Spectre – less than the sum of its parts

I dressed up in black tie (as I always do) and went off to see the latest Bond movie on its opening night. Unable to blag tickets to the premiere, I crammed into the Odeon on Tottenham Court Road with Vanessa and a few other friends and sat back with great hope and expectation.

Here was my preview of Spectre.

Beware – ahead there be spoilers.

I enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t love it. I felt positive after the final credits rolled, but on a little more reflection, I find myself a bit disappointed. I think it’s up there among the better third of Bond movies – while some of the action sequences are brilliant, they are let down by the way they’re pulled together. Sadly, against the consensus of many critics, I feel the final product is less than the sum of its parts.

All ready for 007

All ready for 007

I knew before I stepped into the cinema we would see the return of the gun barrel opener, back in its rightful place for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s disappointing final outing, Die Another Day. I explained in my preview that its absence in recent movies “was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall.” There is, at least, an editorial reason why it was absent from Casino Royale, as that opens before Bond earns his 00-status.

I recently learned that Sam Mendes intended to include it at the beginning of Skyfall, but…

“…the film starts with Bond walking down a corridor towards camera and lifting a gun. And of course the gun barrel is him walking, stopping and lifting a gun. When I put the two together, it looked ridiculous!”
(Sam Mendes, speaking in 2012)

Maybe so, but if it was so ill-planned at the storyboard stage it should have been reworked.

I can’t fault the way Spectre opens. The gun barrel sequence is there and it gives way to a stunning Dia de los Muertos street party in Mexico City. It’s a five-minute apparently cut-free tracking sequence following Bond and his partner through the crowds as he makes his way towards his first kill. From the collapse of two buildings, including Bond’s comic landing on a sofa to the amazing helicopter aerial stunts and then the credit sequence scored by Sam Smith, it is spot on.

Bond is given a proper dressing down by the brilliant new M, Ralph Fiennes, who takes him off duty (ironically giving him the freedom to get on with his work). Q (Ben Whishaw) helps him ‘disappear’, and off we go!

So far, so good.

The main actors perform well. Bond, M & Q are expertly played. The appearance of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is all too short. Monica Belluci, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are all brilliant in their respective roles. It’s great to see a kick-ass henchman as portrayed through Mr Hinx (Bautista) that harks back to an earlier era. I’m less convinced by Max Denbigh in the role of C – too young and a little too obviously shaken when Bond throws a verbal dig.

Bond's final showdown with Mr White

Bond’s final showdown with Mr White

As the main villain, Christope Waltz is excellent, bringing all his Oscar-winning talent to bear. But his character, be it Franz Oberhauser or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is pathetic, psychologically incapable of running a global criminal conglomeration without distracting himself by needling an unwelcome foster brother from his childhood, decades on.

I loved the Spectre boardroom scene – a great way to introduce Oberhauser, and the terrifying Mr Hinx. It neatly brings Oberhauser and Bond face to face (from a distance) for the first time on screen. The Spectre organisation is established as a force to be reckoned with.

But outside the boardroom, it would appear to fall short of its promise.

Towards the end, Oberhauser operates from a small complex of buildings in north Africa inside a meteor crater. It’s a throwback to You Only Live Twice, but a pale imitation of that Blofeld’s volcano lair. I also prefer the Piz Gloria venue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the oil rig in Diamonds Are Forever. I certainly preferred Raoul Silva’s deserted island in Skyfall.

The journey – by luxury train and a vintage Rolls Royce – was considerably better than the destination, perhaps more so for the viewer than for Bond, given his tussle with Mr Hinx. Though there is a payoff for Bond after the fight.

At the meteor lair, Oberhauser (now revealed as Blofeld) conducts a strange torture scene with Bond as his subject. The objective is ill-explained and the method is faulty. Blofeld operates as the torture technician – can’t he instruct a minion to do this for him? Ultimately, whatever he was trying to do fails and with Bond essentially incapacitated throughout, it makes Blofeld look like a fool – not a good look. And Bond’s escape with Madeleine Swann seems remarkably straightforward.

