Thanks for the recognition – and Happy New Year

Coiled spring that I am, I have only just spotted (two days late) that I have been voted runner-up in the “print reporter of the year” category of Iain Dale’s blog awards. The winner is my very deserving and almost impossibly hardworking ex-colleague at the Standard, Paul Waugh. Thank you all very much indeed! Normal service will resume on January 2nd.

Leaders' debates: don't get too excited, will you?

Much synthetic media excitement is being generated tonight about the leaders’ debates just fixed for the general election campaign next year. Of course, any such exposure is welcome. But as a veteran of similar exercises during the London mayoral election, can I pour just a trickle of cold water?

The endless mayoral “hustings” of that campaign were, almost without exception, crucifyingly boring and changed nothing. To be fair, that was partly a reflection of who organised them. They were modern London’s equivalent of Stations of the Cross, in which all candidates were required to perform the ritual genuflections before whichever of the capital’s unrepresentative sectional lobby groups – sorry, diverse’n’vibrant communities – had hired the hall that night. They almost never rose above what’s-in-it-for-us politics, and if I’d had to hear Boris Johnson’s joke about protecting Ken Livingstone’s OAP bus pass one more time, I would have killed Boris myself.

The national debates won’t be like that, but they do risk boredom in another way. If they’re anything like US presidential encounters, they won’t really be debates at all, but artificial, regimented encounters at which the candidates read soundbites at each other. The presence of Nick Clegg, though obviously necessary, will further blunt the opportunity for real interaction between the two actual contenders.

I’d be surprised if it comes anywhere near the electricity generated by the election editions of Question Time: that one where Tony Blair was fearlessly and ruthlessly grilled by the QT audience was one of the greatest highlights of British democracy in many years. I hope, of course, to be proved wrong.

PS: Enjoying the hopeful speculation over the last few days that Boris won’t run again in 2012, choosing to return to Westminster and national politics. Of course I can’t be certain – and knowing Boris, I rather suspect that nobody will know for certain until about 5pm on the day nominations close – but do think this one through, folks.

Which job offers Boris a better platform to achieve his undoubted ambition of being the next Tory leader? Is it (a) minister for paperclips in a David Cameron cabinet, where he will be bound by collective responsibility, firmly sat on by the PM and obliged to share the blame for whatever disasters befall the Cameron regime? Or is it (b) a job with an independent budget, direct personal mandate, massive media profile, Olympics flag-waving powers and full deniability for said disasters?

Christmas for Boris as Labour invites defeat

After some catch-up chats at City Hall, people around Boris Johnson have told me they are “amazed but overjoyed” at the appointment of Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, as the London Labour Party’s campaigns and research director. “We had to pinch ourselves when we heard this,” one said. “From their point of view, it is almost unimaginably stupid.”

Fletcher, a former member of the Trotskyist group Socialist Action, ran the 2008 mayoral election campaign which converted a Ken lead of 27 points in mid-2007 private polling to a defeat by 6 points on election night. To the despair of the mainstream Labour figures involved, Fletcher’s campaign majored on a series of themes without wide credibility or traction: that Boris was a racist neo-con “to the right of Norman Tebbit.” (A small symbol of the fact that the campaign was marooned in the 1980s was that it picked as its bogeyman this Thatcher-era politician who few people under 30 would ever have heard of.)

The campaign had nothing to say on the issues that Londoners most cared about – above all, crime. It targeted the small and essentially irrelevant Guardianista vote and largely ignored the white working class, who voted Johnson in their droves.

That old slogan “no compromise with the electorate” springs to mind. Behind it all was the settled conviction that London was the left’s property, and that a Johnson mayoralty was not just inconceivable, but somehow illegitimate.

In the eighteen months since, it is as if nothing has changed. Even last week Fletcher was still banging on about Boris’s outrageous failure to implement Ken’s gas-guzzler charge. Livingstone has shown no sign whatever of acknowledging his mistakes, or reaching out to the people he lost.

He actually thinks he did well last time. He certainly did better than the Labour Party in the  same day’s London Assembly elections. But to compare a party contest like the Assembly with a personality contest like the mayoralty is simply not comparing like with like – particularly when there are two such strong, polarising personalities involved. The awkward fact for Ken is that Boris also outpolled his party – by almost exactly the same margin.

