his own ‘Boris Island’ proposal, east of London.

Some environmentalists say no expansion is needed, and that the environmental cost of increased air traffic outweighs the economic benefits. I have some sympathy with this view. While current trends suggest the extra capacity is necessary, we may be in quite a different world by 2030, with relatively less need for business travel than today. But I am concerned that this assumption could be risky in an increasingly globalised and competitive business environment..

This government will need to decide how to proceed.

9. The future of the BBC

John Whittingdale was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the post-election reshuffle. The Telegraph’s immediate response:

Mr Whittingdale is an opponent of the TV Licence, from which the BBC draws the vast majority of its income. However, as chairman, recently, of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he seems to accept that there is “no realistic alternative to the licence fee” in the short term.

I have my own concerns about the licence fee:

  • It is like a regressive tax, insofar as the poor pay a higher proportion of their income towards it than the rich.
  • It is increasingly unfit for the current era because more and more consumers primarily use PCs and other media devices to access on demand content, avoiding the burden of the TV Licence altogether.

As a BBC staffer, I am concerned about any threat to its funding, but I am a big supporter of its commercial operations, as a former producer with BBC World News, our international commercial news TV channel. I am certainly concerned about a government ‘at war’ with my employer, though I believe there might be some hyperbole here.

The BBC’s charter is next up for renewal next year. The Government and the BBC will need to work carefully together to secure the organisation’s future.

10. Taxation, spending and the deficit

George Osborne has promised to eliminate the deficit by 2020.

His party has promised to ring-fence the NHS budget, increasing it in real terms every year and by a minimum of £8 billion in real terms over the lifetime of the parliament. It has also promised to maintain its International Development budget at 0.7% of GDP, which probably means a real terms growth year on year. And there is pressure on the Prime Minister to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP (a Nato obligation).

Last month, David Cameron promised a law “guaranteeing no rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020”.

I am a member of what Ed Miliband might have called the ‘squeezed middle’. I have what might ordinarily be seen as a good salary. I pay tax at the higher rate. But, as the main earner in a small nuclear family with a dependent toddler, I am a long way short of the skiing classes. We have a suburban bungalow in a nice area. Our car is a 1999 VW Golf which we are saving to replace. Holidays are aspirational and occasional rather than routine.

I am well aware I live in great comfort compared to many of my neighbours locally and further afield. But sometimes I wonder: was higher rate tax really intended for the likes of me? I think of all this and conclude:

  • It would be nice to pay less income tax (of course it would!)
  • It would be great to see VAT (a regressive tax) back at 17.5%
  • It would be politically untenable (and arguably economically unwise) for this particular Government to bleed the rich at 50% or more of their marginal income.

But now we have pledges to cut the deficit, increase spending (at least in certain areas) and a personal plea for tax cuts. This unholy alliance of aspirations is clearly impossible in a static economy. It might just be possible in a strong and growing economy.

The state of the nation may be the theme for the years ahead, but the economy and the public finances still matter!

Conclusion

These are my ten challenges for David Cameron’s new government. Meeting them all will not be easy, but failing to meet any of them would be a disappointment.

David Cameron has other especially political challenges ahead.

  • A constituency boundary review will be a necessary priority, to correct an historic electoral imbalance against the Conservatives.
  • Party management could be difficult, as it was for John Major.
  • And, given the reaction in some quarters to the Conservative victory, the detoxification of the party’s brand has some way to run.

For good or ill, Mr Cameron says he’ll step down by 2020.

Then – finally – he can chillax.

7 factors to weigh when you cast your vote

It’s decision-time – almost!

Polling day for the UK general election is in just a week – on 7 May.

But that’s too late to start thinking about your vote. There’s simply too much information to digest and cogitate on a single day to make a meaningful judgement. Instead I see it as a decision that should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.

If you want to shortcut that, The Sun has offered some helpful advice…

Here are two different papers, with a clear divergence in their editorial line.

  • If you vote in England or Wales, The Sun says vote Conservative.
  • If you vote in Scotland, The Sun says vote SNP.

But there appears to be a strategic alignment. In England & Wales, it’s about buoying up the Conservatives; in Scotland, it’s about sinking Labour. Others say it simply about backing winners, but I see it as backing David Cameron in his bid for a second term as PM.

You could do what the Sun says, or the Mirror, or the New Statesman, or the Spectator. But this is your decision. By all means listen to their arguments (see a wide range here), but make the decision yourself.

So, unless you’ve already voted by post (I have), what factors should you weigh when you cast your vote?