The final showdown in central London takes place across two locations, with parallel showdowns between Blofeld and Bond at the derelict MI6 headquarters, while M & Q face C at the latter’s new office. It’s good to see M & Q at the heart of the action, as we’ve seen now and again before, most notably in Octopussy, The World is Not Enough and Skyfall. While all the elements are fairly strong, the two scenarios unfolding concurrently don’t work as well as they could. They interlock weakly and the suspense is unnecessarily diluted.

Finally escaping MI6 HQ, Bond (with Swann) bursts onto the Thames in a speedboat and chases Blofeld’s helicopter downriver, somehow shooting it down with his Walther PPK. I don’t doubt that this might be mathematically possible, but it seems improbable and a little too convenient at this stage in the narrative.

He should have been allowed to escape.

Moments later, standing over his injured nemesis, Bond predictably – and rightly – spares his life, reminding us of a line from M much earlier in the film, in which he declares that a licence to kill is also “a licence not to kill”. So instead of being killed off, Blofeld is arrested by M, while Bond walks off into the night with Dr Swann.

In his previous incarnation, Blofeld was such a key figure in the James Bond universe, it would have been a travesty to see him killed off in Spectre. In the past he was played by Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray. They brought such different portrayals to the role it was downright weird.

Spectre the film and Spectre the crime syndicate were both a letdown to me, because they fell so far short of their immense promise. But the film has some decent nostalgic value: an exploding watch, an Aston Martin with a built-in ejector seat, a deadly fight on a posh train, Blofeld’s white cat and – my favourite – the scar on his face, clearly a nod to You Only Live Twice.

Donald Pleasence sets the Blofeld standard in You Only Live Twice (1967)

Donald Pleasence set the Blofeld standard in 1967

I’m keen to see more. The wider Spectre saga can be rescued. It would be implausible for the organisation depicted in Rome to have been brought to its knees so easily, despite Blofeld’s flaws. Let us see the tentacles of a truly powerful Spectre, headed as before by Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Perhaps the pre-credit sequence could show the super-villain’s prison escape? Or a courtroom breakout at the point of sentencing?

But if Waltz is back as Blofeld, then Craig must come back as Bond. He said he’d “rather slash my wrists” than play Bond a fifth time, but I pray that’s attention-seeking self-indulgence.

Let’s have an encore Mr Craig.

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Movember 2015

Movember is upon us – that month of the year wedged between October and December, when hundreds of thousands of men across the world seek to grow a moustache in aid of men’s health.

At the time of writing, 35,812 men in the UK have registered to take part – including me for the second time.

The first time was while I was living in Geneva in 2011 – more on the story here. My Dad had been given a dire prognosis for aggressive prostate cancer earlier that year. “You’ve got four years,” said his consultant, rather bluntly and without being asked.

We were shocked and upset. My understanding is that the proffered time-frame factored in the impact of treatment. But after surgery and a course of radiotherapy, the cancer went into remission and – though it needs regular monitoring – it is not an active threat.

The end of Movember

Movember 2011

We are four years on from my first Movember and so we can now say – officially – the consultant was pessimistic (or optimistic, depending on how much he wanted to see the back of his patient.)

So far, so good.

But prostate cancer is still with us. The Movember Foundation says:

  • 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives.
  • Every hour one man dies from prostate cancer in the UK.
  • Each year over 42,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK.

Now the Movember focus on men’s health seems to be more holistic than in the past. The foundation bemoans the fact that “on average, across the world, men die 6 years earlier than women.” In addition to the threat of prostate and testicular cancer, the World Health Organisation estimates that 510,000 men take their own lives every year. That’s more than one every minute.

There is much work to be done.

My Movember page is here. Please give generously!

“I did things when I was young that I should not have done, and that I regret”

There is a scene at the beginning of the first episode of Better Call Saul in which three young students are incarcerated for fornicating with a severed head. Their (low-rent) lawyer suggested that “they got a bit carried away.” Then the jury settled down to watch the video evidence.

