“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.

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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.

Seeking the lesser evil in Syria

Children. In agony, dying or already dead.

These were the most tragic victims of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on 21st August. They suffered unimaginably. According to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, 426 children were killed, along with 1,003 adults. That’s 1,429 dead, and many more treated for the effects of poison-gas.

Most of us will feel a natural emotional response to the suffering of children. Perhaps, as a new father, I feel that even more acutely than a year ago. My work involves dealing with breaking news video on the world’s headline stories. I make editorial decisions about what the BBC might broadcast on our TV news outlets. Filtering some of the most horrific images from those we actually broadcast on 21st August was traumatic to say the least.

Syrian flag

I feel angry about what happened. To see the bodies of small children should always stir strong feelings. What happened was unjust and we should not accept injustice. Something must be done.

Something must be done.

Yes, indeed. But what?

Much has been done already, but not external military intervention. There has been much chatter amongst world leaders and admonishment of Syria’s President Assad. Syrian rebels have been given diverse support and our collective distaste for the Assad regime has been expounded ad nauseum in the media.

Well over 100,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war. And the killing goes on. None of the soft power wielded by Western nations or Syria’s allies (primarily Russia & Iran) seem to have made any difference to Assad’s attitude.

But his regime’s intensive use of chemical weapons crosses a Rubicon for the West. Syria is a full signatory to the Geneva Protocol established in 1925 (Syria signed in 1968). The massacre of innocent civilians is always wrong, but breaking the chemical weapons taboo is deemed to be a special wrong. They were last deployed by a state (by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) in the 1980s, both internally in Halabja and externally against Iran.

The assumption is that Assad or his generals were responsible for the chemical attacks in question. I have had my doubts. I remember feeling bewildered on 21st August. Knowing the outcry that chemical weapons would provoke, knowing it would constitute a ‘red line’ for President Obama, and having welcomed UN chemical weapons inspectors into his country just days previously, why would Assad deploy chemical weapons at such a time? Militarily, Syrian forces were regaining the upper hand in the conflict. Why threaten that with behaviour likely to provoke fury and resolve amongst powerful Western enemies? My immediate inclination was to assume a false flag operation by enemies of the regime (rebels or third parties).

Countering this, several Western governments (especially the USA, the UK and France) seem convinced of Assad’s guilt. John Kerry reports that “Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” He also said the host rockets were launched “only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods.”

I am in the fortunate position of not needing to judge President Assad’s guilt or innocence, but it is a critical question for those considering military action against Syria. Few seriously doubt that chemical attacks took place.

Something must be done. But if the trigger is Assad’s use of chemical weapons, we must be sure he was responsible. And if the ‘something’ that is done is to fire rockets into Syria then we need to be confident of a better outcome than if we do nothing, or if we do something else.

On Thursday evening, moments before MPs narrowly rejected a preliminary motion on military action, the BBC broadcast a horrifying report from northern Syria by its correspondent Ian Pannell. There were more images of dying children, this time victims of an incendiary bomb dropped on their school.

Parliamentarians would not have seen that report and Twitter was alive with the wisdom of those who were convinced it would have swayed them. It may well have done, but that would have been wrong-headed.

Anger should spur us to action, but emotions should not distort our judgement. We may be inspired by our hearts, but we should make decisions with a cool head. All the more reason to sleep on important decisions before committing to them.

After Thursday’s vote, the Prime Minister almost immediately ruled out British military action in Syria.

I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.
(David Cameron, Thursday 29th August 2013)

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t what parliament called for and while in the moment it seemed magnanimous, with hindsight it seems rash. The body of evidence against Assad has evolved since the vote took place, and the weight of opinion inside parliament would only have to shift by 7 votes to change the outcome. However, the PM’s stance has since been reaffirmed – in even clearer language – by senior ministers including the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister. Nick Clegg said the Government would not return to Parliament with “the same question on the same issue in response to the same atrocity”.

In a microscopic change of tone, this afternoon, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons that “Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless circumstances change very significantly.” The hidden implication is that another vote is indeed possible.

I am not arguing for military action in Syria. Nor against it. I’m simply pointing out that the question seems to have been abandoned by David Cameron on a whim, apparently (perhaps wilfully) misjudging the will of parliament. My perception, from watching the debate, is that while many MPs were unconvinced; few were resolutely opposed to military intervention.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, he recalled Parliament only after consulting the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently pledged his support for the motion before adding caveats later. I cannot see the question being revisited until and unless Ed Miliband takes the initiative to call for it and signal Labour’s support.

