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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

You can contact John in the comments area or email him at j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

A new dawn, is it not?

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Tuesday, 8 June 2010 at 09:54 am
The John Rentoul blog, with its Questions to Which the Answer is No and incisive World Cup commentary ("Is that the game with 11-a-side and a round ball?"), is moving to the new-look Independent Blogs.

You can find my blog here, or as part of the Eagle Eye group blog here.

So update your Google Reader, click the RSS feed, do whatever techie stuff you have to do.

Or follow me on Twitter, which will still carry links to my blog posts.

(It turned out, briefly, that the title of this post was number 337 in the very series to which I referred above, as the new Indy Blogs site was overwhelmed by a grateful public and promptly crashed.)

Photograph: Teri Pengilley

Are Bush and Blair above the law?

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Monday, 7 June 2010 at 04:07 pm
Number 336 in my series of Questions to Which the Answer is No is asked by Al-Jazeera English TV channel. If you want to hear a pointless shouting match between Hassan Issa, a Egyptian "former diplomat", who is under the mistaken impression that 1 million Iraqis have died as a consequence of the 2003 invasion (a wildly inaccurate figure to which I shall return shortly), and Brad Blakeman, a not necessarily ideal spokesman for a fair and balanced assessment of the Iraq war.

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Clegg sold out? Surely not

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Sunday, 6 June 2010 at 10:57 pm
Nick Clegg guilty of over-promising and under-delivering? I simply do not believe it!

Chris Ames cries sell-out; and sell-out with knobs on. Something to do with the Coalition failing to disclose the real reasons for the Iraq war to the Chilcot inquiry. Or the Chilcot inquiry failing to insist on their disclosure. I don't really understand what he is on about, but then I wouldn't, finding conspiracy theories about "the secret reason for the Iraq war is being withheld" tiresome.

But Clegg telling the anti-war crowd what they want to hear when he was out of government and telling them something different now? I simply will not accept that is possible.

Maiden speeches highlights

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Sunday, 6 June 2010 at 06:11 pm
I have written about maiden speeches for The Independent on Sunday today. They are interesting because they mark a rite of passage, a biographical milestone in a politician's story. One or two of those speeches being delivered in past and coming weeks are likely to be those of future prime ministers - but which ones?

I didn't have space for all the noteworthy first speeches that I have tracked so far, so here are a few extra highlights (note that  with some promising contenders yet to speak, these are nominations only, not final award winners).

The Strength and Diversity Award

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale, Con), right, was so taken with the idea that the coalition represented "strength in diversity" that he used the phrase several times, concluding:
 

I represent a very diverse constituency and I repeat that there is strength in diversity. I would like to be the champion of that diversity.


Unexpected Quotation Trophy

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hythe, Lab) quoted Friedrich Engels, who described Stalybridge as "this disgustingly filthy town".


Bathos Award

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire, Con):


South Derbyshire has a great history. Indeed, it is the resting place of the Mercian Kings, was invaded by Vikings and has a diverse economy, with a split of 27 per cent based on manufacturing and 27 per cent on tourism.

Don't-Know-What-They-Teach-Them-These-Days Award

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth, Con):


Sadly, not enough people know about Tamworth's history. When I tell people that I come from there, they say, "Ah, yes. The Snowdome!" or "Ah, yes. The Tamworth Two! The escapee pigs that caused such a furore during the BSE scandal eight years ago." They do not mention Peel or the Tamworth manifesto. So I hope that when the Secretary of State for Education introduces his education proposals, he will ensure that history is set first and foremost in the teaching of young people, so that they can learn much more about Tamworth and the Tamworth manifesto, and a little less about the Tamworth Two.
 
Mixed Metaphor Prize

Simon Wright (Norwich South, LD)
, who replaced Charles Clarke: 

Building a better Norwich, or building a better Britain, does not come about simply by dropping Government legislation from a great height and hoping that it will bear fruit.

