Archive for March, 2010

Babies, BA and Byers will boost Cameron

Posted in General Election, Politics on March 24, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Now I am a fairly cynical person, but not even I can believe that David Cameron has deliberately scheduled the birth of a child to ensure his wife is all ‘aglow’ come the election. Anyway, if he really wanted to cash-in on the baby vote he could have scheduled something for late February and have an actual live baby to show to the cameras. No, I prefer to believe that this happy circumstance is just that, a happy circumstance with no premeditated strategy.

However, I suspect the news will have been greeted with some dismay at Millbank, Labour’s HQ. Dave has been sounding increasingly shrill and angry of late, nothing like a baby to remind the electorate that he’s a nice chap really.

The bigger problems for Labour come in the form of Stephen Byers and British Airways. Byers has been an idiot and there is a danger that the electorate could see this as the sort of sleaze implosion that beset the Tory campaign in 1997. It isn’t remotely the same of course but perception is everything.

The BA strike has also given Dave an opportunity, calling this a ‘Spring of Discontent’, an echo of the Winter of Discontent strikes which ushered out the Callaghan Government in 1979. It is nothing of the sort, 1979 was defined by militancy on the part of nationalised British industries and public sector workers. British Airways is now a private company and the Government can do no more than encourage management and the unions to try and come to a solution. This of course hasn’t stopped Dave from saying they should do more.

All three of these issues have on defining factor – Labour could have done without all of them. None are fatal, but the cumulative drip, drip could be damaging.

In tennis terms, advantage Cameron.

ObamaCare highlights the gridlock in Washington

Posted in American Politics on March 23, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Much has been written already about the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives on Sunday night over healthcare in America, but I thought one statistic neatly encapsulated the problem that America has with its political system at the moment. All 178 members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives voted against the Bill.

The American political system is much more fluid than here in the UK. The political parties are little more than loose coalitions which meet once every four years. Politics in the States has therefore always been about building coalitions across the aisle on specific pieces of legislation, which can happen when there is no whipping system as we have here in the UK. For example, it was an alliance of Northern Republicans and Western Democrats, led by Hubert Humphrey, which managed to pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, which granted the vote to African Americans.

But, in America today, the Republican Party is using a form of ‘whipping’ to keep its representatives in line, namely the threat that Conservative Repulblican candidates will be put up against incumbent Republican Congressmen and Senators in primary (one party) elections. The result is that Congressmen and Senators dare not ‘cross the aisle’ to support legislation even if it is in the interest of their constituents. The result all too often is gridlock and pitched battles for votes as seen on Sunday.

The Healthcare Bill is not perfect, but approximately 30 million more Americans have access to healthcare today. Michael Moore the documentary filmmaker (his film Sicko is a hilarious ‘must see’ on this subject) said on Channel 4 News last night that this is only a partial victory, due to the dropping of the publicly funded option (the new system will still be privately administered by insurance companies) describing the Conservative Republican stance as little more than “we’re American, we’ll heal ourselves”.

Despite its flaws this is an extraordinary victory for Obama. It must be remembered that in one stroke he has done what great political fixers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the 32nd President) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (the 36th President) couldn’t.

Echoes of Andersen haunt Lehman report

Posted in business on March 12, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

There will be some worried people at Ernst & Young right now. The mammoth 2,500 page report into the collapse of Lehman Bros has, in my admittedly hurried reading of the executive summary, uncomfortable echoes of the Enron collapse which took Big Five Accountancy firm Arthur Andersen with it.

Apparently, according to the report, Ernst & Young acting as auditor to Lehman’s, turned a blind eye over a number of years to the use of Repo 105 transactions which, and I quote, are devices to “manipulate the balance sheet” and make a company appear much more financially stable than it really is. I seem to remember that Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) did much the same for Enron.

All of this will only add to concerns, which have been aired for many years now, that the relationship between the major (now Big Four) accountancy firms and their audited clients is far too cosy. I witnessed, during my own albeit brief time spent in the world of accounting, the client services director calling ‘crown jewel’ audit clients to ask them for feedback on how their audit had gone and how the process could be ‘improved’ in the future.

Robert Bruce in The Times many years ago, in his Audit column, expressed deepening concern about the cosiness. As Bruce pointed out the audit process should be no more comfortable than the extraction of teeth for those companies involved.

Perhaps now it is time to dust off some of those ideas regularly floated by the likes of Professor Prem Sikka (I bet he’ll have something to say about this) for reform of accounting. How about all companies over a certain size have to change their auditors every two years? Or, appointed auditors are barred from undertaking any other fee paying work such as tax advice?

What’s the phrase, “simples”.

The Battle is (almost) Joined

Posted in General Election on March 12, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The announcement that the Budget will be March 24th makes it 90 per cent certain that the General Election date is May 6th. I would anticipate that the PM will go to the Palace and ask for a dissolution of Parliament sometime in early April, although it’s likely that campaigning will all but start unofficially immediately after the Budget.

Those much closer to the thinking within New Labour than I suggest that the PM favours a long campaign, circa 6 weeks, (I can hear the groans from the electorate as I write this) to shine as lengthy a spotlight as possible on Conservative economic policies.

