Archive for May, 2009

Come back LS Amery, we need you!

Posted in Politics on May 20, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Those of you who watched the TV coverage of the House of Commons on Monday, or read accounts of the furor over the Speaker’s future in yesterday’s papers, may be wondering what the coded references to the Norway Debate were all about?

In my self-appointed role of political bore, let me enlighten you. The name Leo Stennett Amery would have been lost to history were it not for his extraordinary intervention in the House of Commons debate over the disastrous Norwegian campaign, undertaken by allied forces in the early stages of World War Two between April and June 1940. The intervention made his name and, arguably, changed the course of twentieth century history.

Amery did not rise to speak in the debate until the second day, the 8th May 1940, by which time he was intensely frustrated with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s, feeble performance in justifying the Norwegian landings and, more importantly, the distinct lack of leadership in a national crisis. His speech was unremarkable, until the closing statement, which was delivered with a whiplash that has gone down in history. Invoking the words of Cromwell from three hundred years before, Amery, pointing directly at the Prime Minister, declared: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Amery’s intervention was later described by former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, as the most powerful climax to a speech he had ever heard. It was crucial in convincing over 40 fellow Conservative MPs to vote against their own Conservative Government in a confidence motion, which led directly to Chamberlain’s removal and the succession of Winston Churchill. The rest, as they say, is history.

I spent yesterday with a group of journalists. Lunch conversation was dominated by MP’s expenses (I’ve never known an ice-breaker like it!). Phrases such as “let down” and “I don’t trust any of them” were freely used. MPs may think they have given the public some ‘blood’ in convincing the Speaker to go, in the name of God or, more likely, their own skins, but I doubt whether the public appetite for reform has been sated. Until more of them start acting like LS Amery, putting country before party and genuinely attempting to reform, without one eye on short-term political advantage, then public anger will not abate.

Oh yes, one last thing. There is another reason for remembering LS Amery today, he was MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook.

As goes Bromsgrove, so goes the nation

Posted in Politics on May 18, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I ventured out at the weekend to sniff the mood of the nation over MP’s expenses (actually I was on an emergency nappy run to the local supermarket for my two year old but, in terms of stench, it amounted to pretty much the same thing).

Anyway, I can report that the mood, if you didn’t already know it, is venomous. The short walk from my house to the centre of Bromsgrove takes me past the Conservative Party constituency office, which now has a number of boarded up windows, courtesy of a luddite revenge attack on Friday. By the time I reached the centre of Bromsgrove, I had overheard two separate conversations on the street about MP’s expenses and had witnessed the unfurling of an enormous banner which proclaimed “Julie Out Now.”

This is reference to my local MP, Julie Kirkbride, the wife of Andrew Mackay, who last week was forced to resign from the Conservative front bench. Apparently, Julie and Andy have both been claiming for second homes in each other’s constituencies and have taken the taxpayer for the princely sum of approximately £100,000 so far. Now this is Bromsgrove, a bastion of Middle England. Lord only knows what public feeling is like in Darlington, Blackburn or Smethwick.

What is interesting, from a communications point of view, is how the individual parties are dealing with this. Cameron has remained marginally in front of the story (I’m not going to say he’s doing well, he’s doing just enough) with the swift dispatch of Mackay and the publication on the internet of every expenses claim he can get his hands on. Labour on the other hand, has been leaden-footed and behind the story from the word go.

This amazes me, because the legendary New Labour spin machine, set up by Mandelson and my former colleague at Shandwick, Colin Byrne, was formerly a ruthless beast, dealing swiftly with any individual who threatened to damage the brand. I was working at Shandwick when Ron Davies was ditched for his adventures on Clapham Common and there was barely a murmur of protest from the New Labour footsoldiers, including one of his former advisers. He was damaged goods, he had to go.

So how can Labour get in front of this story again. Well, firstly, the Leader of the Party, the Prime Minister, should announce that he is instructing local constituency parties that any MP found to have been overtly milking the system needs to be de-selected within a three-month timetable, whilst simultaneously calling on the leaders of the other parties to do the same. Borderline cases can be left to the discretion of constituency associations. Secondly, the Prime Minister should announce that, in the interests of Parliamentary democracy, he intends to prorogue Parliament and call a General Election in the autumn. This would enable the Prime Minister to appear statesmanlike and putting country above party. It won’t avert defeat, but it might allow him to go out with his head held a bit higher than is likely in April or May 2010. It might also save some Labour MPs who have acted totally honorably.

The alternative is for the country to limp on for another year with a wounded Government, a damaged Parliament and illegitimate de-selected MPs who have been forced to agree to stand down at the next election. I think we all deserve more than that, but I also think that is exactly what is likely to happen.

It’s not often I’m right but . . .

