All posts by paul francis

Operation Stack - time for the government to act?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 23 2015

As Operation Stack gets close to being in place for a record number of days, gridlocking much of the county, the debate about how to deal with it continues.

Kent County Council has advocated buidling a series of lorry parks which would be open round-the-clock as somewhere for HGVs to park overnight but would also provide some capacity to hold lorries during Operation Stack.

There are three main problems. One is that building these won't come cheap. The authority is borrowing £10m to hold in reserve to help buy land where necesary, which it wold then hope to recoup from a private operator who would run it as a commercial concern

The second is that these parks would be relatively modest, with spaces for about 800-900 HGVs in total. That is nowhere near enough to avoid the need to turn the M20 into a lorry park when there are problems getting across the channel.

The third is that if anything happens, it won't be for a long time. KCC says it hopes to open one near Westenhangar, Folkestone by 2017 but the politician in charge, Cllr David Brazier, warned this week that even that may be optimistic.

Kent County Council has unfortunately squandered years and a considerable amount of money pursuing an earlier proposal for a huge park off the M20  at Aldington, near Ashford, that would have been capable of holding up to 3,000 HGVs.

It stubbornly stuck with this idea for far too long in the face of people telling it that it would go nowhere and was not viable.

What ought to be quite clear now is that this is an issue the government cannot afford to leave to KCC and others to sort out. This has been its line for many years - overlooking the obvious point that the M20 is not KCC's responsibility but the Highways Agency - which is accountable to the government.

More importantly, Kent is the gateway to Europe and as such, the problems created by Operation Stack have economic repercussions way beyond the undoubted damage done to businesses and residents in Kent.

Every day that lorries are stuck on the hard shoulder of the M20 means that somewhere, a business is losing money, suppliers are missing delivery dates and hauliers are having to reorganise their schedules. 

As the economy improves, the road network around the south east will come under crippling pressure if the government just sits back and says that the job of finding solutions is left to councils. It is stating the blindingly obvious, but the amount of commercial traffic travelling through Kent to and from Europe is not going to reduce.

If the coalition is prepared to spend £42bn on the High Speed Two project, it really ought to be able to allocate money to help tackle the problems caused by Operation Stack.

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Kent County Council has signed off on another contract to management consultants Newton Europe, this time for a fee of £5.5m to oversee the authority's specialist childrens services. It is already paying the same company £5.4m for a contract to advise on how to cut the costs of care for the elderly and vulnerable.

To be fair, it seems that the company has delivered savings in adult care and the hope is that it will do the same for children's services.

The company website in unsurprisingly gushing tones describes itself as one which delivers "transformational, award-winning change" across a variety of sectors - including building submarines - and is a place where "initiative, creativity and versatility" thrive.

There is even a testimonial from KCC itself - with the website featuring an equally glowing reference from social care director Mark Lobban, its commissioning director who praises the "strategic transformation through evidence-based commissioning" that its partnership has achieved.

There is nothing wrong with Newton Europe soliciting testimonials from its clients, of course.

But some might feel it would be better for the council to keep more distance from those it is paying significant sums of taxpayers' money to.




 


 




 

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Categories: Private Sector | Prostitution

Mine's a pint: Can comic Al Murray upset the election odds in Thanet South?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, January 15 2015

If the election battle for the key Kent constituency of Thanet South was not already interesting, the news that comedian Al Murray - or his alter ego the pub landlord - is throwing his hat in the ring has made it even more so.

Announcing his intention to stand via a video address in which, among other commitments, he pledged to make beer a penny a pint came out of left field. Interestingly, an interview he gave to The Independent in 2013 criticised comedians who embraced politics, saying their role was to lampoon them.

 

It appears his main target is Ukip - his party's logo is an inverted pound symbol in gold - and his opening salvo in the video was to declare that the time was right for a tilt at Westminster.

"It seems to me UK is ready for a bloke waving a pint around offering commonsense solutions," he declared, leaving no ambiguity as to who is in his sights.

His confused rivals reacted in the only way they could - by adopting a jocular tone saying it would liven up the campaign and desperately trying to avoid looking either panicked or po-faced.

Ukip to its credit came up with the best one liner, saying it welcomed the news of "a serious rival at last" while its leader Nigel Farage saying "the more the merrier." Laura Sandys, the out-going Conservative MP, said there were already enough comedians standing - note the plural.