1. Policies

All the main parties have published their manifestos – the pledges on which they propose to govern. They tend to be long. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto is 160 pages, totalling 33,000 words. My university dissertation (about the Good Friday Agreement, since you wondered) was about 12,000 words.

They are probably too long. Partly with regard to this, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wonders why they’re all “so rubbish”Rob Ashton even explains why, with his analysis of the writing style of seven manifestos. Labour, he writes, had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors.

Famously, Lord Pearson – the UKIP leader at the time of the 2010 General Election – was unable to answer questions about his party’s manifesto. His successor, Nigel Farage hadn’t read it and later described it as ‘drivel’. Perhaps it wasn’t the only one, then or now.

I won’t be reading the manifestos. It’s simply too much work, and I’d rather leave the analysis to key bloggers and political correspondents. Sometimes the parties do their own point-scoring analysis of their opponents’ manifestos. This can be surprisingly insightful, particularly where a key policy issue is fudged or omitted entirely.

For all their faults, manifestos do reveal a something about a party’s plans for governance. Those plans are vulnerable, of course, but they are not to be ignored. For all the backlash the Lib Dems felt for their U-turn on tuition fees, each one of their five priority pledges of 2010 was honoured in part or in full (at least in theory). Once again they have five priority pledges that we might suppose they would bring to the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.

I think the temptation for some people is to feel they can make their voting decision based almost solely on weighing up the manifesto proposals. That process is worth something, and it’s interesting to check out which party you seem to most align with using web tools like Vote Match.

Making your decision based on policies alone is a purist approach. Perhaps too pure, in my view. Here are a few other perspectives to consider.

2. Values

Typically, it’s the values that underpin the policies. What values are important to you, and what priorities flow from those values?

A party’s values should be fairly constant over time. But sometimes the values of a party leader or his/her lieutenants do drift from the core values of the party – sometimes genuinely, and sometimes for reasons of expedience.

3. Reputation

This particularly applies to the party of an outgoing government, but it’s also a factor to consider with a party of recent governments. How did these governments perform during their hour in the sun?

This is why I’ve suggested your “decision should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.” But how far back do we go? The reputational question becomes less and less relevant as the candidates of today are able to divorce themselves from the governments of yesteryear. Candidates who were ministers in previous governments need to be held to higher scrutiny than candidates who were not even born during the period in question. That may apply for some Conservative candidates with regard to the Thatcher years; it will certainly apply to many Labour candidates with regard to the Callaghan year, and it applies to every Liberal Democrat candidate with regard to the Gladstone years.

4. Prime Minister

Who do you want to see as your Prime Minister? Or whose breast pocket do you want them to govern from?

The leadership question is a blend of other factors in this list, along with judgement and character. The more controversial question of whether they ‘look the part’ is really a wider one about charisma and authority, and it still matters. It helped Winston Churchill win the war by inspiring his country, and it continues to matter on the world stage.

5. Wider Cabinet

The process of government is a team effort, so it makes sense to assess the members of the team, particularly if you have a particular policy interest. Who’s likely to be the minister overseeing that policy?

6. Your candidates

Who are the key candidates in your constituency? Is one of them a friend, or someone you hold in high regard? It might persuade you to cast your vote for an unfavourable party. I confess to having voted for a party way outside my comfort zone in a local council election several years ago, because I knew the candidate was a good egg. He later defected!

Someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote to her local candidates, which included a Cabinet Minister, to ask where they stood on life issues (ie abortion, euthanasia, etc). She posted the minister’s response, in which he confirmed such issues would be subject to a free vote if it came to it – a party answer, not the personal answer requested. It was such a shame he declined to give a meaningful response. As my Twitter contact said, even if the minister disagreed with her, “I’d at least respect his honesty in informing me.”

It’s important to understand our local candidates, and often local hustings help with this.

7. Tactical voting

Ideally we make a simple decision on our preferred candidate and cast our vote accordingly. For many of us, that’s all there is to it:

  • In a two-way marginal (eg Conservative vs Labour), if you already wanted to vote Tory it’s a no-brainer. There is no tactical benefit to voting for another party.
  • If you are party loyal, or loyal to a friend who’s standing, you may decide to sacrifice tactical concerns to add to your preferred candidate’s vote tally – even if they are guaranteed to lose.
  • If you take a purist approach, the tactical benefits of voting outside your party loyalty are neither here nor there.