Since the election, Ken and his team have seriously undermined their own credibility by criticising Boris for everything short of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The only thing that has changed is Ken’s overnight handbrake turn from slavish defender of the City to Dave Spart-style command economics. That might please his fans on the left, but it surely puts him even further from electoral success.

There are two interesting political consequences of Fletcher’s appointment. It makes it more likely that Ken could be the Labour candidate in 2012 – something the Tories openly long for. The last poll  showed that some candidates could beat Boris. But if there were a Johnson-Livingstone rematch, that six per cent Boris lead of 2008 would stretch to sixteen points. That was several months ago – but more recently, at William Hill, Ken’s odds have lengthened from an already discouraging 8/1 to 14/1. “We are starting a Tories for Ken campaign,” says one senior City Hall figure.

More interestingly, perhaps, it suggests something which might be happening to Labour nationally, and which could accelerate in the event of a general election loss – a retreat to core-vote certainties, an abandonment of the New Labour middle ground, and an electoral oblivion every bit as complete as that which faces the party in London.

Olympics: One London MP's crusade for truth

You’ve heard of tribunes of the people. My local MP, Nick Raynsford, is a from a different breed of politician: tribunes of the developers. Over the last few months, he’s passionately campaigned on behalf of big monied interests who want to spoil the area he represents. In his latest demarche, for the bonkers plan to put the Olympic horseriding events in Greenwich Park, he’s unfortunately got one or two of his facts wrong. Read all about it here.

'Terrorist' photographers: why are our police so stupid?

Highly amused to read the police’s latest defence today of their absurd and sinister policy of targeting photographers. They’ve been claiming that it “may have foiled a massive al-Qaeda attack” after it resulted in the arrest of an “Algerian national” (oo-er, suspicious already) who “filmed four lengthy clips on a Nokia N95 phone.” This, according to the cops, was “hostile reconnaissance” on possible terror targets in London.

Read a little further into the story, however, and you learn the following inconvenient facts:

It happened five months ago.

Although arrested under the Terrorism Act, the suspect was actually charged with… fraud.

Detectives “were unable to find direct links to a terror group”.

The fact is that harassing photographers is not just illiberal, but a monumental waste of police time. Terrorists can use any number of undetectable ways to recce targets – such as pretending to talk on their phones while taking pictures with them, discovering the joys of Google Earth – or buying a picture postcard. No terrorist would be as obvious as this Algerian guy, who was probably taking pictures for some lower-level crime, such as pickpocketing.

If this is the best example Plod can find, then all it actually confirms is what a disgrace their policy is.

Extremist schools: New evidence as Minister for Hizb ut Tahrir boobs again

Ed Balls just can’t stop digging, can he? You may remember that the Schools Secretary – the Minister for Hizb ut Tahrir – has taken stick for supporting, and funding, two schools run by supporters of this racist, separatist and extremist Muslim group.

In last week’s Spectator, I reported in her own words from a Hizb ut Tahrir pamphlet, the disgusting views of Farah Ahmed, the head of one of these schools and trustee of them both. You can see that at the end of my previous post on this blog. In a letter to this week’s magazine, Mr Balls has responded. “The pamphlet Mr Gilligan quoted from was written… six years ago,” he says. “This is not evidence of extremist views actually being taught in the classroom.”

Leave aside that what should be “taught in the classroom” was, in fact, the exact topic of the pamphlet. Leave aside that Mrs Ahmed has never repudiated her views. Leave aside even the absurdity of Mr Balls’ position (if supporters of the BNP – Hizb’s white equivalent – were running schools at public expense, I think we would be able to cut its funding without needing to prove that the children sing the Horst Wessel Song in class.)

Yet even without any of that, there is separate, and very compelling, evidence, of what is being taught at these schools – evidence which even the Minister for Hizb ut Tahrir might accept. It is the school’s curriculum (also, by the way, written by Farah Ahmed.) It’s been obtained and analysed by the think-tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion. And as their analysis shows, there are stiking parallels between what Hizb teaches its recruits – and Mrs Ahmed teaches her pupils.