How will all this go down with the voters in Thanet South is anyone's guess. His parody of a hyper-nationalistic landlord is sometimes affectionate, sometimes cutting. 

Is he serious about winning? Or simply standing to poke fun at politics and politicians? If it is the latter, there is a good case for arguing that his candidacy is unnecessary.

Many voters already look on politicians as a joke and don't need a comedian to remind them of that or deflate the egos of those standing for office.

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There was an interesting debate about fracking at County Hall this week. Or rather, there should have been but in the grand tradition of council meetings, our elected-representatives decided that it was more important to debate whether there should be a debate.

This stemmed from a petition submitted by the Faversham and Mid Kent Green Party candidate Tim Valentine and signed by nearly 3,000 people. Under KCC rules, this automatically triggered a debate at the meeting of the authority's environment scrutiny committee.

The only problem was that, according to the council's legal eagles, no such debate could be permitted as to do so and to adopt a presumption against any fracking applications, would compromise the council's position because it was the relevant planning authority dealing with them.

So, we were treated to one of those debates about constitutional procedures which councillors seem to relish. A clearly exasperated Cllr David Brazier, cabinet member for the environment, said he could not understand why "intelligent people" had signed the petition"  when a cursory glance at KCC's website would have indicated why such a call was not likely to succeed.

I am not sure how that would have gone down that well with the public but that's County Hall politics for you.

As it was, after some ill-tempered exchanges, the Conservative majority on the committee voted to close down the debate much to the irritation of the opposition representatives.






 




 

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In their own words: The Year In Politics

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, December 19 2014

It has been a tumultuous year in Kent politics and 2015 is shaping up to be just as turbulent. Here is how the politicians saw things - in their own words:

“We have picked up the jigsaw pieces from different boxes and put them in new boxes where there is real synergy.” Some mystifying jargon from John Burr, the KCC director in charge of re-organising the way the council is run.

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“We are not the masters now, the people are the masters. We are the servants of the people. We must never forget that.” Newly-elected Rochester and Strood UKIP MP Mark Reckless victory speech has uncanny echoes of Tony Blair in 1997.

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“By-elections are different; there is a chance for people to vote in way they haven’t done before.” Conservative leader David Cameron calls for people to vote tactically to stop Mark Reckless in the by-election.

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You should tell that to Mrs Cameron” The Prime Minister's retort to a reporter on the campaign trail in Rochester who said he was looking fit and whether he had been working out.

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“People who have got through [to Britain] call and say ‘We’ve got through. This is El Dorado and we’re staying here’. Natasha Bouchard, Mayor of Calais addressing MPs on why hundreds of migrants were gathered in the French town.

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“It was poor judgement and naivety on my part rather than words spoken with any malice.” Janice Atkinson Ukip MEP and prospective parliamentary candidate for Folkestone and Hythe after being caught on camera describing a supporter as “a ting tong from somewhere.”

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“I did ask about the mafia issue” - Thanet council officer Mark Seed on reports that potential investors in ferry firm TransEuropa had crime links.

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“The only reason I agreed to do the documentary was to help people better understand the role of police and crime commissioner.” Kent crime commissioner Ann Barnes on that Channel 4 documentary.

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Women of the UK: burn your bras...Or not.” Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch tweet in response to a Ukip claim that for every bra bought in the UK, £1 went to the EU.

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“These statistics, while accurate, could lead to an entirely misleading impression being given about how hard members work for their communities.” Cllr Gary Cooke, KCC cabinet member for democratic services explains why the council stopped publishing meeting attendance figures.

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“Conclusions were drawn where there was no evidence to support those conclusions.” Kent County Council leader Paul Carter on why he withdrew a report suggesting government welfare reforms were behind rising crime, homelessness and food banks.

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“It is now not beyond the bounds of possibility that we hold the balance of power in another hung parliament.” Ukip leader Nigel Farage after his party’s crushing European election victory in May.

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“Nigel Farage is a pound shop Enoch Powell and we need to watch him.” Comedian Russell Brand on BBC ‘Question Time’ takes a dig at the party leader

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“As we entered the studio, and his personal make-up artist straightened his chest hair for him, I kid you not, I realised that perhaps he might be a bit lighter weight than expected.” Nigel Farage retort at Russell Brand on BBC Question Time.