The unknown factor this time is the televised debates which should, in theory, favour Cameron, but I suspect won’t have a significant bearing on the campaign. The electorate already has a pretty good idea of the personalities of the main players so, barring major gaffes, I can’t see them swinging it either way. The only issue that the Tories might face is that the last debate, on the BBC which is likely to make it the most watched, is on the economy. That has to be a slight Labour advantage.

I suspect Labour will like the position they are currently in ie. the underdog. It must be remembered that Brown is a very good General Election strategist (remember he’s won three on the run as head of the New Labour campaign).

All of the character traits which are so ruthlessly exposed as opportunistic in power, in particular short term tactical maneuvers designed solely to wrongfoot the Opposition (remember inheritance tax), can often work well in an General Election campaign which is all about shafting the other guy. It was Brown, for example, who came up with the idea of withdrawing the Labour candidate from Knutsford in 1997 to allow Martin Bell to run against Neil Hamilton as an anti-sleaze candidate.

My gut feeling is that it’s all to play for which should make for a fascinating, if long, six weeks when the gun finally goes off.

Rupert to internet, “it’s war!”

Posted in Media on March 10, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Interesting times in MediaLand. It appears that Ruper Murdoch is close to finalising his plans for a war with the internet by introducing a paywall for TimesOnline to go live in May or June this year. His bullishness (or stubbornness depending on whether you are a Rupert supporter) appears well-placed with the news that, owned by the Pearson Group, has achieved a 46 per cent increase in subscriptions over the last year.

We need to take a step back a moment though. The Financial Times is a highly specialist publication offering excellent economic and sectoral analysis which people will pay for – often to help them do their jobs. Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal has also achieved very good results with payment for content, again in its own specialist sector, which is maybe what has pushed him down this road with The Times.

In other parts of MediaLand however payment is definitely off the agenda and working. Word this week is that audited circulation figures of the Evening Standard, which went free late last year, have risen by 146 per cent.

What do we make of all this? My view all along is that The Times is too generalist a newspaper for a paywall to work. Certainly I suspect they will have to use different metrics to measure their readership based on quality rather than quantity if they are to convince advertisers that this is the future.

The Dark Lord Sniffs the Mood of the Nation

Posted in Politics on March 2, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Peter Mandelson’s announcement yesterday that he wants to give employees and other stakeholders a say in whether to approve M&A transactions in the wake of the Kraft takeover of Cadbury will have gone down badly in the City. Then again you could say that anything which benefits the UK’s manufacturing base usually does.

Quite how the Trade and Industry Secretary (or whatever his current job title is, Secretary of State?) intends to do this is anyone’s guess, but that hardly matters. The real point is that Mandy knows a populist policy when he sees one. There is currently nothing, with the possible exception of bankers, likely to get Middle England frothing at the mouth quicker than corporate raiders revoking promises and leveraging British businesses into foreign hands.

Mandy knows that the coming election will be fought in key marginals outside of London where many of our manufacturing businesses are based. In short, this is not real policy, this is electioneering designed to swing key marginals in Labour’s favour which I suspect will be quietly forgotten in a new Parliament.

One other point. For the first time in a long time the Labour Party now appears to be out in front of the Conservatives in terms of finding soundbites and policies which appeal directly to Middle England. If the Conservatives come out against this idea it looks as if they don’t care about jobs and saving British ‘institutions’. If they come out in favour of this proposal it looks unoriginal.

They don’t call him the Dark Lord for nothing.

Is the political narrative changing?

Posted in Politics on March 1, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

For me the big news of the weekend was not Wayne Bridges’ “historic” snubbing of John Terry’s handshake (in my informal league table of great handshake snubs I rated it second only to US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ snubbing of Chinese Premier Chou En Lai’s hand at the Geneva Conference in 1954) but the Sunday Times YouGov poll which gave the Conservatives a mere 2 per cent poll lead.

YouGov have a reputation for accuracy, but even if you take this as rogue poll, the evidence suggests that the Tory poll lead has declined dramatically over the last few months. What is going on?

I think there could be a number of factors. Firstly, it could be that the Government is getting some credit for bringing the country through the economic crisis. Last week’s numbers which showed the economy had grown by 0.3 per cent compared to the forecast 0.1 per cent will have been like a dagger to the heart of Team Cameron. On a related note, 65 top economists publicly writing a letter denouncing Tory economic policy will not have done them any good either.

Secondly, it would appear that the cliché that Dave has “not sealed the deal” is true. I asked my wife last night what she thought of Cameron and was given a succinct answer straight from the heart of Middle England. “I don’t know what he stands for.”

Thirdly, I wonder whether all this beating up on Brown (accusations of bullying, tantrums etc) is actually having the opposite effect from the one you would expect. I read an excerpt from Andrew Rawnsley’s book in last week’s Observer and recognised the description was not of a bully, but of a man failing to cope with the demands of the job, which in turn demands sympathy not revulsion. Does all this beating up on Gordon somehow offend the British sense of fair play?

Alastair Campbell used to talk about story narrative. That narrative has been stuck in one direction for the last eighteen months, namely that the country is being led by a tired, out of ideas Government led by a socially awkward loser. If that narrative is now beginning to turn and the public and media are taking a long hard look at the Conservative Party then this election campaign may have one or two turns left yet.