The Cheeking the Old Lags Award

Owen Smith (Pontypridd, Lab):


I have had a lot of advice since arriving here as a new MP, all of it well meaning and most of it entirely contradictory - speak early and make a name for yourself, or bide your time for a decade or two; frequent the Tea Room with regularity, or shun it like the plague; never show weakness to the Whips, and never cross them either. I would like to thank all the honourable and venerable Members for these pearls of wisdom.

More Alastair Campbell uncut

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Saturday, 5 June 2010 at 01:36 pm
I interviewed "the most duplicitous man in Britain" (© Max Hastings) for TheIndependent on Sunday . The "Complete Edition" of the first volume of his Diaries has been published, covering 1994-97. There is a lot of significant new material in there, some of which I have noted already.

Alastair Campbell didn't like the headline on the news story from the interview, but there you go.

As always, there was more in the interview than could fit into the paper newspaper, in which I focused on being called a liar, the Labour leadership and Campbell's rumination on how it was not too late for him to become an MP. So here is a fuller transcript. 

(Photograph by our very own excellent Justin Sutcliffe.)

Alastair Campbell had been on BBC1 Question Time the previous week with Max Hastings, who had repeated his view that he and Peter Mandelson were the two most duplicitous men in public life. How do you deal with that?

Ach, it doesn't bother me. It just doesn't bother me. If you've been compared to Goebbels, and occasionally Hitler, and Pol Pot and Rasputin, and all the real dark figures in history - it doesn't bother me. That was a good example because someone like Max Hastings, when Tony was in this period, when he saw him on television he liked Tony, fell for the New Labour thing in his words, but he's basically a Tory - a lot of those people persuaded themselves that we were pseudo Tories. We never were. Tony's not a Tory. And so I think that on something like Iraq they like to give themselves reasons to join the herd. On the programme he was talking about education. What does he know about schools? He just talks absolute crap. I can't be bothered with it all.

Before the whole Gilligan thing there were loads of times when I was called a liar, duplicitous. I just let it go because you can't fight every battle. That was a battle - the Gilligan one - was a battle that had to be fought because it was so serious, and because the accusations were so serious. Now, what's happened now, talking about Lord Hutton, great man of granite, Ulsterman, rock of truth, until he said the things that we didn't want to hear and then he's a silly old poodle, whitewash and we're still a bunch of liars. 

You can't win with those people. And does it matter? I thought it was very interesting that Question Time, and that audience. There was Piers, me, John Redwood, who actually I've always got on with, I quite like John Redwood, Susan Kramer who I didn't know very well but seems a nice person and Max. And even Piers, who I know pretty well, said, 'They quite like you, don't they? The audience, they quite like you.' With most 'real people' I get on with perfectly well. They're either not that bothered. Or insofar as they want to talk to you they want to know what's Tony Blair really like, what's George Bush really like, what was Princess Diana really like. Really human being type questions. At the Hay Festival tonight I'll probably get loads of Independent on Sunday type questions - and that's fine, you have to do them, you have to answer them.

Read more...Collapse )

Did Whitehall go on a pre-election spending spree?

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Saturday, 5 June 2010 at 12:49 am
And number 335 in my series is asked by Alex Barker at the Financial Times. It is actually a rewording of a question asked by The Guardian's The Incredibly Secretive Police State Was Hiding Important Stuff From Us Unit, stuff which has now been published and of which we cannot make head or tail:

We're starting to get really interesting results our of the data now. This shows resource spending - which is what the government spends each month just keep things running. That spike at the end is in the run-up to the election. Are the two related?

Barker answers the question authoritatively: 

Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is probably no.

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Will all six candidates make the ballot?

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 03:55 pm
Number 334 in my series of Questions to Which the Answer is No is asked by Left Foot Forward. Nor should they. I simply cannot believe the softheadedness of some colleagues who think it would all be jolly nice and pluralist if poisonous anti-Labour elements such as John McDonnell should be included in leadership election.

If he is wrong, he is wrong, and we should be relieved that there are fewer than 33 Labour MPs deluded enough to disagree.

A complete ignoral

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 03:33 pm
I remember Richard Heller from when he used to work for Denis Healey (right). He wrote about the joys of working for the best prime minister Labour never had most entertainingly. Today, though, he has excelled himself, writing a satire for the Yorkshire Post that is so brilliant it puts the work of his brother Joseph in the shade.