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“Over the past few decades, flood defences in many areas have been neglected, and local people left to fend for themselves.Those days are coming to an end.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visiting Kent to announce £17m of flood defence work

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"I am out but not down" Ashford MP Damian Green after losing his job as policing minister in what was culled a cull of middle-aged ministers from the cabinet

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"I don't think it would have made much difference" - Liberal Democrat candidate Geoff Juby on whether the presence of his party leader Nick Clegg on the Rochester and Strood campaign trail would have helped. He went on to lose his deposit in the party's worst result in a by-election 

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"The New Ways of Working Programme has progressively implemented the approved phased redevelopment of several key hubs" - what else but a Kent County Council officer's report on "re-organisation"

 

 

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Nigel vs Russell: Who won the Question Time face off?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, December 12 2014

It being the pantomime season, it was a smart move by the makers of BBC's Question Time to rope in Russell Brand and UKIP leader Nigel Farage for its final programme of the series.

I am not sure whether it left the audience desperate for a re-run and neither was it clear who was the villain and who was the hero.

It began with a question that seemed to offer Brand an open goal - was the adverserial nature of politics leading to its decline  - but he appeared unusually nervous and fluffed it, which must have taken David Dimbelby by surprise.

Still, at least the audience was in a rather frisky mood and a few more than heated exchanges from the audience seats only served to remind those watching how tame the panel seemed.

At some points you sensed that Russell Brand and Nigel Farage had more in common than they were prepared to admit and couldn't decide who was the villain  - both characterising themselves as "outsiders" - but Brand stuck the knife in with a good one-liner about Farage being a "Poundland Enoch Powell."

Although I did wonder whether, like Blue Peter, this was something he had prepared earlier. The cameras at one point showed him leafing throuh what could have been cue cards - who would have thought he needed those?

Farage generally kept his cool but was rather less animated than he usually is. He correctly surmised that it would be counter-productive to try to best Brand.

Instead, he chose to focus his attack on Labour's Mary Creagh and the floundering government representative Penny Morduant, who had she been playing in a football match, would have been substituted very early.

Creagh was reasonably good but too often lapsed into a recital of Labour's commitments that has most people tuning out and wondering about other things.

I expected Penny Morduant, who gamely appeared in the ITV programme Splash, to be rather better. After a belly flop like that, she may be inclined to turn down future invitations.

But she was on the defensive from the start after Dimbleby chose to remind the audience and viewers that she had been found out for making a speech in Parliament in which she used some rather fruity words - apparently as a dare from certain Naval friends.

Not a good position to debate a question about how mainstream politics might be in decline.

Dimbleby crowbarred a question about social mobility and whether we ought to have more grammar schools right at the end, which was a mistake as the panel only had a few minutes to debate what could well be an election flashpoint next May.

Brand lamely admitted that he "didn't know much about grammars" and opted for a rambling riff about other issues, leaving Farage with the easiest of tap ins at goal.

It was all entertaining stuff but the audience seemed more up for a fight than the panel.

The curtain dropped after what seemed no time at all but the audience was probably thankful the cast did not come back for an encore.

And if you wanted me to name the person who came across the best, it was the journalist Camilla Cavendish, who was easily the sanest person there.



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Manston CPO plan is grounded - now the blame game gets underway

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, December 4 2014

Despite a valiant campaign, it seems the efforts made to re-open Manston as an airport have failed. 

Thanet Council says that it will not be pursuing a Compulsory Purchase Order in association with the American consortium RiverOak and although a cabinet report inserts a small qualification to the effect that "no further action be taken at the present time" it is extremely hard to see how that position will change.

Despite the accusations that the authority has bottled out, the cabinet report makes clear that it is not convinced by RiverOak's case, saying that its "short-term business plan and scope is insufficient" and it does not "provide for the CPO compensation cost and this could be substantial."

In other words, the authority does not want to be lumbered with a deal that, if it went awry, would see it picking up the pieces and spending £2m a year to keep it running - money it does not have. I suspect that in the back of Thanet's mind was the TransEuropa ferry episode, which ended with the council having to write off £3m it was owed.

The council is in an invidious position: damned if it does proceed with a CPO and damned if it doesn't. But if the cabinet report reflects the true situation, the major stumbling block is that the council has not been persuaded - from the information provided - that RiverOak has "the appropriate financial status or committed investors."

That, say officers, would represent a "high risk option" because the company's case is based "on its ability to generate investment in the project."

It is hardly a surprise that the news has triggered an acrimonious political blame game - after all, there is not only a general election round the corner but a local one and the stakes are high.