There is a scene in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (2011) in which a prime minister is – essentially – forced to copulate with a pig.

Enough said about these lurid scenes.

Former Conservative Treasurer (and big donor) Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakshott have written a book together – a biography of David Cameron – in which unrepeatable allegations are put forward about Mr Cameron’s days at Oxford University, and a dead pig.

If you want to know more, Twitter is your friend.

Do consider the core allegation with some scepticism. Truth is stranger than fiction, but (while it may indeed be true) this particular nugget, from a single source, remains unsubstantiated. There is a reasonable defence by Toby Young here:

On the face of it, it looks like a misjudgment for David Cameron to have denied Lord Ashcroft a Cabinet post in 2010, as it seems Ashcroft had expected. But in light of Ashcroft’s subsequent behaviour, whither the alternative? I’m not convinced he chose poorly. For all the personal damage, perhaps he made the better call.

For her part, Isabel Oakeshott has defended a book that delves into “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the prime minister’s character and she denies the publication is the result of a personal vendetta by her co-author. She told BBC News it was the “least damaging period to publish a book like this.”

But Oakeshott has also refused to say whether she believes the pig anecdote.

Mr Cameron will recover from this – up to a point – but he will be forever weakened. It’s not something he should resign over, and certainly not something he would resign over. Such a resignation would merit its own very special place in history.

But it will be forever awkward – imagine the snorts at Prime Minister’s Questions…

On which point, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have William Hague (or someone of his comic calibre) somehow magically back in his role as Leader of the Opposition for the next edition of PMQs, facing Mr Cameron. He would be as happy as the proverbial pig in shit. MPs across the house would love it. The public (those few who watch PMQs) certainly would.

I am reminded of David Cameron’s comments as Conservative leader many years ago when he was under pressure over drugs claims (some of which are repeated in the book):

Like many people I did things when I was young that I should not have done, and that I regret. But I do believe that politicians are entitled to a past that is private, and that remains private, so I won’t be making any commentary on what is in the newspapers today.
David Cameron, February 2007

Wise words indeed.

Alan Kurdi’s death creates an opportunity and an obligation on us all

…and so we should.

Helping refugees is the least we can do when global problems spill onto our shores. More so, if we share some responsibility for those problems. Offering a safe haven would be a poor substitute to prevention work, but it is not – and must not be – a substitute at all. We must do both.

I understand the Prime Minister has been more inclined to deal with this refugee crisis at source. I agree that is where our primary focus should lie, but our strategy has been ineffective thus far.

David Cameron would no doubt blame his Labour opponents for standing in the way of military action in Syria two years ago. He will raise the prospect again soon, and will succeed with the help of a few Labour rebels, defying their new leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Frankly it should not be too great a burden to offer refuge to a few thousand people. There are something in the order of 1200 towns in the UK, and a further 66 cities. If each town or city hosted two families (of two parents & two children) we could offer refuge to over 10,000 people.

In fairness we already host half that number – 5000 Syrian refugees have arrived since the beginning of the present conflict. And the Government seems to be considering opening the doors to a further 4000.
7 Sept 2015 update: That seems to be 4000 in the year ahead – or 20,000 in the lifetime of this parliament.

I’d like to think that – like Germany – we can do considerably better. This is a crisis like no other in recent years.

Alan Kurdi

The image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi* on a Bodrum beach is haunting. Every time I look at it I seem to see my own son Caleb (aged two-and-a-half). It looks too much like him, and in another world it could have been him.

Alan drowned on Wednesday, with his brother and their mother, all Syrian refugees from Kobani on their way from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. They are survived by their father, who was also travelling with them.

* NB The common spelling of Alan as ‘Aylan’ seems to be born of a registration error in Turkey.

This image along with its cropped version, and others like it, went viral around the world in a matter of hours. In his death, Alan is famous. Perhaps his life, cut so brutally short, has made a difference to others who follow him on their perilous journeys.

Every day in my work for BBC News I see awful images of death and destruction. Over time, the momentary personal impact on me seems to lessen. Sadly that means a little part of my humanity is being chipped away over time.

