Analysing attacks on Tory spending plans and finding allegories in American football
The first full week back after the Christmas break reminded me of that old cliché about politics: "We got no food, no jobs... our pets' heads are falling off!" Yes, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt became Labour's dumb and dumber act for their idiotic secret ballot plan. As soon as the rumours started swirling on a couple of blogs on Tuesday evening about a new leadership challenge, I phoned a couple of friends incredulous at the ill-conceived timing. Labour's ministers have had three clear opportunities to mount a challenger to Gordon Brown: after Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader, a year later when David Miliband launched his aborted leadership bid and June last year during the European elections. Each time we learned that there were concerns about Brown's leadership but no-one was prepared to stand against him.
What on earth did they think was different this time? What's more, Labour was having a good week with the Tories on the back foot over their tax and spend plans, David Cameron's airbrushed advertising posters attracting much mirth and Brown performing well in PMQs.
When news of the email to Labour MPs emerged, my colleague at Left Foot Forward, Shamik Das, put together a picture of Hoon looking down the barrel of a gun and Hewitt giving a goofy smile with the dumb and dumber logo. I uploaded it to Twitter and sent it to my followers.
It quickly went viral with a number of people sending the message to their followers (known as ‘retweeting'). Paul Waugh and a few others covered it on their blogs and by next morning The Mirror had made it their front-page headline.
At the start of that week, I was invited to join lobby journalists at Labour's first event of the year. Alistair Darling presented his dossier on the Conservative Party's £34bn "credibility gap" detailing every Tory spending commitment, tax cut and revenue raising tool to explain why the sums didn't add up. As editor of Left Foot Forward, a website which unearths the progressive angle on the news, it's useful to be at events like this, hearing the press pack's questions and observing the body language of politicians and their staff.
The lobby didn't seem wholly convinced and David Cameron quickly dubbed the report "complete junk" but it had the effect of flushing out the truth on a number of Conservative Party positions. By the end of the week we knew that the Tories still wanted to reward marriage in the tax system but only for those with young children. They weren't going to abolish income tax on savings or the new 50p rate (despite making negative noises to the City). There wouldn't be 5,000 new prison places and they were scrapping their pledge for 45,000 new single rooms in hospitals. One policy, however, was still resolutely in place: the plan to reward 3,000 of the largest estates with an inheritance tax giveaway.
On Thursday, I had a back-and-forth with prominent Tory blogger and Total Politics publisher Iain Dale about another area of Tory policy. The spat was about the Conservative Party's position on Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs), a weekly cash payment for 16 to 18-year-olds from low income families to help with the costs of staying in education.
On Wednesday morning, parliamentary researcher James Mills wrote an article for Left Foot Forward titled "Cameron U-Turn on EMAs".
In the afternoon I received a call from David Cameron's press officer Gabby Bertin correcting one of the quotes attributed to the Tory leader while Iain Dale unearthed a statement from shadow schools minister Michael Gove outlining his support for the policy in January 2008. I was happy to make the relevant corrections but it didn't alter the substantive facts of the piece: the Tories were against the policy before they were for it before they were against it. They're now for it again.
That evening, I got away from politics entirely to join my girlfriend (a Texan) at a barbecue restaurant in Tower Hill to watch the College Football National Championship game between her beloved Texas Longhorns and the University of Alabama. Amid the nachos and weak beer was an odd motley crew of tourists, Americans studying in London and businessmen who couldn't bear to miss the biggest game of the year (essentially a cross between a title decider and the FA Cup final).
Texas lost their best player (the perfectly named Colt McCoy) after two minutes in scenes reminiscent of Michael Owen's exit from the 2006 World Cup. The rookie replacement quarterback struggled to get into the game before putting in a decent second half performance. But it was too little, too late and Texas lost 21-37. An apt allegory, perhaps, for what might have happened if Hoon and Hewitt had succeeded.
Will Straw is editor of www.leftfootforward.org