The fragile political consensus that saw Labour council leader Iris Johnson and Conservative deputy party chairman Grant Shapps greeted like folk heroes when they came to Manston in the summer has, in 24 hours, well and truly been blown apart.

Thanet North MP Sir Roger Gale has accused the council of "political cowardice"; UKIP leader Nigel Farage says the council had "not tried hard enough" while the party's prospective candidate in Thanet North Piers Wauchope has accused Labour of a betrayal and arrogance. You can be sure there will be plenty more of this mud-slinging to come as the parties ramp up the political arms race.

Oddly, Labour has one political ally in the form of Kent County  Council leader Paul Carter, who has made no bones about his view that Manston has no future as an airport and has stuck to his guns despite the pressure he may have been under privately to be more encouraging to those who want it back as an airport. 

It is worth noting that even if Thanet Council had been prepared to go down the CPO route, it would still have had to jump through several hoops to get it agreed and the process - given that there is no precedent for a council acquiring an airport in this manner - would take months if not years to complete.

Campaigners will no doubt continue to fight but it does genuinely seem that this may really be the end of the road for Manston as an airport after any number of twists and turns.

The Labour administration will agree the cabinet recommendations next week and those who hope that they may reject the advice of their officers are whistling in the wind.

The report would not have made it to the public domain without it being scrutinised by senior councillors beforehand. That is the way these things work.

 

 

 

 

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UKIP's purple wave keeps rising but will it ebb before next May?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, November 24 2014

There is not much that will set back the spirits of the irrepressibly cheerful Nigel Farage, so it was no surprise to hear him in a particularly upbeat mood the morning after Ukip won the Rochester and Strood by-election.

The margin of victory was not, however, quite as large as the polls or betting odds had suggested it could be. Not that this stopped the leader declaring the outcome meant that the general election was "beyond comprehension" and "everything was up in the air." (He also said he would have been happy to win by one vote).

However, you can't say everything is unpredictable in one breath and in the next assert that there is a distinct prospect of your party winning more seats in Kent - it is logically inconsistent.

The result in Rochester and Strood does nevertheless underline that Ukip has momentum and it is momentum the other parties are struggling to halt.

Kent is now its most significant power base of anywhere in the country and it is continuing to show that it can mobilise highly effective campaigns where it chooses to.

But fighting a single by-election with your "people's army" is one thing; deploying the same kind of resources at a general election is something else, which Farage has acknowledged.

That, incidentally, is not just a challenge for Ukip. It is one for the Conservatives who next May will face precisely the same issue. Mr Cameron won't have his infamous kitchen sink available and neither will he be able to make five visits in as many weeks.

Ukip's chances of holding on to Rochester and Strood are uncertain: some bookmakers have made the Conservatives odds on to regain it, which goes some way to explaining why the Conservatives were not quite as depressed or inconsolable when the result came in.

In Kent's case, Ukip will target a handful of seats where it has a better-than-evens chance of an upset. Oddly, I suspect that Thanet South, where Farage is the candidate, may not get quite the same level of attention because he is already the red hot favourite to win.

But Folkestone and Hythe, Sittingbourne and Sheppey as well as Thanet North and Dover and Deal are all in their sights.

For the Conservatives, the danger is that tacking to the right in an attempt to out-Ukip Ukip risks alienating its more Euro-phile MPs and activists. It is interesting to see that two Kent MPs used the by-election to argue the party should move in the other direction to the centre ground.

Ashford MP and former immigration minister Damian Green said at the weekend that there is no reason for the Conservative party to decide that slithering towards Ukip is the route to success."

Meanwhile, Thanet South MP Laura Sandys said the by-election result offered the party the chance to move to the centre ground - which is where elections are commonly won.

Ukip will be quite content to see these divisions exposed as it will allow it to depict the Conservatives as split on the key electoral issue of whether the UK should rush for the EU exit door.

Whether it can, as Nigel Farage claims, hold the balance of power after next May is altogether a different matter.

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Despite its best efforts and a candidate who impressed, Labour had little to celebrate in the by-election. It wasn't that it fought a bad campaign - although it should have focused more on the NHS.

Its vote was squeezed by Ukip and to a lesser extent, the Green party. The row over the white van man's flags was not a factor because it came too late but does exemplify that it is alienating some of its core traditional voters, a place Ukip has jumped in to with alacrity.

Speaking to Labour figures about what they feel they need to do, you often hear them say that they need to communicate better.