He manages to mock the inanities of the Blair-hating intelligentsia with an uncanny ability to capture the tone of moral righteousness combined with a lack of perspective that would be alarming in a three-year-old. He wants to launch "a global boycott of Tony Blair", and urges his readers to sign up to his four pledges:

I will not purchase Tony Blair's memoirs.

I will not purchase any newspaper which publishes Tony Blair's memoirs, nor watch or listen to any broadcast which makes use of them.

I will not purchase any product or service endorsed by Tony Blair, nor enter any transaction with any business which pays him money.

I will not contribute to any good cause with Tony Blair's name on it.

Heller then lampoons the left's lack of self-knowledge and love of lost causes: 

It is probably too late for such a boycott to hit Tony Blair in his well-padded wallet ... But a boycott would be a powerful and practical demonstration of public feeling ... 

The pastiche really takes off, however, with the over-the-top listing of Blair's crimes:

There is the legacy of Iraq: deceit, danger, debt, dishonour and death. The servicemen and women who had to fight Tony Blair's wars on Gordon Brown's budgets – over-stretched, under-equipped, under-protected, and under-housed and under-provided when they came home: they are part of Tony Blair's legacy. Will they want to read his memoirs – or use them for target practice?

The allegations of collusion in illegal detention and torture: will they be in the memoirs? The servile, supine relationship with George W Bush and helping him to lie to the American people and get re-elected. That's another distinguished part of the legacy ...

Then there's the tax and benefits system which lets off the rich, squeezes the middle classes and hammers the poor. Perhaps Tony Blair will leave all these things to Gordon Brown's memoirs, as he did in government.

He could write about the hospitals which tick boxes and kill patients. Then there's the English education system with pockets of privilege for the pushy and second-rate standards for everyone else, and the schools full of bored, ignorant pupils and stressed-out teachers.

That Blair legacy also includes all the new apparatus of repression and control, and the progressive extinction of personal privacy: a country where more people spy on us than ever before and fewer people listen to us.

And the pay-off to 800 words of Dave Spart Meets Peter Oborne is a line of comic genius that inspires awe, envy and admiration in equal measure:

These are all compelling reasons to avoid Tony Blair's memoirs, but there is one which should stand supreme. The most powerful punishment anyone can hand out to that man is to ignore him.
Number 333 in my series of Questions to Which the Answer is No is asked by frequent contributor Mike Smithson at Political Betting. Easy to misremember in retrospect, but the Foreign Secretary's resignation would never have dislodged Gordon Brown, much as it should have done. Brown would have dismissed James Purnell and David Miliband as embittered Blairites, and the bottom line in June 2009 was that Labour MPs did not want an early general election, which would have been the consequence of getting rid of Brown.

I thought Brown could have been ousted in the autumn, because then an election in May this year would have been soon enough. But the party lacked the ruthless instinct, and Brown also pulled back to striking distance - I never thought he would be capable of depriving David Cameron of a Commons majority.

Number 332, meanwhile, was asked, sarcastically, by Tim Montgomerie:

Does William Hague have a plan to stop arms smuggling to Hamas?

Where is Tony Blair?

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 2 June 2010 at 10:24 pm
The third line of cliché from the Blair-haters is that he hasn't condemned the blockade of Gaza. Except that he has, repeatedly. Here he is on CNN, pointing out that he has been calling for an end to the blockade for two years, and rather eloquently explaining why:

The difficulty with the current policy, apart from the events from the last few days, is that we're not helping the people and isolating the extremists. We're in danger of doing it the wrong way round.

The first line is, of course, is to pretend to think that it is totally ironically hilarious that he should be peace envoy to the Middle East. The second is to complain that he hasn't done anything in the job. Apart, that is, from starting the Palestinian mobile phone industry, promoting tourism, building sewage works, lifting roadblocks and securing inward investment in the West Bank.

Today he was speaking to CNN from an investment conference in Bethlehem.
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