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Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK
It's Newslog, Nick Robinson's unique diary from the heart of the news. It's a two-way process though, so add your comments too.

Thursday 19 September

Trust your A-levels?
posted by Nick | 1300 BST | Add comment
Estelle Morris may regret using the political world's favourite metaphor about A-levels - that they are the "gold standard" which "mustn't be devalued".

Now I'm too young to remember Britain coming off the gold standard or even the devaluation of 1967, but I do remember the ERM crisis. Up until the moment politicians bow to the inevitable and devalue their currency they always insist that exactly the opposite is what's in their mind and that there are no problems.

The danger for the education secretary is that we might have reached a similar moment when it comes to A-levels - that point, rightly or wrongly, when the market (in this case public opinion) no longer has faith in A-levels. The more politicians and bureaucrats protest, the less confidence they have.

There are moments in politics where opinion reaches a critical mass and Estelle Morris may have fuelled that this morning by announcing an inquiry not just into what went wrong with this year's A-level grades but into the whole question of whether A-levels are "not what they used to be".

Another parallel which I put to the secretary of state at her news conference this morning is with John Gummer force feeding his daughter with beef burgers while insisting that British beef was safe.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not expressing a view about A-levels, nor - frankly - am I qualified to do so. But after this morning's news conference in which a nervous secretary of state stumbled on all her acronyms I can see the political risks.


Wednesday 18 September

Evolution of redistribution Blair-style
posted by Nick | 1717 BST | Add comment
For those interested in the evolution of the Prime Minister's views on redistribution, can I recommend revisiting Jeremy Paxman's fascinating general election interview of the PM for Newsnight. It was perhaps most memorable for this exchange:

PAXMAN: "I assume you want to be Prime Minister. I just want to be an interviewer. Can we stick to that arrangement?
BLAIR: "Fine".

You may not recall that it was Paxman's repeated attempts to discover whether Tony Blair wanted to close the gap between rich and poor which provoked that exchange with Blair persistently refusing to say yes or no and suggesting that it wasn't the question to ask...


Another Brown Blair split?
posted by Nick | 1257 BST | Add comment
So Tony IS in favour of redistribution despite having never told us until now. Why then did his chancellor say only this week that the government had rejected it in favour of something called "progressive universalism".

Gordon's quote in all its delicious fullness is : "So in this new modernisation of welfare, we have rejected both crude means testing and old style redistribution in favour of progressive universalism where all get help, but those in greatest need get the greatest support."

I'm glad that's clear.


posted by Nick | 1253 BST | Add comment
Incidentally, only a cynic would suggest that Tony Blair is throwing red meat to his party's left before telling them that he has every intention of marching in quick step with America's plans to oust Saddam Hussein ...and I, for one, am no cynic.


Welcome back, part 2
posted by Nick | 1011 BST | Add comment
It's back to the future this morning.

Recently I heralded the welcome return of the finger stabbers in trade union speeches. This morning another part of the left's choreography makes its return although it's thanks to an unlikely source.

Tony Blair in his speech to launch the government's poverty report will use the long-dreaded "r" word.

I speak of "redistribution". This marks phase three in Tony Blair's attitude to it.

  • Phase one was Deny You Want To Do It And Don't Do It.

  • Phase two was Deny You Want To Do It But Get Caught Doing It.

  • Phase three starts today. If Everyone Knows You Are Doing It, You Might As Well Claim Credit For Doing It.

    Mr Blair's is not the only return to old linguistic norms today. Anyone who heard John Major on the radio this morning will, like me, have enjoyed those Majoresque 1950s phrases, like his suggestion that Parliament "has been treated like a knackered old warhorse, unable to raise a snort".

    A sign, though that the former prime minister's "perma-tan" hasn't been earned in Southend, when he talked of people not being "Monday Quarterbacks".

    Too much time spent stateside perhaps, where the phrase (I believe) refers to those who know how the game should have been played when they get to work on Monday.


    Monday 16 September

    To vote or not to vote?
    posted by Nick | 1739 BST | Add comment
    Much huffing and puffing in recent days about whether there ought to be a vote in the Mother of all Parliaments about the prospect of the mother of all battles.

    There's likely to be a vote of sorts whether ministers like it or not. Understanding this requires a degree of patience with arcane parliamentary practice so bear with me (or click on another page!).

    Tuesday's debate is technically "on the adjournment". Bizarrely, you may feel, MPs are being asked to debate whether the House should stop debating and "adjourn".

    After failing to adjourn and talking instead for many hours, the idea is that MPs do finally adjourn at a time set by the government. The only option open to rebels is to vote not to adjourn. Absurd? Well, it is how the Commons has debated previous conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Falklands with votes only coming just before military action.

    As far back as the World War Two a vote of this sort led to Chamberlain's resignation and replacement by Churchill. So, you may not understand this... you may think it unspeakably odd but if MPs want to rebel they can.

    The advantage of this device for the government though is that the whips can tell Labour MPs that any rebellion will look like opposition to a UN ultimatum to Saddam. The whips' task is to persuade the New Labour doubters - like Gerald Kaufman who I interviewed at the weekend - to stay away from the old Labour opponents of military action like George Galloway.


    So farewell then...
    posted by Nick | 1640 BST | Add comment
    So farewell then the Downing Street briefing.

    Today I shed a small tear at the realisation that there are to be no more trips through those famous black gates to hear the word from "sources close to the Prime Minister"... no more breathless rushes to the camera a few yards away.

    The morning briefing at Number Ten was finally killed off over the summer. The briefing room's been turned into a video conferencing room - a chance, perhaps, for Tony and George to look into each others' eyes rather than rely simply on that old fashioned hotline.

    For the moment we're cramming into the lobby room high in the roof of the Commons. Once Parliament returns we're being moved.

    I'm sure the venue's been chosen for its size and comfort but I can't dismiss the idea that someone in Downing Street's laughing at the idea that soon we'll all have to troop daily to the Foreign Press Association (the club for non-British hacks a short walk away in Carlton House Terrace).

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