This implies that if only got their message right, everything would be well in the world. The problem is that you can have a solid message but unless you have a receptive audience ready to listen, it's worthless.

The party reminds me a little of the Conservatives under Ian Duncan Smith, the  man who uttered the immortal words that the quiet man was "here to stay and is turning up the volume."

Three weeks later, the party dumped him.

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Did Mark Reckless invoke the spirit of Tony Blair in his acceptance speech after being declared the by-election winner. "You are the boss, you must never let me forget that," he said.

Rewind to Tony Blair's victory speech after becoming PM in 1997: "We are not the masters now, the people are the masters. We are the servants of the people.We must never forget that"

 

 






 

 

 

 

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The Conservatives could win Rochester and Strood. But not on November 20

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 14 2014

There is every chance that the Conservatives can win Rochester and Strood. But it won't happen next Thursday, barring some kind of sensational upset.

The momentum is with Ukip, as it has been for most of the campaign, and it is hard to see the Conservatives producing a major game-changer between now and next week.

Despite this, Conservatives remain - at least publicly - pretty upbeat and you can still find a few who think they could yet upset the odds and emerge victorious.

That was clearly behind the appeal by David Cameron for people to vote for the Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst - regardless of what party they supported. Was this the last throw of the dice in their campaign? It seemed that way.

The plea for a rainbow coalition to stop the purple wave was surprising - especially coming from the PM - but my sense is that it has not struck a chord with the other parties. It is true, as Mr Cameron suggested, that by-elections are different to normal elections and voters are more likely to switch allegiance.

By-elections are occasions when normal political logic goes out of the window. However, the notion that Labour supporters will hold their noses in the ballot booth and put a cross against the Conservative candidate just doesn't ring true.

The reaction to his plea suggested that there is not much enthusiasm for the idea from those it was aimed at. Somewhat inevitably Ukip was thrilled, depicting the call as desperate and an admission that the Conservatives cannot win on their own.

Nigel Farage delighted in telling a rally on Thursday that he knew things were going well for the campaign not because of the opinion polls or bookmakers but because Mr Cameron was pleading for support from people who would normally vote for other parties

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So, if the outcome of Thursday's by-election, why might the Conservatives find some consolation?

It came in the latest opinion poll whose top line was that Ukip were 12 points ahead for the by-election but which also found there could be enough support among voters next May to see the Conservatives regain it from Ukip.

In the light of what looks like a disappointing night to come, it is a small crumb of comfort for the party which has lived up to its promise to chuck everything at trying to win the by-election but seems destined to come off second best.

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The Labour campaign can not have been helped by the on-going whispers against Ed Miliband. Having a mini leadership crisis in the middle of a by-election is - to state the obvious - not exactly helpful to any party.

Still, it has continued to send down some of the party's big hitters and locally, its activists have been busy pounding the streets and knocking on doors. And its candidate Naushabah Khan has arguably been one of the more confident performers in hustings and in media intervieiws.

But despite this, the party's standing in opinion polls have gone down since the start of the campaign - a reflection that sometimes events can conspire against political parties in ways that are totally beyond their control.

It is puzzling, however, that the party strategy has not been more heavily focused on the NHS and the on-going problems at Medway Maritime.

One reason may be that in doing so, the party could be perceived as criticising frontline staff who are its own supporters.


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It's a two-way fight in the by-election battle - but who will deliver the knockout blow?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 7 2014

We are, as football commentators like to say, at the business end of the by-election battle for Rochester and Strood.

You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks it is anything but a two-way fight between Ukip and the Conservatives, with the former still ahead on points as they continue sparring.

Conservatives sources say that although the party is behind, the gap is not as wide as the recent opinion polls have indicated and it could yet be a tight race.

I think that may be an optimistic assessment but the last thing any party is going to do or say is anything that could be construed as running up the white flag.

 

The biggest difficulty facing the Conservatives is persuading undecided or floating voters to opt for them rather than Ukip, along with cajoling their own supporters to get out and vote on polling day rather than sit on their hands in protest.

It does appear the party's strategy is geared towards pushing Ukip as hard as it can on November 20 and closing the gap to a point where it can depict the result as a by-election blip and a good platform to recapture the seat next May.

Unless, of course, it finds a way to deliver a decisive knock-out blow in the next two weeks.

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Meanwhile, Ukip remains bouyant but underlying its outwardly confident mood, there are jangling nerves.