Meanwhile what of the other P5 nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council?

China seems agnostic, likely unwilling to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is what might be called a self-interested point of principle.

Russia (an ally of Syria) described the chemical attack accusations against Syria as ‘absurd’.

The presidents of the United States and France will both seek legislative approval before committing military resources.

Whatever, if any, military action there is against Syria, it will be a ‘coalition of the willing’, reminiscent of Iraq. This will be no UN-sponsored adventure, despite the UN Secretary-General’s acknowledgement there should be “no impunity” for the wielders of chemical weapons.

But UN-backing is a lesser order issue. More important that the judgement is correct, and in such a complex question, it is no surprise that Presidents Obama and Hollande are also seeking political cover for their decisions.

For the perpetrator of atrocities, there must be ‘no impunity’. Something must be done. On the question of military action, it may be argued that it is a necessary evil. In this case, inaction is also an evil. Neither option is necessary, but the question cannot be ducked.

This is no Hobson’s Choice. Both options are real and both carry difficult consequences.

Which is the lesser evil?

Let us pray that those with the power to act get this judgement right.

Laws on the ropes?

David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)

I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.

Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.

He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”

How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.

Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.  Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.

Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.

If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.

The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.

Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”

A night to forget?

My General Election prediction was wide of the mark. The result is far more complicated and very unsatisfactory for any party seeking a workable coalition.

For many, this was a night to forget

It was no great surprise, but Gordon Brown has lost the election. He will not survive as Prime Minister for very long.

David Cameron has fallen too far short of an overall majority to seize the reins of power by default.

Nick Clegg has not enjoyed the breakthrough he might have expected. His negotiating strength will be limited.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has lost the seat he held for 31 years.

The SNP hoped for 20 seats. It has repeated its 2005 haul of just six seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest until less than a decade ago, has failed to win a single seat. A disappointment for both the UUP and David Cameron.

It was a very bad night for Nick Griffin (BNP), George Galloway (Respect) and Nigel Farage (UKIP), the latter of whom must reflect on his performance from his hospital bed. They each fell short of victory, and must settle for bronze.

There were just a few successes

Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavillion for the Green Party. Its first ever seat and a major breakthrough.

The NI Alliance Party won East Belfast; Naomi Long took the seat at Peter Robinson’s expense (or due to Mr Robinson’s expenses?) Another first; another major breakthrough.

Plaid Cymru gained one seat.

With such wide variations from the average national swing, many new MPs will be proud of their own individual successes.

And the voters?

Many voters were unable to vote and are very angry. But the rest of us have got the government we deserve. Or at least we might get it, eventually.

For many, this was a night to forget. But it will be remembered for a very long time.

This time next week, anyone could be our Prime Minister. Let the negotiations begin.

My prediction…

…published ahead of the exit polls.

The turnout will be high, about 72%. That’s higher than 2005 (61.3%), but lower than 1992 (77.7%). The warm weather will have helped, but apathy pins many people to their sofas.

The Conservatives will win 323 seats. The Ulster Unionists will win two seats. They are already in a formal coalition, so that grants David Cameron the support of 325 MPs, exactly half of the total. Truly a ‘balanced parliament’.

Labour will win 222 seats and the Liberal Democracts will win 74.

Sinn Fein will win five constituencies, but they do not take their seats. The Speaker of the House is John Bercow and he will retain his Buckingham seat by a small margin. For his main opponent, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it will be the second blow in 24 hours. Mr Speaker does not vote. In effect, this enables Mr Cameron to govern with a practical majority of six.

But it is always the nominal overall majority that is quoted, and so my prediction is zero. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992 which dwindled to precisely zero by the end of his term. He found it hard to govern throughout.

If David Cameron wins outright, it will be by a tiny margin. Frequently, he will need to count on the support of every one of his MPs, and maybe others. It will be tough.

For whatever government emerges over the next few days, tough years lie ahead.

My Confession

I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.

I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?

When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.

I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.

For me there are some awkward questions to answer:

  • Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
  • Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
  • Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
    A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.

I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.

I was a little angry with myself, but only just.

I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.

The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.

Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(Luke 6v41)

So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.

I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).

He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest.  In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.

This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.

The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.

Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.

So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.