But there are many places where tactical considerations lead to some awkward choices. A few examples:

  • In Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg is under threat from Labour. Conservatives might vote for Clegg to prevent Labour winning another seat. Some of them might also feel that Mr Clegg would be a more favourable Lib Dem negotiating partner for the Conservatives than some of his colleagues.
  • In Brighton Pavillion, some Labour supporters might vote for the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. It was a three-way marginal in 2010. While Labour could still win the seat, some voters might feel Mrs Lucas has a better chance of locking out the Conservatives’ Clarence Mitchell.
  • In Conservative marginals, some UKIP supporters might consider voting Tory to lock out their more Europhile opponents.
  • In Scotland, some Conservatives might vote Labour to keep the SNP out, or Labour supporters might vote Lib Dem for the same end.

I suspect tactical voting will be a big deal at this election.

So there we have it. Seven factors to weigh when you cast your vote next week.

Weigh them carefully!

QTWTAIN – Has The Sun ditched Page 3?

It’s a question to which the answer is no.

Unlike some, I don’t think The Sun looks silly this morning. It’s great, if controversial, PR. It does seem to strike a big blow to it’s opponents, because it’s possibly now even more difficult for The Sun to back down than it was before.

But News UK looks somewhat ham-fisted in its corporate message control. The Times reported on Tuesday that:

The Sun will no longer feature topless models on page 3 after quietly dropping one of the most controversial traditions in British journalism.

The Sun and The Times are big rivals. I expect The Times has been played like the rest of us. The trouble is that The Times seems to have been used by The Sun as a tool to kickstart this story and drive it forward as one of the key talking points of the week.

Page 3 - still there

Many outlets have egg on their collective faces this week. None more so than The Times, and by extension, News UK, which also owns The Sun.

Rupert Murdoch has been hinting for some time that he might like to do away with the lewd content on Page 3. Perhaps the paper’s editor has more power/independence than we sometimes suppose.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.

On Wednesday, in a sense of dubious solidarity with the victims, I added my voice to one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags of all time – #JeSuisCharlie:

It is an easy tweet to spit out, and standard fare for journalists who care about protecting their professional freedom. But it means nothing, unless we are prepared to assume the responsibilities of upholding such freedoms.

Who will publish one of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammadan cartoons? Pas moi. Not me. Much of the British media have steered clear too.

  1. Frankly I’m too scared to publish such material.
  2. I’m concerned it would expose my family to a small risk of my demise.
  3. And I’d rather not cause unnecessary worry to my wife.

The principle of freedom of expression is important, but frankly it seems like a petty principle when measured against my responsibilities as a husband and a father.

Despite initial reluctance, the BBC has shown them. First a magazine cover was held up on Wednesday’s Ten O’Clock News, then some cartoons were shown in slightly more detail on Newsnight. To me, in context, in moderation, and perhaps with a warning, it seems this is editorially justified as a way of explaining the issues.

Outside of this context, publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is something of a fringe interest, generally best avoided except to make a point about the pushing of boundaries. Now we’ve seen the horrific consequences of those boundaries being pushed.

Only a day before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was defending – on Facebook – Katie Hopkins’ right to troll society. This was after it emerged Police Scotland was investigating her for saying something rude about ‘sweaty jocks’ and ebola. Hopkins’ every utterance seems to be characterised by nastiness and ignorance. I’d like her to stay silent; I’d certainly rather we didn’t give her a platform to promote her particular brand of obnoxiousness. But she should not be silenced by the state, or under threat of police action. Her punishment for saying stupid things should be – simply – we get to think less of her.

I am not in favour of total freedom of expression. Perhaps this falls short of Voltaire’s ideal, I don’t know. I believe there is a case, for example, for rape or murder threats to be met with a custodial sentence, whether uttered on Twitter or face-to-face.

Freedom of expression should not be absolute, and it isn’t. But we should be free to offend. This is particularly important, because offence is something which is taken rather than given. I can say whatever I like to you, but it is you, not me, who gets to decide whether you are offended.

Some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are pretty edgy. It is their raison d’être. They will have certainly offended many Muslims, not just the few terrorists who reacted so murderously. Any portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad may be seen as beyond the Pale. But Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunities offender. It will needle Christians, Jews and pretty much anyone else who might take offence. It may not be my kinda paper. But they’ve every right to be out there needling who they like, and we should defend that, particularly when the threat is so severe.

Today, in Saudi Arabia, a blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for his impertinent writings. ‘Insulting Islam’ is his crime. He received his first 50 lashes today, with more to follow every Friday until the corporal part of his sentence is complete.

That’s harsh.

In The West, we must maintain our moral authority to speak out against such totalitarianism elsewhere in the world. The long arm of the law should be seeking to protect freedom of expression, not curb it.

Thank God – or Allah – for the brave Muslim policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who died trying to protect those who would insult his religion.