It cannot afford to be seen as complacent and cannot afford to make any high-profile gaffes that could be exploited by its opponents to renew the "fruitcake" charge.

It slipped up this week at its open hustings meeting when Mark Reckless rather clumsily described dictator Colonel Gadaffi as "good for immigration" - trying to make a wider point that in so doing, he had stopped migrants leaving Libya and entering Europe through Italy.

And there continues to be plenty of mud being thrown in Ukip's direction about Lodge Hill, with the Conservatives in particular ensuring that the apparently contradictory positions held by Mark Reckless remains in the public domain.

It has just released an American-style attack ad video outlining what it believes to be his flip-flopping on the issue - an interesting development in its strategy.

This is undoubtedly a faultline for Ukip and while it has tried to counter by suggesting that the position of the Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst is ambiguous, it has looked defensive on the issue.

Still, Nigel Farage - who we haven't seen as much of in recent weeks - gave a turbo charge to its hustings meeting in Hoo this week and is said to be returning for a rally to ramp up the Ukip campaign next week.

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The last thing Labour wants in the run-up to polling day is for questions to be asked about its leader Ed Miliband.

But that is what it has got and the danger now is that its prospects in a seat it held for 13 years until 2010 are even worse. Bookmakers are now offering odds of 80-1 against it wininng the seat.

If there is a plan for Ed Miliband to make a return visit, I would expect it is being reconsidered rather urgently.

The party is working on a result which would give it a creditable third place but even that is at risk.

And although it is a long shot, might the Green party pull off a shock and squeeze it into fourth place?

A crushing defeat like that would have huge repercussions for the party - and take some of the heat off David Cameron.








 



 

 

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Is the Rochester and Strood by-election pendulum swinging away from the Conservatives?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 31 2014

It is almost impossible to discern which way the political wind is blowing in the Rochester and Strood by-election but if you are to believe what some commentators are saying, the Conservatives are bracing themselves for a loss.

I don't necessarily subscribe to that view but there is no avoiding that the convergence of various issues is not offering the party a particularly propitious backdrop to its campaign.

The by-election is being dominated by the twin issues of immigration and the UK's membership of EU as much as anything else.

So, to say it was unhelpful to have been ambushed by the EU demanding an extra £1.7bn is something of an under-statement. The fact that the Prime Minister had to truncate a campaign visit to Rochester because he was still in Brussels at a press conference last Friday only served to underline the seriousness of the issue.

Of course, it is possible this could play to the Conservatives if the PM manages to negotiate a reduction but for many, the demand for the money is another illustration of the suspicion  we put in rather more than we get out, which plays to Ukip's appeal.

On immigration, Conservative spirits would not have been helped by the comments made by the Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchard, who gave evidence to the Home Affairs select committee this week.

In fairly blunt remarks, she told MPs the reason so many migrants were gathered at the French town was because the UK was seen as "El Dorado" and there were jobs to be filled and benefits to be claimed.

This was followed by a set of figures suggesting that there was a growing backlog of asylum seeker claims and 50,000 asylum seekers were "lost" - exactly the kind of thing Ukip laps up to suggest that the governemnt has and is losing control over its borders.

Finally, it seems the government is preparing for a revolt by Conservative backbenchers over the European Arrest Warrant, with MPs believing that it hands other countries too much power to detain UK citizens.

In 2012, the Dover MP Charlie Elphicke organised a letter to the Daily Telegraph signed by more than 100 MPs which outlined their concerns over the EU Commission's ambitions for "a pan-European code of Euro Crimes" - and "deep concerns" over the EAW.

Among the signatories were eight Conservative Kent MPs but I rather suspect they will be brought round to support the government when a vote is held.

With all these issues heaping pressure on the Conservatives, perhaps the question is not so much whether it can win but whether Ukip can lose.

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A chirpy Ed Balls followed his leader down to Rochester to rally support ahead of November 20 but it does seem that their objective is not outright victory but not to lose so badly that it undermines their prospects in Kent at the general election

It is a measure of the changing political landscape that it has almost been forgotten Kent has, over the last four elections, been a battle between Labour and the Conservatives rather than a contest between Ukip and the Conservatives.

But Ukip's growing appeal is drawing support away from Labour as much as it is from the Conservatives. Yet the party knows that to form a government, it will have to win seats in Kent - it is not enough to base your strategy around general national poll ratings which put you marginally ahead of the Conservatives.