Posted in economics on May 13, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I had an interesting conversation with a contact of mine last week. His research department (he’s in property) has produced a research report which showed that the property sector and economy as a whole was, excuse my language, on its *rse!

The big question was: does he release the report to the media or suppress it in true Civil Service style? I advised suppression on the basis that three-month old statistics detailing the UK’s economic misery was hardly big news and it wouldn’t do them any good to be seen to drive the sector down any further. Furthermore, I expressed the opinion that the place for the economic story to go next was recovery, glints of light and greenshoots.

Now it’s not often I’m right, but FT readers will note yesterday’s front page proclaiming that the recession is over (well not quite, ‘bottomed out is the phrase’ used) and I intend to enjoy being correct for once – particularly in light of my LDV predictions!

I have been, and my colleagues will verify this, bullish on this one for a while and my confidence only increased further last week when two clients separately told me that estate agents were beginning to complain about a lack of stock for potential buyers (they’re never happy are they?).

Admittedly, I did not expect to see greenshoots this early. My feeling all along has been that the unprecedented fiscal stimulus that has hit the UK, including VAT at 15%, interest rates at historic lows, quantitative easing and a collapsed oil price (although I notice unleaded is creeping back to nearly a £1 a litre despite oil only being at $60 a barrel) would begin to drag us out of this at the back end of the year. Also, I retained a perhaps naïve faith that consumption would return to normal levels as consumers, who have put off buying that new microwave or a car, decide that enough is enough and go for a good old splurge.

I am acutely aware that further bad news could snuff out these greenshoots of consumer confidence, but barring a real global pandemic (not a fake one), further massive writedowns by our banks when they report again in the autumn or the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding over the horizon, I think there is genuine reason for cautious optimism.

Print that Mr Thorne (and no you can’t have a copy of the report).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement is it?

Posted in business on May 6, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The perils of blogging are becoming ever clearer to me. My prediction that the Government will not intervene to save LDV is followed only days later by, wait for it, Government intervention!

Whilst I am glad that jobs will be saved, it is hard to view this as a ringing endorsement for the company. The facts are as follows: the Government will provide a short-term bridging loan of £5 million over a 30-day period while new owners Weststar get their finances in place. The key word here is loan. The Government wants its money back and quick. It’s not interested in equity (unlike with the banks) and it’s not interested in running it as a business. Labour Governments have been down this path before with a nationalised car industry, pouring more and more money into a bottomless pit, and they don’t want to go back again. Effectively the Government is saying: “This is your last chance. If you can’t make it work with Weststar, then don’t come running to us.”

One final thought. I do wonder whether political pragmatism is playing a part here. The Government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do nothing and it effectively sacrifices half a dozen marginal Birmingham constituencies at an election which is currently scheduled for less than a year away. Jump in with both feet and it leaves itself wide open to Conservative charges of wasting public money (which we haven’t got) and a return to the dark days of the 70s and the spectre of highly unionised workforces in nationalised industries voting to strike in crowded car parks.

I don’t see Tony Woodley of the TGWU as a modern day Red Robbo, but the Government will be desperate to avoid that sort of television in our living rooms over the winter months.

Brilliant Insight!

Posted in Media on May 5, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

We recently had a brilliant training course from Paul Bramwell of Brilliant Media (how apt) who gave us a comprehensive overview of how the media and advertising spend is changing, from Facebook to Twitter and beyond.

Fascinating, but it did make me feel like a dinosaur. For a man who still likes to feel the crisp pink pages of the FT each morning (you can’t beat a bit of Martin Wolfe) it was a glimpse into an uncomfortable future.

I did however take the opportunity to ask Paul a question that has worried me for a while. Those of us who became obsessed by the recent Presidential election, eagerly awaiting news of half point swings in Rasmussen tracking polls in Pennsylvania (I know, I’m boring you don’t need to tell me), got most of our information from either the Washington Post or New York Times websites.

Two more contrasting business models it was hard to find. The Washington Post provides totally free content, the New York Times, on the other hand, until recently utilised a controversial subscription-only model for any information beyond the home page. The ‘Paper of Record’ has now backed down, but the debate over charging for online news continues to rage, not least because so many newspapers in the States, notably the Chicago Tribune, have filed for bankruptcy protection and are struggling to find new revenue streams. In fact, there has been a call only this week for newspaper owners across the US to band together and insist on a subscription-only service on the basis that they can’t keep giving news away “for free”.

So, is subscription-only the future? “Absolutely not” says Paul. “Even Rupert Murdoch says that you cannot charge for web content and if anybody knows how to extract cash from something it’s him.”

So there it is the definitive answer, subscription-only content is not an option to save the newspaper industry, says Paul (and Rupert).