In defending these schools, Mr Balls has made a terrible, terrible mistake. When is he going to admit it?

Incredible: Haringey resumes funding Islamic school with links to Hizb ut Tahrir

UPDATED – with PDFs of the fundamentalist document.

Haringey Council – the authority which brought you Victoria Climbié, Baby P, and the foster child sent to live with the family of one of the airline bomb plotters – has scored yet another bullseye. Late this afternoon, with no doubt deliberate timing late on a Friday, the council announced the outcome of its official review into a school run by supporters of the extremist, racist and separatist Islamic group, Hizb ut Tahrir, which received £113,000 of public money. The funding was suspended after I exposed it six weeks ago in the Telegraph.

And the verdict? “No evidence was found to suggest inappropriate content or influence in the school.” Funding has resumed.

The claim that “no evidence was found to suggest inappropriate influence” is breathtaking. Eight days ago, I myself sent – to Haringey Council’s chief press officer, Monica Brimacombe – quite indisputable evidence. She acknowledged receipt and tells me that she passed it on to the people doing the investigation. Read it for yourself at the bottom of this post.

The evidence is a chapter in a Hizb ut Tahrir pamphlet written by one of the three trustees who run the school, Farah Ahmed – who’s also headteacher of the Haringey school’s sister establishment in Slough. Mrs Ahmed has refused to deny that she was a member of Hizb ut Tahrir.

This chapter does more than “suggest inappropriate influence.” It screams it from every page. Mrs Ahmed attacks the religious studies elements of the National Curriculum for “primarily push[ing]…the idea of ‘religious tolerance’.” This, she says, “further aids distancing the Muslim child from the concept of Islam being the only reference point.”

She criticises the curriculum’s “systematic indoctrination” of Muslim children “to build ‘model British citizens'” and to “integrate all individuals into the fabric of secular society and develop them as personalities who uphold the values adopted by the society around them.”

“Naturally,” she says, “such a system [secular capitalism] will not be suitable to the needs of Muslim students as the aqeedah [belief system] of the Muslim is in complete contradiction to this.”

She decries “attempts to integrate Muslim children” into British society as an effort “to produce new generations that reject Islam.”

She describes English as “one of the most damaging subjects” a school can teach and attacks fairy tales, saying these “reflect secular and immoral beliefs that contradict the viewpoint of Islam.”

Mrs Ahmed attacks the “obvious dangers” of Shakespeare, including “Romeo and Juliet, which advocates disobeying parents and premarital relations,” and “Macbeth, which questions the concepts of fate and destiny.” She describes democracy as a “corrupt tradition,” and Western education as “a threat to our beliefs and values.”

I know for a fact that others have also supplied Haringey with the another doucument, the school’s curriculum, which has clear echoes of Hizb ut Tahrir ideology. I ask in all seriousness: what more evidence do they need?

It is my strong suspicion that Labour-controlled Haringey is desperately trying to cover the back of its ultimate political master, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, who dropped a massive clanger a couple of weeks ago by backing the schools after they were attacked by David Cameron.

But though Balls may have been stupid, he didn’t have this document in front of him when he gave the schools the all-clear. Haringey Council did. That makes them, in my view, complicit in delivering impressionable young children into the hands of fundamentalists – with a handy Government subsidy to help them on their way.

See what you think of the document here.

See what you think of the document here.

Even more Tube closures as PPP melts down

More absolute stunners from the developing disaster that is the sole remaining PPP contractor, Tube Lines, emerged at yesterday’s Transport for London board meeting.

The Jubilee Line, currently being upgraded by Tube Lines, will be closed for dozens more weekends – with no end in sight – and Tube Lines’ upgrade of the Northern Line will also be delayed, according to Richard Parry, the Underground’s managing director.

Back in 2006, according to papers presented at the board meeting, Tube Lines originally predicted that it would need around 50 weekend or closures to upgrade the Jubilee. It has already had 120. But now there are going to be even more.