It seems the party has one eye on next May but it does seem curious it has allowed the impression to form the contest is a two-way battle between the Conservatives and Ukip while it plays for a decent third place.

Tony Blair recognised the secret to the party's success over his three terms was to ensure it won over "middle England" voters who are now peeling off to Ukip in large numbers.  Ed Miliband seems to be concentrating on shoring up its core supporters, a more defensive strategy.

Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that a new poll out today puts the NHS as top among voters' concerns in Rochester and Strood - one issue that Labour is strong on.

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If you want an indication of how difficult it is to read this by-election, take a confrontation that William Hague and Kelly Tolhurst had with a disgruntled former Conservative voter in a walkabout in Rochester.

Donna Ripley confronted the pair to demand why a "mega" mosque in Gillingham had been given planning permission and asked whether "this was the way you want England to go?"

She was rather underwhelmed by the reply.

So, would she be voting Ukip? Not at all. "I think they are racist and bigoted."

 


 

 

 

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Labour's immigration conundrum, the Conservatives get a candidate...and a pink bear

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 24 2014

It was interesting to hear Ashford MP Damian Green speaking up the pro-European wing of the Conservative party today on the Andrew Marr show and yesterday in The Times. There probably aren't too many votes to be had in the by-election from talking about the positive side of belonging to the EU - which explains why Ed Miliband and David Camerom are both tacking to the right and talking loudly about immigration.

So, why is the Ashford MP speaking out now? My guess is that it is a pre-emptive move not designed for voters in Rochester and Strood. In the event of losing the by-election, there will be a furious debate about which direction the party needs to go in, and the clamour will be loudest from those who think that the only way forward is to out-Ukip Ukip .

Mr Green wants us to know that there are still a considerable number of Conservatives who actually support the EU and think the country benefits by doing so.

Their voices are a little muted just now and will be so until November 20. But they are anxious not to be completely steamrollered when the debate about what direction the party will go in gets underway after voters in Rochester and Strood have had their say.

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Labour has a tricky job on its hands to convince voters it has a credible policy on immigration and the issue is inevitably centre stage in the Rochester and Strood by-election.

It has clearly decided that on balance, it is better to try and confront the issue head on rather than ignore it.

This week's visit by Ed Miliband and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper was aimed at trying to underline a policy which balances the party's bellief that immigration has been good for the UK and at the same time, has been bad for the UK. This "two for one" policy is hard to sell to an electorate which in the current climate thinks that the pendulum is stuck on the bad side.

In ramping up the immigration rhetoric, it risks being seen as dancing to UKIP's tune and alienating its own core supporters.

The biggest credibilty gap, however, is not what its policy is today but what it was when it was last in government.

When asked about its failings over benefit tourism and failure to stop unrestricted numbers coming into the UK, Mr Miliband said "You don't get everything right in government."

Unfortunately for Labour, not enough time has passed for voters to forget its rather poor track record  and with just three weeks before polling day, is highly unlikely to convert undecided voters.

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It has been a mixed campaign for the Conservatives to date but at least it now has a candidate in place for the by-election.

Kelly Tolhurst, a life-long local resident and Medway councillor, won a two-horse race, edging out Anna Firth in a postal primary that didn't quite ignite the public in the way the party perhaps wanted.

This was probably down to the rather compressed timescale for the election of its candidate as much as public indfifference. The party clearly hoped that the primary would enable it to differentiate itself from UKIP, where Mark Reckless was installed with no vote by members, 

But I am sceptical about whether voters will go into the polling booths with the process of selection uppermost in their minds.

And the time it has taken to complete the selection has arguably given Ukip a free run in the campaign for several weeks. That precious commodity of momentum is still with it, as the recent ComRes poll illustrated.

The result was closer than expected. Kelly Tolhurst was the favourite - particularly given her local roots - and impressed a lot of people with her passion and enthusiasm. But she is being thrust into a political cauldron and the media will be scrutinising her every move and utterance.

The pressure on her will be immense and it is likely the party machine will be making sure she is not too exposed. Let's hope she will not be too carefully managed.

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Slightly surreal moment of the campaign so far: Ed Miliband talking to a pink bear in Rochester yesterday - no, not a real one - that would be really strange - but a charity fundraiser. It led to a comment straight out of The Thick Of It by one of his aides, heard to say: "Bring the pink bear over now."

 

 

 

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Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

News, views, gossip and analysis on Kent's political scene, from County Hall to Westminster.

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