Having said all of this, the Charlie Hebdo attack was not primarily a battle against freedom of expression. This freedom is merely collateral damage in a wider assault on our freedoms more generally. And that assault is merely a proxy for a potential clash of civilisations that the militant Islamists would wish upon us. They hope to sow deeper divisions between infidels and Muslims.

We must guard against this.

At such a time as this, we must seek peace and resolution, or the terrorists win.

The Missing – if you feel cheated, they got it right

*** NB Spoilers ahead! ***

After eight episodes of The Missing, there was no Hollywood ending. Many of you found it something of a let down after a gripping series drawing us deeper and deeper into the hopes and fears of young Olly’s parents, Tony and Emily Hughes.

The final episode bounced around tying up loose ends, except the most important one. In some ways it fell short of the high standards set in earlier episodes. But I believe the final scene closed the series in a way that was clever and close to perfect.

Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) has spent eight years trying to find out what happened to his son Olly, who disappeared after straying away from his Dad at a bar in northern France. Tony will not let go of his mission.

Olly’s Mum Emily (Frances O’Connor) has spent eight years trying to move on and rebuild her life. Ultimately, her marriage to Tony cannot survive the trauma, and she grows closer to the police liaison officer who handled their case.

The series leads us through a number of red herrings with regard to the investigation. A central theme is paedophilia. Our working assumption is that Olly was a victim of a paedophile. In the end, we learn he was instead a victim of a drunk-driver. The accident doesn’t kill him, but his fate is sealed as various characters seek to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Within a short time, he is murdered by a fixer.

Or is he?

Tony Hughes searches frantically for years

Tony Hughes searches frantically for years

The final episode centres on the hospital-bed confession of the driver, Alain Deloix, who crashed into Olly eight years earlier. He confirms that Olly was killed.

But there is no body, and it is clear that M. Deloix witnessed neither the killing nor the body. His evidence is sincere, but second-hand.

Having heard the confession, we are only half-way through the episode. The story has half an hour still to run. So it seems we have reason to remain hopeful, especially given the intriguing Moscow vignette that opens the show – and which implies that Olly is still alive.

The wise French detective Julien Baptiste encourages to Tony to “start trying to live your life.”

“The painful truth is what happened to your boy is perhaps the best you could have hoped for. Rather he died than end up in the hands of a man such as [paedophile] Ian Garrett, or that he became one of those poor children kept captive away from sunlight and human contact in someone’s prison of a basement for their whole lives. You wish he were alive. But what kind of life is that?”

As the episode progresses, it is clear that Emily continues to find it easier than Tony to move on. She marries her new partner, with her ex-husband among the guests. She is ‘relieved’ to learn the truth about Olly’s fate.

But with no body, Tony cannot accept the narrative.

In the final scene we are back in Moscow (probably a year on), where a bearded and disheveled Tony at last finds his son(?) in a public housing block. We’re spared the details of what brings Tony here; suffice to say he never stopped looking.

At this point the Russian police arrive to drag him away, literally kicking and screaming, for harassing too many boys. This one gives nothing away. There appears to be no recognition of his ‘father’ – through the beard – but his reaction is suitably ambiguous and leaves open the possibility Tony was right.

We are left without closure, and for that reason many viewers seem frustrated or disappointed.

But this is life – or death – and there are no easy answers. No simple conclusions. That’s how it is for Tony, and that’s how it is for Gerry and Kate McCann, seven years on from the disappearance of their young daughter Madeleine. For Emily it is different. She has a conclusion she can live with, however painful it might be.

The Missing is a challenging tale of humanity in all its breadth and depth. There is weakness to be found in the powerful, power to be found in the weak, a deeply flawed hero and even a struggling paedophile (Vincent Bourg) with whom we might be able to sympathise. Unlike Tony, Vincent finds his own closure in the final minutes of the series.

The quality of storytelling and acting was excellent. All three main characters, and plenty of the others, hit their mark convincingly.

And what about the fate of Olly?

My conclusion is simply this: he is neither alive nor dead. He is, if you like, Schrodinger’s Boy.

There could have been no happy ending to this story. To find Olly alive or dead would have been difficult either way. We must decide if we are an Emily or a Tony. We know what they know, but it took them both to very different conclusions.

So then – what about me? Am I Emily or Tony? It helps to acknowledge this is a work of fiction. Oliver Hughes is not real. This allows me to be Emily. I can move on. But if this saga was real? If my son Caleb was missing? Then I would be Tony. Lacking total clarity about my son’s fate, I could never let go. And like Tony, it would destroy me.

In a way, that final scene says more about Tony than about Olly.

But if you feel cheated in some way, the ending was perfect. Welcome to Tony’s world.