It was reported a few weeks ago that Tube Lines would need another ten weekend closures, or 20 days, in 2010 to get the work done. But yesterday, Parry said: “We are [now] expecting a volume of closures [in 2010] amounting to 56 days in total.” Even that, however, might not be it. “Just to be clear, that is not the full line,” he added. “We do not yet have a credible programme to get us to the end of the upgrade.”

Boris Johnson: “The awful reality is that even if we were to accede to [Tube Lines’] demands, and give them every single closure, there is no earthly way of knowing whether that would be enough to get the job done. The likelihood is that that wouldn’t be enough – is that right?”

Parry: “This programme is really just the first half of the programme. The second half of the programme to August is still being finalised.”

Parry also said that the Northern Line, Tube Lines’ next big upgrade, was “slipping as a result of the delays to the Jubilee… There is certainly a concern on our part that we are going to see very significant demands for access [closures] on both the Northern and subsequently the Piccadilly Line upgrades.”

One board member asked: “We’re in danger of being held to ransom on the Northern Line as we are being on the Jubilee?”

Parry: “I guess you’ve said it… We can’t force them to apply a different methodology for delivering the Northern Line.”

Part of the problem appears to be that the software that is supposed to control the new signalling doesn’t work. London Underground hasn’t got direct oversight of it – it’s a matter between the contractor, Thales, and Tube Lines. LU even sent people to Thales in Toronto to look over the shoulders of the software geeks in an (apparently vain) attempt to fathom what’s going on. “We have attempted to try to audit the arrangement with Thales and the nature of the payments,” said Parry. “I have to say that as of today we don’t feel satisfied that we’ve had visibility of that, and that is a matter of some concern to us.”

Tube Lines blames TfL for some of the overrun. But there’s some fascinating stuff on its finances, too, to which I will return. Various people – including, to their shame, some members of the London Assembly – see Tube Lines as the part of the PPP that works. But the only thing you can really say about it is that it’s slightly less dreadful than Metronet: not an especially high bar to vault. And even that is looking doubtful now.

Greenwich Park Olympics: full horrors revealed

The planning application for the highly controversial plans to stage the Olympic horseriding events in Grade 1-listed Greenwich Park was published by the council yesterday. What was always a bonkers idea – the park is far too small and fragile – turns out to be even worse than I expected.

It turns out that parts of the park will be closed for more than five years – starting in only a few months’ time – and the park will not be fully returned to its current state until 2015. The main events themselves will last… two weeks.

There will be more than 6,000 lorry movements and 35,000 movements by other vehicles into the park. Trenches will be dug, trees – including main branches – pruned. A 9-foot chain-link fence topped wth CCTV cameras will be installed all round the park.

The documents also admit the possibility that some heritage features of the park will never be restored, because they will be permanently destroyed. Councillors are expected to decide the application within three months. Read my full analysis of the main document over at the hyperlocal site,, here.

Iraq WMD: Taxi for Scarlett

In a speech I sometimes give I say, half-jokingly, that the British government’s legendary “45 minutes till doom” claim over Iraqi WMD was “the equivalent of a journalist doing a front-page story on the basis of something their minicab driver heard down the pub. Except, of course, that no news story ever led to the deaths of 200,000 people.” 

It was, as I say, a joke. But now, quite incredibly, it turns out that it might have been true. According to the Tory MP Adam Holloway, the information “originated from an emigre taxi driver on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, who had remembered an overheard conversation in the back of his cab a full two years earlier.” 

Mr Holloway stated that an intelligence analyst had at the time flagged up – via a footnote – that the claims were “demonstrably untrue”. 

“Despite this glaring factual inaccuracy… the report was characterised as reliable,” he said. Mr Holloway’s claim has not been denied by the Government.

 Every time we think we have reached the “outer limits” (to use Lord Butler’s phrase) of the Government’s behaviour on Iraq, they come up with something new to surprise us.

 As it happens, Sir John Scarlett, the man in charge of the dodgy dossier fiasco, was up before the Chilcot enquiry today. You might expect at least a note of shame, if not of abject humiliation. But Chilcot, with all the investigative ferocity we’ve come to expect from him, said that the taxi-driver claim was not a matter for Scarlett to answer on. And Scarlett was allowed to deploy his usual line that he had acted in “good faith” all along. So that’s all right, then!