Now and again I find myself more troubled than usual. A couple of years ago – precisely two years before Alan died – I posted about Syria, in the aftermath of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus. Many children suffered in those attacks and I saw far too much video of them “in agony, dying or already dead.”

The situation in the territory controlled by the so-called “Islamic State” – is probably even worse now than in 2013.

For many of us, the images of young Alan’s body were a step too far. On the front of the papers, they might be seen as salacious, illustrating a desperation to sell more papers. On people’s Twitter & Facebook feeds, it “isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic” – apparently. It’s a classic case of virtue signalling – ie highlighting a cause, typically on social media, to draw attention to one’s own moral credentials over and above whatever the cause was in the first place. I have no time for that.

I shared that image on Wednesday evening, and while I can’t be sure of whatever subliminal motivations drive my social media behaviour, I don’t believe I need to build a case for myself as someone whose heart bleeds for a dead three-year-old boy. If you know me are you surprised that this bothers me? I hope not.

One friend, Dan Bowring, shared the picture when he concluded that “ultimately I object to dead children more than I object to images of dead children.” His message was widely shared.

I do not think this image goes too far. Like Dan, I want to witness an emotional response. Not because Alan’s death is a tipping point in the Syrian conflict or in the wider refugee crisis, but because it can be a tipping point in our own collective reaction. This crisis is not new. It has been going on for years, though it has become even more critical in recent weeks.

The only action I called for in my Facebook post was this – in bold below:

This could be my son.

Heartbreaking.

I am – relatively – pretty sympathetic to fellow Britons’ concerns about immigration. It’s a complex issue and we should never blame individual immigrants for the state of our public infrastructure, even if a population explosion can be held partly responsible.

Often the plight of economic migrants is severe. But the plight of genuine refugees is too often impossible. They face the sword or starvation in Syria, or a perilous journey to freedom. Together, we need to find a way to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Some papers went too far last week in their front page publication of images taken a fraction of a second before the Virginia TV shooting. There are times when a challenging – shocking even – image is necessary. This is one of those occasions.

On the face of it, my call to action seems a bit vague. There are more concrete ways we can help – both individually and collectively. But part of the problem is that our nation (not just the Government) has been reticent to help. Even today, I heard a vox pop in which the speaker called for us to “pull up the drawbridge” and send the refugees elsewhere. Iconic images like that of  Alan’s little body help us revise our attitudes and in turn sway the Government to reassess its policy.

To those of us of a public-spirited international disposition, it can feel incredibly frustrating that our Government sometimes seems weighed down by public opinion or its own inertia.

My understanding – through my own conversations with well-placed MPs – is that often ministers want to be more generous or interventionist, but feel the public mood has a tethering effect. That may be true more so since the Iraq war than before it. At such a time as this, it may be less that public pressure forces the Government to take action than that it frees the Government to do so. I do not know where the balance lies.

Hashtag activism

I should stress that while I’m all in favour of an emotional outcry raising the profile of an issue, cool heads must prevail in policy-making. I am concerned about the tyranny of petitions and hashtag activism. As argued in Conservative Home, “our immigration policy must be decided by reason – not by photos and hashtags”.

This doesn’t mean I won’t sign a petition, though I’m often hesitant. Here’s one I did sign, proposed by my friend Tamanna Rahman. It calls on the Government to allow us to host refugees in our own homes.

Neither does my attitude mean I won’t tweet about issues I care about, though I’m mindful the Twitter bubble far from represents the nation. I believe ministers should listen to the public mood, but they need to weigh petitions with caution. I believe they need to understand the Twitter mob, but not be beholden to it. Unlike the public, ministers have a responsibility to act in the public interest.

Now, as ever, the British public interest does not end at our shores. That awful image of Alan Kurdi has created both an opportunity and an obligation on us all.

May he and his brother Galip, and their mother, rest in peace.

May their father find comfort.

And may the rest of us never rest until their country is restored to peace.

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 its 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.